Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life

I was wondering where our Malaysian volunteers were. There were supposed to be 50 of them.

The play had begun. A lady lying on top of a metallic frame was reciting lines, in somewhat clipped Japanese accent, about waking up and doing things and searching for meaning within daily routines. On the stage below her, some shadowy figures were aiming their digital video cameras on architectural models, projecting images of a model city – sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset – onto the screen held up by the metallic frame. The images, as it would be throughout the play, were witty, irreverent and surprisingly poetic, such that the visual abstraction looked real, the way a piece of poetry could sound truthful. Created on stage, it served to tease the tenuous line between image and reality, toys and buildings, desires and designs.

When the scene ended, the camera crew left. Suddenly members of the audience in the first three rows rushed out of their seats, climbed onstage and started dancing. Ah, so that’s where they were. The showy ones took to stage front and made moves that would embarrass William Hung. The shy ones stayed in the middle trying to hide their embarrassment. All of them ignored the lead singer, who is belting out J-pop, accompanied by a kicking brass section, in which both the men and women were dressed in big frilly black skirts and sunglasses. They looked so nonchalant they made our Malaysian extras look like awkward kids at a highschool prom.

Japanese theatre company Tokidoki-Jido were performing at The Actors Studio Bangsar two weeks ago. Travelling at their own expenses, these 17 member troop where even crew double up as cast required back-up assistance. After a three-day workshop with Tokidoki-Jido, the 50 Malaysian volunteers joined them for three performances, titled Lightology, during the Election weekend of March 20 and 21. The multimedia dance performance, not unlike Dumb Type’s which we saw at Istana Budaya two years ago, was a frenetic show, combusting with ideas and kooky, morbid humour.

One scene kept fading into total blackout during which you heard voices of visually-disabled Malaysians (students at the Malaysian Association of the Blind) describe what light means to them. The literalness of this was shocking, and then, amusing, and then just ironic. This could easily become trite if not for the fact that the interviewees were talking about light as if they really know it. As it turned out, they do: from their imagination. But while a few displayed simple wisdom, a few also displayed a naivete that might have come from being too sheltered.

In the last segment, the performers kept climbing to the top of the metal frame and then falling to the back. The moment they fall off, a two-dimensional representation (like the male half of toilet signs: how’s that for semiotics?) appear on the screen, free-falling down the side of a building. The first few dropped to the ground and spurted cartoon blood. And then one by one, they started taking off just before they hit the ground, flying into the clouds, spinning in mid-air pirouette. Suicide will liberate you? Okay, sure…

The Malaysian volunteers, till now mainly used to make assorted background noises and dances, played quite a significant role here. During the climax, they added to the general chaos by rushing to the mikes at the two corners of the stage, and declaiming their happiest moments. Behind them, the Japanese dancers were running head-on into metal foils, crashing loudly, and still jumping off the rack. All this jumping business seemed to be a reference to the high suicide rate in Japan. I don’t know how seriously to take their claim that they were trying to “change our sorrow and despair to pleasure and hope in life.” But by taking the suicides to such a hyperbolic extreme, the show willed itself into manic optimism. Or a kind of voiceless panic. The ambivalence pulsated like opposing synapses. Like a portrait of a city in denial: the pounding rhythm of daily grind on the surface, the madness under.

Previous Japanese theatre or dance companies coming to Malaysia to collaborate had been accused of making Malaysian artists subservient to their Japanese concepts; it’s a kind of post-war colonising. In Lightology, there was no pretension even to the subservience. To be frank, the Malaysian volunteers were totally unnecessary. Their booty shaking and onomatopoeiac functions could be jettisoned without consequence: the already perplexing performance cannot be made anymore perplexing. So, if you ask me, I would say this wasn’t so much a workshop as it was a training session. There just wasn’t enough creative input by the volunteers; but who knows – that might be a good thing. For this particular group of non-arts people – students, office workers, and bored housewives – the production offered a chance to do something completely different, something out of their normal routines, which was ultimately what the show was about. And I am all for exposing Malaysians to non­linear thinking and free-falling.

Here are some comments by the participants themselves.

Yap Sui Lin, 19, just finished her Chinese Form Six at Kuen Cheng Girls High School with 9As (she got 16As for SPM), and is now waiting to go USA to study Economics.

At first, I didn’t quite know where we were heading with no storyline or script. We had rehearsed ‘folkdance’ steps (such as polishing a ball till it emitted smoke, or using our elbows to scratch a mosquito-itch while having a handbag tucked under our armpits), a mini-stampede to shine flashlights on people delivering their Oscars-like speeches about their “happiest thing in life” and jamming in a voice orchestra (imagine reciting a sweet poem angrily, reading Agatha Christie laughing and singing a newspaper article!). Add on a semi-live video about a boy’s aspirations, conversations with the blind, drum-beating, interactive dancing, people jumping from a 2.5m­ high set… then voila! you have Lightology!  Sounds chaotic and confusing, doesn’t it? However, when put together, it’s a totally out-of-the-world outcome – visually stunning, thought provoking, occasionally comical and most importantly, outrageously fun!

I particularly liked the play of light in Pikari man, the video about a boy dreaming that he is a gladiator that controls the world. Later, I discovered from the video talk that the director, Naoyuki Asahina (or fondly known among participants as ‘Bibi’) had been inspired by a psychiatric therapy, which uses various dioramas to form a story. A tinge of ‘zaniness’ is undoubtedly required to appreciate this unique mixed-media concoction.

Rama Devi Prasad, from Melaka

After preliminary introductions were established, we soon found ourselves following a dance routine. I was amazed how working with a group helps me to memorise the steps in just one session. Then followed a most unusual voice practice: with great skill young male artistes produced the funniest sounds ever. Occasionally, as a child I have enjoyed making noises from the back of my throat, sides of my mouth and through pursed lips. But now, we began sounding like machines, and to reproduce them every time sure needed some memory. This was sensational for us but did not catch the attention of the audience – no one thought much of it; I liked doing it a lot. Sounds like “brrps, bzepampam, brkeenahekubathe… ” went on and on. How was all this going to fit into the whole? Well, without a storyline but a lead from the word “Light” everything took off. Moments of darkness with voice overs and terrific fun dance sessions had the volunteers letting off energy. By the end of the third performance and listening to the questions from the audience it was common to hear the word “confusion”! And to me it was like a lot of pieces from a jigsaw puzzle collected in a pile.

I felt it would be best not to try to find connections. Like Japanese English on T-shirts or like their mechanical toys, individually everything was acceptable and worked but there was no whole… or was there?

Benjamin Sivabalan, 18, staying at Joshualand Youth Development Centre, is presently studying Form 5 at Sekolah SM Samad, PJ.

The part that touch my heart during the drama was the part that was totally dark where the blind people was telling about the effect of light in their lives. Light plays a very important role in our lives. Without it, we will be in darkness. We won’t be able to enjoy the beauty of this universe. When there is no light we become helpless, we grope in the dark finding for things to lean on. When there is light we feel secure. Everything is so visible to us.

Through the drama that I saw, I could feel how difficult it is for the blind people to live.

Lee Kuan Yet, 23, studying Masters in Bio-Process Engineering at UTM, Skudai, member of Flying Dance Studio

It is fun when two people from different cultures gather and work together towards a same purpose. Although somehow translation was needed for communication, most of the time, we simply used our body language to convey our message. In this workshop, I have learned that no matter what background we are from, what culture we are in and what language we use, it does not really matter; the important thing is that we have the same direction, the same aspiration, and that we are moving together hand in hand, supporting each other along the way. I think only “Art” can achieve this. There are simply no boundaries in between us, for we are just a group of people that enjoy the beauty of performance art and loving it with our whole heart.

First Published: 01.04.2004 on Kakiseni

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