We’re almost at the finish line. This is the final day to put everything together before the team goes into tech tomorrow, and they’ll only have time for one full tech run because they’re sharing the venue (the Centre 42 Black Box) with a few other presentations that require time for plot/tech as well.
Short post today because every tweak is on a granular level at this point and I can’t type too much without giving chunks of the piece away – I’ll upload Xiaoyi’s four-page “script” / “performance score” after the show is over so you’ll be able to see how much it’s a hybrid of space and specificity. The score hinges on “time”, “bodies”, and “space”. Everything’s timed down to the minute, but there’s also room within those strict boundaries to explore (in a sort of meta echo of Day 3). In the morning, the performers are left to be each other’s dramaturgs and “third eyes” in a dramatic final segment that they’re having trouble ironing out, and figuring out how each of them relates to the other in this nine-minute cadenza. We also have to imagine the ghost of Shimizu-san, now back in Tokyo for another performance, summoning back what his presence felt like and how he moves across a room.
Xiaoyi returns (after working separately with Ee Vian and Andy on other segments) to see what they’ve done, and he doesn’t think it’s quite there yet. We spend an entire hour doing a minute-by-minute (and sometimes by second) breakdown of the fluctuations and variations of energy and structure of this portion of the work, while the practitioners are scribbling furious notes on their scores. This changes again when we test it out with a few different soundscapes – many of the sounds are environmental cues for how long the performers have left, especially when they don’t have the luxury of a timer on stage. They do have two separate timers backstage along with their scores and various props. I think it was Celest, our production manager, who told us about how performer George Chan accidentally reset his timer during Einstein in the Carpark earlier this year and could never get his timing back, which meant that for the rest of that show he was fumbling in the dark for his entrances and exits and had to do mental gymnastics by adding and subtracting exact minutes to his new start time – which makes me realise that the audience isn’t privy to a lot of the obsessive attention to detail that’s part of the fabric of the show, but also the complete arbitrariness built into some sections of the performance. e.g. For one scene of Journey to Nowhere, the performers came up with the idea of doing a quick scissors-paper-stone game outside to determine the order in which they’ll enter the space.
There’s also the contribution of the people not immediately visible to the spectator and critic. Jing (who’s termed himself “the sound guy”) and Natalie (our steadfast stage manager) have also had room to wear the director’s hat in their own way, and Xiaoyi’s woven many of their developmental suggestions into the piece. I’ve noticed that much of this final day is devoted to Jing and Natalie’s very patient trouble-shooting – working around newfound restrictions in ways that are respectful of the vision of the work, whether it’s renegotiating certain entrances and exits, or how to cue in performers out of earshot, or figuring out how to move in a costume with less shoulder room than expected.
I’ll post up a separate reflection piece about my role tomorrow or the day after, but right now I’m headed into the tech run – I can’t quite believe they’re bumping in!
The artist lineup is complete! Andy is back from Australia and he’s here to give us a belated introduction, i.e. the five-minute practical demonstration and ten-minute verbal introduction that the other six practitioners went through on the firstday. The moment he begins to speak it’s clear that he’s in the right room. While he wasn’t privy to the large-scale discussion that took place yesterday, he’s flagged exactly the same issues for discussion.
Andy first heard the sound of the dizi when he was eight years old, immediately went to hunt it down and eventually joined the school’s Chinese orchestra. But while he loved his instrument, he says he never felt connected to or satisfied with the thematic concerns of Chinese orchestral music, whether it was horseriding or the Cultural Revolution. While pursuing music as a flautist in the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa), he was also learning how to play the gamelan over at the Lasalle College of the Arts, along with some training in theatre and dance. He also began composing music that dealt with local ideas that resonated with him, the soundscapes of everyday experience. He identifies his own lineage with that of his master’s – the 江南丝竹 style of Chinese instrumental music (jiangnan sizhu; Jiangnan silk and bamboo, where silk stands for stringed instruments and bamboo for wind instruments like the dizi). He appreciates its embracing of improvisation, where it has “a simple, structural score, and people can improvise around it, which gives it its personality through reinterpretation”. He’s also very influenced by the gamelan and often incorporates its scale, ideas and structure into his music.
Like almost all the other practitioners in the room, he lays out his challenges as “the preconceived notions of who I am and what I’m expected to be”. When he first “broke out” of the traditional music framework, he faced “a lot of wrath”, and was told that “the apple has fallen very far from the tree.” In particular, he contests the connotations and impositions of the word “traditional” that seems to lock practitioners like himself in time, in the past – when in fact culture is evolving all the time. It’s part of the reason he founded SA (仨), a collective of musicians that is both inter-disciplinary and multicultural, which has embarked on all sorts of collaborations (including a deeply sensorial and hypnotic audio-visual experience with NADA and Brandon Tay, Anticipation of One, which I attended at the Singapore International Festival of Arts earlier this year).
One of Andy’s biggest concerns is how there’s a lack of a crossover from audience members of the various art forms in Singapore, e.g. the audience for a Beijing opera production is probably going to be very different from a ballet one. So although there’s a substantial audience base, he feels they aren’t being cultivated across forms and disciplines. He proposes developing arts audiences from a much younger age, giving them access to exciting pieces of art when their tastes haven’t quite cemented – because these tastes become more and more fixed as audiences reach the 25-45 age bracket, the prime ticket-buying demographic.
Like the day before, the group has a discussion about what’s been brought up. I’m focusing on the tail end of the conversation, when Shimizu-san asserts that even what we know today as “traditional art” began as artists focusing on their individual practices, then coming together and consolidating over time into a “traditional form”; they were, in fact, experimenting. “Even when you’re practising today, you carry that history on your back,” he says through Sim, “It’s a long, connected story, and maybe we can reconstruct and picture that journey.”
Amin agrees, but he says, “I’m aware of my history, but often policymakers and people who want our services only see us as the past.” (Quote of the DAY.)
Andy echoes this – he brings up how what we know as traditional Chinese orchestral music today was in fact a construct of the 1960s, a response to Western orchestral music, which is what Ee Vian brought up on the very first day. She says: “Maybe some people don’t want to move from that script.”
The rest of the day is spent on putting together their script. The various segments of Journey to Nowhere have all been sketched out, it’s now a matter of stitching the modular pieces together. Andy also gets to see what’s been created in his absence and where he enters the picture. A lot of the development work now involves some freedom to improvise within structured frames (not that dissimilar to the jiangnan sizhu music Andy mentioned earlier), and working on how all seven of the performers sense and listen to each other, like a mega Viewpoints exercise. It helps that all the performers have developed a fondness for and intimacy with each other over the past four days.
I’ll probably flesh this out more in my actual review (or not, I don’t know what form that response is going to take yet) of Journey to Nowhere, but as much as I am all for the Southernmost format, I still have my reservations about the kinds of imagery and sloganic text that Xiaoyi likes using, and using repeatedly across productions and time – although this really could be a matter of taste. We also have external spectators in the room for the open rehearsal (2pm to 6pm), and it’s interesting to attempt to gauge their reactions to the half-formed work. I ask one of them what she thinks, and she tells me about the gendered relationship she’s interpreted of a particular scene that she finds odd because it isn’t referenced in any of the other excerpts, and she read into it associations with the #MeToo movement. This is something that hasn’t occurred to me as someone so embedded in the behind-the-scenes intentions of the work, but it’s fascinating to see how a single scene, out of context, is already producing its interpretive garden of forking paths.
Here’s a break from our regular programming to say: this daily writing practice has done wonders for my discipline. The plan this week was to attend daily 9am to 6pm rehearsals with the practitioners and Xiaoyi for Journey to Nowhere, followed by the daily masterclass with Didik and Rady from 7pm to 10pm. Unfortunately I’ve had to miss out on the evening classes because it would have left me with no time to write. But I will be attending the masterclass showcase this coming Friday (Nov 9) – I can’t wait. (This week I’ve been writing from about 8.30pm to 12.30am every day with no time to properly edit any of my posts, they just go straight into the world in horrible unedited shapes – I was hoping to revisit them and clean them up after the festival but I think that will be a long time yet…)
In that vein – a concern I had, which I shared with Xiaoyi, is how overstretched Didik and Rady are from 13-hour days. I wondered if it might have been possible for the masterclass to have been conducted the week before. Xiaoyi acknowledged this; the reason was financial and had been very difficult to make. It constantly frustrates me how this system – which isn’t entirely Emergency Stairs’ fault – demands extraordinary labour from artists. Day 4 was also the day where all the physical hiccups began to show up – Didik’s voice was sounding a little hoarse and he was coughing, and Rady stubbed his toe while performing and almost dislodged a toenail. They’d recovered by the day after, but it’s still been bugging me. Shimizu-san, with his insane touring schedule, flew back to Tokyo on Wednesday night for a performance and will only be back on Saturday morning on the red eye flight, barely in time for the first 3pm show that day. Ee Vian had to miss a few hours of rehearsal for her regular roster of teaching jobs with private students.
I know these really aren’t uncommon scheduling challenges for any performing arts company, but I thought I had to talk about how stretched artists can be as they juggle ways to make ends meet, and how this really shouldn’t be normalised as “starving/struggling for your art” or valorised as a symbol of one’s commitment to a craft. We only had two hours with the entire cast in the same room – and even then it’s been a luxury to spend so many full days with almost all of the practitioners in one place. And in the vein of ensuring that artists are cared for and have a safety net, sure, there’s going to be a freelance resource centre set up for artists in Singapore, but I wonder why we haven’t already implemented an equity system, emulating similar unions in the United States and the United Kingdom. Maybe I’m idealistic, but sometimes I wonder if our system is so broken that burnt out, overworked artists and production teams have become the norm. I know I’ve sometimes been afraid to say ‘no’ to projects even when I’ve been overworked because, well, you never know when your next project will come in to give you another brief period of financial stability.
To every creative practitioner out there, I wish you the utmost care for your bodies, the instrument of your work.
The workshops have ended, and the mood is different today. Xiaoyi begins the rehearsal at 9am with a textbook of Japanese for beginners. Because Shimizu-san is the only practitioner who doesn’t speak English, we’ve all gathered around him in a circle for a crash course in basic Japanese greetings – as well as vocabulary relevant to the production. Shimizu-san also teaches us the varying degrees of politeness you’d use for each phrase.
おはようございます (ohayō gozaimasu) – good morning
こんにちは 今日は (konnichiwa) – hello
こんばんは (konbanwa) – good evening
おやすみ なさい (oyasumi nasai) – good night
お願いします (onegaishimasu) – please
ゆっくり (yukkuri) – slowly
早く (hayaku) – quickly
続ける (tsudzukeru) – continue
ちょっと 待ってください (chotto matte kudasai) – wait a moment
This is a deliberate preface to a morning of deep conversation and connection that sets the agenda for the Southernmost project. I wonder how Xiaoyi’s chosen today as the sort of epiphanic reveal of what all the workshops have been travelling towards. Today feels like the fulcrum of the entire process.
Xiaoyi tells us about his company, Emergency Stairs, which he founded last year. While I’m familiar with the company’s work and the experimental presentations they favour, like Offending the Audience (2017) or Einstein in the Carpark (2018), I’ve never had a proper chat with Xiaoyi about the ethos or the (Lacanian?) drive of the platform he’s striven to create for a small group of practitioners.
This is roughly what he says:
I started off as an actor, and as an actor, you’re very sensitive to the boundaries of your body. You know the boundaries of the stage – where the backstage is, what the audience sees of you. When I became a director, I stepped off the stage. I started to get to know the bigger picture. You see the four walls of the theatre space, the exits and entry points. I also started to meet other boundaries, like what the budget is, and what my resources are.
And then when I started Emergency Stairs – it’s an even bigger picture. My boundaries are so different now. I know more about the NAC (National Arts Council), the IMDA (Info-communications Media Development Authority; also a regulatory board), about arts housing, about cultural policy… And I thought, how can deal with all of this creatively?
I think we need creative artists, and arts institutions, and governments, and environments, and arts councils. This is why crossing borders is so important. What does it mean if we only focus on our bodies as practitioners? Maybe a few days later we’ll forget what we’ve learnt. But beyond the body – what is the culture, history, and social environment behind a person? I think it’s time to learn something else.
Then he brings up the SG Arts Plan unveiled very recently by the National Arts Council.
I guess this is the script that has been given to me. And this script has a duration of five years. How can I respond to this script? How can I negotiate with it and challenge it? […] Who takes initiative? How can we empower ourselves? I think that’s why I see One Table Two Chairs as a project, not just a production. I’m looking for any alternative ways of art-making. Right now, I’m following the script. But can I write the script in another language, on another piece of paper?
He also talks about not being entirely sure what might happen to Emergency Stairs after their Seed Grant concludes in 2020. Could Emergency Stairs become a different type of project? Or perhaps it could become a regional platform? He brings up other models he’s seen in his visits to other cities, like an independent artists’ village in Yokohama.
At this point, Xiaoyi invites both the Singaporeans and non-Singaporean practitioners to discuss their position in their respective arts landscapes. There’s an outpouring of emotion and empathy as the various participants talk about the challenges they face.
Didik talks about how the usual top-down policy in Indonesia, where national policymakers are completely disconnected from what happens at the prefecture level, has become more ground-up under Jokowi’s tenure. As part of the cultural congress, Indonesian artists have recently convened in Jakarta to discuss and troubleshoot the problems and challenges they face. But this may be a brief grace period – who knows what might happen under different leadership. Some provinces are regularly overlooked when it comes to arts funding, such as Sulawesi. And even private funding comes with strings attached, e.g. a cigarette company sponsoring the arts proved to be too controversial for some regions. Arts policy also needs to do the fine balancing act where it can appeal to both moderates and conservatives.
Shimizu says that his company, Tessen-kai, relies on renting out their theatre and building for some financial support, as well as the commissions they get a performer’s fee for. But almost all members have separate livelihoods outside the fold, and most of them will hold an additional teaching job. The company did try to participate in the grants system, but the money would invariably arrive much later than when they needed it – sometimes something like a year later – which led to horrific cash flow and they had to abandon that financial model. He also talks about how a performance form with a long historical lineage can be a source of power and support instead of baggage.
Rady speaks about how ridiculously tiny the commissioning amounts are in Cambodia, e.g. US$1,000 for a single production to somehow be shared among everyone. He’s concerned that many of the state’s cultural programmes are blind to the future and don’t think long-term; there aren’t a lot of plans in place for the next generation of artists. Most of the money comes from the big arts and cultural ceremonies and productions that come with diplomatic relations and government-to-government connections. “For the artist, it’s just: perform and then bye-bye.” He’s also a part of Amrita Performing Arts, the NGO that was founded in 2003 with a mission to revive and preserve Cambodia’s traditional performing arts with a slew of capacity building programmes; it transitioned into contemporary practice about 10 years in and was one of the pioneers of contemporary performance in the country. But that chapter may soon be coming to a close, and might take a different form in the near future.
Ee Vian’s concern is that many policymakers (not all, but many), whom she calls “the paper people”, view so much of the artistic practice in black and white, which never tells the whole story. They don’t see the artist or the sheer amount of work beneath the text. There’s also a problem when loose interest groups are forced to turn into corporate entities to survive – literally becoming companies in order to make proposals and get grants. She wonders if the passivity that Singaporean artists are often stereotyped with is a result of practitioners (a) not knowing what to say and (b) not daring to say anything.
Amin responds to this by saying that perhaps when people don’t know what to say it’s because they haven’t engaged with an issue enough, and that not daring to say anything stems from a minority complex (and this could be in terms of being a minority race or a minority interest group, e.g. “traditional” arts practitioners). He’s discomfited by the label of the “cultural orphan” that Kuo Pao Kun coined several decades ago. Not everyone’s a cultural orphan, he says, “Not all of us can start from zero, especially the people who treat this land as indigenous! Are you asking us to discount all our history stretching back to the 12th and 13th centuries??”
Elizabeth completely agrees. She feels that the “cultural orphan” label rips at her heart – as if it were discarding her entire cultural heritage. Wanting to be a “cultural orphan” gives the person who claims that category a culture and history in itself. “Your culture is what you choose,” she says. But her work and her practice is her life, is what she loves most of all, and she won’t have anyone erasing that.
Last year there were three works directed by three directors, performed by five artists from different art forms. Through the process, we looked into their bodies, creative methods and process. More importantly, we compared the different cultures of and approaches to theatre. It was a very valuable experience for all of us as artists.
This year, we changed the format into a full length performance directed by me and performed by seven artists. With Journey to Nowhere, I’m thinking about how to expand and deepen this comparative study with these seven artists across Asia. I have designed a research and creation method for Journey to Nowhere, which is closely connected to the spirit of Southernmost. The seven artists will observe one another, and go through a teaching and learning process. I, together with the audience, will observe how they communicate and interact with each other. Definitely there will be lots of discovery, negotiation and criticism. At the end we will witness how they end up sharing the stage. I’m the director, but to a certain extent, I’m the table to link all the chairs together.
Southernmost is essentially performance-as-research/practice-as-research in motion. Xiaoyi’s “research and creation method” is an intense research programme tailored to a group of seven practitioners (plus stage manager, interpreter/administrator, sound artist… and critic?), and we are in the thick of it. It’s almost like an academic programme, with workshops, masterclasses, and small-group discussions. In Personal Knowledge (1958), Michael Polanyi writes about tacit knowledge – the knowledge we cannot articulate, but the knowledge we know (e.g. you could tell someone what swimming involves, but you’d never be able to teach someone to swim just by telling them about it). Polanyi devotes an entire section to “tradition” and modes of knowledge transmission:
An art which cannot be specified in detail cannot be transmitted by prescription, since no prescription for it exists. It can be passed on only by example from master to apprentice. This restricts the range of diffusion to that of personal contacts, and we find accordingly that craftsmanship tends to survive in closely circumscribed local traditions. […] To learn by example is to submit to authority. You follow your master because you trust his manner of doing things even when you cannot analyse and account in detail for its effectiveness. By watching the master and emulating his efforts in the presence of his example, the apprentice unconsciously picks up the rules of the art, including those which are not explicitly known to the master himself. These hidden rules can be assimilated only by a person who surrenders himself to that extent uncritically to the imitation of another. A society which wants to preserve a fund of personal knowledge must submit to tradition. (p. 55, emphasis my own)
Which brings me to why they’re all here, in this room, sitting in a circle on lint-stippled carpet. Everyone is struggling with the labels that have been pasted on them, of the stiff, unyielding, archaic “traditional” as opposed to the lithe, adaptable, versatile “contemporary”. They’re trying to argue that what they are doing is contemporary. It’s evolved with age, it’s experimenting, it’s supple and sinuous. Therein lies the rub for so many of them, who’ve honed and perfected their practice in the handing down of knowledge from master to apprentice, and who love the work they do, but who can no longer participate in the “imitation of another” so “uncritically”.
Southernmost isn’t just a research programme – it wants to be a reclamation programme. It proposes another path, another language through which to redeem and subvert the term “traditional”, another way to give knowledge to each other. Through the workshops, the intense discussions, the presentations and the rehearsals, these seven artists are passing on a new body of knowledge by example. Robin Nelson, one of the godfathers of the practice-as-research PhD – which was almost blasphemous to the academy 20 years ago – champions this more intimate brand of knowing. In Practice as Research in the Arts (2013) he suggests that
The noun ‘knowledge’ might suggest a clearly bounded object of knowledge separate, and at a distance from, an observing subject and available to be seen-known across time and space by other viewing subjects. The verb (present participle) ‘knowing’, in contrast acknowledges a subject engaged in the act indicated and perhaps engaged in a processual relationship spatially more proximal to the object to be understood. (p. 20)
TL;DR: don’t think of knowledge as some distant body of facts that you need to memorise and acquire – but as something close to you, that you can engage with intimately and, through that engagement, learn and understand what you need to know.
It’s this softness, this closeness that I realise has been the most effective “way of knowing” over the past three days. Elizabeth and Amin, in particular, have been keeping daily rehearsal journals as part of the process, detailing what and how they’ve learnt, but also the deeply emotive dimensions to the process, about longing to hold on to a specific feeling, about what it means to “don’t think, just do”. It isn’t a perfect process, and there’s a lot of trial and error, and a lot of figuring out, and I may not like or enjoy every single image or line of text on the stage, but I dunno, that somehow feels secondary at this point. Something else clicked this morning, and rumbled to life. I didn’t know this before. But having been so close to it, having engaged with it, and sat with it – now I do.
The rest of the day – and this continues in Day 4 (the day I’m writing this!) – involves a lot of chiselling and hewing things out of the blocks the artists have made; the finer details are coming to the light, and then re-worked, and the re-sutured. Xiaoyi has very specific things in mind that he’s gleaned from all the interactions and the work the artists have devised over the past two days. Some pairs already have a foundation – others need development as partnerships and dialogue partners. There are also some soloists, and some sojourners. Key terms keep coming up: “rhythm”, “space”, “time”. The production is now producing and following its own vocabularies, both in terms of props and in terms of gestures and sounds. But I’ll write about that tomorrow. Today I’m just happy I finally know what Southernmost is, even if it took me a year to get here.
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…
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):
Spend an hour preparing. (Natalie the stage manager announced each 15-minute quarter.)
Teachers, understand your student before you teach; challenge your student.
Students, ask questions of and understand what your teacher means; don’t just imitate them blindly.
Create space for criticism.
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.]
Ee Vian & Jing (equal partnership)
Rady & Xiaoyi (unclear partnership)
I asked Xiaoyi: “So… are you the teacher or the student?”
Xiaoyi: “I am Xiaoyi.”
He can be really annoying sometimes.
Teaching and learning
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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?