noise in contemporary asian dance

pawit mahasarinand: darkness poomba and contact gonzo

Darkness Poomba

Darkness Poomba

Darkness Poomba

AN EERIE, LOUD NOISE WAS HEARD DURING THE INTERMISSION FOR THE OPENING DAY’S MAIN PERFORMANCES AT THE 10TH INDONESIAN DANCE FESTIVAL (IDF). PERHAPS IT NOT ONLY SIGNALED THE AUDIENCE TO RETURN TO THEIR SEATS, BUT ALSO HINTED THAT KIM JAE DUK PROJECT’S DARKNESS POOMBA FROM KOREA WOULD LOOK AND SOUND VERY DIFFERENT FROM THE INDONESIAN CONTEMPORARY DANCE WORKS IN THE FIRST PART OF THE EVENING.

As the house lights dimmed and the curtains parted, we saw an electric guitar and bass on either side of the front of the stage, and upstage centre a drum set—to the delight of many dance audiences who prefer live to canned music. No musicians though. As two dancers moved downstage centre, we became aware of a singer behind a microphone in the house right aisle. The lyrics were in Korean, we thought, and that’s when some of us couldn’t help ignoring them, despite the singer’s vivacious hand gestures. And so music might suddenly become noise. Later on, the musicians took their places and, for a brief moment, the dancers stopped moving, giving the focus to the music.

Most of the time, though, the performance was multi-focus, attempting as it did to involve the audience—one dancer came down from the stage and up the house right aisle to sing and play instruments, while another two used the left aisle as their main stage. We were encouraged by the performers to clap along, and many of us did, and that’s perhaps when we felt we might have forgotten some dance-going etiquette. Then again, such restraint was established by Western classical ballet companies, and this is Korean contemporary dance.

Darkness Poomba is an example of how a unique intra-cultural experiment has led to engaging contemporary performance. This is thanks, in major part, to the fact that the choreographer and composer Kim Jae Duk has found, and emphasized, links between contemporary dance and an ancient singing tradition, Poomba—in which rhythm plays a stronger role than lyrics which, as a Korean tourism website explains, don’t mean anything. Although the performance was explained in the festival’s printed program as “composed of 70% of dance and 30% of music”, the union of the two was such that it became “100% of contemporary performance” which reminded us of the relationship between dance and music, and how artists have been trained concurrently in many disciplines thoughout the history of many performing arts traditions.

It’s perhaps also another reminder that although many Asian contemporary choreographers look to European and American counterparts, sometimes they can just look back to, and ‘re-search,’ their past. It may also be confirmation that although ‘modern’ equates with Western in many Asian countries, ‘contemporary’ is totally different.

Presented at an international festival, Darkness Poomba may also trigger our curiosity about the Poomba tradition. As the tourism website suggests, we can visit the National Pumba Festival every year in the town of Eumseong, to see and hear how the actual traditional street performance with funny make-up and costumes, or Lightness Poomba if you will, lifted up Korean spirits in poverty-stricken times.

Contact Gonzo and Sayaka Himeno, public space

Contact Gonzo and Sayaka Himeno, public space

Contact Gonzo and Sayaka Himeno, public space

A few hours earlier, it was a young Japanese group contact Gonzo’s street dance performance that served as the soft opening—and a fitting one indeed—for the four-day festival. As about 100 people gathered around Plaza TIM, at the entrance to the host institution, noise from a bustling Jakarta street provided ambience that thematically fit the highly physical performance that was reminiscent of the street fights that takes place daily in many cities around the world. This was complemented by exuberant drumming, on a drum kit, by a female musician who, interestingly, rarely glanced at the four male dancers chasing and attacking—without actually hurting—one another. And occasionally we heard water bottles dropped and rolled around the cement floor. And unlike in Poomba, this soundscape didn’t set the rhythm of the dance, but rather added to the street ambience and the meaning of the piece.

Of course, many of us are still delighted to see contemporary dance works set to European classical music played to a live audience on CD, but, as a connotation of the term ‘contemporary’ suggests, there are also many other possibilities. After all, unlike theatre which is usually associated with, and powered by, spoken word that limits overseas exposure, contemporary dance speaks with body movements and music, or, as in these two cases, noise.

12 July 2010