A Method To The Madness (or Be-Kind-To-Robots Week In KL)

“Pappa TARAHUMARA productions try to liberate themselves from ‘meaning,’ leaving members of the audience free to control their own imaginations.” (from the programme notes)

About 20 years ago I toyed with the idea of scripting and directing a paralingual movement theatre piece to be called “Faulty Robots” – wherein our mundane activities and melodramas would reveal themselves as the mechanistic acting out of hardwired programmes designed to prevent us from ever escaping the 3D frequency grid we unquestioningly accept as “reality.”

Being the lazy fellow I am, I decided to adopt as my own the Taoist maxim: “achieve everything by doing nothing.” And so, in 1982, Hiroshi Koike (a more industrious aspect of myself, I suppose) founded the Pappa TARAHUMARA experimental dance company and began laying the groundwork that would ultimately lead to “Faulty Robots” being staged as a collaboration between Five Arts Centre and Pappa TARAHUMARA. Of course, they had to change the title to something inoffensive like Spring in Kuala Lumpur.

And, because Hiroshi Koike has trod a somewhat different lifepath, his version turned out a lot more pokerfacedly serious and a great deal less accessible than my original concept. Fortunately, I could recognize Hiroshi’s creation as an interesting permutation of “Faulty Robots” – so I wasn’t prompted to dismiss his effort as “profoundly boring” (as a catty old friend, himself a choreographer, was heard to remark after the show).

Instead, I found Spring in Kuala Lumpur fairly provocative and impressively staged. Hiroshi is precise in his use of symbolism: arrows = masculinity, government, control; lips = femininity, permissiveness, surrender (but more on this fascinating subject later). His obsession with precision extends to how the human figures on stage interact with one another and with their surroundings (the set by Bayu Utomo Radjikin is a cross between a railway station, a ship, and an insane asylum). Every segment of the soundtrack was selected by the director for its precise effect on the prevailing mood of each scene.

Even the casting reflected Hiroshi’s meticulous attention to detail. For instance, I can’t think of anyone better qualified than Foo May Lyn to play the Drunk Woman At The Railway Crossing. Seated in a wheelchair throughout the action, May Lyn’s delectable madness as a storyteller had a method to it that somehow anchored the chaotic, non-linear events in a pseudo-historical, narrative context – providing an interesting counterpoint to Anne James as the Woman Who Has Had An Accident (and who finally reincarnates as the Vamp With A Flaming Red Wig). Though she isn’t mentioned in the credits, Marion D’Cruz did an outstanding job as the Crone Who Controls The Drunk Woman’s Wheelchair.

Elaine Pedley was fabulous as the Woman With A Burning Desire For Love, and her every irrational behaviour was animatedly executed. As Berg, the Man With Suppressed Desires, Lee Swee Keong was superbly convincing, especially when lapsing into total robotism. Likewise, Michael Xavier Voon as the Solitary Man whose enigmatic and unpredictable moves approached a high order of slapstick ballet.

Mao Arata (as Berg’s wife, Bemberg, A Woman Who Knows), Makie Sekiguchi (as an Extremely Self-Satisfied Woman), and Makoto Matsushima (as the Man Who Flees) were the Japanese components, all dedicated and talented members of Pappa TARAHUMARA. They interacted seamlessly with the Malaysian cast members, further reinforcing the transpersonal detachment required to make such an extraordinarily energetic fusion of dance and theatre work.

Indeed, every member of the hand-picked cast – which included Jerrica Lai, Kiea Kuan Nam, Shafirul Azmi Suhaimi, Sharip Zainal Sagkif Shek and Weijun – performed with impeccable discipline, focus, precision, and incredible stamina. It was evident from their total surrender to Hiroshi’s directorial vision that the man’s ability to inspire and push to new levels of performance is nothing short of phenomenal.

In effect, Spring in Kuala Lumpur was a unique opportunity for a few of our most promising actors and dancers to work with a cutting-edge Japanese dance company whose artistic director’s quirky, haiku-ish vision has won him growing international acclaim. But, apart from being a great workout for the performers, what was it all about? Why did producer Ken Takiguchi and his hardworking team from the Japan Foundation put so much sweat, over so many months, into facilitating this logistically elaborate event?

Here’s where it gets interesting. Having declared at the outset that Pappa TARAHUMARA isn’t particularly concerned about “meaning” in its dance-theatre projects, does this imply that “meaninglessness” is an essential part of its repertoire? And why should audiences fork out good money to watch something “meaningless” – in any case, so defiantly, arty-fartily obscure?

Hiroshi Koike revealed in a promotional interview that Spring in Kuala Lumpur was his artistic response to the world since September 11, 2001. This makes sense in view of his use of symbols, disjointed text and free association (arrow, sparrow, marriage, condom, and so on). Arrows imply direction, humans are conditioned to follow arrows, even if they ultimately lead nowhere. The male symbol is also the symbol for Mars and features a circle with an erect arrow. Mars is the invasive-divisive principle, the patron god of war, surgery, and agriculture. Uncannily meaningful, especially at a time when the red planet is at its closest proximity to the Earth – and warmongers threaten perpetual bloodshed.

Women’s lips are erotic, suggestive of vulvas, sensual delights, romantic passion. To be pursued by kisses or to pursue phantasmal arrows is pretty much part of the basic human bi-polarity.

The cold clinicality of the set, combined with the precisely choreographed erratic behaviour of the characters, also conjured the other-worldly ambience of a lunatic asylum. The Drunk Woman At The Railway Crossing turns out to be the Gatekeeper. She alone has the power to open and close the gate, thereby controlling the movements of the other entities on stage. When the railway gate is open it looks like a ship’s mast for Berg to shinny up and mouth some disjointed text. (Is this really a ship of fools like the Titanic? Why is his name “Berg”? An allusion to mountains and shepherds and Zionist usury – or a subtle tribute to Ingmar Bergman?)

The railway gate itself becomes a sort of Caucasian Chalk Circle: in the Caucasus mountains, magicians are able to hypnotize people so they absolutely cannot leave the arbitrary confines of a circle drawn around them in chalk, unless the magician breaks the spell. This represents the social taboo – and human societies consist of a complex of taboos and totems (the subject of a fascinating painting by Max Ernst).

Whoever has the ability to manipulate and exploit human taboos and totems takes on deific or diabolical powers. Those that allow themselves to be thus exploited and manipulated forfeit their humanity and become mere machines – cogs in an invisible wheel, commonly referred to as The System or, in today’s parlance, The Matrix. Their lives, devoid of real meaning or purpose, become incoherent memory fragments; their actions, dictated by impulses beyond their conscious control, become a zen study for avant-garde dance-theatre projects.

So what about the dead pussycat? And the stuffed sparrow dangling from the rafters? Who was Weijun fleeing from? And what the @%#! was Berg muttering at the beginning and end of the show?

Hiroshi Koike asks, in his director’s notes: “Where do people come from, and where do they go?”

Good question! Much more stimulating, anyhow, than: “What’s the sound of one hand clapping?”

First Published: 24.09.2003 on Kakiseni

Related items

For Translation

The 8th Annual BOH Cameronian Arts Awards — Results!

dance Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize…

The 7th Annual BOH Cameronian Arts Awards — Results!

dance Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize…