Day 1 (Nov 4) – Workshops 1 & 2

Nget Rady and Liu Xiaoyi outside Centre 42.

Xiaoyi’s immediately picked up on the master-student relationship, and he’s structured the afternoon’s workshops accordingly as a gleeful matchmaker. This feels like the first date after everyone’s gotten acquainted, where the artists are feeling out similarities and differences, drawing connections between their practices – whether it’s in the forms themselves or their own artistic trajectories. Xiaoyi gives everyone the following instructions (except for Ee Vian and Jing in the case of the first workshop):

  1. Spend an hour preparing. (Natalie the stage manager announced each 15-minute quarter.)
  2. Teachers, understand your student before you teach; challenge your student.
  3. Students, ask questions of and understand what your teacher means; don’t just imitate them blindly.
  4. Create space for criticism.
  5. The student will be the director of a resulting five-minute presentation.

So a pretty subversive matchmaker.

[edit: To recap, the structure of these two days of workshops were: (a) one-hour preparation session; (b) series of five-minute presentations by each pair; (c) group discussion about the work presented. Then everyone would change over to the next grouping of pairs, and so on.]

Workshop Teacher Student
1 Didik Amin
Shimizu Elizabeth
Ee Vian & Jing (equal partnership)
Rady & Xiaoyi (unclear partnership)
2 Shimizu Amin
Rady Elizabeth
Didik Ee Vian

I asked Xiaoyi: “So… are you the teacher or the student?”

Xiaoyi: “I am Xiaoyi.”

He can be really annoying sometimes.

Teaching and learning

Shimizu-san adjusting Elizabeth. (Rady stretches in a corner.)
Shimizu-san adjusting Elizabeth. (Rady stretches in a corner.)

Everyone’s excited to work with each other, but a general sense of over-politeness pervades each pair, largely bred of the trepidation of strangers meeting for the first time. (I’m writing this the day after, and that polite distance has all but vanished, replaced by a warm familiarity.) Xiaoyi’s basically sent everyone off to learn new languages – largely a physical language, but there are other linguistic negotiations taking place as well. I’m flitting between each pair and it’s difficult to get an entire overview of each student-teacher partnership because everyone’s doing different things simultaneously, but I thought I’d single out moments that stayed with me.

I’m struck by how different everyone’s approach is to teaching and learning and setting the terms of the “lesson”. You can see each practitioner feeling out the edges of the other and where the entry points to a performance conversation might be. Sometimes that means actually having a conversation: Elizabeth and Shimizu and Sim start out in a circle, cross-legged, exchanging their pedagogical approaches. Shimizu’s the teacher in this workshop, but he asks Elizabeth how she might teach her own students – she makes a distinction between whether she’s teaching young children or youth, but often the building block for Chinese dance is its breathing technique. He also asks her if there was anything she’d like to learn or wants to try. In another corner of the room, Amin is almost quivering with anticipation – he’s admired Didik for a very long time and can’t quite believe they’re getting to work together. He immediately raises something he’d like to develop – his characterisation – and Didik plunges him deep into a study on how to convey emotion.

Amin and Didik.
Amin and Didik.

Shimizu and Didik (both in their mid 60s, both extraordinarily experienced performers and educators) are evocative and precise in the instructions and explanations they give. Didik and Amin eventually make their way through Javanese court mudras (gestures) and walking techniques in Surakartan dance, but it’s their tackling of emotional states that is deeply moving to watch. Didik asks Amin to do the gestures neutrally first, without emotion, then asks him to convey sadness.

Amin: “So, do I think of something sad?”
Didik: “Don’t think about what is sad. If you think about what is sad, you’re not actually feeling sad. Just feel sad.”

It works. (He also tells Amin: “Focus on the other performer’s forehead. Sometimes looking into another person’s eyes will make you nervous, so looking at their forehead will help you to go around that.”)

Shimizu to Elizabeth, and later to Amin:

  • To embody the precise, controlled, and deeply grounded Noh walk: “Imagine that you’re carrying heavy buckets of water, and the heaviness travels up your arms to your shoulders and hangs there.” “Your body becomes a scale and you are the fulcrum.”
  • To understand one’s centre, one’s core: “The Noh stage depicts the centre of the universe, and the performer stands in the centre of the stage, so your centre is the centre of the universe.”
  • To understand how time moves on the Noh stage: “You walk three metres on stage, but it feels like you are travelling from Tokyo to Nara. If you walk one round on the stage, you’re travelling from Tokyo to Singapore. If a character travels onto the stage from off stage, over the bridge that connects the stage to the rest of the world, it is like travelling 3,000 years.” (TIME TRAVEL EXISTS.)
  • We also learn that Shimizu can remain in that fundamental standing pose of Noh for an hour without blinking: “The Noh mask doesn’t blink, so I don’t blink. If you blink, you become human again.” We agree that the rest of us are very much mortal.

Later on, Amin and Elizabeth and I unpick these moments and have a conversation about how we’ve all incorporated the Cartesian mind-body divide as practitioners when our own cultures never made that distinction, when intellect and “rationality” didn’t have to be separate from emotion.

Elizabeth and Shimizu, each carrying the other’s fan, during their five-min presentation at the close of Workshop 1.
Shimizu adjusts Amin while Sim, their interlocutor, looks on.
Shimizu adjusts Amin while Sim, their interlocutor, looks on.

It isn’t just about what the teacher teaches – there’s also what the teacher chooses to teach. During Rady’s session with Elizabeth (and you’ll read more about this when it comes to Rady’s session with Amin in Workshop 3), he seems to have sized her up and chosen a path for her to take. This could be instinct, his pedagogical senses picking up how she’s accustomed to moving and how her muscles and body structure have developed to mould perfectly to the dance form she’s been practising for almost 25 years.

But what strikes me is how each teacher doesn’t just adjust the physical stances of their students – they’re constantly adjusting their own pedagogical strategies, adjusting them to fit an individual body that’s deeply skilled in another practice but committed to learning a new one. Like Rady said earlier – going behind the movement. It seems (to me, at least) a terrifyingly intimate process to have your body adjusted mere hours after you’ve met someone, to have palms on backs and fingers on hips and necks and crooks of elbows, but everyone here does it calmly and professionally and respectfully and matter-of-factly.

Rady teaches Elizabeth as Theresa (a member of Emergency Shelter) looks on.
Rady teaches Elizabeth as Theresa (a member of Emergency Shelter) looks on.

Directing and performing

About halfway through each of the workshop sessions, after each “student” has had a taste of their “teacher’s” practice, you feel the dynamic begin to shift as the students chart out the presentations they’ll have to make. At this point it does feel like everyone gets a taster session of another’s cultural practice, and there’s the negotiatory dance that takes place between the two, and the excitement – an almost delirious, fetishistic excitement – about the encounter with another practice involving the same seriousness and commitment and blood but startlingly exotic and different from one’s own. My initial worry was that this would almost be analogous to having a one-hour crash course in another language, where you learn the alphabet, some nouns and verbs, and then string some pithy (and funny, and perhaps profound) sentences together, and maybe get to use some slang or swear words for the flavour. But even typing this I’m aware of how much I’m dreadfully cheapening everyone’s experience – I regret typing it already, but I’m leaving it here so you understand how I’m working through all this through writing – because these languages aren’t consonants and vowels strung together arbitrarily, they’re threads of life knit together from the flesh and bone of bodies and the things beneath and beyond, the jiwa and roh within and around.

I’ve mentioned this before in something else I wrote, but I’m reminded of it all the same:

On a recent trip to Yogyakarta I learnt a new phrase, alih tubuh (literally, “changing bodies”), from a collective of Indonesian practitioners I was working with. Alih tubuh means a role isn’t just passed between one performer’s badan (physical body) and the next as a set of static gestures and traits, but is given new life by the spiritual, emotional, and psychological landscapes of its new host – its new co-creator. We pass history down through our bodies. Pieces of ourselves stick to it as it moves from one generation to the next; […] The body is a different kind of archive, the kind that remakes even as it remembers.

Every practitioner is massaging out an ache or a pain in a new and different spot after their bespoke masterclasses because of muscle groups they’ve never had to use, and it’s this deep imprint on the body that’s left behind, a reminder – a haunting, perhaps, because aches and bruises will fade – of a new encounter that muscle memory will remember.

On the stage, these encounters take strange and raw and clumsy and beautiful forms. The “students” are directing each presentation, but after a while it’s difficult to tell who’s initiating a conversation and who’s responding, where one sentence ends and another begins; as much as the teachers are sharing their forms they’re also borrowing from their students. Beneath the sheen of the performance there are imperceptible shifts, tiny negotiations nudging and tugging at the teacher and the student in both directions:

Didik and Ee Vian during a presentation.

Didik and Ee Vian during a presentation.

Xiaoyi hasn’t done too much curation at this point yet – well, apart from orchestrating everyone’s encounters – he’s also added some text to each presentation, and I get the sense that he’s testing out different vignettes, prodding at a few concepts, and structuring his approach to the work, observing how each pair of performers interacts and the possibilities between them. I’m a little hesitant to reveal too much about each presentation because of the elements that will end up in the final showcase, but hopefully this gives you an idea of the paths taken.

I find that in watching them learn, I am learning how to be a spectator. Every form was a foreign land to me yesterday, but today I am finding my landmarks, my touchstones. I am beginning to understand what that flip of the wrist means, the lowered eyes or the raised chin. I feel the distance of three steps in Noh and the penetrating howl of the Lakhaon Khaol monkey character who can reveal his heart to you without using a single word. The vocabulary of my body has expanded together with theirs even though I’ve never stepped onto the stage. All the featured artists of Southernmost have honed their practice for anything between 10 and 60 years; I’ve been a theatre critic/arts writer for a meagre 8. What is my practice next to theirs?