In the middle of May, whilst working on a project in Ubud with chef Gavin Baker from the US, I was lucky enough to be a guest at a unique Kecak performance by Pak Reno and his chorus – a real privilege, especially since there were just seven of us present that evening to witness an extraordinary dance.
Anyone who visits Bali should take the opportunity to watch a Kecak performance. The dance involves a chorus of chanting men dressed in checked cloth, who build a percussive vocal rhythm that has its roots in the Sanghyang trance-inducing exorcism dance. Today the Kecak dance incorporates a story from the Ramayana where the monkey-like Vanara and Prince Rama battle the evil King Ravana. It is thought that this story-telling was incorporated in the 1930's after German painter and musician Walter Spies took an interest in Kecak and, since then, the dance has evolved into the spectacle that is so popular in Bali today.
Most Kecak dances are heavily choreographed and similar wherever you see them – in Ubud, Tanah Lot or Uluwatu. However, Pak Reno – a true performance artist – has been developing his own version of the Kecak dance over several decades, and his chorus performs a much looser version of the typical, choreographed story. No two performances are alike and guests are never sure what will happen. What is even more remarkable is that all of the performers are volunteers from the community that rehearse and contribute to the chorus in their free time. The men and boys of Pak Reno's chorus are farmers, shop owners, students and taxi drivers who obviously take great pride in performing with Pak Reno.
I have been to a number of dances in the past and will certainly go to more in the future, however I suspect that none will come close to this performance by Pak Reno and his chorus. The energy whipped up by the performers with their chanting and dance was something I doubt I will see again. I spoke to Pak Reno afterwards and he said that he would be unable to sleep until the evening of the next day, such was the amount of energy still in his body, and despite the incredibly physical performance he had just been through. A testimony to the power that still lies at the heart of the Kecak dance – Cak Cak Cak….
Edit 21/6/2012 – I have just got hold of some audio from the documentary crew that I was working alongside and put together a quick multimedia feature. Hopefully this short video will give you a better appreciation of what a kecak dance is really like…