Like many people who have enjoyed an almost life-long association with the Martial Arts, I was once a voracious consumer of any Martial Arts movies I could get my adolescent hands on. Thus was my own enthusiasm for Karate classes fuelled by a steady diet of heroic protagonists who could easily dispatch multiple opponents with high kicks; protagonists bent on waging personal wars with super-human stamina and a miraculous capacity to endure pain. There’s no doubt about it, I was enthralled by the impressively athletic performances and very much wanted to be able to ‘do’ what these on-screen heroes could.
This is not to say that I fantasised about taking a severe beating at the hands of multiple ‘bad guys’, nor did I like the idea of ultra-violence that would culminate in somebody’s inglorious death. But did I spend endless hours disciplining my body to perform highly technical ‘moves’ like jumping spinning kicks? Yes. Yes I did. Did I strive to emulate the masochistic discipline of so many of the training montages that seemed to be a compulsory feature of Martial Arts movies? Most ardently.
It is unlikely that, during this period of my Martial Arts journey, I could have entertained the idea that I was spellbound by the on-screen performances I so eagerly watched. So enthralled was I by the – sometimes exquisite – performances that I didn’t give any thought to the fact that my well-practiced jumping spinning kicks and other such flamboyant ‘techniques’ were mere imitations of performance art; the outward manifestation of the ideas and dreams of creative choreographers.
On reflection, the relationship between the Martial Arts and performance is an interesting one and is my intended subject for the Note that follows. I hope to be able to give some thought to this interesting relationship that the Martial Arts have with performance art, a relationship that, in my opinion, is quite a tangled one. Beginning with a more general consideration of this relationship, I intend to move on to thinking about the relationship between performance and Karate in particular.
Performing Martial Arts…
So what is meant by this idea of ‘performance’, and how does it relate to the world of the Martial Arts? An initial – and obvious – definition of performance is as an act of presenting a form of entertainment to an audience. In my own anecdotal account of being an easily influenced adolescent, this performance of the Martial Arts is straightforward to recognise: fictional characters dramatized in various fictional scenarios for the entertainment of the audience.
There is also the definition of performance as the action or process of performing a task or function. Under the influence of the screen performances, this is where my adolescent self committed to the process of refining my ‘performance’ of the techniques I wished to emulate. In this instance, of course, the audience that provides evaluation of my performance is not so obvious. Mostly, the audience was me (my performance had to pass the scrutiny of my harshest critic). Occasionally, of course, fortuitous circumstances would enable me to seek admiration from other students in my Karate classes, as I performed some of my techniques (much to the frustration of my sparring partners, no doubt).
My naive adolescent antics and misguided attempts at imitation aside, is there a deeper connection between performance and the Martial Arts disciplines? Indeed, I believe there is. If we can think of performance as the transformation of ideas, emotions and all those other little understood human impulses into outward action, then potentially every gesture is infused with performance, in a basic sense (Benson 2006). And I certainly believe that we can think of the Martial Arts as whole languages of gestures, designed to heighten the human activity of expressing emotions to the point where they are experienced and rendered lucid to the practitioner (and audience); an expression that provides a psychological coping method for the existence of violence, so that a person’s discomposure towards it can be soothed.
Performance of the Martial Arts, in this sense, is an ideal expression that gives creative license to practitioners to explore what may be possible in the face of violence. Although, we shouldn’t think of the expressive gestures of the Martial Arts as only dealing with the threatening and diffuse presence of violence, they also deal symbolically with other fundamental questions of human existence, such as power, the quest for control, and the search for identity (Donohue 2002). Moving beyond the performance of human physical potential, the Martial Arts can also be said to assist practitioners in investing life with meaning and in developing mechanisms for relating to fellow human beings (Donohue 2002).
I think it important for a critical approach that we consider what importance idealistic performance has in the Martial Arts; what role has creative licence had in the formation of style? There is no doubt that style plays an important part in the analysis of performance, but we should remember that it is employed to illuminate substance, that is, the essential meaning of the performance. What substance, or meaning is communicated through style in the Martial Arts? Can we say that there are different levels, or validities of meaning?
For me, these are important questions in attempting to understand the tangled relationship between Martial Arts and performance. To further understand this relationship and to attempt to elucidate the dynamics of substance and style, I will be using Karate as a discussion medium.
Karate stands out as an interesting medium through which to explore this relationship between performance and the Martial Arts, not just because it is of particular interest to me, but also because it is often the site of heated debate: regarding the substance or meaning of the central practice of Karate – the Kata – there is much disagreement. Many different claims have been made as to the correct meaning of these – sometimes bizarre looking – forms; claims which have given rise to many different styles of performance. And this is something very important to bear in mind where Karate is concerned, especially for the casual audience: very often, what is performed is an idealistic performance based on assumptions held about the meaning of the Kata. Of course, to the casual audience, assumptions about the self-defence functions of the Kata are easily absorbed and interpreted as correct because they seem to fit with notions of personal combat imprinted on our minds by cinematic or stage performance (refer to my adolescent antics above).
The casual audience witnessing a performance of Karate can, and should be forgiven, however, for being taken in by the spectacle – and enjoying it for what it is – without engaging their critical faculties. And indeed, why would they? In the usual performance of the Kata and their Bunkai a drama is enacted by often very competent artists; a drama that is performed with all the choreography and precision that can be expected from other long-established performance arts.
But what about the performers themselves? Have they also disengaged their critical faculties and become absorbed in performing a spectacle? I would suggest that the influence of performance in Karate is a powerful one, having largely defined how Karate is thought about and promoted (as an effective self-defence method). This influence on Karate is not only to be witnessed in more or less public performances, but has become an integral part of what we could call the culture of Karate.
In an important sense, when we join a Karate club, we become performers of Karate. Any modern Karate club benefits from a diverse membership; people that come to the club from numerous walks of life, with numerous characters and personalities – most, if not all, however, share a proclivity towards membership of a club whose activities are set off from their normal lives. The Karate Dojo is a designated space where club members can come together for a shared purpose, where the right environment can be established for the pursuit of Karate in relative safety. This, of course, bears a great deal of similarity to a performance workshop; where participants adopt the personae of theatrical production and undertake actions that incorporate creative risks in the development of performance (Klens-Bigman 2002).
The Karate Dojo is certainly a place that incorporates creative risk in the development of Karate performance. Most often, where Kata and their bunkai are performed, creative risk is a central feature in striving to demonstrate the validity of empty-handed self-defence interpretations. Although most physical human interactions rely to some degree upon the individual’s concerned taking on a particular role, the ‘traditional’ performance of bunkai is predicated on the assumption of roles (i.e. ‘attacker’ and ‘defender’) for harmonious performance. A carefully choreographed sequence of interactions, with each individual playing their role in the pas de deux, creates a fictional spectacle of violent confrontation.
As with any performance, the outcome of this spectacle of violent confrontation is predetermined. Heroically, the ‘defender’ is always destined to vanquish their assailant and emerge victorious. The visceral fear of violent confrontation is dramatized (and sanitised) for an audience eager to know that such situations can be ‘dealt with’ without suffering harm. Perhaps such idealised representations are necessary – in one sense, this is obviously true otherwise Karate Dojo would be places where severe injuries are routinely inflicted! The problem comes, however, when the performance of self-defence in tidy choreographed sequences is assumed to be representative of ‘reality’. Such an assumption is fraught with difficulty; a performance may be considered as a symbolic representation, but it is most certainly far removed from the nasty, unpredictable and hormone driven reality of violent conflict.
The spellbinding effect of symbolic performance has, in my opinion, dampened the critical faculties of many Karate practitioners. A wide range of bizarre body postures and movements which are routinely incorporated in the performance of Karate are consequently thought of as ‘real’ self-defence techniques. Rarely do practitioners take an objective look at the techniques recorded in Karate kata, instead, they work hard to refine their performance of the techniques and integrate them into highly convoluted – and choreographed – sequences. Indeed, the normal framework of Dojo practice demands that one pays careful attention to such performance (progression ‘through the ranks’ is often determined by the quality of a performance). It also demands that a practitioner play their ‘role’ and not ask awkward questions. Everyone has a role to play in the Dojo, from beginning student to Sensei, roles which are created and maintained using costumes, role playing and ritual (Klens-Bigman 2002).
It seems to me that where Karate is concerned, at least, these elements of performance have played a significant role in the way that the art has been transmitted. An unfortunate culture of nurturing symbolic performance to fuel belief in the self-defence effectiveness of Karate techniques has led to very little in the way of honest questioning of such a premise. Immersed in this culture, Karate performers may well look for ‘truth’ in their actions, as far as this goes, though this will mostly be in the same way that actors check themselves for believability on stage.
The important questions for me seem to be: Has Karate, as it is widely practiced, become about performing the drama of self-defence? Can this performance ever be anything more than a symbolic representation lacking in ‘real’ substance?
During the course of this Note I have attempted to give some thought to the relationship that the Martial Arts have with performance. Beginning more generally, I have mentioned the fundamental role that performance has in the Martial Arts when considered from the perspective of being, in part, the outward manifestation of common human emotions and concerns (such as control and identity) in ritual gesture. From a slightly different perspective, I have also looked at performance as an idealised representation of the drama of human conflict.
Using Karate as a case study, I have sought to further explore the idea of performance as idealised representation and the impact that it can have on the practice of a Martial Art. From my perspective, the art of Karate has suffered significant distortions thanks, in large part, to a preoccupation with performing the heroic drama of self-defence – a drama not based on the genuine substance or meaning of techniques bequeathed by the Kata, but rather fanciful interpretation and cognitive bias.
My parting thought in this Note is to invite the Karate practitioner to try and take a step back from the culture of idealised performance that dominates the thinking of so many, try to take an honest look at the techniques recorded in the antique Kata in all their intricate detail. Can they really be justified as empty-handed self-defence techniques?
Thank you for reading this Note from the Training Hall. Please check back soon as I jot down more Notes…
- Benson, D (2006) Performance is the thing, printed in Philosophy Now, Issue 57 Apr/May 2016)
- Donohue, J (2002) Wave People: The Martial Arts and the American Imagination. Published in Combat, Ritual, and Performance: Anthropology of the Martial Arts, edited by David E. Jones
- Klens-Bigman, D (2002) Toward a Theory of Martial Arts as Performance Art. Published in Combat, Ritual, and Performance: Anthropology of the Martial Arts, edited by David E. Jones