Tantri Yuliandini, The Jakarta Post, Ubud, Bali
Two great apes confront each other in the treetops, each fighting for a share of a kingdom. The apes bare the fierceness of their fangs, and their barks and snarls pierce the quietude of the forest.
In a flurry of hands, one of the apes falls dead to the ground, and the forest explodes into a cacophony of chak-chak-chak!
No, it was not an episode of Planet of the Apes, but a chapter from the great epic Ramayana being played out in the psychologically powerful kecak dance of Bali.
Circle upon circle of bare-chested men, arms splayed out, chanting ""chak-chak-chak"", create the illusion of a dense forest. In the middle of this, two men fight out the age-old war between Sugriwa-Subali, two ape kings from the epic.
Despite the distinct Balinese flavor, the kecak dance is actually not a traditional dance of the island, but was created by German artist Walter Spies in the 1930s.
""Walter liked young men,"" Spies's former student, I Wayan Limbak, remarked with amusement. The 90-year-old Limbak is the only remaining member of Spies' original kecak troupe, and despite the toothless grin and weakened legs, Limbak can still enthrall viewers with his dancing.
The kecak was inspired by the Balinese trance dance Sanghyang, which served originally to scare away ghosts and bad spirits. Spies removed the dance from its sacred setting, and added the constant rhythmical ""chak-chak-chak"" to recreate Sanghyang's spellbinding mystique.
Limbak was in his teenage years when Spies arrived in Bedaulu village in Ubud and started his kecak creation.
""I was already dancing at Goa Gajah (at the time),"" Limbak said in Balinese, which was translated by noted art enthusiast and the owner of the Agung Rai Museum of Arts (ARMA), Agung Rai.
Limbak said the final form of the kecak was the result of a collaboration between Spies and village elders, with Spies determining the theme of the dance and the timing.
As the kecak became popular, the modest Limbak got to perform in front of international dignitaries in the former Czechoslovakia, Germany and the Netherlands.
""It received such applause in Czechoslovakia in 1955 that the tent where we danced fell down,"" Limbak recounted, adding that his greatest achievement was performing in front of Indonesia's founding father, Sukarno.
His main role in Spies' kecak was playing the part of Kumbakarna, the brother of Sinta's kidnapper Rahwana in the Ramayana.
A generation later, in the 1970s, famed Javanese dancer and choreographer Sardono W. Kusumo came to Teges Kanginan village in Ubud and took the kecak to new heights.
""When I saw a performance of the kecak dance in Bali for the first time, it was clear the appearance of the palms and fingers of the kecak were like an expression of ancient drawings on the walls of caves.
""Similarly, the calls and sounds were an expression of survival and primitiveness,"" Sardono wrote of the kecak in an article published on the Internet.
A former pupil of Sardono's, I Ketut Rina, began his tutelage at the ripe age of four.
""He (Sardono) was Javanese, and formidable with his bushy black beard. Other children were afraid of him, but I was drawn to him. To his dance,"" the 36-year-old Rina, a father of two, said.
It was Rina who eventually inherited Sardono's legacy and enriched it with his own creations. ""I am his pupil, it is difficult for me to move away from his (Sardono's) shadow,"" he said, laughing.
Rina said the difference between Sardono's and the older Spies' version was that Sardono's kecak was more dynamic, and involved a lot more movements than just sitting around in a circle.
""Sardono's kecak is more vibrant, it has more movements done standing up than sitting down, and it uses (coconut) torches in the performance,"" he said, adding that the storyline was made more simple and reflected more on village life.
The new dance also has a lot more choreographed elements, and the hypnotizing ""chak-chak"" sound was combined with the nonsensical sounds of ""chuk"" and ""thak"".
To date, Rina has choreographed four kecak dances, with the first being in 1992 with Perjalanan (Voyage), followed by Kelahiran (Birth), Pembakaran Sinta (The Burning of Sinta) and the latest, Ngeraga (Understanding Self), in 2000.
Dancing for Sardono brought Rina on a tour around Europe, and now on his own he has worked in collaboration with artists from around the world, including from France, Taiwan and Tokyo.
Rina said Sardono's way of teaching was for each child to discover for himself the beauty of the dance. In this spirit too, Rina established his own dance workshop, passing on his talent and skill to the children of Teges Kanginan.
Some 40 people, most of them children, practice Balinese traditional dances and the gamelan at his workshop and home. When The Jakarta Post visited him last week there was also a young French woman practicing there.
""The workshop is dedicated to learning traditional Balinese arts, and anybody can learn,"" Rina said.