Review: Choy Ka Fai – Soft Machine: Rianto | Yuya – Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells

Performance: 21 & 22 October 2016
Reviewed by Siobhan Murphy - Wednesday 26 October 2016

Soft Machine - Rianto. Photo: Law Kian Yan

Performance reviewed: 22 October

The Berlin-based Singaporean artist Choy Ka Fai has posed a number of interesting questions with his Soft Machine project, which looks with a fresh, inquisitive perspective at the shape of contemporary dance across Asia. In this second evening for the Sadler’s Wells Out of Asia 2 season, we found ourselves asking, when does dance actually become a fight?

The Japanese collective contact Gonzo is led by Yuya Tsukahara and is like no contemporary dance you have ever seen. Contact Gonzo dancers (there are seven in the group but only Tsukahara and Takuya Matsumi appeared in person) bump into, shove, strike, slap, push over, trip up, stand on and generally seem to try to hurt each other. The object is for the one being struck not to react as would be normal – with indignation, and an immediate attempt to retaliate – but to allow conflicting feelings of love and pain, instinct and temperance. It is the principle of any contact sport training session taken out of the gym, roughed up and re-examined as an artform in itself – and there was something oddly compelling about watching it play out.

Choy structured the 45-minute slot as though he were trying to win admittance to the contact Gonzo group, and he was put through a punishing audition. After a general melee that seemed to descend into basic grappling between the three, the stakes were raised considerably. Choy, Tsukahara and Matsumi took it in turns to stand in front of a backboard and have tangerines fired at them – hard – from a makeshift slingshot, with a camera recording the moment of impact and beaming the images on to a big screen. Choy – and one intrepid audience member – were caught in various cringing, grimacing poses. The contact Gonzo pair, startlingly, looked unperturbed in each photograph.

Is this dance, you may well ask – and Choy did, while being squashed underneath the other two. Contact Gonzo are asked to appear at dance festivals – one video clip showed them performing at MoMA in New York, to a gobsmacked audience. And surely a key factor in many a professional dancer’s life is learning to transcend physical pain. Contact Gonzo also make you think about masculinity and its manifestations – is this the ultimate distillation of masculine movement?

The second half of the evening was devoted to Rianto, an Indonesian performer trained in classical and folk Javanese dance forms, who specialises in Lengger, a masked erotic dance from his home region of Banyumas, in which he embodies a female role. Rianto imbued every movement with sensuality; his coy head tilts, curving shapes and hyper-articulated hands and fingers wove a curious spell. His teasing commentary, at first in Indonesian and then in English, was also gently provocative and made you think about what it means to take such a dance out of its context and plant it in front of a western audience. He also demonstrated his skill at classical male roles, adopting fierce warrior poses requiring incredible strength and flexibility.

Choy’s video accompaniment showed Rianto performing and also introduced his wife – a Japanese dancer who came to study Lengger with him. The couple now live in Tokyo, where Rianto creates contemporary dance, too – scrubbed of make-up and with his elaborate Javanese costume removed he performed one piece on stage, which distilled a sense of frantic, urban uncertainty. This seems like a lot to reconcile within one body – the video showed Rianto heading off to a Tokyo gay sauna district after one performance. But the show ended with Rianto naked, wreathed in shadow, dancing with his back to us with a writhing sensuality – a challenge to us, maybe, suggesting that what needs to be reconciled is as much within us as within him.

The Out of Asia 2 season continues at Sadler’s Wells until 3 December – and includes Expedition, an installation by Choy Ka Fai across the front of house areas:

Siobhan Murphy is a freelance writer and editor, who also contributes to Dancetabs and Time Out. Find her on Twitter @blacktigerlily

Photos: Law Kian Yan

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