Nan Jombang brings Indonesian dance to U.S.

September 23, 2012

A high-pitched wail marks the beginning of “Rantau Berbisik,” translated as “Whisperings of Exile.” It’s the sound of pain, but it’s also a clear, ringing one-note aria. This was pain through a filter of restraint and acceptance.

So it goes in this piece by Nan Jombang, an extraordinary dance group based in Padang, Indonesia, on the western coast of Sumatra. The company made its U.S. debut last weekend at Dance Place, the first stop on a national tour as part of a new State Department initiative called Center Stage, which will also bring groups from Haiti and Pakistan to these shores.

Ery Mefri established Nan Jombang in 1983 as an expression of the indigenous Minangkabau culture to which he belongs. Martial arts, body drumming and chanting are age-old traditions there; using simple means and an eye for sharp visual impact, Mefri has woven them into fascinating theater.

“Rantau Berbisik” draws on the melancholy notes of the Minangkabau’s matrilineal tradition. With property transferring to the women, the men must leave home and strike out on their own; many do not return. We see the physical longing and anguish of this in one man’s solo display on a small wooden table. Slowly, as if moving through honey, he unfolded and upended his body in a feat of acrobatics that was never showy, but rather conveyed a heavy heart and pent-up feeling.

This 55-minute long work shifted from passages of engrossing physicality to group percussive performances, with the dancers beating on the table, on ceramic bowls, on the billowy fabric of their trousers stretched taut between their legs. Often, the vigorous footwork, scooping arms and low, crouching stance suggested West African dance.

This work requires patience to watch, and many moments felt slow to the extreme. Despite the beautiful red costumes and intriguing, unfamiliar musical rhythms, the gloom never lifted. Still, there is much to appreciate here, primarily the smooth, liquid quality of movement, the immense upper-body strength that never became a show unto itself, and the five performers’ ability to sustain a mood.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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