Watching avant-garde theatre in South Korea. A little confounding. A little boring. And yet, exhilarating.
The Asia Cultural Center Theater in Gwangju, South Korea, was inaugurated recently, with a three-week-long festival from September 4 to 21. The centre – it’s enormous – aims to establish itself as the hub of Asian contemporary performing arts, and when an invitation arrived, I didn’t need much persuasion. Offbeat cinema, at least, is available if you have a broadband connection and no scruples – but offbeat theatre? The press contingent included journalists from France, Japan, Germany and all over Korea, and the first performance we watched was a production of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring by Romeo Castellucci, the enfant terrible of Italian theatre. Having read up about him, I was prepared for something radical, but I still expected the basics – a ballet, with dancers, with a live orchestra. I expected a stage. However offbeat, you still need a stage.
Instead, we were ushered into a room with tiered seating – the kind of room in offices and college campuses where you’d be listening to a motivational speaker. It was dark, so it wasn’t immediately apparent – as we settled down – what lay in front of us, but there was something shiny, glassy. I thought it was a curtain. When the lights dimmed and the opening bassoon solo began to play (the score was a recording), the “stage lights” came on. The shiny curtain turned out to be a transparent wall. A literal fourth wall, perhaps? The “stage” looked like a squash court, and I couldn’t figure out how dancers were going to perform in that small space. And then the machines started moving.
Imagine the airborne drones from the Terminator movies swooping down, whirling around, swaying from side to side, incessantly vomiting a powder that looks like sand – they were the “dancers,” this was the “ballet.” It was as much about choreography as engineering. Now we saw the reason for the wall, so that the clouds of sand didn’t drift towards the audience. A Japanese choreographer seated a few rows ahead of me was unimpressed. “Something is missing,” he told me later. “It’s too controlled. For me, the most important part of the performing arts is the human body on stage. Here, we only see a concept.” But the concept was the thing. Castellucci’s staging was as radical as Stravinsky’s was when Rite of Spring premiered in Paris on May 29, 1913. Instead of a traditionally genteel ballet performance, something like Swan Lake, the audience got primitive folk music, pagan rituals and a virgin sacrifice. A century later, Castellucci was redefining our expectations of a ballet that redefined expectations of a ballet.
The avant-gardism did not stop there. Towards the end, the production morphed into a slide presentation. Viewers became readers. We were informed not just that the sand-like powder was actually bone ash, but also that the chemical name for bone ash is Calcium Hydroxide Phosphate, Ca5(OH)(PO4)3, that its density is so much, its melting point is this number, that it is obtained from the calcination of animal bones (cows, in this case), and that this production had used six tons of it (the equivalent of 75 cows). In other words, Spring, which signifies birth, life, was being represented through death.
Maybe there was something more. Maybe Castellucci, with his industrial mise en scène, was saying that the pagans were essentially automatons, mindlessly bound to codified ritual. Or maybe he was paying tribute to the music critic Paul Rosenfeld, who, in his 1920 book Musical Portraits: Interpretations of Twenty Modern Composers, described Stravinsky’s score thus: “The music pounds with the rhythm of engines, whirls and spirals like screws and fly-wheels, grinds and shrieks like laboring metal. The orchestra is transmuted to steel. Each movement of the ballet correlates the rhythms of machinery with the human rhythms which they prolong and repeat. A dozen mills pulsate at once.”
The performance was exhilarating, but also a little confounding, and at times even a little dull – like art cinema. Given how different tastes are, recommending a play or a movie to someone is always a fool’s errand, but the foolishness is multiplied a thousandfold when narrative (which does the explaining for us) is replaced by concept-level abstraction (which means we have to come up with explanations). Look, I’m not saying one is better than the other. There are times I’m just not in the mood for something like Castellucci’s Rite of Spring, and, given the option, would prefer to watch, say, The Mousetrap or a musical instead. I understand, too, that it’s part of my job to watch the Castellucci – during “office hours” – whereas most people watch films or plays after a hard day’s work, all wrung out, and they just want to be entertained.
But not all art has to “entertain.” All too often, I’ll speak highly about a “difficult” movie and someone will dismiss it as something for “pseudo-intellectuals” – and that’s unfair. Yes, we don’t always understand everything about non-mainstream art. We may even get bored. And we may walk away unsure about what we just saw, uncertain about what we really felt, unable to fully articulate how we processed it. But that’s part of the experience. That’s the word: experience. Sometimes, we want art to entertain us, perform tricks for us like a clever dog in a viral video. Other times, it’s about a new experience, a plodding rickshaw ride in this aviation age, a journey that won’t bombard you with stimulation but may offer subtler rewards if you’re alert, game, patient.
Later that day, we saw The Monk from Tang Dynasty, directed by Taiwanese art-house darling Tsai Ming-liang. The performance began with the monk lying motionless (sleeping, apparently) on a spotless white sheet. But it wasn’t cloth – it was paper. Another “actor” walked in, knelt on the paper, and began to draw with charcoal pencils. He drew. He smudged out what he drew. He kept doing this till he’d covered almost all the white space around the monk. In the silence – punctuated occasionally by the whirr-click of camera phones, coughing, the rustle of paper from my notebook, the squeaks of the charcoal pencils – you were free to project onto the performance whatever you wanted. The drawing and erasing – life and death? The gradual encroachment of black on white – a lament that, over time, what’s pure becomes corrupt?
There were no clues in the festival brochure. Simply the observation that “our own imagination becomes one with the staged event.” And a small note from Tsai Ming-liang. “Slowness extends and unfolds time. By eating and drinking slowly, we can truly experience the act of eating and drinking. In that sense, resistance can also appear through slowness. The world today asks for more speed and this has become a significant constraint in contemporary life. My goal is to become free from these constraints.” His goal, in other words, is to take that rickshaw ride, and he’s offering us the seat next to him.
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