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The body sees

2015/6/1 — 15:18

As modern city dwellers, we (except for those who are visually impaired) tend to rely, almost entirely, on our vision to orient. James J. Gibson, American psychologist known for his research in visual perception, revealed to us that the environment does not impinge on its observer. It is the perceiver who negotiates constantly with the incoming signals to determine his understanding. Among all senses, the vision is particularly good at doing so. As a result, according to Gibson, we associate a sense of the “self” which the head. I (my head) and my body (the rest of my body) exist separately, partially because we navigate with our vision, partially because we can see many other parts of our body. I would say that this hierarchy of senses is fortified with technological advances and labor more and more becoming an exchangeable commodity. Our body has been increasingly objectified and regarded as less noble compared to our head, where the brain and the eyes reside.

Choreographer Susan Leigh Foster proposed that contact improvisation, meditation, yoga and the like “conceptualize the body’s movement as a potential conduit to new ways of perceiving and orienting in the world.” She advocated that “movement can be tapped to give insight into new dimension of reality.”[1] The same belief is held by Master Bambang Suryono, veteran dancer and actor of Wayang Wong Istana Mangkune-garan (Javanese traditional theater in Mankunegaran Palace), who came to Hong Kong in the final week of May 2015 on the invitation of Tang Shu-wing Theatre Studio.

With its origin dated back to the 11th Century Java with strong Indian influence, Wayang Wong performances could go on for days in the Palace, telling epic stories of ancient heroes. The characters are depicted both by the performers’ movements and voices. Suryono demonstrated how to produce these voice patterns, including deep throaty voice of giants and other fictive human, screams of eagles and monkeys, or high-pitch sudden outbursts. Suryono moved very slowly, so slow as if carefully peeling off layer after layer of messages floating in the air, taking time for his body to read these messages. While he was demonstrating, the theater was so quiet that one could hear a pin drop. I don’t have to look around to know that the invisible flair of his concentration is arresting in its purest sense. Then, originating from his core and ignited by his breathing, he let out a sudden scream that resonated in, not the perceiver’s ears but his torso – you could almost feel a flow of air circulating your body. A beautiful exchange of the animalistic sensibility that is shared among ourselves, our ancestors, and our descendents.

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Slowness is critical to Suryono in opening up our body sensitivity. We need to take time for the spine and the muscles to twist and stretch as much as possible. The more the skin extends and the more the joints open up, the more environmental messages they take in. Focusing on the inhale-exhale pattern further enhances the magnitude of the stretch and channels attention back to the natural rhythm of the body. Suryono demonstrated a couple phrases of dance, during which he wore masks. Interestingly, these masks have eyes closed, a refusal to the over-reliance of perception through vision. The “dance” is not in a conventional sense the display of formalistic technique, but the contagiousness of an ancient calling to the trust of body sensitivity and breathing.

Suryono’s movement tempo embodies Indonesian’s perpetual sense of time, shared by various Oriental cultures. There is no distinction between the beginning and the end, the old and the new. The tradition is re-enacted and memorized by bodies generation after generation, rejuvenated on each performance. It is contemporarized when practiced by a living body as a life philosophy instead of a formal repetition.

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Note:

[1] Susan Leigh Foster, “Movement’s contagion: the kinesthetic impact of performance” in ed. Tracy C. David, The Cambridge Companion to Performance Studies, Cambridge: CUP (2008): 46-59

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