Dreaming and becoming

Jonathan Marshall

Akram Khan, Ma

Akram Khan, Ma

co.loaded: Aqueous

The 2005 Perth Festival premiered the newly reformed dance group co.loaded, led by Margrete Helgeby and Stefan Karlsson. Though established for mature artists along the lines of the Nederlands Dans Theater III, the choreography in Aqueous was sharply classical in its nuances, with no visible accommodation for less virtuosic bodies. Indeed, much of the appeal of the series of pieces comprising Aqueous was the way they collectively showcased the exceptional technique of Karlsson and particularly Helgeby whose clean turns and poses were flavoured with subtle hints of emotional expression.

This somewhat odd collection included Mar, an exaggerated, ballroom dancing style duet from choreographer Jon Burtt in which Karlsson’s hands powerfully manipulated the compliant body of his female partner. Like witnessing a reincarnation of Gene Kelly performing the sexy but nevertheless sexist aesthetics of a Parisian Apache tango, this seemed a bizarre inclusion–though sequins and feminine submission never go out of fashion in ballroom dancing. Natalie Weir’s contemporary ballet Every Moment was less jarring, the restrained ebb and flow of black clad groups of 5, 3, 2 and 1 constructing pleasingly abstract geometric sequences, far removed from Weir’s somewhat melodramatic earlier works.

The most choreographically distinctive work was Paea Leach’s Wan. Being new to Western Australia, I was struck by the way Wan’s visual design and music recalled the pop-influenced staging of other Australian choreographers such as Obarzanek, Stewart and Guerin. However, despite the similarities of a dark, ambiguous tone, an initial glitchie electronica score from Sydney’s Pretty Boy Crossover, and an almost brutal, minimalist visual design of blocks of white light and clearly delimited spaces, Leach’s physical language was distinctive. The resemblance was dramaturgical rather than choreographic. For me, Wan produced an intriguing sense of familiarity and scission.

The haunted air of the space was established by dramaturgical dichotomies. Glitch music depends for its affect on punctums and caesura, on clicks and errors that cut up and contaminate silence. The stage was similarly dissected by light and movement: a wide, open floor deliberately circumscribed by the few squares and shafts of light which the dancers were permitted to enter. This was further enhanced and made concrete by a small raised platform upon which much of the tangled duet was enacted. Leach’s dancers were not constrained by the twisted forms or harsh muscular contractions which characterise the choreography of Obarzanek, Stewart and Guerin. These were nevertheless cramped and cribbed bodies, curling in upon themselves, or reaching up and out only to deflate and hold their position. The limp, half collapsed body was a particularly marked image, its ambivalent energies encapsulating both defeat and striving, summing up the dense minutiae of physical gesture which Leach explored in movement and breath.

Tura Events: Rothko Chapel

US composer Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel provided the musical highlight of the festival. Performed in the foyer adjacent to the Seeking Transcendence exhibition, it was eminently satisfying to see Marc Rothko’s paintings and other pieces immediately after the concert, enhancing the critical and contemplative edge of the event. Nestled about and upon the gallery’s stark, coiling spiral staircase, with fierce, dramatic light pushing up from floor level, the awesomely restrained sound masses produced by the Giovanni Consort Choir and the local Q8 Ensemble were in keeping with the utopian aesthetics of late modernist post-World War II art. The principal of cutting away extrinsic ornamentation to reveal only the underlying, essential, universal structures of sound, light, architecture and visual form united these installed works. The subsequent loss of confidence in neo-Supremacist visions of unifying all peoples, faiths and experiences through the discovery of an irreducible human aesthetic also gave the event a wistful tone. Artists are more likely now to respect and celebrate the particular, a point reinforced by Gaurav Mazumdar’s wonderful sitar recital following the Feldman piece. Though both performances evoked a contemplative response, the extruded, floating psychokinetic affect produced by Rothko Chapel had little in common with the increasingly fast and playful beat patterns or excited absorption in the music elicited by the sitar and tabla improvisation.

Feldman attempted to reflect Rothko’s use of large slabs of colour with a composition characterised by slow, quietly resonating extended notes, chord clusters and gently sustained choral hums into which were integrated lonely repeated notes or instrumental sequences, as well as some solo vocal lines. These slight leading motifs gave the piece its elliptical drama and an endless sense of becoming, rarely reaching a crescendo or building to a full resolution. Rather, there were plateaus and groupings which, like Rothko’s paint, spread across the aural canvas to produce an effect neither epic nor modest. The quietness and lack of forte in the playing further enhanced the impression of a series of soft sound blocks gradually cycling across the work–the opposite of György Ligeti’s almost fervid choral layering and confluences. This requirement for restraint in the execution was masterfully achieved by conductor Iain Grandage and his performers. The closing section featured the piece’s only lengthy rhythmic melody: a simple viola line supported by a glowing vibraphone beat, said by Feldman to have “the sound of the synagogue about it.” This gave the performance a particularly beautiful, emotive conclusion.

Akram Khan: Ma

The jewel of the Perth Festival was Ma by Anglo-Bangladeshi dance artist Akram Khan. Citing his experience as a teenage performer in Peter Brook’s The Mahabharata as a critical influence, Khan has also identified himself with the current generation of Asian diaspora artists who are less concerned with publicly defining their cultural roots and distinctive identity. His use of multiple cultural forms within an ostensibly placeless dramatic space certainly recalled Brook’s ideal of a universal acting method. However, this model is destabilised by Ma’s highly ambiguous meditation on place and identity. Like Melbourne’s Not Yet It’s Difficult performance company, Khan prefers to characterise his process of cultural assimilation as “confusion” rather than fusion.

There was much within the production which suggested that Ma’s aesthetic echoed the familiar model of Indian subcontinental identity as uncomplicated, earth-bound and mythic in its qualities. The dancers performed in earth coloured costumes and much of the choreography drew upon Kathak and yogic forms which placed the body close to the ground. Deep squats and wide leg shifts at low level spun the bodies about as the hands delineated virtual curves across both the stage and the cosmos surrounding the performers. The familiar tones of Indian percussion supported and dramatised much of the early choreography as the performers introduced a particularly ground-based physical metaphor. Bodies rested on their heads, arms outstretched like branches before 2 female performers relating stories about trees. The first of these was of a barren woman who was given seeds by God. The seeds were planted and grew to trees, which God explained were this woman’s children–an image of maternal continuity fixed and sturdily embodied by forms whose roots ran deep in the soil.

Woven among these motifs were complications and discontinuities which eroded the metaphoric ground upon which much of the work was established, interrupting the cultural logic of the piece much as the second female storyteller constantly interrupted her partner. The Hindu mythological dramas of Kathak are traditionally performed to the northern Indian tabla, for example, but here the more hollow sounding southern Indian mridanga was employed, alternating with the soaring vocal lines of Moslem Pakistani Sufism and a variously textural and vocal use of European cello. Glitchie musique concrète from the Ictus Ensemble later replaced these live musicians altogether. The second narrative presented by the dancer who had interrupted her partner was that of the baobab, this tale providing a more comprehensive metaphor for the overall dramaturgy.

The baobab was cited as a tree whose stubby branches suggest it has been ripped from the earth by an angry god and placed upside down, its roots waving in the air. This was precisely the sensibility evoked by the broadly associative scenes and familiar yet displaced cultural motifs. A sense of place was conjured–one of earth and land and spirit–yet it was neither nowhere nor somewhere. It was distinctively Asian and mythic yet abstracted and dissociated, with cultural forms waving loosely like roots in the wind. Between sections of rapid-fire rhythmic foot stamping and tala (the vocalisation of Indian percussive patterns), bodies suddenly slowed, arched like bridges, leant against each other for stability, and then were carried off, supine, their cultural specificity and associations suddenly stripped or arrested, leaving them as bent, abstract, branch-like forms.

Like Pina Bausch’s dancers, Khan’s fellow performers frequently asked the audience if they could tell us a story or a dream–a desire to spill the contents of one’s head like Khan in the childhood story he told of hanging upside down from a branch in Bangladesh. Often, however, this offer was deliberately withheld, leaving one with the impression of cultural identity as an illusory yet unspoken, recurrent dream.

Perth International Arts Festival, 2005: co.loaded, Aqueous, various works, Playhouse, Perth, Feb 19-25; Tura New Music et al, Rothko Chapel, Art Gallery of WA, Perth, Feb 17; Seeking Transcendence, Art Gallery of WA, Feb 13-March 24; Akram Khan Company, Ma, choreographer/director/performer Akram Khan, His Majesty’s Thetare, Perth, Feb 16-19

RealTime issue #66 April-May 2005 pg. 43

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2005