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ozasia festival

intercultural in-between

jonathan bollen: 2009 ozasia festival

Yumi Umiumare, EnTrance Yumi Umiumare, EnTrance
photo Jeff Busby

The effect of Yumi Umiumare’s performance is difficult to describe. Its mode is enacted evocation, its energies exacting. Yet it also feels quite slippery and elusive. It passes through six phases: Maze, Cityscape, Cracked Mirror, Punk Medusa, Tears and Shiro Hebi (White Snake). It moves with a strong sense of progression, but without the certainty of departure or destination.

There are surreal moments of narrative recollection at the opening. As Umiumare enters, dressed in white, she recalls a memory of watching dust particles wander in the sunlight and a dream, it seems, of slicing off two finger tips and running outside to find them before they are eaten by her cat. The violence is softened by reflection; the mood is calm and contemplative. Then the performer is sideswiped by a bus. A mirrored cityscape of pedestrians and passing traffic, created by media artist Bambang Nurcahyadi, is projected onto Umiumare. She seems squashed by the images, trapped between their flatness, confined yet disconnected from their action.

The horizontal is a strong axis in this work. A new sequence of projections shows commuter trains passing silently in opposite directions, travelling in parallel worlds above and below an imaginary horizon. Umiumare releases great swathes of curtain-fringing, which spread across the stage to catch the image of the trains in passing. She grabs her stomach and her mouth. She eats the fringing, overcome with its threads and tangles, overwhelmed by the effort. In a later projected sequence, the performer appears as if floating on the horizontal surface of an Australian river. Her image falls and slides amongst watery reflections of gum trees against the sky.

The passing phases of the work are marked by costume changes. In one dark and angry phase, she wears a leather jacket studded with tiny flashing lights, and on her head a flat video screen. In another phase, serene and light, she wears a white coat and carries an umbrella. Japanese characters fall upon the umbrella like drops of rain. The lights come up on the audience, and Umiumare delivers a lecture on the onomatapoeia of Japanese words for crying. As if to shift our feelings, she sings a Japanese pop song karaoke style, and then she cries, in yellow light, in memory of her mother. In the final phases, Umiumare puts white make up on her body, twists and tangles with the curtain-fringings and pulls them to the ground. The ending conjures the whirling centre of a singularity, as Umiumare descends beyond a bright spotlight from the rear. The final mood is mournful, elemental. The work descends to silence as the blinding spotlight fades.

Akram Khan Company, Bahok Akram Khan Company, Bahok
photo Alex Makayev
Bahok from the UK-based Akram Khan Company is named after a Bengali word meaning ‘carrier.’ It too speaks to experiences of being in between. A carrier or bearer is always in transit, travelling between points, transporting their load. Eight dancers each carry in their body the evidence of cultural origin, training and tradition. They come from China, Korea, India, Slovakia, South Africa and Spain. But like the performer in En Trance, their destinations are unknown. They are caught on stage in transit, as if in the departure lounge of an international airport or the waiting room of some transcontinental train station. The central scenic signifier is a large electronic display which mimics the sort once used in airports, as it flicks through departures and arrivals, announcing delays and reschedules with an electro-mechanical clatter.

The dancers, wearing street clothes are, for the most part, unencumbered by actual luggage. As the work unfolds, the stories of their journeys emerge in fragments which interact. We learn about as much as can be discerned by observing fellow travellers in transit. One man is frustrated that his flight has been delayed. A woman is desperately looking for someone or something on a piece of paper. Another woman falls asleep on a fellow passenger who leads her, sleep-walking, in a contact-based duet. Another couple pass the time by performing ballet moves and posing cutely for a camera.

Dancing serves as the medium of contact and communion between strangers. When the dancers perform Akram Khan’s sweeping choreography in unison the work embodies the movement of togetherness. But the state patrols its borders with the cultural specificity of language. A Korean dancer is assisted at the immigration counter by a fellow traveller who tries to interpret the officer’s enquiries. But as he speaks in Korean, her efforts at translation are upstaged by surtitles for the audience on the electronic display. His cultural alienation is inscribed with the nostalgia that the sight of a man spitting reminds him of home. For the woman, it is a parcel of her father’s shoes that connects her to the past.

International travel both reinscribes and whittles away the tenets of cultural difference. These are 21st century travellers. They bear the racial distinctions of biological inheritance, but they are also young, fit and roughly equivalent participants in an emerging global culture. The surest symbol of the global is the mobile phone, with which the dancers connect through language to people in other places, beyond those they are with. For the audience, a ringing mobile phone is an anxious symbol of their life outside.

The other more present global symbol is a choreographed group hug. Delivered just before the end, this ensemble act of the dancers embodying their contact with communal pleasure has also become, in various photographs, a symbol for Bahok. The work was originally developed as a collaboration between the Akram Khan Company and the National Ballet of China, but the marks of intercultural encounter are diffuse. The score by Nitin Sawhney is a masterpiece of world music, securely integrating its aural sources within a compelling sonic flow.

Woyzeck, Sadari Movement Laboratory Woyzeck, Sadari Movement Laboratory
photo Alex Makayev
From Korea, the Sadari Movement Laboratory’s Woyzeck, directed by the company’s founder Do-Wan Im, has been in repertoire since 2001 and toured widely in recent years. Its intercultural aspects are internalised. Do-Wan Im trained at the Ecôle de Jacques Lecoq in Paris. The work is a classic of the European modern theatre, though I wonder whether it has ever received a production of such discipline and rigour.

The company’s 11 performers foreground an extraordinary physical technique. Their ensemble action is expressive, tightly focused and incredibly precise. Their swift transitions during the blackouts between each scene are astonishing. Their physical capacity to abstract the play’s expressionism into ensemble action is materialised through a dramaturgy of wooden chairs. Arranged and re-arranged with each episodic scene, the chairs extend the ensemble action and serve as prison, tower and bed, as equipment for military display and fairground fun, and as material metaphor for Woyzeck’s psychic fracture.

The aesthetic coherence of the production is secured with music from Argentinean composer Astor Piazzolla whose tango compositions are astringent in their orchestration and, like Woyzeck, fraught and fractured. The surtitles elaborate rather than translate. They are succinct poetic encapsulations, arriving after the physicality of each scene is established in the space. Like the karaoke lyrics in En Trance and the airport ticker screen in Bahok, the surtitles in Woyzeck mark the in-between of touring and translation within intercultural creation.

En Trance, creator, performer Yumi Umiumare, dramaturg Moira Finucane, media Bambang Nurcahyadi, installation Naomi Ota, sound design Ian Kitney, costume David Anderson, lighting Kerry Ireland, Space Theatre, Oct 13, 14; Akram Khan Company, Bahok, choreographer Akram Khan, composer Nitin Sawhney, lighting, set Fabiana Piccioli, Sander Loonen, Akram Khan, Festival Theatre, Oct 16-17; Sadari Movement Laboratory, Woyzeck, director Do-Wan Im, music Astor Piazzolla, dramaturg Seok Kyu Choi, lighting Tae-Hwan Gu, sound design Yo-Chan Kim, set design Jae-Yun Cho, costumes Hae-Ju Kim, Space Theatre, Oct 7-9; OzAsia Festival 2009, Adelaide Festival Centre, Oct 3-17

RealTime issue #94 Dec-Jan 2009 pg. 10

© Jonathan Bollen; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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