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A Method to the Madness (Or Be-Kind-To-Robots Week in KL)

Antares is amused and bemused by Hiroshi Koike’s extended kinetic haiku, SPRING IN KUALA LUMPUR

“Pappa TARAHUMARA productions try to liberate themselves from ‘meaning,’ leaving members of the audience free to control their own imaginations.”  (from the program notes)


Hiroshi Koike, visionary director

About 20 years ago I toyed with the idea of scripting and directing a paralingual movement theater piece to be called “Faulty Robots” – wherein our mundane activities and melodramas would reveal themselves as the mechanistic acting out of hardwired programs designed to prevent us from ever escaping the 3D frequency grid we unquestioningly accept as “reality.”

Being the lazy fellow I am, I decided to adopt as my own the Taoist maxim: “achieve everything by doing nothing.” And so, in 1982, Hiroshi Koike (a more industrious aspect of myself, I suppose) founded the Pappa TARAHUMARA experimental dance company and began laying the groundwork that would ultimately lead to “Faulty Robots” being staged as a collaboration between Five Arts Centre and Pappa TARAHUMARA. Of course, they had to change the title to something inoffensive like Spring In Kuala Lumpur.

And, because Hiroshi Koike has trod a somewhat different life-path, his version turned out a lot more poker-facedly serious and a great deal less accessible than my original concept.  Fortunately, I could recognize Hiroshi’s creation as an interesting permutation of “Faulty Robots” – so I wasn’t prompted to dismiss his effort as “profoundly boring” (as a catty old friend, himself a choreographer, was heard to remark after the show).

ImageInstead, I found Spring In Kuala Lumpur fairly provocative and impressively staged. Hiroshi is precise in his use of symbolism: arrows = masculinity, government, control; lips = feminity, permissiveness, surrender (but more on this fascinating subject later).

His obsession with precision extends to how the human figures on stage interact with one another and with their surroundings (the set by Bayu Utomo Radjikin is a cross between a railway station, a ship, and an insane asylum). Every segment of the soundtrack was selected by the director for its precise effect on the prevailing mood of each scene.


Foo May Lyn,
Drunk Woman

Even the casting reflected Hiroshi’s meticulous attention to detail. For instance, I can’t think of anyone better qualified than Foo May Lyn to play the Drunk Woman At The Railway Crossing. Seated in a wheelchair throughout the action, May Lyn’s delectable madness as a storyteller had a method to it that somehow anchored the chaotic, non-linear events in a pseudo-historical, narrative context – providing an interesting counterpoint to Anne James as the Woman Who Has Had An Accident (and who finally reincarnates as the Vamp With A Flaming Red Wig). Though she isn’t mentioned in the credits, Marion D’Cruz did an outstanding job as the Crone Who Controls The Drunk Woman’s Wheelchair.

ImageElaine Pedley was fabulous as the Woman With A Burning Desire For Love, and her every irrational behavior was animatedly executed. As Berg, the Man With Suppressed Desires, Lee Swee Keong was superbly convincing, especially when lapsing into total robotism. Likewise, Michael Xavier Voon as the Solitary Man whose enigmatic and unpredictable moves approached a high order of slapstick ballet.

Mao Arata (as Berg’s wife, Bemberg, A Woman Who Knows), Makie Sekiguchi (as an Extremely Self-Satisfied Woman), and Makoto Matsushima (as the Man Who Flees) were the Japanese components, all dedicated and talented members of Pappa TARAHUMARA. They interacted seamlessly with the Malaysian cast members, further reinforcing the transpersonal detachment required to make such an extraordinarily energetic fusion of dance and theater work.


Weijun Loh, incredible stamina

Indeed, every member of the hand-picked cast – which included Jerrica Lai, Kiea Kuan Nam, Shafirul Azmi Suhaimi, Sharip Zainal Sagkif Shek and Weijun Loh – performed with impeccable discipline, focus, precision, and incredible stamina. It was evident from their total surrender to Hiroshi’s directorial vision that the man’s ability to inspire and push to new levels of performance is nothing short of phenomenal.

ImageIn effect, Spring in Kuala Lumpur was a unique opportunity for a few of our most promising actors and dancers to work with a cutting-edge Japanese dance company whose artistic director’s quirky, haiku-ish vision has won him growing international acclaim. But, apart from being a great workout for the performers, what was it all about? Why did producer Ken Takiguchi and his hardworking team from the Japan Foundation put so much sweat, over so many months, into facilitating this logistically elaborate event?

ImageHere’s where it gets interesting. Having declared at the outset that Pappa TARAHUMARA isn’t particularly concerned about “meaning” in its dance-theater projects, does this imply that “meaninglessness” is an essential part of its repertoire?  And why should audiences fork out good money to watch something “meaningless” –  in any case, so defiantly, arty-fartily obscure?

Hiroshi Koike revealed in a promotional interview that Spring In Kuala Lumpur was his artistic response to the world since September 11, 2001. This makes sense in view of his use of symbols, disjointed text and free association (arrow, sparrow, marriage, condom, and so on). Arrows imply direction, humans are conditioned to follow arrows, even if they ultimately lead nowhere. The male symbol is also the symbol for Mars and features a circle with an erect arrow. Mars is the invasive-divisive principle, the patron god of war, surgery, and agriculture. Uncannily meaningful, especially at a time when the red planet is at its closest proximity to the Earth – and warmongers threaten perpetual bloodshed.

Women’s lips are erotic, suggestive of vulvas, sensual delights, romantic passion. To be pursued by kisses or to pursue phantasmal arrows is pretty much part of the basic human bi-polarity. Railway stations are a sort of purgatory, an existential limbo where souls await the means to travel onward to their final destinies – or, at least, to some other destination.


Lee Swee Keong in rehearsal for Hiroshi Koike’s
Mahabharata project in Cambodia, May 2013

The cold clinicality of the set, combined with the precisely choreographed erratic behavior of the characters, also conjured the other-worldly ambience of a lunatic asylum. The Drunk Woman At The Railway Crossing turns out to be the Gatekeeper. She alone has the power to open and close the gate, thereby controlling the movements of the other entities on stage. When the railway gate is open it looks like a ship’s mast for Berg to shinny up and mouth some disjointed text. (Is this really a ship of fools like the Titanic? Why is his name “Berg”? An allusion to mountains and shepherds and Zionist usury – or a subtle tribute to Ingmar Bergman?)

The railway gate itself becomes a sort of Caucasian Chalk Circle: in the Caucasus mountains, magicians are able to hypnotize people so they absolutely cannot leave the arbitrary confines of a circle drawn around them in chalk, unless the magician breaks the spell. This represents the social taboo – and human societies consist of a complex of taboos and totems (the subject of a fascinating painting by Max Ernst).


Whoever has the ability to manipulate and exploit human taboos and totems takes on deific or diabolical powers. Those that allow themselves to be thus exploited and manipulated forfeit their humanity and become mere machines – cogs in an invisible wheel, commonly referred to as The System or, in today’s parlance, The Matrix. Their lives, devoid of real meaning or purpose, become incoherent memory fragments; their actions, dictated by impulses beyond their conscious control, become a Zen study for avant-garde dance-theater projects.

So what about the dead pussycat? And the stuffed sparrow dangling from the rafters? Who was Weijun fleeing from? And what the @%#! was Berg muttering at the beginning and end of the show?

Hiroshi Koike asks, in his director’s notes: “Where do people come from, and where do they go?”

Good question! Much more stimulating, anyhow, than: “What’s the sound of one hand clapping?”

23 September 2003



Caecar Chong: butoh-flavored existential surrealism, anyone?

Antares very nearly nods off at Lee Swee Keong’s Nyoba Dance+ offering

Call me an old stick-in-the-mud, but I’m one of those diehard conservatives who generally hopes to gain some pleasure, joy, insight, epiphany, revelation, or even simple amusement from an evening at the theater. All I gleaned from A Cherry Bludgeoned, A Spirit Crushed was that the Chinese avant-garde has hit the big time in KL – and that there’s a horde of young dancers, musicians, designers, and actors with enormous energy, ego-drive and talent – but with no sense of direction or purpose other than to get their efforts known beyond the confines of their own circles. These are post cari makan Chinese in search of greater makna (meaning) – or, perhaps, unmakna!


Keeping a low profile

Well and good, you might say, but at what point does an artist’s need for attention become an impudent imposition on his or her audience? Again, the age-old question: where do you draw the line between the arty and the merely farty? The answer is really quite simple: when you leave the theater feeling robbed of your time, rather than privileged to have witnessed something beautiful and true. No doubt there were a few in the audience who derived a great deal more meaning from the performance than I did – if only because they could understand the metaphorical or mythical context of what struck me as a visually mesmerizing but utterly obscure bit of mummery – with only some Chinese subtitles to go by and a smattering of Cantonese and Mandarin verbiage thrown in. Not much help really. And the program was equally obscure. True, there was a repetitive poetic commentary in English very seductively read by Merissa Teh – but the words fully matched the choreography in terms of obscurity: “ah! fawn of youth!/dapper/stalwart/thick of thigh/well equipped/bandit advances/my dagger at the draw/just in case...”


Lee Swee Keong, electric butoh monk

Okay, that takes us back to a recent production of Rashomon in which Lee Swee Keong played the monk, and very credibly too. Merissa Teh’s sultry voice reinforced the impression that Lee had found his basic inspiration from the famous Japanese saga of rape (after all, wasn’t it Merissa who played the ravaged wife?)

What about the projected kinetic text? Ah, that came right out of Hiroshi Koike’s Spring In Kuala Lumpur – another production in which Lee shone – as did the dangling cucumber in lieu of a dead sparrow (but why not a carrot? I guess cucumbers are much easier to disembowel).

Butoh in the digital era

What about the Ikea tealight-lit cooking sequence with gas stove, garlic and cooking oil? Aha! Lee must have really liked Aida Redza’s Tiga Naga, which had the dancers pounding sambal belacan in stone mortars and swallowing the spicy shrimp paste to produce dragon’s breath.

The performers comprised Ian Yang, Caecar Chong, Kiea Kuan Nam, Lee Swee Keong – and a chimeric horse on castors which was led round and round the stage for no less than 15 minutes (it was at that point I found myself nodding off) while techno-composer Goh Lee Kwang played DJ with a trance-inducing rhythmic loop on his laptop.


Kiea Kuan Nam:
dancing in briefs

Initially emerging clad only in yellow briefs, the dancers wasted no time transforming themselves into Chinese court ladies in black, red, yellow and blue – thereby surpassing Joe Hasham’s Importance of Being Earnest by attempting the cross-dressing right on stage. Costume designer Khoon Hooi must have had fun dressing the horse.

In any case the “love horse” – the most evocative element in the entire production, with its otherworldly antlered head conjuring images of Cernunnos the ancient forest deity or mystic unicorns – came in handy as an excuse for audience participation. People were invited on stage to mount it and be photographed just before the finale.

Goh’s electronic music succeeded in generating a hypnotic ambience, though it lacked the subtlety, texture and lyricism attained by dancer-composer Weijun Loh’s recent audio experiments. It’s no great feat to create a nerve-racking cacophony that merely drains the audience’s energy. Fortunately there were enough funky bits to make up for the headache-inducing intro – but I must remark at this juncture that plagiarising from Ravel’s Bolero without due acknowledgment or credit may well constitute an artistic offence. But I suppose Maurice is long dead and can’t object too much.

Mac Chan’s lighting was, as usual, one of the more redeemingly competent elements of the production and contributed greatly to the arty atmosphere rather than the farty. The same cannot be said, alas, for Lau Mun Leng’s performance art or live installation, as the program describes it. While the “ladies” are busy preparing their “meal” on stage, Lau is busy scrawling cryptic numbers and energy lines around them and finishes up by wheeling onstage a blood red toilet bowl overflowing with foam and decorating the foam with fake bloodstains. Now what was that supposed to represent? That the moon was exerting her periodic influence on the court ladies? Or was it merely an idea borrowed from Paul Loosley’s madcap staging of Ubu Roi last year in which toilet bowls were the leitmotif? I hope the director wasn’t insinuating that his artistic vision was crap!

Visually mesmerizing

I have long been an admirer of Lee Swee Keong’s work as a dancer-performer. He has invariably impressed with his focus and technical skill – primarily as a butoh exponent with Lena Ang’s feisty dance company (which unfortunately vanished from sight when she got married and emigrated, though she left Lee her artistic legacy). Indeed, the butoh influence remains clearly visible in Lee’s overall approach to movement, hence the stately, lethargic, zombiesque choreography. Lee is undoubtedly of shamanic (or perhaps extraterrestrial) lineage and has the power to draw attention – even adulation and awe – upon himself like any true magician.

However, magic has the power to liberate or entrap. On the cover of the souvenir program, the production was ingenuously described as “a scintillating gem by Lee Swee Keong.” Was that tongue-in-cheek? I don’t think so. As I picked up my tickets for the show I glanced at the poster and read a glowing endorsement by someone named Wish Teo… or was it Wishful Teo? Can paying audiences in Malaysia sue for misleading advertising, I wonder?

A very fine line between shaman & showman

In the case of A Cherry Bludgeoned, A Spirit Crushed, what ended up bludgeoned was my patience; and what ended up crushed were my hopes for an inspiring, stimulating, and enjoyable evening. A copy-and-paste collage of vaguely artistic postures does not the cutting edge in dance theater make.

1 December 2003

[Color images courtesy of Kelvin Tan]

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