Day 1 (Nov 4) – Introductions Part 2

At this point some refrains are beginning to emerge:

  • There’s a lot of emphasis on the master-student relationship and the artists’ resistance but also reverence for it – they all have teachers and gurus they deeply respect and love and have complex relationships with.
  • Almost every single national performance form has been appropriated as a state-building project, even if the historicity of the art form is contested (with some forms emerging only in the 1950s or 1970s but adopted as “tradition”).
  • Getting funding is tough. Almost everyone relies on state funding and private patronage, and there’s not often enough to go around. Xiaoyi keeps quizzing the artists about their plans for the future, reasons for which will eventually become clear during the workshop. And most of the artists are also educators… (see first bullet point)

Kanji Shimizu
Kanji Shimizu

Kanji Shimizu (Tokyo; Noh theatre) 

Shimizu-san walks us through (quite literally) a stripped-down version of his showcase yesterday. I can’t quite describe how he seems to be moving while staying perfectly still – and he also manages to stay perfectly still while moving. He was there, and now he’s here, and I don’t know what the miracle was that happened in-between. Time seems to dilate and contract at the same time. Today he places more emphasis on voice and vocalisations, repeating the sung phrase “Hey, you over there, who are you?” in three different registers: as an old man (hoarser); a young woman (a higher, brighter tone); and middle-aged man (with more strength than the previous two). At this point, Xiaoyi asks our intrepid interpreter Sim if she’d be open to joining Shimizu-san on stage. (“Do I have to…?”)

Shimizu-san is a proponent of the kanze style of Noh – there are five in total – and he’s also part of the Tessen-kai Noh group in Japan, but when asked if there’s significant state support for this iconic art form, he responds gravely, in English: “No support.” We can’t tell if he’s punning [No(h) support?] with a straight face. There’s some venue support from the national theatre, and certain classes of performers and musicians also get training support, but that seems to be it.

I ask him about how much latitude the individual Noh performer has for character development and interpretation, seeing how codified and exact their system is. The playwright’s intentions are one way to go, since they’ve laid out a specific blueprint for how their characters should be interpreted (in the case of Izutsu, the same piece Shimizu-san demonstrated yesterday, the playwright in question is Zeami, one of the fathers of Noh). Sim translates: “When you learn the play, you learn its patternings – but you can also add some of your own expressions later on.” The classical Noh repertoire is so codified that they sometimes only rehearse ONCE (the entire room of practitioners gasped in unison). But he does more contemporary Noh work now, which means more reasonable amount of rehearsals (about 40 days per production). His own sensei seems to have bred a porousness and willingness to cross borders in him; he would encounter and incorporate various artistic influences external to Noh that, Shimizu-san felt, enriched the practice of it. Sim translates: “Some actors are satisfied to do classical repertory again and again, and he thinks that’s a pity.” Shimizu-san himself has had an interest in creating contemporary Noh work relevant to themes of conflict and trauma, such as the Nagasaki bombing or the battle of Okinawa.


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Didik Nini Thowok

Didik Nini Thowok (Yogyakarta; classical cross-gender Javanese dance)

Mas Didik was one of the pioneers promoting cross-gender dance forms in Indonesia, although he chafes at the term “cross-gender” because of how it’s been borrowed from the west when places like Sulawesi had always already recognised five genders before the binary of male and female was imposed on us as part of the colonial project. (Didik to Rady: “You’re lucky you only had 100 years of colonialism under the French. Indonesia had 350 years!” Rady: “100 years is already too long.”) Didik revels in the liminal space of gender fluidity – earlier we were talking about the shamanic roles that transgender individuals were sometimes given because of their unique position as mediator, as the in-between. So he says he prefers to call this the “mystical gender” instead of “cross-gender”. He talks about his own teacher, a woman, who would be so utterly transformed by her mask that, when wearing a male mask, spectators were convinced she was male until she removed it. Because he was trained as a female performer by a female teacher, he performs male roles as a female performer (Amin: “Would that be… cross-cross-gender??”). There’s the connection of ritual between master and student as well, and Didik describes a sort of imbibing of a teacher’s blessing by eating food from the teacher’s plate before it’s been washed, a consecration that can’t be given by an academy or institution. There’s the sharp intimacy there of sharing food and a joining of bodies through the act of sustenance.

Didik demonstrates the use of two prop/costuming details – the Balinese fan (the third fan we’ve seen on stage today, after Elizabeth and Shimizu-san) and the Javanese scarf, which accentuates the waist and hips and is worn differently depending on the gender of the character. He has an extraordinarily elastic face, every wildly different expression chiselled into his forehead and nose and cheeks, his eyes widening and tightening and furrowing. His face is the mask, a freezeframe of emotion and character archetype.

Amin and Didik have a discussion about what it means to immerse one’s self in performance, to enter that trance-like state – with Elizabeth describing how difficult it is to silence the voice in her brain pre-empting and analysing her every move. The Bahasa Indonesia term for that spiritual connection, that conduit to a space beyond, is roh, with a strong aspirated “h” at the end that gives the sound its breath. It’s something that extends beyond the jiwa (“soul”) in Singaporean Malay that’s kept within the boundaries of one’s self.


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Ee Vian Loi

Ee Vian Loi (Singapore; ruan and liuqin, Chinese orchestra)

We round off the introductions with Ee Vian and her liuqin, a mandolin-like instrument with a high, bright sound (don’t call it a smaller version of the pipa, which is one of her pet peeves – because it isn’t a smaller version of the pipa even if it may look like one). It has 12 semitones which means it can also be played in Western scales in addition to the pentatonic scale we often associate with Chinese orchestral music, and it can be both plucked and strummed with a pick. It’s a relatively rare instrument with less than 60 years of an official history, and grew out of the liuqinxi in Anhui province, where in its 前身 (qianshen, predecessor; literally “former body”) it had two to three strings and fewer frets.

Similar to the other traditional forms, Chinese orchestral music was also part of a national agenda, with much of its compositional influences drawn from classical poetry or vivid scenery or the political landscape of China (read: communist propaganda and revolutionary songs). One of her laments is that composers don’t often write for her instrument because they’d rather write for a popular instrument like the erhu or guzheng that can, in then, popularize their work. Or they don’t understand the range and texture of her instrument and sometimes resort to a bit of gimmickry that passes off as virtuosity (relying on the instrument for extreme sound effects, for example).

Ee Vian introduces us a bit of her repertoire, beginning with one of her favourite classical pieces, 琵琶行 (pipa xingThe Journey of the Pipa; she understands the irony). There’s a sharp resonance to the tiny instrument and it can produce both thick soundscapes and shimmery harmonics. Then she plays a contemporary piece about cats by a Taiwanese composer, who attempted to capture in music the mystery and unpredictability of the domestic cat – in the excerpt she plays you can imagine the cat sneaking up on you.


Now that the introductions are done we have a tiny landscape of the bodies in the room and some sense of each person’s structure of reference. In the afternoon the first set of workshops will kick off as the artists get more acquainted with each other. (Also I know I’m really behind in my posts so I might try something a little different in responding to the workshops.)