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Conceived and directed by Ong Keng Sen
In collaboration with Karen Kandel, Gojo Masanosuke, Kineya Katsumatsu, Toru Yamanaka
Text by Robin Loon
Designed by Scott Zielinski, Mitsushi Yanaihara
Excerpt of an interview with A. H. Sharm for Lien (June 2006 issue)
1. Why did you choose Geisha as a subject?
I first found out about geishas when I visited Japan in 1988. In my continued visits, it has been very fascinating for me especially in 1999 when I followed the dance, the music of the geisha in Kyoto. It is a very closed and very intricate world, much misunderstood because it is often seen to be about the sex and not about the art.
2. What was it about the Geisha that inspired you?
Mostly it is the dream
world of illusion that they spin in private with their clients. They
are said to be from the water and willow world, in that in this floating
world, any desire, any fantasy, any illusion of self if possible. There
is no reality in this world, yet of course, it is a world of personal
emotions as well.
I am inspired by the parallel with theatre, a space of dreams and illusion and how this is created for the audience.
So we are both dreamweavers in some ways, the artist and the geisha.
For years you have dedicated your work to intercultural exchange. How does Geisha fit into this aspect of your work?
I have been interested in the misunderstandings and the contextualizing
of different cultures by each other. So in this respect, geisha is right
For example, we went back to many source materials which are Japanese. Not because of authenticity but I am interested in how different cultures perceive the same event, the same individual.
I think misunderstandings are also very potent to create art. This for eg, is the heart of chinoiserie in Europe which is for me an important art movement in history. For eg, how the impressionists understood and were charmed by asia created some important art in france.
My constant experiments with tradition and contemporary since 1988 take on a twist here in that there is an integrated holistic twist on both gender as well as cultural identity. it has been my belief that art should stand alone from culture, that an artist should not be solely trapped into representing culture in a politically correct manner. there is no authenticity in art in this ever changing and evolving world. there could be the presentation of diverse perspectives and a multiplicity of positions but the artist is not responsible for cultural accuracy. personal and individual responsibility is of course important but one's identity is not only bound to the culture that we are alleged to be from.
so it was my deliberate choice to move away from a japanese or asian actress as the geisha this time. instead i chose a japanese man playing the female role (a tradition in kabuki theatre since 300 years ago) and an african american actress, Karen kandel, who is our geisha for the evening. i think that in this transgressing of expectations we open the field to discuss once again what is cultural representation in art, the importance of hybridity as a way to explode easy categorisations, categorisations which ultimately imprison cultural positions further instead of liberating us from cultural hierarchies.
for me, the geisha is the projection of the ideal woman and this has resonance with the japanese usage of the man onstage to project an ideal woman. of course, this is the ideal woman of a man, constructed by a man. but it is also my belief that artificiality or the artifice has such an important role to play in our social lives. often we value 'truth' but what about the artificial? having a man (gojo masanosuke) play the geisha perhaps reveals our prejudices and expectations of gender relationships.
in bringing karen kandel onstage as the geisha, it also questions our expectations in the word 'geisha', just like our expectations when we say ‘rap, hip-hop’. do we instantly see black gangster violence? i would like to move away from these simple cultural essentialisms to explore a larger universal experience of self and the other. culture is what you make of it rather than imposed limitations by right wing essentialisms put forth by nationalistic politicians or the cultural police that we have in the art world.
art should be a space of freedom to imagine the impossible. the suspension of disbelief allows us to radically break stereotypes which have been unconsciously absorbed through socialisation.
there is also an inherent belief in the work of geisha that we should be able to laugh at ourselves and the self-importance that we designate to authenticity.
ultimately this dialogue between two 'others' rather than an authentic geisha hopefully shatters the cultural hegemonies which inhabit our perceptions of tradition, authenticity, identity.
3. What are the emotions you aim to evoke with Geisha?
It is a world of dream, beauty, artificiality but because it has interviews with so many individuals from that world, it is also a voice tapestry which reflects the individual feelings in that closed world which however echo universal emotions that we all feel.
4. What were the challenges you faced while working on Geisha?
It was actually sieving through the tons of material that we had ranging from 1600 short songs of the geisha to how she is presented in puppet performances and kabuki and film. She is a much loved figure in Japanese art and has been a major character in theatre and film.
i have been particularly happy with how we have been able to pull such diverse materials and the contemporary interviews with individuals from the geisha community made in 2005. what i have enjoyed in particular is giving a fluidity to this diversity of voices, approaches and art styles such as quoting from a 1936 film by kenji mizoguchi about geishas to my own comment on theatre, illusion and dreams. so the implied parallel in this work geisha is very close to my world in that i am a little like a geisha in that i also spin a dream world for my audience. that the theatre and the ozashiki (geisha functions) are not so far away from each other, both of these thrive on illusion. so it is a piece that is very close to my work in art. hence in some ways, geisha is a very personal piece. i think some of the transformations in the piece will be very magical. thats my main goal in the next two weeks as we rehearse with lights, sound, scenery and costumes on the stage in charleston usa to create this magic. in a way, the piece is very friendly and 'naive' in that it positions theatre as magic. its been a long time since i have presented that, theatre as magic.
finally i think it is for me the great joy of live theatre in that we can move from kitsch, camp to a tongue-in-cheek moment to a fantastically aesthetic frame to a very emotional memory. i am taking full advantage of this theatricality in geisha.
5. Describe briefly working with the cast of Geisha – how you inspire them, direct them towards your concept of Geisha, and draw the best out of them.
Well, I work very much like a film director with much onsite research, documentary interviews, also very modular.
With the cast and collaborating artists, my process was as follows:
So for eg, I spent two months with the kabuki dancer, gojo, in Tokyo learning about the geisha as a figure in kabuki theatre and music. I would have lessons with him once a week as we researched together certain themes.
And with Karen, it was a two week reading workshop in nyc when we read through an anthropologist (US) liza dalby’s central book on living and working as a geisha.
This was an important dreamtime for us as a director and two performers.
We also invited Liza Dalby to talk to our artists for instance.
Then Karen also went through a two-month immersion of being in Japan. Although I was not there with her, we set up the framework of the journey for her.
Lots of discussions with designers especially costume, wigs and light because the artifice of the geisha is through the visual look.
Lot of discussion with the writer who wrote a lot from all our research and from which we have distilled the essence.
Most importantly was a one-week workshop where we just play and experiment together. This happened in Singapore in March. All the central scenes have come from this.
Overall I think it is also a culmination of experience as I have been working or researching every year in Japan since 1988.