Earthed: Perth International Arts Festival 2001

Sarah Miller

The Marrugeku Company, Crying Baby

The Marrugeku Company, Crying Baby

I’m a sucker for (bad) puns at the best of times but given the recent history of the Perth International Arts festival (PIAF), they’re downright irresistible. Either that or Director Sean Doran shows an alarming prescience. ‘All washed up’ seems to capture the fairly catastrophic outcomes of last year’s PIAF. Themed ‘water’, it was a festival that began with a deluge that drowned out the opening night Philip Glass concert and ended with a massive financial dunking. Aptly enough, this year’s festival, carried the theme ‘earth’ and given the limitations of the budget, programming was indeed, much more ‘down to earth.’ The mind boggles at the possible outcomes of the ‘fire’ and ‘air’ festivals yet to come!

Despite the tight budget, there were some strikingly positive outcomes for local artists, companies and organisations. In the visual arts, while the budget for exhibitions remained more or less consistent with that of previous years, the appointment of a Visual Arts Manager, Sophie O’Brien, meant that this festival within a festival was infinitely more focused and substantial than previously. On the other hand, while this year’s theatre and dance program was a much more low key affair with far less emphasis on big ticket overseas acts than has historically been the case, it strongly featured local performing arts companies and projects. While most of them received zip financial contribution, the value and scale of the marketing and promotion offered through the festival paid huge dividends in terms of excellent box-office returns for the participating companies.

In terms of content, you’d be hard pressed to find a connecting theme. It was definitely a ‘something for everyone’, fiscally responsible, kind of affair. There was a bit of emphasis on works from South Africa (the Baxter Theatre Company, Ellis & Bheki) and there was a certain pleasant irony in that the headlining Australian theatre works were both strongly Aboriginal in focus (Marrugeku and Yirra Yaakin Noongar Theatre Company). Beyond which you could take in the really big one, the Merce Cunningham Dance Theatre, and smaller projects such as the charming and virtuosic Cirque Éloise from Canada, the slightly daggy (and derivative) but kind of interesting ‘popera’ Denis Cleveland from New York or the inevitable production from ‘ye olde merrie England’, A Servant to Two Masters, by the Young Vic and Royal Shakespeare Theatre Company. This year’s program was thankfully free of Irish drama.

Marrugeku’s Crying Baby was probably the highlight of my festival. This ongoing collaboration between members of Stalker Stilt Company, Perth-based Indigenous performers and the Oenpelli community in Arnhem Land remains the most artistically, conceptually, politically and socially ambitious work being made in Australia today. The issues are huge and directly impact upon the working process of the company (see RT#41) but the fragility, vulnerability, confusion and instability of that collaborative process is one of the most hopeful things I have witnessed in Australian theatre.

Ironically, Crying Baby was performed at The Quarry Amphitheatre, a favourite outdoor venue for those who prefer their theatre as a kind of benign backdrop to the pleasures of chilled white wine and a gourmet picnic hamper. It’s a beautiful site surrounded by bush, overlooking the lights of the city and Mark Howett’s lighting and Andrew Carter’s sparse set—suggestive of the weird sculptural forms of much of the flora in Arnhem Land—made for an extraordinary environment.

Crying Baby connects the story of an orphan boy neglected by his tribe and the retribution of Kunjikuime (a form of Rainbow Serpent). The performance extends this story visually, aurally and spatially, to encompass the experience of the children of the Stolen Generations, even drawing on that favourite trope of non-Indigenous Australia, the white child, lost in the bush. The story is told in ‘language’ and drawn in the sand by elder and storyman, Thompson Yulidjirri, and translated into English by composer and musician Matthew Fargher. It is elaborated through beautiful and poignant filmwork by Warwick Thornton (Katjet people, Central Australia) which juxtaposes images of a white child wandering aimlessly through grey green bush with archival footage of Aboriginal mission children. The live performers, often on stilts as Mimi spirits, appear and disappear, as do the extraordinarily compelling traditional dancers. Also interwoven is the post-contact story of Mr Watson, the first missionary in Arnhem Land, who removed the Kunwinjku people from their land Gapari (the Crying Baby site) to Goulburn Island.

For the most part, Crying Baby has a haunting, dream-like and evocative quality. It is extraordinarily moving and leaves you in no doubt that these people, stories, spirits, do inhabit and move across the land. The only difficulty I had with the work was a sense that, as Marrugeku, there are still (inevitably) moments of Stalker, which seem to pull the work back to a different place and time and create a kind of rupture. While the stilt-work is perfectly suited to representing the elongated Mimi spirits, the flying scenes, in which the sheer logistics of getting ‘crying baby’ hooked up and swinging around, seem clumsy and not worth the effort. However, this is quibbling. In the end, to quote director Rachael Swain, “this is an important piece of art communicating to a diverse audience in remote communities and urban festivals nationally and internationally.” It is also about reconciliation as more than a glib catchphrase, as a lived process inclusive of pain, listening, grief, moments of great beauty as well as loss and stories of country both pre and post-contact.

The experience of Crying Baby made other works dealing with the effects of colonisation, dislocation, loss and trauma rather more disappointing. Alice, directed by Sally Richardson for the Yirra Yaakin Noongar Theatre, was a really difficult show for me. I’d previously seen a showing of the work in development some 18 months earlier. As Alice Haines: One Night Stand, this much rawer version of her autobiography communicated directly and simply to the audience through straightforward storytelling, song and music. This festival version, however, with the addition of theatrical lighting and set (by the ubiquitous Mark Howett and Andrew Carter) looked like a bad 1970s pub act. Alice is known to many, as singer with the band Mixed Relations, and had this show focused more on her strengths as a singer it might have been a more substantial work. Alice’s stories of pain, loss and survival deserve to be heard but unless some serious critical analysis and dramaturgical rigour is brought to both the material and the process, it will not begin to achieve its potential.

Suip: The Fruit of the Vein by Baxter Theatre Company was extremely familiar to anyone who’s seen any theatre from South Africa over the past decade. Again, this is an important story of cultural shock, trauma and alcoholism. It is a community work in the sense that it was originally developed by young drama students at the University of Capetown keen to explore the legacy of previous generations apparently irreversibly damaged by the effects of colonisation and alcohol. They spent a month on the streets living with, interviewing and learning from their elders. The result is TIE (theatre in education) style theatre with a strong message and generally solid performances. With the exception of the outstanding onstage percussionist, Nkululeko Mzwakhe Hlatshwayo, and the young silent ‘boy’ beautifully performed by Nicol Sheraton, its in your face style drove me mad. As with Alice, however, audiences responded fairly rapturously.

It was great to catch up with 3 parts of a 4 part program, prag/port/perth, curated for the WA Fringe Festival by Berlin-based, Australian dance artist Paul Gazzola. Gazzola’s work has a strong orientation to live art (as opposed to dance per se) and this program, encompassing dance, video, installation and performance by artists from the Czech Republic, Portugal and Perth, reflected those interests. Unfortunately I missed his reprise of the Yoko Ono performance work Cut Piece. I did, however, manage to see Claudia, the video installation by Portugese artist Noe Sendas, a re-working of aspects of Fellini’s 8 1/2, as well as Venus with the Rubics Cube by Czech choreographer Kristyna Lhotakova and musician Ladislav Souk. A duet between double bass and dancer, this deceptively simple and idiosyncratic work dealing with anorexia and the ‘image of the perfect woman’ exploited a touching physical gawkiness. The final piece in the program was Calculating Hedonism: Performance stories from sober and temperate bodies, a collaborative work by Perth-based artists Felicity Bott (dancer), Bec Dean (singer/video artist), David Fussell (performer) and Paul Wakelam (architect, designer & LFX). In some ways, this work reminded me of New Yorker Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theatre, particularly in its use of language to describe shifting psychological states, odd visual/physical juxtapositions and, of course, Foreman’s use of string to articulate the theatrical space. Similarly, Wakelam’s precise mapping of the performance area in coloured tape created an animate sense of space. While Calculating Hedonism, which dealt with the “calculating approach that contemporary society takes to its social relationships, their bodies and leisure time”, would have benefited from some judicious editing, it was great to see performers really playing with form. I was happy to be there.

Crying Baby, The Marrugeku Company, storyman Thompson Yulidjirri, director/writer Rachael Swain, choreographer Raymond Blanco, composer Matthew Fargher; collaborator/performers Dalisa Pigram, Sofia Gibson, Trevor Jamieson, Katia Molino, Simon Peart, Tanya Mead, Eddie Nailibidj, Rexie Barmaja Wood, Harry Thomson; The Quarry Amphitheatre, January 31-February 4; Alice, Yirra Yaakin Noongar Theatre, creator/performer Alice Haines, director Sally Richardson, Subiaco Theatre Company, Jan 31-Feb 17; Suip: The Fruit of the Vein, Baxter Theatre Company, writers Heinrich Reisenhofer & Oscar Petersen, director/choreographer Heinrich Reisenhofer, Octagon Theatre, UWA, Feb 7-11; Prag/Port/ Pert, 4 part program for the WA Fringe Festival, Rechabites Hall, Feb 7-14.

RealTime issue #42 April-May 2001 pg. 24

© Sarah Miller; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2001