fighting as performance

cat ruka: contact gonzo and sayaka himeno

contact Gonzo, Public Space

contact Gonzo, Public Space

contact Gonzo, Public Space

FOUR YOUNG JAPANESE MEN CASUALLY ENTER THE STAGE WHILE THE HOUSE LIGHTS ARE UP. THEY ARE WEARING T-SHIRTS AND TRACK-PANTS AND HAVE PERFORMANCE PASSES AROUND THEIR NECKS. ONE IS CARRYING A BACKPACK, OTHERS HAVE WATER BOTTLES AND THERE IS A VIDEO CAMERA ON A TRIPOD. THEY COULD WELL BE MISTAKEN FOR BACKSTAGE HELPERS PREPARING THE STAGE FOR THE NEXT ACT, BUT AS THEY EMPTY THEIR POCKETS, SET OBJECTS ON THE GROUND AND BEGIN TO WARM UP, IT BECOMES CLEAR THAT THEY ARE NOT. THEY ARE CONTACT GONZO, A JAPANESE DANCE GROUP.

For a few minutes they pace, lunging, stretching arms out every now and then, not in a dancerly fashion but as though about to run a 100m sprint. The physical and mental preparation generates suspense—the audience wondering what the heck is going on.

Eventually two of the men connect, not in the sense of contact improvisation where physical connection is utilized to explore movement, but rather as in sport or combat. They push and tussle, climbing on top of one another, every now and then dropping away to reposition, grab a drink of water or take a photo with a disposable camera. Gradually the battle escalates and without warning one strikes another in the face, the sound of palm to skin cutting through the air and triggering horrified gasps from the audience. The shock is amplified as suddenly from behind a backlit cyclorama a drummer improvises wildly. Crashing, banging, attacking, showing the drum-kit who’s boss, her huge, ominous shadow is an intriguing backdrop to the onstage male brawn.

An everyday performance paradigm coupled with the invitation to raw violence instils an immediate sense of the unconventional. Contact Gonzo take their name from the rebellious Gonzo journalism made famous by American journalist Hunter S Thompson. The exposure of what is normally hidden from an audience—the warming up, setting up, drinking—parallels the raw and un-edited subjectivity of the Gonzo style of writing, in which grit is favoured over polish. Thompson documented his own actions while immersed in journalistic projects, a reflexive technique also evident in Contact Gonzo’s use of cameras on stage.

As the performers wrestle, a cell-phone rings in the audience. A number of people nearby show their disgust with forceful shushing, but one of the performers reassures them, “No it’s okay. It’s okay.”

More violent slaps to the face are thrown from every which way, more piles of bodies rise up, tumble and loudly crash to the floor. At times the fighting looks like a casual urban realization of traditional Sumo wrestling. Contact Gonzo battle on, but to what end? A highly charged testosterone display gratuitously taking advantage of theatre space to flex a bit of muscle? There is no emotional narrative here. The performers just are. They fight.

It’s no surprise to me that this young team of performers are currently being invited to perform in festivals all over the world, despite the work appearing to be more an uncontrollable event rather than a finely-crafted performance. It is clear however that this group has a precise agenda, and their unique antics ensure that they stand out from the rest of the program.

Contact Gonzo is a highly innovative ‘dance’ company who unabashedly challenge established theatrical norms. Representative also of a contemporary consciousness in which violence and technology are mutually implicit, I’m sure their work will act as an interesting reference point in critical dance discussions for years to come.

12 July 2010