Dumb Type

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, December 9-12

By Justin Hayford

If you missed Dumb Type at the Museum of Contemporary Art last weekend, you may not have a chance to make up for your folly: the likelihood of seeing this Kyoto-based performance collective in Chicago again is slim. Formed in 1984, Dumb Type has never performed here before and only rarely been seen in the United States. They tour mainly in Europe, where their brand of nonlinear, image-based work is readily sponsored by government-supported theaters that truly value the arts–even art as gloriously enigmatic and useless as Dumb Type’s. Their hypercharged multimedia convolutions–which defy all waking logic, categorization, and easy assimilation–don’t lend themselves to “community outreach” or “at-risk-teen development,” as American performance work must these days to prove its worth to suspicious funders. Dumb Type shows how masterful a troupe of artists can become when beholden only to their own imaginations.

And rarely will you see imaginations more thoroughly plumbed than in OR, Dumb Type’s 1997 piece about the border between life and death. Although the group created it during a monthlong residency at the Theatre du Manege in Maubeuge, France, they’d been discussing the ideas behind it for a year or so. Teiji Furuhashi, one of the company’s founding members, died of AIDS just as these discussions began, and sudden, untimely endings pervade the work. The piece begins with one such abruptly closed segment. A white-clad woman steps onto a white high-gloss floor and wheels a surgical gurney along the base of a high, curving white wall that sweeps back into the depths of the MCA’s stage. She abandons the gurney at the farthest point from the audience and continues walking along the wall, unhurried, deliberate, full of a mesmerizing nonchalant gravity. We almost hold our breath waiting for her to get offstage, but when she’s just steps from exiting, the lights black out with shocking suddenness. Things in this world end unexpectedly, by whim.

Then a loud electronic bleep is heard, and a vertical sliver of white light traverses the curved wall, revealing a second woman standing next to the gurney: we see her for a mere instant as the light races over her. After a moment the bleep sounds again and the light makes another sweep of the stage. This happens perhaps a dozen times, as though the space were being scanned by some monstrous scientist. Just when the sequence seems drained of interest, a blinding flash illuminates the entire stage with the crystalline brilliance of a nuclear blast, leaving the spectator in pitch blackness when it disappears: an instant of complete sight induces complete blindness. The scanning light resumes its course, and gradually high and low electronic beats seep into Ryoji Ikeda and Toru Yamanaka’s score. The blinding bursts of light come a few more times, and just when you’re able to anticipate the shock, the next one is accompanied by a powerful low blast from enormous speakers at the sides of the stage–a sound that seems to tear your soul from its anchor. Like the light it vanishes quickly, and we have no idea when it might return.

In these opening minutes Dumb Type creates a thrilling sense of dread. The spectator is at the mercy of some disembodied force sweeping through the room, and all the human being onstage can do is stand quietly and wait for it to pass. It’s not out to hurt us but to shock us momentarily, ripping us out of any complacency we might feel in our comfortable, well-appointed theater.

You could say that the force is death, and rather ingeniously evoked at that. But it also resembles the creative force behind Dumb Type itself, which plays tricks on its audience, bombarding the senses in the hope of rattling our complacent bones. Their assault is as playful as it is grave; the go-go girls in miniskirts, failed lounge singer, corpselike thrash rocker, sadistic fashion plate, and scientific bumblers who wander through the piece performing seemingly random acts of foolishness also dance on the edge of an abyss they can’t be bothered to fear. Other characters–notably the trio of men and women who spill on and off surgical gurneys at various points–seem to be plummeting headfirst into it. The resulting emotional landscape is by turns giddy and terrifying.

Dumb Type’s assault is also an aesthetic choice: the group eschews conventional theatrical structure in favor of a well-controlled flurry of activity not unlike Goat Island’s passionate but pedestrian movement. There are long, frantic dancelike sections early in the piece, with performers hopping about on one foot, windmilling their arms, spinning while holding white plastic chairs, and collapsing into one another’s arms–all performed under a harsh strobe light to frighteningly loud electronic music. These are counterpointed by even longer static passages of pure contemplation late in the piece: four people lounging in canvas deck chairs staring at nothing, a woman standing motionless before a huge video shot through the window of a car traveling along a highway in winter. Ranging from somber to campy, the piece is a curious hybrid of choreographed humiliations, high-tech pop-culture flourishes, and dance-club score, suggesting an unlikely collaboration between Pina Bausch and Pizzicato Five.

But paradoxically it’s this lack of uniformity that unifies OR. For at base it’s about the coexistence of irreconcilable opposites: sight and blindness, play and terror, life and death. Images and gestures contain their own opposites, as when an apparently lifeless woman is manipulated into walking–which results in her seeming thoroughly dead–or when a high tone and low tone are played simultaneously and so loudly you’re deafened and can’t hear either one. Defying conventional dichotomies, Dumb Type shows how unsettling it is to be poised at the intersection of extremes.

And they accomplish this elaborate dance with death without the benefit of actorly gimmicks. No one ever behaves as if he were dying or mourning a missing actor. In fact the eight supple cast members remain stoic throughout, rarely allowing the slightest expression to cross their faces. They seem to trust the event that surrounds them, adding little to it but their physical presence. Yet their performances are inexplicably affecting–I found myself on the verge of hysterical sobs more than once, perhaps because the performers seem so heroic before the whirlwind that threatens to overwhelm them, remaining grounded and unshakable. They become the constants in a perilous world, enduring against all odds.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.