The City as Ghost: Insight into 歸屬 Gui Shu (Belong)

by Jonathan W. Marshall

歸屬 Gui Shu (Belong) is a new work from WA theatre-maker Sally Richardson produced in collaboration with two WA based dancers (Laura Boynes and Yilin Kong) and two dancers from Taipei (Yiching Liao and Hsiao Tzu Tien). The credits for the music are similarly split, with WA cellist Tristen Parr supporting a sample-based soundscape crafted by Taipei’s Yenting Hsu. WA film-maker Ashley de Prazer provides filmic projections. The performance of 歸屬 Gui Shu (Belong) is also accompanied by a four screen video installation being shown throughout the day within the ground floor gallery. Footage for both the live show and the installation was recorded in Taipei, Mandurah and other locations.

The content flows in large part from the nature of this assemblage. Themes of travel, place, landscape and urbanism recur throughout. The choreographic material was produced by the dancers in response to Sally’s direction, and consequently the physical palette is quite varied, with several marked shifts or reconfigurations of corporeal styles. We begin with lyrical, circling duets supported by Parr’s sublime bowing. This is eventually interrupted and displaced through the addition of squared off arm gestures and momentary, wide-legged stands from Kong.

 

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At another point Tien moves into and across the floor, legs separated and stretched apart, the body flattening and then rising up at the torso in a narrowly curtailed box of light projected from the ceiling. Other elements and motifs include tightly focussed hand movements and limb articulations which evoke the action of writing text. The verbal and textual languages of the performers are also implicated in these migrations between spaces, locations and corporeal territories.

The performance occurs within a space containing four diaphanous fabric screens draped from the ceiling. Richardson and Prazer have these demarcations carefully suspended from tracks in the roof along which the screens are pulled.

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The screens also pivot and may be dropped, carried and wafted. The realm within which the action occurs is therefore one defined by the play of intangible mobile coloured light across now-you-see-them, now-you-don’t architectural forms. The overall effect is one of mobile, breezy insubstantiality.

Like many Chinese-speaking communities, Taiwan famously celebrates Ghost Month (鬼月 or Gui Yue), when the spirits of the departed are released from Hell to move amongst us, with those spirits who lack decedents or are otherwise homeless being in particular need of respect from the living. One passage in 歸屬 Gui Shu (Belong) has the performers musing about ghosts, and what it might be like to be or to encounter a ghost. Our ever-placeless dancers, moving between flowing screens and images, might, in this sense, be likened to ghosts. Early on in 歸屬 Gui Shu (Belong), Liao performs a particularly striking sequence where she embodies a character clearly unsettled by her surrounds, nervously smoking, standing and then suddenly pausing, before looking around herself with a piercing gaze. She then squats in front of a carefully piled mound of rounded stones, similar to those found at the shrines dedicated to the spirits of dead children in Japan. Resting on her haunches, she contemplates this attractive yet melancholy construction. Has it been left for her, perhaps?

As the performance progressed, I came to wonder if these subjects of global capitalism and urbanism whom we see depicted on stage might not in fact be the ghosts alluded to within the piece, but rather that it is the city itself which is a ghost, projected onto, and unsettling, the dancers.

The performance pauses approximately midway to place Tien between two screens showing anonymous high rise apartments.

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Tien walks her fingers about the margins and across the balconies, playfully reaching out as though to gently touch these dwellings. But she never actually connects. Indeed, these and other sections which involve projected buildings, streets, alleys and so on contrast markedly with the palpable materiality evoked by the earlier piled rocks. At one point the dancers take the stones and place them upon their backs before shuffling off, like peasants bent over by the weight of their labour. It is a strikingly pre-modern, rural and tangible image compared to the fluid, airy transitions of other portions danced among the fabrics. Perhaps for us and for the dancers, irrespective of our attempts to belong, the very state of belonging itself has become a kind of etheric phantasm which haunts our dreams and unsettles our reveries.

——

By Jonathan W. Marshall

West Australian Academy of Performing Arts at Edith Cowan University

Sally Richardson is currently a PhD candidate at the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts, where Jonathan Marshall is her principal supervisor. Jonathan is working with Sally on her research into three key female figures and how best to represent their lives as part of a politically engaged dance-theatre trilogy.

Jonathan has been writing on aesthetic responses to travel and global mobility since 2001 (see here). Some of the thoughts behind the article above come from Jonathan’s research on butoh and haunting (see here and here), and the writings of Tim Ingold on place and dwelling (see here and here).

歸屬 Gui Shu (Belong) is a co-production of Steamworks, Performing Lines WA and PICA. It is running for a limited season 12 – 16 November 2019. Find out more and get tickets here.

 

Image by Emma Fishwick.

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