Saturday, April 17, 2010

Playing Savage

Playing Savage A Dance / Solo Protest by Cat Ruka Friday 29th may Kenneth Myers Centre

At the outset let me make this clear; my role as mentor / advisor to Cat in the making of this work means that this is not so much a review as a personal endorsement. Written as a review. 'Playing Savage' was a solo work that I consider to be significant by dint of its astute conceptual clarity, and its wholesale trashing of cliche and catharsis. It was a powerful politically charged piece of performance art that transcended its makers artistic ego. Instead it succinctly foregrounded the performed image. Those images ultimately called the broader culture out on its own complacency. Yes that's Not the government, not the corporations, but us. Ruka touched on a fleshy hypersensitive collective unconscious that is lil ol New Zealand. And I felt it flinch. From Ruka's program notes - "Playing Savage is a performative ritual that attempts to re-organize, hyper - extend, and subvert some of the ideas, symbols and images that wahine Maori (Maori women) are perceived in relation to. " Gwynne's opening image was of a sexually aggressive seated figurine. Her face made up like a cartoonesque skull, torso naked save for a fake gold neck chain with a chunky dangling gold dollar sign, and a piupiu (traditional skirt). This was a brash and dense image to greet the already intensified crush of a predominantly white audience. It both set the tone for the work and set the barre for an extraordinary hybridisation of thefictitious and the realistic within each of the characters that emerged throughout the performance. This character made her way off the chair and moved on her knees emphasising femininity and precision within a spectrum of 'beautiful dance' postures. Intelligently though in placing herself low to the ground whilst making direct eye contact with her audience Ruka distorted status, simultaneously undermining herself and confronting the gathered crowd. This continual undermining/confrontation became a signature cycle making the uncomfortable images weirdly palatable. As her character began to eat her own hand in a self cannibalizing gesture to the hyper sexualisation of pop culture Ruka made her graphic vulnerability opaque. Taking the performance into a kind of 'solo as heroines journey' territory Ruka made physical pathways through the performative space via stations. Each station had its own objects. Each object with its subsequent discovery along the pathway carried its own dense narrative and triggered a transformation of Ruka's character. Although predictable as a device this was easily forgivable given the power and heft of her character images, and the content of the work itself. Images such as the washing off of her mask / make up with a sodden Tino Rangatiratanga flag, Or the self sellotaping of a plastic Maori girl doll to Ruka's mid riff which provoked odious connotations. For me though the most pleasurably jarring image was that of an intimidating leather jacketed (and patched) cigarette smoking solo mother wielding an over sized poi. It was in this character that Ruka made her naturally powerful presence shine through and spark up the warning lights on the dashboard. The music of Currer Bells (Angeline Churnside, Tim Coster) defragmented thus completed the design of this section. As this character swung her poi in a perpetual warning, the aggressive tone of the gesture was ultimately made futile by its repetition. An empty gesture brokering no mutual agreement as to its meaning, and garnering no sympathy it just died. Ruka's final image was defused by a slow lighting fade out during which a highly processed version of the John Key victory speech was played. Directly evocative of that moment in the last election when it seemed New Zealand had signed its own political suicide note. Jill Singer wrote in Sydney's Herald Sun "New Zealanders had voted for change...a leap from right to left - with all the enthusiasm and reasoning power of a doped slug." And our resolve was dissolved. Fade to black. Although this all may sound like essay on wholesale hopelessness I came away from the performance with a quiet optimism. This was borne out of the experience that I had just been witness to someone saying something important with depth, humour, skill, and from a deeply informed position.