Intersecting performance paths

Kerrie Schaefer, including Attitude, Expressions Dance Company and Hong Kong City Contemporary Dance Company

In a long rectangular space, 3 white squares are arranged into the shape of a pyramid—one square in front and 2 behind. The shrill hum of cicadas and the squawking of crickets occupies the aural space. One of the white squares is filled with sand and a body is buried underneath, resting in a supine pose, an upside down bucket covering the head and neck. Only the feet and lower arms are visible. As the hiss of insects increases in volume, the foot slowly begins to move. It repeatedly flexes and curls in slow luxurious movements. The foot lifts and the leg emerges from the sand. It curls, writhes and twists like the body of a snake. The foot, the snake’s head, darts from side to side. It moves to strike. The space is transformed into a hostile environment simulating, perhaps, the hot summer’s day that the Beaumont children disappeared.

Did a snake in the grass take the Beaumont children? Or was it a freak wave that carried them far out to sea? An arresting piece of performance in the Brisbane Festival VOLT program, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? co-written by Maryanne Lynch and Shane Rowlands and directed by Fiona Winning, did not provide easy answers. Rather, it examined the urban myth that has grown up around the disappearance of the 3 children from a popular Adelaide beach in the middle of summer. Written for solo female performer, Rebecca Murray, Baby Jane brings together 2 stories of 2 people living 30 years apart (1966/1996) who are equally obsessed with the children’s disappearance.

At one moment Murray plays a 9 year old girl negotiating the boiling hot beach sand or getting dumped by a huge wave. The next she is transformed into a 39 year old woman in a sheer white dress and red shoes, standing on the porch waving goodbye to family or friends. The girl wonders how many buckets of sea water she can swallow in case her pet dog is taken by a freak wave. She practices her speech to strange men who may want to entice her into a car with boiled lollies. The woman, we discover, lives in the Beaumont house and spends her time scouring the place for traces of the missing children. She toys with height markings etched into a wall in red pen. She finds 3 embroidered hankies in a crack in the wall, each a different pattern indicating the distinct personalities of the owners. Her phone rings but there is no one on the other end. The woman takes this, together with the traces she has uncovered, as a sign that the children are still present. She explains her theory over the phone to the host of a talkback radio show.

The poetry of the text was enhanced by the design of the performance space and by Rodolphe Blois’ soundscape. The final sound-image of a giant wave crashing over the audience, left us with an accretion of images (debris) to pick through and make sense of. In this way, Baby Jane explored the poetics of urban myth making.

Headlining the festival’s theatre program were a new adaptation by Neil Armfield and Geoffrey Rush of Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro for the QTC, and an adaptation by Helen Edmundson of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina for the UK’s Shared Experience Theatre. While both productions were outstanding, it was Shared Experience’s physical style of performance that stole the limelight. Edmundson’s text juxtaposed the stories of Anna and Levin. Present on stage for much of the performance, their clipped responses to each other’s questions served to set the scene and create a fluid, fast moving performance. The semi-circular set with a sliding central panel made for a flexible performance space. With the panel fixed in the middle, the performers sometimes played out 2 different scenes simultaneously. In one scene, Anna, centre stage, carried on a dialogue with both Vronsky and Karenin, who entered and exited through separate doors created on either side of the sliding panel. Anna being sandwiched between the 2 men, gave concrete form to her growing distress.

The performance also put many sequences of stylised movement and repetitive gesture to good effect. For instance, in the racing scene Vronsky is placed amongst the race crowd. His mount is played by Anna and as the crowd watches the race we see Vronsky ride Anna into the ground. The train that Anna falls under is a line of chorus actors performing a choreographed dance. At the height of her fever, a chorus actor personifying death covers Anna. She has to struggle with the actor before she can regain her health. Frustrated in love, Levin shovels sand over and over into a suitcase while extolling the virtues of work. Unable to be with the man she loves, Anna repeatedly knocks back vials of morphine signalling her spiralling addiction to the drug.

La Boite’s A Beautiful Life by Michael Futcher and Helen Howard was based on the Iranian embassy riot in Canberra in 1992 and the ensuing court case. In an attempt to speak back to calls for refugees to assimilate into Australian society, the writers interrogate the way in which culture indelibly inscribes the citizen’s body, particularly through imprisonment and torture. They argue that it isn’t possible to simply shrug off one set of cultural inscriptions, values and experiences and to assume another. Given the importance of such a project, the script for A Beautiful Life still needs further refinement. The focus for the performance should have remained, as it began, on the son of adults arrested in the riot. Born in Iran and brought up in Australia, he acts as a point of translation between 2 very different and distinct cultures. His struggle to understand his parents’ and his own position within Australian society would have provided a better treatment of the dramatic idea than the long exposition of the family’s life in Iran or the lawyer’s slow dawning realisation of the links between justice, economics, trade and diplomacy.

A strong tradition of storytelling continues to be nurtured by Brisbane’s Kooemba Jdarra. The company’s festival piece, Black Shorts, presented 3 short plays by new Indigenous playwrights from around Australia. Glen Shea’s Possession (dir. Lafe Charlton), Jadah Milroy’s Jidja (dir. Margaret Harvey) and Ray Kelley’s Beyond the Castle (dir. Lafe Charlton) represented a range of Indigenous experiences and perspectives and, in the diversity of stories told, engaged a broad audience.

Possession is a clever piece of writing that unravels to reveal a particularly shocking incident, which scarred the members of one family. The play explores the impact of incest (father-son) on the lives of 3 siblings, 2 brothers and one sister. It delivers a jolt to the audience’s sensibilities as we are forced to witness the elder brother’s fierce anger, the younger brother’s utter shame and humiliation and their sister’s desperate attempt to hold onto some semblance of a vital, young life in the making. Towards the end of the play, even this possibility is foreclosed as we learn that the characters inhabit the spirit world, having been hung for the murder of their father.

A devastating performance by Margaret Harvey as the sister in Possession was followed by her directorial debut in Jidja, a compact piece of writing, weaving a number of stories into the tapestry of an old, Aboriginal woman’s life. From a chair centre stage in a house bordering the Catholic home she was sent to as a child, an old woman (played by the accomplished Roxanne McDonald) tells her life story directly to the audience as if we are old, intimate friends. She remembers her happy early years, living together with her sister, bought up by their grandmother. She recounts her grandmother’s death, the girls’ placement in a Catholic home, and her life long search for the sister she was separated from when she was adopted out to a white family. In this piece it was the performer’s warmth and friendly intimacy as she related what was a tragic, yet not uncommon story, that I found disarming and extremely upsetting.

Attitude by Expressions Dance Company and Hong Kong City Contemporary Dance Company, Streb by the Elizabeth Streb Company and Arrêtez Arrêtons Arrête by the Mathilde Monnier company were major works included in the festival Dance program. Of the 3, the French production, created for the 1997 Montpellier International dance festival, was the most engaging and exciting. Elizabeth Streb’s choreography lacked the texture that Streb claimed for her work when she said that it investigates “the tension between volition and gravity imposed by structures which are at once physically confining and liberating.” Attitude, choreographed by Maggi Sietsma, explored images and vignettes taken from the different cultural histories of her dancers through a combination of sound (music by Abel Vallis), image (video projections by Randall Wood), and dance. Sietsma used the space creatively, choreographing the dancers on multiple stages. But she was unable in the end to meld her ideas and these different performance media into an integrated dance work or to achieve the audience interaction that the opening scene—a ‘Simon says’ routine—attempted. Integration was one of the main strengths of Arrêtez, Arrêtons, Arrête.

Mathilde Monnier’s choreography for 8 dancers was accompanied by a live monologue written by Christine Angot (an English translation was provided in the program), performed by a comedian. The text addressed the difference between the beauty and balance of dance and the ugly, obsessive discipline of the dancer. Set in the round, the dancers and comedian performed in close proximity to the audience creating a continuous space between performer and spectator. The comedian spoke in an intimate tone and addressed the audience directly. The performers also interacted with the set itself, a simple steel frame held together with suspension cables which made it an extremely flexible structure that moved with their bodies as they pushed or crashed against it. Monnier’s choreography consisted of a series of singular repetitive gestures, which signified individual everyday obsessions. Through this the dancers suddenly found openings into more expansive movements, usually performed in pairs. With the tension between the opposed pairs of light and shadow, text and movement/gesture, space and set, performer/dancer and audience, Monnier and her company created a complex and confronting work that addressed the inner struggle to move through self-imposed confines.

Queensland Theatre Company, Beaumarchais, The Marriage of Figaro, Optus Playhouse, Sept 3 – 19; Shared Experience Theatre, Anna Karenina, Suncorp Theatre, Aug 28-Sept 6; A Beautiful Life, La Boite Theatre, Aug 28-Sept 12; Kooemba Jdarra, Black Shorts, Metro Arts Theatre, Aug 28 – Sept 5; Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Institute of Modern Art, Sept 1 – 6; Expressions Dance Company and Hong Kong City Contemporary Dance Company, Attitude, Conservatorium Theatre, Aug 28 & 29, Sept 1-5; Streb, Suncorp Theatre, Sept 15-19; Mathilde Monnier company, Arretez Arretons Arrete, Conservatorium Theatre, Sept 11 – 16;

RealTime issue #28 Dec-Jan 1998 pg. 8

© Kerrie Schaefer; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 1998