May You Pay Attention
In TERRITORY: The Island Remembers, zavé martohardjono and a team of collaborators collide the contemporary with the ancient and the real with the imagined. Their colorful, multimodal world is a lesson in how we have harmed ours, and what it will take to heal it.
Alt text: In front of a projection of a tea party, Ube Halaya, Zavé Martohardjono, x, and Raha Behnam sit and discuss global crises at a tea table adorned with white lace, flowers, tea pot and teacups.
“Nothing is as it was. Nothing is as it is.” zavé martohardjono’s TERRITORY: The Island Remembers, a collaboratively created parable performed April 7–9 amid a multimedia installation at Gibney Company Community Center, mourns the damages of a violent, colonial era while embracing a fluid relationship to time and progress.
The Island has transformed the black box theater into a ritual space of colorful, almost anthropomorphic altars containing clementines, water jugs, tea pots, and figurines. Omniscient voices in the luscious soundscape crafted by Julia Santoli inform the audience that we are on The Island, and not for the first time: “You all live on it. You’ve all lived on it together since the days you were born.” The first moments of performance gradually awaken the landscape: four performers embodying flowing water, animals, and hunters; sounds of bird calls and bubbling water; projections that sweep over trees and oceans.
As we settle into the sensations of our apparent homeland, the scene shifts. The performers change costumes onstage with the help of two “Island Stewards,” who serve interchangeably as stagehands, flight attendants, and additional performers. Once dressed, they morph out of contemporaneity and into “deities” who, one by one, introduce themselves through movement. Though not explicit in the performance, the precise details of each character can be gleaned through martohardjono’s research and writings, from their Instagram account to a presentation at the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library, where they were a Fellow researching Balinese dance.
Alt text: In a shiny blue feathered costume with sheer fabric wings dotted with origami cranes, Raha Behnam dances in tribute to the mythical Simurgh, a Persian bird representing collectivity.
Leaving the copious source texts unsaid helps prevent a descent into didacticism and adds to the show’s immersive, mysterious magic. The movements and text alone invoke distinct personality traits, but they can’t always convey the rich depths of history and culture from which they spring. Audience members who hadn’t done their research may have benefitted from an artful contextualization of the mythologies—Iranian, Filipino and Tagalog, Jamaican Chinese, AfroTaina-Arawak, and Indonesian—that the performers harnessed to create their characters.
First is Ultimate Disaster, performed by martohardjono. This deity, draped in bright red and inspired by the Balinese Rangda, is fiery. Steam seems to emit from martohardjono’s wide eyes and mouth as they hiss and roar.
Next is the winged Bao, a deity of youth, mischief, joy, and reckless abandon, performed by x and inspired by the Chinese Monkey King. Bao’s twirls, tumbles, and bounces are wiggly and playful, and x appears almost surprised by their own delight.
Ube Halaya emerges as Memento Mori, a “reanimation of Anagolay, a Filipino goddess of lost things.” Halaya’s thoughtful, precise, proud plucking gestures evoke the ringing of bells heard in the sound score.
Finally, Raha Behnam performs See-More, an elegant, blue, bird-like deity inspired by Simurgh, the benevolent flying creature of Persian myth. See-More curiously surveys the world with graceful flapping, folding, and twitching.
The Island is in conflict. Sounds of storms and images of cascading lava usher in a tea party. Around a table, the deities lip-sync to recordings of their own voices while projections show an identical scene played out in the clouds, reminding us that these are timeless, incorporeal beings, though they bear resemblance to haughty elders lamenting modern life. “I hate to explain the state of this world,” one of them cries as they explain, in mysterious poetics, that the “white hand” has divided The Island. They issue calls to action directly to the audience: “may you cease and reflect; may you pay attention.” What we are being asked to act on becomes increasingly clear as each deity appears in projection to present riddle-like weather reports on flooding in the streets and subways, oceans on fire, and other evidence that the era of climate disaster is now.
The flood keeps coming. martohardjono tears through the space furiously screeching, howling, and trembling while the other deities writhe on the floor, embodying the rage and grief of those who have stewarded the land and watched it pillaged and plundered. And yet, hope breaks through when the deities vocally commune through sometimes harmonic, sometimes dissonant hums, sighs, and sustained notes; beautiful, stirring, abstract sounds gradually seem to magnetize their bodies and souls together.
Alt text: Zavé Martohardjono hisses and crouches atop a prop burial mound in a fiery dance inspired by the Balinese witchqueen Rangda. Lying deflated on the ground around Zavé are Raha Behnam, Ube Halaya, and x.
Opening night of TERRITORY coincided with two things: a rainstorm and the finalization of the New York State budget. As audience members forged home through sheets of water on the Lenape island of Manahatta, their government had just denied healthcare and childcare access to immigrants, failed to sufficiently raise wages for homecare workers, rejected housing vouchers for vulnerable tenants, and rolled back criminal justice reforms, but gave over half a billion dollars to a multi-billionaire for a football stadium.
So, it’s true; we do live on The Island, divided by the white hand, in desperate need of repair. TERRITORY is like all great parables in this way, convening ancient and current, real and imagined, mystical and quotidian.
Parables also have lessons. The end of TERRITORY is an origami lesson. The island stewards pass out paper and attempt to lead the audience through the necessary folds for a crane, though on opening night we ran out of time. Time is tricky, as TERRITORY repeatedly reminds us, but it was jarring to be reminded of the restraints of the clock inside of this nonlinear, eternal world. Having gathered us in a circle, the performers and stewards recite closing invocations for the earth and humanity and point us to a curated list of organizations working for land, climate, and housing justice.
TERRITORY is an ambitious work, grappling with multiplicities of cultural source texts, artistic collaborators, and complex ideas. But one realizes upon leaving the theater that the message, as in all parables, is simple: human hands may have broken this world, but they can fix it too. Get to work.