The city of Yogyakarta (Indonesia) is home to Prambanan, one of the largest Hindu temple sites in Southeast Asia.
The star attraction of Prambanan is the Ramayana ballet, performed open-air* at night with the richly lit temples in its backdrop.
Note the asterisk against “open-air”? The catch is “outside of the rainy season”. The open-air performance happens usually between May to October. In the other months, the performance is held in an indoor theatre – a proviso I was unaware of when I travelled to Yogyakarta in November 2015.
And so, finding myself in an enclosed space to watch the show after being primed for an open-air extravaganza was a sore disappointment. Ramayan ballet minus the view of Prambanan was like an art piece shorn of identity – what would you think of Monet minus water lilies?
That feeling’s no reflection on the performance though, which was consistently good. Stylized, nimble choreography, making fine use of stage space.
The show is called a “ballet” but expect no tutus – this is a classical Javanese performance (wayang wong) with colourful ethnic costumes, traditional music, dance and mime.
Prambanan’s Ramayana is an enactment of the Kakawin Ramayana – those familiar with the Indian original can play a fun game of spot-the-difference between the two versions.
Screens on the sides display subtitles in Indonesian and English. As with the Korean play The Tale of Haruk, the subtitling here is terse, plus it takes a bit of head-maneuvering to read. You will follow the show better if you know its plot beforehand. English-conversant viewers are also advised to set aside their Grammar Stickler hats while watching the show.
Some of the combat scenes have been adapted for comic effect – the Lakshmana-Maricha duel in particular had the audience in splits.
If your interest lies in watching the action at close range, then the enclosed venue might work for you. In the outdoor shows I’m told, the performance is far removed from the audience. The indoor show is on a thrust stage at the same elevation as the front row of the audience, the performers only a few feet away.
Rawana seeking alms in disguise; Dewi Shinta in a bind inside the Lakshman Rekha
The tickets have differential pricing based on the seat location. In the open air show, getting the best seats matters. I had got the First Class ticket as the Special Class tickets were sold out. This turned out to be a lucky saving. In the enclosed theatre, the view was much the same from any seat – the “Special” indoor seats aren’t worth the steep price difference.
If I get to Yogyakarta ever again, I hope it is on a beautiful weather day with the Ramayana ballet happening outdoors. I will watch it again.
[For details of the outdoor ballet, see Discover Your Indonesia.]
Bonus pic of Prambanan before sunset: