Festival junkie: immersion and withdrawal

Sarah Miller inhabits performance and dance at the Festival of Perth

Ex Machina, The Seven Streams of the River Ota

Ex Machina, The Seven Streams of the River Ota

One moment you’re immersed in festival fever: running projects, racing to shows and exhibitions, talking about stuff in foyers and forums, grabbing inedible food at disgusting hours of the day and night and still getting to work on time in the mornings. Suddenly, the festival(s) recede, leaving you fishlike, stranded and gasping, over-tired and frumpy in a world full of incessant deadlines and all the things that have been left undone that should have been done last week.

I began the Festival of Perth with the light and fluffy Titanic and the now hotly debated (over two cities and two festivals) The Seven Streams of the River Ota by Robert Lepage’s Ex Machina. Seven Streams was an interesting work. The seven hours of viewing were not arduous. In fact the no doubt necessary pacing/tempo made it very easy to sit through. Without going into descriptive detail (of which much abounds), I found the first three sections visually exciting, witty and incisive. It seemed, nonetheless, a fragile work, easily thrown off its stride. I started to have misgivings in the fourth section or stream, which represented the legal suicide of one of the key characters who has contracted AIDS; misgivings that turned to irritation in the fifth section, dealing with the Holocaust—lots of tricks with mirrors and the familiar images of a displaced population struggling through a non-specific but clearly European winter landscape.

Given the number of works in both the Adelaide and Perth festivals, that have attempted to deal with humanly inspired catastrophe, including exhibitions such as Jenny Holzer’s Lustmord (Bosnia) and Adrian Jones’ Cadaver (the genocide committed against Aboriginal people) at PICA, as well as a range of talks addressing everything from terror and morals in Perth and the sacred and the profane in Adelaide, the questions I am left with have everything to do with the possibility of the appropriate ‘staging’ and/or ‘exhibition’ of grief or despair in the face of overwhelming brutality. Finally it is the considered and subtle collaboration between Adrian Jones (WA) and Marian Pastor Roces (Philippines) which has been the most compelling in terms of a thoughtful self reflexivity in relation to these complex terrains.

In Seven Streams, my initial discomfort turned to dislike in the final three sections. What had previously seemed to be the deft touch of the director carefully avoiding the pitfalls of easy resolution, became simply glib; the politics naive and the visuals clichéd. The relationships articulated across the 20th century between the survivors of the Holocaust and those of Hiroshima seemed contrived and twee and something more (or less) to do with innocent (albeit gauche) America and ravaged Japan—an all too familiar trope.

Being the Festival of the long night, I also spent five hours watching Cloudstreet, presented by Black Swan Theatre in association with Belvoir’s Company B at the Endeavour Boat Shed in Fremantle. A beautiful space with a fabulous cast assembled by Neil Armfield, this was the absolute crowd-stopper of the Festival. Whilst I think it could well do with some judicious editing, particularly in the first and third sections and the little girlie stuff is a bit ham for my taste, this was a work defined by outstanding performances. Having said that, Cloudstreet is a relatively easy show, dealing with the familiar and the happily parochial—designed for an enjoyable night in the theatre. My enjoyment was somewhat hampered by the fact that, seated as I was, towards the back of a very large and steep rake, it was very hard to hear this very verbal piece much of the time.

There’s not much to be said about Germany’s Theatre Titanick. A mildly entertaining bit of fluff which is perhaps more interesting to look at in relation to Stalker’s Blood Vessel in Adelaide. A more embryonic work, Blood Vessel has so much more going for it in terms of a beautiful rig (designed by Andrew Carter), the sound (Paul Charlier) and the substance (Rachael Swain and the company). Whilst Blood Vessel has a long way to go in terms of both its content and its choreography, and the relationship between its strong visuals (physical and filmic) and material base, previous experience suggests that it will be a much more exciting work than Titanic by the time it reaches Perth audiences in 1999.

My pleasure in Uttarpriyadarshi (The Final Beatitude) by the Chorus Repertory Theatre from Imphal (India) came from the fabulous cacophony of image, sound and story telling derived from a rich synthesis between traditional Indian styles in juxtaposition with contemporary techniques. An elephant, richly caparisoned for war, creates a dramatic and fabulous moment surrounded by the shadowy silhouettes suggestive of great armies. Women wail in varying extraordinarily pitched registers or cackle like banshees whilst the fires of Hell burn. Buddhist monks perform something akin to the antics of the Keystone Cops and unlike Lepage’s much cooler Seven Streams, there is no sense of embarrassment or measure.

I didn’t make it through the entire program of the Lyon Opera Ballet. The first offering, Central Figure by Susan Marshall, took a quite formal dance vocabulary and made it into something simultaneously dull and sentimental. The second, Contrastes by Maguy Marin, relied on parody and caricature and was positively offensive. I was grateful to catch up with Teshigawara’s I Was Real—Documents in Adelaide and in this much more considered and technically meticulous work, get the artificial taste of saccharine out of my mouth.

Les Ballets C. de la B. and Het Muziek Lod, La Tristeza Complice

Les Ballets C. de la B. and Het Muziek Lod, La Tristeza Complice

Les Ballets C. de la B. and Het Muziek Lod, La Tristeza Complice

The absolute highlight of the Festival of Perth was the Belgian (Flemish really) company Les Ballets C. de la B. and Het Muziek Lod with La Tristeza Complice directed by Alain Platel. Interestingly enough, audiences in Adelaide responded with infinitely more enthusiasm than those in Perth. This is a work that took on all my pet theatrical phobias (performers doing ‘mad’ and/or ‘street people’ is a particular hate) and hung ’em out to dry. In this landscape, people unfolded and retreated, hung out and persevered, danced into stillness; inhabited the space against the extraordinary sound of ten piano accordionists performing the Baroque music of the English composer, Henry Purcell. This is a work for experiencing not describing but the relationship between the performers (whether professional or inexperienced) was exceptional and their ability to focus on the vulnerable, the imperfect and the ugly, made it a performance of extraordinary beauty and tension.

Cloudstreet, Black Swan Theatre/Company B Belvoir, The Endeavour Boatshed, director Neil Armfield; Uttarpriyadarshi, Chorus Repertory Theatre Imphal, written and directed by Ratan Thiyam, Winthrop Hall; The Seven Streams of the River Ota, Ex Machina Company, directed by Robert Lepage, Challenge Stadium; Titanic, Theater Titanick, The Esplanade; Central Figure, Lyon Opera Ballet, director Yorgos Loukos, choreographer, Susan Marshall, Contrastes, choreographer, Maguy Marin, His Majesty’s Theatre; La Tristeza Complice, Les Ballet C. de la B., director Alain Platel, music by Het Muziek Lod, Regal Theatre; Cadaver, Adrian Jones, PICA. All events part of the Festival of Perth, February 13 – March 8

RealTime issue #24 April-May 1998 pg. 10

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

1 April 1998