Interview with Ery Mefri
Katrin Sohns, head of the Program Department of Goethe-Institut Indonesia, in conversation with Ery Mefri.
Eri Mefri on his ensemble Nan Jombang Dance
When did you start this dance troupe? Perhaps you could tell us a bit more about it?
Nan Jombang was established on November 1,1983. However, I first became acquainted with art when I was three years old because my father was a dancer and my mother was a gold thread weaver. My father practiced dancing twice a week, and I always went along to watch him dance. My father also played musical instruments during the practice sessions with other dancers. At night, as I fell asleep in my mother’s lap while she was weaving, I would hear the drums. This made me aware of the arts of West Sumatra, where they have the saying: Seeing and observing is better that trying to learn something on one’s own. Perhaps that saying has influenced me. When I finished junior high school, I entered the art school in Padang Panjang, Middle School for the Performing Arts (Sekolah Menengah Karawitan Indonesia, SMKI). After graduating from SMKI, I moved to Padang, where I worked at the Taman Budaya Padang Cultural Center.
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What kind of work was that?
I was in the dance division. I was assigned to manage the dance program for the the Cultural Center in 1982. On November 1, 1983, I established the group I called Nan Jombang. People were in the habit of calling my father “Jombang“, “Nan Jombang“. Nan meaning best and Jombang meaning a bit mischievous but charismatic and likable.
It was my choice to become a choreographer and a dancer, even though my relatives in my village did not approve. I wanted to be a dancer and choreographer no matter what the risk, and I knew I would not regret that. Years passed before we had much of a chance to perform. By 1988, with no offers of gigs except maybe occasionally in and around West Sumatra, I decided that if nobody, not even the government, was going to give us a chance, that I would just have to create an opportunity myself. So, in 1988, I set up a festival called the Sumatra Dance Arena. I did the fundraising myself. The first funds came from taking an advance on my salary as a civil servant. That was the initial capital for the festival. I held the festival every two years. Then people in Jakarta, Solo, and Jogja heard about it and invited me to perform in their cities and in the Indonesian Dance Festival in Jakarta, which was initially known as Indonesia Choreography Week. By 2001, I simply could not keep putting on the Sumatra Dance Arena festival because it was driving me deeper and deeper into debt. What a disaster that was, especially for my family. Then, in 2004, an invitation came from the Indonesian Performance Art Market (IPAM) in Bali. There, I performed my choreographic work titled Sarikaik Pangka Sangketo, a phrase which means encounters and relationships that result in partings and estrangement that lead to conflict. After 21 years of struggle, Bali was just the place for Nan Jombang; everything started there. In 2004, we met Andrew, the director of Brisbane Powerhouse. Andrew’s first gift to us came in 2005 when he said, “You and Angga go to Brisbane to watch performances and look around”. We spent 15 days at the Queensland Music Festival, watching various performances together.
Then Andrew came to visit just to see what my living situation was like. Back then, I was renting a house. I did not have this place yet. Andrew came to our wreck of a house and slept over. Then, in 2007, Andrew took one of my choreographic pieces to Brisbane, Australia. Then in 2009, we were invited to IPAM again, this time in Solo. It was there that blessings began to shower down upon us. We performed Rantau Berbisik there to a tremendous response. Extraordinary! It drew standing ovations, and producers and buyers even showed up to talk to us in the back stage dressing room. There, we got contracts to perform at the Theater der Welt Festival in Essen, Germany, at the Berlin Festival, the Asian Pacific - all in Germany, as well as at Esplanade.
What year was that?
Esplanade was in 2009. We went to Essen in 2010. We also toured Australia; Brisbane, Cairns, Adelaide, and Darwin. Also in 2010, we got offers from Japan and Korea. With the funds from these performances, we bought land and built this place.
Then, on June 18, 2011, the American embassy called to invite us to participate in the Center State program in which we got to visit four cities in America: Los Angeles, Washington, New York City, on Broadway, and then to Rhode Island. In 2012, we went on a long tour with our newest creation Tarian Malam (Night Dance). This performance was produced by; Esplanade Singapore, Darwin Festival, and Brisbane Powerhouse.
Exploring the boundaries of music and dance, would you say that the background of music and dance is the same?
I am a choreographer, but I also dance and play music. We do not have a composer, so I guess I am both the choreographer and composer for Nan Jombang. I had the basics of dance and music from SMKI, along with all that I had learned from my father. I had mastered all of the dance and artistic traditions my father had passed on to me, including the music. I did not want anyone else composing the music for my dance pieces. This is because I felt that, yeah, maybe someone might be able to interpret it all correctly, but it would make me cry, really break my heart if what I was trying to convey failed to communicate to others. It is like when I feel pain, and I need to scream from it, it makes no sense to ask someone else to scream for me, that would make no difference. So I create the music for my choreographic dance pieces. I have learned a lot about composing from my friends who are senior musicians here in Indonesia. I also keep in mind what Rizaldly Siagian, an expert musician from North Sumatra once told me. In1989, I visited his place and asked him, “Bang Rizal Siagian, what kind of music is good for dance?” He answered with just one sentence, “The best dance music is music that is not heard.” I put that away for contemplation in 1989, and it was not until 2000 that I began to understand it. So, in 2000, I gave up entirely on using music for my choreographic pieces. My dancers became my musicians and my thespians. They not only had to dance, they also had to make music, and create theater through the choreography. Now, I would call the result of this neither dance nor theater nor musical theater. The result is simply performance. I am focusing on creating an art production, an art performance. All of this originating from that single sentence from Rizaldly Siagian, “The best dance music is music that is not heard.” So no matter how hard a drum was beaten, it simply would not be heard over the visuals conveyed by the dance. That was the inspiration; the thing that helped.
Do you wish for Nan Jombang to continue to be a family tradition?
I most certainly do. It must. It must become a family tradition and a tradition among the public, in society. I have imbued all of my children with this as a family tradition. I got art from my father and my mother, they handed it down to me, and now I am passing it on to all of my children. And when they have children, it must be passed down to them. We never expected to make an enterprise like this from artistic endeavors, yet the results of dance have enabled us to buy land, to build a home, which just means that the Almighty has blessed through this very thing.
Did the 2009 earthquake in Padang affect your work?
Yes, indeed. That earthquake enraged me. The western edge of Sumatra - Aceh, Padang, Bengkulu - were devastated by that earthquake. The people wept, the people screamed. And I was enraged, I also screamed. However, I screamed through my work, Tarian Malam. I could not help anyone, but maybe, with this work, the world would help me to help; to help Padang, to help Japan, which gets hit by these tremors all the time. I often communicate with friends in Japan. When Hiromi, Japan, experienced an earthquake, also in Padang and Aceh the earth was shaking. I couldn’t help but to indulge in introspection about what was happening. And I feel that it is our fault. We have damaged the beauty of nature, and perhaps this has angered God. And we have to do something to fix ourselves. And I was angry at myself, and at the populace who did not nurture nature properly. Nature is the creation of God and people must preserve and conserve and protect it, just like we would take care of ourselves. But we, as human beings, are always damaging nature, and perhaps this has angered God.
We have spoken of your success internationally; how have these travels or tours affected your work?
Travel does affect my work because I can see the worlds of dance, music, and theater better. I saw that all across the world my artist colleagues are successful with their choreography, theater and music. The conclusion I have drawn from all of that is: In this world, the culture of any given nation is proprietary to that nation alone, but is the property of all nations, all peoples. The Indonesian culture belongs to other countries. America’s culture belongs to Indonesia. The people of Indonesia also possess the culture of Germany, and the Germans own our culture as well. The greatest wealth is art and culture because art and culture unify humankind. Money and politics cannot do that, but art and culture can. During my journeys, I spoke with many people who became my friends, and I told them, “The culture of Indonesia is your culture, not just my culture. And the culture here too is my culture because culture is the thing that connects our consciences, that links us in the core of our humanity; culture is what unites us, not weapons, not bullets, not political dialogues. Cultural dialogues and talking about art is what brings us together and unites us.” As artists, we see the disastrous condition this world is in now; it is in chaos. We weep and we weep, always. This evening my friends have been weeping about Egypt. But does the government, or any government, weep? Yet, we, the artists, always weep. Egypt, Yemen and Libya make us weep. How can it be that culture and art cannot unite them over there in some way? After all, art and culture are extraordinary in that they can unite us all.
And just one more question. What do you hope for, looking forward?
Not very much. I do not have major expectations. We will always keep creating, we will always be involved in the artistic process somehow. However, our place, our presence in Padang, our presence in this place, will hopefully benefit performance art around the world. I hope that our birth into this world will have a meaning and be of benefit to many others. We expand our energy and thinking into this world through art. So, we will continue to work no matter what happens and anywhere we may be, for whoever may need us; we will come no matter the risk, if it is for art.