It is very rare that I go out of my way to write a reflection on a theatre piece I didn’t enjoy. Particularly considering that this was one evening I had spent in the theatre purely for pleasure, not for work in any way, that I was a paying customer in civilian clothes, and that what I am going to do can fairly be called a deliberate act of meanness. The only answer I can offer is that it was dance, that dance cannot speak for itself, that if we do not speak out for good dance against bad dance than there will be no one, no one at all. Bad theatre can cannibalise itself, you can let it sit in the corner until it collapses into a pile of hollow words and badly crafted phrases, I am happy to let it compost into the fodder for better theatre. No problems there. But bad dance still looks fairly mimetic, still kicking and contagious, an untamed disease.
So I went to see Yumi Umiumare’s En Trance, excited because I had never seen Umiumare’s solo work, because I still possess a half-baked interest in Japan, because I love butoh, because I love cabaret, because it’s been a year of skinny cows in dance in Melbourne. The excitement lasted – En Trance is not bad enough to be immediately outraging – but it was dishearteningly quick that I began to unpick its flaws, composing sentence after sentence of annoyed self-righteousness while still in the audience.
Umiumare, to give credit where credit’s due, is a fantastic performer, not merely a crafty dancing body but a soloist with that unmistakable stage presence of a cabaret performer, able to pull you in and keep you there, genuinely interested in what she may say or do next. Umiumare employs her skill frequently, and some of the most mesmerising moments of En Trance are also the simplest: Umiumare painting her body white, singing a J-pop song to karaoke, or explaining different Japanese onomatopoeias for crying. Good stage presence, it occurs to me, shares something ineffable with the skills of a good creche child-minder: the ability to keep an eye on a large number of other human beings while doing your own work. (Do observe kindergarten employees some time, you will see.) However, the dramaturgy and the choreography, two fundamental building blocks of dance, are so horrifyingly underdeveloped, that it did not even feel like a draft most of the time. It felt like a brainstorming session, like flicking through someone’s scrapbook, like the disconnected and half-baked notes in travel notebooks in which one may have written ‘boy – jeans’ back when it meant something amazingly profound, but unfortunately now it doesn’t anymore; now one reads ‘boy’, then ‘jeans’, and tries to find a bit of meaning, anything really, to restore one’s faith in one’s own brain.
In a succession of steps downwards, like descending down a ladder, Umiumare sheds layers of civilisation and descends into death, madness and animal-ness; that is, becomes less human. So far, so good. After her cat runs away, she undergoes through a series of transmutations, so to speak, her body subjected first to the de-humanising city (please hear the irony in my voice here), then the violence of pain, and so forth. The first problem is that each scene is monotonously overlong: each had an interesting premise and could have been cut by half. Nothing was gained by duration, except that each dance had a moment of the audience waking out of the spectatorial trance, and drifting away. The second problem, much graver, is that Umiumare makes ample use of her local folklore: from the Japanese cityscapes, through the samurai physical vocabulary, to J-pop, to different oni (most signpostedly shiroi hebi); all her costumes have vague shapes of kimono, there is tea-drinking, there is a white parasol, and visually the entire thing looks like the transcultural theatre of the 1980s, a naïve and ridiculous, if not offensive and essentialist, fusion of gestures and motifs. There were parts, notably the cityscape dance, when I entertained the notion of En Trance being poor man’s dumb type, but even that seemed excessively generous, and I eventually settled for something approximating Mats Ek’s orientalist Sacre du Printemps in intent, and similarly failing in execution. Why? To re-interpret Stravinsky’s dance of madness, the horrific and erotic sacrifice of a young virgin, by pushing it through the sieve of bushido and love suicides is somehow so logical that it loses all sense. The beauty of Sacre, if you want, is demonic and repulsive and close; the moment this is outsourced to the Far East, it has to become elegant not to be insulting (because Ek is Swedish, and probably knew fuck-all about bushido), but then what was supposed to be just a system of signage overweighs and engulfs the entire work, turning it into a hollow, nice-looking facade. Whereas Stravinsky’s and Nijinsky’s ballet was a punch in the gut, Ek’s was just a bit… camp?
I wonder if Umiumare is aware of the two hundred and sixteen problems associated with performing a descent away from being human through her Japanese-ness in Melbourne, the distance her audience already has towards this culturally specific material, the way she herself reinforces the exoticity by merely explaining it to us (the didactic moments were interesting, but one felt instructed thus made into a better person, a little like at worst political theatre), the creepy spectacle of a re-orientalised body willingly turning into an animal; as if it was 1986, and all people of colour who spoke LOTE could embrace their inner savage and find answers to all their riddles. To speak of other cultures is only a problem, I would argue, if we parcel the world into ‘cultures’, if we choose to see the globe as a patchwork, rather than a teeming mass of people all slightly different from another, our codes only surface ripples on a deep sea of shared humanity. When Kundera talks about Stravinsky, Kafka, Carlos Fuentes and Majakovski, you are convinced that these people are important to you, to your life, that their lives, thoughts and actions say something important and meaningful about your life, my life, everyone’s life. That life is lived in particulars, not in generalities, does not contradict this point: ‘culture’ is a generalization in itself, while nothing is more universal than a detail. (This is why types of crying in Japanese onomatopoeia were a fantastic motif that, instead of looking at crying, dissolved into a sterile catalogue of exotic difference.) After all, there is a motif in Slavic fairy tales akin to that of the white snake: a man marries a woman, but she is actually a snake, and the evil thoughts in her mind leave a mark on her body in the form of a snake tongue. Like all good stories, so is this one universal. The truth is not to be discovered in Japan alone, not on its surface at least. Like Ek’s Sacre, so is this snake in drag a bit camp; a bit ‘look at my national costume’; and a bit dated as well.
Stranded between cultures, I do wonder what an artist can do. Like Kundera, he can retreat into greater and greater abstraction, comparative abstraction in his specific case. Like Nabokov, he can employ all his gifts to beat the natives at their game. Like Shaun Tan, perhaps, he can make his own world, a private place that could be anywhere at all; or he can simply be so brilliant at his work that his locus does not matter the slightest. But can he also hold onto his old culture and remain a specialist translator? Is there not something cloying, something dishonest, something fermenting and oxidising about this movement into self-replenishing, privately-grown culture? Kusturica’s ever more outrageous claims on what his people are comes to mind. To make a catalogue of your private world, like some sort of overgrown shrine to ancestors, and try to explain it all to your audience, yet always leaving them out because communication is a fine median between codes, not some fluency in a set language, strikes me almost as wilful retreat into the island of cultural self. Like the proverbial expat ordering Vegemite online.
En Trance. By Yumi Umiumare. Dramaturg and collaborator Moira Finacune, media art by Bambang Nurcahyadi, installtion artist Naomi Ota, costumes design by David Anderson, lighting design by Kerry Ireland. With Yumi Umiumare. Malthouse Theatre, until September 13.