A box full of culture

Opal Vapour  Jade Dewi Tyas Tunggal The Street Theatre June 14-15

The Javanese heritage of Jade Dewi Tyas Tunggal, and her recent experiences living and studying in Yogyakarta in Central Java, are clearly discernible in Opal Vapour. Tyas Tunggal has distilled certain features of Javanese classical dancing and embedded them into the work, which consists of five distinct sections all performed on a rectangular box placed centre stage. Some of those features are specifically choreographic allusions to Javanese dance - intricate hand and wrist movements, for example, or a lifted leg with foot turned up from the ankle, or the use of a long scarf whose ends are delicately but swiftly flicked into the air. But it is more a Javanese mood than any choreographic reference that Tyas Tunggal has captured. Opal Vapour takes place in an unhurried atmosphere. There is nothing that appears crass or uncivilised.

Moody lighting adds a certain mystique and the accompaniment of bells, a viola, snatches of a tinkling gamelan orchestra and the live singing of Ria Soemardjo, who created the overall sound, adds to an ambience of restrained elegance.

As the work begins, a human-sized shape wrapped in fabric is lying on the box. Slowly layers of net and other fabric are drawn off the shape by Soemardjo. It is as if layers of history are being peeled back to reveal the heart of a culture. Tyas Tunggal is revealed as the carrier of that culture and begins to move.

Of the different sections that follow, all of which are abstract in nature and unnamed, I found the middle one most captivating, as much for its extraordinary lighting by Paula van Beek as anything else. The rectangular box, which functions throughout as a small stage, becomes a light box. Its surface glows with a blue light and that glowing, blue surface is projected on to a back screen. Tyas Tunggal is stretched out on the box and moves from shape to shape on her small stage. As she does so, her shadow is projected on to the screen and we are privy to a version of an Asian shadow play. Perhaps what made this section especially appealing was the relationship between movement and shadow. By placing her light source where she did, apparently shining upwards from inside the box, and placing her screen at right angles to the surface of the box, the shadows that appeared on the screen looked quite different from what we could see on the top of the box. Van Beek essentially became a puppeteer and Tyas Tunggal her puppet, with the puppeteer manipulating our view of the movement. Tyas Tunggal appeared to be floating in a blue space.

Opal Vapour, although promoted at times as a solo work for Tyas Tunggal, is a three-woman show of exceptional visual intensity. Soemardjo deserves a special mention not only for her fascinating mixture of sounds, but for her unique textiles and costumes. They add to the unusual nature of Opal Vapour, which sits somewhere between a dance performance and a slowly moving installation.