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Ng Yi-Sheng






The Esplanade Theatre Studio




The word "dazzle" has two definitions. The first means to amaze, to astound, to impress as with great skill or ingenuity. The second means to blind, to cause a failing of clear vision through intensity of light.

Lightology does both. It awes you with its theatrical spectacle, its madcap choreography, experimental video and oddball orchestra, but thematically it remains a flashy blur, failing to communicate a clear idea out of its purported theme of light. This is by no means a crime - the show remains thoroughly entertaining, a marvel for the eyes and the ears, if rather ineffectual for the soul. One might even say the philosophy of the text seems eclipsed by the strength of the performance itself.

Indeed, while director Naoyuki Asahina asserts that this piece exists simply to explore ideas about light, much of the work investigates the very nature of performance art, as if explaining the concept to beginners - not surprisingly, perhaps, since Tokidoki-Jido was a pioneer in this field in Japan since the 80s. This may have been his impetus for assembling 50 local volunteers as a background chorus for this show - untrained and untested, to be initiated into the practice of performance art.

One has to admire his daring and his democratic impulse to grant these amateurs the stage. One must also commend the volunteers themselves - spirited and zany, ambushing us from within our ranks moments after we'd entered the empty studio; singing, dancing, and juggling, letting the centre of spectacle keep shifting throughout the crowd. Naoyuki even allowed them a degree of independent control in a later sequence, as the chorus stood in an ever-widening line, each erupting with random sound (from the lyrics of Numa Numa to gibberish) when called upon by a central conductor, who was at first a professional but was then replaced by one of their own.

But there's a whole different flavour to the show when the artists themselves arrive on stage, clad in hip Tokyo street wear but transformed into pure performance machines. One is blown away by the talent of the organising mind that imagined their absurdist sequences, and by the necessary rigour of the actors involved. They serenade you on Jew's harps and dance at you in the darkness with white rubber strings between their joints, becoming black light human polygons. They sprint with drumsticks, rhythmically beating them against moving drums, mounted backpacks, or each other's bodies, never falling out of the precisely shifting rhythm.

True, there were some poorly judged segments, such as the only episode featuring character drama, as four sisters were interrupted from their rhythmic soup-drinking by a goofy fountain pen salesman and their masked, incestuous father. A subtitled video of the scene was simultaneously played on the screen behind the players, perhaps merely as a prompting device to enable the English to play concurrently with the Japanese dialogue. The result was three strands of the same dialogue (two in Japanese and one in English) and two sets of identical action - a moment of redundant sensory overload. Yet on the whole the movements of Lightology were brilliantly executed, to the extent that it became very difficult to reconcile this disciplined world with the chaos of the volunteer chorus. The amateur performances, sadly, appeared to dilute the high quality of the work as a whole.

A faint thread of a message, discernible to the thoughtful, seems to lie amidst the disparate sequences, describing a personal search for the meaning of life in a chaotic and violent world. The players generate a macabre comedy of violence, through life-size projections of the actors gushing blood and stick-figures plummeting to death off buildings. Also, a delicious mood of subtle subversion persists, with strange epileptic dances behind screens, and the warped, jarring sound of wobbling metal whenever an actor ran headfirst into a hanging strip of sheet metal, an uncanny musical motif.

Yet all this was less of an emotional buildup than a simple quickening of action: any sense of existential despair that might have been accumulating was displaced by the cuteness or comedy of many of the acts, and in particular the happy triviality of the chorus's recitation into microphones of "the happiest moments of their lives", largely consisting of birthdays and vacations, followed by a loud communal "Whooooo!" of approval.

The grand anagnorisis of the play was ultimately rather nihilistic, featuring performers mimicking the suicidal stick figures on screen by leaping from the roof of the set into their fellow cast members' arms. Is enlightenment to be found only by embracing death itself? It's difficult to read, and even the jumping Japanese actors are half-hidden by the chorus, performing a rather competent mass dance in a ring to the beautiful original pop song One Hundred Years (Hyakunen). Despite the limited amount of non-English text in this show, one always feels that something's been lost in translation - a perspective, perhaps, on the nature of light and life and darkness, or a fundamental set of expectations about theatre.

As an introduction to performance theatre, Lightology actually fares rather well - it features both the interactive, hands-on aspect of the genre through its volunteers and also professionals enacting rigidly scripted choreography; both forms charming to an audience in different ways. One only wishes that Tokidoki-Jido had emphasised in some way the potential of performance art to communicate as well as to entertain. As it is, the show shines, but doesn't illuminate.

"A marvel for the eyes and the ears, if rather ineffectual for the soul"


Director: Naoyuki Asahina

Artist: Toyomi Usami

Composers: Naoyuki Asahina, Kazumi Ito, Jiro Imai, Kosuke Suzuki

Audiovisuals: Kayoko Sunakawa, Shingo Aono
Lighting: Shigeo Saito, Atsumi Koen

Sound: Reiko Tokuhisa

Director’s Assitant: Tomoko Ishikawa

Stage Manager: Toshiro Ogaki

Production Manager: Tomoko Miyagawa

Cast: Naoyuki Asahina, Ari Owada, Kayoko Sunakawa, Kosuke Suzuki, Kazuko Hidaka, Naomi Watanabe, Matono Ouchi, Kazuki Kunihiro, Reki Shibata, Kohei Takahashi, Fumito Terakado, Masako Fujita, and 50 Singapore volunteer performers

More Reviews by Ng Yi-Sheng

Ratings out of 5, based on Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent / Rapturous;
**** = Crystal / Appreciative; *** = Transmitted / Thoughtful; ** = Vague / Unsatisfied; * = Uncommunicated / Mystified.