The beautiful art of calligraphy writing in Japan is done with gentle, delicate brush strokes, lovingly made after years of learning and practice and associated with a meditational Zen experience.
Hence with Hiroko Watanabe and Above the Clouds I was expecting a slow, contemplative journey – but this performance was an exhilarating rock concert.
A large screen upstage in the Dunstan Playhouse indicated that there would be visuals of calligraphy creation. And initially, when wadaiko drummer Sho Kobayashi took to the stage and raised his arm in that unmistakable ritualistic Taiko style, his impressive mastery of the drums was accompanied by images that related calligraphy to the real world.
Sho was joined by Ayako Niwaon on a Western drum set and, together, they had the audience feeling the rhythm and anticipating a great night out. There is something very primal about drumming that finds its way into everyone’s core.
Then came the rest of the Above the Clouds band – Masahi Hasegawa on lead guitar and Ikuo Hayasi on electric bass – and the Playhouse was rocking. Far from the meditation I was expecting, Above the Clouds was like a blend of Pink Floyd, Santana and Jimi Hendrix. The sound was mixed superbly, whether it was one taiko drummer or two or electric guitars and drums.
Hiroko Watanabe entered centre stage and took up her large bowl containing ink, dipping a thick brush into it. On metre-square white cards, she began to make her brush strokes. This experience was more one of seeing an artist at work, with fellow artists, in the creation of their art, rather than a performance.
Watanabe allowed the music to seep inside her and her response to the music manifest in the way she placed her brush to the paper; sometimes forcing thick, waving lines in time to the music or letting drops and drips make their mark. Each stroke was a considered expression of a time-honoured art and each white board a work of art in its own right.
A live camera projected the brush strokes onto a large screen and the audience had the choice of seeing Watanabe at work bending over the floor or looking up at the work she was creating. The white boards were actually folded boxes, so she was then able to take her individual paintings and stack them, creating a kind of totem pole effect over the stage.
We never lost sight of the band members behind Watanabe’s artwork; they moved about to find positions where they could be seen. There was a balance between the music and the art, with each taking turns to have the spotlight, but mostly working in harmony.
It was fascinating to see this highly respected artist at work; she often smiled and revelled in her creations, and we could see her responding to the music and looking for inspiration from the musicians. There was a fluency about her work that seemed effortless, yet there were also moments when that artist’s struggle was evident, though it produced images of simplicity and beauty.
The final creation was, in essence, an exciting theatre set. When colourfully lit and viewed from above, it looked like a temple of traditional art.
At the end of this performance the audience was clapping in time with the drumming, standing and cheering. It was a night of meditation of a very different kind; the exhilaration that comes from a rock concert that aims for an audience, through the experience of art, to rise above the clouds.
Hiroko Watanabe and Above the Clouds performed for one night only in the Dunstan Playhouse as part of the 2014 OzAsia Festival, which continues this week.
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