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A&E Section May 25 - 31, 2001


Pam Plumbs the Foreigner

Pamela Z's Gaijin unites outsiders.

By Yafonne

Pamela Z (front), with butoh dancers Leigh Evans, Kinji Hayashi and Shinichi Momo Koga. Photo by Marion Gray.

Pamela Z dives into an alien state in the world premiere of Gaijin, with three striking bay Area butoh dancers –Shinichi Momo Koga, Kinji Hayashi and Leigh Evans – who converge along different racial lines, from Japanese American, Japanese to Caucasian American. Together with Z, who is African American, the foursome united last weekend at Theater Artaud to create an evening of humor and reflection on alien consciousness. Gaijin is the culmination of Z's disorienting and self-revelatory experience as an American submerged in Japanese culture for 6 months in 1999 through an NEA and Japan/US Friendship Commission Fellowship.

In Japanese, the word "gaijin" is a derogatory slang shortened from "gaikokujin," which means "other country person" or "foreigner." The concept of "gaijin" takes on different meanings, plumbing different levels of consciousness throughout Z's presentation. In a series of snapshot vignettes about being a foreigner, Z gives a highly articulate on-site music performance, blending song and spoken word, building momentum, tension, mystery and power.

Gaijin explodes from dark silence with "Nihongo De Hana shoo," a vocal chant inspired by the Japanese alphabet ("ah," "i," "oo," "eh," "oh"…) coupled with flash images of Japanese characters on a backstage screen. The screen changes to display two naked human figures white painted, one facing front and the other back, slowly moving towards and around each other. Fading into an emerald green backdrop, three humanoids appear in black silhouette on the platform stage like Egyptian statues, moving languidly, melting and changing shapes with rising and falling arms, covering their faces with both hands and gesturing in an alien language against Z's live sound score of screeching echoes.

In "Gaijin Card," a comic spoof on a Japanese alien registration card, Z's face appears onscreen at the bottom of a Japanese-looking license card. With a poker face, she recites all the bureaucratic rules and regulations for aliens, concluding with, "a person who fails to comply with the above mentioned requirements may be punished." She then smiles innocently and holds her face still as if being photographed, rousing a wave of laughter from the audience. when to let go. She gives the audience just enough to whet their curiosity, and then moves on, changing the subject at hand, never letting the ball of expectations drop. Though her music is clearly contemporary, Z's compositions are surprisingly engaging, personable, and communicative, not at all abstract or meandering to the point of obscurity.

There were other light-hearted scenes that evening as well, from "The Colonists" — a joking commentary on Japan's technologies invasion of America, depicted by three workmen on stage in plastic jackets and measuring tapes — to "Karaoke" — a realistic portrayal of a typical Japanese happy hour where three men drink up a storm at a Japanese bar, admiring Z, who plays a Japanese karaoke nightclub singer.

Says Z in an interview with Tom Sellar in Montreal (1999): "One of the things I learned in Japan is that if you’re not Japanese — if you don’t look Japanese, if you don’t speak Japanese — then you will always be a gaijin. It was a real lesson to me because I began to be aware of what people who live in my own country must feel like when they’re never allowed to feel that they belong, because other people don’t allow them to or because they just don’t feel like they do. I think a person can feel like a gaijin on many levels."

Z's signature style combines operatic bel canto and extended vocal techniques with digital sound processing and found percussion objects. Over heaving sighs and whines that add dimensional sound texture, she manipulates and layers live singing and speech through feedback loops to compose a live score on stage. Besides using live digital sound processing (MAX MSP software on a PowerBook), Z also creates sound through body movements using a MIDI controller called The Body Synth (a computer linked muscle-sensitive electrode system which allows her to manipulate sound with physical gesture).

The fact that one singer/composer with three dancers can sustain the attention of an audience for a whole evening is quite a feat. The fluidity of Gaijin is due in part to lighting designer Elaine Bukholtz' rich bold colors of green, golden yellow and red, which cast a vibrant tone to the efficiently simple, yet versatile three-part set design by Lauren Elder, consisting of a small office station, a platform stage with a large screen in the back, and a silk-screened room to the right. The close-up shots of the human body by video artists Jeanne Finley and John Muse no doubt also added a sense of scientific intimacy.

By the end, in "Gaijin II: Inner Faces," Hayashi, Koga and Evans slowly rise from the floor in a nascent state, while individual voices continue to speak from differing experiences of gender and ethnicity. "Very, very strange," repeats Z, looking straight at the audience, as the butoh dancers continue rising up, growing like organic trees, their white-painted sculptural bodies turning slowly to freeze at different angles. Standing there in their white trailing skirts, they looked like monks born again from a deep place of meditation, emerging from the gaijin within.

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updated 11/18/08 4:15 PM