When: 14 - 17 November 2019
Where: Melba Spiegeltent
Created and performed by: Maya Muto
Directed by: Celia White
Mutating Roots is a new work created by Japanese Australian dancer/circus artist Maya Muto and GUSH. Premiering at the Adelaide Fringe Festival earlier this year, Circus Oz brought it to Melbourne as part of the Sidesault Festival line up.
In Mutating Roots Muto explores the challenges of relocating outside of one's cultural background. Muto moved to Australia 12 years ago, after spending time in Belgium and Germany, and has found a cultural dissonance which is consistent across her migratory travels.
Muto uses her circus and dance background to speak to us about how her Japanese heritage supports, binds, and traps her throughout her interactions with other worlds. Her point: She is her heritage but she is not defined by her heritage. This is the challenge faced in our modern multicultural communities.
The show begins with Muto boxed in by a shoji screen (the paper has been removed). Is she in a safe place or is it a cage? Across the stage are 4 lines of cloth and rope. They are all a bit different but they are all thick and twined and resemble the roots of a ancient tree which have become exposed in the ground.
Muto emerges from her hideaway and dances across these ropes/roots. There is a bit of hair fiddling and whilst it is not evident at this point in time, this is a marker for a dominant part of the story Muto is about to tell us.
One of the 'roots' - the thickest - is a pair of silks which are loosely knotted from the anchor point in each direction across the stage. Muto goes from end to end slowly udoing each knot and identifying her female lineage on either side of the family. "Great grandmother, grandmother, mother, aunt," and so on until near the end she reaches herself. The ribbon rises and she used the remaining knots to frame tender and cute self portraits before she latches on and she rises to perform a complex silks routine across the four swathes of material.
I was impressed with the complexity of this routine and the skill in keeping all four strands from getting tangled. Unfortunately, I found myself getting frustrated because a lot of the routine (and all the following aerial routines) was performed with her back to the audience. I don't know how difficult it is to swing around but I have never had this sensation watching other artists. Combined with the problem that all that cloth meant Muto was cloaked a lot, I found myself feeling very frustrated as an audience member.
In fact, as good as Muto's performance is, and as complex and intriguing as the ideas underlying this show are, Muto spends way to much time with her face covered by her own hair, various cloth objects, looking down at the floor, or with her back to the audience. I am very surprised White (director) hasn't addressed this.
Eventually the warm embrace of the silks (her ancestors) becomes smothering and she needs to escape. Muto then performs a conceptually similar rope routine with an elegant white fringed rope and wearing a delicate pink kimono. The kimono floats beautifully, but Muto gets tangled in it, just as she was tangled in her ancestry.
In direct address to the audience Muto tells us she is always asked "When are you going to do your cultural dance?" She then presents a dance style montage and asks the audience to identify her cultural dance and let her know when we have seen it. Is it jazz? Is is ballet? Is it disco? We fail and cringe at ourselves as we recognise our ignorance...
In counterpoint Muto actually does take us through a album of female Japanese archetypes through her hair. I loved this section - the Harajuku Girl, the Geisha, the Elegant But Demure Woman. Not a word is spoken but we recognise who they are. Muto then pulls up another rope, plaited this time, and we expect another aerial routine but we are intriguingly suprised as this rope snakes us back through time to an age of the Shogun.
Muto explores the danger and ugliness of the crone before settling on the more modern stereotype of the Hello Kitty manga school girl before eschewing them all. She frees herself from all these signs and symbols, lets her own hair go free and scales an unadorned rope to revel in who she is in all her glory - unadorned, unsignified and magnificent. A modern woman who is all of her past, but ready for a strong and adventurous future.
Mutating Roots is a wonderful show but it still needs some work - just a bit of detailing. There is the problems I have mentioned earlier about not seeing Muto enough. Also, as much as I love all the deliberate hair stuff, there is too much messing around with it in the dance sequences. I kept wanting to shout out "just leave it alone!" It is great when it is a symbol, it is irritating the rest of the time.
Mutating Roots speaks to immigrant Japanese cultural tensions but the conversation is true across all cultures. Our history is our strength and our comfort, but it is also a tool which can strangle and bind us and stop us from moving forward - because of both ourselves and the people aound us. This is the conversation on everybodys' lips in Australia at the moment, but few people manage to articulate the complexities and tensions with the insight and honour Muto does in Mutating Roots.
If you get the chance to see this show do go. It speaks to us all and has 'words' we all need to hear and are desperate to articulate. Thank you for doing this for us Muto.