Sunday, June 7, 2009

Cultural Contemplation, Compassion and Celebration of The Savage

Playing Savage

A Dance Solo/Protest
By Cat Ruka
May 29, 2009
Kenneth Myers Centre

Reviewed by Sarah Gavina Campus

As light illuminates this half-naked female body, she appears stark, brazen, opulent and ready with an animalistic psychology that forces us erect in our chairs. Hello savage. The brown woman, slung low body over chair, treacle poured over the object. Honey, with that kind of body pour we know we are in for a wild ride. She sets the stage straight – makes it clear she is here to formally and forcibly introduce us to a stream of performance characters that stretch historically through time and space of culturally oppressed peoples and into the delicacy and fierceness of Cats relationship to iconic and stereotypical (mis) representations of ethnicity, ethnocentricity and enlightenment.
The gathered, excited crowd was a mix of friends, family, artistic cultural consumers, musicians, academics and other motley virulent supporters – young, medium and old age. Yay. In other words, a healthy cross-section of the population into performance art as political protest, as revolutionary and timely personal expression. The ‘performance art’ medium, filled with elemental practices in contemporary dance, Maori performing arts, body as symbolic device to represent the ‘voice of the people’ and use of various implements and objects, both traditional and ‘modern’, wielded powerful and startling imagery for the punters that witnessed this cyclic modern day ritual.
As Cat’s languid, strong frame began to scribe space, she oozed female sexual gallantry in a Josephine Bakeresque, burlesque, lioness and hootchy mama kind of a way, embodied with physical and delicate finesse. Cat moved from ‘post’, ‘station’ or ‘state’ with a quiet dignity and respect for not only her indigenous culture, but for the psyches, hearts and minds of all women, and of all subjugated and misrepresented peoples.
She followed the forms of culturally recognisable stereotypical characters – noble, fallen ‘other’, exotic lover, temptress, seductress, faithful cultural ambassador, revolutionary, protestor, indignant ‘bad mother’, ageing kuia, obstinate challenger. Each was associated, derived from, or transformed by her tenderly embracing the internal essence of various plays on the ‘savage’. Shifting her intention between each station, the artist morphed through a series of ritual transformations, not necessarily related to the previous image, but grounded in a deep and thorough creative act of Maori tikanga and ritual passage of Maori women and people of colour. My feeling is her spectators ached for her to linger longer with each character purely because we were so fascinated with her relationship and depth of commitment to each transformation of ‘woman’.
Guys, I don’t know how you felt about her speaking of female experience, but we ladies were comforted, consoled, challenged, caught and quite frankly, a little turned on by the creatures laid before us. Definitely stirred and shaken to the depth of our own bodies – who without words, shared an identification and empathy with the artists arguments for the perils and pearls of the black, brown, red, yellow and white body to be heard. Those of us exposed to the distressing state of cultural dislocation and ensuing experiences of ‘oddness’ could breathe quiet moments of contemplation, relief, appreciation and thanks for her brazen openness with the specificities of this condition – expressed through the makeup of each image and in the pores of her skin, breath and blood. This fortunate space of living within such cultural margins - feeling both pain and the birth of possibility evoked through identification with ‘both’ and ‘other’ are a reality for many people who struggle with cultural affiliation and identification in a world still beset by often underground and unacknowledged racism, and/or misguided attempts by peoples ‘sympathetic’ to ‘the cause’, but who fail to understand the complexities of cultural dislocation and oppression through, put bluntly, a lack of lived experience.
The final image, of Maori woman in black leather jacket, proudly wielding the deftly swinging poi as tuning instrument of anger to empowerment was for me the summation of all that previous characters had brought to the stage - pure boldness, contrasted with deep sensitivity and psychic power. A perfect accompaniment to the driven words of John Key’s ‘victory’ speech. In the language of her body, carefully pulling the cotton wool of her ripped open poi/heart Cat said to me “this does not fit, I do not need this, neither do any of us, go back to where you came from and let us do our own job, our own governing, our own policing, we do not, nor have ever needed you for our people to be the continued rightful representatives of our bodies, our lands, our lives”.
Wow, that’s a big statement coming from such a small act. Gentle, but empowered – protestual, processional and ritualised art that asks us to face our own prejudices and institutional racism but does not seek to perpetuate violence and aggression through a creative act.
Performing fragments of image, (like reading the one line in a poem that really grabs you and takes your breath away), proved to be a winning formula for this young informed Maori artist, who beautifully combines her dance practice with the intelligence and tenacity of her research, academic interests and expression of her experience in Maori performing arts. I can see this work being developed into a full-length piece in the future, and look forward to the deepening of her exploration. Keep playing savage strangely.