Next Wave Festival: The violence of internalised oppression

Miriam Kelly: Passing

Passing, Next Wave 2016

Passing, Next Wave 2016

Passing, Next Wave 2016

The opening twangs of Beyoncé’s “Formation” resound through the theatre at the close of Amrita Hepi and Jahra Wasasala’s performance of Passing. This is no mixing desk accident. The recent release by this pop star—a self-possessed woman whose public persona embodies both sensuality and aggression—canvases the problems inherent in enduring Western constructs of cultural value and authenticity, and offers a loud call to arms to women of colour, to embrace and act on the power of their various heritages. Big claims for a catchy tune that features several lines of “I slay (hey);” but it felt like a simultaneously playful and knowing gesture from Hepi and Wasasala with which to send off the audience.

Hold up. How did we get to heady “Western constructs of cultural value and authenticity” so quickly? Let’s backtrack a moment to reflect on the picture that Hepi and Wasasala painted for the audience over the course of an hour, before that Beyoncé moment. The two women begin the work with an homage to centuries of voyeurism in the representation of women in a quiet moment of private reverie, and certainly not returning the gaze.

Stationed in the far corners at the back of the stage and silhouetted, the commanding forms of Hepi and Wasasala—dressed minimally in low-backed leotards and shorts—enact a stylised sequence of hair-washing over large steel buckets. They are accompanied by Lavern Lee’s soothing, watery sounds and a growing organic pattern projected on a screen behind (the only moment in which this screen-based element added aesthetic value to the performance on the night viewed, perhaps due to a technical error). This first image by Hepi and Wasasala firmly establishes us in the position of viewer.

The sensuality of this serene image quickly descends into violence. The women, bent over the buckets, push their heads below the water as though by an unseen force. They retreat, spluttering and gasping for air, only to return to the action seconds later. This sequence gains terrifying momentum as they force the buckets around the room, heads submerged. Are they drinking, drunk, possessed? The dramatic end to this anxiety-ridden passage occurs with their abrupt collision in the middle of the space. Here, they engage in a gentle, and rather witty exchange while hovering, with relative ease, in powerful squats. What ensues is a discovery of self and ‘other,’ of recognition of the self in the other, and of establishing difference. They pass between them gestures and sounds, a physical and verbal process of mimicry and repetition to find a common language.

A strong rhythm of exchange is established, but also of sensuality and violence: compelling sequences of aggression and affection. A moment in which Wasasala’s palm is pressed firmly against Hepi’s face, while Hepi grips Wasalsala’s throat, dissolves into a tight embrace, before the two recoil. The contrasts and emotions suggested by such actions are particularly moving when witnessed within one body, as in an extended sequence where Wasasala is tossed around the stage, simultaneously self-propelled and resisting her own motion.

A costuming device (designer Honey Long) introduced towards the middle of the work heightens the push and pull between the performers. It is a silky (and not inconsequentially) Caucasian skin-toned shirt with long open arms, part-straitjacket, part-designer wear—both associated with control. The extended arms, first only worn by Hepi, are used to evoke a battleground between the two. Seated, or at times crawling and low, Wasasala attempts to consume the lengths of fabric, while Hepi writhes to loosen them, at the same time seeming to be almost attempting to train or tame the other. Eventually Hepi wrestles free and neatly winds the arms around her body in a swift movement of elegant constraint, before doing the same to Wasasala. The latter had uttered the words, “I am both the colonised and the coloniser” earlier on; is this what we are seeing here? Are they mastering the oppressor’s language as a way of fighting back? This work boldly attempts to unpack the contemporary legacy of imperialist conceptions of the exotic.

The program guide tells us that Sydney-based Hepi is a woman of Bunjalung and Ngapuhi heritage (locating her ancestors in northern New South Wales and New Zealand), and New Zealand-born Wasasala is described as “having roots in many places around the world, but her Pacific heritage comes from the islands of Fiji” (Next Wave, artist biography). It’s not usual for a critic to mention the cultural origins of performers at this point in a review, rather than foregrounding them at the start. Such reference is in itself both necessary and problematic. What is to be included? What is left out? What does it do to geographically and culturally locate an individual? What struggles does this set up around perception, stereotype, authenticity and understanding?

These questions are really at the core of Passing. Indeed, there is a bold verbal sequence in which racial percentages are thrown around as value statements about connections to culture, to authenticity and skin colour. Amrita Hepi calls it at a moment in the middle of the performance. Jerkily moving as if to cleanse herself, to rid herself of a misconception about appearances, she halts in a moment of clarity and self-possession to cry out against the rigidity of categorisation: “That certificate of authenticity, I burnt it.”

Next Wave Festival: Passing, choreographer-performers Amrita Hepi, Jahra Wasasala, music producer Lavern Lee, costumes Honey Long, headpiece and flora design Jesse Carey, lighting Sophie Penkethman-Young; Northcote Town Hall, Melbourne, 12-18 May

Sydney-based Miriam Kelly is currently the curator and collection coordinator at Artbank, sub-editor of the visual arts and culture publication Sturgeon and Chair of the online magazine Runway Experimental Australian Art. Kelly has curated exhibitions independently, for Artbank and for the National Gallery of Australia in her former role as assistant curator of Australian paintings and sculpture and published on a range of contemporary and historical areas of Australian art.

This review was written in the DanceWrite dance reviewing workshop. Read more reviews here.

DanceWrite was conducted by RealTime editors Virginia Baxter and Keith Gallasch with mentors Andrew Fuhrmann and Jana Perkovic. The workshop was an initiative of Hannah Matthews as part of her Australia Council-funded Sharing Space program and was presented in collaboration with Next Wave and RealTime.

RealTime issue #132 April-May 2016

© Miriam Kelly; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

25 May 2016