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Flash 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 talented ensemble.

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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