Big in Japan: where does the swing take you?

Gail Priest

In the early 90s there was a possie of us all hurtling ourselves through the air and swinging from things, but some of us got a bit tired, a bit hurt, had to get jobs, and it seemed like the Sydney aerial scene went into hibernation. But since 1999 Aimee Thomas and Shelalagh McGovern have been determined to make things, mostly dangerous looking things, happen with their creation of Aerialize-Sydney Aerial Theatre.

Big in Japan was their annual celebration and fundraiser. Described as a night celebrating Asian influences on Australia, the Newtown Theatre was gorgeous decked out like an old music hall with flowing red silks, origami sculptures and a huge scenic backdrop framing the live musicians, Entropic and Deepchild. The majority of the work was a celebration of strength and skill, which the artists had in abundance. Highlights included Suzie Langford’s Cloud Swing routine Tokyo Clouds. Compared to the trapeze this apparatus allows for a gentler physical gesture, making Langford’s death-defying free falls all the more surprising and breathtaking. Susan Mitchell performed an invigorating web spinning routine, Kamikaze, with great strength and precision, and the Urban Spin duo between Langford and Mitchell showed a maturity in their skills and performance presence-they make a good team. Under the Sea, performed by Shelalagh McGovern, was an elegant and gutsy swinging trapeze routine with heart-stopping drops to foot hangs at peak swing, accompanied by guitarist Antonio Dixon and blues singer Mari-Jon Berna, who has one of the most soul-satisfying voices around.

Fortunately, a few of the pieces attempted to push through the showy style that inevitably arises from apparatus and skill-oriented work. Bernard Bru’s Sakura was based around a well developed clown persona and involved an elaborate routine of innovative climbs to the ceiling to release a gentle flow of sand-perhaps a meditation on time and Zen. Playing with the gestural translations of cartoons like Astro Boy, Meika Kiven and Charmaine Piggott pushed the regular trapeze tricks-half angel, foot hang, one armed hang-into refreshingly new shapes and constructions creating an integrated relationship between apparatus and performer. In contrast, Hiroshima by Genevieve Moran, with text by John Hersy, though elegantly performed, did not create a significant connection nor juxtaposition between the physicality of standard ‘tricks’ performed on the lyre (hanging hoop) and the text-one of the difficulties to be worked through when pushing physical performance into more narrative ground.

The most interesting work for me was Simple Terms. Catherine Daniel appeared on stage in simple day wear (no glitter to be seen), looking for her partner. Casually she ran through her complex routine on silks, chatting to the audience, flirting with a boy in the audience. Eventually Jessica Paff arrived and they performed a sophisticated, though still casual routine, on the one silk, continuing the conversation. The underplayed, anti-theatrical nature of the this work was refreshing and suggested a different conceptualisation of aerial performance. I hope they continue investigations in this style.

Big in Japan was a celebration of skill more than of Asian cultural influences. Many of the references were slight, a red sun Tshirt here, a kimono there, which considering the enormous influence of Asian performance training systems (Suzuki, Butoh, Bodyweather) on Australian contemporary performance seemed a little naive. Now that the skills are there and developing, it would be great to see an increased engagement with material on deeper and more conceptual levels-admittedly difficult in such a tricks based medium but something to strive for as Aerialize continue training Sydney performers to swoop, dive and fly.

Big in Japan, Aerialize- Sydney Aerial Theatre, Aug 29-Sept1, Newtown Theatre, Sydney.

RealTime issue #51 Oct-Nov 2002 pg. web

© Gail Priest; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2002