REVIEWS: The Bone Feeder & Rice (Auckland Arts Festival)

Reviews by Nathan Joe

The Bone Feeder

Nathan Joe reports back about two final shows at the recent Auckland Arts Festival, branching out into Opera and Dance:

[The Bone Feeder: No Place Like Home]

Let’s get one thing out of the way: an opera with a primarily East Asian cast is a big deal. This is doubly the case in light of NZ Opera’s recent production of The Mikado and its yellowface controversy. Regardless of how you feel about the representation of Asian characters on stage, it’s always refreshing to see them as something more than just satirical vessels.

Renee Liang has taken her play The Bone Feeder and found a new medium for it. Not having seen the original productions I can’t claim to know how it’s changed or improved, but it’s undeniably at home in the realm of opera. By digging up the bones of early Chinese miners whose lives were lost in the shipwreck of the SS Vendor in 1902, Liang tells a fictional story grounded in actual New Zealand history.

Set both in the past and present, The Bone Feeder follows Ben (Henry Choo), a young Chinese man searching for the remains of his ancestors. We soon meet this ancestor, Kwan (Jaewooo Kim), wandering adrift, stuck between memory and limbo. What draws these two timelines and characters together is a hunger for home. For Kwan, it’s his literal home back in Guangdong he longs for. For Ben, it’s his rootlessness and inability to call any place home that plagues him.

As a first-time librettist, the potent metaphors and imagery Liang evokes play to her strengths as a poet instead of the plotting or narrative we associate with playwriting. Even the surtitles seem to betray a poetic sensibility, often written and formatted to appear like verse on a page. It’s a nice touch that calls attention to the text in a medium where it’s often taken for granted.

Director Sara Brodie effectively filters Ben’s journey across Hokianga harbour towards Mitimiti cemetery through a lens that recalls Sam Neill’s Cinema of Unease, describing New Zealand as a dark and brooding place, filled with an absence of confusion of collective identity. This is a landscape to get lost inside and lose yourself in. A place at the edge of the world instead of a land of opportunity, reflecting the unfortunate fates that fell to many of the actual Chinese miners who dared to venture here.

The distance between the various characters over both time and space is handled well too, distinguished simply by Elizabeth Whiting’s costumes for their respective periods and Jane Hakaraia’s lighting. While John Verryt’s rostrum set made to look like black rocks is effective, it feels more functional than fantastic, relying on the video projection of gloomy but beautiful scenic photography to set the scene.

Composer Gareth Farr’s score might not have the immediate re-playability of classics such as Carmen or Don Giovanni, but what makes is so distinct is how it feels perfectly designed to support Liang’s libretto, standing alongside it rather than overshadowing it. That’s not to discount the artistic merit of Farr’s contribution though. What he’s created is less a series of musical pieces than an entire soundscape consisting of Western (violin, cello, marimba), Chinese (dizi, erhu) and Maori (Taonga Puoro) instruments. The same juxtaposition works between the sung languages of Cantonese, English and Maori, complementing rather than competing with each other. Less a melting pot of voices and more an exchange of oral history.

A gentleness and restraint permeates the performances, even at their most emotionally raw. Those expecting an opera where the singers belt it out will be disappointed, though Te Oti Rakena’s Ferryman comes closest with his deep baritone. It’s almost tempting to call The Bone Feeder minimalist opera, where the tiniest details carry the greatest significance and less is more.

The colloquial humour that runs through the script often modernises it and bringing it into the present day effectively, but it occasionally jars with the sombre tone of the story and setting. There’s a fine line between being a welcome respite and a minor distraction that isn’t perfectly juggled. But this comic relief works most successfully through the ghost mining trio of Sing Song Dan (Clinton Fung), Doctor Sam (William Kang) and Bungalow Wang (David Hwang). They’re the charming and goofy three stooges of the show who act as the light to the play’s otherwise dark mood.

As the centers of the story, Kim and Choo make for engaging and sympathetic protagonists, bringing the necessary grandness to their everyman archetypes. Kim’s singing in an accented English differentiates him from the rest of the cast, but it works well in estranging him and highlighting his otherness as a virtue. How often do you hear an Asian character speak (let alone sing) and be taken seriously?

In its closing moments, as our hero reaches his chosen destination to uncover the bones of his ancestor, the opera’s tone lifts into the realm of visceral personal tragedy. Any reservations and emotional restraint is thrown into the window for a potentially gut wrenching finale. I say potentially because the play ends on a confused climax that doesn’t quite achieve the catharsis it seems to be aiming for. This is the moment when our two tragic figures finally interact and confront each other, and I just wanted to be grabbed by the throat and feel tears running down my face. It comes so close, especially when Kwan calls his descendant a ‘fake Chinese,’ but the whole sequence is too rushed, then resolved as if it’s nothing. The only real blemish in an otherwise lucid and captivating production.

Though my live opera experience is limited, this is the first where I’ve found myself hungry for more after the curtain call. At 80 minutes The Bone Feeder is an incredibly concise example of the medium, never overstaying its welcome but also capturing the heart of what it’s trying to say.

The most exhilarating aspect to The Bone Feeder is the way it injects much needed life and relevancy to a medium that’s mostly relegated to museum pieces. It might not be a big two-act show with reckless love affairs or campy caricatures, but it makes up for it in it sheer emotional depth and cultural nuance. Not to mention how well the sentimental and earnest quality of the subject matter is handled, avoiding didacticism or lazy moralising. If you have any shared history with the characters, like myself, it’ll be hard not to come away feeling directly spoken to. And those watching with outside eyes will come away experiencing a moving elegy that doubles as a valuable history lesson. This is without a doubt, a significant addition to the canon of New Zealand theatre and opera.

[Rice: Mixed Grains]

Rice
Rice

Drawing directly from his homeland, Choreographer and founder of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre Lin Hwai-min presents a rather modest subject for his critically-acclaimed work. Titled after its source of inspiration, Rice specifically looks at the life cycle of rice fields in Chihshang, Taiwan. While it doesn’t have the most dramatic or riveting basis for a show, Lin and his company of dancers embrace this challenge and present the world of the rice fields as an elemental and ever-changing thing, reflecting a far greater universal struggle, as well as that of the workers toiling away.

Each section of the performance and video corresponds to the life cycle of rice (Soil, Wind, Pollen, Sunlight, Grain, Fire, Water) that lends itself to a clear and straightforward structure.

Clothed in a variety of simple pastel dresses, female dancers introduce the first sequence, assembling one by one, stomping at the floor rhythmically. The beat accumulates slowly but simply, eventually forming a chorus of percussion. This opening sequence takes a rather everyday action and brings a surprising elegance and grace to it. A suitably fitting start to a show with simple premise.

As the show progresses through its various environmental states, from the weather to the pollination of grain, mother nature is presented to us through both movement and the filmed sequences by Howell Hao-jan Chang which background the performance, transporting us to the very sites and spaces being evoked.

These panoramic images, specifically filmed for the show, convey much of the meticulously researched quality of the process. The choreography, too, consists of more than just imagined simulations but studied reinterpretations of the real subjects, who feel truly honoured in this performance.

As someone with limited exposure to contemporary dance, what interests me is how choreographers use their tools to express stories or ideas. The inherently abstract form can be quite exciting and liberating, dealing with subjects in mostly representational terms. But, while there’s an inarguable skill and technical precision to every single movement in Rice, from the influence of tai chi to the handling of bamboo poles, the work is also quite literal and deliberately repetitive, offering little to no surprises in the interpretation of its subject matter.

It’s telling that one of the early standouts is a dual performance (Pollen II) that entangles its two dancers as one, bodies and limbs twisted together into a knot. It’s a deeply sensual piece that is both elegant and erotic, suggesting Shakespeare’s ‘beast with two backs.’ I loved it for the demands it placed on the performers, pushing their physicality while also asking them to stay poised, but also for the way it connected the human body to the body of the earth. Whereas most of the other pieces simply have the performers conveying an elemental state without leaving much room for the imagination.

The moments that attempt to meet Western and Eastern influence are also evocative, but lack dramaturgical purpose. The appropriation of Maria Callas and Strauss, for all its classical grandeur, undermines the proletariat love letter that Rice wants to be. It’s an overly affected gesture of East meeting West that stirs us, but also bristles with unintended irony upon reflection. On the other hand, the use of Taiwanese hakka folk song is more in tune with the production and its ideals, reflecting the humbler lives of the provincial man.

Rice is at it’s most effective when shining light on the inherent beauty of human labour amongst mother nature. Not unlike last year’s Marama by The Conch, it’s an environmentally conscious work that attempts to connect the spiritual with the physical. But to me it takes a simple idea and stretches it too far, even for its relatively short 70 minutes. The resulting work ebb and flows between hypnotically slow-paced and frustratingly repetitive, astonishing beauty and intermittently captivating.

Audiences who appreciate the aesthetically pleasing rather than expecting the conceptually daring will engage with it most enthusiastically. And while it would be easy to accuse Rice of being style over substance, it’s more appropriate to say their style is their substance.

The Bone Feeder played 23-26th March. at the Waterfront Theatre
Rice played 10-12th March at the Aotea Centre

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