The Mach ine
Surrounded by audience seating laid out in the letter “U”, a woman sits facing towards the front at a table with a sewing machine on top of a rectangular platform. There is scaffolding behind the sewing table, from which a giant parachute is hanging. As the woman, Ando Tomoko, completes mechanical tasks and labor like sewing and ironing, she sometimes lunges into erratic actions, some subtle, and some others radical, seemingly irrelevant to her “work”. She speaks some text loudly, too. Meanwhile, Saruyama Osamu, the sound designer, shoots some sharp notes on the contrabass. The stage set is equipped with various tricks… Mishin The Machine is a unique spectacle packed with all this.
From the texts that Ando recites—some of them written by Berthold Brecht, some others about him by Walter Benjamin, it is understood she is performing the role of a worker during World War II, but her literal reenactments of the work and the other abstract actions are carefully blended so that it is not easy to make out clearly what this play is really about. And thus, the audience is made to keep poking about the bushes to figure out the performance’s theme. Still, they can’t but face each incident on stage as it is, without simplification. They are deprived any conclusion what this show is really about. And it seems that this undecidedness is designed by the playwright consciously and intentionally.
If so, we need to look more closely what happens on stage in front of our eyes. While the performer acts out what looks like “labor”, the context is obviously dislocated in a very curious way. For instance, there are things like a pair of scissors and a mister hang midair, suspended by elastic strings near the sewing table. The performer, who is also bound by a rubber belt to the table, skates back and forth on the wheeled office chair, grabbing and spraying water here and there onto the fabric of the parachute. She lets it go and grabs another to repeat the same thing and then release it. The containers are then snatched back by the elastic strings and bang loudly into a tin wall nearby. The annoying noise of it then compellingly reminds us of the fact that the wall has been strategically installed there precisely for that effect. Although it is clear that Ando’s actions are choreographed to fit the image of efficient “labor”, that efficiency does not serve anything, means nothing, and is, on the contrary, playful. Actions in Mishin The Machine such as ironing, or switching on the lightbulbs, are motivated by superficial objectives, but as those objectives are thus annulled, her actions are reduced to mere movements without effect.
In dance, you do not question how movements are simply movements and nothing more. In that sense, a movement in dance is pleasure in itself (as opposed to labor which is intended to be performed for an effect). But at the same time, dance does not close itself off within dance. It can be contained within movements in day-to-day life and also in labor.
The actions in Mishin The Machine are intentionally situated in the middle ground where play and labor, ends and means, become even. In that sense, this performance is absolutely not a dance, nor is it a performance about dance. But, at least, it draws a distinction between play and labor. It fully shows the politics of defining labor as labor and dance as dance.