Being the Stage
By Nora Amin (16th December 2022, English Theatre Berlin)
As a recent immigrant to Germany, I was told that the audience in this society has trouble with interactive or participatory performances. I always wondered under which criteria do people here categorise performances as interactive or participatory, and how can such a vast field be contained in just one category. As a practicing Theatre of the Oppressed trainer and theatre director, I often see differences between participatory performances based on the methodology and dramaturgy of Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, and other forms that are based on traditional cultural forms of popular theatre seeking entertainment or community re-enactment in relation to celebration and rituality. I also noticed that the recent developments of some forms of interactive performances lead to a specific kind of audience interaction and participation where either sensorial aspects play a vital role, or emotional and verbal exchange is placed at the centre. Nonetheless all these forms -which are eligibly participatory and interactive- have enormous differences in comparison with one another. Therefore witnessing Ming Poon’s “Exotic Animal” at the English Theatre in Berlin eligibly offered its own significance to interactive performance, a significance that is placed within the context of social criticism, more specifically self reflective performative social criticism.
This is by no means a space for entertainment. Throughout the one hour duration of “Exotic Animal” the audience becomes witness to a series of fictional events where the fictional dancer (Ming Poon) is subject to clear discrimination, racism, objectification and exoticisation. He exposes how he is treated as a dancer of Asian descent when he goes to an audition for a dance production in Europe, how he is immediately spotted as an “other”, and how this systematic and political “othering” influences his opportunities as an artist and as a dancing body. For the first time in a performance we witness how it is like to be in an audition for a dance production, how it is a place of competition, of prejudice, and of structural injustice. Watching the scene of the audition for a dance performance within an actual dance performance makes that actual/fictional performance a place of exposing the political dynamics of injustice that rule the field where that very performance is placed. This makes “Exotic Animal” not only a performance but a meta-performance where there is a layer of unraveling and dismantling the field of the performance itself. Therefore the performance becomes in a way an eye witness to its own field and context of production, it becomes a performance about the performance field, and a performance inside another performance which is the performance of Ming Poon directly talking to the audience and addressing them with informal communication so as to comment on the scenes of the audition, explain the situation, move forward in time, or even collectively suggest a choreography for his solo dance to complete the audition.
Ming Poon moves gently and naturally from one layer/performance/scene to the other. He moves from being the dancer in the audition, towards being the dancer talking to the audience about the audition. He moves with ease and expertise from the alleged re-enactment to the alleged commentary, from the dancing body towards the speaking body, and from the objectified body of the Asian dancer in a white discriminatory competitive context to the Asian performer at the English Theatre in Berlin who speaks like a facilitator of a collective process of co-choreography and movement negotiation. The dancer in the audition has to demonstrate his skills in Ballet, being the very first slot of examination within the audition where the jury can quickly locate the bodies that will be dismissed. Such a start of an audition process is made consciously in order to impose on the dancing bodies the alignment, strictness, postures and attitudes of Ballet. If the dancing body starts with this corporal behaviour and attitude, it could be really confusing for the body to go afterwards -in a natural and flowing way- into improvisations connected to Hip-Hop, krump, Break dance, Tribal dance, Indian classical dance, or simply any non-western form of dance embodiment. It seems that Ballet is chosen to launch a process that makes it difficult to continue for those who are not initiated in Western forms or in Ballet specifically. As if the whole system of the audition is already based on discrimination towards non-white bodies. Every step of the auditioning process seems to be created on purpose, and with the aim of selecting specific bodies.
While watching the scene of Ming Poon auditioning and demonstrating the “barre” routine, my body started aching. My old physical memories of pain – during my childhood and teenage Ballet classes in Cairo- were immediately triggered. As if the physical memories never die, especially those of pain rather than ecstasy. As if the Ballet scene of “Exotic Animal” revived my own past of the colonisation of my emerging dancing body. Although -like the fictional dancer in “Exotic Animal”- I loved Ballet and admired its stage performances, only the memories of pain inhabited my body across the years. Being witnesses of a specific scene on stage proved to be a potential channel to access pain that has been stored in the dancing body across Asian and African bodies. And while Ming Poon was -in my eyes- decolonising that pain on stage, and unlocking that transcultural memory, I realised how much my spectator body is speaking out and projecting on the fictional dancer’s body on stage. This projection, however, was stimulated by a clear political discourse from the beginning of the performance, where I felt an agency to participate, to act, to feel, to perceive, and above all -at least in my case- to bridge my experience of the colonisation of my body and dance knowledge with the experience presented in the performance. For me, this was the ultimate potential for an interactive performance: to stimulate my agency as spectator and to offer accessibility to me to bridge my experience with what I am witnessing so as to extend the impact of the performative moment towards a more personal, intimate and lasting impact that I need to work on independently and beyond the performative space.
As the performance develops Ming Poon moves from the audition where he eventually fails -following his philosophy of failure which is a tactic for structuring the performance and its discourse- onto the solo dance choreography where the juror asks him to make something “more Chinese”. This is exactly where the performance becomes as interactive as it gets! The audience is smoothly drawn to suggest moves that resemble “being Chinese”. Ming Poon warns us -sometimes indirectly- that we are about to dictate movement to his body, hence reproducing the objectifying tradition of looking at the dancing body as a body of imitation, a body that is dictated how to move, a body that replicates, and basically a body that is made for obedience. Nonetheless the game of dictating movement is absolutely necessary for the performance to continue, without it the critical discourse of the performance cannot be pursued. It is due to all the suggestions of the audience that the performer builds a choreography that develops instantly before our eyes. And it is due to the impact of those suggestions that the audience also starts realising how stereotypes, labels and stigmas are embedded in our minds. Therefore the spectators become active participants for building the dance, while also becoming a mirror for the society’s unjust pedagogy towards different cultures of performance, and while -finally- becoming the critics of their own expressions and pedagogy.
At several moments I watched the stage being transposed from its physical location towards the location of the spectators’ seats, the discourse was moving, the performativity was mobile going back and forth from the stage/the performer to the spectators/the society. Gradually the stage expanded and there was no more borders between the performer and the audience, between the stage and the spectators, and between the performance and the reality of the society. Therefore having been the moderator for talk after the performance, I could not really feel a clear border between the -interactive- performance and the interaction with the spectators who commented during the conversation or asked questions. It all finally seemed as one entity of an encounter that has its various elements and chapters.
The last scene of “Exotic Animal” is a dance scene without words, without interaction. It is the testimony of the dancing body towards all that has been previously said and done. To my eyes, it seemed like an indispensable embodied discourse, a critical embodiment that completes the performance and reflects on it all. The dancer is faceless, dressed in a yellow tightly body fitting gown. His face is washed off behind the yellow fabric that hides his features and personal traits. Ming Poon triggers visions of the anonymous faces and identities of those who are always silenced and objectified. Witnessing that scene pays tribute to all bodies of Asian descent who have been exoticised and even dehumanised across time and space. Witnessing that scene stimulated in me visions of passive rebellion, silence as a revolutionary act, and how in our bodies resides a heritage of pain, of transcultural ancestral pain that may connect Asia and Africa. While the lights slowly go off, I lose my sense of time and place, I float between my memories of my revolutionary Egyptian body, and my localised awareness of the world via Germany; I float between my old Butoh dance classes and my current Baladi dance body, I feel no borders between our struggles for justice and dignity, the performative body on stage and my spectatorship body can be one, without each of us losing the sense of our own history, reality and sufferance. I am certain that “Exotic Animal” will have different resonance to spectators of Asian descent, without ignoring the difference between those who grew up in their homeland and those who were raised in Europe, nonetheless the performativity of our struggles becomes more powerful with our empathy, compassion and bonding. The performativity of the discourse for change and healing becomes more impactful when each of us reflects on our behaviour, and our intersectional positions. The stage becomes a space for a true encounter where failure is already synonymous with moving forward, because failure -as Ming Poon says- does not actually exist, it is all about the steps we take to move forward. The only failure that may exist is to do absolutely nothing.
Being a spectator at that moment meant to me -astonishingly enough- being part of the stage, witnessing Ming Poon offering his body as a stage for all the projections, discrimination and struggles, and recognising in return that each of our bodies is a stage of history, of intimate transformations, of public injustices and of performative behaviour.