borderline control

giang dang: contact gonzo

contact Gonzo, Public Space

contact Gonzo, Public Space

contact Gonzo, Public Space

THE STREET FIGHT BUILDS SLOWLY. TWO YOUNG MEN IN STREET CLOTHES SLOWLY GROW AGITATED, PUSHING EACH OTHER, MOVING IN CIRCLES, EACH AGGRESSIVELY EYEING THEIR FIGHT PARTNER, BUMPING, STAYING GLUED TOGETHER FOR LONG PERIODS LIKE WRESTLERS. SOON TWO MORE MEN ENTER THE ARENA, AND WHAT STARTED LIKE A HARMLESS GAME—LIKE KIDS HANGING AROUND A TRAIN STATION, MEASURING THEIR STRENGTH OUT OF BOREDOM—HAS MOVED ONTO THE EDGE OF A REAL CONFRONTATION WHICH COULD GET OUT OF CONTROL AT ANY MOMENT.

The afternoon street performance by contact Gonzo provided a remarkable un-official opening for the 10th Indonesian Dance Festival. It caught me completely off guard. Expecting something of a hip-hop or breakdance show on the street, which might be even fused with a dose of traditional dance—the kind of thing offered later in the evening program just before the politicians delivered their opening speeches—I was hit by surprise.

The men move in and out of the fight, the physical intensity rising and ebbing with heavy breathing, water drinking, resting and watching followed and heightened by punching, slapping and wrestling. As the male fight continues, the ‘Greek’ chorus is a solo percussionist, aptly enough, a woman. Her intense drumming somehow gives the riot a dramatic element, turning it into a coherent struggle.

Contact Gonzo is a Japanase performance group that has been slowly gaining international attention. Before forming the group in 2006 and inventing the performing method of the same name, their members had been doing inspiring things like rolling down hills, catching falling leaves or jumping from the tops of telephone booths. With Gonzo meaning “bizarre, unconventional or extreme”, the performers transformed the technique of “contact improvisation”, incorporating the bumping of soccer, Sumo-inspired wrestling and a little known Russian martial-art called Systema with the ordinary kicks and punches and hits and spits from the street. Each performance is completely improvised, if with a few rules about what’s allowed and what’s not. There seemed to be some hidden communication or timing pre-arrangement with the drummer since without eye contact, she was in synch with the building up to and ending of the climaxes.

contact Gonzo, Public Space

contact Gonzo, Public Space

contact Gonzo, Public Space

Some of the most beautiful moments occur when all four performers pile up on each other like a rugby scrum, frenetically interacting, agonizing, scanning the situation and making decisions about the next move in split seconds. The acting is so realistic that it reminded me of sessions of male bonding, most recently seen in the movie The Hurt Locker: violent, macho men horseplaying until emotions get out of hand and the unexpected happens. Meanwhile, the drummer is absorbed in her playing, working madly on her set, turning out sheets of sounds, which provide almost a physical stage for the men.

Contact Gonzo blurrs a few lines. Is it a staged show or does the aggression become real as the show progresses? In the middle of the tumult, somebody at the bottom of the pile grabs a disposable camera and shoots the performance. Here the artists criss-cross the delicate line between absorption and reflection. And are the audience mere spectators? Sometimes the turbulence moves dangeroursly close to the watching crowd. At one point, one performer falls at the feet of a group of street kids, who instantly take charge, grab the plastic camera and shoot.

The speed and rawness of contact Gonzo takes one’s breath away. As the performance comes to its end and the men rise to their feet and the drummer relaxes, I feel like I’m being released from an intense concentration, the kind you normally have when anticipating the unexpected.

12 July 2010