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Review Journal, 2-20: Following the Threads through Sheaths of Sweat
Searching for Japanese & Other Things with a Soft American Conscience
By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2003 Maura Nguyen Donohue
TOKYO -- I like this
city's Setagaya Public Theater. I like its daring programming and
I like its mission. I like that you might see Butoh, Taiko, a Thai
company performing a Japanese play, a Robert LePage work or contemporary
dance company Papa Tarahumara in the 600-seat Public Theatre or
it's 200-seat flexible Tram Theatre space. I like that before it
was even built the theater's directors were working on its role
as a cultural center for the community. I like that 10 years ago
they held workshops in collaboration with PETA, the Philippine Educational
Theater Association on the site where the theater would be built.
I like that they are deepening international relationships with
a new multi-year collaboration project under the guidance of Kitaro
Masui and the support of the Japan Foundation. And I love that I
was able to witness part of the first stage of this collaboration
including artists from Japan, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia,
Malaysia, Singapore and one lonely American earlier this month.
I didn't like the title.
The program was unfortunately called "Into the Theatre Practices
in Asia" which just begs a response as to how this was an equitable
representation of 'the' practices and the 'Asia.' And while we're
discussing the issue of representation, the gender ratio was appalling.
Women didn't even account for a third of the participants (unless
you counted the translators). A disheartening shift from my recent
observations of the 4th Asian Women's Theater Conference in India.
And quite strange, considering that two of the previous three women's
conferences had been held in Japan. Can't cite ignorance here.
Geography and gender
aside, the participants represent an important range of art making
and some of the performances represented adroit artistry. Many of
the artists chose to lecture rather than perform because of limited
prep time. Nam Ron from Malaysia performed his lecture under duress,
delivering his paper under the gun of a costumed guard. Paradit
"Tua" Prasartthong from Thailand conducted an ad hoc orchestra of
candlesticks, plastic sheets and stone-filled water bottle and choreographed
audience members before sitting down to speak. Vitae Azuzan J.G.
from Indonesia spoke at length (Indonesian translated into Japanese)
before performing a dark, masked ritual.
When Josh Fox and a
similarly dressed Japanese man, Hiroyuki Miura, stand in dramatic
down light, behind two identical silver podiums, I'm delighted that
Fox has decided to create a more performative translation of his
monologue. He begins speaking about love and beauty and moves into
a timely take on nationalism and war. "And I might get very angry
with you if you donít agree. I might want to kill you if you disagree.
I might want to kill YOU (to Hiro) if you disagree. I will get married
and make babies who agree with me. I will spawn a whole nation of
people who look like me, talk like me and think, as I do, that this
circle has only one meaning. I will travel the world and enslave
millions to do the work that my nation needs to maintain its supremacy.
I will bomb you back to the stone age if you donít agree. Or worse,
I will take all of your husbands and all of your wives away from
you to clean my buildings and work in my fields, to shine my shoes."
However, the speaker-translator relationship degenerates and The
International Wow Company, based in New York City and Chiang Mai,
Thailand, sneaks in a version of "Death of Nations." I'm tickled
by the deconstruction of the translator role, perfectly placed after
the lectures of that night.
The work itself was
intellectually rousing and a prime example of theater practice well
executed. This version of "Death of Nations," still in development,
was written and directed by New Yorker Fox, who got to be honorary
white boy perhaps due to various projects and artistic ties to Japan,
Thailand and Indonesia. Miura and fellow performers Sachiko Shira
and Ki Jin Ryeung are former members of Papa Tarahumara, the Tokyo
based troupe that Fox has worked with. Rody Vera (The Philippines),
and Narumol "Kop" Thammapruksa (Thailand) round out the overwhelmingly
In the midst of Fox's
opening monologue, Ryeung, dressed in a red dress, enters slowly,
moving behind him and pointing a gun at his head. When she shoots
him both he and Hiro react and lights go out. In the next scene
Kop, Vera and Shira enter as cleaning people deploring the mess
of the scattered bodies. Kop and Vera engage in a discussion of
"Maid in Manhattan," argue about the pronunciation of Ralph Fiennes's
name until Miura, a 'very good translator' who works from beyond
the grave clarifies it with a reference to "Schindler's List." The
music shifts. Miura rises, Kop and Vera fall into a passionate,
lustful tussle of a duet and Ryeung rises on the podium she was
strewn on and begins a slow dance. Miura echoes her balances and
releases until the two join in a dramatic, film noir dance that
counters the rambunctious frolicking of the other couple. Shira
has come to the center podium and pulled out two guns while speaking
about the dangers of Hollywood fashioned love. The noir couple kill
each other with the guns and things quiet down enough to focus on
the discomfort of the first couple, now in post-coital awkwardness.
Vera and Kop play out the scene in proper melodrama, quoting lines
from "Casablanca," which has been running on the video screen behind
the dancers. Vera puts on a pink, frilly dress and Kop dons a suit.
Their melodrama reaches a climax as Vera reaches the center podium
and belts out a resounding version of "Memories." The group slowly
gathers around him, offering him some cereal, and quietly breaks
the frame of performance, hanging in performer casual that reveals
them as 'real' people while Shira dances a haunting solo full of
languid port de bras.
Chinese Malaysian Loh
Kok Man performs "Aku," a simple work brimming with lush visuals
and surprising moments. As the work opens, we see a very tall figure
made out of a top bundle and a flowing patchwork quilt. I think
I am looking at a back as a small hunch begins to appear at the
middle. But as the bulge grows and hands appear, my perspective
changes and I am suddenly viewing a large pregnant woman from the
front. Loud, pounding industrial music fills the theater as Berg,
a bleached blonde Malaysian performer, emerges from under the cloth
holding a large red ball. As he slowly walks the diagonal to downstage
left, the lights drop to black and back in a filmic device that
makes the passage feel longer and more mythical in scope. Berg reaches
the corner, squeezes the ball, which I realize is a balloon as it
pops and confetti streams out. Man has also surfaced from beneath
the quilt and now has it gathered at his side. He begins a slow
circular procession with the quilted character. Berg picks up the
quilt's train as the Man returns to the stool he had been standing
on in the beginning, giving the quilted figure her height. He sits
with her next to him and Berg kneels on her train in a family portrait.
A video of static plays over their heads as we hear missile fire
and bombs dropping as Berg slowly blows up red balloons. Suddenly
a single red balloon drops from the grid. Then another. And another
until there is a shower of red balloons falling on stage and in
the house. Again stunning in a filmic way. Man slightly moves his
head to the side surveying the scene and I think of falling bombs
and fallen bodies as the lights fade.
After the invigorating
discussion during the final public symposium between the 16 artists,
I bolted along with Fox to Nakano to see "Need, Alarm, Dream" at
Papa Tarahumara's SAI Studio. Gauging by the quality of the dancers
in Fox's piece, I was intrigued to see what Makoto Matsushima, a
veteran member of the company, would do with three junior members.
After two years at their Performing Arts Institute, one might be
able to work with the company as a youth member for an undetermined
period. This would be the first time a work would be developed for
these junior dancers.
Three trains and a brisk
walk later, we take a left across from the Circle K down a nondescript
alley. We pass the strangely dingy guesthouse that Fox stayed in
during his collaboration with Papa and find the studio nestled in
a short alley to the right. We squeeze into the modest studio and
find a couple of empty pillows near the front. Once again I'm amazed
by what can be accomplished by dancers in a very small amount of
performance space. Mutsuko Akiba is intently dropping to the floor
in rock star-like lunges. She moves through rapid choreography with
exquisite precision and the kind of physical abandon that I used
to equate with youth, but these days think might just be a Japanese
thing. You know, that suicidal divine wind mentality might live
at a deeper level than a soft American conscience just can grasp.
Takuya Ikeno and Masayuki Kanemori enter to the side, or back, depending
on where you're sitting, and disrobe. They dance in knee high socks
and wrestler uniforms. Ikeno is as technically stunning as Akiba
but with just a hint more grounding.
Matsushima has been
sitting behind a desk to the side. In a transitory moment he plays
a thin, reeded flute. While Kanemori is ranting and rambling around
the space in awkward, spastic movement,s Matsushima, dressed in
rubber waders and a knit hat, wanders with a portable amp, microphone
and keyboard. He sticks the mic in front of people's faces, rubbing
it on someone's hair and his own beard before eventually cornering
Kanemori. In another sequence, Kanemori tucks himself into a small
alcove at the far end of the studio where the performers have been
sitting on small white blocks. He speaks into a video camera in
the corner which runs to a tiny monitor on stage. He chats at length
with Matsushima, while Ikeno occasionally interjects in a characteristically
somber tone. Akiba runs into the space and dances outbursts that
interrupt the conversation, before running back out.
Kanemori finishes his
jovial speech (not a clue what was said, didn't matter) and strips
down to a pair of white briefs. He walks to the center and begins
a terrifying transformation. The proximity, the exposed body and
his extreme focus make this Butoh solo fearsome beyond compare.
He's right in front of me and has so completely distorted himself
that I can't reconcile the goofy face from the video 30 seconds
prior. He is a misshapen monstrosity. The kind of shape that you
gape at in horror before shamefully averting your gaze when you
encounter the surviving napalm or agent orange victims of Vietnam.
I see the thread that runs back to the 'decimated plains of Hiroshima'
that Hijikata called the birthplace of butoh. The tightly bound
exertions of his muscles are seen in each shift. For me this muscular
effort is part of what fascinates me about the technique of butoh.
Unfortunately, on a larger stage this subtle, subtle, subtle but
exhausting effort is not conveyed and comes across as just slow,
making Butoh often more interesting to do than to watch. Here however
we are so close Kanemori's new sheath of sweet could drop on me,
and I'm overwhelmed.
In the midst of all
this the other three performers appear facing the wall, shaking
their booties like back-up dancers and then exiting and returning
again. Thus the dreadful image in front of me is juxtaposed with
something thankfully absurd. Akiba and Ikeno approach Kanemori,
who has begun to slowly wave his arms up and down. They lift him
and I see that his dream to fly has been realized as his grotesque
expression of agony moves into a grotesque expression of delight
and he flies around the room.
Pappa artistic director
Hiroshi Koike performs "Blue Brain Bull," a solo work, March 1 &
2 at the Suzunar in Tokyo, while the company performs "Ship in a
View" Mar 20 & 21 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space.
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