A rigorous engagement with Asia

Ben Brooker: Performance

Alisdair MacIndoe, Spectra, Dancenorth/Batik

Alisdair MacIndoe, Spectra, Dancenorth/Batik

Alisdair MacIndoe, Spectra, Dancenorth/Batik

Joseph Mitchell’s first festival was highly anticipated, promising a reinvigoration of OzAsia through an emphasis on cross-genre work by a younger generation of artists with thematically and stylistically diverse and fluid practices. Indonesia was the geographical focus of this year’s Festival but, aside from Eko Supriyanto’s enthralling take on North Maluku tribal dance, Cry Jailolo, it was the program’s Japanese cohort that most embodied this recalibration. The acknowledgment of global trends such as the resurgence of body-based performance art and relational and immersive practice represented a welcome shift of focus from the visually lavish though formally and politically conservative works that have dominated previous festival programs. I detected instead, in works conceived within highly specific local contexts but rigorously engaged with contemporary global politics, a new and stimulating internationalism.


The Streets

The immersive dance-theatre work The Streets situates its audience members as citizens passing through a crowded street in one of Indonesia’s big cities—Jakarta, say, or Yogyakarta, the university town where director Yudi Ahmad Tajudin’s Teater Garasi was formed while Suharto was still in power. Beer and soft drink are offered to us on arrival, our nervous occupation of the mostly empty space temporarily eased. The presence of a roving street preacher and karaoke singer, however, projecting their respective fealties with the aid of homemade amplification devices, returns us to a state of vague unease. The work builds incrementally around us, a streetlight erected by two boiler-suited road workers here, a marching band who look like they are on their way to somewhere else there. As our awareness of this contested space develops, sights that provoke discomfort and incomprehension come into clearer focus—prostrate bodies coiled tightly in rough-hewn sleeping bags, vivid street art spliced with tattered political posters. I spot the anarchist circle-A symbol and some graffiti in Indonesian I translate later as “Mulu work like the witless buffalo.”

Eventually an official instructs the scattered audience to divide into two groups—the performance’s first, but not last, imposition of order on a chaotic situation—the members of each group settling, traverse style, on either the floor or one of the provided cushions. Wooden panels, like those used to board up vacant houses, are placed in front of us, obscuring our view of the performers. We’re informed we can move to a better vantage point if we can find one but most of us don’t, comfortable I suspect with the idea that an unobstructed view of the street would lack verisimilitude. By this stage a live band has asserted its presence, its carnivalesque, hard rock-infused improvisations a suitably ad hoc accompaniment to the bustling though tightly choreographed mosaic of street life that follows.

Indonesia’s class system is vividly dissected in overlapping vignettes that also expose the country’s richly complex interplay of local and global, its context the decentralisation of political and economic power brought about by reformasi. At various points the bodies in sleeping bags—Indonesia’s legion homeless—rise up to claim their share of the space, jostling with cops, hookers, cashed-up tourists and puffed-up bureaucrats. We hear a monologue about a soybean cake seller who suicides when the global price of soybeans surges, and a recording of a Suharto oration—disturbing reminders of the unstable present and the omnipresent past. As supple dancers sometimes violently intertwine their bodies with sheets of corrugated metal that are also used to construct temporary shanties, a voiceover intones, “What is order, what is chaos?” Both states are problematised in The Streets, making the work possible to read as a celebration of post-New Order Indonesia’s democratised vibrancy and an anxious meditation on the social disharmony produced by conflicting political, economic and religious interests.

The Streets, Teater Garasi

The Streets, Teater Garasi

The Streets, Teater Garasi


Quantum mechanics explains the physical behaviour of matter and energy at the molecular, atomic and sub-atomic levels. Its language, in contrast to classical information’s bit (0 or 1), is qubit—0 and 1 in a superposition of both states at the same time. Bit is digital and discrete, qubit analog and continuous. It is these binaries, minute and intersecting, that Japanese composer and visual artist Ryoji Ikeda amplifies visually and sonically in Superposition. It’s a large-scale installation that combines high-contrast, high-resolution graphic renderings of data with an electronic soundscape and live performance that, ultimately, is submerged by the work’s furious display of light and sound. It begins temperately enough, a series of downstage screens lighting up in quick succession to a soundtrack of iPhone-like bleeps. This movement of light, soon overlaid with cascading, indecipherable data, adds up to a remarkable visual choreography, flawlessly synchronised between screens—there are two rows of 10 screens, plus a single floor-to-ceiling screen at the back of the theatre—and with a soundscape that, in its forays into uncomfortably low and high frequencies and sheer volume, made me reach several times for the earplugs audience members are given before entering the auditorium.

Singularly in Ikeda’s body of installation-based work, Superposition is deepened by the presence of two performers (Stéphane Garin and Amélie Grould) who sit at an overlong table. The relationship of their actions—tapping out Morse code, poring over old punched cards and crossword-like puzzles—to the ‘datamatics’ (Ikeda’s word for his visual representations of normally imperceptible data) is often obscure. But it also yields memorable synchronicities such as when Garin and Grould strike a series of tuning forks and the resulting sounds are visualised in real time as sine waves. The phrase “information is not knowledge” takes its place within the ever-accruing streams of data and this, I think, points to Superposition’s formal and thematic resonances. The bombardment of information is overwhelming, vexingly impenetrable in the absence of a discernible framework of meaning. There is a certain satisfaction to this on a conceptual level, and also, undoubtedly, in the work as a feat of digital programming, but its transference from art space to theatre is problematic. In this setting, I found the presence of the two performers strangely dispiriting, their seeming lack of energy and agency emphasised not only by the work’s sterility but also by its unsuitability for the proscenium stage. (See Lauren Carroll Harris’ response to the Carriageworks’ showing on page 29.)



Meanwhile, Dancenorth and Japanese Butoh collective Batik’s fusion of contemporary dance, live music and digital sculpture Spectra underscored the rich potential of emergent cross-cultural performance. Its conceptual source is Buddhist philosophy rather than quantum physics—the notion of dependent origination, one term among many for the endless succession of causes and conditions that precedes all things. The choreography, by Dancenorth’s recently appointed Artistic Director Kyle Page in collaboration with Amber Haines, Alisdair Macindoe, Japanese-Australian Josh Mu and Japanese performers Mamiko Oe and Rie Teranishi, extends this idea, in itself a basic choreographic principle, into an intense embodiment of causality’s chain-like nature.

The work opens with a single performer, Macindoe, warmly and intimately lit in a beautiful design by Niklas Pajanti. He opens his body to the space slowly, a speck of cosmic matter—or, perhaps, a life form in infancy—feeling for the first time its connection to energies outside itself, its closed loop of origination. His arm, seemingly animated by an external force, undulates robotically and the action, equal and opposite, is repeated on the other side of his body. The presence of other bodies in the space allows the broadening of this principle of movement without compromising its simplicity, the dancers propelling, obstructing and interlocking with one another in largely unbroken sequence. The work is fired by an improvisatory energy and freighted with sensual, carnal gestures of bodily consumption and emission drawn from Butoh’s viscerally expressive language: orgiastic eating, violent seizures and the exchange of air between the mouths of the dancers. The simple manipulation of ropes, thrown into sine wave-like ripples by the dancers, is a further, elegant rendering of the concept.

The eclectic Japanese composer Jiro Matsumoto contributes an atmospheric live score, his bluesy, sustain-heavy guitar playing and largely indistinct vocals supplemented with the use of effects pedals and looping. Tatsuo Miyajima’s set—dozens of white and red LED timers suspended at various points and heights around the stage—sits above the work in both a literal and figurative sense. However handsome, this extension of Miyajima’s longtime practice as an installation artist feels like an imposition on, rather than a complement to, the compelling display of physical and cultural collision taking place beneath it.


Miss Universal Idol Berserker

Miss Universal Idol Berserker

Miss Universal Idol Berserker

Miss Revolutionary Idol Berserker

We’re asked, as we wait to be shown into the performance space, to remove our shoes and socks and place them in a plastic bag. A transparent rain poncho is then handed to us with the warning that we’re likely to get wet during the show. Water isn’t the half of it. Minutes into Miss Revolutionary Idol Berserker, the air is filled with not only the contents of dozens of buckets of water but also seaweed, tofu and any number of discarded props and items of costume. Half-way into the show, the floor is inches deep in water and cheap shop ephemera: glow sticks, tickertape, confetti, toy swords and helmets, placards, wigs and plastic bags.

Miss Revolutionary Idol Berserker is a spectacle of self-eviscerating excess, the detritus its necessary corollary—the flipside of an increasingly attention deficient and evermore disposable popular culture writ large. Directed and choreographed by Toco Nikaido—who sits on a ladder at the back of the auditorium throughout the show, taking, we’re told during a long preamble, “thousands of notes”—the show flaunts a bewildering array of influences, from Japanese game shows and otaku (geek) culture to manga, idol TV, alternative theatre aesthetics and even, if I’m not mistaken, Shinto ritualism. Its costume design is equally eclectic, drawing on cosplay and flamboyant Japanese subcultural fashions like Lolita and kawaii. In its kitschiness and high energy, soundtracked by booming J-pop and techno, it plays like a relentlessly peppy high school eisteddfod, one song and dance routine following another at breakneck speed. Wall-to-wall projections flit like test patterns from one lurid mélange of colour to another as the performers strut and leer in engaging but never intimidating proximity to the audience. We’re handed props and signs to hold throughout the show and invited at its finale to exchange places with the performers, our gaze inverted as we, now the idols ourselves, are swallowed up by reality TV’s irresistible contract. But, of course, it’s only for a Warholian moment, the performers already ushering us out, the floor awash with tomorrow’s landfill. “Who,” asked Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death, “is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?” Who indeed?

2015 OzAsia Festival: Teater Garasi, The Streets, director Yudi Ahmad Tajudin, Space Theatre, 24-26 Sept; Superposition, concept, direction, music Ryoji Ikeda, Dunstan Playhouse, 29-30 Sept; Dancenorth/Batik, Spectra, concept Kyle Page, direction Kyle Page, Amber Haines, Space Theatre, 29 Sept-1 Oct; Miss Revolutionary Idol Berserker, direction and choreography Toco Nikaido, Dunstan Playhouse Rehearsal Room, Adelaide Festival Centre, 30 Sept-3 Oct.

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 4-5

© Ben Brooker; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

9 December 2015