Perth Festival review: Damien Jalet & Kohei Nawa’s Vessel ·
State Theatre Centre, 2 March ·
Review by Varnya Bromilow ·
“It sounds like crickets,” a woman behind me whispered loudly. “And frogs.”
There’s something delicious about making an audience wait. In our restless age of instantaneous gratification, making an audience just sit there is a powerful (but surprisingly under-used) theatrical device. No, you can’t look at your phone; no, you can’t talk; you’ve just got to wait. Was the waiting a clue that we were in for a transformative experience? Was it the theatre-makers attempting to prepare us?
Nothing really prepares you for this.
Imagine if David Lynch and Hieronymus Bosch got together and created a dance work. I use the term dance loosely. Vessel is a collaboration between Belgian choreographer Damien Jalet and Japanese artist Kohei Nawa. If you extend the analogy I’m not sure who is Lynch and who is Bosch, but the product is as startling and compelling as you might imagine. Employing a group of incredibly proficient Japanese dancers, as well as Australian Nicola Leahey and Greek dancer Aimilios Arapoglou, Vessel takes us on a journey into, as my companion aptly put it: “the primordial ooze.”
The seven dancers first appear melded together in three groupings. Their heads are obscured by the contortions of their bodies, any humanizing feature is neatly tucked away. The stage has been transformed into a pool filled with shallow water, the centrepiece of which is a white hillock. Rippling through the water, the bodies slide, combine, grapple and intertwine. We’re not quite sure what we’re watching, but because we’re human, we’re asking: are they naked? Are those flesh-coloured knickers or is that his bottom? Is that her elbow or a knee? Is that breast or chest?
The water acts as a sucking anchor to this section of performance. Only rarely is it sloshed around which gives the splash an extra sense of release when it finally happens. Mostly, the action is tautly measured, tense with restraint. As the bodies straddle and hold, evolving into a series of increasingly complex forms, the audience is transfixed. This dance, if you can call it that, falls squarely into the realm of the super-weird but is as absorbing as it is strange. The only respite from the intensity is a memorable phrase involving the seven bodies, knocking comically against each other – like Newton’s Cradle, one of those shiny desktop doo-dads popular in the 1980s. It’s beautifully executed and provides a rare moment of hilarity.
Writhing in the water, the headless bodies create grotesque forms reminiscent of the Japanese art of Butoh. Butoh arose as a reaction to the dominance of Western culture in post WWII Japan and was renowned for tackling topics considered taboo in 1950s Japan. The characteristic white body paint and grotesque poses both feature prominently in Vessel so it was not surprising to see that one of the dancers – Nobuyoshi Asai – is considered a modern master of the artform. Butoh is considered by many to be a reaction to the atomic bombings of Japan, as well as Western dominance and the incorporation of these elements feels just as provocative here.
Rather than using the traditional white paint, sculptor Nawa created an adhesive for this performance that behaves as a solid when you touch it but then melts when you stop moving. (My kids make this at home and call it “cornstarch goo”) Dripped over dancers’ bodies, it creates a series of thick, milky waterfalls, cascading into a pool atop the hillock in the centre of the stage.
Accompanying all this is a spare, sinister soundtrack by Japanese composer Marihiko Hara featuring the famed Ryuichi Sakamoto. The music swells and recedes, tidal-like as we witness the creation of yet another form. Imagined insects; vulva-like folds; unfamiliar sea-creatures; evolution in flow.
Masterful and wonderfully weird. We filed out of the theatre, spent.
Photos: Courtesy of Perth Festival.