‘Total theatre’ will only work if all elements are strong, and indeed Meryl Tankard’s direction, choreography and design in Kaidan: A Ghost Story brings an explosive fusion of art-forms which on the whole respectfully encompass each other to bring about a truly exciting experience, a ballet as such between taiko drums, a shakuhachi (bamboo flute), six dancers, Régis Lansac’s stunning digital illuminations, and lighting inspired by Henry Plummer’s book Light in Japanese Architecture.
Pulsing with engaging and profound complexity, forces combine (and at times bicker) to unveil a woman’s journey from deep contemplation to frantic release, a poised introspection turned deranged abandonment.
It is said that people in the west look in mirrors out of a compound of narcissism and individualism, while Japanese look through the mirror.
My advice to anyone going along to see this show is to know the story before you watch. Post show ladies room I overheard the classic confused banter between two patrons.
“Did you understand what was going on there?”
“Not a clue”.
The story goes that eight centuries ago, the priests of a small Japanese town wanted a big bell for their temple; so asked the women of their parish to help them by contributing old bronze mirrors for bell-metal.
A young woman, who presented an heirloom mirror to the temple, afterwards much regretted it, feeling she had foolishly given away part of her life.
Because she did not sincerely offer the mirror it would not melt and the bell could not be made. Ashamed and angry, the woman drowned herself, thereby allowing her mirror to melt and the bell to be made.
It is said that a woman’s mirror reflects her soul, in Tankard’s production this is represented by the phantasmal strains of Riley Lee’s bamboo shakuhachi flute, a sweet sad melody echoing in memory long after the undoubtedly deserved standing ovation.
The origins of taiko drums go back at least 2000 or 3000 years deep into Japan’s prehistory. In some Buddhist traditions they represent the voice of Buddha and in Shinto shrines accompanies prayers to heaven.
Australian ensemble Taikoz, led by Ian Cleworth, deliver a magnificent performance, with a sense of theatricality that upstage the dancers, who until the end are but subtle nuances complimenting the dramatic heart beat that is the drums.
Best to be in the front row to feel from head to toe their divine rumbles.
Lighting designer Trudy Dalgleish also plays a significant part in realizing the best aspects of this work. Dalgleish’s dappled and subtle displays create an ethereal world for the dancers, led by Sarah-Jayne Howard, to personify the fragmented soul of a tortured woman.
Before the climatic physical death of the woman (though her soul cries on) Howard is rendered as if a Bunraku puppet, her movements manipulated by a male dancer behind her. All the dancers were physically very strong and controlled, at times though with an undetectable emotional subconscious, a device employed to manifest the imprisoned state of a woman unable to let go, the drums carrying the undercurrent of her shifting emotional journey.
The use of breath and silence particularly grounded the whole experience, offsetting the spectacular roller coaster of visual stimulation.
Scaling the wall as an insect, Jane Pinkerton is a stand out, though particularly at this point the drums and illuminations could have served better with a more subtle presence.
Other disappointments were the at times lagging choreography, and one or two abrupt transitions in Lansac’s illuminations. Though effectively beautiful and breathtaking, occasionally their presence foretold a shift in the story that needn’t the blatant reminder.
I also wished Tankard took a leaf from Kosky’s book and tripled the length of it.
There is a compulsion to concentrate on every subtle ankle twist, light dart and temple bell. The whole experience was artistic stimulation of epic proportion.
Sydney Opera House and Sydney Festival present
Meryl Tankard & TaikOz
A ghost story
Venue: Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Preview: 17 January @ 7.30pm $45
Dates: 18 – 27 January
Times: Mon @ 6.30pm, Tuesday – Saturday @ 7.30pm, Saturday @ 2pm
Duration: 1hr 15mins, no interval
Bookings: Sydney Opera House 02 9250 7777 www.sydneyoperahouse.com