Some surprises accompany today’s workshops – yesterday’s students are today’s teachers! And vice versa. I’m beginning to get a sense of how this festival is a celebration – of the artists present and also of the notion of play. But playing can be exhausting, and with four workshops back to back today everyone’s energies are beginning to dip. The novelty of the encounter is wearing off as well, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – most of the workshops go straight into the work and in deepening the conversations that were begun the day before, as well as bending the conventions of the teacher (senior) – student (junior) dynamic.
Xiaoyi tells everyone he’s already started putting together the structure of the final showcase (Journey to Nowhere, happening this weekend) – which is earlier than usual for him – but he wanted to give everyone time to talk to each other, not just for this production as an end-point, but for possible future collaborations as well, that extend beyond the framework of Southernmost.
[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.]
(student-teacher dynamic begins to shift)
P.S. If you’ve been wondering where Andy is, he’s in Australia performing – he’ll be back from Day 4.
Workshop 3 marks the end of Elizabeth, Amin and Ee Vian’s tenure as students – they’ll get to be teachers for the rest of the day. But not before they’re worked pretty hard by their temporary gurus. Amin, in particular, has the unenviable task of learning the part of the Lakhaon Khaol monkey character from Rady, who specialises in it. Rady’s own teachers had their students observe monkey behaviour in real life, studying how they creatures shifted their gazes or articulated different limbs. Amin’s drenched in sweat halfway through from attempting to move around on all fours on bent knees, arched toes and the flats of his hands while maintaining a flat back. They eventually move outdoors to try out the piercing monkey cries and directional projection (and, I think, startling the inhabitants of every single building around us while they were at it).
The pairs’ rehearsal spaces bleed into each other, and while Amin and Rady’s muffled cries continue outside, Shimizu and Ee Vian are creating music of their own indoors. He’s teaching her the kakegoe, the shouts and calls that the Noh music ensembles use to adjust rhythm and tempo. It sounds like yo and ha, although I’m pretty sure my romanisation isn’t accurate (I’m checking on this!).
Ee Vian’s been taking diligent and meticulous notes – but she keeps having to pause to refer to them because she’s so unused to this new rhythmic pattern and the hand gestures she has to follow. Their presentation features a conversation between Ee Vian first as the large otsuzumi hip drum and Shimizu as the smaller kotsuzumi shoulder drum before they trade roles. She clutches her notebook and brings it with her on stage, but just before they begin, Shimizu surprises her by confiscating her home-made manual with a grin. You can see it stage right in the photo below. Xiaoyi is thrilled by this: “Perfection is boring!” he declares to the rest of us during our collective discussion about their performance, a lovely vocal duet experimenting with qualities of tempo, timbre and texture, of softness and loudness, tenderness and strength.
As the day meanders along through Workshops 4, 5 and 6, Xiaoyi begins introducing key props and variables of space, time and structure to the various improvisations – I won’t go into detail because I don’t want to contaminate his image-making and we’ll save those for the showcase. At the same time it’s becoming clearer and clearer to me that Journey to Nowhere, framed as a sort of culmination of these intensive days of rehearsals, is really a prologue and a small-scale incubator, where they get to see their own art forms thrown into sharp relief against the forms of others, where they can test out pedagogical approaches and collaborative methods and how to make meaning with each other.
I’d initially wondered how it would even be possible to squeeze the hours of pair work and the intricate expansion of everyone’s movement vocabularies into an hour-long showcase, but you can’t, and that isn’t the point anyway. I think some of the most astonishing and hair-raising moments (as well as some of the messiest failures) will have taken place during these workshops and rehearsals, for the artists and the artists alone to have witnessed. In one of them, Amin and Didik draw from rituals of rain and harvest and the trance states of dance-drama forms like the mak yong to examine the convergences and divergences in their own individual practices, and how emotion can consume the individual performer-participant in widely differing ways, whether it’s sobbing or convulsing.
Then there’s the electric moment where Shimizu-san places one of his masks on Elizabeth – the first time she’s ever worn a Noh mask, which also meant she had to learn how to handle one correctly – and as she rises from her seat you see that her entire body has transformed. Just seconds earlier she’d floated and bobbed through supple, graceful movements; now she’s grounded and controlled, her feet sliding across the ground and her toes rising and falling carefully with every step, a technique she’s learnt the day before from her session with Shimizu-san. You can feel her radiating nervousness and discomfort, but she steels herself and keeps walking. He, in turn, had to discard the stooped, anchored Noh walk to strut around the stage in Chinese dance lexicon, walking as if – as Elizabeth put it earlier – his chest contained “ten suns”. It’s hard to convey the effortfulness of these moments, and I don’t know if an audience not privy to the difficulties and the failures of the workshops would be able to read their performance as anything other than art forms briefly trading bodies.
Xiaoyi’s started to intervene a little bit more in each presentation. He’s now attempting to sketch out stage pictures that don’t necessarily cleave to a single narrative but that create apertures and intersections for multiple interpretations. He doesn’t want cause-and-effect narratives, he wants the spectator to question who leads and who follows, and for the artists to mine the pauses in-between, and to move through gestures and actions and phrases they’ve done thousands of times, instinctually and almost thoughtlessly, as slowly as possible. They’re being “too kind with each other”, he feels, “too harmonic.” He wants them to play with repetition and contrasts. Some of this works: in one scene with Didik, Elizabeth attempts to “breathe” herself from a crawling position into an upright, standing position, an appropriation of the shenyun breathing technique she’s practised for most of her life. She looks like a half-drained balloon drifting slowly across the mottled carpet.
But I don’t know if that instruction to create more opaque (or more open-ended) stage images makes the artists over-think their presentations, because we end up getting the most narrative-driven pieces in this final workshop, which isn’t working for Xiaoyi. Most of the presentations start to centre around a straightforward moment of conflict between two characters. They’re still compelling to watch, but I’m starting to notice the creeping insider references as each pair samples from scenes and configurations that worked before (but that rarely work again).
So Xiaoyi begins to give the artists instructions very close to performance scores for the final exercise of the day, which confirms my suspicions that he’s inclined towards a Fluxus-type experiment in favouring process over product and leaving room for arbitrariness, immediacy and improvisation. I think he wants them to shed their old-new skins before they harden into stiff carapaces.
It’s the first time we see all the artists together on stage at the same time, and a lot of it is confusing and frustrating and messy, as each performer attempts to locate himself or herself in relation to the others not just on stage, but in terms of their practices and forms. They accidentally obstruct each other, veer into each other’s paths, hesitate in making decisions, interrupt other’s beautifully-constructed images because they aren’t paying attention. But at the same time you can see them learning to savour their practices in the slow lane, and the pleasures of responding to each other in multiple performance languages instead of just one. We’re watching a group of performers become slightly more multilingual, a sort of heteroglossic text of bodies, their tongues and limbs loosening and relaxing…