Dictee: bells fall a peal to sky
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
March 20, 2012
Richly allusive and teasingly elusive; calling on myths and snippets of history from ancient Greece, medieval France, and modern Korea; circling around and darting at thematic clusters of motherhood and womanhood, inheritance and language, oppression and resistance: Dictee evades simple description, resists being written about in a straightforwardly narrative way—resists, too, any kind of straightforward narrative. Combining song, dance, text, and video in echoing, overlapping, and mirroring ways, conceiver and choreographer Soomi Kim, director Suzi Takahashi, and the rest of their creative team (especially composer/vocalist Jen Shyu, whose music haunts) interweave and layer themes, tones, and references, more than stories. They create a rich and emotionally resonant piece of performance that could, I think, be almost better reviewed in snapshots or image fragments than in prose—which speaks to the nature of the piece as well as its source text, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, itself an almost uncategorizable hybrid of poetry, autobiography, images, lists, translations, catechisms, letters. The underlying material here is expressed in all the idioms available, from straightforward quotation to embodiment in dance; from textual images used as projections or video segments to poetry serving as song lyrics.
The piece circles around three women, and a series of mythological analogues or intersections for them; there’s lots of doubling and twinning here, starting with the characters themselves. First, there’s a writer—both Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, an artist and novelist whose best-known work was published just a week before her murder; but also perhaps a more archetypal figure—working through the literal text of the book Dictee: its wrangling with the minutiae of punctuation and the grandeur of faith, with the materiality of language, with Cha’s own story. But the writer figure also appears as a girl, and if her adult self operates in the realm of the written word, the girl is primarily in the physical realm, a dancer imbued with enormous joy and innocence. The interplay between the stillness and vocal resonance of Diana Oh, as the writer, and the sheer physical lightness of Soomi Kim, as the girl, is wonderful.
The third (or second, depending on how you count it) woman is Cha’s mother, who appears as her own very young self, a newly qualified teacher in Japanese-occupied Manchuria, in a strange environment and forced to teach in an oppressor’s language. The mother is herself doubled; the same actress also plays the dark spirit of Hades, coming to woo Persephone to the underworld. The girl serves as the translator and conduit of her mother’s story, both reflecting it back to her mother and sharing it with the audience, Here, too, there are many levels in the relationships and interplay between Kim and Kiyoko Kashiwagi as the mother: a tenderness of mother to daughter but also daughter to the recognition of her mother’s past; the interdependence of the translator and the translated. This thread also raises questions of time and loss; of how memory works both forwards and backwards.
The Persephone references in the mother/daughter tale (where the mother doubles as both Hades and Demeter) open up layers of allusion and reference: in addition to the myth of Persephone, we see Catholic prayers; different registers of language in French, Korean, Japanese, English. The oppressor/oppressed dynamic in the mother’s story also plays out in another connection of twins and mirrors: between Joan of Arc and Yu Guan Soon, a heroine of the Korean independence movement in the early twentieth century.
As you may be coming to understand, the way this piece operates is much more intuitive than logical, more a network than a narrative. I couldn’t quite tell you how the component segments fit together; sometimes the juxtapositions spring out of imagery and sometimes out of verbal echoes or the chimes of a bell. The literal writing, in fact, is in some ways the least successfully theatricalized element; where Kim and Takahashi have found ways to freely adapt other elements of Cha into a performative realm, the richly textured, knotty prose doesn’t always work as a performance text. But given that one of the themes is the relationship between language and culture, language and meaning, language and identity, the very impenetrability, though it can be a stumbling block, also has meaning.
Kim’s movement vocabulary, crisp and expressive, can be more directly communicative and certainly more straightforward than the words, through both dance and sign language; we know what people are experiencing and thinking by watching them. The relationship between the girl and the figure of Hades is almost entirely conveyed through visual and body language, as is much of the connection between the girl and her mother.
And underneath all of this—what I fear I’m failing to convey—is a sense of strange depth, of meaning that grows by accretion. There were lots of things here that I didn’t fully understand, or that slipped by me while I was still trying to follow them. There are lots of loose ends and snippets that bristled out at the edges of the piece. Dictee is very hard to write about, and despite all the analysis I could do of its structure, its themes, its component elements, what I take away from it most was that it was very beautiful, and surprisingly affecting, to watch.