North Sumatran Dances in a Swedish Museum

Rekaman tari Karo yang dilakukan oleh Rolf de Maré (1938)
Karo dance filmed by Claire Holt (1938)

Dr. Clara BrakelCLARA BRAKEL. LEIDEN. Rolf de Maré, son of the Marshal of the Swedish Royal Court Henrik de Maré and grandson of the collector Countess von Hallwyl, was a globetrotter and a collector until the end of his life. He loved the art of Dancing, and founded Les Archives Internationales de la Danse, the world’s first museum and research institute devoted to choreography, in Paris. His comprehensive collections of European and non-European dance became the foundation for the Dance Museum which he opened in Stockholm in 1953. This Swedish nobleman was in fact ahead of his time in understanding the importance of studying dance and dance-drama in European and in non-European societies.

The trip

In 1938, Rolf de Maré organised a research trip of approximately three months to the Indonesian Archipelago, starting from Sulawesi via Java and Bali to Sumatra and Nias, in order to document the dance cultures of the various peoples living on these islands. His research assitant was the dance expert Claire Holt, who was living in Java at the time and arranged the entire journey. The third person on the team was Hans Evert, a photographer. All three of them took photographs, with Claire Holt documenting what they saw, and Hans Evert working the film camera.

The aim of the trip was, according to de Maré, “to collect as much data and material as possible, so that we could make a synthetic study of dance-lore”, and “to give dance its place in the contemporary social life of the local populations and, … at the same time trace the original history and local development of the dances”.

In Rolf’s opinion, the most important results of the trip were the unique film material and the numerous photographs of dancers and dance performances which they brought back, together with dance costumes and accessories they had purchased.


In Sumatra, Claire Holt had asked the Dutch philologist Dr. Voorhoeve, a specialist in Batak languages and cultures, to guide them. After visiting Minangkabau, they travelled around North Sumatra.

Here they were impressed by the ceremonial dances that are not often seen nowadays, such as the Huda-huda masked dances in funerary rites from the Pakpak Dairi district. In Pamatang Raya, Simalungun, they filmed a datu who danced with his staff upon magic figures he had drawn on the ground. Moreover, they filmed an elegantly dancing nobleman named Tuan Anggi, showing that solo dancing and improvisation were common practice in North Sumatra at the time.

Last but not least, in Kabanjahe and on the Karo highlands they documented Karo women and men in stately Mulih-mulih dances, performed at the conclusion of a ritual, in the beautiful setting of traditional adat houses with Gunung Sinabung in the background.

The unique films and photographs of Sumatran dances are all kept in the Dance Museum in Stockholm, as part of the Rolf de Maré collection. Following an exposition on Indonesian dances in 2004, with a beautiful catalogue compiled by Dr. Elisabet Lind, former curator of the Southeast Asian collections in the  National Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm, the Dance Museum is now planning to transfer the Indonesian flms of its collection to a dvd.

For this reason, Elisabet Lind is presently in Leiden to discuss the contents of the films with Clara Brakel and Juara Ginting, who are advising her on the production of the dvd. It is hoped that, by making these films available on modern media, they will serve as a source of inspiration for the study and development of dance and music in modern Indonesia.

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