If you've ever felt the need to release some bottled up emotion or intense, indefinable psychic impulse you're already half way to grasping what veteran choreographer Maxine Heppner is up to in her latest Toronto production, "My heart is a spoon".
Heppner, whose more than 30-year professional career has taken her around the world investigating different cultures and esthetics, has discovered a rich mine of meaning in the world of Japanese manga.
Looking at these now internationally ubiquitous comic strips, evolutions of a 17th century heritage that have become an iconic part of today's pop culture, Heppner was struck by their sense of containment, energy and unseen potential.
The more she thought about and discussed it ‚Äî even convening a panel of experts on the subject, Heppner kept coming back to a central idea, that at their heart these small, boxed, line-drawn manga conveyed a sense of rage. Thus was hatched Heppner's latest investigative obsession, what she calls the Rage Project.
Explaining her ideas during a break from rehearsals for the new hour-long work, she calls it the first incarnation‚ of an experimental dance-media performance, Heppner wants two things to be very clear.
First, /my heart is a spoon/, for all the included manga imagery, is not itself about manga. The esthetic is being used as a metaphor and compelling visual backdrop for Heppner's central concern, the amorphous nature of rage. Equally, her chosen title plays on the notion of something that is often empty yet demands to be filled.
And, on her second point, the inherent nature of rage, Heppner wants us to remember that it takes many forms, not all of them negative but be a very creative force,‚Äù she explains. It all depends how you handle and direct it.
Translating abstract notions into a theatrical performance brings its own challenges. Heppner's solution is a character-based situation, not precisely a narrative but certainly a story of personal experience and of a journey from one point to another expressed through movement, sometimes minimal, other times explosive.
Working in close collaboration with renowned Japanese lighting designer Takayuki Fujimoto, a pioneer in the use of high-tech LED devices, media artists Jerome dela Pierre and Elysha Poirier, and cosplay photographer Droo, Heppner evokes an almost surreal environment in which memory, fantasy and reality mix into a heady theatrical brew.
The Theatre Centre's open performance space is transformed into a white box. Manga and cosplay (costume play) images hover on walls and floor. Takayuki invades the space with pulsating colours. Sarah Shugarman's music is supplemented with the sounds of the Yoshida Brothers, hip young men who turned the sound of the traditional Japanese shamisen, a plucked guitar-like instrument, into a pop sensation.
In the midst of this complex and evocative sensory assault are dancers Takako Segawa from Japan and Toronto-based Gerry Trentham, each representing different responses to the impulse of rage.
And it doesn't stop there. Heppner has assembled a number of ancillary events around the performance. There was an origami group-in session to create props for the show, panels on manga history and the psychology of rage and a concurrent Theatre Centre exhibit of DROO's cosplay photos. This Saturday, there's a minifestival of classic, manga-inspired anime.
Heck, if you're willing to show up for the performance dressed as your favourite manga character, you'll get $5 off the price of admission.
Globe and Mail Sunday, Jan. 29, 2012 Columnist Sarah Hampson
Taking the rage route to finding peace
Happiness would make for boring theatre.
It lacks drama and size, and has no sharp edges. Far better to work with a more extreme emotion, something that jumps out at you and demands to be understood.
That’s what Maxine Heppner began thinking about five years ago when introduced to contemporary manga or Japanese print comics. She had long been aware of the ancient art form, but hadn’t taken much interest in the pop culture version. “And when I saw them, I was struck by the energy that comes off the page, that comes out and meets the eye.”
She was also intrigued by the way a book of them is an act of containment. “It is this benign little volume of paper, sitting there on a shelf. You open it and go ‘wow’ and then you can close it and the emotion of it goes away,” says the award-winning dance artist, director and teacher in a phone interview.
An idea for the exploration of a human condition – a big, raw emotion we hold inside and only periodically let out – began to percolate. “The idea of rage is extreme anger. I don’t think of it as the opposite of happiness. That would be sadness, which has no energy and is a deflation. Rage is in a different realm. It’s extreme, like ecstasy. And I wanted to look at it in all its complexity.”
I thought about rage as the inspiration for art when I sat in the darkened theatre to see Heppner’s latest production, My Heart Is a Spoon. It’s well known from happiness studies that a sense of contentment makes us more productive at work and better citizens who want to volunteer and contribute. But does it help create art? I know many creative people – writers and artists – who feel that their discontent is the engine of their work. Friedrich Nietzsche would agree: “You need chaos in your soul to give birth to a dancing star,” he wrote.
The play takes place in a simple, white box of a stage set, onto which large manga cartoons and other images were projected. Two characters, a male and a female, one young, one older, offer different respond differently to their contained rage. Created in collaboration with light artist Fujimoto Takayuki, the theatrical environment is surreal, flooded with visions of fantasy, memory, fear and longing. The female character, performed by Takako Segawa, is constantly moving, writhing around on a large ball, unsettled, whereas the older male character (Gerry Trentham) is more self-contained. Part of his expression of rage comes out in the creation of small, origami tigers, which litter the stage at the end.
It’s an interesting investigation of an emotion often seen as something to be avoided, repressed – almost shameful in the largeness of its expression. We condemn it when we speak of road rage, the rage of a parent directed at a child, of one spouse raging at the other. We’re a culture obsessed with happiness, eager to achieve a peaceful, serene state, still as a pond, a lack of drama. We praise and desire the positive. But what Ms. Heppner, who has spent 30 years in theatre exploring human reaction and interaction, sets out to do is show how rage should not be feared.
As part of the creative process, she convened a “rage roundtable” with people who had experienced the extreme state (often characterized by a sense of injustice) as well as psychoanalysts. “It’s not in absence of happiness. It’s just this moment of extreme pressure. It’s energy condensed, like a little time bomb. It can vent very slowly. It can implode inside itself. Or it can explode. Something has to happen with the energy of it.”
And surprisingly, that can be good. “I think we have to face these things,” Ms. Heppner says. “If we ignore them, it’s not good. These strong emotions are intense. It’s more practical to recognize it, because then you can integrate it into your life, the same way we do with grief over a loved one.”
One revelation came while interviewing Hiroshima survivors who discussed how they coped with feelings of rage. “We were talking about what went on in Hiroshima and the aftermath of [the Second World War] in Asia Pacific. We found out that the Japanese government directed survivors [of the atomic bomb] to ‘swallow your anger’ if I can paraphrase. They had fought the war and lost, and there was this unimaginable destruction of people and geography. And I thought about that. If you swallow it, you digest it, and then it becomes something else. There’s potential for the positive. The possibilities are endless. If it explodes, it’s over and destruction is involved.”
The metaphor of the spoon helped explain the condition. “People spoke about feeling empty or very full. How do you live with nothing inside of you or with too much inside of you?” she asks rhetorically. “And the nature of a spoon is that it’s made to be emptied and filled, emptied and filled, pouring self-administered or force-fed sensations of hot, cold, sweet and sour into our bodies.”
I thought about that as I exited the theatre – it, too, a containment of sorts, a closed space apart from the dark rush of evening traffic, where we are asked to confront truths. Neil Munro, the late Canadian director at the Shaw Festival, once described theatre to me as “a signpost” for navigating daily life. We should take this direction I thought – that rage is a life force, not be ignored, dismissed or spat out, a state that can lead to greater understanding of who we are and, ultimately, to what we must resolve, what we must digest, to find peace.
FAB Magazine REVIEW
My heart is a spoon
Toronto Jan 22, 2012 Brian Batungan
Everybody enters a theatre with preset ways of interpretation - as a result of the brain's default daily operations as formed by everyday experience. If you're used to understanding a story in a play, you're bound to find it more difficult to make sense of a performance which is not based on any narrative. In this situation, a viewer is bound to struggle with the performance because of his/her pre-set modes of understanding stimuli. It is much easier for a Japanese to understand another Japanese because they share the many different languages of the Japanese (verbal and non-verbal). Bring the Japanese on a Canadian stage without the benefit of language Canadians understand, there will be a lot of groping in the dark, even in the midst of fancy stage lighting and graphic images.
The thing about dance, as a language, is that there seems to be a sense of universality to it. Some movements are more understood as masculine or feminine across cultures because of a seemingly shared standard for masculinity and femininity. It is the same with colors (warmer colors are often perceived as more appetizing than the cold ones). Some sounds are more perceived as more relaxing than others across cultures. This is the solid foundation of Maxine Heppner's work called My Heart is a Spoon. That while manga or any non-Canadian imagery may be alienating, sound, movement and colors bridge the language gap between the artist and the curious members of the audience.
Immediately, as one begins to absorb the explosion of lights, sounds, and movements in the show, one struggles with attaining visual focus. We all want focus. That's how we are trained to understand. But perhaps, we have become so trained in verbal (written language-related) focusing, we struggle with finding focus in a non-verbal way. Perhaps, as the Japanese dancer in Heppner's project (Segawa) dances away and disappears in the overlap of images and sounds, we are challenged to experience the bombarment of our senses than understand the details of the stimuli. There are no words or punctuation marks given to viewers in the performance, just slow and fast progressions of movements, sounds, and graphic images and colors. Instead of looking for well-sequenced elements, viewers are invited to witness the constant backward and forward movements of stimuli revealing the complexity of relations and dynamics of things that we associate with rage.
Gerry Trentham was a standout as he showed all that we associate with control and restraint, the tangible and those confined to time and space. Meanwhile, Takako Segawa's engaging immersion in all that is transitory and uncontainable positions her as Trentham's opposite. If one were to conceive Takako as anything associated with rage or that cathartic release of energy in a conflicted circumstance, then Trentham is nothing but her antithesis. If there is anything one quickly understands in Heppner's piece, it is the opposition that Segawa ang Trentham presents in their performance. As such, manga images and spectacular lighting are but parts of a context where both are most overtly expressed, and the sounds are mostly ambient elements that highlight one's experience of the opposition presented.
And the spoon! It is a visual tool used a couple of times that serves as a metaphor to how each of the dancers or their characters respond to energy which the world possesses. Trentham attempts to capture the energy from a lightbulb - a futile attempt if we trust our common logic. Segawa tries to feel the intensity from it - which, compared to the explosion of light and sound which she enjoys, is clearly an insufficient. In another scene, Trentham tries to draw out energy from an exhausted Segawa using the spoon. In the last scene, Segawa aims the spoon towards a leaping tiger. No discourse can be drawn from this as fast as one can understand the contrast between them. But for both of them, there simply is not enough room in a spoon to attain what they seem to be looking for. And if our hearts are spoons, we can only bear so much.
Maxine Heppner, the creative director of the production titled “My Heart is a Spoon” explained that such a phrase, now used by young people and can more easily be traced back to Harry Potter, meant that one’s heart can only take so much. Beyond its limit, there is rage – rage that explodes, kills, destroys unless it finds an appropriate expression that moderates it. This is the inspiration behind the production, which, in a span of a year, listened to many people who have experienced rage in their lives and survived to share about it.
Maxine’s experimentation, the “first incarnation” of its kind in her body of work, puts in the spotlight Toronto’s own veteran dancer Gerry Trentham and Japan’s Takako Segawa, in an explosion of multimedia imagery, movement, and sound. Captivated by the black and white aesthetics of Manga comics in Japan, the Harajuku culture that sustains it, and the hyper-media landscape we all live in, Maxine sought to shed light on the dynamics between a young character that goes ballistic and out of control, and an older one that controls too much, manipulates, and suppresses.
Drawn as well to the distinct styles of dancers Gerry and Takako, Maxine plays with androgyny, on the one hand, to highlight the yin and yang which all genders possess. Gerry stressed, “I actually think that the root of homophobia has less to do with gay and straight and all that stuff anymore but more with feminine-masculine politics, and more of the whole idea that for a man to be given a certain kind of power in a male body to assume a role in a body of a female is quite fearful to our society still in a huge and enormous way. We can play with it as a parody but we don’t. There’s a taboo around it still. And it’s amazing to me that there’s so much fear around that.”
Gerry's embodiment contributes distinctly to highlight gender ambiguity. “It’s interesting to have your own persona. Physically, because of the way I am constructed and a sort of an interesting awkwardness to my body, it’s assumed to be a very masculine thing. People project that a lot to me. That’s why it’s interesting for me to play (this). Even though I’m doing everything I can from the inside to assume a different kind of physicality people will still assume certain things.”
On the other hand, Maxine also aims to engage audiences to interpret each character using their own unique contexts – an involvement with viewers that she always aspires to achieve. “In a scene where I’m wearing a feminine garment, we’re not interested in making (the audience) see me as a woman (but in) seeing a masculine body in a very feminine landscape,” Gerry explained. “In a role, it is also not assuming that rage is (solely) associated with masculinity.”
Gerry distinguishes his aesthetic from Maxine’s as “a lot more (to do) with scripted text, spoken rather than sounded language.” “The source of it… Manga comics… is a very different aesthetic and I find it really provocative,” Gerry noted. After having performed a “fiery” role in “Four Mad Humours” which expressed anger and suppression of rage, such a stage persona has found its way to become one of Maxine’s characters immersed in Manga’s “sharpness, darkness and lightness, and all kinds of very moving images in an odd way,” explains Gerry.
Gerry believes that there is much that the LGBTQ audience can look forward to in the project. “I think the physicality and the brightness… some of the sounding that we do is really provocative. It’s not just rage in an angry (way) but it’s also the delight and ecstasy in allowing loud sounds to come out of the body.” “There are some really interesting interactive moments with media (too) which is really fun,” he teases.
Now 50 years old, he brings a lot more than his body and movements onstage. I bring my whole life into each project. Gender and rage issues, I don’t know why I’m attracted to them. I just seem to be motivated by injustice, and especially political and economic injustice. It creates a sort of suppressed rage in me. It’s a huge motivating factor (for me) as an artist. It is always seething somewhere underneath the choices I make. As a gay man, I also see all the phobia within the gay culture which is really disturbing sometimes, and the power dynamics and the politics of it all. I try to stay awake about that and not sleep because I can be invisible whenever I want.” He admits he does not sleep a lot now, literally and figuratively. “We’re in a war and there is not a lot of time to sleep, and I see that war becoming more difficult. And I also see that the community can be quite complacent.”
Despite lack of sleep, Gerry acknowledges that Maxine’s work brings life to a dancer at the peak of his career.”It’s fun to be hired as a dancer when you’re over 50. It’s a great joy.” Gerry enthused, “There is something about experiencing life here (in the production), in coming into an audience, with several people that can have a visceral impact, that can inspire and can make lives much richer, and (in) taking a look at a piece that’s about video interjection against the live performance. Experiencing that is a great way to become more conscious of what our environment is creating in you.”