Leading Women and Politics Take Centre-Stage at the F/T13 Emerging Artists Program

IMG_1201/ article published by FellSwoop Theatre at Festival / Tokyo ’13, Blog Camp at F/T

F/T’s exciting platform for young emerging artists from Japan and across Asia promises to encourage and foster “contemporary artistic expression”. Once again this year each company selected by F/T was given the opportunity to perform their latest piece and be showcased in the Japanese capital. Although the companies’ attempts were more ore less incomplete rather than full-fledged pieces, each of them shared a common strive for multidisciplinary forms or original political contents in their work.

The first piece I attended this year was not a theatre piece but Satoko Shibata’s touching and intimate concert. A Promising Daughter was performed in the curious-looking Asahi Beer Hall building in Asakusa. Though sometimes cryptic, Shibata’s words had an undeniable poetic quality. Despite her apparent fragility – perhaps accentuated by her much too-big 1980’s jumper and her round-framed glasses – the songwriter and composer confidently claimed a certain originality. In her songs, for example, past relationships sounded convincingly bleak and haunting (she sees the world around her as one that turns “yellow-green” – a “sickened” colour). Very few artists in concerts play with silences like Shibata did when she allowed the chords to linger and float in the darkly lit space. The musician also had the most incredible way of switching halfway through her songs into an entirely new composition. A Promising Daughter was a great introduction to the unapologetic contemporary scene presented this year in the Emerging Artists Program.

Another “promising daughter” at F/T was Tara Tan’s CLOUD. Tan not only directs and designs her piece; she also plays a small part in it too. This crossover film, live performance and video installation showed conceptualist artist Tan’s strong understanding of how to compose with different artistic crafts. Unlike many multi-disciplinary performances that apply different formats to ornate thoughtless content, in this performance, all of the different media became Tan’s essential tools for constructing bit-by-bit the melancholic ennui of a housewife living in Singapore. Although the voice of this contemporary Madame Bovary was sometimes hard to locate (the actress on film spoke Chinese, the one on stage Japanese, yet they were both supposed to incarnate the same person), the fragmentation of the narrative was inspiring and was a serious attempt from the artist to create a hybrid performance exploring different ways of telling one single narrative.

What stood out most in Sujata Goel’s dance performance was the perfect handling of the sound and lighting design. Although the concept of her work looked rather daunting on the page (“the artist confronts her own image”), Goel’s Dancing Girl was one of the best pieces I saw at the festival this year. Goel’s compelling piece attempted to decompose traditional Bharatham Indian dance moves much-like what nineteenth century photographer Eadweard Muybridge did in Woman Descending a Stairway and Turning Round. Sujata Goel’s quest for identity always avoids the pitfalls of the egoistic. If Goel looks at herself, she does it pertinently, and only through the roots of her own Indian culture. This is a must-see for anyone trying to define what live presence is on stage and how fascinating that can be.

Attempts to reconstruct socio-cultural meaning through movement were also present in Yeongran Suh’s solo performance The God Who Wakes Up Imperfectly, which features Suh’s similar attempts to find the origins of traditional dance and music in her own Korean culture. The use of her sound and surtitle operator during the performance felt a little sketchy and unprepared but the originality of her lecture-style performance was – deliberately or not – an interesting attempt to stage the doubts of solo performers about the rationale of their own theatre and the problems they may encounter along the devising process.

This year’s winner of the F/T Emerging Artists Program’s F/T Award, The Warfare of Landmine 2.0, explored the theatrical possibilities of physical work and mime to represent the struggle and conflict of the Japanese and Chinese nations over the last century. Alternating between excerpts of political theory written by famous philosophers such as Nietzsche and Jung, and found texts from Internet, Théâtre du Rêve Expérimental’s physical work remained at times too literal and the microphones felt an unnecessary and labored item to portray the violence of its topic. The award, however, surely prefigures Théâtre du Rêve Expérimental as a company to watch out for.

Other Japanese companies this year also delivered fierce political statements about their nation. This strive for political content felt highly topical during a time when the Liberal Democratic Party was voting in a state secrets bill in a nation already gravely endangered by its current environmental disaster, one of the worst in human history.

Although dealing with gloomy national issues, its shambolic handling of the nuclear power station situation in Fukushima and the nation’s greed for money, KODOMOKYOJIN’s HELLO HELL!!! was an energetic comedy accompanied by light-hearted musical numbers sung by a talented ensemble of physical performers. The company’s bold irreverence was refreshing amongst the overly-modest shows featured in the F/T Main Program and deserves praise for tackling, in a unique manner, what might otherwise just have been a theme which “makes everyone feel like weeping”. “The only challenge is to keep creating”, director Takashi Masuyama said off-stage, and in order “to eat” artists are torn between working for television or producing “boring theatre” that will get funded by the Japan Foundation. In HELLO HELL!!!, women are powerful and kill people with cardboard swords, while men are devoured by inflatable plastic crocodiles or burnt alive by thin papery red flames, and angels look like transvestites versions of Madonna. It may sound awful when described like that, however, on stage, it’s terrific fun.

Set on a futuristic planet, Sons Wo’s sci-fi tale also explored social issues in Japan. Stray’s Collar depicted the inability of adults to communicate with troubled youth and the ambient mal-être of the Japanese young generation. The repetitive use of Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water song absolutely grasped the unease of its teenage protagonist and provided an interesting connection towards the sensitive content of the piece. Despite the originality of its script and the humour emanating from the play, though, the complicated physicalization whereby actors had to distort and jitter every single movement prevented the spectators from embarking on an emotional journey with its otherwise appealing troubled heroine.

The Taiwanese A Midsummer Night’s Chat presented by Shinehouse Theatre felt, however, slightly off-topic in this otherwise compelling program of plays. The illusion of its “Japanese horror movie” aesthetic did not work in the intimate and comfortable Theater Green space. The tale of these four women haunted by ghosts and traumatic past stories may have been more successful if the feeling of fear had been suggested rather than shown. In other words, the illusion created on stage was too obvious. The people in the tech box also giving themselves instructions during the performance on when to cut the video was too overt to allow real fear to grip the audience.

The rise of talented female artists in the program this year such as Tan, Suh, Shibata and Goel is a significant indicator of the contemporary arts scene in Asia. Their solo-led performances were inspiring and their energies deserve admiration. It is an encouraging sign that more women directors will, from now on, be participating in international theatre festivals and taking strong artistic leaderships. This feature is to be noted not out of gallantry, but because it contrasts greatly with F/T’s Main Program this year, which was entirely dominated by male directors.

N.B: Apologies to Satoko Ichihara’s The Qlobe of Life II which I could not attend this year.