Bright lights flood the intimate stage space. A simple black backdrop is all that contrasts to performer Mayu Muto, as she fights for space between folds upon folds of white tissue. Her costume also white, she blends into the apparatus, almost becoming a part of it, with occasional limbs, face and black hair appearing, her own artful, skilful aerial style of tying and untying herself in knots in the fabric.
This is Mutating Roots, Muto’s first full-length solo work, an impressive new circus work which has been developed in collaboration with artistic powerhouse Celia White from Vulcana Women’s Circus. The performance mixes physical theatre, spoken word and aerial performance to create a curious depiction of Mayu’s experience of being an Asian woman in Australia and Europe. Mutating Roots is striking, weird and wonderful, and at times puzzling, work that tells Muto’s powerful, personal story of living away from her home country, and the racism, assumptions and stereotypes she faces as a modern Japanese woman in western and European culture.
In the initial development of Mutating Roots, Muto drew from her own experiences and interviews with other Japanese women living in Australia. Racism and discrimination was a strong theme throughout. She shares vignettes of the experience of Japanese women and performs to a gorgeously designed soundscape that includes muffled voices of taunting, laughing, rumours, voices in Japanese, directed at no one in particular. I’m struck by how much the former impacted me; could it be my voice or that of my peers that has caused Muto to feel this way, or anyone else who is foreign or different. She effectively captured the poignancy in these scenes, and to build a sense of fear, sadness and uncertainty with the audience.
Through her interviews, Muto explores a common theme of hair. Hair and hairstyles have been used in Japan by women to boost social and economic status. The show explores traditional tales of Japanese women and themes of disconnection. Director Celia White noted one of the inspirations being, “These traditional Japanese stories, these crones, these rejected women that don’t belong to the normal society, become mad or dangerous.”
As such, hair is recurring theme throughout this work. In one scene long, dark hair, in what could be a never-ending braid, comes alive and is pulled and whipped around the stage. Attempts to placate control the hair fail, and eventually it overtakes her and she is entwined and entangled by it. In another piece, while Muto climbs layers of white tissue, her black hair seemingly comes alive, an invisible force violently pulling her in all directions. She transitions seamlessly between serious, careful movements, almost of an older, ephemeral Japanese woman, to large, silly carefree and playful movements, to frantic movements inspired by secret compulsions.
In Mutating Roots, common aerial apparatus are cleverly transformed beyond their traditional forms in circus. Muto has added interesting textures and shapes to each apparatus, creating new depth, light and shadows to explore these themes. In one piece, her white rope has added frills and fringes. She climbs it in a traditional Japanese pink Hapi coat, somehow not entangling in the rope as she climbs. The coat, both hides, as well as frames her face and body. There are moments of stillness and flurries of frantic movement and action caught between the fringes of tradition and feelings of frustration, uncertainty. Finally, the pink coat caught high in the air, obvious against the white of the rope, as Muto slides away, down the vertical, seemingly leaving behind a piece of her past, a piece of her culture, and perhaps a part of her identity.
While Mutating Roots has a strong focus on aerial pieces, each of these performances are offset by floor work, which incorporate the recurring motif of a Japanese traditional door. This sliding door, called a ‘shoji’, creates an interaction of light and shadows, which are typically used to conserve space. Muto interacts with the moveable door in a variety of ways throughout the piece. Often it encloses her, as though she is boxed in by it. As I watch, I feel as though she is almost forced to conform, or is boxed in by the strong traditions of her culture and upbringing. Her small, strong body is silhouetted by the square patterns the Shoji screen creates in front of her, revealing and concealing her simultaneously.
One of the most powerful pieces comes in the final moments of Mutating Roots, where Muto plays with stereotypes forced upon Japanese women. The playful school girl in cat ears, character backpack and tiny tartan skirt and tie, morphs to become inviting and seductive. Layers of costume, slowly come off and cause a loss of balance and dignity. What begins as humorous, becomes difficult and almost sad to watch as these layers of stereotypes are removed to reveal just a woman, in her underclothes. But once she is free of all of these layers, she can truly be herself and final scene of Mutating Roots is a striking rope performance, no extra strings or fringes attached. It is powerful, strong, deliberate and confident. She performs in her unique style, shaped by the experiences of her past with refined ease, and pleasure. She is a glorious, beautiful and free.
It was a joy to attend this showing to support and learn from this talented artist who sits on the cusp of two worlds. As she speaks and performs, she delivers a powerful message. Her past experiences have made her feel unseen, unheard, and even sadly intelligent, invisible, and objectified, but now she is seen, heard and truly powerful. This is an impressive debut work by an emerging voice in contemporary circus and physical theatre that shouldn’t be missed and shows once again the power of new circus as tool to show the stories of the diversity of this country. A must-see.
Elyse Fitzpatrick saw the preview of Mutating Roots at the Stores Studios, Brisbane Powerhouse on 8/2/19. Mutating Roots will debut in Adelaide Fringe Festival from 26 February to 3 March 2019.
Devised and Performed by Mayu Muto
Director | Celia White.
Feature image + bottom | NFG
Middle image | Katrina Harvey