People Without Seasons
Choreographed by Un Yamada
Pentas 1, Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre
20-22 October 2017
Review by Bilqis Hijjas
When we screw up our trash and toss it in the bin, we want it out of sight and out of mind. And yet we cannot make it disappear. There are whole islands of floating trash in the world’s oceans. Some people even live on it, whole communities sifting through the refuse of others, searching for scraps that can be recycled or reused. When the trash mountains collapse, they are buried in it. And many more people – more than we usually like to think – live with it, beside it, and amongst it, as cheerfully as they possibly can.
I am reminded of trash by the poster for People Without Seasons, a black and white shot of the Japanese choreographer, Un Yamada, dour and watchful beside a young girl, whose brown smiling face is printed in colour. They are standing on a muddy riverbank strewn with rubbish. Un was just a visitor to this scene, on a research trip to Kota Kinabalu proposed by Sabahan dancer Al-Jabar Laura. The little girl is Jabar’s niece, and that filthy riverbank is next to the kampung where she lives.
People Without Seasons was inspired by A Town Without Seasons, a novel by Shugoro Yamamoto about hand-to-mouth existence in a post-war Japanese slum. The dance version follows the inhabitants of an unknown village from before dawn to deep into the night. Although everyone is constantly on the move, it seems that no one does any work; perhaps there is no work to be done. Instead, they posture and parade, taunt each other, fling themselves about, flirt and tease, with Yamada’s signature whimsical movements and a wild cheer born of desperation.
The dancers change their costumes frequently, as if rummaging through a child’s dress-up box. Their outfits dictate their moods. A patchwork cloak is good for sashaying, Fauzi Amirudin discovers, while Mohd Zulkarnain decides that his getup is suitable for some outrageous twerking.
The scenography, designed by Hiroshi Fuji, is framed by double-storey houses sketched out of scaffolding, which can be wheeled around the stage. They are festooned with repurposed rubbish, making it difficult to distinguish decoration from useful objects. Enormous pink and red rosettes crafted out of ribbon and foam compete for your attention with a plastic turtle made out of a blue food cover, and hanging tarpaulins printed with black and white photos. A pink plastic water dispenser, of the kind that usually holds rose syrup, dangles from the ceiling in the place of a sun.
The music is also a colourful mish-mash: some bhangra (for the twerking), waltz, snatches of radio, and lazily strummed guitar for the hot mid-afternoon lull. But most of the accompaniment is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, played loud until the fortissimo shakes the theatre. The languid opening refrain reveals the pre-dawn village: all the men asleep in the central square, holding an impressively long shoulderstand, their floppy feet pointing at the ceiling. Fitting that in this topsy-turvy world people should sleep upside down!
Every time the symphony’s chorus kicks in, the inhabitants stop what they are doing to dance together, in carefully martialled lines, strictly observing the beat. They have a contagious energy, but their movements are absurd. Grinning as if their lives depend upon it, they flap their hands, smack their buttocks, and hop knock-kneed from foot to foot. This biting irony – of dancing madly to Beethoven’s soaring triumphant theme which speaks of the grandest achievements of mankind, in the midst of such chaos and squalor – makes People without Seasons heartbreaking.
But there is much simple pleasure to be had in watching this show. The dancers – largely Malaysian, with a few Japanese from Un Yamada’s company – are mostly very skilled, and they navigate the work’s long stretches of improvisation with panache. Pengiran Qayyum climbs on the shoulders of another dancer to do a campy impression of a ballet dancer. Syed Haziq Afiq runs amok in the middle of a Beethoven chorus, shooting people with a plastic coat-hanger, and venting the most believable crazed laughter I’ve ever heard on stage. Chinami Ito and Sayuri Iimori perform a perfectly-matched duet full of quirky antic movements, like twins with a congenital eccentricity.
Nevertheless, People without Seasons is a challenge to watch. It feels much longer than 75 minutes, because nothing develops. You get to know the characters and their wild proclivities, but their relationships go nowhere. The quiet lulls are sapping, and there are not one but two false endings, when the lights dim to blackout. The first leaves Fauzi Amirudin gently singing a nonsense song as Syed Haziq strums a guitar under a dangling naked light bulb, as if soft tropical night had fallen on the village. The second happens after a mass Beethoven orgy, with the whole tribe collapsed in the town square, leaving only Un Yamada and Masashi Koyama quietly chasing each other around in the gloaming. But both times, the lights come up again, and, like reluctant insomniacs, the dancers resume.
The first night I watched the show, I thought this was a choreographic miscalculation. But on second viewing, I decided it was both deliberate and effective. The whole point of People without Seasons is to depict a world where nothing happens, with no changes to mark the passing of time, where life just goes on and on, until it stops. The audience must experience, if only momentarily, this crushing boredom, stultifying heat, and lack of hope.
During the discussion session after the first night’s show, Jabar mentioned his frustration at this static futility. His kampung in Sabah is just as badly off now as it was at independence 60 years ago, he says; in some ways, it may be even worse off now. So the importance of People Without Seasons is not just the impressive scale of the production, the quality of its dancers, and Un Yamada’s commitment to returning to work in Malaysia, but its reminder for us to look at things which we would rather not think about, to place the narrative of those who are most marginalized in front and centre.
One of the characters – who is excused from the Beethoven orgies – is played by veteran theatremaker Janet Pillai. With her halo of white hair, sitting regally upon a house as it is wheeled by, she is the matriarch of this tribe, and the keeper of the village history, such as it is. At one point, she engages in an elegant gestural movement phrase, echoed by a younger woman, as if passing on a traditional dance form to the younger generation. She also collects the outlandish photo-printed costumes (by Ryotamurakami) as the dancers discard them like rejected memories. In the final scene she stands upon the tallest central scaffolding and drops the clothing, piece by piece, upon the crowd beneath.
But mostly Pillai just sits and watches. She does not watch the dancers’ antics; she looks out at the audience. If this was a village on a riverbank, she would be watching the wide brown river slide by, waiting to see what might wash up on the shore. Perhaps she is waiting for the world to deliver salvation long overdue, but her gaze is measured and unexpectant. She knows that we, the audience, are also tourists here. We are on a boat heading upriver, sparing only a glance for the village as we steam by. Once around the riverbend, her knowing gaze implies, her people without seasons will be out of sight and out of mind, and yet stubbornly indestructible – just like trash.
All photos are by Naoshi Hatori, courtesy of Japan Foundation Kuala Lumpur.
Bilqis Hijjas is the founding editor of Critics Republic. A producer, lecturer and community organizer in contemporary dance, she believes that the main purpose of criticism is to enhance the audience’s appreciation of art.