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Tari Aceh! at Asia Society

Published on
March 5

Tari Aceh: Dance from Aceh, Sumatra, Indonesia at Asia Society was quite a beautiful performance to behold and one that expanded my view of what elements dance could include.



The show featured contemporary choreographies based on traditional dance forms performed in both sacred and secular contexts. The ensemble of Tari Aceh! dance company consisted of a man playing rapa’i drum and accordion, and nine female dancers who would alternate as singers, drummers, and clarinet players. Members are current or former students at the Center for the Arts of Syiah Kuala University in Banda Aceh (pronounced with a ‘ch’ sound), Indonesia. The pre-show lecture discussed how this group is unique because men have traditionally been the main performers of Acehnese dance.


The performance consisted of eight pieces that were distinguished as either standing or sitting pieces, always performed in groups. All of the movements were precise and highly stylized, even their walk was methodically executed with precise hand positions and rotating torsos as they exited the stage when they finished each piece. These details gave the performance a sense of harmony and order, which complemented the bursts of innocent joy that permeated the celebratory dances. These were fueled by the child-like psychology of movements reminiscent of play like jumping, speeding up a repetitive action, and even playing a version of patty cake. Of course the tone changed with laments as the dance turned more theatrical using the effect of presence and gaze around a stoic couple, even recreating the postures of consolation as the bride collapses in mourning over the death of her mother.


I found the sitting dances most striking, particularly the Ratoeh Durek (the female version of Tari Saman), which involved dancers in a kneeling position, shoulder to shoulder, striking their bodies with their hands to produce sounds. Body percussion was fun to hear in action and the bravura of the performers as they sped up their complicated moves was impressive, but what really intrigued me most was the visual magic of tessellation that eight dancers created as they connected hands by skipping one person at a low, middle, and high level which they then switched between. I had seen the possibilities of shoulder to shoulder dance in Lebanese dabke dance but that occurs standing. In sitting, a whole world of possibilities opened!


It was also moving to notice how sitting shoulder to shoulder and repeating actions in unison created a sense of community or a single entity greater than each individual. There is an intimacy in sitting shoulder to shoulder that we shut out as New Yorkers who must ride the subway or sit next to strangers at a performance but this dance brought that quality to the forefront of my mind. This is where the lack of solos in Acehnese performance resonated for me because it suggests how highly they value community identity. This value also manifested in the uniformity of costumes among each dancer and the repetition of moves across all dancers and group formations. Oddly enough by allowing them to seem the same in look and movement, the choreography created an opportunity to notice the unique differences of each dancer’s identity and movement sensibility.


The show's focus was the choreography but the costumes and musical accompaniment were just as interesting and enriched the overall quality of the performance. The costumes were spectacularly colorful! From bright reds and greens in a skirt and tunic combination to a long black tunic embroidered with swirls to a sparkling yellow dress, they all had an air of another century. The aesthetic was solidified through the red and yellow conical cloth headdresses that accompanied every costume. The headdresses were a creative take on the value of modesty in Islam which we usually only see in the form of a hijab in the West. The music was immediately lively and the singing entrancing. The singing style in some songs resembled meurateb, a tradition of reciting Islamic litany in Arabic by Muslim men. I really enjoyed that some of the lyrics in Acehnese were translated on a screen. The songs dealt with Muslim parables, pride and identity, legends of tragic lovers, mourning, and the plight of men and women as they seek marriage and struggle to support their families. Thanks to the background information for each dance included in the programs, I was able to piece together more of the meaning of the dance and music in their context.


Tari Aceh! put on a full and lively show. I was nourished by seeing how a culture I rarely encounter approaches disciplines I love. It is wonderful that New York City has institutions like Asia Society that make these unique encounters possible. You can find more events at Asia Society here. Asia Society New York is also part of the Arts Initiative's Passport to Museums program which means entrance to the museum is free with a CUID and semester validation sticker.