‘Performance’ is a ubiquitous term commandeered by and used in a range of academic disciplines and practical fields of human activity. It operates, more or less, as a semiotic tag within a set of conceptualisations that is part of a specific discipline and field of discourse, and functions as an epistemological frame within particular discursive practices. This tagging is discussed in six examples below, through the breadth of usage is far greater than is suggested in my exemplars.
First, in the academic discipline of performance studies, ‘performance’ is generally seen as a descriptive term encompassing complex representational embodiments that signify a range of meanings for observers or audiences, who become both interpretive aesthetic readers of such meaning and also engage with performance work affectively. These representational embodiments may refer to artistic endeavours, from music, dance and drama to installations, photography and art works; but the term’s usage can be broader than even these sets of specific creative phenomena, extending to everyday acts of social engagement, cultural exchange and sporting endeavour. As such, performance is constituted in what might be viewed as ordinariness as much as it is in specialisations of human activity and communication. Arguably, however, in this academic field the tag is especially, but not exclusively, about creative representation and embodied performance practices, as reflected in the work of scholars such as Richard Schechner and Victor Turner
In 2013, an article that I wrote called Dark Voices in Revolt was published in the TDPT Journal (vol. 4(3), 2013, 360-380). The article discussed the application of existing Oriental and Occidental voice and movement methods (the term Physio-Vocal, to me, captures the exact essence of voice/movement integration practice and theory) in order to ‘discover’ an alternate to the multifaceted area of the voice in performance pertaining to the notion of ‘crisis’. Simply put, ‘crisis’ may be defined as an emotionally significant event (which possibly has negative connotations attached to it), an unstable situation, and so on. Throughout our investigations, training, performance practice and research, we came to the conclusion our work was categorised into three forms of ‘crisis’: physical crisis, conceptual crisis and vocal crisis.
Physical crisis is a situation where the body is engaged in a challenging position, for example, it may be off balance in a moving or static state, moving dynamically through the space or placed in a position where the abdominal muscles are engaged to keep the body upright or in a stable position. Through these physical states, the performer must engage in various voice work. Conceptual crisis is a term (and practice) that is largely influenced by the philosophies and practice of Butoh dance, for example, exploring the illogical, absurd with the underpinning notion of ‘revolting’ against the convention. Of course, Butoh means one thing to one practitioner, and another thing to the other. It is not a method, which makes it quite difficult to pin down. Vocal crisis is a term given to when the use and semantics of the voice is extended, amplified, enlarged beyond recognition to depict the primordial, preverbal and representational significance of the inner contained energies expressed through sound.
In my article ‘Dance training in Bali: intercultural and globalised encounters’ [5 ( 3), pp. 291-303] I discussed the changing approaches to the traditional world of Balinese topeng, which refers to the masked, dance –drama of Bali that is performed within a ceremonial context. (My short film gives a degree of context to the genre).
In contrast to a purely ethnographic documentation of this training which the article fully details, I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond and ‘come back’ with a more personal and embodied perspective which centers on the challenges, obstacles and difficulties that I have faced in learning topeng and how I have overcome them by devising a more bespoke training suitable to my body, cultural understanding and abilities.
Whilst I can technically ‘do it’ however much I can theoretically understand and appreciate the qualities of energy in the dance, as articulated by the Balinese, as a non-Balinese person I am unlikely to realise the potential of full embodiment and achieve something akin to taksu, the divine charisma that artists aspire to.
On a less culturally ambitious level I am unlikely to achieve great success as I am following a training regime designed for a younger, nubile, pre-teen boy body which is somewhat difficult to follow.
The challenge is to configure an appropriate training that can re-situate a specific performance technique within a wider intercultural analysis. This integrated training may enable a richer, deeper, more comfortable approach to dancing the traditional choreography of topeng. By seeking comfort in the gesture, being ‘in dialogue’ with the choreography means I can actively visualise the (dis)comfort, stop –pause- change and reassess as necessary. In this discussion of comfort, there is a paradox because Balinese dance is by nature difficult and virtuosity is the aim. Therefore comfort is never to be replaced or confused by making the gesture ‘easy’, however easefulness can be sought so that the dance ceases to be painful. Seeking comfort during training may compromise one’s gestural or expressive potential in performance, but it does promote actual enjoyment of the choreography, which in turn expels delight in the dance. I therefore experience on occasion what Fraleigh calls ‘intrinsic dance’ which she describes as a state of ‘pleasure we feel in our bodies when we are in our own flow of being, moving for the dance and not to please others’ (Fraleigh 2000: 58). Enjoyment and delight, is indicative and closer to the higher qualities of ceremonial performance as described by the various Balinese levels of attainment (Ruben and Sedana 2007: 125-126).
This one, simple change in perspective has developed into a far more process driven approach to my topeng training which is based on somatics; and beyond the scope of what I have space to write here. All I can say is that this has enabled a shift from the Balinese pre-occupation with the spirit of the mask with a renewed interest into the potential ‘life force’ of my body.
Fraleigh, Sondra. (2000) ‘Consciousness Matters’, Dance Research Journal, 32 (1), pp. 54 – 62.
Rubin, Leon and Sedana, I Nyoman. (2007) Performance in Bali. Abingdon, New York: Routledge.