Insatiable: ghosts & humans

Ruby Rowat & Anne-Maree Ellis: Unappeased

from Unappeased, Penang showing

from Unappeased, Penang showing

from Unappeased, Penang showing

An imposing shed-like structure cleaves down its middle into two cyclonic market stalls that spin on tiny roller-wheels. These steel-framed marquees skim through space, teasing and nearly engulfing us. The crackle of their gaudy plastic tarps evokes explosive elemental forces, transporting us to a netherworld. As these wind-devils come to rest in their respective corners, there is a brief lull before the ensuing storm of images to come.

This sense of chaotic, cracking-open expansiveness belied the small space of the studio-shed we had entered. We were seated close to red cloth-covered altars at either end of the room; one functioning as the sound artist’s table, the other laid with electric tea-lights and percussive bowls. This proximity, along with the authentic marquee, evoked the sense of being in the street. A rack of hefty martial arts robes hung on the back wall. Alan Schacher welcomed us briefly, and the work-in-progress showing began with a clap of hands.

WeiZen Ho and Aida Redza donned heavy white kimono robes and dropped into a low aikido-like stance, turning into curious, comic insects. Using small brass bells to cover their eyes, the wobbly red handles serving as quivering antennae, they peered inquisitively at us. Composer Robbie Avenaim launched into an accompanying loud percussive soundscape of temple bells and found saucepans.

The next instant we were in darkness with only handheld circular cellular projections for lighting, projecting obscure images onto headless, handless white robes animated by the wandering artists. Ethereal two-headed, multi-limbed creatures seemed to emerge and disappear. Projections of tree fronds, thick beds of blood-red sea kelp and rows of scientifically identified dead birds informed and contrasted the manipulation of robes and props by the artists, enhancing Unappeased’s clear sense of the spiritual, mythical and physical.

As with Mike Leggett’s projections, the soundscape delved deeply into the mythical recesses of nature. A small automated baton tapped away, like the wind playing with a loose twig or an open door. High-pitched bells and a droning rumble built in intensity as animated robes seemed to chase their hosts. As silence descended, the performers shed their skins, leaving the robes to stand alone in sculpted clumps.

The sense of Buddhist ritual, Asian street life, ghostly spirit imagery, mythological underworld antics and wild elemental forces conveyed in the showing were fleshed out in a fascinating video-showing and a Q&A with the artists.

In 2013, Blue Mountains-based collaborators WieZen Ho and Alan Schacher performed at the Melaka Arts and Performance Festival in Malaysia, a three-day contemporary arts festival initiated by Melbourne-based dancer Tony Yap in 2009. They brought with them scored improvisations which they performed in the evenings in evocative outdoor locations such as the stone ruins of Dutch colonial buildings. In the daytime, they scouted locations and improvised in a range of public spaces.

from Unappeased, Penang showing

from Unappeased, Penang showing

from Unappeased, Penang showing

In Penang, on the same cultural exchange visit, Schacher and Ho attended the Hungry Ghost Festival, in which marquees pop up en masse to accommodate some 350 events over the month-long festival. The marquees contained a temple space on one side and space for performances of Chinese opera and pop music on the other. According to Chinese Buddhist and Taoist beliefs, the gates of Hell are thrown open and for one month the unappeased spirits of the departed wander among the community. The festival’s raison d’être is appeasement of these hungry ghosts.

The pair encountered trance mediums who enacted rituals to appease the spirits. They witnessed animistic rituals such as the drinking of blood from the necks of freshly beheaded chickens. They met genuine shamans who performed to small crowds that would assemble as ceremonies took place. It was here that the pair witnessed what felt like the ‘spirit dropping in.’

Interested in cross-cultural performance dialogues and in examining their own cultural origins (Ho’s Chinese and Schacher’s Jewish roots), a number of questions emerged which they are exploring in Unappeased, the central question to do with what it means to be unappeased in this lifetime. They are interested in the Hungry Ghost story not only as a representation of Taoist spiritual beliefs, but of the age-old human condition of insatiability that drives present day consumer culture.

Ho and Schacher are especially interested in the blurred boundaries between performance, ritual and healing arts, which are not discrete in Asia as they are in contemporary Western societies. Their Malaysian collaborator Redza brings her knowledge of pre-Islamic rituals (like the Malay horse trance dance) suppressed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, but which survive and thrive in Penang. The artists’ dialogues with Chinese-Malay Taoists have been positive and fruitful for translating ritual material into contemporary performance. Even so, Ho reveals her cautious, respectful awe of these cultural practices when she wonders about the deeper powers of the material they are dealing with.

Certainly the pair are curious about what it is that ‘makes the spirit drop,’ and they question how that feeling can be achieved within the context and pretense of contemporary performance. Schacher is clear that they are not interested in going into trance. Ho stays open to the idea, noting that while it’s not something one can control, all performers tap into that possibility.

In more mundane terms, Ho says the idea of trance phases allows a consideration of how others in our cultural landscape can ‘take us over,’ and of how we are transformed by such interactions. Similarly, the pair see animistic practices as opening up ways of looking at how ‘the other’ is taken into oneself and what is ‘alive’ within oneself.

Each element of Unappeased—movement, lighting, sound, set, architecture, props and costume—interacts with the others to make the intangible tangible yet slips the seemingly known physical world into uncertainty. As Schacher and Ho bring their individual beliefs, cultural heritage and creative practice to bear on a work dealing with specific beliefs and practices, suspension of disbelief becomes a crucial element.

Theatre, like any ritual, relies on our willingness to make-believe, to dive in. What audiences might glean from experiencing their work is ultimately not the concern of these artists. As Schacher notes, their role is to create the conditions that will allow the audience to enter the work. At this stage of development, Unappeased certainly looks set to deliver an engaging and immersive meditation on the continuum and polarity between spiritual and material realms.

Gravity Research Institute, Unappeased, devisors, performers, collaborators WeiZen Ho, Alan Schacher, dancer, choreographer Aida Redza, percussionist, composer Robbie Avenaim, media artist Mike Leggett; Performance 4a, Albury City Council, HotHouse Theatre Month in the Country residence, Splitters Creek, Albury, NSW, 10 July

RealTime issue #128 Aug-Sept 2015 pg. 30

© Ruby Rowat & Anne-Maree Ellis; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

15 August 2015