What a treat to see the work of Singaporean artist Choy Ka Fai on a London stage. I'd caught an earlier incarnation of SoftMachine: Yuya / Xiaoke x Zihan at the Esplanade's da:ns festival in Singapore last year, but was looking forward to a different pairing this time, of Yuya Tsukahara's Contact Gonzo (Japan) and lengger dancer Rianto (Indonesia), presented as part of Sadler's Wells' Out Of Asia series.
(As a quick preface, we've been wrestling with Bourdieu, Durkheim and Nietzsche a fair amount in my cultural theory module at the moment, and I couldn't help but bring some of those theoretical lenses into the production with me...)
When Nietzsche attempted to reconcile the Dionysian and Apollonian halves of art and performance in The Birth Of Tragedy, he lamented that the intoxicating, the excessive, the visceral, collective and communal feel of Dionysus in Greek Tragedy had ultimately been sacrificed for the rational, measured, logical and representational aspect of Apollo. I'd argue that Ka Fai revels in the spirits of both Dionysus and Apollo in this pairing of SoftMachine, at once a celebration of that collective act of watching a group of performers and empathising with their ecstasy and pain, but also an individual act of marvelling at the architecture of the human body, the way one might regard the beauty of Michelangelo's sculpture of David, every sinew and muscle chiselled to perfection.
Through SoftMachine, Ka Fai, a visual artist and performance maker, has created a work that both presents dance and archives it. Intimate video interviews with the performers punctuate dance excerpts that showcase not just a breathtaking range of genre-breaking work, but also the body as repository and the body as memory. It's a moving, long-exposure snapshot of a rapidly-evolving Asia, where traditional dance forms are simultaneously revered and discarded, and where there is a kaleidoscopic approach to dance as a shifting, hybrid form that draws from and transcends theatre, movement, performance art, installation, multimedia and religion.
We start off with Contact Gonzo, a contemporary dance group from Japan that takes elements of contact improvisation to the extreme through their "philosophy of pain". Yuya and Ka Fai embark on a wary improvised duet with each other; Ka Fai attempts to interview Yuya about the company and its process while being punched, slapped, stroked, slammed into, sat on, thrown about. Every action begets a reaction and Ka Fai trips, falls, and becomes increasingly red-faced and contorted. "There's no emotion," Yuya emphasises of their work, "if you put emotion in, then it's just a fight." He quips that his favourite artist is Eric Cantona, an answer that once baffled a Korean art magazine who did not know who the footballer was. What makes every movement by Contact Gonzo so urgent and effective is how pain – so often an imagined pain that is represented, but not real, in theatre or dance productions – transforms into visible pain. That hollow impact of flesh on flesh, or flesh against the ground, the thud of a body's weight against the unyielding studio floor – everything ups the stakes as perceived pain becomes palpable pain. Eventually, another member of Contact Gonzo (Takuya Matsumi) joins the duo and the trio roll about on the stage, a fluid, brutal beast that has every single audience member wincing and gasping in a collective experience of pain. And as the audience members scramble to find a way to interpret this pain, it becomes a source of playfulness and mischief as the performers stretch it out or delight in moments of random comic timing with props that don't work as they should or fall in the "wrong" place. The humour is awkward, but it's also a relief, a valve for the pressure building up in the room. Just as an audience might have cheered on a charismatic gladiator in a sporting arena thousands of years ago, so has the dancer become the sportsman in the ring.
The performance by Indonesian artist Rianto is a different creature altogether, which begins as a controlled, precise and highly-codified presentation of lengger, a traditional erotic dance from Java. Rianto is performing as female, emphasising every coquettish curl of his arm and every arch of a come-hither eyebrow. As he invites the audience into the illusion, he subsequently breaks it completely when he transforms from the character of a princess into that of a prince, signified not just by a change of masks but by an entire shift in movement vocabulary. The sensual hips vanish; here come the wide-legged stances, the angular limbs, the scything arms. It's a gorgeous shift that takes time to register because of the chasm that yawns between presenting as masculine and presenting as feminine. And then he sheds his elaborate lengger makeup and, bare-faced, performs the modern choreographic practice he's embarked on since relocating to Japan with his Japanese wife. The style feels familiar, a series of movements that would not be out of place in a modern dance studio – a movement lexicon that, he says, has "no gender". The possibilities of the body are endless, unmarked territory. The final image that Ka Fai gives to us in the shimmering half-darkness, with Rianto barely lit by a dim spotlight, half-shadow and half-real, every muscle rippling, elevates dance from the earthly to the sublime. It's a transcendental several minutes, where we seem to have been lifted into a purgatorial space, where only the dance and the individual exists, and nothing else.
A friend of mine described the evening as two perfect halves of pain and pleasure. Can we ever experience one without the other? They seem to heighten in each other's presence. Ka Fai didn't mean to combine Yuya and Rianto into the same production; it was a result of difficult scheduling. Yet the two halves cohered wonderfully, a layered interrogation of what movement in Asia is but also how it is perceived. Certain expected tropes are suggested – e.g. Yuya brings up Zen Buddhism, largely associated with a 'stoic' Japan – but then are immediately subverted – Yuya proceeds to rubbish any possibility of Zen in his work. We assume that Rianto's presentation will explore some sort of token Asian spirituality, but it morphs into a study of gender identity and the lenses we rely on to frame movement.
When I was at the Singapore Festival in France last year, a journalist friend of mine asked a Parisian museum director if a particular Asian exhibition, with its overtones of ritual and tradition, was cheap-shot, easy programming for a "spiritually bankrupt" West. The museum director looked very uncomfortable and tried to dispute it, citing a blend of "tradition and modernity". I'm tired of this binary, and I'm glad Ka Fai turns it on its head with the kind of copious performance research that brings a tapestry of diversity to the fore, with deep currents of history and memory layered beneath mould-breaking movement. SoftMachine is part of the "Out Of Asia" platform, and while I understand the desire for an "Out Of Asia" tagline as a sort of instant handle for a European audience, it leaves the production instantly framed by stereotyped mystique and exotica, evoking the sense that the dancers and performers had to somehow hack their way out of a dense eastern jungle to be liberated upon a western stage. An Asian artist's trajectory should not be marked by how much he/she embraces a 'fusion tradition' to make it palatable to a contemporary audience. SoftMachine presents its performers as they are, without easy handles or categories, and our experience of their work is the richer for it. It sheds that Dionysian-Apollonian dialectic, where the fight between the individual and collective ceases to matter (with apologies to Nietzsche) – because, well, why be one when you can be both?
Ka Fai and SoftMachine dramaturge Tang Fu Kuen will both be speaking at this upcoming talk, The Persistence of Exoticism, on November 22 at Sadler's Wells. The title of the talk draws from Ka Fai's directorial notes to SoftMachine, written in 2013:
On 7th of September 2011, London dance powerhouse Sadler's Wells uploaded a 5-minute promotional video titled "Out Of Asia – The Future of Contemporary Dance" for their new season preview. I was intrigued and disturbed at the same time by the video. As an Asian artist, my immediate response was: "Who are you to tell us what the future of contemporary dance is and what is coming out of Asia?"
From my personal perspective, the curatorial concern was superficial. Asia is extremely diverse culturally, it is difficult to access local knowledge and tradition without investing time for research or first-hand experience. There is a recurring sense of mystification put upon the cultural production from the East for the cultural consumption market of the West. The persistence of exoticism is sadly evident in the institutional promotion of contemporary dance from Asia.
My initial research revealed to me that it is clear that the discussion of contemporary dance in Asia is still in an embryonic state and has been mostly conducted through academic research under immense influence from the West. With this revelation as a starting point, I thought someone from Asia should create new spaces for such discourse. From the naive idea of "From Asia For Asians", I started an 18-month journey across 13 Asian cities in my search for what is "Inside Asia".
P.S. The programme booklet was beautiful. Here's an image of Rianto in it: