Friday, June 18, 2010

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.

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