Friday, January 14, 2011

Cat Ruka's opening to the Dudley Benson Show - By Val Smith

(Val Smith is a New Zealand/US dance artist engaging with the fields of education, performance and research, her work interfacing with a sensation-based, creative practice. Her performance background is in contemporary dance, improvisation, feminist performance art, and political street theatre, since 1991).

I saw the final show at Oratia Settlers Hall on a warm Sunday evening (December 5th 2010).

We arrive by car from the city.
I am aware we are much closer to the Waitakere Ranges.
I can smell flowers and trees in the air.
As we walk across the road to the hall I become aware of birds calls, Ruru.
It feels really alive here in a very different way from where we have just come from.
This feeling of aliveness is also filling the hall as we enter to find seats.
People are excited in a quiet, sparkly-eyed kind of a way.
Having never seen Dudley live before I don’t really know that which is happening.
The hall slowly packs, and more chairs are pulled out to accommodate everyone.

Cat’s piece opens the show and is rendered like a kinesthetically communicated karanga. She stands as a solo artist on the small raised stage, but I easily sense all the other performers are with her, just not yet seen. Lit with DIY lighting, the space is all really old school colonial styles, all tea cups and dance halls. Calling across thresholds with precise and refined signals, becomings, and embodiments, Cat skillfully crafts the focus and quality of mind/spirit in the Settlers Hall.

The piece functions to set the tone and intention for the whole event, and in her role Cat perhaps functions as our spiritual host. I really enjoy the formality of this ritual along with the way Cat manages to also undermine the formality with an inspired approach to content. Perhaps I should give an example of what I might mean by this here, in case you didn’t see this work, but hmmm, nah, maybe you can just imagine what a dissident and transgressive ritual choreography might look like…

Body is dressed in a long simple off-white costume with a long black thick rope wound loosely around her neck, it is slowly cast off or birthed through, with slow weaving hands and arms, then, it just lay there evocatively draped across and around her feet. At some point, I cant quite remember when, Cat seats herself on this chair, knees spread wide in a strong position claiming spaces of all kinds, including sexual spaces, and its like, here I am, whatcha gonna do, but softer and more intricate than that. I drop into the liminal flow of images, engagements with audience, and all of the ancestral, modernity, and contemporary referencing.

There is a part where a stream of quick edits of breathing movements morph in quite a trippy way. I am struck by how easily Cat moves between embodiments of the feminine and masculine. In split second shifts she becomes a god, a warrior, then perhaps an ancestor, and long gone early modernist choreographers. All and more inhabit the choreography - ghosting characterisation. I really super love this part. She is pushing around binaries - I see the spiritual and physical, tapu and noa, and feminine and masculine realms being cleverly played.

Not only a maori invocation/ritual, this work also plays out as a protest piece. Owning ‘self’ as maori and a performance artist Cat opens up (and closes) emotional realms and fields of qualities through ways of being, through carrying her history and allowing us to see all of it. She somehow invokes and includes past, present, and future social and political paradigms, challenging all of our colonialist fuckups, and provoking ‘us’ (the implied us-ness of an audience, as visitors on the implied marae) to stand up and own our ‘selves’ as well. This is mostly all implied, so I’m not sure how to explain this with concrete descriptions.

There is a definite flavour of subversion to this work, (as there is in all of Cat’s artistic work to date), but in this case she is pointing partly at a lineage of modern dance and the interest in primitivism at the time, making movement references to that dance history through the lens of colonisation of the exotic body. Her statements are intriguing through their complexity and ambiguity. Notions of the spiritual are at once revered and questioned. It’s really intelligent, but also emotional. It’s like I’m not exactly sure what is happening but there is a sense of the mystique of ritual and quite rightly so I’m drawn into the magic of it and the artistry of how she is revealing the realm of spirituality and politics combined.

Cat has a strong sense of mana as a performer that is very moving. Through this particular performance she is making bold statements about gendering possibilities through incarnations of maori masculine and feminine symbols and movements which she unapologetically owns. There is a feeling of pushing boundaries around what is ‘ok’ to portray here, but she is totally confident in her decisions, so I feel like she is creating new ideological grounds that others can walk upon too. What she challenges she changes. I experience an empathic exchange of hope and courage whereby she is envisaging a future more tolerant of living diversity.

I bring diversity into the discussion deliberately here, because this performance is making statements about what it means to be maori, a woman, a dancer, and a performance artist. But beyond this Cat is also creating ideological space for the performance of Dudley and The Dawn Chorus and all of the implied statements of that segue into our experience as audience - that of witnessing living sexuality, sexual identity, queering, and genderqueering.

Cat’s performance opens a door for understanding and appreciating the significance of Dudley Benson as a living history of contemporary performance practice and self conceptualization. For me, Dudley embodies a lineage of fighting for the freedom to express a queered self acceptance in art. Whilst how he is in himself signals for me a time where we can more comfortably and visibly be who we are in performance and art, there is still a reminder of a history of violence against LGBTQ communities. The witnessing of Dudley and The Dawn Chorus doing their thing sheds light on meanings evoked by Cat’s work. There is a revealing of the subtleties of what she is communicating to us through contextualisation of what comes after her. I realize more of her gendering intentions after I ‘get’ the extent of what Dudley and his art practice represents.

This set is a collection of Dudley’s interpretations of waiata by the New Zealand composer Hirini Melbourne. They are folksongs that celebrate Aotearoa’s birdlife from Dudley’s new album Forest: Songs by Hirini Melbourne as well as songs from his debut album The Awakening. Dudley and The Dawn Chorus are sweet and concentrated, carrying us into a kind of quasi-religious state. We are reflective and transfixed by their delicate and articulate voice and song. I think Dudley might come from a church choir background, but whether he does or not, I am taken into a heightened space that sparks feelings that I associate with churchly experiences. Why is this worth a mention? Because Dudley is mixing queering with God, and that for me is such a very valuable actioning in these present times.

I know now the meaning of the sparkly eyed thing I saw in people as we entered the space tonight, Dudley is well loved. Its so interesting to me how I feel affirmed in my own queering identity by just witnessing Dudley’s presence in performance…but the strength of talent of his artistry along with the talents of Hopey One (beatbox) and the rest of The Dawn Chorus members is just so damn beautiful, I end up crying quietly throughout their set. Tears for injustices, tears of shame and pain, tears for loves, and loves lost and left. What I carry away from Cat’s performance and this event as a whole is a renewed hope and gratitude for the living and loving of queer and genderqueer artists working away all over the place dreaming and enacting new futures and worlds.