Yoshiko Chuma & The School of Hard Knocks

“A Page Out of Order: M”
Conception/Direction/Multiple Screen Projection by Yoshiko Chuma
Yoshiko Chuma & The School of Hard Knocks
Dance Theater Workshop
New York, NY
January 18, 2007

by Susan Reiter
copyright 2007, Susan Reiter

Fascinating dislocations, abrupt and rarely logical transitions, powerfully committed performers and a rich, exceptional musical score — these were just some of the many elements spilling across the stage (and across screens) during Yoshiko Chuma’s latest work. True to its title, the various “pages” were offered in a seemingly random order that invited the viewer to process and reassemble the multiple elements on one’s own terms. Clearly, much thought and experience — the work has been percolating through various incarnations and international collaborations — lay behind the layered activity and frequent tonal shifts of this dense 90-minute work

Chuma made the DTW stage seem vast and full of possibilities. Tucked into a corner far on the audience’s right was the exemplary nine-piece band. Four large metal cube-shaped open set pieces were the dominant visual element, employed in an amazing variety of ways. One wooden table at the audience’s left provided a home base of sorts for Sizzle Ohtaka, the narrator/singer, while another was a place for the six performers to pause when not centrally involved in the action, and to collect or deposit props. These ranged from tennis balls to metronomes to swaths of fabric that served as bedsheets, blankets, layered garments such as turbans and skirts.

Film projections were a major component of the work, right from its opening moments, with “screens” created as needed by attaching panels to the sides of the cubes. These included scenes of both arid, open land and urban congestion, as well as an extended sequence from the 1994 Macedonian feature “Before the Rain,” a triptych of connected tales that highlights ethnic hatred and vengeful killing. A compressed summary of the action was projected on two screens while scenes played out silently on others, and Ohtaka spoke in a continuous, intense stream of Japanese — one could presume she was narrating the same summary, but non-Japanese speakers could not be sure.

“A Page Out of Order: M” is the current “chapter” of an ongoing work that Chuma has developed over several years, with residencies during 2006 alone in Albania, Macedonia and Japan. Some of the performers hail from the Balkans or Japan, and the “M” in the title refers to Macedonia, where the emphasis of this “chapter” lies. Early on, during a talky and rather stagnant opening portion that got the evening off to a slow and nearly deadly start, the performers took turns sitting at — and swiftly rearranging — the tables, speaking into a microphone and answering unheard questions, evoking the idea of interrogation under duress. “I am Macedonian,” they intoned — even though some clearly are not. Calm and uninflected, they implied that much is being left unsaid.

Once the movement element became stronger, the music — alternately biting, mournful, haunting — became a major factor, and the layered, multi-focused work asserted itself more powerfully. The four cubes were manipulated with virtuosic dexterity and grace, taking on a dancing life of their own. One sensed their possibilities when Steven Reker did a tumbling, diving solo around and through a cube that was being titled and turned. Disorientation is one effect Chuma effectively evokes through the cubes frequent rearrangement. She also uses them to create scenes of private versus public activity, to suggest confinement and withdrawal.

The performers — who at times acted more as nimble stagehands, guiding and rearranging the cubes so intensely — briskly snapped the panels onto and off the sides of the cubes as needed. One moment someone was performing a loose, slippery solo in an open cube, only to be “walled in” quickly and seen only in silhouette. One was reminded or sudden disappearances, enforced silences, lost identities.

Some of the activity came across as inscrutable by itself, but contributed to the layering of imagery and suggestion. Things veered towards the fantastical — performers donning absurd garments, like children dressing up, that suggest cartoon images of Arabs or other “foreign” cultures — and the fatalistic — rolling themselves up into their own shrouds, which were then carried to lie side by side. Cumulatively, Chuma took us on a wild, unpredictable, thought-provoking ride.

Chuma herself, wearing a white ringmaster-style coat over pants, performed one brief solo dance but is mostly occupied cuing the musicians. And what a sensational sound they created. The ingenious mix of instruments includes trombone, French horn and trumpet as well as Japanese instruments such as shakuhachi and ko-tsuzumi, and a fascinating instrument combining pipes and a squeeze box, whose plaintive, eerie wail was used to virtuosic effect. The score was jointly credited to “Sizzle Ohtaska, Richard Marriott, Dzijan Emin + Project Zlust.” Kudos to them all.

Three photos of Chuma by Cervantes.

Volume 5, No. 4
January 22, 2007

copyright ©2007 Susan Reiter

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