FRAMES AND PERCEPTION, A MEANDERING LOOK AT PERFORMANCE AND LIFE
by Kate Mattingly
Some thoughts about the occasion of a festival and the significance of seeing performances, exhibitions, films and discussions with artists from other places: Well-aware of the impossibility of understanding a culture through a handful of events, I also see the essential nature of these offerings in a time when technology and news media construct the lens through which we perceive countries and cultures.
In a discussion called "what to expect?" I suggested that we enter a theater with certain preconceived notions, images from photographs or films, stories about people and places. A member of the panel said he thought it was important to come to these events with an "open mind." Each day I see another event, I realize that my eyes are open but my mind is a collection of sights, stories, statements I have encountered through other people, other places. This idea of tabula rasa is an impossibility in a day and age when we are surrounded by stimuli and messages. The festival is an opportunity to see how artists are making work both similar and dissimilar to Western approaches, and how their work reflects and refracts impressions of different cultures and histories.
This is antidote to the mediated information that streams through the internet: the irony of today is that the internet gives us access to information from around the globe at the click of a finger, but we gravitate towards familiar links and respond to messages from friends and colleagues. Instead of expanding our perspectives and awareness of difference, the Internet can narrow our viewpoints. With little substantiation of information, the internet is also home to opinion and vitriol, any person can post a comment and vent their anger. And of course this can all happen in the confines of a room with no other people around. As technology increases do we experience greater awareness of difference or expanded communication or more isolated existences?
To start with an image. At the end of the performance by Chandralekha Group called "Sharira – fire/desire" the two performers are connected by hands and ankles: Tishani Doshi holding on to the ankles of Shaji K. John in a hand-stand shape, while he holds her ankles at his shoulder level.
The two figures then "walk," although it is impossible to tell if she is lifting and moving his ankles or if his motions of walking are moving her body. It seems a perfect symbol of complexity and contradiction, to borrow a phrase from architecture. It speaks to the idea that the man and woman form elements of one another, juxtaposing familiar and unfamiliar. The intertwined shape could also be seen as a metaphor for the co-existence of the traditional and contemporary, a theme that reappears again and again in conversations surrounding the sommerszene festival, "China/India."
In the "what to expect?" conversation on June 22, people from Austria, China and India were invited to look at different perceptions of one another and the interplay of politics and art.
Expectations, particularly in terms of performers and audience, often revolve around a set of preconceived notions about an artist or art-form and these notions form a filter through which the work is seen. The same holds true for meeting people and traveling places. Most often these notions are created through films, newscasts, photographs and literature. For example, what do you think of when someone says China? For me the answer is Tiananmen Square – or more specifically the tanks in Tiananmen Square that circulated through the news in 1989. Critic and theorist Helmut Ploebst examined this image after a performance by Living Dance Studio. The discussion that followed discussed the framing of this photograph: was this image representative of the "fight for freedom" as suggested by most Western coverage, or a moment when a person inexplicably risked his life before his friends whisked him off to safety?
The almost contradictory reactions to the same source of information continue. On Sunday, June 24, The New York Times ran a slightly amusing story of a journalist for the paper who was locked in a toy factory in Beijing for nine hours and accused of being a spy. He says he was there to research the manufacturers of the toys which contained lead paint and had to be recalled. The ensuing crisis pitted an incredibly strong commercial sector against a much weaker police authority.
In everyday life two people look at the same incident and form completely different conclusions. Prior experience creates this unpredictable prism through which we see events. I smile when I see how our fantasies become reality in Salzburg where the Sound of Music tours give visitors the opportunity to make a fictional film "real." What do we see in the performances from abroad? Do images match or disrupt our preconceptions about a place or people?
If I think about the notion of "cultural exchange," I see a network of agendas and results. Historically, in post-WW2 U.S. history, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower began a program of funding dance companies to tour to foreign places, artists were chosen as exemplars of American strength, creativity and beauty. One of the ironies of this program features a story about the dancer Dudley Williams, a long-time member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater who tells of touring Africa as a representative of the United States while at home he encountered incidents of pronounced racism and segregation. Clare Croft, a dance scholar at the University of Texas, is currently researching the discrepancies between the presentations on stage and realities behind the curtains.
During the sommerszene festival, events like the discussions and blog are paths to examining assumptions and misnomers: artists and audiences share their impression and interpretations. Tishani, the dancer described earlier in Chandralekha's piece said of Salzburg, "I expected it to be pretty and like a toyland, and I think it is very beautiful in a postcard kind of way." Asked about the most striking contrast between Austria and India, she laughed: "I walked on the bicycle path today by mistake! Here, I think everything is very organized. In India there is understood chaos. For people who don't understand this, when they visit India, they question how anything is ever accomplished. Here, when you do something wrong, people point it out to you."
On stage her performance was powerful, although to me, I needed time to digest her presentation of incredible beauty and sensuality as a feminist statement. Knowing that Chandralekha believed strongly in a woman's independence – and that she herself took a position against marriage – how could she make this piece where the man on stage did grand gestures and strong balancing poses while the woman in front of him, Tishani, lay on her stomach, her legs spread wide in a side split, and slowly inched herself towards the audience, using squiggling motions of her feet to locomote?
The day after Chandralekha Group's last performance, I happened to see the performers at the Salzburg Airport. Our flight was canceled, extending our conversation and there we spoke about this moment and the last image described earlier with her in the handstand, held by Shali John. Connecting images and philosophies from other places, Tishani said she thinks of it like the "Yin-Yang" from China. Not only does this explanation draw on a global awareness, it also sheds light on a statement Chandralekha made that women are "51% female and 49% male."
Complexity and Contradiction
Sadanand Menon, light designer and advisor to the company, worked closely with Chandralekha before she passed away last year. In the conversation "What to expect?" he challenged the Western idea that Globalization threatens the traditional cultures by exporting Western lifestyles -- fast-food, popular films and hip-hop music, which hold little in common with the music and culture of India.
Sadanand explained that the "traditional" Indian dance form Bharata Natyam was first named in 1926, making it younger actually than the Ford car. This "traditional" dance was christened at the same time as Martha Graham's first modern dance concert in New York City, and she is known not as a traditional dancer, but as a pioneer of American modern dance. Sadanand suggested that the ideas of "ancient civilization" and "fixed identity" hold little substance. He does not see India threatened by Western culture, but rather the idea of superiority in the people of India stems from a history that predates the West by centuries, with a wealth of artistic ideas and innovations. He described the changes of globalization as fast and swift but balanced by a sense of perspective and a broader understanding of life defined by more than economic value.
His words generated a personal revisioning of Chandralekha's work: by embracing forms such as yoga and kalaripayattu she brings tradition together with contemporary ideas. Rather than negating each other, they co-exist: performers are dressed traditionally, but they do not tell a story like most Indian art forms. The music threads a mercurial line into the visual forms, but the performers and musicians co-exist in an indeterminate system.
Living Dance Studio
Several days after Chandralekha's performance, Living Dance Studio presented "Report on Giving Birth," choreographed by Wen Hui. It was interesting to see this performance an hour after watching Wu Wenguang's "Dance of the Farm Workers," a documentary that featured 30 manual laborers in Beijing creating and showing a piece created in collaboration with choreographer Wen Hui.
Wu Wenguang and Wen Hui are partners in art and life and share a palpable intelligence and determination. In conversations before and after the performance Wu Wenguang spoke about his film and the inability of art to change social situations, acknowledging the divide between manual laborers and contemporary culture.
The workers in the film are asked "if you could change anything what would you change?" One man described the frustration of working for an employer who, at the end of the day, doesn't pay (for the documentary film, each worker in the film was paid 30 yuan a day which converts to 3 euro). The same worker spoke of the humiliation of being asked for living certification by police and continually suspected of wrong-doing (This particular moment reminded me of the descriptions of apartheid in Nelson Mandela's autobiography Long Walk to Freedom and the degradation of living with pass laws).
The man in "Dance of the Farm Workers" then asks "why do they treat us like that?" His awareness of the lack of respect is set in contrast to the power and beauty of their bodies in motion. Coached by Wen Hui, the men move through contact improvisation exercises, group formations, game-like tasks. Images of the group moving together, 15 of them walking and 15 perched on the others' shoulders, are stunning. There is a sincerity in the creation and this is a word I would also use in describing Chandralekha's work.
It is very different from the European sampling of contemporary performance I have seen in the past year. A common element in many performances in Austria is a sense of resistance or irony, as one Austrian choreographer said recently at Republic "I wanted to show something I would not want to watch myself."
In contrast, the two performances from India and China – stylistically very different from one another – emanate from a desire to show or create an image, an emotion, a sentiment. There is less irony or pretension. "Report on Giving Birth" by Living Dance Studio is based on a human endeavor and driven by human limitations: pain, fear, anxiety. I could not understand the Chinese words or German translation, but the dancers' expressions and movement told of experiences that were traumatic. Chandralekha's "Sharira" evokes a very different sense of tranquility, balance, harmonious forces, but both are presentations of an idea or statement which use the human body as an expressive medium. Both acknowledge an inherent sense of value for people, a kind of humanity, even if this idea, in the case of Living Dance Studio, is emphasized by showing what happens when a particular group of people lacks respect or worth.
The intensity of the performers in both companies is stunning: particularly Wang Ya'nan in "Report on Giving Birth," who washes her incredibly long hair in the midst of the performance. Her body is fluid and expressive: in a section of "Report," she and Wen Hui prop their bodies up, pushing their arms against cot-like beds. They twist and torque their legs and torsos as if caught in an endless, almost violent loop between sitting on the bed and standing up.
Wen Hui said of the piece: "We wanted to capture the things women struggle with, whether it is having children or other social pressures. Women in China, women all over the world, are still not equal, we still struggle. And childbirth is that moment when you are open wide, everything is ripe."
Seen side by side these artists from India and China offer varying perspectives, but the places for contemporary artists in their home countries are quite different. The morning in the airport after the performances, Sadanand told me a story about Chandralekha when she was chosen to present a scroll to Chairman Mao in 1953. On the scroll was a poem by Harindranath Chattopadhyaya, containing the lyrics "Hindi – Chini – Bhai – Bhai;" translated from Hindi: "India and China are brothers".
The Living Dance Studio, on the other hand, plans its performances to avoid government recognition. As a website from Beijing called "Beijing Scene" describes: "These days Wen Hui is bringing that creative freedom back to China, and it is not always easy. Issues of censorship and a lack of funding makes the PRC less than an ideal creative environment. Funding for Report on Giving Birth came from the Dutch Prince Claus Fund and the Yunnan Jumping Dragon Culture and Broadcasting Company Ltd. To avoid getting a permit for the project, which would involve censors scanning the content for inappropriate sexual or political content, the Living Dance Studio made it an unofficial production. Hence the 'two nights only' performance and 'free' tickets. Ironically, putting on such a production in defiance of Chinese regulations is more like pulling off an underground guerrilla action, but the very same work is publicly celebrated abroad … Wen Hui may be recognized internationally, but she is determined to remain a Mainland artist. ‘If I lived abroad I would be a failure,' she says. ‘Of course I could work, but I would lose contact with my creative roots. China gives me such a rich backdrop, it is the passion and energy I need to dream.'"
Venturi, Robert, “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture,” Museum of Modern Art; Doubleday, New York 1966.
Kolmes, Jacqueline, “Chandralekha forges feminist abstractions” in:
Dance magazine, 12/1/1994
Beijing Scene: www.beijingscene.com