• Arco Renz © Jean Luc Tanghe
  • Rianto - Medium © Wannes Cré
  • Topeng Losari Cirebon - Panji Sutrawinangun Dance © Hadiprayog
  • Otniel Tasman © Arief Budianto
  • Cry Jailolo © by Bernie Ng Courtesy of Esplanade
  • Nan Jombang © Fionna Cullen
  • Melati Suryodarmo © Harry Hartantio

Performing Arts in Indonesia Interview with Arco Renz


There are around 3,000 traditional dance styles in Indonesia. These traditions provide an endless source of inspiration for contemporary choreographers. EUROPALIA has drawn up an ambitious programme of performances, artistic residencies and international platforms for exchange and reflection. 

Interview with Arco Renz

As the festival’s performing arts curator, what lies behind your programme choices? 

ARCO RENZ – The programme is conceived as a meeting point where artists, audiences and cultural venues can discover the richness and diversity of Indonesian performing arts. Of course, traditional and contemporary dance are well-represented, but also new creations and interdisciplinary exchanges between Indonesian and European artists, and even two carte blanche residencies in Indonesia for choreographers Meg Stuart and Gisele Vienne.

My primary concern was to ensure that dialogue between different artists – each bringing a unique voice and artistic trajectory – would lead to new works and collaborations. One such creation particularly close to my heart is that of Melati Suryodarmo. The strong visual vocabulary of her solo performances has earned her international renown. In her new choreography, Tomorrow, as Purposed, she tackles the complex interrelations between power, desire and magic, integrating ancient ritual dances from Sulawesi.

How would you explain the enormous diversity of traditional dance styles in Indonesia?

AR – Indonesia is an archipelago of approximately 17,000 islands. This fragmented geography of water and land is the reason for the enormous variety of cultures, languages, religions, art and traditional dance forms. At the same time, other factors such as trade, migrations, cultural exchanges and colonialism connected the archipelago and provided dynamic fuel for change and renewal. The Indonesian performing arts scene, and dance in particular, superbly illustrates this ongoing process. 

Despite the many differences, are there any common denominators between the traditions? 

AR – The majority of traditional dances have a ritualistic function and weave an important connective tissue in the social life of communities. Traditional dances help the individual as well as the community integrate with the natural elements and numerous manifestations of transcendent and deified forces. The choreographer Eko Supriyanto explained to me that Javanese classical dance, with its slow, elegant movements, is a physical way to bring stability to the individual and the community in an intrinsically unstable natural environment.

Does religion influence traditional dances, which can sometimes be sensual and play with gender roles?

AR – Although most Indonesians are Muslim, five other religions are officially recognized: Christianity, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. Not forgetting the numerous ancestral religions that are not officially recognized… My impression is that these ancestral religions, together with Hinduism and Islam, have had the biggest influence on both traditional and contemporary performing arts in Indonesia. 

Each belief system has developed different dance styles, with different conventions of sensuality and gender. For me, the performing arts in all their diversity are living gestures of openmindedness, respect and tolerance. They not only allow different belief systems and their artistic expressions to coexist but also to complement and feed each other. 

This coexistence in difference is omnipresent in the EUROPALIA  programme. For example, the Saman dance from Aceh, Sumatra, performed by young male dancers, was invented many centuries ago as a means of spreading Islam. The highly virtuoso body-beating patterns are accompanied by prayer chants but also by mantras and incantations. By contrast, Otniel Tasman, a young choreographer from Central Java, will present his new creation NOSHEHEORIT: a spirited contemplation on Javanese gender roles inspired by lengger, a traditional cross-gender fertility dance from his hometown Banyumas. 

Is the new generation of choreographers still influenced by these centuries-old traditions or are they trying to break free?

AR – The majority of Indonesian contemporary choreographers were trained in traditional and classical dance forms. There is general awareness among them of the importance of integrating and preserving these traditions. Indeed, a traditional dance was contemporary at the time of its creation. Over time, these dances have been codified and canonised. 

Through respectful and diligent practice, they are kept alive. Dancers and choreographers integrate this inherited language and actualise it through their bodies. In this way, traditions remain contemporary practice through the agency of individuals. It is fascinating to see how Indonesian choreographers incorporate this heritage, each in their own way. For young choreographers, acknowledging and questioning traditions and developing strategies to integrate traditional forms in contemporary processes and narratives are important elements of contemporary dance creation. 

Whether contemporary Indonesian dance wants to break with tradition or renew it is a never-ending debate. The fact remains that choreographers in Indonesia continue to turn towards tradition in order to question the world and contemporary problems, and to transcend banality.