Journey to the West was a work-in-progress featuring the collaborative energies of India’s contemporary dance-diva Anita Ratnam and New York City’s story-telling maverick Dianne Wolkstein, along with director Richard Armstrong and choreographer Sat Hon. At the core of the performance was a highly innovative and multi-disciplinary approach to storytelling. Ratnam, for example, used hastas from Indian classical dance but incorporated voice and sollukattus (rhythmic syllables) to express various emotional landscapes. Sometimes the hastas decoded familiar cultural symbols, creating a hybrid, ‘nouveaux-abhinaya’ vocabulary. Wolkstein employed a vast range of voice modulation to depict various characters, and incorporated various physical stances invoking the symbolic representations of key characters. Due to a dense script with copious amounts of historical detail, at times the script was difficult to follow. The presentation also included the effective use of props to depict multiple timelines, objects, persons and geographies. For example, the bamboo staff, deployed consistently, suggested transformative potential. At times, some of these material and narrative tropes hinged on cliché, but more often than not, were carefully chosen.
The narrative itself dramatised ideological struggles between various religious cultures in East Asia around the sixteenth century, particularly between Taoism and Buddhism. At the meta-level, the work is a reflection on selfhood and the cultivation of an ethic of compassion. The accessible and often humorous narrative of the Monkey King punctuated the philosophical deliberations that are in many ways at the heart of the work. The evening renewed my aesthetic convictions about effective yet subtle manipulations of the principle of economy in performance. Rarely are interdisciplinary performance works that integrate theatre, dance, and voice with speculative narrative held together in delicate balance. Journey to the West did just that, proving, ultimately, to be a provocative and powerful work of performance art.