It might have been a tourist's tour of Asia, but for those of us unable to live with the locals, it was a tantalising glimpse. A programme of solos covering four separate traditions of Asian dance and theatre (the two are often undifferentiated), it was put together by the Japan Foundation to tour internationally.
In London, it deserved a bigger audience. What was appealing was not just the excellence of the performances, but their unfamiliarity. We see a great deal of Indian classical dance in London, but not the folk style known as chhau. Nor do we see much of the dance of Java or Japan; or of China's yueju opera, performed exclusively by women and established in the 1930s, when female performers became acceptable.
Stylisation is the norm, and in the Javanese dances this is particularly exquisite, with Didik Nini Thowok dressed like some ornate, articulated piece of jewellery, each component moving gently to slow singing. In Golek Lambangsari, the dancer's head oscillated like a snake about to transfix you, feet turned out, knees bent and hands making curlicues. The effect was grounded, yet weightless, as if the treading would leave no footprints. Beskalan Putri was more minimal, with repeated flicks of a scarf and a softly stamping foot with anklet bells.
Even more minimal were the Japanese solos presented by Gojo Masanosuke, the movement constricted by stiffly elaborate kimonos, the hem forming a puddle of cloth at the performer's feet. This makes for a sinuous silhouette of long vertical curves, like a Japanese carving, the body swaying very slightly to the high musical thread of a flute and isolated metallic beats of percussion. The effect was hypnotic, and the drama evident, even if you didn't understand the words sung. (Explanatory titles projected on a screen were useful.)
Some of the solos had definite narratives, others expressed just a situation or mood. In the chhau dances, Sri Radhika depicted the joyful dancing of Radhika and Krishna, the latter represented by a flute; while Banobidhya expressed a girl's sorrow at not finding her lover. Although the movement seemed freewheeling, the stylisation was extreme, achieved through the rigid mask of a girl's face worn by Gopal Dubey.
Gopal Dubey is, of course, a man, like the other dancers. The show's subtitle is "The Female Role Player", and the items display a theatrical traditional of impersonation that has been under siege not only in the West (where it has all but disappeared), but more recently in the East. The aim is not naturalistic mimicry, but a distillation of the essence of woman. And who better than an outside observer – ie, a man – to do this?
So what is the yueju singer from Shanghai, Zhao Zhigang, doing in all this? His strong, limpid voice is not only beautiful, but it enacts the roles of men. Does that make him an exception to the programme's theme? Not quite. He portrays men who are not exactly men: they are ideals, as invented by the female minds of yueju opera and – before the cultural reforms of the 1950s – played only by women. This is how he presents them, as a remarkable double bluff. The language of this and the other items may seem outlandish to us, but the aspirations are universal. By the evening's end, you realise that although people might look different on the surface, inside they're the same.
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