The East side is a little bit like another world – at 7:45 p.m. at 70th and Park Ave on a Saturday, it was silent but for little puffs of breath from the occasional hand-holding couple. The austerity of the evening seemed appropriate as I approached Asia Society, an elegant, gray building with ornate window exhibits and a warm, yellow glow beckoning from within.
I was there to see Nan Jombang–a dance company hailing from Padang, Indonesia—in a performance of “Rantau Berbisik,” or, translated from Indonesian, “Whisperings of exile.” A lone table squatted on one side of the stage, generating waves of tension as the crowd buzzed in the tall, narrow theater, waiting to see how the performers might make use of this single prop.
Quite abruptly, the lights lowered and the stage grew black. A long pause preceded the appearance of a prick of light, which was carried by a female performer to illuminate a man seated on the table. The woman emitted a plaintive cry as the stage lights flickered back into being. The voice continued, rising into an ethereal wail as the man at the table began to contort his body in shapes at one moment balletic, at the next, violent.
Each of the performers (one man and four women) had nearly identical costumes, characterized by vibrant red pants, called Galembong. The Galembong are associated with the Minang culture, an Indonesian ethnic group from which the show drew its inspiration. The man did not sing, while the women’s voices blended into an accusation, as though the man had perpetrated a crime against them. Indeed, the most violent scene in the performance occurred between the man and one of the women as they sparred over the surface of the table – never quite touching, but enhancing the intention and forcefulness of their blows simply through this lack of actual impact.
Unlike any musical theater I have seen before, the performance was accompanied by the voices of the performers, the percussion created by slapping their pants (which are designed for this percussive purpose), the noise of plates clinking together, and various forms of drumming on the table, but no other instruments.
After the show was over, the director of the show, Ery Mefri, came out for a discussion with the audience. He explained that the show is the story of a man on marantau, a ritual of the Minang people, in which young men (and, today, some women) depart from their villages for larger cities to gain an economic foothold and self-knowledge before returning to marry. Marantau is a fraught tradition; while it is meant to include a plan for return to the homeland, approximately 80% of those who leave never return to their villages. Not only does this create a sense of disappointment and bitterness in those who are left behind, it engenders economic and social instability that continues to affect the Minang people in profound ways.
Mefri, who grew up with Minang culture in West Sumatra, sought to recreate the sensations of this tradition in Rantau Berbisik. The dark intonations of the women reflect their sorrow at the man’s departure. The lack of traditional musical accompaniment – one of the most exotic aspects of the piece as a whole – stems from the piece’s faithfulness to the popular theater form known as randai, in which musical instruments are typically foregone in favor of voice and the percussion created by the wide Minang pants.
The intimacy of the performance was a welcome surprise, as I know virtually nothing about Asia as a whole, let alone the intricacies of Indonesia and its cultures. On the whole, having the historical context of the event made it especially enriching, and perfect for any student looking to explore two foreign worlds – the East side and the continent of Asia – in a single evening out.
–Laura Booth, CC ’15