Review: Homeland/Kagemi ~ theatre notes

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Review: Homeland/Kagemi

Melbourne Festival #6

Homeland by Laurie Anderson. Laurie Anderson with Eyvind Kang, Jamshied Sharifi and Skuli Sverrisson. Hamer Hall until October 19.

Kagemi: Beyond the Metaphor of Mirrors, directed, choreographed and designed by Ushio Amagatsu. Music by Takashi Kako and Yoichiro Yoshikawa. Dancers Ushio Amagatsu, Semimaru, Sho Takeuchi, Akihito Ichihara, Taiyo Tochiaki, Ichiro Hasegawa and Dai Matsuoka. Sankai Juku, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre until October 20.

Well, my dears, I know things are happening out there. Election campaigns, terrorist attacks, bodies in suitcases, arrested footballers… But TN’s world has been wall-to-wall art since last Thursday. I’ve selflessly sacrificed the cosy domestic circle every night, furrowing my brow to bring you the goods on the Melbourne Festival. (OK, maybe I haven’t been that selfless; let’s say that I am acutely aware of my privilege here.)

The festival is now at the half-way mark, and it looks like a brilliant success to me. The air is abuzz, the mood is festive, little children are carolling in the streets. As for me – I know you are anxious – I’m holding up well. Next week is just as heavy, so I like those early sessions. Why, sometimes I’ve seen a show and still been home in time for dinner.

I’m a bit tired from all that brow-furrowing – it’s more exhausting than you might think – but I attribute my general well-being to having seen so much good work. Bitter experience has led me to agree with Catullus that bad art can have a deleterious effect on one’s immune system. So I’m thanking the gods – or Kristy Edmunds, which might be the same thing by now – that this year’s program has been such a blast. If I were seeing soul-deadening shows at this pace, I’d surely have already been hospitalised.

Thursday and Friday brought two more winners – Sankai Juku’s miraculous Kagemi: Beyond the Metaphors of Mirrors and Laurie Anderson’s Homeland. I fear my reports will be briefer than these shows deserve – I’m not joking about the tiredness – but I will do my best.

Homeland is a bit of a coup: a festival co-commission of a major new work by Laurie Anderson, electronic rhapsodist extraordinaire. I use the word rhapsodist advisedly: Homeland is essentially an epic poem, delivered with Anderson’s trademark restrained passion and cool, intelligent irony, about contemporary America.

“Homeland” is a charged word: in the 20th century, the Homeland, Heimat, was the blood and soil of the Third Reich. In the 21st, it’s at the heart of George Bush’s rhetoric on the War on Terror, and the Department of Homeland Security, which now has the power to eavesdrop on the private phonecalls and emails of ordinary US citizens, is tasked to "preserve" America’s freedom.

Anderson is one of a number of prominent Americans who are reclaiming the patriotism of their Founding Fathers from the authoritarian slogans of the Far Right. Like Naomi Wolf’s urgent (and surprisingly excellent) pamphlet The End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, Anderson quotes the revolutionary Tom Paine – one of those who fought against the British Crown for America’s independence from imperial tyranny. She invokes the American Constitution, the inspiring rollcall of freedom that guarantees all citizens the rights of free speech, fair trial and habeas corpus - and asks ironically, “was our Constitution written in invisible ink?” “Have we,” she wants to know, “forgotten how to think?”

And like Bruce Springsteen’s recent album, Magic, Anderson portrays a new, uneasy US, a US where the heart seems to be missing, a US where the average citizen is 1.3 paychecks from homelessness. For all its intelligent political edge, which is at once subtle and to the point, this is a show infused with personal longing and pain. When that famous voice whispers: “Welcome to the American night”, your heart chills with menace; when she laments the loss of truth in public and private speech in The Lost Art of Conversation, you feel the space of sadness open beneath your ribs.

It’s performed on a stage covered with tealight candles, and sumptuously lit. And the music – featuring Eyvind Kang on viola and Anderson on electric violin – is wound through with lyrical echoes of Celtic and Arabic music, giving a wild edge of lament to Anderson’s electronic cool. Their rhythms are underlined by Skuli Sverrisson’s mean six-stringed bass, and Jamsied Sharifi on keyboards. The mood is personal, acoustic, reaching for the heart. Homeland is a warning about the worst impulses of America and, in its passionate defence of its freedoms, a reminder of what has always been best.

Kagemi: Beyond the Metaphors of Mirrors is, it’s fair to say, a complete contrast. For one thing, it’s about as deeply Japanese as Anderson’s show is deeply American. But it also represents a fusion of east and west: the butoh master Ushio Amagatsu fascinatingly infuses the avant garde ethos of butoh with classical western dance.

Kagemi is inspired by ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, and in particular by the work of the Japanese ikebana master Riho Senba. It reminds you that in Japan, the annual blossoming of the cherry trees is a major public event, and flower arranging is a kind of theatre. Indeed, of the demonstrations at the Ikebana International Ninth World Convention, it was noted that “the task of projecting out to fill a huge stage as well as capturing and holding an audience of over 1,000 experienced ikebana people is hardly easy. Clever theater is helpful but only goes so far, content and art must be present and take the lead. And at some point the magic appears, and, if we are lucky, it will enhance our lives.”

This might as well have been written of Kagemi. It’s the kind of work that so refuses words it’s very hard to write about: this is art that emerges from the silence and stillness of contemplation, opening doors of perception that are usually blurred shut by the speed of contemporary life. It’s full of the rhythms and grace of the vegetable world, here stylised to an exquisite abstraction: each tiny movement of each finger of each dancer is pregnant with significance. I can’t say I understood specific meanings, not being literate in either ikebana or butoh, but what I did understand was its dynamic harmony, the constant tension on stage between stillness and movement, creation and destruction, growth and decay, self and reflection.

Against a score that includes urgent drum rhythms, classical piano, traditional Japanese music and contemporary electonics, Amagatsu works an austerely minimal palette of gesture and colour; much of the the time the only colours he uses are black and white. But he finds in this austerity a nuance and depth that is wholly compelling. It was, as my theatre partner said, as if gods were dancing on stage.

It took a few minutes for Kagemi to work its spell, largely because the opening dance, a solo backed by minimal strings, was accompanied by such an outbreak of coughing and hacking that it was astounding that paramedics didn’t rush the State Theatre. I felt like personally issuing every patron with my theatre emergency kit of Anticols and tissues. But once the meditative rhythms took hold, the coughing stopped, and Kagemi was a totally immersive experience. It was also notable for the most beautifully choreographed curtain calls I have seen, when the audience made up for its earlier emphysemic behaviour with a tempest of applause.

Picture: Kagemi by Sankai Juku. Photo: Jacques Denarnaud


genevieve said...

A simply ravishing review of Homeland, Alison, even if it is brief. I will be saving this post for future reference. And I agree with Catullus. Anderson has kept me going for four days, and I was quite tired last week - definitely a highly enriched shot to the system. (The experts have dealt with the problem :))

xofro said...

I found Laurie Anderson's concert (work) was a rather lovely way to spend a couple of hours, but was beguiled by beauty (of lighting and sound colour) and fell into an internally-focused trance rather than an externally-alert political awareness. "I like her old stuff better than her new stuff", unfortunately.

Kagemi was similarly mesmeric, although the finely wrought delicacy of the natural allusions referred outwards and always gave me something to ground the work in. I learned (beginner's) Ikebana some time ago, and appreciated the dance's equal concentration at the spaces between rather than just the objects themselves; however this is common to most contemporary dance so doesn't need specialist training! However, the self-contained beauty of the work kept it essentially decorative: a fine bone china representation rather than an urgent emotional engagement.