If you visit Borobudur and Prambanan, it’s likely that you’ll hear about the Prambanan Ramayana Ballet. You’ll see signs for it. People will tell you to take a night and go see it. It’s a big deal around here.
I’ve never been an attentive fan of ballet or theater because in college I lacked money, and in graduate school I lacked time. But with a free evening after visiting Prambanan and tickets that only cost $35 per person for up-close, front row seating…good gravy, why not? The hotel concierge tells us that they’re even predicting good weather for that evening, meaning they’ll use the outdoor theater. We have no idea why that matters, but we’ll find out later it involves fire.
Though our hotel is just down the street from the ballet venue (on the back side of the Prambanan Temple park), the hotel staff insists on driving us. We go along and pretend we’re wealthy for the night, though we don’t have to pretend here in Indonesia—we are. But we did just finish a $2 dinner of fried rice and veggies.
After picking up our tickets, getting our complimentary tea/coffee/drink, and settling into our seats, we’re ready to enjoy the show. We watch other people filing in, including an entire gaggle of Indonesian schoolchildren in uniforms, who cluster into giggling groups as the teachers try to seat them in rows. Then the lights dim and everyone, student and nonstudent alike, falls to a hush at the undulating ring of gamelans.
I’m going to spoil the outcome now and tell you that the Prambanan Ramayana Ballet is AMAZING. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life, though it’s much less a ballet and more a performance of traditional Javanese dance called Wayang Wong. There’s something hypnotic in the way the dancers move–their hands become water and feet become air as they flow across the stage. And while it might not have the absurd production value of a Broadway show or a Wagner Ring Cycle, it has everything else: an epic love story, fight scenes, drama, comedy, brilliant colors, all with bilingual Bahasa/English subtitles. Also, did I mention fire?
Below are more photographs from the ballet, with my irreverent telling of the story. But really, you should go see it live. With tickets as cheap as $7, you have no reason not to:
The ballet starts with a contest for Princess Sita’s hand in marriage, which rests on a suitor’s ability to break a magic bow. Ravana, the story’s antagonist, fails and storms off*. Rama, the story’s hero, succeeds and marries Sita. She joins Rama and his brother Laksamana, wandering the world in an exile that predates this story.
But Ravana still wants Sita, and hatches a plan to distract Rama and steal her away. He sends his minion Maricha in the form of a golden deer to enchant Sita, who begs Rama to catch it for her. Why? Who knows. Old stories.
Rama leaves Sita with Laksamana, but when Rama fails to return promptly both begin to worry. Laksamana seals Sita in a magic circle while he goes off to look for Rama, but Ravana disguises himself as an old beggar and tricks Sita into leaving the circle. Yep, because SMARTS.
Rama catches the golden deer only to find it’s Ravana’s minion. After defeating it in battle, he and Laksamana rush back to find Sita gone. They find out from Jatayu, the vulture king, that Ravana has taken her.
What follows is a series of adventures in trying to get Sita back, which can basically be summed up as they get the ape-king Hanuman on their side who manages to sneak into Ravana’s kingdom and bring Sita a message that Rama is looking for her.
Then Hanuman gets beats up Ravana’s other minions, who are apparently all really drunk at midday because palace guarding, who does that? Ravana defeats Hanuman and captures him, subjecting him to a ‘trial’ and execution by burning.
This is where the performance take a creative twist, because they bring live fire out onto the stage. They light small bonfires, and Hanuman stands between them, unharmed in the story because he’s pure of heart.
Hanuman then proceeds grab a torch from the flames and set the entire stage on fire, then turns into giant ape a la Dragonball Z. In the story he rampages around destroying Ravana’s palace, but in the ballet he mostly rises like a giant monster over the flaming wreckage of the stage. Yeah, these people are serious about their ballet.
Hanuman rejoins Rama and Laksamana, who attack Ravana’s forces and wage war. Rama confronts Ravana and they battle. Rama eventually shoots Ravana with an arrow and kills him, but not to be outdone Hanuman then throws a mountain on him.
Sita and Rama are then reunited, but Rama is suspicious of Sita’s fidelity after all of her years in captivity. So Sita burns herself in flames but remains untouched, because she’s pure of heart—turns out that’s all you need to survive fire, besides like, actual safety and survival gear.
It’s a pretty straightforward fairy tale with elements of good and evil, what humans should and shouldn’t do, and archetypal roles of princesses being rescued by princes and their sidekicks. But really, who cares? They lit the stage on fire.
*This differs from the original Ramayana quite a bit, where Ravana steals Sita as part of a plot to destroy Rama for his hand in killing/destroying other demons. I might be misremembering it.