I wrote this review in 2002. It’s one of the many scraps of writing I never published. Needless to say, this is an example of shit I don’t like.
Total Masala Slammer
Recipe By: Michael Laub/Remote Control productions
Serving Size: 5 000
Preparation Time: 36 months
Amount Measure Ingredient
1 ounce Orientalism
1 ounce Eastern Wisdom
3 ounces Teutonic Cool (or to fill)
1 ounce American Bluff
Fill an auditorium full of middle-class culture vultures; blend with classical Indian dance, selective Bollywood film conventions, postmodern irony and canonical German literature. Mix with a multicultural performing group. Add a sprinkle of orientalism, and stir for 21/2 hours. Makes a good excuse to be in the vicinity of the world famous speigaltent.
* * * *
Total Masala Slammer confounded my expectations. Perhaps I took its title too literally. I expected a heady blend of hot Indian spices, with the intoxicating wallop of a potent alcoholic beverage. What I got was a rather tame melange of pre-packaged Pataks and a Claytons cocktail. But maybe I was expecting too much.
The first thing that surprised me about the performance was its scale. Rather than present the audience with a cluttered space filled with the trappings of what we have come to expect from global blockbuster performances (extravagant light shows, manifold television screens, intricate sets), Laub and his company opted for an open space with relatively little ornamentation (at least in comparison to some of the other festival productions such as Gensi). The only concession to large-scale spectacle was the different coloured curtains that provided the backdrop for the performance (every so often a curtain would crash to the ground revealing another curtain of a different hue in its wake — the united colours of Remote Control productions?). With the exception of a single projection screen supported by scaffolding, and a few strategically placed chairs and microphones, the space was designed to accommodate the expansive dance sequences.
The performance began with one of the two American male dancer/actors addressing the audience directly, and explaining that the ensemble would quote from Goethe’s text from time to time in a pretty casual, offhanded way (he fingered a dog-eared copy of Young Werther to emphasise the point). What followed was indeed a masala slammer of sorts, for the company juxtaposed a few extracts from a Bollywood film, with classical Indian music and dance (Kathak), various bits of text delivered in English and German, audition videos from India for what I presume was the production in front of us, recitations and dramatisations of Goethe’s tragic, if somewhat sentimental, tale of unrequited love and a highly ironic Bollywood soap opera.
In many ways, the individual components of the performance worked well in themselves. The classical Indian dancers and musicians were particularly compelling. The western performers were charming, disarming in a sly, knowing way and overtly erotic. The Bollywood soap opera was vaguely amusing, but its one joke grew pretty thin with repetition. In any case, I’m not convinced that its possible to equate Bollywood histrionics with ‘bad acting. The company performed the extracts from Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther with a heavy dose of irony to fine comic effect, highlighting the similarities between Goethe’s celebrated work and Bollywood soap.
However, while the performance effectively integrated the vocabularies of several different art forms — film, dance, theatre, music, and drama — it did not surmount the cultural and political divisions between east and west convincingly. For example, Bollywood dance sequences are supposed to be erotic — they must convey sexual relationships without resorting to representing any kind of sexual act forbidden by India’s strict censorship codes. Eroticism marked the performances of the westerners in the cast, whose dance vocabulary consisted of various bumps, grinds and shimmies — one female performer disrobed completely. In contrast, the Indian dancers, particularly the females, were demure, and with one exception covered. Of course, it’s possible to argue the toss about whether the performance of the Indian dancers was actually all the more erotic for its modesty, precision and focus. However, my point is that the energy and overt eroticism of Bollywood dance was present in the Western performers, and almost totally absent in the Indians. At times, I felt as though the Indians were ciphers for a familiar orientalist trope — the exotic, passive, feminised other.
I was also disturbed by the sequences where one of the white females donned headphones in order to reproduce the musical cadences of Indian speech patterns. Now I’m aware the performance as a whole appeared to play with different ethnic accents to highlight their musicality and relationship to movement, but the somewhat cheesy simulacra of Indian speech invoked, for me, the questionable racial stereotypes found in old British sit-coms like Mind Your Language, On the Buses and Curry and Chips.
What is perhaps more disturbing, though, is the fact that for the most part the western and eastern elements did not engage in an equal dialogue. In fact the eastern and western performers rarely interacted. Ultimately, Laub and his charges enlist Indian classical and popular culture to serve a production that never really delivers on its promise to serve a total masala slammer.