Friday, June 18, 2010

Maybe Forever by Meg Stuart and Philip Gehmacher - Reviewed by Cat Ruka

Irregular flashes of light across the stage reveal an electric guitar, speaker and mic-stand to the right. There is a sense of loss and abandonment here, instruments incomplete without their players. A half-round curve of heavy blue-grey curtains provides an unusually shaped backdrop, which as the flashing fades to darkness and the light ever so slowly grows again, is revealed to be a wry suggestion of an empty small-town cabaret lounge. The huge image of two dandelions being blown in the wind stretched wide in front of the curtains echoes the sense of romantic wishing that tends to linger in such an environment. Two figures are positioned centre-stage, sitting side by side on the carpeted floor with legs stretched out and backs to the audience. Slowly they recline in unison until lying submerged in their world, and as the man apprehensively stretches his arm out to grab the woman’s, their intimate interplay begins.

Awkward engagement and disengagement is at the core of this restless folding and unfolding duet. Man and woman dressed in every-day clothing roll and struggle across the floor, stopping every now and then for long periods, finding it difficult to make prolonged physical connection. The choreography has been given all the time and space it needs, allowing the work’s message to gradually and undetectably seep into the hearts of its audience like love-sickness. Penetrating insight into the nature of a steady declining relationship is delivered through the movement’s calculated clumsiness, which in its disregard of the balletic code provides an astonishing unpredictability.

The man and woman stirring uncomfortably in each other’s presence are Europe-based choreographers Meg Stuart and Philip Gehmacher. In 2007 the two came together in collaboration to create Maybe Forever, which has been touring the world ever since and is performed as part of the main performance program of the 10th Indonesian Dance Festival in Jakarta. Although both very different in their approach to choreography, space and design, the two arrive at a complimentary meeting place that, unlike the disintegrating relationship they demonstrate, has proven to be a winning point of departure.

Stuart and Germacher are joined by Brussels-based singer/songwriter Niko Hafkenschield, whose shiny blue lounge jacket surreptitiously reinforces the tired pub-like environment. His sweetly melancholic series of love ballards infuse the dancing with a fragile and delicate darkness. Quite indie-blues and up-to-date in its retro character, Hafkenschield’s performance contextualizes the story of love in a contemporary setting, helping to transform age-old issues into radically progressive performance. With his soft and vulnerable lilting he is a modern day angel of sadness - honest and open, almost unbearably so, in that he demands us to be honest with ourselves.

Stuart performs two text-based solos in the work spliced with abstract gestural arm movements, each solo positioned at either end of the stage. The first she performs in a skirt and heels, both rather drab and forgettable in colour, the skirt at an awkward just-below-the-knee length. She also wears a restrictive dark leather or vinyl jacket, completing a rather incoherently assembled outfit. The loud squeaking and crunching of the jacket amplified by the microphone emphasizes the ongoing feeling of unease, of everything being not quite right. Interrupted by gestures and silences that drag her away from the microphone, her text is broken and incomplete. Right down to the very last detail, this work is a tour-de-force of struggle.

Gehmacher’s solo is performed in his signature style of timid apprehension towards space. Shoulders inelegantly reaching for the ears and gawky transfers of weight as he walks from one position to the next create an uncoordinated language of movement that speaks volumes for the uncoordinated relationship he is in. It is almost as though he is embarrassed, self-conscious of the fact that there are people watching him. He pulls back the curtains and reveals part of the backstage area. Stuart enters and together they perform a phrase of ‘almost-hugging’, difficultly manoeuvring around each other, he often failing to complete the touch. The cold black concrete of the theatre’s walls are exposed and so too is a cold and dying union.

The startling final act of the work plays out like a Lynchian memorial service, spooky enough to send shivers down my spine as I sit in disbelief. In a bright yellow shirt and black jacket and trousers, Gehmacher performs a final confession to the one he has lost – he moves abstractly around centre stage and as he does so, a recorded speech is laid over the top, the text broken up and slightly nonsensical. Without warning Stuart enters from the right in an intensely garish orange sequined dress, slinky and shimmering under the lights. We are caught off guard by this over-excited outfit, which after the previous dowdy and monotonous clothing makes a raucous and unsettling statement. She takes a seat next to the musician’s speaker. He enters and stands behind her as if to claim her as his. Almost menacingly she simply sits and watches, looking ridiculously fabulous and no longer Gehmacher’s who is now out of his depth in this uncomfortable situation. And with a painstakingly slow lighting fade, the image is crystallized.

After seeing Maybe Forever I dreamt that I was having a conversation with the woman an ex-boyfriend of mine is seeing. She was crying hysterically, trying to make sense of their crumbling connection, demanding that I give her insight whilst simultaneously refusing to accept any advice I offered. For some reason this was all taking place on the sports field at my old primary school, an aptly surreal continuation of Stuart and Gehmacher’s performance which somehow managed to bleed further into my consciousness than I had hoped. Obviously this work affected me profoundly and like the memories of failed relationships will continue to stay with me, maybe forever.

Contact Gonzo by Contact Gonzo - Reviewed by Cat Ruka

Four young Japanese men casually enter onto the stage while the house lights are up. They are wearing t-shirts and track-pants and still have their performance passes on around their necks. One is carrying a backpack, others have water bottles, and there is a video camera on a tripod. They could well be mistaken as backstage helpers preparing the stage for the next act, but as they empty their pockets, place their objects on the ground and begin to warm up, it becomes clear that they are not ‘helpers’ at all.

For a few minutes the men pace around, lunging and stretching their arms out every now and then, not in a dancerly fashion but as though they are about to run a 100m sprint. They seem to be preparing themselves both physically and mentally, creating suspense and tension in their audience, who are all probably wondering what the heck is going on.

Eventually two of the men make contact, not in the sense of contact improvisation where physical connection is utilized to explore movement, but rather within a code of combat or struggle. They push and tussle, climbing on top of one another, every now and then dropping away to reposition and grab a drink of water or to take a photo on their disposable camera. Gradually the battling begins to escalate and without warning one of the men strikes another in the face, the sound of palm to skin cutting through the air and triggering surprised gasps of horror from the audience. This surprise is pushed even further as suddenly from behind a backlit cyclorama a drummer begins a wild improvisational solo. Crashing and banging and wildly attacking the drum-kit, a huge ominous shadow of this female performer showing her drum-kit who’s boss is an interesting backdrop to the male brawn on stage.

The every-day pedestrian paradigm coupled with the invitation to raw violence set up by these performers instils an immediate sense of unconventionality. Contact Gonzo take their name from the rebellious style of ‘Gonzo’ journalism made famous by American journalist Hunter S. Thompson. The exposing of what is normally hidden from an audience such as the warming up, the training clothes and the replenishing of oneself with a drink of water runs parallel to the raw and un-edited subjectivity of the Gonzo style of writing, in which grit is favoured over polish. Thompson would also document a lot of his own actions whilst he was immersed in journalistic projects, a reflexive technique also realized in Contact Gonzo’s use of video and stills cameras on stage.

As the men continue to grapple with each other, a cell-phone rings in the audience. As we know, the rules of theatre etiquette state that this is highly disrespectful and automatically garners negative reactions from audience members when it occurs. A group of people seated around the ringing cell-phone show their disgust with forceful shushing, which is then addressed by one of the performers who simply says to them, “No it’s okay. It’s okay.”

More violent slaps to the face are thrown from every which direction, more piles of bodies rise, tumble and loudly crash to the floor. A modern urban realization of traditional sumo-wrestlers at times, Contact Gonzo continue to battle away with themselves. And for what reason? Does it all just come off as highly charged testosterone gratuitously taking advantage of the theatre space to flex a bit of muscle? There is no emotional narrative here to suggest the reasons behind their fighting. They just are.

To me it is no surprise that this young team of performers are currently being invited to perform this work in festivals all over the world, which comes off more as an uncontrollable event rather than a finely-crafted performance piece. It is clear however that this group has a precise agenda, and their unique antics ensure that they stand out among the rest. Contact Gonzo is a highly innovative ‘dance’ company who unabashedly challenge the established norms of the theatre. Representative also of a contemporary consciousness in which violence and technology are implicit, I’m sure their work will act as an interesting reference point in critical dance discussions for years to come.

Darkness Poomba by Kim Jae Duk - Reviewed by Cat Ruka

Two male dancers ignite Darkness Poomba with a duet performed under severe top-light. A fast and furious exchange of angularly choreographed movement, hands mechanically grasping for each other’s faces, and bodies regimented in a forward facing stance. Creating the illusion of a robotic pair of Siamese twins, the two young men are a fashionable modern day fruition of an ancient cog-like machine. Five dancers clad in chic black clothing sharply enter from the peripheries to join the machine and expand upon the gothic energy that has been created.

A spot is brought up on a man standing with a microphone in one of the aisles. Both the ears and eyes are immediately drawn to this powerful presence and we are captivated as the space swells with his voice – he is chanting the traditional South Korean Poomba, scattering sounds of desperation and yearning. Sound manipulation gives an echoing reverberation as if to suggest that we are all inside a cold and mysterious vault of some sort, liminally suspended between hallucination and reality. The performer displays extraordinary command over his dexterous instrument, and his sensitive commitment to the dancers on stage help them to devote themselves to the dark abrasiveness of this space.

Later in the work, a dance with metallic dinner trays between the two male dancers who opened the piece brings an oddly domestic sensibility to the abstract world that has been established. The device of sound is again utilized in this instance, as dinner trays become percussive instruments as well as hats and items of clothing. The chorus of dancers behind them acts as a strata of strange shadows that morph from one contained image to the next. All ensemble dancers solidly support this duet and other highlighted moments of the work with crisp articulation of movement and un-wavering performance energy. It is as though they are there to tease out the dark underbelly of this work with a quiet ferociousness.

The darkness of this rich work is both deeply set into the bones of its body and ironically woven into its surface. Even when the whole theatre is clapping and singing in delight as they would at a concert of their favourite musician, the haunting atmosphere never lets up. In fact it is in these moments of ‘light’ that the gothic undertone is somehow heightened, demonstrating a sophisticated approach to the creation of atmosphere. Funereal organs and regular pumps on the smoke machine provide a parody that is both easing and unsettling for its viewer participants.

As one of the ensemble dancers leaves the stage to join the vocalist in the aisle, we realize that it is choreographer Kim Jae Duk, maestro and master of this frighteningly ironic series of happenings. As he takes to the microphone to join in harmony with the vocalist, two men enter the stage from the wings and pick up red electric guitars at either ends of the stage. Before we know it the traditional lilt of the Poomba has become the waling power vocal of the rock concert, the guitars providing the metallic grit for this transition. All of a sudden we are waving and clapping our hands high in the air, having been transformed from formal theatre spectators to rock-stadium crowd.

In a return to the opening duet, the two dancers from the opening segment perform a gradually accelerating version of the robotic Siamese twin dance as they walk in procession down the aisle toward the stage. As it speeds up, this phrase cleverly functions as the peak of the work, causing a kind of ‘Mexican wave’ effect on the crowd, whose vocal eruption is evidence of the direct affect this work has had upon them. After the excitement has subsided, a gentle and virtuosic harmonica solo performed by choreographer Kim Jae Duk is a clever return to the opening eeriness. And as the creator lays his final delicate mark, the piece closes.

Not one sense is privileged over the other in this haunting re-contextualization of the traditional South Korean melody of Poomba. A truly interdisciplinary and multi-layered work, audience members are taken on a strange and unexpected voyage through the realms of contemporary dance, traditional song, stadium rock, and festival reggae music. Although such a journey may sound schizophrenic and disjunctive in nature, this collage of contexts and performance genres is executed seamlessly. Darkness Poomba is a work that manages to constantly transform our environment before we have even noticed, each world almost functioning as a sinister critique of the one that has come before.