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Brendan Cowell and Charlie Fraser, Bee Sting

Brendan Cowell and Charlie Fraser, Bee Sting

we like short shorts

It may be the season for wearing shorts, but it’s also the season for watching them. More specifically, it’s time for the International Short Film Festival Flickerfest, which has just finished screening in Bondi and is now set to tour the country. This year Flickerfest will travel to more than 30 locations, including regional centres such as Alice Springs, Katherine, Noosa, Narrabri, Cygnet and Wyalkatchem. The program varies from venue to venue, so while some will focus on the Best of International Shorts, others will feature Flicker Kids and the Best of Comedy. However, most venues will be screening the Best of Australian Shorts program, which includes the animation The Lost Thing (winner of the AFI Award for Best Short Animation 2010), directed by Andrew Ruheman and Shaun Tan, as well as Bee Sting (starring Brendan Cowell and Matilda Brown) and The Telegram Man (starring Jack Thompson as “the man who must deliver the worst kind of news during the long years of World War II”). For more information see the Flickerfest website. Flickerfest Tour, various venues, Jan 21-March 27; www.flickerfest.com.au

movement at the station

Sydney’s CarriageWorks has just announced Lisa Havilah as its new CEO, commencing February 2011. Havilah is currently the Director of Campbelltown Arts Centre, where she has pioneered a program of inclusive and experimental contemporary art, much of which has been reviewed in RealTime. To get a sense of her breadth of vision see our reviews of Chiara Guidi, the River Project, What I Think About When I Think About Dancing and News from Islands. Havilah says, “I am proud of what we have achieved and the people I have worked with at Campbelltown Arts Centre, and excited to join CarriageWorks at such an important time in the organisation’s development. CarriageWorks holds a vital place in the cultural fabric of Sydney, and is home to an extraordinary group of resident companies. I look forward to building on the many achievements that CarriageWorks has already delivered” (press release).

In the meantime, one of CarriageWorks’ resident companies, Performance Space, has announced that Jeff Khan as its new Associate Director with responsibility for dance and performance. Khan is a “curator and writer with a particular interest in interdisciplinary projects and site-specific and socially-engaged practices” (press release; see also our interview RT96). From 2006 to 2010 he was the Artistic Director of Next Wave (RT98). He is currently a member of the Australia Council’s Dance Board and has held previous positions and guest curatorships at the MCA, Gertrude Contemporary and PICA. Exciting times in Redfern!

cold edge, hot summer

Writer and spoken word performer (and contributor to RealTime) Urszula Dawkins brings tales of sub-zero Svalbard to Midsumma Melbourne and cia studios in Perth, following her 2010 participation in The Arctic Circle creative residency—an ocean voyage around the high-Arctic, a few hundred miles from the North Pole (see RT100). She writes: “The romantic landscape gives way to the treachery of a nature that needs neither art nor art-makers, and the quest for ‘place’ is blasted away in horizontal snow-drifts, leaving only desire and the return to home…Polar bears, northern lights, glittering glaciers and an ice-class sailing ship sit side by side with the end of the sublime.” The program also features film and video pieces by Arctic Circle participants Katja Aglert (Sweden), Janet Biggs (US), Rebeca Mendéz (US/Mexico) and Laurie Palmer (US). Cold Edge: The Arctic Circle, Hares & Hyenas Bookshop & Café, Jan 25; www.midsumma.org.au; cia studios, Feb 3 www.ciastudios.com.au (please RSVP kate@pvicollective.com)

Alan and William Yang

Alan and William Yang

Alan and William Yang

australian-asian art connections

The Chinese Year of the Rabbit begins on February 3 and to celebrate the 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art is mounting Cinema Alley. For one night only, an open-air cinema at the heart of Chinatown will screen five short video works by contemporary Chinese artists Chen Chieh-Jen, Jun Yang, Ou Ning and Cao Fei (reviewed in RT96), Wang Qingsong (RT100) and Yuan Goang-ming. Their work explores “perceptions of cities, their transformation, experiences of alienation and the effects that history and tradition place on the individual” (website).

Elsewhere, Performance 4A is producing the COOLie Asian Australian Performance Event, to be held Downstairs at Belvoir St Theatre for two weeks, February 1-13. The first season, Stories East & West, sold out Belvoir’s Upstairs theatre last May. It featured Asian Australian artists exploring relationships with their ancestors and cultures and examining how these impact on their lives today. The new show features Chinese-Australian photographer, storyteller William Yang (RT96; RT47) and indigenous elder, researcher and historian Noeline Briggs-Smith swapping stories about their lives. The following work, About Fact, is billed as a “contemporary variety show” combining music, dance, comedy, monologue and song and featuring Asian-Australian artists Paul Cordeiro, Lena Cruz, Les Gock, Oliver Phommavanh, Suara Indonesia Dance Group and Jennifer Wong.

Artspace, in association with the Sydney Festival, is hosting Singaporean artist and filmmaker Ho Tzu Nyen in an exhibition featuring three major video works—NEWTON (2009), ZARATHUSTRA: A FILM FOR EVERYONE AND NO-ONE (2009/2010) and the centrepiece 42-minute EARTH (2009/2010), a ‘videographic’ remix in three long takes of 17th and 18th century Italian and French paintings in which the human body is penetrated, fragmented and re-arranged. On January 24 and 25 there is also a Live Sound Score Performance by composer and multi-instrumentalist Oren Ambarchi. Cinema Alley, 4A Contemporary Asian Art, Feb 11; www.4a.com.au; COOLie Asian Australian Performance Event, Belvoir St, Feb 1-13; www.belvoir.com.au; Ho Tzu Nyen, Earth, curator Blair French, Artspace, Jan 20-Feb 20, Live Sound Score Performance Jan 24-25; www.artspace.org.au

colbert and censorship

Here at RealTime we’ve been idly holidaying online, roaming the world wide web and catching up with the wickedly incisive Stephen Colbert who, on December 8 in his Tip of the Hat, Wag of the Finger segment, praised censorious Republican Senator Erik Cantor (the incoming House Majority Leader) with a damning serve of artspeak. Cantor had declared that the Smithsonian National Portrait Museum’s exhibiting of a video installation, Fire in My Belly, in which ants briefly crawl over a crucifix, was an insult to Christians, not least because it was being displayed over the Xmas period. The slight therefore warranted a threat to defund the Smithsonian. Colbert applauded the Jewish politician’s sensitive support for beleaguered Christians. “This defunding threat isn’t some cheap exercise in mindless censorship,” he argued. “It’s an anti-paradigmatic revolutionary work of conceptual art banning…Cantor’s art is about the art that isn’t there, making the inaccessible literally inaccessible.”

On Fox News, Cantor said, “When a museum receives taxpayer money, the taxpayers have a right to expect that the museum will uphold common standards of decency. The museum should pull the exhibit and be prepared for serious questions come budget time.” The Smithsonian subsequently removed the video, the 1987 work Fire in My Belly (David Wojnarowicz, Diamanda Galas) from Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture (Oct 30, 2010-Feb 13, 2011).

You can read more about the video, the conservative advocacy group the Media Research Center, and protests against the withdrawal of the work at Half Wisdom, Half Wit. You can watch Colbert’s Tip of the Hat, Wag of the Finger Art Report and see the rest of this episode of The Colbert Report featuring Steve Martin and some leading artists , including Frank Stella and Andreas Serrano in a droll assessment of the financial evaluation of art. Also available is an extended version.

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. web

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

Sutra, Brisbane Festival 2010

Sutra, Brisbane Festival 2010

Sutra, Brisbane Festival 2010

THE BOXES WHICH FIGURED AS MAJOR MOTIFS IN TWO OF THE DANCE WORKS IN THE 2010 BRISBANE FESTIVAL ALSO SIGNIFIED THE PACKAGING IN WHICH A PROPORTION OF THE FESTIVAL CAME WRAPPED—AN INVITATION TO EXAMINE THE DIFFERENT INFLECTIONS GIVEN TO WORKS DEEMED TO BE THE PRODUCT OF INTERCULTURAL COLLABORATION, AND HOW THEY ARE POSITIONED IN THE GLOBAL ART HYPERMART. ANDREW ROSS, ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF THE BRISBANE POWERHOUSE, VOICED TO ME HIS MISGIVINGS ABOUT THE AESTHETIC AND IDEOLOGICAL TRENDS PROMULGATED BY INTERNATIONAL FESTIVALS, PARTICULARLY AT THE EXPENSE OF INTRA-CULTURAL WORKS THAT SEEK TO REASSESS THE SOURCES OF A PARTICULAR NATIONAL OR REGIONAL STYLE OF PERFORMANCE IN ORDER TO SITUATE IT BETTER IN RELATION TO OUTSIDE INFLUENCES.

These issues were tangentially raised during one of the Festival Conversations between the London and Sydney-based Spanish choreographer and director of the Sydney Dance Company, Rafael Bonachela, and the Algerian-born director, choreographer and performer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui who lives in Belgium. The two share a common cosmopolitanism, but diverged markedly in their approaches to intercultural collaboration, particularly regarding their sensitivities to the inner contradictions of two nominally Communist, but culturally different, societies. Bonachela rather naively came across as a liberator, describing Cuba as a prison but failing to mention the US-led embargo which has kept Cuba isolated from the rest of the world and ruined its economy. Unfortunately I missed out on Danza Contemporanea de Cuba and its “gifted, gorgeous Cubans…[who were] a very welcome ray of sunshine” (Daily Telegraph), hardly Bonachela’s grey prisoners. Whether intended or not, Bonachela seemed to be endorsing a neo-colonialist, post-cultural stance that deceptively positions itself, as Patrice Pavis has written, “outside the social, outside class conflicts and economic interests, outside political and historic relationships.”

sidi larbi cherkaoui, sutra

Cherkaoui was more circumspect, more willing to credit aspects of Chinese society which reflect badly on us in the West, and more subtle in delineating criticisms. The set design for his festival work, Sutra, comprising 21 rectangular-shaped boxes by Turner-prize winning artist Antony Gormley, was inspired by the living conditions of factory girls Gormley saw in China. A directorial coup had the Shaolin monks with whom Cherkaoui collaborated perform a martial arts routine dressed as modern office workers, then lying down in boxes which had been stacked like skyscrapers in a complex image which functioned both as an allusion to the factory workers and as a wry comment on what has been both lost and gained in China’s rush to urbanisation.

Cherkaoui has received criticism for indiscriminately engaging with the cultural Other (Flamenco, Kathakali), but Sutra was an exquisitely parsed model of cultural exchange, depicting the intimate inner journey of a uniquely placed European sensibility attempting to come to terms with the message of Buddhism. A Zen Buddhist parable about the appearance of phenomena describes a still lake from which a fish suddenly leaps and as quickly disappears back into the depths. This was recapitulated by the actions of the monks who were choreographed to mysteriously appear and disappear and, with their invisible manipulation of Gormley’s boxes on the bare stage to create vast vistas, cave temples, the monumental walls and walkways of ancient China, culminating in the towering motif of a lotus flower with a child, also a monk, at its heart.

The child performer who mimicked Cherkaoui and enthusiastically performed cartwheels across the stage during a quietly triumphant finale portrayed the artist’s own inner child let loose, in contrast to the rather clownish adult seeker of enlightenment which Cherkaoui so elegantly and unobtrusively manifested when as a dance performer he got amongst the action. Western self-reflexivity and dual mind were also represented by Cherkaoui periodically returning downstage to disconnectedly operate the changes by rearranging a small replica of the stage set. (See also Martin del Amo’s review p27)

Di Dalam/Di Luar (In/Out), Hartati, Brisbane Festival 2010

Di Dalam/Di Luar (In/Out), Hartati, Brisbane Festival 2010

Di Dalam/Di Luar (In/Out), Hartati, Brisbane Festival 2010

tarian baru dari indonesia

Tarian Baru Dari Indonesia (New Dance from Indonesia) spoke first to its own culture, not to any universal construct. Nevertheless, while reworking tradition, these works also employed contemporary languages of the body. If other cultures can appear exotic, assuaging our deep ennui with our own culture, Hartati’s Di Dalam/Di Luar (In/Out) turns the tables on what Rustom Barucha calls “the euphoria of pluralism” whereby we are free to choose amongst cultures. Three women are trapped in glass boxes. They struggle to free themselves, only to become entrapped, individually, in a succession of other boxes, each containing a promising but ultimately limited experience of exploration and choice. When the women themselves become the means whereby the boxes are lifted from the stage it is the beginning of a celebratory dance passage where contemporary and traditional culture are harmonised before the final stage picture. A woman crouches down, meditating on a pair of red shoes placed before her on the floor; precariously balancing on one high heel, a second woman seems to interrogate the matching red shoe dangling from her hand; the last woman, immaculately turned out in her red shoes, gazes out at the audience for a long moment before breaking eye contact and confidently exiting the stage box.

If Hartati knowingly dissects the seductions of contemporary global culture for Indonesian women, Ery Mefri contemplated the figure of Eve’s centrality to the creation myth of all three monotheistic religions originating in the Middle East and imported to Sumatra as an Islamic cultural influence in the 14th century. Layered over the indigenous, matrilineal Minangkabau culture where property passes from mother to daughter, it seems both modernity and the resurgence of militant Islam constitute a two-pronged attack on the deep roots of Minangkabau society. Mefri’s Sanghawa (Eve) enacts the story of a son asking his mother’s permission to embark on a rantau, an Odyssey traditionally undertaken by young men from Sumatra for economic reasons. Reversing the myth, Mefri has Eve lamenting the forces tempting the young man away. This work was spare, tender, fraught and oddly sensual.

The mother’s centrality to the integrity of Sumatran family life was further explored in Rantau Berbisik (Whisperings of Exile) as a family running a food outlet in the capital descends into petty feuding in her absence. The folkloric Plate Dance and exciting, rhythmic percussion on glass and china vividly recreated the atmosphere of a working kitchen. The superb control of the dancers was hypnotic to watch, and Mefri’s intense vision induced powerful emotions of lost connectedness.

conor lovett, beckett’s first love

Beckett once wrote loftily that “[vaudeville] at least inaugurates the comedy of an exhaustive enumeration.” The phrase “comedy of an exhaustive enumeration” flies like a dove out of Beckett’s own mouth to describe First Love, a 75-minute rendition of an early novella, delivered brilliantly by Conor Lovett who was alert, and alerted us, to Beckett’s every word and nuanced silences. I can’t resist quoting: “But what kind of love was this, exactly? Love-passion? Somehow I think not. That’s the priapic one, is it not?…Perhaps I loved her with a platonic love? But somehow I think not. Would I have been tracing her name in old cow shit if my love had been pure and disinterested?” You can hear the voice of a stand-up comic, can’t you? The misogyny and the misanthropy? And the Irish accent? Always the Irish accent explicating Beckett—correcting early impressions when you had read him without the lilt; thrusting you into the mud of existence. This was the treat of the festival, and all the better for sharing the pleasure with an appreciative audience.

Jesse Scott, Emma Serjeant, Wunderkammer, Circa, Brisbane Festival 2010

Jesse Scott, Emma Serjeant, Wunderkammer, Circa, Brisbane Festival 2010

Jesse Scott, Emma Serjeant, Wunderkammer, Circa, Brisbane Festival 2010

circa, wunderkammer

I thought I was over circus spectacles, but Wunderkammer, Circa’s world premiere at the new Powerhouse outdoor venue, has converted me. Simply, this was the best circus I’ve ever seen. Consistently inventive, moving along at a turbo-charged rate, provocatively sexy and displaying a full complement of skills across the ensemble, it left you gobsmacked. While it had touches of artistic director Yaron Lifschitz’s trademark S&M aesthetic with dark asides and nods to neo-burlesque, this was his homage to the body in its extreme flights, taking you to another realm. The industrial wall of the Powerhouse as backdrop suited this aim, as did the intimacy of the Spiegeltent for Strut and Fret’s circus cabaret which offered more theatrically devised satisfactions, recreating a louche, 1920s Parisian bar. The skills were just as evident (I haven’t seen a contortionist to equal Henna Kaikula, and what Mozes did with a neckerchief was hilariously risque), and it was a more corporeal experience. The radiant Charleston routine performed by the ensemble tied all the elements together.

Brisbane Festival 2010: Sutra, director, choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, design Antony Gormley, music Szyom Brzoska, performers Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, the Shaolin Monks, Playhouse-QPAC, Sep 8-11; Tarian Baru Dari Indonesia (New Dance from Indonesia): Di Dalam/Di Luar (In/Out), choreographer Hartati, Powerhouse Theatre, Sep 7-9; Nan Jombang Dance Company, Sanghawa (Eve) and Rantau Berbisik (Whispering of Exile), choreographer Ery Mefri, Powerhouse Theatre, Sep 10-12; Gare St Lazare Players, First Love, director Judy Hegarty Lovett, performer Conor Lovett, Visy Theatre, Brisbane Powerhouse, Sep 21-25; Circa: Wunderkammer, artistic director Yaron Lifschitz, Plaza, Brisbane Powerhouse, Sep 14-18; Strut and Fret Production House, Cantina, performers Mozes, Chelsea McGuffin, David Carberry, Daniel Catlow, Henna Kaikula, Spiegeltent, King George Square, Brisbane, Sep 5-25

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 2

© Douglas Leonard; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Quartet, Margie Medlin

Quartet, Margie Medlin

Quartet, Margie Medlin

ARRIVING EARLY AT THE SEYMOUR CENTRE, I HAD INTENDED TO JOIN IN THE SEAM PRE-CONFERENCE WARM UP SESSION. WITHOUT A YOGA MAT OF MY OWN I BECAME AN OBSERVER AS THE GROUP OF DANCERS MOVED ELEGANTLY THROUGH HARDCORE PRACTICE. HOWEVER, THANKS TO NEURAL MIRRORING I FELT ALMOST AS INVIGORATED AS IF I HAD BEEN PART OF THE ROUTINE MYSELF AND READY TO ENGAGE IN SOME EQUALLY HARDCORE THINKING.

SEAM 2010: Agency and Action—a month- long program of workshops, forums and exhibitions—was co-presented by Critical Path and the University of Western Sydney. As with any transdisciplinary venture, especially one exploring subtle energies, somatic practices, distributed bodies and mediation, a loss in translation between presenters, exhibitors, performers and audiences was inevitable. However the diversity of presentation styles—from storytelling, dance, philosophical musings, autonomous robotic performance, command line interaction and rabbit training—transcended some of the language barriers.

Doris McIlwain and John Sutton opened the event by demonstrating how verbal ‘touch’ influences bodily position, posing questions around embodied cognition, collaborative decision-making and affective experience. Our verbal, conscious and conceptual access to physical and cognitive performances are mysterious realms, full of unconscious couplings and ghost gestures. Researching remembering and forgetting, Kate Stephens is developing tools to ascertain if the contemporary dance audience experience can be enhanced by kinesthetic learning prior to performances—or not. Mike Leggett unravelled temporal perspectives and relocations: the documentation process of his 1970s Unword performance works, with the then absolutely new medium of video, has changed their meanings.

Unexpectedly, Ruth Gibson of igloo (UK) lay down on the stage prior to speaking, illustrating the art of letting go. Trained as a dancer, Gibson facilitated a three-day workshop on the Skinner Releasing Technique for SEAM earlier in October—a process of unlearning and wakening the primal. Gibson and Bruno Martelli, as igloo, create poetic 3D virtual and physical installations grounded by presence, gravity and place. Gibson playfully introduced the concept of ‘hypersurface’—an informed topology that unlocks culturally instituted dualities like the real and the virtual by intertwining them into irresolvable complexities to create a ‘middle out’ perspective.

Sitting with her back to the audience, Nancy Mauro-Flude uncovers—visually opening up—the insides of the operating system behind our daily computer interactions. Through enquiring conversations, the amplified sound of Mauro-Flude’s fingertips dancing across the keyboard beautifully conveyed the poetics and isokinetics of machine and human intelligence. With her dual background as artist and Feldenkrais practitioner, Lyndal Jones spoke eloquently of the centrality of empathy in creative dialogues—setting up visual scenarios where empathy is demonstrated by mirroring, until the notion of self disappears. Jones, like several other presenters, tapped into Eastern philosophical notions of Mindfulness, and conjured up the palpable presence of philosopher Brian Massumi.

In a double identity shift, the silhouette of choreographer and media artist Hellen Sky emerged from backstage lurking, wrapped detective-like in a trench coat to co-present with Garth Paine (UWS). Their dialogue morphed between academic and witty exchange and bio-sensing performance to illustrate elements of the Darker Edge of Night research project. The importance of timing in gesture research was elaborated by keynote speaker Frédéric Bevilacqua, Head of the Realtime Interactive team at IRCAM (France), as he presented outcomes from the SEAM workshop he had facilitated on software tools for motion tracking using optical cameras.

Christian Ziegler (Germany) had also facilitated two intensive SEAM laboratories, developing works with a choreographer and dancers within his “wald-forest” interactive environment during his Critical Path residency. Ziegler was joined at the final public forum and exhibition at Rushcutters Bay over the last weekend in October by Volker Kuchelmeister with Deconstructing Double District, and the outcome of Brad Miller’s research residency, titled augment me.

Forgoing the enacted or observed yoga, I slid straight into the zone on day two with Kathy Cleland discussing the emergence of non-human and quasi-human performers. Cleland examined how mirroring and mimicry were central to building empathy and understanding, exploring the fluid distinctions and similarities between human and robot speed and movement.

When working with robotic performers, one needs to acknowledge their capacity to act up. The machine desire of In Serial embraced chaos and entropy. This multi-talented group—Linda Dement, Petra Gemeinboeck, PRINZGAU/podgorschek and Marion Tränkle—is interested in the uncontrollable fluids and escalating generative interactions between non-human protagonists. The emergence of robotic agency, with defiant robot mops attempting to escape their task of mixing smelly viscous fluids and veering off stage, admirably demonstrated ‘entrainment’—a term used by the team to describe how their behaviour had been brought into coherence by the machine’s determination.

Careering down the expansive rabbit hole of nano-technology, Paul Thomas threw in a heady mix of Bergson, code duality, matter vibration and the primacy of consciousness for good measure. Scott McQuire evoked McLuhan’s extension of man in his discussions of the production of urban public space by networking large screens in Seoul and Melbourne. My synapses were imploding with the implications of immanence, imbrications and irretrievable intertwinings. Luckily Lars Marstaller was undertaking a cognitive ethnographic analysis of the extended SEAM program, to ascertain how the available resources could create meaning and solve problems.

We were re-grounded by Kate Richards’ investigations of affordance, affect and audience interactions with screen-based media in the arts and entertainment industries. Her documentation of a mediated journey into the supernatural realm at Macau’s City of Dreams Casino’s immersive 3D Bubble Theater evoked affective resonance in crowds. Choreographer Vicki Van Hout’s Busy Hands Speaking Country traversed the seam between Indigenous knowledge, dance and painting. Her work on co-location—being in the dreaming and in the dance, creating a virtual spiritual atavistic experience, and replacing the ancestral voice with technology—raised issues of tangibility and transportability of traditional form.

During a symposium break, Margie Medlin’s empathic Quartet robotic dancer provided an engaging spectacle in the foyer in a subtle to violent duet of synchronised flesh and machine. Trapped in a glass cage next to the performers, Stelarc’s Articulated Head bobbed up and down on its mechanical arm. I could not ascertain if its mesmerised movements were akin to being snake-charmed by the adjacent human-robotic action, or if it/he was looking for attention like a fluffy puppy when all eyes were focused elsewhere.

Later, the big head, a virtual Stelarc delivering a Deleuzian keynote in synthetic monotone, appeared almost vulgar after the subtle, considered enquiry and nuanced somatic states of previous sessions. Disappointingly, although autism was mentioned several times, it was not followed through. At a conference about altered agency and embodiment, an engagement with differently wired bodies—bodies with other physicality and cognition—would have augmented the program. The thinking of Erin Manning and others around autist Amanda Baggs’ short video, In My Language, could have brought the intensity of movement and the affective proto-language of gesture and sensation into play.

Picking up on the thread of playfulness and mindfulness, the Thinking Through the Body project, brought together by artist George Khut and curator Lizzie Muller, staged a significant presence. Practitioners drawn from across media forms, programming, sound, sculpture, dance and Feldenkrais spoke with respectful contemplation of their process of internalisation. Unfolding awareness of breath, touch, balance, proprioception and stillness has brought a new depth of consciousness and embodied intelligence to their individual and group practices.

Chunky Move’s Glow (RT78) was also performed during SEAM, with artistic director Gideon Obarzanek speaking of the ongoing choreographic dialogue between dancers and Frieder Weiss’s artificially intelligent lighting and tracking software (RT84). Playing out the tensions between technological rationality and the anxiety of humanity, a dancer appears to be trapped on a scanner bed. Inventive effects and mirror neurons aside, viewing Glow from the low-raked seating at the Seymour Centre compromised the experience. I ached to be up high—looking down into the performance—immersed with the technogenic body, rather than a distant spectator.

SEAM successfully addressed many aspects of agency and embodiment altered by interactive technologies with the inspired placement of performative installations in the foyer—reaching a general audience of curious theatre-goers as well as opening specific dialogues in spatial and cognitive arenas that should be continued. Next year’s conference will focus on architectures—exploring the need to construct spaces that can flexibly accommodate differing modes of performance, technology and audience interaction.

SEAM 2010: Somatic Embodiment, Agency & Mediation in Digital Mediated Environments, Critical Path (Director, Margie Medlin), University of Western Sydney (Dr Garth Paine), Symposium, Oct 15-16; http://seam2010.blogspot.com

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 21

© Melinda Rackham; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Song Dong, Stamping the Water 1996

Song Dong, Stamping the Water 1996

Song Dong, Stamping the Water 1996

RIVERS EVOKE JOURNEYS AND A SENSE OF PASSAGE. ON A QUIET SUNDAY MORNING AT THE CAMPBELLTOWN ARTS CENTRE, IT WAS THE GRINDING WHIR OF A MOTOR THAT FIRST DREW ME TOWARD JUN NGUYEN-HATSUSHIBA’S HALLUCINATORY TRIPARTITE FILM, THE GROUND, THE ROOT AND THE AIR (2004-07).

I soon found myself transported to Laos as I followed a flotilla of boats carrying art students painting at their easels, gliding down the Mekong, the brisk pace of the boats and the amplified volume of their engines at odds with the slow and tranquil activity of making art. The contradiction alluded to the ways modernity can run in opposing currents to tradition and was just one of the many explorations into the psychological and physical terrain of the river that visitors were invited to undertake at the Arts Centre’s latest exhibition, The River Project.

In fact, the notion of opposing currents offers an apt avenue into not only The River Project but also the debate over waterways generally, as the current difficulties the Murray Darling Basin Authority faces in negotiating competing economic and environmental demands clearly demonstrate. The River Project didn’t deal specifically with this river system: however it did take the Campbelltown Upper Georges as its starting point, then extended its reach to arteries throughout the Asia-Pacific from China, Korea, the Philippines and India, to Vietnam, Papua New Guinea and Laos, offering a kaleidoscopic view of the diverse factors driving rivers toward crisis point. Yet as much as this interdisciplinary program exhibited a strong environmental conscience, it didn’t feel like an eco art show since curator Binghui Huangfu appeared more concerned with engagement than activism. In this way, most artists departed from literal responses in favour of more open-ended and sophisticated styles of visual poetry, resulting in a surprisingly diverse, nuanced and frequently absorbing program.

Reena Kallat, 2 Degrees

Reena Kallat, 2 Degrees

Reena Kallat, 2 Degrees

Particularly affecting was Reena Kallat’s installation 2 Degrees (2010), which responded to the geopolitical volatility of the Indus River Basin on the border of India and Pakistan where most recently disastrous flooding from severe monsoonal rains cost thousands of lives and rendered over 20 million people homeless. With just a soundtrack of gushing water, a hybrid tree—half Indian Banyan, half Pakistani Deodar—painted directly onto the wall with henna and a row of ceramic vessels seismically split down the middle and marooned in a sea of broken shards, Kallat imaginatively transported the viewer to a flooded riverbank, eliciting empathy via the senses. Drawing the viewer into the aftermath, the installation rendered universal the sense of loss and vulnerability humans experience at the hands of natural disasters as well as the painful divisions that can be forged between nations over water.

The displacement of human communities and natural resources was likewise conjured elliptically in Zhuang Hui’s suite of black and white photographs which depicted geological close-ups of holes in the ground the artist had dug over a decade ago in regions to be affected by the Three Gorges Dam, Longitude 109.88E and Latitude 31.09N (1995, 2008). The holes now deeply submerged, video footage of the Yangtze on the opposite wall pointed to the cause and effect relationship, the void in between creating an air of elegy and melancholia. Vietnamese artist Tiffany Chung, meanwhile, responded to annual flooding of the Mekong with varying degrees of light and shade in a series of five topographic maps including one charming mixed media work that mapped the migratory routes of local fish species. Like a spider spinning cobwebs across a canvas, Chung plotted a dense network of sprawling tracks with pearlescent beads, trails of brightly coloured stitching and clusters of silver grommets, offering an optimistic and joyful celebration of the rich diversity of life that abundant water breeds.

Works by Cao Fei, Ringo Bunoan, Minouk Lim and MM Yu among others exhibited a strong focus on Asia. Meanwhile a selection of specially commissioned works by prominent Sydney artists responding to the local landscape reflected the program’s role as a key component of the three-year Upper Georges River Urban Sustainability Project. Indigenous artist Graham ‘Nudge’ Blacklock’s painting The Point, The Georges River (2010) employed highly expressive, radiating brushwork to capture the region’s spiritual resonance while Elisabeth Cummings’ deft, painterly treatment revealed the land’s lyrical beauty to be marred by evidence of subsidence from longwall mining. Along with a suite of cryptic photographs by Bonita Ely that married reportage with more poetic meditations, these works offered aesthetically interesting inroads to discussion, although their location at the entrance, rather than in the main gallery spaces integrated with the international works, made them appear somewhat adjunct.

Mike Parr, Gotaro Uematsu, Pure Water Into Polluted Water 2010, Georges River, performance still

Mike Parr, Gotaro Uematsu, Pure Water Into Polluted Water 2010, Georges River, performance still

Mike Parr, Gotaro Uematsu, Pure Water Into Polluted Water 2010, Georges River, performance still

Given rivers have long symbolised flux and impermanence, the restaging of three seminal performance works was particularly well suited to the exhibition’s theme and highlighted the unstable meanings of performances over time. In addition to Chinese artist Song Dong’s ongoing gesture of writing calligraphy with water, Water Diary (2010), and the repetition of a 1995 action of scrubbing down frozen blocks of polluted water by the Beijing-based Yin Xiuzhen, Washing River (2010), an invitation was also extended to Sydney artist Mike Parr to revisit a performance from 1971, Pure Water into Polluted Water. Initially the action saw Parr drop a plastic bag filled with distilled water into the Georges River to produce a Minimalist-style “hole in nature”; however, when Parr came to revisit the gesture he soon realised the plastic bag had become a too heavily loaded material. To regain some of the gesture’s initial conceptual potency he revisited the action with a clear perspex cube and in an accompanying community discussion noted how this sinking message in a bottle epitomises our psychological problem as humans—“we want to have an effect.”

Community involvement took an unusual turn, too, in the form of a formidable Maori Waka canoe restored and carved by young local job seekers, led by Verdun Walker and Peter T Elers, and moored in one of the gallery’s main spaces amidst an installation of contemporary and traditional art from Papua New Guinea, The Sepik River Project. Something of an exhibition within an exhibition, and one that could warrant its own review, The Sepik River Project was a fascinating exercise in cross-cultural exchange, presenting cultural artefacts acquired by independent curator Dr Susan Cochrane alongside portraits painted by Port Moresby artist Jeffry Feeger on a recent trip to the Sepik River. The pair had in fact navigated their journey along the river by canoe. There were also paintings created by local artists when Feeger and Cochrane gifted the Sepik some contemporary art materials. According to Cochrane, “within two days, some 30 paintings and drawings of Kambot ancestral stories were produced, and the painting session was still going when it was time to leave.”

Making my way out of the gallery, I paused to admire a tableaux of 36 photographs documenting another performance by Song Dong, Stamping the Water (1996). Propped on the surface of the Lhasa River, the artist lifted an archaic wooden seal carved with the Chinese character for water high above his head then plunged it with great physical exertion into the water as if trying, however futile the effort, to imprint the uncontainable. Like Parr’s Pure Water Into Polluted Water, this was an action of conceptual sophistication that also held something of the charm of riddles. It was the slippery, more mysterious and elusive moments like these that arguably proved The River Project’s most compelling. If it lacked anything it was a sense of the fury and passion surrounding contested and polluted waterways; however by engaging the imagination these quietly powerful works revealed how rivers are not only vital natural conduits and givers of life, but also deeply connected to memory, desire, cultural identity, spiritual pilgrimage and mental transformation. When it comes to reasons to get the balance right to ensure their future survival, how many more do we need?

The River Project, curator Binghui Huangfu, Campbelltown Arts Centre, Sydney, Aug 28-Oct 24

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 42

© Ella Mudie; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Birdmachine, Ivan Thorley

Birdmachine, Ivan Thorley

Birdmachine, Ivan Thorley

UNDER THE RADAR HAS EARNED A PERMANENT PLACE IN THE BRISBANE FESTIVAL AS A CURATED PROGRAM OF ALTERNATIVE, ARTIST-INITIATED WORKS DRAWN NATIONWIDE. FOR THE FIRST TIME THIS YEAR IT APPEARED IN THE MAIN PROGRAM WHICH PERHAPS ACCOUNTED FOR AN EXPANDED AUDIENCE INTERESTED IN CONTEMPORARY PRACTICES AND LONGER IN THE TOOTH THAN LAST YEAR’S MORE PAROCHIAL AUDIENCE OF DRAMA STUDENTS, SUPPORTERS AND FRIENDS (I’M TOLD THAT THERE WERE FAR FEWER SUBMISSIONS FOR THIS PROGRAM FROM QUEENSLAND THIS YEAR). SELF-CONTAINED IN THE MULTI-PURPOSE PRECINCT OF METRO ARTS, UNDER THE RADAR CONSTITUTED ITS OWN DISCREET, ATMOSPHERIC FESTIVAL OF PROVOCATIVE IDEAS AND INTIMATE, ENGROSSING WORKS.

birdmachine

On the outer edge of R&D into performance practices, the Birdmachine created by technologist/animateur Ivan Thorley and sonic artist Frederic Reuben was an animatronic performance installation that explored “the vitality and ability of movement to create difference and meaning between ‘forms of life’.” The installation consisted of a sparse (perhaps in the sense of last of the species) bird colony that performed ritualised, choreographed movements. Two tussocks were sites for a mating dance, the sex difference indicated by a stub of dowling, the atmosphere that of a silent rainforest until the microphones angled for interactive responses were utilised and triggered birdcalls. This was the most fragile, funny and endearing encounter of Under the Radar, one that enticed you, in the absence of narrative, to render your own meaning, to become aware of your movements as you bobbed up and down at the microphones, circled for a better look, moved in for closer inspection and away again as you shuffled round the space. We were an audience machine. These autonomous simulacra were deliberately tacky, daggy cloth puppets shaped from coat hangers with four elementary appendages to suggest flight and scuttling across a forest floor. Yet this bizarre assemblage conveyed the full bathos of Charles Darwin’s admission, “The suffering of the lower animals throughout time is more than I can bear.”

nostalgia

Also in the extreme R&D category was Nostalgia, a collaboration between three well-known Brisbane emerging artists: director/sound designer Matt O’Neill and performers Kieran Law and Ron Seeto. This work was intended to demonstrate that “different experiences and approaches were still capable in performance and, furthermore, that they could be realised and articulated with only the meanest of resources and the most rudimentary of skills.” Nostalgia’s concerns with movement relationships between bodies, the environment and a technologically produced soundscape echoed Birdmachine to an eerie extent. The piece began with the two performers immaculately miming industrial process work, a metaphor perhaps for the level of reproduction involved in the discipline of rehearsing and polishing a performance to the level of marketable product. This metamorphosed into free-form dance improvisation that was carried on over such a long time, to the point of physical exhaustion, that one ceased to be embarrassed by the lack of dance training and instead, dropping expectations, becoming fascinated by the performers’ monstrous prodigality and endurance. At the end, the audience was invited onstage for a free-for-all dance. Easily dismissed as self-indulgence, I was impressed nonetheless by the generosity of spirit in Nostalgia and the way the company re-envisaged community interaction with the arts and refused to be ghettoised. I only wish they’d been brave enough to perform in the City Mall.

brightness

It took a foolhardy Irishman to do that deed. In Brightness (funded by the Irish Arts Council), a modern version of an Aisling, or vision poem, the interventionist artist, Denis Buckley, presented poems and writings in Gaelic and English that were sometimes pre-recorded, sometimes read aloud, but went mostly unheeded in the gaderene rush of late-night shoppers or were drowned out by blasts of music emanating from Hooters, a strip club on the Mall. Buckley took this in his stride—he deliberately chose the location—as he performed against the incongruent projection of an Irish sky crisscrossed by plumes of jets carrying the latest wave of emigration caused by the collapse of the Celtic Tiger. In a formal suit, minus the jacket and bardically arresting, he grandiloquently called for the restoration of Irish culture as a cure for the country’s economic woes. Buckley was inspired by the Muse in a medieval poem who upbraids the poet to forsake his arty ways for the sake of Ireland in terms that reminded me of the irreverent slanging match between Kirsty MacColl and Shane McGowan in the Pogues’ song “Fairytale of New York.” It was Buckley’s sincerity that convinced this fellow Celt, with its perspective on place that seems only shared by the Indigenous first culture in this country.

Last Man to Die

Last Man to Die

Last Man to Die

the last man to die

The two installation performances that most impacted on a richly textured, deeply poetic level were the technologically sophisticated The Last Man to Die and the noir moodiness created in Of the Causes of Wonderful Things. (Unfortunately I didn’t see Neon Toast, but I heard great reports.) When I said to the crew of The Last Man to Die that the work reminded me of the library scenario in a David Tennant episode of Dr Who, they told me I was on the money. Normally I’m averse to multimedia overkill, but here the futuristic setting warranted, and vindicated, its skilful use, creating a subtly retro aesthetic to match the artists’ retrograde view of the immortality industry. Black and white time-lapse video of the production was projected on the back wall so that you recognised yourself ‘back then.’ As the hard working central performer, Hanna Cormick was costumed as a sexy cover girl from a 1950s sci-fi magazine. Everything was accommodated in the glow of a black and white film aura before the invention of technicolour; and each episode returned at the whim of an audience member placing a card in the alloted slot. We were in Borges territory, caught up in a maze of fine writing by Peter Butz and fine acting by Cormick with whom, as sadistic collaborators with technology, we were forced to repeat in an endless loop. Immortality.

of the causes of wonderful things

In Of The Causes of Wonderful Things performed and created by Talya Rubin we were in the noirish milieu of the 1940s and 50s, given a surreal aspect as the world of the dead merged with the living. This was a pure performer’s piece, and Rubin was in absolute control of her material. I particularly loved the slow, patient pace with which she drew us in. Rubin played all the characters, women and men, in riveting style as well as manipulating light, sound and sinister puppet vignettes onstage. Five children had disappeared while in the custody of their aunt, and a police hunt was on. The implicit conjecture was that they had been murdered and buried. An air of suspicion cloaked everyone, and, although there were hints, events remained a mystery to the end. The children’s natural mother who had seemingly abandoned them for a Latin lover is pure noir—torn, fragile and chain-smoking next to a single onstage lamp. The men—the Police Chief who falls for the aunt, the Latin lover and the aunt’s neighbour, a Japanese Bonsai lover—were portrayed by Rubin with, I suspect, undeclared humour.

With her own suspicions about the children’s fate, the aunt precariously attempted to keep sane in the world above ground, but was assailed by an elaborate symbology of underground motifs that gradually absorbed her. These were an assortment of found objects that atmospherically conveyed fragments of the children’s own story. Sometimes their voices conversed hollowly as if from a lonely grave. A cabaret MC of the underworld introduced a woman struggling dumbly to speak the silence of a lifetime in an anguished manner that was painfully, and artfully, prolonged. Another act from the realm of the dead involved the use of an enormous head of a donkey with an articulated jaw straight out of Goya.

the raven project

There was another work in the same vein that was lighter in tone, less integrated, but in the end as insinuatingly sinister as Alice in Wonderland. The Raven Project invited us into a parlour where we were offered tea and biscuits by white-suited Jeff Stein and black-suited Frank Mainoo making up a reticent ‘Gilbert and George’ pair. We were treated to a deliberately fumbling presentation with video illustrations of the ‘blot’ that allegedly appears on the horizon in Hitchcock’s movies and has ominous, even apocalyptic connotations. Halfway through we assisted in removing kitsch paintings from the wall to reveal peepholes through which we would espy the famous shower scene from Psycho. Instead, an alternative reality was revealed where we dimly recognised our vanished hosts in their true guise as demonic, hierophantic figures. They returned in their quietly polite mode to continue the lecture, but the orbit of our world had changed. I was reminded that I’ve never really trusted the bourgeoisie.

2010 Brisbane Festival: Under The Radar: Birdmachine, creator Ivan Thorley, sonic artist Frederic Reuben; Nostalgia, creator and director Matt O’Neill, creators and performers Kieran Law, Ron Seeto; Denis Buckley, Brightness; The Last Man to Die, creators, performers Hanna Cormick, Benjamin Forster, Charles Martin in collaboration with writer Peter Butz; Of the Causes of Wonderful Things, creator, performer Talya Rubin; The Raven Project, creators, performers Jeff Stein, Frank Mainoo; Metro Arts, Brisbane, Sept 5-25

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 3

© Douglas Leonard; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Emmett Hardie, Line Dances, Daniel Belton & Good Company

Emmett Hardie, Line Dances, Daniel Belton & Good Company

Emmett Hardie, Line Dances, Daniel Belton & Good Company

LINE DANCES IS THE LATEST COLLECTION OF SHORT CINEMATIC WORKS FROM NEW ZEALAND CHOREOGRAPHER AND FILMMAKER DANIEL BELTON. AFTER THEIR LAUNCH IN DUNEDIN, BELTON INTENDS TO TOUR THE PIECES. THEY ARE HOWEVER PRINCIPALLY DESIGNED TO BE VIEWED ONLINE.

Belton’s early training as a painter is again evident in these works. He references many of the visual and thematic concerns of his previous films and multimedia dance pieces (RT92)—lines of perspective and sketched trajectories evoking Renaissance illustration, architectural drawings, as well as influences from Russian Constructivism, Futurism and the delicate, minimalistic version of Modernist painting seen in the work of Paul Klee. Belton indeed cites Klee’s lectures at the Bauhaus School of Art during the 1920s as a key influence.

The Bauhaus is known for promoting the notion of colours possessing specific correspondences to each other and to spiritual sensations. With the exception of a few geometric blocks of red recalling the work of Piet Mondrian and the Constructivists, Belton’s Line Dances, though, are largely black and white.

This suits Belton’s purposes well. It gives Line Dances an antique feel consistent with the broadly Modernist visual iconography, as well as establishing a link between these allusions and earlier Baroque and Rococo architectural settings and theatrical modes. The commedia dell’arte Harlequin—or his representation as a figure of ironic playfulness and visual fantasy in Modernist art by Cocteau, Picasso and others—appears, as does a generic, white-attired Columbine ballerina, along with clockwork, automaton-like figures, angular acrobats (looking as if they have stepped out of Meyerhold’s productions) and line drawings of fantastic spaces and buildings with indeterminate, shifting dimensions (shades of Klee’s Room Perspective With Inhabitants, 1921, and The Great Dome, 1927).

Klee’s influence is manifest principally in the work’s conceptualisation. He saw abstract art as based on transparency and opacity, enabling multiple perspectives and viewpoints to be layered to make up a larger, composite picture. Belton either follows suit, or produces similar effects, by dividing the screen into repeating and varying fragments. The reproduction of dancers, figures, motifs, lines and even sounds across the field of perception is a marked feature of Line Dances’ aesthetic.

The onscreen figures are light as paper. Lines of movement or shape are carefully traced across the screen, and then morphed into lyrical smudges. This recurrent theme gives a curious immateriality to the figure. Belton explains in his program notes that he sees the screen as an inherently “artificial” realm, hence his bodies have no weight. They arc, glitch, twitch, curve, multiply and swing, but never thud, hit, crash or stop. The look of the piece, as well as the movement of objects and human shapes, is of constantly evolving insubstantiality.

It is the conditional sketchiness of Belton’s films that provides their central structural conceit, as well as their curiously unresolved ambience. Although often described as a producer of “dance films,” Belton’s relative lack of concern for bodies qua bodies, and his construction of the body as merely one element among a number of parabolic, architectural, painterly and photographic motifs (notably stop-motion photography, as in the work of Anton Bragaglia, Étienne-Jules Marey and its painterly versions by Umberto Boccioni) means that his cinema is perhaps best characterised as moving painting, akin to that of avant-garde filmmakers Ludwig Hirschfeld Mack and Len Lye, whose work Belton’s intermittently evokes.

Klee contended that art should represent a “multiform world…[a] branching and spreading array”—which Belton literally shows in one film, offering an ever diminishing series of budding miniature figures sprouting from rods held at the shoulder of an initial character—and which Klee compares with the “root” and “crown” of a tree. Like Klee, Belton constantly oscillates from one point, outcome or physical position (the crown), through to a root, and then back again. The ideal metaphoric structure for Belton and Klee is therefore the Golden Ratio of mathematician Fibonacci and Cubist theorist Albert Gleizes: the recurrent spiral, such as one sees inside a Nautilus shell. These films never resolve, but microcosmically coil and repeat internally at an ever-reduced scale. Whilst this approach underpins Modernist painting, it is perhaps less effective for the movement in time of the screen space or of the music (which is also simple, repetitive and variational).

The planetoids threading their way backwards and forwards along a white parabola running behind the dancer therefore epitomise this cinematic cycle. Complex and sophisticated though Belton’s films are, they function more as sketches than as final paintings; as a provisional, thoughtful set of lines, or as Klee might say, “a line going for a walk.”

Daniel Belton & Good Company, Line Dances, director, performer, editor Daniel Belton, co-producer, performer Donnine Harrison, piano Anthony Ritchie, Metro Theatre, Otago Festival of the Arts, Dunedin, New Zealand, Oct 10-12; www.goodcompanyarts.com/good-company-arts-line-dances.htm

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 25

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Night Watchman Portrait #2, Cordelia Beresford, Nightshifters

Night Watchman Portrait #2, Cordelia Beresford, Nightshifters

Night Watchman Portrait #2, Cordelia Beresford, Nightshifters

IN THE EARLY DAYS OF NOVEMBER, AS TWILIGHT REACHED PERFORMANCE SPACE AT CARRIAGEWORKS SO DID THE WEATHER. THE CHANCE ACCOMPANIMENT OF RAIN TO NIGHTSHIFTERS, BEC DEAN’S THOUGHTFULLY CURATED SHOW OF MOVING IMAGE INSTALLATIONS, SERVED TO HEIGHTEN THE EXHIBITION’S EMPHASIS ON THE INTERRELATIONSHIP OF SPACE AND SUBJECTIVITY. A BACKDROP OF ENSUING DARKNESS AND FLEETING SILHOUETTES ALONG WITH THE SEASONAL ELEMENTS ADDED TO THE ROMANTIC MISE-EN-SCÈNE OF THE SHOW’S NIGHTTIME STAGING ACROSS THE FORMER EVELEIGH RAIL YARDS.

Despite the theatricality of the site’s industrial ‘ruins’, Nightshifters did not engage in nostalgic rehearsals of the past. Instead, the eight exhibiting artists were invited to broadly respond to the location, both within the gallery complex and on the grounds outside, in ways that drew upon and extended their existing practices and conceptual concerns. As such, the openness of Dean’s curatorial brief meant that the exhibition’s trajectory didn’t develop into an overdetermined history lesson. The show responded critically to the site’s immediate and comparative geography through a diverse staging of personal memories and public histories, with notable works by Cordelia Beresford, Kate Murphy (with Bill Hogios) and John Tonkin.

Filmed on location at Cockatoo Island and relocated inside CarriageWorks, the architectural kinship of Beresford’s work Night Watchman (2010) threaded subtle allusions to the industrial and cultural histories shared between these sites. Both locations were originally places used by the first Australians, the Eora people, before colonial invasion. In the 19th century the sites were developed industrially; Cockatoo Island went through myriad uses, from convict prison to girls’ reform school and maritime building yard. In a small, free-standing enclosure resembling a cell, Beresford’s three-channel video of still and moving images presented the imagined journey of a contemporary night watchman’s (Djakapurra Munyarryun) encounter with the colonial past of Cockatoo Island. Against a sustained reverberation of vocalised sound, the ritualistic dance performance of the watchman drew forth the ghosts of two young women (Narelle Benjamin, Miranda Wheelan), who appeared as previous tenants of the island’s reformatory. The assemblage of empathic movements shared between the three performers across each screen presented a sombre meditation on the marginalised histories and spaces of Australia’s colonial heritage.

Kate Murphy’s Yia Yia’s song (2010) also drew upon the concept of shared memory. Using an eight-channel video and nine-channel sound installation, the work’s narrative centres upon a found acoustic recording of Diamanda Psihogios, the grandmother of Bill Hogios, Murphy’s collaborator on the piece. Like much of Murphy’s previous work, such as Prayers of a Mother (1999), Yia Yia’s song explores the role of witnessing and memory in response to a central familial figure. The installation of the work within a dark and otherwise empty train shed lends an operatic quality to Psihogios’ singing, as her sonorous tones fill the cavernous space. While it plays, the viewer is able to watch nine video portraits of the Psihogios’ family, filmed listening to a recording of the song. As each recorded face maps and mirrors a series of emotions back to the viewer, the interplay between the filmed and live audience creates an uncanny atmosphere of intimacy and pathos.

When the vocals conclude, Psihogios’ son and daughter-in-law, presented on a raised split screen at ‘the head’ of the semi-circular installation, proceed to reflect on the song’s meaning and relevance to their own lives. Through their analysis, it becomes apparent that Yia Yia’s song was their grandmother’s tale of grief over her children’s migration from their homeland of Greece to Australia. Charting the course of domestic history through a genealogy of embodied remembrances and shifting stories, Kate Murphy’s work traces a compelling exploration of loss and its counterpoint within the home.

Closer: eleven experiments on proximity (2010), by John Tonkin, also placed the viewer’s body in a series of affective encounters with the everyday. Drawing on the unmonumental poetics hidden within life’s daily habits, Tonkin’s two video projections on opposing walls of a purpose-built corridor screen a series of vignettes based on ordinary objects and common spaces. Whether it is a kettle beginning to boil, a plastic water bottle caught in the step-feed of an escalator, or the quiet grace of a young woman’s head resting on a laminated menu in a restaurant, the durational dynamics of each scene are intensified through Tonkin’s placement of interactive sensors within the installation. Building on his ongoing interest in the interstices of time that make up our cumulative experience of duration and motion, the work choreographs the viewer’s body against the changing speed of the scenes as they play. Running or walking, advancing or retreating in proximity to the work serves to change the tempo and narrative progression of each video, from fast to slow, forwards or backwards, respectively. By using the audience as a wayward metronome, Tonkin highlights the body’s liminality in relation to time’s unfolding.

The constant slippage between past and present narratives underpinned the exhibition’s structure as a whole, with each work operating as an internalised conversation across time. This self-reflexive structure offered provocative insights into the performative threshholds of the moving image as well as the opportunity to connect with CarriageWorks as a repository of the city’s living history through its reinvention. Like the imagined world of the somnabulist lost between night and day, Nightshifters gave viewers a way to navigate and reconnect with the changing history of the space against the imagined certainty of life’s waking routines.

Nightshifters, curator Bec Dean, artists Cordelia Beresford, Alexis Destoop, Sam James, Angelica Mesiti, Kate Murphy, Eugenia Raskopoulos, Dominic Redfern, John Tonkin; Performance Space, CarriageWorks, Sydney, Nov 4-13

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 43

© Tanya Petersen; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Street Dance at Nottdance, Lone Twin

Street Dance at Nottdance, Lone Twin

Street Dance at Nottdance, Lone Twin

I MEET ROSIE DENNIS IN THE LOCAL PIZZA SHOP NEXT DOOR TO MINTO MALL THAT SERVES A PRETTY GOOD SOY CAPPUCCINO. FOR CAMPBELLTOWN ARTS CENTRE DENNIS HAS BEEN WORKING ON MINTO:LIVE, PART OF THE 2011 SYDNEY FESTIVAL, THREE EVENINGS OF PERFORMANCE CELEBRATING THE SUBURB’S CULTURAL VITALITY THROUGH COLLABORATIONS WITH AUSTRALIAN AND INTERNATIONAL ARTISTS.

community collaboration

Dennis has previously worked in Minto, in Sydney’s south-west, developing her performance work Driven to New Pastures, which features a local senior resident June Hickey (this work is also in the 2011 Sydney Festival program). She says of the area, “When I started coming to Minto, I was really struck by the people living here, and how passionate they were about this suburb.” Dennis hopes to tap into this depth of feeling to create MINTO:LIVE in collaboration with the community. She describes the overall vision for the performance:

“It’s all off-site. None of it is in traditional gallery or theatre spaces. The whole event is set on an 800-metre walking route in Minto. We start over near Tyrepower. There’ll be eight performances, a mix of internationals (existing works) and new commissions. And all of the works are from artists who have some kind of connection with community, or work with non-performers. So it requires a lot of participation from local residents in Minto to make it a success.”

The work of UK duo Lone Twin (Gregg Whelan, Gary Winters) offers a good indication of the tone of the event. Their piece, Street Dance, will involve the duo and Sydney choreographer Julie-Anne Long visiting over time six to eight local households to explore and expand on ‘domestic choreographies.’ For the live event, the participating families will take to the streets with their creations, sharing them with each other and the public. Dennis saw the work when it was first performed in Nottingham and says of the experience, “It’s very beautiful…people are so generous not only in the performance but in the reception of others’ work. It becomes very clear what a big act it is for the people performing, as they’ve never done it before. There’s a lot of negotiating between audience and performers to develop that level of trust.”

Hetain Patel (centre), TEN

Hetain Patel (centre), TEN

Hetain Patel (centre), TEN

UK/Indian artist Hetain Patel will be working with two local men from the Pacific Islander community to realise his piece TEN. Patel uses the 10-beat rhythms of traditional Indian music to underscore his humorous and thoughtful deliberations on cultural identity. Part performance lecture, part stand-up, part autobiography, Patel will be performing on the recently completed basketball court in the new parklands area.

Those who have experienced Rosie Dennis’ performances, will recognise a few personal preoccupations in her curation, most noticeably the musical elements. She is very excited to be able to include the Camden-based trumpet player and composer Freddie Hill, who will bring together an all-trumpet ensemble to serenade the crowd at sunset. The evening will kick off with Sweet Tonic, the 35- strong senior citizens’ choir singing from the back of a flatbed truck.

public and private

Because it’s in a state of considerable change, Dennis finds Minto particularly fascinating. Until recently, a large proportion of housing was public. However, many public residents have been moved to other areas and the land redeveloped under the “One Minto” scheme. Much of the evening’s performance will take place on parkland and streets that are still in the process of transformation.

The tensions between public and private, inside and outside are clearly represented in the work of Australian textile artist Nicole Barakat. She has asked the community to donate old fabrics from their homes: curtains, sheets, towels and so on. Working with the Embroiderers and Quilters Guilds and the Minto Tongan Tapa Group, she will cut up the donations to create string that will then be used to craft a three dimensional sculpture. Dennis elaborates: “…something from people’s private space becomes very public. Nicole likes this idea because where the evening finishes, it used to be all public housing and now it’s all very private.”

The final act of the night, which takes place in the newly built amphitheatre also offers a potent metaphor for this public/private notion. Belgian artist Gwendoline Robin’s Instant no 6899 is a pyrotechnic display unlike any other, in which the artist’s body becomes the site for ignition and explosion.

Gwendoline Robins, Instant no 6899

Gwendoline Robins, Instant no 6899

Gwendoline Robins, Instant no 6899

onsite ongoing

While MINTO:LIVE is a rather large undertaking in itself, it is actually but one element of an overarching ‘Live’ program Dennis has developed for Campbelltown Arts Centre. In November 2010 the first of a series of Site:Lab residencies will kick off, with artists on-site in various Minto locations. For example Lara Thoms will be in the library where she will invite visitors to read from a chosen book, from which an audio work will be created. Frank Mainoo will inhabit a vacant house, continuing his performative research into public and private spaces and acts. Barbara Campbell will work with local Chinese groups, opening up discussion of a politically charged poem.

While some of these residencies will not have outcomes until later in the 2011 Live program, three will feed directly into MINTO:LIVE in January. One of these is Nicole Barakat’s project mentioned above, which will based at a local church. Mickie Quick and Kernow Craig from Blood & Thunder Press will set up their printing press in the former supermarket in Minto Mall, inviting the local Bangladeshi community, and others, to collaborate on a publication that will be available at the end of the event as a souvenir.

UK/Australian artists Howard Matthew and Caitlin Newton-Broad will be in residence for nine weeks in the Sarah Redfern Primary School where they will work with third graders and their parents or grandparents on a storytelling project. Creating an actual waterhole in the school grounds, the pair will conduct hands-on, cross-artform workshops which will culminate in short videos. These will be displayed during MINTO:LIVE on screens on the back of bikes ridden through the suburb.

Site:Lab will continue in 2011. Dennis says, gesturing towards the buildings nearby: “It’s going to be more ambitious, hopefully across 10 shops in Minto Mall for three weeks. Someone will be working out of the bakery; someone working out of the optometrist’s; there will be a small theatre company in the beginnings of something in a shop over there; a sound artist over there; a video artist over there. Everyone in the same place.” Many of these projects will go on to have public outcomes in MINTO:LIVE 2012.

a living centre

While Dennis is setting up a mini-art centre in Minto Mall, she is also utilising the custom-built Art Centre back at Campbelltown. She explains, “So many local groups already use the Arts Centre who are unbelievably skilled and passionate. I’m looking to make interesting matches with artists who might be able to come and be in-residence with groups over a six-month period and then possibly make a work out of that.”

There is also an ‘artist initiates’ commission that gives a chosen artist a lump sum to realise a particular project. “The reality is the resources are finite, but it’s getting artists to think about how to do something on a small amount of money… [allowing for] a bit of movement, a bit of room for spontaneity. Video artist Sam James is the first one next year—he wants to do a creative documentation of Site:Lab in 2011.”

And that’s not all. There will also be a new writers’ initiative that, from an open call, will see three writers a year exploring their fascination with text in a series of residencies. At the end of the three-year project there will be some form of compilation or outcome, a festival of words or a publication to bring the works together and to the public. When you throw in the possibility of an international residency exchange, Dennis’ program looks diverse, ambitious and offers some amazing opportunities for artists engaged in live practices.

But before all that, Rosie Dennis has to nurture MINTO:LIVE into reality. To finance the event Dennis has undertaken extensive fundraising and attracted several corporate sponsors as well as state and federal project grants. In addition, she admits that the collaborative nature of the event requires constant energy and attention. But it is this that will make the event work. She says, “All of the service providers in the area are happy that something like this is happening. They see it as really positive to combat lead stories about a drug bust in Minto, a shooting in Minto, a stabbing in Minto. They’re actually few and far between and they happen everywhere. The majority of people who live here, it’s their home, they shop here, it’s their community, they go to the club here, to the PCYC. That’s what this is about.”

Sydney Festival 2011: Campbelltown Arts Centre, MINTO:LIVE, curator Rosie Dennis, the streets of Minto, Jan 20-22, 2011; artist talk with Lone Twin, Nicole Barakat, Caitlin Newton-Broad and Howard Matthew, January 22, 2pm-5:30pm, St James Anglican Church, Minto; Driven to New Pastures, creator Rosie Dennis, performers Rosie Dennis, June Hickey, Seymour Centre Jan 11–16

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 5

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

Claudia Escobar, Sweat, Branch Nebula

Claudia Escobar, Sweat, Branch Nebula

Claudia Escobar, Sweat, Branch Nebula

IT’S A GREAT THING THAT THE KIND OF THEATRE THAT IS BRANCH NEBULA’S SWEAT HAPPENS IN SYDNEY. DEMOCRATICALLY DEVISED, POLITICAL AND EMOTIONALLY CHARGED, SWEAT PERFORMS A CHALLENGE TO EXPECTATION AND CONVENTION.

However, Sweat is also a diluted dream of a Sydney Front (1986-1994) production: unsurprising considering that John Baylis, onetime Front member, is the dramaturg. The sharply confronting material sometimes demanded a more robust performative substance than these young performers could provide but Claudia Escobar, Marnie Palomares, Erwin Fenis, Ali Kadhim, Ahilan Ratnamohan and Hirofumi Uchino are courageous, committed and focused.

Escobar is especially potent. She opens the piece by welcoming us with a hospitality smile that matches her waiter’s uniform. In heavily accented English she asks us politely but firmly to leave and re-enter with more alacrity, as our first entrance was not sufficiently rhythmic or efficient. This is classic Front: casting the audience as performatively responsible. And not only responsible—but uncomfortable—as Escobar asks various audience members to remove pieces of her clothing. In the undoing of buttons, witness is made oppressor as she asks me directly, while lying near naked on the floor, to stop looking at her.

Escobar’s accented text set the political narrative as determinedly racial. As we gathered in uncomfortable clumps we stood accused—of leaving all the dirty tasks of a wealthy society to people with dark skin and foreign accents. These are people who have migrated into invisibility and voicelessness, where once, in their countries of origin, they were trained, educated and skilled.

This shameful narrative is the abiding and structuring force of Sweat. The piece veers from situations of tedium and degradation to displays of skill that reveal the hidden value of these ‘shadow’ people.

In the blackened and cavernous space cleaning trolleys become sentinels and aliens, careening beams of light into an atmosphere thick with despair and repeated words. These are perhaps the most densely theatrical moments, clothing the audience in nightmare, surrounding and engulfing us.

Then there is a falling away as we are herded into groups, each with a quadrant of space and a designated performer. The shadows are filled in with the individuality of capability, with back stories of soccer, hip hop, martial arts and contemporary dance. These practices are moved as markers of worth and dignity in a world that would make them silent and invisible. This Australian story must be told and it is important that Branch Nebula is telling it.

Marnie Palomares, Sweat, Branch Nebula

Marnie Palomares, Sweat, Branch Nebula

Marnie Palomares, Sweat, Branch Nebula

But who are they telling it to? Certainly not to the greedy bastards of industry who deserve the full accusatory force of Sweat. And despite the textually direct ‘you’ of these accusations, they sometimes appear limp. They don’t have the force of, say, the fully furious curse of Melvin van Peebles’ bag lady in Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song (1971) wishing all our children turn into junkies and prostitutes. That iconic rant was fuelled by a quietly authentic ferocity that swept the audience up into it, crushing resistance. So, at times Sweat generated annoyance more than fury. Herded around the space, the generic passivity and meekness of the theatrical audience was not subverted but extended.

Contrastingly, Sweat performed the young nubile body; displayed, revealed and aestheticised. The bodies of these performers are rich with symbolic, physical and cultural capital—bodies bathed in admiration as they exhibit their skills: bodies rich with potential, capable of enacting power, bodies at odds with victimhood. What of the older migrant worker, like the 60 year-old Indian man picking up the garbage of teenagers on Town Hall Station? Where is his story?

Towards the end, Sweat’s ‘last supper’ scene invites 12 lucky audience members to put their heads through holes in a heavy plastic tablecloth that serves as a collective bib. A good thing, for it is about to get ugly. Serenely, two waiting staff pour water and wine, left arms tucked respectfully behind their backs. This sedate ritual segues into the serving of food as art: pineapple rings with a spoonful of peas and a ‘little boy’ frankfurter. Yellow, green and red are, at first, delicately dotted on white plates. But the service gets boisterous as the servings become ludicrously generous; speedy dollops of red tomato slurry are spooned onto overflowing plates and the table starts to swim with a melange of colour disgusting to eye and palate. Horrifyingly, one waiter starts to eat the scraps: the middle-class leftovers that sustain the oppressed. He disrobes and swims face first and naked down the centre of the table, his butt crack serving another unexpected course to the guests, these disciples of excess. The last touch is confetti, sprinkled liberally over the festivities, completing the festering mess, turning the party and the world of work upside down.

Sweat, Branch Nebula, director, co-creator Lee Wilson, designer, co-creator Mirabelle Wouters, noisician Hirofumi Uchino, performers, devisors Ahilan Ratnamohan, Ali Kadhim, Claudia Escobar, Erwin Fenis, and Marnie Palomares; Performance Space, CarriageWorks, Oct 19-30

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 25

© Pauline Manley; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

still from Total Eclipse (2010), Gao Shiqqiang

still from Total Eclipse (2010), Gao Shiqqiang

still from Total Eclipse (2010), Gao Shiqqiang

IN THE LEAD UP TO THE 2008 BEIJING OLYMPICS AS CHINA’S CAPITAL RAPIDLY REDEVELOPED TO GREET WESTERN CAPITALISM, SO DID ITS ART SCENE. CHINESE CONTEMPORARY ART BECAME THE ‘NEXT BIG THING’ AS GALLERIES AND ART ZONES OPENED UP ALL AROUND THE CITY, WITH INTENSE INTEREST FROM INTERNATIONAL DEALERS AND COLLECTORS. IT ALSO SAW THE ADOPTION OF VIDEO AS A MEDIUM BY MANY MORE CHINESE ARTISTS. LAURENS TAN, AN AUSTRALIAN ARTIST OF CHINESE ORIGIN RELOCATED TO BEIJING IN 2006 AND THE VIDEO EXHIBITION, ARENA, WHICH HE HAS CURATED FOR THE HAZELHURST GALLERY, REFLECTS ON WHAT HAS HAPPENED IN BEIJING AFTER THE INITIAL FRENZY.

Not surprisingly, many of the works exhibited deal with the changing cityscape and the built environment. The most engaging of these is Nan Hao’s Chi 3 (2008) in which Hao performs Tai Chi in the middle of eight lanes of traffic. While it could be seen simply as an act of bravado, Hao’s performance is humble and contained, shifting through small gestural sequences occasionally obscured by large trucks. At one point he holds his hands forward in a stance of resistance, and for a fleeting moment we think that he has succeeded in stopping the oncoming cars, but it’s the traffic lights that have this ultimate power. The footage is low quality, but it adds a sense of intervention and immediacy to this simple yet powerful work.

Beijing Ballet (2010) by Allan Chawner explores similar territory. An Australian artist, in-residence at the Red Gate Studios in Beijing, Chawner has captured a street scene in moody dusk light. Watching the ebb and flow of traffic, he focuses on a man on a bicycle carrying an unbelievably large load. Stranded in the sea of cars he exhibits patience similar to Hao’s, however Chawner aestheticises the experience by replacing the traffic sounds with a version of Debussy’s Clair de Lune. The music heightens and poeticises the visual material but, verging on cliché, steers the piece towards a romanticised western vision of the contemporary east, in effect flattening the power of the original footage and, played at volume, it dominates the gallery space.

Beijing Handscroll (detail, 2009), Miao Xiaochun

Beijing Handscroll (detail, 2009), Miao Xiaochun

Beijing Handscroll (detail, 2009), Miao Xiaochun

Also using Beijing streetscape as his material is Miao Xiaochun in the photomedia work Beijing Hand Scroll (2009). Drawing on the ancient art of hand scrolls, which by tradition depict cityscapes in intense detail and can reach to over five meters in length, Xiaochun has used a 360-degree camera to capture panoramas of Beijing streets. Exhibited as stills over eight screens, these panoramas illustrate city crowds, street markets, decrepit lanes and new high-rise developments. The images are manipulated using something like the ‘find edges filter’ in Photoshop creating a density of detail that resembles etching. The images of humans are treated with a variety of smudging tools, giving both a sense of movement and a dreamy insubstantiality to the figures, in contrast to the precise representation of their environments. As you can never take in the whole image at once, the depth of detail is both fascinating and overwhelming. Further exploration of Miao Xiaochun’s vision of the city was not possible as his interactive work, Bejing Index (2009), was not functioning.

Wang Qingsong’s Skyscraper (2008) is perhaps the most explicit in its presentation of the rapidly changing environment. A time-lapse exploration of a building growing into the sky, the work takes on more weight when research reveals that the artist and 40 workers in fact built the apparent skyscraper over a month, specifically for the shoot. This level of commitment is perhaps what make’s Qingsong’s work particularly impressive.

In Ironman (2008), Qingsong himself appears to be repeatedly beaten around the head until he is bloody and disfigured, hair and teeth missing, yet still laughing at his oppressors. The sharp rhythmic editing and time-lapsing of images makes the work shockingly brutal. The angle of the head to the camera references an old propaganda poster that prompted people to live with strength and dignity in the face of adversity. Qingsong’s joyous expression at the end is ambiguous—is he laughing victoriously or has he cracked under the relentless violence?

123,456 Chops (2008), Wang Qingsong

123,456 Chops (2008), Wang Qingsong

123,456 Chops (2008), Wang Qingsong

However Qingsong’s third work, 123,456 Chops (2008) is even more disturbing. In a darkened space a pool of light illuminates a large wooden platform. A man enters with the body of a dead goat and chops it into pieces with two cleavers, as if preparing it for cooking. The chopping continues, but now in time-lapse—over many hours the meat is diced, minced and pulverised and it is finally sprayed around the entire space, creating a velvety red carpet. Qingsong presents this obsessive behaviour as a means to vent “anger, violence, suffocation, sadness and disappointment” (artist statement). The work certainly raises questions about sanity and violence, and how a society deals with or, in fact, contributes to these.

Animation also featured strongly in Arena. Two works by Rei Li, one of Beijing’s up and coming artists, employ a quirky hand-drawn approach that playfully explores ideas of conformity. In Magic Cube and Ping Pong (2010), figures with mixed up Rubik’s Cube heads wander through an intricate futuristic city but run the risk of being set to normal—all colours in order—unless saved by the touch of love and a ping-pong ball. Each to their own metaphor. His second work, Pear and Alien (2008), is particularly visually appealing: drawn only with red and blue pens on graph paper, it explores our fear of the other, which is revealed to be just ourselves turned upside-down.

Wu Junyong (previously featured in Mu:Screen at the UTS Gallery, RT98) also contributed a series of animated works, Carps (2007), When We Are Rich (2005) and two interactive pieces, Central Park (2006) and Pixel Underground (2007). This artist’s idiosyncratic symbology is dominated by naked figures, each wearing a dunce’s cap: they expose their phalluses, wave flags, urinate or blow money out of their arses. Junyong’s absurdist scenarios offer incisive criticism of nationalism, capitalism, greed and decadence. Zhang Xiaotao’s Scar (2009), which draws more on 3D animation techniques, is particularly impressive in its exploration of the macro and micro, as the POV vision zooms across landscapes and delves deep down into the cellular level in gaming style, exploring a tangled environment, half reality, half hallucination. The work was diminished somewhat by an inaudible soundtrack.

With 21 works works in total, several approaching feature film length, it was not possible to view everything in its entirety. Perhaps a screening program would have been more beneficial for some works such as Total Eclipse (2010) by Gao ShiQiang. Presented in black and white, shot at high-frame rates and beautifully lit for noirish effect, it presents a series of poetic metaphors. Factory workers and their boss, standing in a circle, gradually begin to laugh and float up towards the ceiling. Another man stands laughing amidst his possessions, strewn about in total chaos, but then all the objects gracefully return to their rightful order—the reversed footage revealing that the man himself caused the disorder in the first place. Perhaps the most potent image is of a group of people ‘rock climbing’ into the corner of a low-ceilinged room, clustered like a hive of bees. This image resonates for Arena: A Post Boom Beijing as a whole— an exhibition which offers an intriguing insight into a nation that is in a complex process of renegotiating the individual’s aspiration within the collective pursuit of national prosperity.

Arena: A Post Boom Beijing, curator Laurens Tan, Hazelhurst Regional Gallery and Arts Centre, NSW, Oct 16-Nov 28

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 44

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

Super Night Shot

Super Night Shot

Super Night Shot

“A 4-SCREEN VIDEO EVENT FILMED ONE HOUR BEFORE THE AUDIENCE ARRIVES, SUPER NIGHT SHOT CONTAINS NO CUTS OR EDITS AND IS PRODUCED WITH FOUR VIDEO CAMERAS BY FOUR PERFORMERS. STARTING OFF AT BASE CAMP (THE VENUE), ALL CAMERAS ARE SYNCHRONISED TO RECORD AT THE SAME TIME. THEN IN A MILITARY STYLE BRIEF, THE PERFORMERS DECLARE A ‘WAR ON ANONYMITY’ BEFORE TAKING TO THE CITY STREETS ON A SET OF MAGICAL ADVENTURES THAT CELEBRATE UNPLANNED MEETINGS WITH STRANGERS…THE FOUR ACTIVISTS THEN RETURN BACK TO BASE CAMP…THE VIDEOTAPES ARE THEN IMMEDIATELY PLAYED BACK SIDE BY SIDE IN SYNCH, BECOMING UNITED IN ONE WIDESCREEN EPIC.” WWW.GOBSQUAD.COM

The Berlin and Nottingham-based Gob Squad, who will present Super Night Shot at the 2011 Sydney Festival, are the perfect product of a post-mediatised world: a clever mix of party, audience activation, technology and a reflection of our times. Witty, ironic and comfortable with failure, Gob Squad have been inviting the audience into their search for “beauty, meaning and humanity amongst the glittering facades and dark corners of contemporary culture” (their words not ours) for some time now and have become very good at it. They have pioneered a style of live filmmaking that includes the audience in its creation.

The stakes seem high in the company’s work; creating a film in real time in front of their audience with a seemingly casual approach to the countless chance elements makes each moment of a performance feel like risky fun. There is a lot going on and it seems that at any moment it could all go horribly wrong. This element of risk is of course all part of the joy ride. In their performances Gob Squad turn a humorous light on to this idiosyncratic world of ours and while challenging popular assumptions and beliefs, they are kind and generous in their approach. As they extend their relationship to the audience, there is no singling out, no ridicule or any attempt to undermine our vulnerable presence in the work. They welcome us with open arms, introduce themselves, smile and hold our hands. Gob Squad entrust their show to us and for an evening we are part of the collective: and together there is nowhere to go but forward, towards the curtain call.

In Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good), Gob Squad reconstructed a series of Warhol videos, some of which they had seen and others that they had only heard about. The work is filmed live and projected on three screens in the middle of the theatre. In RealTime 83 we wrote about our experience of participating in a performance of Kitchen, “The essence of Warhol’s time is not the essence of Gob Squad’s time. In their frustration, the performers stop the film, they walk out from behind the screen and one by one replace themselves with an audience member. The performance ends with Gob Squad in the audience. With us standing in their place, they can be a blank canvas; they can be whoever they want to be. Gob Squad are making a new film before our very eyes and it’s free of histories. They are capturing the essence of here, right now; live in front of a camera and with an audience.”

In a recent conversation, Gob Squad’s Sean Patten explained that the motivating principle behind their works is their interest in reality and randomness; the work they make is driven by a desire to remain responsive and alive to the possibilities of encounter with the audience. To see their work is to quite literally find oneself in it as the performance is constructed in real time, live, with you in the centre. They have “designed the holes into which the audience fit” and the experience is spellbinding.

The story goes that Sarah Thom and Sean Patten met at Nottingham University in 1992. They started off making short, funny dance performances at Glastonbury Festival, the main incentive for which was to secure a free ticket to the party. Joined by visiting artists Berit Stumpf and Johanna Freiborg from Giessen University in Germany at the end of their final year, they made their first professional work, House, in a council house in Nottingham and history was made. In the beginning there were four of them and they made small, funny works that appealed to festivals and challenged a world consumed by work and bad clothing. In the years that followed, performers/artists Simon Wills and Bastian Trost joined. They have collectively made shows for theatre, interventions on the streets and in galleries and have toured across four continents. It is surprising then (at least for us) that it has taken them this long to come to Australia.
Super Night Shot

Super Night Shot

Super Night Shot

The company now works with a core of six and a growing series of guest artists who orbit the company’s collective practices and serve to enrich the world of Gob Squad. It’s a fairly unique entity in the world of performance, working without a director or hierarchy, making decisions together about each part of the work. We asked Sean Patten how they had managed to make a collective work over their 18 years. He told us about one of their most recent works, Are you with us, which addresses the difficulties of working together. The members interview each other, asking the difficult and potentially dangerous questions that they wouldn’t dare ask in private, each taking it in turn to play the role of counsellor or life coach. The results, said Patten, are funny and surprisingly therapeutic.

In the world of big business there is an increasing interest in collaborative, networked approaches to corporate environments. In offices across the world, projects called In touch, Blue Sky and Horizons are taking shape, trying to understand how collective learning, sharing and non-competitive approaches might function in the workplace. In the fraught world of the corporation it will take a long time for change to really be felt across the culture of work. In this context Gob Squad’s example might be held up as a shining beacon for collective working practices in action. If life really is a series of tests of grace under pressure, then Gob Squad are model modern citizens.

Patten says that Gob Squad’s members all remain ideologically committed to the idea of group work, which is always going to be better than work they make on their own—they don’t want to be solo artists. “You have to be a bit of a communist in order to be in Gob Squad.” He uses the metaphor of marriage or family: resentments build up, arguments and heated discussions happen and it takes the sort of work you would put into any relationship, checking in, talking about things, not leaving things to remain difficult.

“We remain interested in the world, hungry to experience culture, politics, the news and television. We start each day of rehearsal with a discussion of the books we are reading, the films we are watching, exhibitions we see.” This cycle makes sense to them, they are both producers of culture and consumers of culture.

Although Gob Squad has performed Super Night Shot over 140 times in various parts of the world, it remains an unfinished work. Patten says “It is a great mix of things that are planned and things that randomly happen on the streets. So while we may have performed the show over 140 times, we never tire of it, it always feels like the first time.” And this is true of all of their work. Gob Squad are the pop stars of contemporary performance, their much anticipated better-late-than-never arrival on Australian soil can, for performance enthusiasts, be likened to the Beatles’ tour of Australia in 1964 or perhaps Abba in 1974. Super Night Shot is one performance not to be missed in the 2011 Sydney Festival, so buckle up, you’re in for a hell of a ride!

See “Gob Squad saves the world,” RT83, p34 for Panther’s account of their encounter with the company in Europe in 2008.

Gob Squad, Super Night Shot, The Studio, Sydney Opera House, Jan 25-30, 9pm; presented by Sydney Festival, Performance Space and Sydney Opera House; www.sydneyfestival.org.au; ACMI, Melbourne Feb 3-5 www.acmi.net.au/; World Theatre Festival, Brisbane Powerhouse, Feb 10-12, www.brisbanepowerhouse.org

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 4

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

Australia Dances cover, Dancer, William Harvey

Australia Dances cover, Dancer, William Harvey

Australia Dances cover, Dancer, William Harvey

ALAN BRISSENDEN AND KEITH GLENNON’S AUSTRALIA DANCES, CREATING AUSTRALIAN DANCE 1945-1965 IS AN OBJECT AS MUCH AS A BOOK, AND A BEAUTIFULLY PRESENTED OBJECT AT THAT.

It does not demand to be read from cover to cover in sequence. If you follow the pages one after the other the dates, people and locations merge in a blur of numbers, names and dance titles. The detail is astounding, for example the authors list (what appear to be) all the possible name changes of companies and organisations throughout the period. But if you choose instead to wander through the amazing array of photographs and replications of wardrobe and set designs, dipping in and out when an association takes your fancy, you will be equally amazed at the writers’ attention to historical detail and avoid the vertigo.

Critical framing of dance in its social, political, economic and cultural context is not the intention of this book. There is a lot of who, what, where and a little bit of how but not a lot of why. Instead, the expressed intention of Australia Dances is to “share in building an awareness of a community of interests, stimulate the interchange of ideas, and provide a record of the exciting period when so much creativity was energising Australian dance.” This it does admirably.

There is, however, a sprinkling of ‘why-not’ as the authors offer up the occasional reflective commentary on the demise of companies and organisations and the lack of innovation in much early local dance (particularly ballet), along with the occasional critique of some of the work. It is interesting (read depressing) to discover the fledgling dance organisations in this period faltered and died one after the other, and rose again, and again, when more funds could be secured. (Reading through this replicated saga I was reminded that the resilience of Australian performing artists also has a history.) The authors also accuse companies like the Borovansky Ballet of not meeting their “obligation to contribute to the vitality of the art it represents.” A revival of old works might satisfy an audience but it “is a truism that no art form can progress and develop without experimentation.”

There are moments when local artists get an ever so gentle, but slightly acerbic ‘serve’. Words like “slight” are used to describe Petite Mozartiana (1939) by Borovansky and Garth Welch’s work for the fledgling Australian Ballet. Rex Reid’s choreography for Melbourne Cup (1960) is called “highly derivative” owing a large “debt” to Les Sylphides and Aurora’s Wedding. Although her creations have a “firmness of purpose and clarity of vision,” a dependence on “the improvisation of individual dancers […] together with her concern for asymmetry, led to a certain untidiness in some of Gertrud Bodenwieser’s ballets.”

The Wheel of Life, 1945,
Bodenwieser Ballet

The Wheel of Life, 1945,
Bodenwieser Ballet

This book has had an incredibly long gestation period. As Alan Brissenden recalled at its launch in July: “We wrote the book during the late 1950s and early 1960s, when so much was happening in dance in this country.” Keith Glennon was responsible for collecting a lot of the material, travelling from state to state interviewing artists and writing follow-up letters on leads he’d acquired in the field. Asked how Glennon financed his trips, Brissenden recalled that “he hitchhiked a lot of the time. But when he got to Adelaide he didn’t want to face the Nullarbor, so he cabled a great-aunt in England for £50, and she sent it!” Brissenden left for England in 1960: “I had a contract in my pocket and [the book] was to be published in 1961; but a recession rolled in and put a stop to that.” When he returned to Australia he joined the English Department at Adelaide University and, with Glennon, updated the book and tried to get it published again, “but no one was interested.” The letters, photos, clippings and transcript “were stored in a garage” and when Keith Glennon died in 1983 his brothers donated the 22 archival boxes to the Barr Smith Library at Adelaide University and there it all sat until Alan Brissenden retired in 1994 and began to revise the manuscript yet again.

These two men were not only great collectors but also well-connected fellow travellers of the dance community. Glennon was a trained dancer, a theatre technician with JC Williamson and the founding administrator of the Mornington Island Dancers. Brissenden has an Order of Australia for services to the arts and is one of the country’s leading dance critics. They were aficionados. Between them they saw a lot of the work they describe here, and it is those moments when the ‘eye-witness’ nature of some accounts breaks through the stricter historiography that the value of this book is enhanced. We get great moments of description that can only come from being there, like this on Laurel Martyn’s Sentimental Bloke (1952): “To convey changes in time and provide atmosphere, the choreographer left dancers immobile when not immediately concerned in the action of a scene. This provided the ballet with a photo-album quality, clipped the incidents into tidy, page-like sequence, and yet blended them one into another so that there was a continuity of action. This buoyancy was carried through to the ballet’s conclusion; at the end the audience was involved as a wedding photographer, for the curtains opened and closed like a camera shutter on poses contrived by the bridal party.”

There are some oddities as well: the excellent description of the touring and the dancing of the Aboriginal Theatre (1963) is corralled under the title of “Ethnic Dance” and I also thought it odd that the Modern Dance section begins with a return to the Greeks. We move from them to the Romans, the early Christians, dance in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and are swept on to Isadora Duncan and the early 20th century…all in three paragraphs. I also found the lack of contextual framing in the book a small frustration. Tantalising details of who-made-what-with-whom in a strange ballet like Terra Australis (1946) makes you wonder what it would have been like to be in the room as Tom Rothfield (who wrote the ‘book’), William Constable (décor), Esther Rofe (music) and Borovansky (choreographer) negotiated their way around the ballet’s construction and content. How did these people work together? Why did they make the work? Another interesting, unframed moment is the image of Robert Olup ‘blacked up’ as the “Negro” in Rex Reid’s The Night of the Sorceress (1962). Photographs such as this stimulate interest that is not satisfied in the text.

Generally Australia Dances offers the facts but does not spend much time unpacking or speculating about the meaning of the action in context and time. But, again, that is the intention of the book: to stimulate more research, to give scholars and students a place from which to begin. This publication does not do the work for us: its lack of detailed referencing means the location of much of the material remains ‘secret.’ But this will not bother everyone, and those who are inspired to burrow beneath what Australia Dances has to offer will still need to do the work, scratching at this book’s beautiful, polished, inspirational surface to reveal the stories that lie beneath.

Alan Brissenden and Keith Glennon, Australia Dances, Creating Australian Dance 1945-1965, Wakefield Press, Adelaide, 2010

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 26

© Amanda Card; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Homesteads, 2009, Chris Howlett

Homesteads, 2009, Chris Howlett

Homesteads, 2009, Chris Howlett

THIS INSIGHTFULLY CURATED AND COMPELLING EXHIBITION BRINGS TOGETHER SEVERAL ARTISTS WHOSE WORK EXPLORES OUR SOMETIMES DESPERATE NEED TO EXPRESS UNHAPPY THOUGHTS AND TALK TO SOMEONE. TAKEN TOGETHER, THE WORKS EXAMINE SIGNIFICANT ISSUES IN MENTAL HEALTH AND PERSONAL RELATIONS IN A COMPLEX, ELECTRONICALLY MEDIATED WORLD. VOCAL THOUGHTS IS GREATER THAN THE SUM OF ITS PARTS, ACTING LIKE A CUBIST’S ANALYSIS OF AN OBJECT, IN THIS CASE HUMAN PSYCHOLOGY, IN WHICH WE SEE MANY FACETS SIMULTANEOUSLY.

Firstly, Daniel Johnston’s drawings of a fantasy world of comic book heroes such as Captain America and his enemies depict life as a contest between good and evil. These cartoons question the heroes we turn to for aid—Captain America might represent a USA unable to deliver promised assistance. Johnston is best known as a musician and his art is an alternative voice. In the context of this exhibition, the story of his apparent mental health issues prompts us to address the nature of society’s response to those calling for help.

In Anna Davis and Jason Gee’s video Biohead Actualised (2008), a ventriloquist’s dummy lectures us on the power of positive thought, for example, “think wealth,” “poverty is a mental disease” and “never discuss your problems with anyone except a financial counsellor.” The dummy implies control by unseen forces, and the work parodies self-help books and critiques the materialist values that conflate health with wealth. The video screen can also be seen as a mirror, where the viewer becomes the dummy, helplessly parroting empty liturgies that become increasingly negative and disturbed, like our own inner dialogues. Adjacent is Kate Murphy’s video The Appointment (2009), showing a consultation with a psychologist from the client’s perspective. The therapist asks typical questions and pauses while we privately answer, perhaps revealing more to ourselves than we would to a real psychologist. But, juxtaposed with Davis and Gee’s creation, we wonder if counsellors are just Bioheads preaching nonsense. Both works invite us to consider the possibilities and likely effectiveness of pre-programmed online therapy.

These themes develop in different ways in the remaining works. Chris Howlett’s three animations, Homesteads, Homesteads I and Homesteads II (2009), resemble The Sims VR games, but here the characters play out predetermined routines and we can’t interact with them. Homesteads shows a dysfunctional family accompanied by dialogue sampled from talk shows in which members of the public tell tales of loneliness, vulnerability, bullying and abuse of all kinds, including online predation. In Homesteads II, the Grim Reaper stalks a Kevin Rudd lookalike, the vision accompanied by the soundtrack of an ALP political advertisement, a discussion of the controversy surrounding Bill Henson’s photography, referencing Rudd’s much publicised comments on the matter, and a US soldier’s account of his role in a fatal military blunder in Iraq. Howlett’s work critiques our dystopian world and especially our selfish disregard for the welfare of others. But it also speaks of the essential human need for communication and self-disclosure.

Time is the fire in which we burn, 2009, Dani Marti

Time is the fire in which we burn, 2009, Dani Marti

Time is the fire in which we burn, 2009, Dani Marti

Dani Marti’s two videos provide contrasting perspectives on the individual seeking intimacy and personal connection. Time is the fire in which we burn (2009) is an emotionally charged interview conducted by the artist with a lover in bed, evidently one of series in which the artist encourages his subject to speak openly about his life and feelings in such a setting. This absorbing documentary presents the tragic personal account of the subject but also renders us as voyeurs intruding into an intimate moment. Projecting the video at an enlarged scale and showing it in a curtained space (to meet censorship requirements) amplifies the intimacy and makes our voyeurism seem uncomfortably acute. But, unlike Murphy’s psychologist, Marti is actively intervening in his subject’s life by establishing an intimate relationship with him. Whether Marti is catalysing his partner’s self-awareness or his partner is self-consciously acting a role, we see how, in any relationship, we might recreate our persona for our partner.

Marti’s second video, Andrea greeted with a pubescent smile (2008), is a soliloquy in which a young woman speaks of her social encounters through the internet, another example of self-disclosure that reveals how we have come to rely on the superficial companionship of chat rooms while guarding ourselves against predators with fake identities. Marti’s video is a profound commentary on the impact of the internet on social interaction, and both his works are extraordinarily candid and deeply affecting personal accounts that ache with loneliness. When seeking friendship, information or advice through the internet, we open ourselves to abuse and colonisation by quacks, lovers, voyeurs and fakes—gamers of all kinds.

As if to reassure us, the final works in this exhibition offer the semblance of real life. Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta–Kalleinen organised a series of amateur choral performances in St Petersburg, Tokyo, Chicago, Helsinki, Hamburg and Birmingham, and recorded them on video as the Complaints Choir (2006). We see ordinary citizens of all ages happily singing their complaints about their lives—unsatisfactory relationships, workplace difficulties, incompetent and uncaring governments, incomprehensible technological gadgetry and so on. In this exhibition, the Complaints Choir seems more like group therapy than activism and we readily identify with these people and their wish to be heard. Their camaraderie is both palpable and uplifting.

Vocal Thoughts is an essay in human communication, intimacy and relationships. The themes of vulnerability, emotional and psychological disturbance, confession and the nature of self-awareness run throughout, making the exhibition richly illuminating. If technological development has brought us to the verge of a radical form of post-humanism, Vocal Thoughts reminds us of the privacy and humanity we risk losing, and urges that we understand our own psychology better before proceeding. As well as revealing the potential for communications technologies to mediate self-awareness, Vocal Thoughts demonstrates the level of sophistication artists have attained in using video and animation. The art lies in positioning the work in the interstices between cinema, documentary, web page, game and cartoon so as to capitalise on the power of those media and synthesise new forms and effects. The inclusion of Johnston’s drawings in the show locates each medium in a broader perspective, revealing its relative authority and reach.

Vocal Thoughts, curator Peter McKay, artists Anna Davis and Jason Gee, Chris Howlett, Daniel Johnston, Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen, Dani Marti, Kate Murphy; Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, Adelaide, Sept 10-Oct 10

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 46

© Chris Reid; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Intimacy, Ranters Theatre

Intimacy, Ranters Theatre

Intimacy, Ranters Theatre

PREMIERING AS PART OF THE MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL ARTS FESTIVAL, RANTERS THEATRE’S INTIMACY BEGINS WITH A SMILE. IT’S THE LOVELY, BEGUILING, DISARMING SMILE OF THE ACTOR PAUL LUM, DIRECTED AT US, THE AUDIENCE, AND ECHOING THE BEGINNING OF RANTERS’ PREVIOUS PLAY, AFFECTION, WHICH ALSO BEGAN WITH THE ACTORS SMILING AT THE AUDIENCE, IN THAT CASE, FROM THE COMFORT OF A COUCH. THE RANTERS SMILE IS NOT A MASK OF HAPPINESS BUT AN ATTEMPT TO MAKE US COMPLICIT WITH THOSE ONSTAGE.

ranters’ intimacy

The success of this attempt is beside the point. Ranters does not seem concerned with whether we trust the smile or not, because it is the attempt that makes manifest the slipperiness of the social contract inherent in the relationship between actor and audience. No matter how open and charming the actor’s smile, it still seems odd and unnaturally jaunty, like the quizzical gesture of someone feigning recognition at a party of half-remembered acquaintances. Indeed, is Paul Lum actually smiling at us, or is it his onstage persona? And does he actually see us, or is he simply smiling at the black void below the bright lights? And, with a nod to Zen, how much does our presence matter?

Later in the production, a character tells Lum that he is a good listener because “you’re there, but not there,” like a priest behind the confessional, the paper of the diary or the analyst behind the chaise longue. In Ranters’ theatre, the audience is similarly there but not there—we are good listeners precisely because we are imagined rather than active interlocutors, intimates invited in by an ingenuous smile. But again, the success of the invitation is beside the point.

Ranters’ aesthetic fundamentally relies for its dramatic tension on the slippage between the performer’s invitation and the audience’s response. There is typically no plot and minimal character dynamics. Raimondo Cortese’s writing evades obvious subtexts and thematics. Instead, the actors speak of ordinary happenings, of personal thoughts in a meandering manner that defies obvious interpretation. Nevertheless, the mere ordinariness of the text invites listening and, crucially, interpretation—because we are in a theatre, where we expect things to mean something. Thus, by simply framing and detailing the ordinary, Ranters engages the audience in the process of theatrical meaning-making until the ordinary becomes something else that both reflects what it emerged from and transcends it.

In Intimacy, the distinction between the ordinary and the theatrical is twisted even more by its simple conceit—the vox populi. We are led to believe that Lum ventured out one balmy St Kilda night and asked strangers to chat. And they did. Or did they? It is one of those glorious suspensions of disbelief that some in the audience would not think to question. That we can believe that a pilot with panic attacks, an emotionally distant father who loves roller coasters, a man who performs birds and a chef who cannot sleep would all talk to Lum around Fitzroy Street on the same night is, in hindsight, extraordinary. But at the time, it all seemed so ordinary. That’s Ranters.

jack charles v the crown

Jack Charles V The Crown is based on the life of one of Melbourne’s most admired, beloved and recognisable actors. Jack Charles, born in 1943, was one of the Stolen Generation and his life, no matter how idiosyncratic or personal, is inevitably representative of this most rending of experiences. Nevertheless, Charles is defiantly not one to stick to a script, as he winkingly acknowledges after roaming off his cues a few times.

Early on, Charles shows us a slideshow of his childhood, filling in the images with anecdotes and self-effacing humour. Though the breezy language and inescapably cute faces in the photos push us into the realm of This Is Your Life, the effect is perfectly undercut by a slightly off-key violin note from Nigel MacLean that keeps the tone uneasy and complicated—not everything is snowdrops and nostalgia.

Charles’ knack for pottery, which he picked up during a gaol stint, is a central motif of the piece. At the start, we see him at his wheel, throwing a vase. He tells us the Kulin Nation creation story of Bunjil and Pallian, the first men, shaped by Birrarung clay. He shares a tender and beautiful moment of falling in love with another prisoner as he teaches him to shape the clay, the reverie of their touching made all the more sweet by Charles’ memory of “his PK spearmint breath.” The pottery wheel keeps spinning and coming back to the same place, but each revolution and glide of the fingers redefines the subject little by little.

In many respects, Charles’ stage presence is this piece. His warmth, effusiveness and gentleness draw us in, his deft touch with language and song wins us over. The structure is wandering, like the man himself, and never in a hurry, but never happier than when walking and talking.

Blue Dragon, Ex Machina

Blue Dragon, Ex Machina

Blue Dragon, Ex Machina

robert lepage, the blue dragon

When Robert Lepage comes to town, chances are there will be an army of black-clad theatre technicians stuffed into his valise. His production of The Blue Dragon does not disappoint on that level, with extremely detailed and ingenious scenography and spatial transformations.

The play represents Lepage’s second bite at the cherry of China. In 1985, his company, Ex Machina, produced The Dragons’ Trilogy, which refracted three generations of Chinatowns in Canada’s major cities into a spectrum of experiences that looked at China from afar. In fact, the Trilogy was less about China than Canada. The Blue Dragon is set in China but still it is more about Canadians suffering a bout of Orientalism than about the country it is set in, which steadfastly remains the Other in an unreconstructed sense. The narrative is a progression of hackneyed situations and the piece as a whole feels like a Fabergé egg, a hollow confection.

Vertical Road, Akram Khan Company

Vertical Road, Akram Khan Company

Vertical Road, Akram Khan Company

akram khan, vertical road

Fresh from its British premiere, Akram Khan’s latest dance piece, Vertical Road, begins in an unexpectedly literal manner. Seven figures covered in chalk stand in deathly stillness in front of a scrim. Their costumes evoke both the tight winding sheaths of fabric of East Asia and the looser robes of Sufism, but in their stillness and texture they bear a clear resemblance to Emperor Qin’s faded Terracotta Army. An eighth dancer remains outside this wedge formation of warriors and discovers at the front of the stage seven tablets arranged carefully but precariously on their sides. He inspects them with curiosity and then knocks them over like dominoes, a booby trap that revivifies the army of clay behind him. Alas, Harrison Ford does not appear with a whip and a hat to safely lead our hero past the flaming gates and rivers of mercury.

Instead, Khan’s imagery grows in confidence and complexity, threading together disparate motifs and ideas into a visual narrative that is borne along by Nitin Sawhney’s throbbing sweeps of drums and strings. From Plato’s Cave to whirling dervishes, from the invisible puppet strings of fate to the devotion of impassioned lovers, the choreographic language builds and extrapolates, always reaching towards ascension.

Ascension comes at the end of Vertical Road and is, appropriately, its most startling and transformative achievement. The scrim at the back of the space is the liminal point of communication between mortal and immortal worlds. Like the plane of water in Bill Viola’s Three Women, it diffuses and obscures the eternal figures behind it. As barely visible streams of water cascade down the scrim’s surface and haze fills the space behind it, a lone dancer, reaching towards the hands beyond, breaks through in a flash of golden light that unifies for one breathtaking instant the physical and metaphysical.

2010 Melbourne International Arts Festival: Ranters, Intimacy, devisor, director Adriano Cortese, text Raimondo Cortese, co-devisors, performers Beth Buchanan, Paul Lum, Patrick Moffatt, set & costume design Anna Tregloan, lighting Niklas Pajanti, sound design David Franzke, video Keri Light, choreography Alison Halit, Malthouse, Beckett Theatre, Oct 1-23; Jack Charles V The Crown, performer Jack Charles, co-writers Jack Charles, John Romeril, director Rachael Maza Long, design Emily Barrie, lighting Danny Pettingill, music Nigel MacLean, Fairfax Studio, The Arts Centre, Oct 12-17; Ex Machina,The Blue Dragon, director, writer Robert Lepage, writer Marie Michaud, design Michel Gauthier, choreography Tai Wei Foo, Playhouse, The Arts Centre, Oct 8-12; Akram Khan Company, Vertical Road, choreographer Akram Khan, composer Nitin Sawhney, devised & performed by Eulalia Ayguade Farro, Konstantina Efthymiadou, Salah El Brogy, Ahmed Khemis, Young Jin Kim, Yen-Ching Lin, Andrej Petrovic, Paul Zivkovich, costumes Kimie Nakano, lighting Jesper Kongshaug, design Akram Khan and collaborators, Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, Melbourne, Oct 19-23

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 6

© Carl Nilsson-Polias; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Sutra

Sutra

Sutra

AFTER A PROMISING START IN 2009, THIS YEAR’S EDITION OF SPRING DANCE AT THE SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE EMPHATICALLY CONFIRMED THE FESTIVAL MEANS BUSINESS AND IS HERE TO STAY. IT HAS, IN FACT, THE POTENTIAL TO BECOME ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT AND STIMULATING DANCE FESTIVALS IN THE COUNTRY. CURATED BY THE OPERA HOUSE’S HEAD OF THEATRE AND DANCE, WENDY MARTIN, SPRING DANCE 2010 IMPRESSED WITH ITS ECLECTIC DISPLAY OF WORKS BY A WIDE RANGE OF NATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL DANCE PRACTITIONERS AND OFFERED SOMETHING FOR PRACTICALLY EVERY TASTE.

sidi larbi cherkaoui, sutra

A box-office success story since its premiere at Sadler’s Wells in London in 2008, Sutra is a collaboration between celebrated Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and 17 Buddhist monks from the original Shaolin Temple in China. The pared down set consists of 21 wooden boxes designed by Turner Prize-winning UK sculptor Antony Gormley.

At the beginning of Sutra, Cherkaoui and a boy monk sit on top of one of the boxes placed at the edge of the stage, hunched over a miniature model of the set. They reconfigure the model boxes into various patterns and forms, foreshadowing what the audience is about to witness. Soon enough, the two are sucked into the life-size world onstage where the kung fu-trained warrior monks reign supreme, engaging in a dizzying fusion of whirling combat and meditative stillness. Powerful kicks alternate with daring backflips and spectacular jumps off the man-sized boxes.

Suddenly the monks execute Tai Chi-style movement sequences with great poise and grace. The boxes are dragged, lifted and heaved into an array of configurations that are as quickly destroyed as they are constructed. The multi-functionality of the boxes allows them to transform into everything from coffins, hiding spots and shelves to bunk beds, lotus flowers and skyscrapers— ideal for the monks to hide in, spring from, balance on or topple like dominoes.

As for Cherkaoui, during the first half of this East-meets-West extravaganza, he appears to be an onlooker, a visitor in a foreign community drawn into its microcosm. It is not until later in the piece that he engages in more direct interactions with the monks, such as a breathtaking dance-off, displaying his own extraordinary flexibility that at times takes on near-contortionist dimensions. For all its action-packedness, Sutra is infused with a beautifully measured humour often stemming from the interactions between Cherkaoui and the boy who acts like a liaison between him and the monks. This is a powerfully poetic, deeply human work. It is easy to see why it has attracted more than 100,000 people to performances all over the world. (See also Douglas Leonard’s review.)

Asphalte

Asphalte

Asphalte

asphalte

So far, French choreographer and dancer Pierre Rigal has been known to Sydney audiences only through his intricately structured solo creations performed in a highly physical, almost acrobatic movement style. In Asphalte, he joins forces with five non-professional street dancers whom he selected during auditions in Paris in 2009. The youthful energy and commitment the hip-hop artists bring to the work is infectious and one of its biggest assets. They break, pop, lock and krump, like urban warriors, through a series of semi-narrative scenarios depicting modern street life.

As often is the case with hip-hop dancers, the physical feats seem to defy the laws of nature and perceived anatomical restrictions. Individual body parts are isolated, as if with a life of their own, moving in sharp angles one moment and dripping with liquidity in the next. Asphalte is set against a giant light box that glows in ever-changing colours, bright and saturated. The dancers are often silhouetted which makes them appear like comic-strip characters. As the work progresses, humanity is further contested as scenarios turn more absurd and even monstrous. Bodies get ‘blown up’ and deflated like balloons, fingers attack a dancer’s head like leeches, shoot-outs are simulated. The movement becomes increasingly machine-like, transforming the dancers into strangely deformed creatures battling urban reality.

Asphalte’s colourful pop-art aesthetic and the sophisticated lighting design make this a beautiful, positively slick production. The explorations of modern street life often border on the gimmicky, however, and the piece’s structure becomes predictable after a while, with each of the dancers executing a solo and then being joined by the group in some sort of confrontation, sometimes playful, sometimes latently violent. Asphalte is nonetheless a highly entertaining dance work, attracting audiences who might not usually attend contemporary dance performances.

Singular Sensation

Singular Sensation

Singular Sensation

singular sensation

Singular Sensation marks the welcome Australian debut of Israeli choreographer Yasmeen Godder. Together with her five dancers, Godder explores how, in a world characterized by relentless activity and overstimulation, physical experiences become more and more extreme in order to register on the increasingly numbed mental scale of sensation. Dressed like oversexed teenagers, in mini skirts and tight pants and with fake red finger nails, the dancers strut the stage, hell-bent in their search for thrills. Self-consciously, they look around to see if they are being watched. Real interactions seem to have become impossible and are doomed to fail, drowning in dysfunction. This futility is reflected in the movement language. Apart from half-heartedly executed lifts and fleeting moments of synchronized movement, there seems to be no dance left in the dancers. Instead they slap themselves, stick their tongues out, flutter their eyelids and grimace wildly. They smear their bodies with green paint and red jelly and wrap their heads in pants and their faces in clingwrap. Their insecurities end in self-obsession that prevents any sense of release. Their actions might become more random and messy, but certainly no more debauched or wild. Admittedly, this makes for rather bleak viewing. What is impressive about Singular Sensation, though, is that Godder sticks to her guns and resists trying to make the work palatable. Her conceptual rigour is matched by the physical commitment of her dancers.

Quite different from crowd pleasers like Sutra and Ashphalte, Singular Sensation is not for everyone, but its inclusion in Spring Dance was crucial. It is vital that Australian audiences are not only exposed to international hits but are given the opportunity to discover new and important dance practitioners whose work has not previously found its way to our shores. I hope Spring Dance will continue with its forward thinking programming.

Spring Dance 2010: Sutra, director, choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, visual creation, design Antony Gormley, music Szymon Brzóska, performers Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Shaolin monks, Concert Hall, Sept 16-19; Asphalte, conception, choreography, lighting Pierre Rigal, set, lighting Frédéric Stoll, Playhouse, Sept 21-26; Singular Sensation, concept, direction, choreography Yasmeen Godder, The Studio, Sept 14-19; Sydney Opera House, Aug 31-Sept 26

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 27

© Martin del Amo; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Trust, Schaubühne

Trust, Schaubühne

Trust, Schaubühne

perth festival

If you needed a reason to head west this summer, some of the offerings at the Perth Festival should float your boat. When we saw Trust at Berlin’s Schaubuhne last year, we hoped that this innovative theatre-dance work would hit the festival circuit and here it is! Trust is a socially critical and sometimes comical work in which Falk Richter’s lateral text is spoken but also inventively danced/moved by a multi-skilled team of actors and dancers co-directed by Richter with choreographer Anouk van Dijk (RT95). The program also features Out of Context: for Pina, Alain Platel’s Les Ballets C de la B tribute to Pina Bausch which our writer Jana Perkovic described as “emotionally penetrating and deliriously enjoyable” (R98). Lucy Guerin Inc performs its disturbing Human Interest Story (RT99); Steve Reich presents the Australian premiere of his acclaimed new work 2 x 5; and Bang on a Can All Stars bring rivetting works by Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon, Thurston Moore, Steve Martland and David Lang. 2011 Perth Festival, February 11- March 7; www.perthfestival.com.au

ten days on the island

True festival junkies will then move on to cooler climes for Tasmania’s Ten Days on the Island in March. We’ll have a full preview in RealTime 101, but a sample of the program might whet your appetite. Power Plant from the UK will transform the Botanical Gardens into a series of sound and light installations “where the nocturnal beauty of the gardens is the real star.” New works and commissions from local and interstate artists include Craig Walsh’s magical Digital Odyssey projections at Sullivan’s Cove. In Dance Marathon, Canadian company bluemouth inc somehow creates a “fun show” inspired by the dance endurance contests of 1920s and 30s America. Chamber Made Opera presents the first part of their Minotaur project, a contemporary chamber reconstruction of Monteverdi’s lost opera, L’Arianna. Launceston’s youth dance company, Stompin’, premieres I Love Cars, “a site-specific, multi-art mash-up exploring our enduring love affair with motor vehicles.” Tasdance’s Artery brings together four choreographers—Trisha Dunn, Alice Lee Holland, Solon Ulbrich and Adam Wheeler—and Scottish composer/ choreographer/musician/writer Billy Cowie’s Stereoscopic combines “stereoscopic filmmaking with inventive dance choreography and sound scores for an immersive 3D encounter.” In the Dance Hall series you can dance yourself silly to music “from Greece to Haiti, from Trinidad and Tobago to Zanzibar, and with the sounds of Pacific reggae.” Ten Days on the Island, March 25-April 3, www.tendaysontheisland.com

stop(the)gap

Stop(the)Gap: International Indigenous Art in Motion is a major international Indigenous moving image project developed for the 2011 BigPond Adelaide Film Festival (BAFF) in partnership with the Samstag Museum of Art. Curator Brenda L Croft has selected works that “challenge preconceptions of contemporary Indigenous expression and address themes of human rights, environmental concerns, cultural security and negotiating diversity.” She says, “Some of the most provocative and illuminating moving image work today is being created by Indigenous new media artists—yet there has been no international focus on this work until now. Despite physical distances, Indigenous communities around the globe are linked through their shared colonial histories, each bearing scars borne of dispossession, injustice, inequality and misrepresentation.” The project explores the connections between cinema and the visual arts, and will feature moving image exhibitions, film screenings, outdoor projections and discussions. Filmmaker Warwick Thornton has been commissioned through the Adelaide Film Festival Investment Fund to create a new work for the project. Other participating artists include r e a and Genevieve Grieves (Australia), Dana Claxon and Rebecca Belmore (Canada), Alan Michelson and Eric Lord (USA) Nova Paul and Lisa Reihana (Aotearoa /NZ). Stop(the)Gap, Samstag Museum of Art, Feb 24-April 21, 2011, www.unisa.edu/samstagmuseum; www.adelaidefilmfestival.org

push international festival of performing arts, vancouver

Director Norman Armour describes this year’s PuSH program as engaging with ‘cityness’. He writes, “The 125th Anniversary Series (a suite of performances and events that looks at questions of urban experience, the everyday, our history and civic identity) is our single most ambitious curatorial undertaking to date…There are a number of boundary-pushing works that invite you to venture from the theatre and out into public spaces. It’s a time to speak to the values and vision we have as a city. It’s a time to affirm how profoundly art impacts individuals, and how radically it can transform societies.” The Antwerp-based company Berlin will present a documentary installation on Canada’s smallest capital, the Inuit city of Iqaluit, and a cinematic portrait of a desolate mining town (Bonanza). Rimini Protokoll continue their 100% series and, after 100%Berlin and 100%Vienna, create an accurate demographic synecdoche of Vancouver on stage, using 100 randomly selected local participants. Boca del Lupo, Vancouver performance company, collaborate with Argentinian writer and director Mariano Pensotti on La Marea (The Tide), a dramatic work presented throughout the urban space over the course of the evening, while the incidental audience can read the characters’ inner thoughts through projected subtitles. It is hard to do justice to the riches on offer. Visit the PuSh website and see for yourself, then make your way to Vancouver. PuSh International Festival of Performing Arts, Jan 18-Feb 6, 2011, http://pushfestival.ca

womadelaide

Adelaide is the place to be in March when Botanic Park will again be the setting for WOMAdelaide, Australia’s iconic four-day celebration of music, arts and dance from around the world. This year’s potent line-up includes Angus and Julia, Afro Celt Sound System, Amadou and Mariam, Joanna Newsom, punk-reggae icon Don Letts, UK DJ Norman Jay, Nigerian singer-songwriter Asa, The Necks, Irish rockabilly singer Imelda May and the big band Juan De Marcos Afro-Cuban All Stars. As always there’s much more than music: France’s Le Phun will spend three weeks leading up to the festival “building six magical installations for their performance piece Les Gûmes (a play on the French word for vegetables), where a surprising society has taken root in a vegetable kingdom and mutated into half-human, half-plant beings.” Dance, with more exciting music, comes in the form of Breathe, a collaboration between Leigh Warren & Dancers, Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Frances Rings and didgeridoo player William Barton. Womadelaide, March 11-14 March 2011, www.womadelaide.com.au

the now now, sydney

In recent years, there’s been a marked increase in experimental music activity over summer. To a large degree this is due to The NOW Now festival, which in 2011 celebrates its 10th year and swaps the crisp air of the Blue Mountains for the gritty city over two weekends in three venues—the Red Rattler in Marrickville, Serial Space in Chippendale and a “secret” venue—People’s Republic of Australasia. As always, an abundance of artists will be ready to spontaneously make music in all manner of combinations. The Un-Australian String Quartet features Jon Rose, Hollis Taylor, James Rushford and Judith Hamman; from Zurich, Jason Kahn will perform on analogue synthesiser with Matt Earle and Adam Sussmann of Stasis Duo fame on electronics; Roil brings together Chris Abrahams, Mike Majkowski and James Waples; and then there’s the warped wonder of Sky Needle—Joel Stern, Alex Cuffe, Ross Manning and Sarah Byrne (see earbash review). Add to this more international artists also presented at Sound Out (read on). The NOW now, Red Rattler, Serial Space, The People’s Republic of Australasia, Jan 21-24, Jan 26-28, Sydney, www.theNOWnow.net

sound out, canberra

The NOW now is no longer alone in the summer time slot, since 2009 there’s MOFO (see interview with curator Brian Ritchie) and now an even newer kid on the block. Canberra’s Sound Out director Richard Johnson spruiks his festival as celebrating the “tremendous growth and maturing within the experimental and new music scene in the Canberra region.” This new event creates an attractive touring circuit in Australia over January for international artists. The NOW now and Sound Out have the joint honour of presenting Yan Jun, pioneering noisician from China; drummer Tony Buck and Berlin-based pianist Magda Mayas; Duo Vulgarités from Canada, who appear to play just about everything from batteries to trumpet; guitarist Kim Myhr from Norway; pianist Cor Fuhler from Germany; and Scandinavian trio The Thing, with Mats Gustafsson on saxes, Paal Nilssen-Love on drums and Ingebrigt Haken Flaten on double bass. Sound Out, offers four concert sessions over two days at the Street Theatre and will also feature Australian musicians Dale Gorfinkel, Laura Altman and Monica Brooks as well as artists from the healthy local scene such as Spartak, Shoeb Ahmad and Evan Dorria. Plenty of good reasons for a road trip to the national capital! Sound Out 2011, Street Theatre, Canberra, Jan 29-30, 2010, www.thestreet.org.au http://soundout2011.blogspot.com/

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 47

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

Opening Night, Toneelgroep Amsterdam

Opening Night, Toneelgroep Amsterdam

Opening Night, Toneelgroep Amsterdam

FROM A DISTANCE, IT WOULD APPEAR THAT BRETT SHEEHY’S SECOND MELBOURNE FESTIVAL WAS THE MOST CONTROVERSIAL IN YEARS—NOT FOR WHAT IT OFFERED, BUT FOR WHAT IT LACKED. CRITICISING AN ABSENCE IS ALWAYS A SHAKY STARTING POINT, BUT FOR ME THE FREQUENT KEENING (FOR A NO-HOLDS-BARRED-EPIC; FOR A CENTRAL CONVERSATION HUB; FOR A CITY-CHANGING EVENT) DREW ATTENTION AWAY FROM THE FACT THAT WHAT WAS PRESENTED WAS OFTEN EXCITING, REWARDING OR SURPRISINGLY ENGAGED WITH ITS ENVIRONMENT. THE HITS OUTWEIGHED THE MISSES, AND EVEN THEN THE TRAIN-WRECKS WERE MOSTLY HEAD-TURNERS.

toneelgroep amsterdam, opening night

Take Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Opening Night, an outrageously ambitious and strikingly realised merging of realist drama, filmic de- and re-construction and theatrical conjuring. Taking its cues from the screenplay of the 1977 Cassavetes film (RT99, p15), it presented the behind-the-scenes preparation for the premiere of a new play in which interpersonal tensions and past grievances threaten to derail proceedings. The imminent meltdown of the leading performer acted as an emotional 18-wheeler bearing down on the edifice of appearances erected to conceal these fragile relationships.

Simultaneously, a set of real time cameras and projections reproduced the live performances as a filmic spectacle beamed across the space and on downstage monitors. The result was both a hyperreal, immediate play and a fragmented panoply of artificial surfaces, each of which could not be fully separated from the other. The power of the screen image to seduce our gaze constantly asserted itself, even if that image was just the second-order rendering of the fleshy, three-dimensional bodies being flung around the stage before us. Cinema’s epistemological status as a negation—as always referring to an elsewhere, an else-when—also produced a rich confusion, compounded when the projected image seemed to lag behind the real events, or freeze. Technical hitch or cunning ploy? What does it matter?

Hiroaki Umeda, Haptic

Hiroaki Umeda, Haptic

Hiroaki Umeda, Haptic

hiroaki umeda, adapting for distortion, haptic

An astonishing technological wizardry also animates Japanese choreographer/dancer Hiroaki Umeda’s paired billing of Adapting for Distortion and Haptic. In both, light is central to any meaning generated by the work—the body subsumed by the post-human abstraction of light. Indeed, Umeda seems to epitomise Donna Haraway’s conception of the ideal cyborg as a machine made of sunshine. Identity and the individual are stripped by the excoriating divinity of luminescence, but this works to radically different effect in the two pieces.

Adapting for Distortion is a monstrously visceral encounter with the binary order of 21st century technology. Fast-shifting grids of light, expanding and contracting potentially infinite horizons destabilise any sense of depth, in a case of Cartesian perspective taken beyond the capacity of the mind to comprehend. Approaching the sublime in its most classically terrifying of definitions, it was seizure-inducing stuff that made for anything but a pleasant experience. Hard to argue with its effectiveness, however, and the work, though brief, acted as a potent reminder of the unseverable connections between our physical forms and the perceptual capacities that orient them in space and time.

Haptic presented a marked contrast in tone. Here the dancer was a liquid shadow against warm, shifting waves of coloured light; a half-visible organism skittering across the surface of a radiant lake of unfathomable depth. Where Adapting to Distortion’s alien landscape was one of cold dislocation, Haptic produced a pre-Oedipal plenitude, the return of the individual into a fullness of being where world and self no longer suffered rupture.

It seems paradoxical that within these two works Umeda still managed to carve out a distinctive style of dance. Though he may now claim to be more visual artist than choreographer, his performance still drew on techniques of classical dance and hip-hop—body rolls that defied the limits of the skeletal, foot-slides of eye-blinking dexterity.

Tomorrow, In A Year, Hotel Pro Forma

Tomorrow, In A Year, Hotel Pro Forma

Tomorrow, In A Year, Hotel Pro Forma

hotel pro forma, tomorrow, in a year

Despite this particular style, it’s not easy to determine Umeda’s contributions to Hotel Pro Forma’s electro/dance opera Tomorrow, In A Year. He is billed as “choreographic consultant” but none of his signatures are legible—instead, the elements of dance here appear so naively rendered as to make me wonder if this is deliberately the case.

Tomorrow, In A Year is one of those rare encounters where I wonder too if some elaborate prank is being pulled. It’s self-consciously obscurantist, visually drab and gestures towards complexity and exquisite chaos without actually engendering either. It takes its inspiration from the life and writings of Charles Darwin, but its collision of elements—divergent modes of dance, vocal styles, visual effects and the very forms of opera, electronica and postmodern theatre—result less in a new species of performance evolving beyond its ancestors than a lumbering Frankenstein’s monster in natty duds. There’s no natural law which states that the combination of random genes will produce a hybrid able to survive, any more than a random combination of words will result in a comprehensible sentence. And while the libretto may have drawn heavily on Darwin’s own words, phrases such as “Scissor-beak lower mandible flat elastic/it’s an ivory paper-cutter” make me focus less on the evolutionary arc of the avian than the increasing furrow of my brow.

michael clark company, come, been
& gone

If Tomorrow, In A Year falters under the weight of its own ambitions, Michael Clark Company’s come, been and gone is crushed beneath the onus of its own history. Paying tribute to several decades of work by the renowned British choreographer, its supposedly groundbreaking rebellion appears tired and shorn of context today. Set to a series of songs by artists such as David Bowie and Lou Reed, at its worst it presents an embarrassing literalism: The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin,” for instance, produces a dancer in a flesh-coloured bodysuit studded with foam needles writhing around in someone’s half-baked notion of a drug nightmare. For Bowie’s “Heroes,” the audience is even provided a large-scale projected video of the track’s video clip—it’s a hard task for rather uninspired dancers to compete with such an iconic figure, especially when the image isn’t deployed with the kind of understanding of its fascination suggested in Opening Night.

An Anthology of Optimism, Jacob Wren, Pieter De Buysser

An Anthology of Optimism, Jacob Wren, Pieter De Buysser

An Anthology of Optimism, Jacob Wren, Pieter De Buysser

wren & de buysser, an anthology of optimism

There is inspiration to be found in Jacob Wren and Pieter De Buysser’s An Anthology of Optimism, but it’s of a coy and delicate sort. The pair—both writers, one a performance artist and the other a sort of contrarian humorist and philosopher—present a lo-fi dialogue exploring a notion of “critical optimism.” It’s a somewhat Socratic exchange with a clear argument and obvious structure. Wren is established as a sceptic, suspicious of the potential for optimism to bear any efficacy in a contemporary climate as troubled as ours; De Buysser takes the case for an optimism which admits of the world’s troubles without succumbing to defeat. Eventually they find some agreement: a cautious kind of positivity that promotes small steps in the face of big problems. It’s not radical thinking, but it makes its point both succinctly and without excessive guile.

The conceit of the production is delivered in a style that often threatens to tip over into a terrible tweeness. A retro slide projector, hand-written signs and a manually operated sound system nod to the mode of conspicuously no-frills, DIY theatre, but there’s a strained casualness to the performances that seems the result of much effort not to become mannered or artificial. Perhaps that would have created a tone of seriousness, undermining the inherently didactic nature of the work; these days, self-conscious irony is a more acceptable way of putting forward very political points.

But this is exactly the sort of work that, for me, fleshes out an international festival. It’s not a grand showcase of spectacular talent—as works like come, been and gone and Tomorrow, In A Year indicate, such productions too often make for monumental disappointment. Opening Night proved the exception, but on a smaller scale this year’s festival was marked by a great number of successes that add up to something more than two weeks of art with a single defining moment. I don’t know that festivals of this sort need such a defining moment. Rather than stamping in our minds an image of one event over all others, this year made for a plurality of miniature epiphanies and quiet fades, even blurring into the surrounding non-festival productions. That’s worth our attention, at least.

2010 Melbourne International Arts Festival: Toneelgroep Amsterdam, Opening Night, after John Cassavetes’s Opening Night, director Ivo van Hove, design, lighting Jan Versweyveld, video design Marc Meulemans, Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, Oct 20-23; Adapting for Distortion, Haptic, choreographer, dancer Hiroaki Umeda, sound S20, images S20, Bertrand Baudry, lighting S20, Hervé Villechenoux, Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, Oct 14-17; Hotel Pro Forma, Tomorrow, In A Year, directors Ralf Richardt Strobech, Kirsten Dehlholm, music The Knife, design Ralf Richardt Strobech, State Theatre, Arts Centre, Oct 20-23; Michael Clark Company, come, been and gone, choreographer Michael Clark, lighting design by Charles Atlas, costumes Stevie Stewart, State Theatre, the Arts Centre, Oct 8-10; Pieter De Buysser and Jacob Wren/CAMPO, An Anthology of Optimism, Fairfax Theatre, the Arts Centre, Oct 20-23

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 8

© John Bailey; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Paul White, In Glass

Paul White, In Glass

Paul White, In Glass

IN ITS SECOND YEAR, THE SPRING DANCE PROGRAM AT THE SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE HAS BEEN A FEAST FOLLOWING THE CITY’S 2010 CONTEMPORARY DANCE FAMINE. AN ALMOST OVERWHELMING FOUR-WEEK PROGRAM PRESENTED DANCE FILM, LIVE PERFORMANCES AND AN ONLINE CHOREOGRAPHIC COMPETITION. TWO OF THE AUSTRALIAN PREMIERES WERE BY ESTABLISHED DANCE ARTISTS NARELLE BENJAMIN AND GIDEON OBARZANEK.

in glass

Narelle Benjamin’s creamily athletic choreography folds, flicks, rolls, curves and dips in an admixture of textured rhythms and flowing ‘through-ness.’ The body of the choreographer is deeply inscribed everywhere on the bodies of its two magnificent dancers, Kristina Chan and Paul White—in the deep, deep flexion of the joints, in the rolling through and across positions, in the display of extreme flexibility and balanced strength born of yogic alignment, in the often triangulated and turned out legs and in the choreographic obsession with folding and opening. While Chan and White dance with their avatars created by five onstage mirrors, the dominant avatar is the absent/present choreographer whose powerful embodiment determines and inhabits In Glass.

Chan and White’s virtuosity is refined and knowing. In certain moments their temporal attunement is so delicate and deep it is delicious. Time and time again the world is made a beautiful place by this pre-lingual togethering. But time is not the only thing they mutualise. Spatially they see each other without having to see. He picks her up, right where he should, right at her centre, and the lift is velvety smooth, full of arc and curve, rich in its articulation of unspoken gravities and kinetic uplift.

But why does she not lift him? Chan is muscular and strong, trained in the vagaries of weight and momentum. But in a baffling defiance of this muscularity Chan plays the little girl lost in a baby doll dress. In Glass becomes surprisingly gendered, bleeding into a traditionalist fantasy that irritates its technological thrusts.

Sam James’ video art plays on the mirrors that become cinematic screens. Morphing from reflective surface to filmic depth, these mirror-screens create rippling waves of space and action, multidimensional zones that morph as in a dream. Prior to performance, the mirrors reflect the audience, casting them within the stage space and then turning them upon themselves. As the dancers dance we see their backs, taking us behind, beyond a performing surface, only to have these visions thrown back at us, encircling and involuting the performative image. Then James steps in and tunnels us into deep, deep space where we chase avatars and where images shrink into oblivion.

As mirrors, the screens produce the other selves: reflections, invisibilities, ghosts and fleeting images only just caught. A bearded White stands before the mirror/screen as three clean-shaven Whites stare back. Dance with them, I urge. Dance with these other selves. But Benjamin has established a performative rhythm that is quick and once an image flashes it dies. White turns and walks away. There is to be no duet with self.

In Glass constantly turned away from the choreographic potential of reflection, avatar and ghost. Images, situations and interactions were only fleetingly established before they were abandoned. Always moving on, this performance laboured under a plethora of unfulfilled ideas that became flaccid in their fleetingness. Gorgeous aesthetic images of a multi-armed Shiva-esque Chan suggested the choreography might dip its toe into the pool of possibility that is reflection, but then it just went away again and I was left wondering what Shiva had to do with Eve or Narcissus.

 

Gideon Obarzanek, Faker

Gideon Obarzanek, Faker

Gideon Obarzanek, Faker

faker

Gideon Obarzanek is so well known in Australia as the artistic director and choreographer for Chunky Move that dancing a solo now, after so many years of telling performers what to do, makes him seem fascinatingly vulnerable. Obarzanek says that he has no great desire to perform and gets no great joy from doing it; he merely has an interesting story to tell and only he can tell it. Bold. Clean. Simple.

In the black box of the Sydney Opera House Studio, at the very back and centre of the stage sits a desk with an open laptop. Obarzanek enters in casual black pants and a vivid green T-shirt. Bold. Clean. Simple, angular and symmetrical.

Faker is a performance carved up into clear and clean episodic sections, alternating dance and text evenly. Each time he dances Obarzanek accumulates a new technological toy: iPod, timer, Bose dock, in a property accumulation that is quietly masculine. Clear. Clean. Even.

This guy knows how to put on a show. In this clear, clean crafting lies his heritage and history: years of arranging, designing, forging and forming dance theatre. Even the relaxed demeanour, the understated set, the casual costuming speak of this confident crafting born of time spent and attention paid.

This tempered yet testosteronic confidence eventually leads Obarzanek to strip down to the contemporary dance ‘costume’ of undies—the harshly bright lighting regime revealing the truth of his age. Disconcertingly the house lights remain bright too: making Faker a shared space in which we are directly addressed—a still and obedient body of bodies. The performance accrues a density of spoken word as Obarzanek reads—from the laptop that sits as a barrier between us—a real e-mail from an apparently real protégé. The language of the message is simple, clear, heartfelt, if sometimes seeming slightly too crafted to be real. Obarzanek’s voice is confident and steady, clear and clean.

As he reads aloud the dancer’s impression of him, the essential narcissism of the solo is reaffirmed and doubled in a presence both here and there, real and virtual, present and historical, subject and object. In claiming the protégé’s voice Obarzanek generates a self-deprecating egoism that colonises her accusatory story.

Thus thickened, this solo becomes a duet, as Obarzanek channels the protégé, performing her absence. A lonely form, the solo is pared back and sweetly sad, yet Faker’s potential for poignancy and vulnerability is tamed by the angular masculinity and the virtual partnering.

The first two choreographic sections of Faker could be called non-dance: the loungeroom solo we have all danced, singing in the strangled language of words he doesn’t quite know, casting his age by dancing to a Prince song of the late ’80s, making us laugh. Atop softened knees it is a dance of hands and arms. The second anti-dance seems to push the point as he paces himself with his second toy: a digital timer. He flaps and wiggles into silliness.

He sits. Ghostly comments from the young woman in the machine keep coming in thick and delicious detail, even to accusations of “macho posturing” and “superficiality.”

Obarzanek takes off his shoes and I can almost hear the audience sigh, “here we go, here it is, he is going to really dance now.” But not quite. As he sheds his clothes, the traces of silliness fade. This dancer’s dance is made religious with chanting soundtrack and cathedral lighting that both parody and substantiate the pointed feet of a real dancer. In a repetitious motif of sweeps, dives, bridges, lunges and folds Obarzanek does what he had to do. He dances the dance, the dance that proves he can still dance. Applause. He heads to the dressing room: solo at last.

For more on Spring Dance, see Martin del Amo’s review of international works in the program, and RT99 for Keith Gallasch’s report on Ngurru-Milmarramiriw—Wrong Skin. For Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Sutra also see Douglas Leonard’s report from the Brisbane International Arts Festival.

Spring Dance: In Glass, choreographer Narelle Benjamin, composer Huey Benjamin,visual design Samuel James, costume design Tess Schofield, lighting Karen Norris, The Studio, Sept 7-12; Faker, concept, choreography, performance Gideon Obarzanek, lighting Gideon Obarzanek, Chris Mercer, creative consultants Aimee Smith, Lucy Guerin, Antony Hamilton, Tom Wright, The Studio, Sydney Opera House, Sept 21-26

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 28

Stifters Ding

Stifters Ding

Stifters Ding

WHAT IS A ROSE BEFORE IT HAS A NAME? WHAT IF OUR ABILITY TO INTERPRET AND INTERVENE, OUR AGENCY TO DECIDE WHAT THINGS ARE, RECEDED AND WE COULD SEE THE WORLD WITHOUT ADJECTIVES, UNMEDIATED BY INTENTION? TO WHAT EXTENT ARE WE MADE IN TURN BY THE WORLD WE THUS CREATE? AND WHAT IS THE AGENCY OF THINGS? BETWEEN CARNIVAL OF MYSTERIES, HOTEL PRO FORMA, HEINER GOEBBELS’ STIFTERS DINGE, DAVID CHESWORTH’S RICHTER/MEINHOF-OPERA, SOME VAST GROUND ON THE TOPICS OF SYMBOLISATION AND REPRESENTATION WAS COVERED. IT SOUNDS PREPOSTEROUS; BUT THIS IS HOW.

richter/meinhof-opera

David Chesworth’s Richter/Meinhof-Opera was a highly anticipated take on the Red Army Faction’s Ulrike Meinhof. Announced as a 45-minute, pocket performance artwork (opera it wasn’t), it was an even shorter, quieter beast than expected. Tackling a potentially inexhaustible subject with an absolute minimalism of input and effect, it treads that usual fine line between the open-ended and the non-committal. It barely skims the complex story of Meinhof, respected journalist who joined a terrorist organisation, and whose simultaneous canonisation as left-wing martyr and demonization as Communist murderer still divides Germany. The only trace of the other members of the RAF is a record player, playing an Eric Clapton track, exactly as it did when Baader committed suicide in his prison cell. This is a rare instance in which the music goes beyond atmospheric soundscape; the other is a string duet, which mellifluously contrasts with the rest of the work, enhancing its thinness somehow. A few of Meinhof’s best-known quotations are projected onto ACCA’s shard-like walls, while centre-stage stands Gerhard Richter (Hugo Race), who famously painted RAF members’ death portraits in 1988, and was accused of mythologising terrorism.

The intended core of this work is the enormous disjuncture between direct action, advocated by Meinhof (often paraphrasing Brecht), and the indirectness and detachment of representational art, which often gives life to such ideas. The inability of our own cynical, ideologically unconvinced contemporary era to present the full spectrum of Meinhof’s time is another big theme. However, to say that Richter/Meinhof-Opera ‘explores’ them would be to give it excessive credit. Between Richter’s moody, detached canvases, the monochrome photos of the stylish Faction (which overwhelmingly comprised young women) and the occasional discursive duet (the libretto is a slim pastiche of quotations), the myth of RAF is presented as a matter of aestheticising or not; and the issue of direct action as a matter of professional ethics (to identify or not with one’s subject matter). Cold War politics lie forgotten, and ideas are not so much revealed as hinted at.

Even Richter, whose engagement with RAF is the focal interest of the opera, remains shorthand for the generic Artist. Evading all the big questions on this big topic, Richter/Meinhof-Opera feels and looks as if in development, like a sketch for a bigger work.

stifters dinge

Those who work with things (sculptors, architects, furniture makers) are often perplexed by the readiness with which more idealist disciplines (theatre, poetry) turn this material into signs and ideas. The result is frequently naive mystification, or embellishing fetishism: we have all seen signed urinals, soup cans, as well as their less rounded children—from derelict buildings employed as metaphors to artsy tapestries. What makes Heiner Goebbels’ Stifters Dinge so remarkable is that it does none of this, and has its audience enraptured. Its form is sui generis: a peopleless performance, or perhaps just a giant moving contraption. And yet, its workings are magical, for idealists and materialists alike.

Stifters Dinge’s dramaturgy is a sequence of apparently unrelated mechanical events: light changes, mechanical actions, sound clips and video projections. These are organised around a host of motifs: principally, the writings of Adalbert Stifter, a 19th century Austrian novelist whose prose is notoriously thickly furnished, upholstered, landscaped. (Literary lore has it that modernisation was already making advances into the order of things, and that 19th century naturalism was a kind of urgent stock taking.) Other motifs are the Renaissance dicovery of geometric perspective (chiefly Paolo Uccello’s paintings), utilitarian traditional music (Greek, Papuan, Colombian), voice recordings of Malcolm X. With technical perfection, the sequence of mechanical events coalesces into a world, all whilst remaining first and foremost mobile matter, without metaphors or superimposed meaning. The work builds into a deeply satisfying and meaningful totality by making us aware precisely of the bottomless materiality of its devices. When dry ice bubbles up in the three shallow water pools, seeing the trick does not stop the entire audience from holding their breath in awe. Stifters Dinge purges the stage of illusion and interpretation, but the ‘things’ that remain are neither threatening nor banal. Rather, they assume almost sacral fullness.

carnival of mysteries

Carnival of Mysteries, conversely, is an image of a carnival world. It has it all: tents, noise, nudity, candy floss, its own (inflated) currency and many short acts of varying skill and engagement. It is as entertaining and uneven as any carnival. It is also no more dramaturgically cohesive, nor exploratory: neither does it try to bring a superior level of artistry to the content, nor interrogate the form (in the vein of One-on-One Festival; RT99, p10). With many times more mini-shows than can be experienced in the allotted two hours, it is a somewhat frenzied experience, lacking the relaxed atmosphere of a fair. But the intensity does not translate into superb artistry, at least not in the fraction of the shows I witnessed. Should we be deconstructing it critically, suspending critical judgement, or witnessing it referentially? If Carnival is the answer, what is the artistic question? Is it a lowbrow event for a highbrow audience, with highbrow performers? Is it a replacement for Spiegeltent, which used to be the place at MIAF for circus, burlesque and other kinds of friendly lowbrow? A ‘carnival but of another kind,’ it is both too close, and once removed.

Tomorrow, In A Year, Hotel Pro Forma

Tomorrow, In A Year, Hotel Pro Forma

Tomorrow, In A Year, Hotel Pro Forma

tomorrow, in a year

Hotel Pro Forma’s Tomorrow, In a Year, an ‘electro opera’ about the life and work of Charles Darwin, was the most controversial show of this year’s MIAF (its response coming close to the outrage caused by Liza Lim’s The Navigator in 2008 (RT87, p8); opera is clearly fraught cultural ground in Melbourne). It is a conceptual work, with no plot to retell. It explores the thematic links between four moments in Darwin’s life—including the death of his daughter (potentially linked to his marriage to a first cousin)—and the implications of his theory . The endless mutability of the natural world, whose laws form us despite our pretended detachment, and whose laws we can never break, is the terrible heart of this work. It opens with potentially bewildering, undifferentiated stage sludge, an image of the original primordial soup of life; it ends as accelerating hydroponic chaos, or perhaps complex order?

The stage imagery is poor: only two planes of horizontal movement, no interaction between the performers, green laser beams and much dry ice. Using botanical drawings and video footage of water, Hiroaki Umeda’s algae-like choreography and the occasional verse about geological time and entombed carcasses, it explores a complete intangible: the fact that the material world is bigger than a human being, that we do not become through it, but are crushed by it.

But unlike Chesworth’s non-committal opera, it is fully exploratory. A note of the Romantic sublime runs through the work, unnoticed by those who bemoan its coldness. It unearths a potential Western counterpoint to the Japanese concept of ‘mono no aware’: the awareness of the dyingness of things, of the essential inability of matter to last. Just as cherry blossoms are less pretty than tragically transient, so is Tomorrow, In a Year not so much beautiful to watch as it is a despairing attempt to grasp cosmic complexity.

In the absence of meaningful stage action, enjoyment of this opera is strongly predicated on appreciating the music, by the Swedish electronic duo The Knife, which forms its narrative, emotional and intellectual core. It is a complex composition of natural and electronic noises, bel canto, house beats, borrowings from Purcell, early polyphony. And yet this collage of pop and found remains staunchly anti-metaphorical, a postmodernist pile of stuff asking to be understood literally: when Kristina Wahlin sings that “epochs collected here,” she is relating a geological fact, not a poetic truth.

While the work has been hailed as showing the future of the operatic form, it seems to succeed largely in musical terms. Visually, it attempts an abstract variation on a nature documentary, with results too reminiscent of late 1990s raves to be genuinely eligible for the label ‘innovation.’ Knowing that cyborgs, virtual reality and Dolly the Sheep were all the rage circa 1998 provides some dramaturgical solace, but does not compensate for Tomorrow, In A Year falling short of its promise.

2010 Melbourne International Arts Festival: Richter/Meinhof-Opera, direction, music, sound design David Chesworth, text David Chesworth (after Tony MacGregor), performers Kate Kendall, Hugo Race, lighting Travis Hodgson; ACCA, Oct 14-16; Stifters Dinge, concept, music, direction Heiner Goebbels; Malthouse, Oct 8-11; Carnival of Mysteries, creators, directors Moira Finucane, Jackie Smith, production design The Sisters Hayes; fortyfivedownstairs, Oct 6-30; Hotel Pro Forma, Tomorrow, In A Day, directors Kirsten Dehlholm, Ralf Richardt Strobech, music The Knife; Arts Centre, Melbourne, Oct 20-23

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 10

© Jana Perkovic; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Temporary Distortion, Americana Kamikaze

Temporary Distortion, Americana Kamikaze

Temporary Distortion, Americana Kamikaze

THE DISCRETE CHARM OF ANDREW ROSS, DIRECTOR OF THE BRISBANE POWERHOUSE, LIES IN HIS WARM DEMEANOUR COUPLED WITH AN INNATE SENSE OF PUNCTILIO; HE IS NOT GIVEN TO HYPERBOLE. NEVERTHELESS, HIS BLUE EYES TAKE ON A FIERCE QUALITY WHEN HE ENUNCIATES UNFASHIONABLE IDEAS LIKE “PASSION,” “INSPIRATION,” “COURAGE” AND “TRUE GRIT” AS HIS CRITERIA FOR CHOOSING WORKS FOR THE EXPANDED WORLD THEATRE FESTIVAL (WTF) AT THE BRISBANE POWERHOUSE IN 2011—ITS CHEEKY BYLINE IS: “WTF ARE YOU DOING IN FEBRUARY?”

These are all works that, in Ross’s view, were not formulated to subscribe to market-driven values, but spoke in the first place to the concerns of their audiences in different contexts, works that if they are ‘real’ or ‘any good,’ speak to an audience anywhere. Ross resists the notion that such works necessarily reflect contemporary performance practice, believing this terminology to be misleading and exclusory, preferring the more pluralistic term “current practices” to apply to multiple works that have been independently produced and have, so to speak, their own faces, “investing in different priorities to commercial theatre.”

Ross built his reputation in Perth as a promulgator, devisor and director of new works. These included Jack Davis’ The Dreamers followed by No Sugar and Jimmy Chi’s Bran Nue Dae. He went on to found Black Swan Theatre Company which gained a formidable reputation nationally and internationally for new work, and launched the careers of many Indigenous performers such as Ernie Dingo and Leah Purcell and writers Jack Davis, Jimmy Chi and Sally Morgan. Ross specifically attributes his work with Indigenous theatre as helping to sharpen his eye for performances that interact with an audience hungry, desperate for the experience, just as he had been as a young man at the Pram Factory in Melbourne. It also alerted him, as did his travels in India and Indonesia, to the roots of theatre emanating from the ritual, even religious nature of a festival.

Ross’s concern for socially transformative experiences in the theatre causes him likewise to reinvent the ritual of theatre that goes well beyond the physical act of attending a performance by creating an exciting environment that “destabilises the formalised presentation of culture, creating a space to hang out…stimulating conversation, opinion, engagement, connection and personal interaction between artists and audiences” (Press Release). WTF has the boldly stated aim of reviving within three years the “ritual of gathering for live performance for collective contemplation and conversation about life…a distinctly social act.”

Ross points out that Brisbane has the lowest national theatre attendance per capita. By changing the way theatre and performance is delivered, WTF challenges prevailing perceptions of live performance. It aspires, in Ross’s words, “to bring audiences, local artists and leading national and international artists to Brisbane to form a critical mass for performance culture.” WTF’s accessibility has been assured in a commitment to affordability with the provision of cheap food stalls and a low cost ticketing strategy and initiatives to subsidise industry workers from interstate.

The pilot scheme earlier this year in the first WTF genuinely lived up to expectations. Audiences revelled in it, and it completely won me. The marvel was that the most interesting work came from Queensland, and was commissioned by the Brisbane Powerhouse: Brian Lucas’s amazing one-man show, Performance Anxiety (RT96, p30). It more than stood on its own alongside forceful products from overseas. In 2011 the solo work similarly being premiered under the auspices of WTF by Melbourne-based Real TV is the gritty, poeticised drama, Random, written by UK playwright Debbie Tucker Green and performed by Zahra Newman who both share a Jamaican heritage. Its theme—the death of a young black man and its effects on family—is, sadly, all too relevant in Australia. Otherwise the program divides even-handedly between mainstage productions and Scratchworks, new Australian works in development.

The international section of the program has been scheduled mainly from Europe and America (in subsequent years works will be chosen from the demographics Africa/Asia and Eastern Europe/South America). From the UK comes Super Night Shot by Gob Squad (see p4). Filming commences one hour before the audience arrives with four video cameras wielded by four performers who have set out on a semi-scripted, semi-improvised scenario of adventures and encounters in the vicinity of the Powerhouse. The performers return, meet their audience and the tapes are played back unedited on a four-way split screen, imploding the parameters of live performance. Kassys from the Netherlands brings Good Cop Bad Cop to the program using this company’s signature juxtaposition of film and theatre to build upon texts and editing techniques from reality television. I saw their production of Kommer (Sadness) at the Powerhouse in 2008, and regard it (along with Performance Anxiety) as one of the most memorable shows of the decade. It’s difficult to describe how their quirky brand of physical comedy conveys worlds of feeling and absolutely nails the absurdity of everyday lives. Also bridging the gap between cinema, performance and visual art, from the USA comes Americana Kamikaze in an Australian exclusive, an uptake on Japanese ghost stories by Temporary Distortion (New York/Japan). This promises to be the most visually rich, trance-inducing and disturbing contribution to WTF where actors perform minimally in boxes in front of a large screen to add another layer (in a dual sense) of projection. As Matthew Clayfield wrote from New York, “While some of the horror elements of the production were indeed quite frightening, it was as much [a] Möbius strip-like quality, the sense of having the formal and generic rugs pulled out from under you, that made the production most unsettling” (RT95).

The Waiting Room, Born in a Taxi

The Waiting Room, Born in a Taxi

The Waiting Room, Born in a Taxi

From New Zealand, Hackman’s Apollo 13: Mission Control takes over half the Powerhouse Theatre in yet another extension of the theatre experience as we join flight director Gene Kranz and become responsible for helping guide the famous space shuttle home. It’s been lauded by critics and loved by audiences for its innovation and imaginative design. Well-received at both Edinburgh and Dublin Festivals, Diciembre is an intense, highly charged and passionate piece from Chile’s Teatro en el Blanco in which personal and autobiographical events impinge on the drama, including experiences of racism, protectionism and patriotism. Sydney-based performance-maker, writer, teacher and curator Rosie Dennis was last seen at the Powerhouse with her production Fraudulent Behaviour earlier this year. Her current work, Downtown, an exploration of belonging and connection, will be created day by day in Brisbane across the festival for a final day/night showing featuring Brisbane’s Gay and Lesbian Choir. Finally there is the mainstage appearance of the winner of the Melbourne Fringe Festival Brisbane Powerhouse 2010 Performance Award, The Waiting Room by Melbourne’s Born in a Taxi & The Public Floor Project. This highly physical, non-verbal work involves a live, real-time sound score which makes each performance an unrepeatable event.

There are seven brand new Australian shows in the making in the 2011 Scratch Series. WTF finds spaces for artists to take wild flights in front of an audience, and an informal atmosphere in which to discuss and absorb feedback from the audience. Personally, I find this arena for nascent works fascinating, often discovering that the process of polishing loses much as the rough beast is tamed. Gorgeous national and international performers like Christine Johnston and Lisa O’Neill are on hand, creating musical/performance vignettes with Peter Nelson in order to develop their RRAMP band sound and aesthetic; well known Polytoxic scrambles a new, high flying work; Daniel Santangeli’s Room 328 will drive you to drink (no, I loved their commitment and dark carnivalesque in its first incarnation, and look forward to seeing it again; see review); Black Queen Black King by Steven Oliver explores the lives of four Indigenous gay men culminating in a celebration of strength, pride, sexual and cultural identity; and Elephant Gun by The Escapists looks like being an intriguing site-specific work for a small audience.

These six specifically Queensland works are complemented by the Drawing Project (Open Studio), a multi-arts project by Fleur Elise Noble from Adelaide and featuring Erica Field as the performer. There is also a Masterclass and Forum Series running throughout the festival. The keynote speaker is Jude Kelly (Southbank, UK), her talk centres on community engagement with creative spaces and how cities are identifiable in the art they’re producing. This series is open to tertiary students, local artists and industry. What to do in February? Come to WTF!

World Theatre Festival 2011; Brisbane Powerhouse, Feb 9-20, 2011; brisbanepowerhouse.org

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 29

© Douglas Leonard; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Chiharu Shiota, Biel Klavier

Chiharu Shiota, Biel Klavier

Chiharu Shiota, Biel Klavier

WHEN BRIAN RITCHIE IS NOT CURATING THE MONA FOMA FESTIVAL OR TOURING WITH ONE OF HIS BANDS, HE IS RUNNING A TEA SHOP WITH HIS WIFE IN HOBART. DISCUSSING THE MENU HE SAYS “THERE’S THIS DISH CALLED NATTO. IF YOU TELL A JAPANESE PERSON ‘I LIKE NATTO,’ THEY SAY ‘NO, WESTERNERS CAN’T EAT THAT, IT’S ONLY FOR JAPANESE.’

“We put that on the menu and just call it soybeans and a lot of vegetarians and other people order it, unsuspecting. They say ‘This is wonderful, I love this,’ because nobody has told them that they’re supposed to be afraid of it.” It seems Ritchie’s culinary strategies perfectly reflect his curatorial approach to MOFO—one of the most interesting Australian festivals to emerge for quite some time.

The Museum of Old and New Art Festival of Music and Art (MONA FOMA, or MOFO for short) landed in 2009, as Ritchie puts it, “like a meteor smacking into Tasmania.” In 2008 Salamanca Arts Centre approached the then studio resident Ritchie (the former bass player of Violent Femmes had recently relocated to Hobart) to curate a music festival. Initially Ritchie said no, but “then of course my ego got in the way and I thought, ‘well, if I had a festival what would it be like?’ and I started to fantasise. I drew up a proposal for something that looks remarkably similar to MONA FOMA, and we went to David Walsh looking for sponsorship money.” Walsh, owner of Moorilla, one of Tasmania’s oldest wineries, has a history of arts philanthropy, including an ongoing relationship with BalletLab (see interview with Phillip Adams) and has been building the Museum of Old and New Art to house his extensive art collection. Along with marketing manager Lee Carmichael, Walsh decided that rather than sponsor the event, he’d like to partner it. With this backing, the Tasmanian State Government also came on board and by January 2009—a remarkably short turn-around time—the first MONA FOMA was thrilling Hobart’s locals and visitors.

an experimental flavour

While billed as a festival of music and art, music is the primary focus, with the performance and visual art elements of the program exhibiting a strong reliance on and collaborative approach to sound. However, unlike the majority of music festivals in Australia, MOFO is decidedly genreless—alternative rock/pop sits happily beside jazz, classical, world music, experimental electronic, improv and sound art. The broadest sweep indicates that there is an emphasis on instrumental rather than vocally driven music but the programming really takes its flavour from Ritchie’s appreciation of and search for the experimental across this broad range of styles. This allows for the mingling of international headline artists like Nick Cave, John Cale and Philip Glass with Australia’s most interesting, emerging and established experimentalists.

Ritchie points to a challenge: “Music is the comfort food of the arts…[It’s] the artform where people are trying to re-live something. That’s the reason 50,000 people will go to something like U2. It’s comforting for them.” Therefore, “one of the things we pride ourselves on,” says Ritchie, “is packaging the content of the festival in a really engaging fashion—to get people to listen to music that they’re not familiar with.

“Mostly we present unknown artists, or in some cases known artists, doing new things—[allowing] them to explore various facets of their creativity. For example last year we had John Cale. Everybody knows that John Cale is from The Velvet Underground, but [for MOFO] he played rock music, he played some classical music, he did some solo improvised piano, he did an art installation. You’re seeing a lot of different sides of John Cale that you don’t normally see.”

The MOFO team seem quite skilled at creating a sense of openness that invites audiences to try new things, from the clever juxtapositions within programming to the laidback, unpretentious marketing copy. Ritchie says, “A lot of times I think people are kind of defensive about what they’re putting out there in front of the public. ‘You might not like this,’ or ‘this is going to challenge you.’ How do you know? It’s presumptuous to assume that people are going to be challenged by something. Maybe people are going to say, ‘Wow, this is what I’ve been waiting for my whole life. Why haven’t I heard this before?’ In fact people have told me that.”

Bae Il-dong

Bae Il-dong

Bae Il-dong

the menu

The 2011 program is still taking final shape, but Ritchie is able to share several highlights. One of the high profile artists this year, as mentioned, is Philip Glass. Nick Cave will be returning to MOFO with his compatriots Warren Ellis, Martyn P Casey and Jim Sclavunos, as the Grinderman, to present their swampy, epic tales. Also from the more popular, yet gritty end of the spectrum will be the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.

Melbourne’s Speak Percussion celebrate their 10th birthday with a massive percussion orchestra installed around the Princes Wharf venue presenting an all-percussion program including Edgar Varese’s Ionisation, along with a world premiere of a work composed by Anthony Pateras (who will also appear in MOFO with the Pateras/Baxter/Brown trio).

Ritchie is particularly excited about Chiri, a collaboration between renowned Australian jazz musicians Simon Baker (drums) and Scott Tinkler (trumpet) and traditional Korean singer Bae Il-dong, whose technique was acquired by singing into a waterfall 18 hours a day for seven years. Ritchie, a shakuhachi player himself, is no stranger to the difficulty of such cross-cultural musical mixes and considers this a particularly exciting fusion of world music and jazz.

In quite a different exploratory vein, Australia’s Jon Rose will return after last year’s cycling concert (RT90, p48) with another interactive experience—a giant ball that responds to audience play—as well as performing in virtuoso violinist mode. Other Australian artists include the Necks, the much beloved improv trio of Tony Buck, Lloyd Swanton and Chris Abrahams; Philip Samartzis, who will present his latest installation based on field recordings from Antarctica; and the audiovisual duo Botborg, who will induce hallucinations with their frenzy of sculptured static. Local Tasmanian electro-synth group Scientists of Modern Music will also play their home town as will SS2Q, an up and coming classical chamber ensemble.

While music is the focus, the gallery-based installations have been a highlight of previous festivals. Co-curated by Nicole Durling from MONA, this year’s program offers a range of impressive works including Australian Indigenous artist Brook Andrew’s Op-Art jumping castle (seen at the 2010 Biennale of Sydney) and Berlin-based Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota’s suspended, burnt-out piano inviting silent contemplation. Nor is the body forgotten with the inclusion of Philip Adams’ BalletLab presenting a trilogy of works: Above, Miracle and Amplification (see the interview with Adams, p23).

Anthony Pateras

Anthony Pateras

Anthony Pateras

a bonus course

After a week of MOFO activities in the heart of Hobart, the action will then move to the Moorilla Estate for the long awaited opening of the Museum of Old and New Art—a 6,000 square metre “secular temple” built to display David Walsh’s extensive collection of antiquities and contemporary marvels, exploring sex and death and everything in between. There’ll be more performances with concerts by the UK band Wire and Health from the US, a pyrotechnical spectacle by Groupe F from France, a “live car-crash sculpture” by Swiss artist Roman Signer, plus the provocations of Singapore-based Serbian performance artist Ana Prvacki.

a different kind of cooking

One of the most important aspects of MOFO is that the majority of performances (bar some of the headliners) are completely free. But Ritchie maintains, “You still have to engage [the audience], and draw them in, because people’s time is valuable.” Furthermore, the fact that MOFO is largely funded by private money perhaps frees it from some bureaucratic imperatives. Ritchie says, “I think there’s kind of an orthodoxy in the arts here—even the experimental arts—a way of doing things, and ticking boxes that we don’t really have to do…People are looking at us thinking, they’re not playing by the rules.”

What Ritchie wants to do in future festivals is offer more project-based creations like last year’s 48 Fugues for Frank, a collaboration with Michael Kieran Harvey and four visual artists [RT96, p40] celebrating the music of Frank Zappa. He says, “This year we have something like that with Tormented Gong by the Hong Kong New Music Ensemble and visual artist Samson Young. Next year we’ll have an opera we’ve commissioned. That’s the direction I’d like to go in rather than having a bunch of people doing their usual gigs.”

Ritchie is inspired to create these projects because he is deeply impressed by some of the great artists he’s found in Australia, like Michael Kieran Harvey, Eugene Ughetti, Robin Fox and Anthony Pateras. “It’s really fun to be able to get them to do what they want to do. A lot of the times artists say ‘What do you want from me, what do you want me to do?’ I say to them, ‘Do what you want to do.’ Sometimes they say ‘I’d like to have a triple orchestra’ [laughs]—but if it’s something that’s doable I like to just let them run with their ideas. When you give these artists a free hand then they usually come up with something dazzling.”

MONA FOMA, Hobart, Jan 14-20, MONA opening, Jan 21-23; www.mofo.net.au

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 11

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

We Are No Longer Strangers

We Are No Longer Strangers

I WENT TO NEW YORK IN OCTOBER TO TALK TO ARTISTS AND ARTS WORKERS ABOUT SUSTAINABLE PRACTICE, SPECIFICALLY CONTEMPORARY PERFORMANCE AND DANCE. I GOT A NUMBER OF GUFFAWS AND SOME EYE ROLLING, BUT ONCE THE CYNICISM SUBSIDED, IMPASSIONED CONVERSATION SOON FOLLOWED.

Like all arts stories, it started with government funding cuts. In April this year, the Governor of New York announced an almost 40% reduction in arts funding for the state. After much public and political resistance, the budget was passed with ‘only’ a 15% reduction on 2009-10 levels.

As funding diminishes, the number of artists and arts organisations applying for support is only increasing. From 2002 to 2006, the number of unsuccessful applications to the New York State Council on the Arts grew by a staggering 210%. New York-based arts organisations offering residencies, small commissions and mini-grants are reporting similar increases.

Many of the larger organisations are feeling the squeeze. Dance Theater Workshop (DTW), Dance New Amsterdam (DNA) and 3LD Art & Technology Centre were all burdened with major capital campaigns prior to the crash, so they had little room to move. In April this year, The New York Times reported that DTW’s mortgage was about $2.9m and they were slated to merge with Bill T Jones Company, a move many speculate is financially driven. In July, DNA rallied City Hall in a plea to keep their relatively new downtown space, which they moved into after an outpouring of support after 9/11. They are still in negotiations with their landlord and the city.

The city and state funding cuts are exacerbated by a broader national context. Philanthropic organisations such as The Greenwall Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York and The New York Times Foundation have stopped their support of the arts since the financial crisis. Others have significantly scaled back their arts programs, including some of the larger ones such as the Rockefeller Foundation and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Many have moved away from supporting general operating costs and will only support capacity building initiatives, national projects or re-granting through service organisations.

For organisations such as PS122, support from foundations represents around 30% of their income. Morgan von Prelle Pecelli, PS122’s Director of Development, believes a new economic model is needed. “The situation with foundations is not going to get better. Arts institutions like us need to shift to a more independent business model, with more diverse and robust contributed-, partner- and earned-income streams that stem directly from their missions and programming activities.”

Despite the Rockefeller Foundation’s diminishing arts dollar, it launched the NYC Cultural Innovation Fund in 2007. Two projects were supported that directly addressed the issue of sustainability for performing artists.

One project was Economic Revitalisation for Performing Artists (ERPA), an ambitious entrepreneurial lab run by The Field, a strategic consultancy for artists (established in 1985 by our own Wendy Lasica). Described by Jennifer Wright Cook, The Field’s Executive Director, as “experiments in making money,” its premise was that the traditional philanthropic model is no longer working. Out of 116 applications they received, seven were selected for grants of up to $20,000 each to develop their ideas. Four of these received implementation grants and their projects are detailed in the publication, We Are No Longer Strangers.

Stolen Chair Theatre Company used the model of Community Supported Agriculture, in which members provide seed money for a local farm in exchange for a share of the harvest, only in this instance the harvest was a theatre production. While they didn’t meet their original financial targets, Jon Stancato says he learned that it’s not just the final product that has value. “By opening up our process, we built an audience along the way.”

Our Goods, another ERPA awardee, removed money from the equation and developed a website for artists based on an exchange of goods. The site only launched a couple of months ago, so it’s hard to gauge its success. Their belief is that more work gets done in networks of shared respect and shared resources than in competitive isolation.

The other Rockefeller Cultural Innovation project was MADE HERE, a documentary series and website produced by the HERE Arts Centre which focuses on the challenging and eclectic lives of performing artists in New York. “We wanted to talk about issues from the artists’ perspective, how they’ve struggled and solved some of the problems they’ve faced,” explained Katrina Mangu-Ward, HERE’s Associate Producer. “There is a young core of artists who are reinventing the wheel, so we wanted to consolidate that.”

Season one, which rolled out from May through September 2010, covered five topic areas: Day & Night Jobs, Creative Real Estate, Family Balance, Activism, and Technology. Season two comes out in 2011.“People are isolated,” stressed Mangu-Ward. “We need a sense of community.”

Community support is at the heart of a number of alternative funding models that have proliferated in recent years, many of which are based in Brooklyn. Sweet Tooth of the Tiger, run by independent curator Tracy Candido, is part DIY food service project, part participatory art project. It used the model of a bake sale to fund small-scale residencies for artists in Brooklyn.

In a similar vein but with a stronger philanthropic push, FEAST (Funding Emerging Art with Sustainable Tactics) is a recurring public dinner designed to use community-driven financial support to democratically fund new and emerging artists in Brooklyn. Similar models are emerging across the United States, building a network of organisations committed to rethinking how art is financed and experienced communally.

In the past two years, FEAST has hosted eight events and supported 20 projects. However the money raised is modest: $12,756 since it started in 2009. “These projects are developed because they’re needed,” says Candido, who wound up her renegade bake sales earlier this year. “They start as scrappy, original, independent projects; they succeed, they grow. But how do you sustain that?”

Modest in scale, DIY platforms for presentation mirror community-based arts funding in that they too have emerged (and proliferated) in New York as a necessary alternative to mainstream channels. To name just a few: Catch, a multi-faceted, multidisciplinary, rough-and-ready performance series curated and hosted by Andrew Dinwiddie and Jeff Larson; Throw, curated and moderated by Sarah Maxfield, which provides artists with a platform for ideas-in-progress and audiences with insight into performance-making; and AUNTS, founded by Jamm Leary and Rebecca Brooks, which is “about having dance happen.”

A key issue is the degree to which these alternative models are supported by volunteer labour. In his article “The Mental Labor Problem,” published in 2000, cultural studies theorist Andrew Ross states that “artists and other arts workers accept non-monetary rewards, the gratification of producing art as compensation for their work, thereby discounting the cash price of their labor.” Arguably, an over-reliance on volunteer hours also favours younger artists, creating a reduced pool of mid-career and established artists able to survive long-term absence of adequate financial and job security, and associated healthcare benefits.

Many of the people I spoke to stressed that the system was problematic well before the financial crisis. In that way, the GFC has had less of an impact on the arts as opposed to other industries; artists were already living below the poverty line.

“Since the 60s, artists in this country have worked in challenging economic circumstances,” explains Barbara Bryan, Executive Director of Movement Research, a leading laboratory for the investigation of dance and movement-based forms. “But there is greater pressure on this generation of artists. The cost of living for rent and food for all New Yorkers has increased. We’re at a tipping point.”

Critical Correspondence, a project of Movement Research, developed a video project titled “What Sustains You?” which asks dance artists about money and sustainability. Like MADE HERE, it aims to galvanise community through collective storytelling that investigates how something seemingly unsustainable continues to survive. In one video, performance maker and writer Clarinda Mac Low relates her experience of burn-out in the late 90s. “I knew that if I did continue making work it would have to be in a very different way. It would have to not rely on money. It would have to rely on exchange of resources, creating networks.”

While talk of sustainability consistently returns to notions of community and shared resources (many of them online and non-monetary), it seems the biggest challenge was identified by cultural academic and commentator Arlene Goldbard when she spoke at the launch of The Field’s findings from their ERPA grants. Goldbard insisted that society needs to value the artist, a paradigm shift to which we should all contribute.

“Artists are the stem cells of the body politic, generating the many forms of beauty, meaning, and connectivity essential to our survival, our resilience—indeed, to all hope of a sustainable future.”

The Field: www.thefield.org/t-erpa.aspx MADE HERE: http://madehereproject.org; What Sustains You?: www.movementresearch.org/publishing/?=node656; Sweet Tooth of the Tiger: www.sweettothof the tiger; FEAST: http://feastinbklyn.org; Arlene Goldbard: http://arlenegoldbard.com

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 30

© Julieanne Campbell; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Interviewing the ice, Arctice Circle Artist Residency

Interviewing the ice, Arctice Circle Artist Residency

Interviewing the ice, Arctice Circle Artist Residency

TENG CHAO-MING IS MARKING OUT AN AREA OF SNOW WITH LONG RED POLES AND PHOTOGRAPHING HIS NEW, POTENTIAL ‘HOME.’ THE MEASUREMENTS EXACTLY MATCH HIS FAMILY’S TAIPEI HOUSE. BEHIND HIM, THE MOUNTAINS HIORTHFJELLET AND LOUISFJELLET TOWER, THEIR SLOPES MERGING INTO THE FOREGROUND AND SHARP SUMMITS BLOWN OUT INTO WHITE SKY. A FEW GREY LINES ETCHED ON THEIR FLANKS GIVE THEM FORM.

Nearby but just out of shot, Mexican/US artist Rebeca Méndez is filming herself trudging through knee-deep drifts with a substantial flagpole and Mexican flag. Her figure crosses the preview screen: a tiny, comical beetle at odds with the dramatic background. Halfway through the take, the whole flag assembly flutters wildly in a gust before completely collapsing.

‘Nearby but just out of shot’ is how it often works here, as 19 artists from around the world negotiate quasi-individual relationships with the ‘sublime’ landscapes of Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, on a two-week sailing voyage at around 80° North. Here at Advent City, a deserted mining town boasting little but boot-slashing strips of rusted metal, our last day’s work, October 20, is in progress under the watchful eye of an armed guide—polar bears are present throughout these islands.

 

october 12: gravneset, magdalenefjorden

High on the north-west coast, it’s perfectly okay for New York’s Janet Biggs to set up a video camera and brace herself: she fires a flare gun into the sky, releasing a cloud of red smoke along with crackling shock waves. Nobody registers it as a call for help, because there’s nobody else for hundreds of miles around. A snow-white fox leaps out of a hollow, though, and dashes for cover. Biggs’ installation, Anana Dream, was shown at PICA in Perth last year—a video loop of endlessly swimming, zoo-bound polar bears. 2010 is her second Arctic Circle residency; she aims to complete a video work—a “kayak ballet” that both addresses our presence here and engages directly with power, fantasy, gender and desire.

Early in the voyage, we feel our way in an environment that is, in a sense, both fairytale and nightmare. At Gravneset, artist and trained coastal engineer, Jane Chang Mi (USA) is zipped into a dry-suit and swims in the freezing shallows between chunks of glacier ice. Later in the trip she spends an entire day aboard ship while everyone else hikes, making delicate blue and white ‘postcards’ that reference Svalbard’s somewhat ironic history as a tourist destination.

Cameras are a safety valve for the unsure or overwhelmed: if in doubt, document. But photographers Christina Seely (USA) and Regina Kokoszka (USA) settle in with ease and purpose; so do painters Saul Becker (USA) and Carrie-Ann Bracco (USA). Belgian Eric van Hove also has a clear focus: working with a concocted ‘scientific instrument’ which he calls an “anthropochronic theodolite,” he photographs a landscape rendered inextricable from his tripod, pendulum and human femur assembly. He’s “surveying in the anthropocene era, and suggesting the instalment of a series of new survey markers which include the human presence as a geophysical force.”

Day after day we’re delivered to new shores to “make work.” The struggle to think, respond and maximise each opportunity competes with the practical necessity of ‘suiting up,’ watching our step on treacherously loose rock, or trying to stay in one place without freezing to death. The challenge is one of the strengths of the program. Over two weeks at sea, Bracco, for example, is a constant, almost iconic presence: although her paintings read as ‘traditional’ within the gamut of contemporary practices, her commitment to daily two-hour plein-air sessions (working in a mix of oils and, inevitably, snow) reflects the resilience of everyone on board.

 

Arjen de Leeuw, Hoop

Arjen de Leeuw, Hoop

Arjen de Leeuw, Hoop

october 17: monaco glacier, liefdefjorden

Around mid-voyage, our ship spends a whole day close to the formidable Monacobreen, its five-kilometre front of crumbling blue ice rising to 80 metres high. ‘Bitty-bergs’ drift around us; now and then the thunder of a bigger, calving berg carries from the near distance.

Dutch video artist and sculptor Arjen de Leeuw makes a connection between memory loss and the melting of Arctic ice. “I look at the glacial landscape as a centuries-old storage space of the earth’s memory,” he says. “As the ice and its data moves into the sea, this data is no longer available, it is gone forever.” De Leeuw is making a film featuring our group as ‘cast’; Wendy Jacob (USA) has been co-opted as a scientist who has lost her memory. At Monacobreen, de Leeuw sets a flaming hoop on a chunk of floating ice and films the drifting, incongruous scene.

Wendy Jacob has a coincidental interest in glacial ice and its millenia-old air bubbles, whose sounds she hopes to record and embed in a tactile sound installation. Perth choreographer/performer Aimee Smith is also recording, fascinated with both the visual and sonic ‘fracturing’ of ice. (Smith is undertaking a development with dancers Aisling Donovan and Sharlene Campbell in December 2010, focused around the complications of water as a resource, and responding to The Arctic Circle experience.) Danish artist Eva la Cour joins Smith and Jacob for a Zodiac trip closer to the glacier to, as La Cour puts it, “interview the ice.” The scene is slightly absurd: three heavily-clad bodies, faces mostly hidden but brows furrowed, pointing recording devices at blobs of ticking, popping, whistling, melting ice as it bobs elusively by.

The absurdity of all artistic endeavour in the Arctic (or perhaps anywhere) is central to Chad Stayrook’s (USA) work. At every opportunity, he sets up a gigantic cardboard ‘telescope’ and is documented surveying the landscape searchingly; or co-opts others into wielding mysterious ‘tools’ “to interpret the unknown.” At Monacobreen, he zips back and forth amid the ice in the Zodiac, perched with his ’scope in the bow; his work aims to expose “the futile nature of such a search, as well as the liberation one might find within the futility.” Inspired in some degree by Melville’s Moby Dick, his solo show, The Search for an Unattainable Beast, opens in San Francisco in December.

 

october 14: moffen island

Our furthest point north is Moffen Island, startlingly different from Svalbard’s mountains and fjords—just a barely-exposed shoal covered in snow and driftwood. The absurdity continues: Temujin Doran (UK) and several others set up a ludicrous bocce game with coloured aluminium fishing floats—every activity here somehow takes on the sense of an ‘intervention.’ Rebeca Méndez manages to complete a film piece, Recurrence Relation #2—complementing earlier work in Iceland—despite driving, horizontal snow.

Laurie Palmer (USA) is one of several participants with specific interest in science, particularly “signs and markers of very slow time” including extremophile bacteria and lichens, some of which spend thousands of years chewing their way through rock. On Moffen she attempts to collect core ice samples with equipment borrowed from the University of Svalbard, hoping to have it analysed for “extreme life and extreme chemical inclusions.” Palmer is “looking for what is invisible in all that obviously spectacular landscape” and for changes “on scales other than human.”

Returning to the Arctic for her second voyage, Raphaele Shirley (USA) spends her time on Moffen filming the groups of walruses that swim up to the shore to examine us, in hope of completing a sequel to her film, StarGaze in Sandnes. Describing the immense and disarmingly curious walruses as “like some kind of oddly formed gods of antiquity,” Shirley articulates a desire to “echo the harmony of the environment and play with it and its meaning.” Her technically complex light sculptures (photographed at dusk, over water, using moving lights and long exposures) glow and hover like beckoning UFOs. Moffen Island, in particular, “feels like a portal,” she says. “Mental barriers melt and self, space, place, start resonating in a really strange new way.”

 

october 20: abandoned

While half the group works at Advent City, others join Bruno Martelli (UK) and a second guide, hiking inland in search of Abandoned—a named ‘non-place’ he’s found on Google Maps. With collaborator Ruth Gibson, Martelli creates virtual or gaming environments as locations for inquiry, “not trying to simulate a place but to evoke it…mixed with fantasy and other real elements.” He’s considering creating a virtual Abandoned from his experience combined with Gibson’s imagined view of it. Interested “in ‘mashing up’ places and bending geography rather than recreating or simulating,” Martelli has previously utilised height map data sets from NASA, converting them into 3D terrain; but he admits that Svalbard’s DEM (digital elevation models) “may be hard to come by.”

Throughout the two-plus weeks of The Arctic Circle residency, we all undergo a kind of artistic boot camp—a Survivor experience which, rather than resulting in competitiveness and territory-grabbing, encourages cooperation, collaboration and generosity across the board. Billed as an art/science collaborative residency, no scientists joined the voyage in 2010, although the ship was fortunate to spend a half-day in Ny Ålesund—rated as the world’s northernmost permanent scientific community. Many of the artists cite an active interest in science and/or in critiquing scientific paradigms. It will be interesting to see how the scientific focus develops within future voyages, and in particular how greater interaction between scientists and artists, particularly in such a close and challenging environment, pans out.

The Arctic Circle international arts/science collaborative residency Svalbard, Norway, Oct 7-24

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 12-13

© Urszula Dawkins; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Cat Jones and Julie Vulcan

Cat Jones and Julie Vulcan

THOUGH YOU MAY NOT HAVE SET FOOT IN SYDNEY’S PACT CENTRE FOR EMERGING ARTISTS, YOU HAVE DOUBTLESS FELT ITS INFLUENCE AS ITS ASSOCIATES ARE NOW WORKING AS ARTISTS, PERFORMERS, PRODUCERS, WRITERS AND LECTURERS AROUND AUSTRALIA. PACT CAN’T TAKE THE CREDIT ENTIRELY AS MANY OF THESE WERE ALSO TRAINING ELSEWHERE, CHIEFLY AT THE UNIVERSITIES OF SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES, WESTERN SYDNEY AND WOLLONGONG, BUT IT HAS BEEN A SIGNIFICANT MEETING POINT AND CREATIVE HUB, ABOVE ALL FOR EMERGING PERFORMERS.

Unsurprisingly, former and current associates feel a strong sense of ownership and follow its activities closely, so when artistic director Regina Heilmann retired from PACT in mid-2009 all eyes were on her successor Cat Jones. This year former associate director Chris Murphy has also moved on, with Julie Vulcan recently replacing her. I spoke with Jones and Vulcan about their plans for PACT.

a meeting of minds

Prior to joining PACT, Jones was working as creative co-producer for the inaugural Splendid Arts Lab and before that as the co-director of Electrofringe and a staff member of the Theatre Board of the Australia Council. In addition to these producing and curating credits, she has also worked as a devisor or performer (she originally trained in performance at QUT) with pvi and The League of Imaginary Scientists, among others, as well as on her own catgURL series. Like Jones, Vulcan has worked across many mediums. She originally trained in video art at the College of Fine Arts, UNSW, exhibiting in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. From 1993 she worked as a co-devisor and performer with Icarus Performance Troupe, Frumpus and Unreasonable Adults, touring nationally and internationally. More recently, she has been working on a series of small solo works.

Jones and Vulcan first met in 2002 at the Time_Place_Space 1 hybrid arts laboratory which both agree was a pivotal moment in their respective careers because of the collaborations that resulted. When I ask them about how their practices fit together eight years later, they identify four areas of overlap. The first, says Jones, “is that both of us have really diverse backgrounds artistically,” working with “a really broad palette.” The metaphor itself speaks to their second common characteristic, which is what Jones calls a curiosity about “the link between the visual and the performative.” Both are interested in devised performance rather than more conventional forms of theatre and, last but not least, they have a strong interest in audience interaction though they can’t agree what to call it: the friendly to and fro is obviously the key to their creative partnership.

Lucy Watson, Unsettlings, PACT

Lucy Watson, Unsettlings, PACT

Lucy Watson, Unsettlings, PACT

ensemble thinking

Central to PACT’s program is the Ensemble (formerly called the imPACT Ensemble), which provides professional and creative development for up to 20 emerging artists aged between 18 and 30 years. Successful applicants undertake physical and vocal training and develop and produce a new work, which runs for three weeks at the end of the year. This year, says Jones, they have kept the ensemble program largely intact “because it’s the first year and we need to test it out as close to its original form as we can; we need to know where we’ve come from in order to know where to go.”

Yet Jones has already started to make changes: this year’s program is shorter, the cohort is smaller and the creative process more intense. Whereas in previous years training commenced in May, Jones says that this year’s participants “have only been meeting once a week from August and that only stepped up to twice a week from October.” Jones says that the shorter program was necessary because, as Heilmann and Murphy reported in their RealTime interview in 2008 (RT90, p19), students now, for a variety of reasons, “struggle to commit” to extended development periods. Ensemble 2010 is also slightly smaller group—12 as opposed to the usual 16 to 20—and the group started developing their final show from their very first session, instead of roughly halfway through the program.

This short time span caused Jones and Vulcan to engage working methods to develop the group’s creative shorthand very rapidly. “Even before we started working with them,” says Jones, “we had a night where we brought everyone together in order to set up a dialogue…We talked about definitions of ensemble and performance and we started on the first round of creative tasks.” Vulcan also compiled a list of YouTube clips of contemporary performance, which included “everything from Forced Entertainment to Guillermo Gomez Pena to Spalding Gray.” Not only did this establish what Vulcan calls a “visual and shared language” it also enabled them, as Jones puts it, “to show the ensemble some of our influences without actually showing them our work, because the whole process isn’t about us as individual artists, it is about them.”

Jones and Vulcan are contemplating several changes to the ensemble and the wider program which could be summarised by the prefix inter-: interdisciplinary, international and interactive. Currently, says Jones, “the base model is all about producing performative outcomes from everyone in the ensemble. We’re talking about an ensemble that will also include a designer or other creative practitioners to expand the entire collaborative process.” While this obviously reflects Jones’ and Vulcan’s own interests and practices, it also stems from Vulcan’s observation that “there is a dearth of up-and-coming show designers—there’s very little place for them to grow. We’re thinking ‘Well, why can’t we nurture that as well?’”

a growing presence

Beyond increasing its already interdisciplinary approach, PACT is also looking to grow its national and international presence. This year the program was advertised nationally, included interstate auditions for the ensemble and several interstate artists in the program. Next year and beyond, for the wider program, Jones and Vulcan are looking to incorporate their own international networks in order to supplement what is happening locally. This will affect both “process and outcomes,” says Jones, so that some collaborations will happen via “remote hook-ups” and other “projects might have a physical realisation here but will be web-streamed overseas.”

Though the ensemble is key to PACT’s mission, its other activities are also important because they provide ongoing opportunities for working and networking. Jones and Vulcan are taking a varied approach to these programs, maintaining some schemes, formalising or augmenting others and then adding some new programs of their own. One of the programs they plan to maintain is Vacant Room, which offers emerging artists the opportunity to develop an idea or a project with the support and mentorship of the company. In addition, PACT will also remain the central point for the Erskineville Performance Art Festival (currently known as Tiny Stadiums) which not only provides a forum for emerging curators but also for emerging live artists with the entire event peer-programmed.

Jones has also introduced a new venture called The Space Program, which effectively formalises what was already happening on an informal basis whereby PACT provides subsidised space for creative developments for emerging artists. In addition, Jones is also seeking to augment the PACT Presents…program, which Heilmann and Murphy started in 2008 with Janie Gibson’s Whale Chorus and then continued in 2009 with Georgie Read’s The Paper Woman and Sally Lewry’s Back of Bourke. This year, PACT has presented as many shows again as part of the Sydney Fringe Festival (see p37), and next year it will present a total of eight shows, including dancer Matthew Day’s new show, Cannibal, which is part of the 2011 Mardi Gras program, and Grit Theatre’s production Us. But perhaps the most exciting development of all is that PACT is commissioning six Indigenous artists—all of whom worked with Wayne Blair as part of the Incubate program in 2009—to create a work during May and June which will then be performed in July for NAIDOC week.

Commissioning artists is an expensive endeavour and it has only become possible through a combination of new money, new team and new structure. Restructuring had already been under way to make the Artistic Director and Company Manager positions full-time and a Communications Coordinator role has been added. PACT’s first triennial funding from Arts NSW means that staff hours will be able to increase further, as will the company’s ability to support and encourage emerging artists. These are exciting times in Erskineville and PACT’s impact looks set to reach even further afield.

PACT Centre for Emerging Artists, Erskineville; www.pact.net.au

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 31

© Caroline Wake; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Tipping Point Australia, Sydney

Tipping Point Australia, Sydney

Tipping Point Australia, Sydney

THE SALIENT MESSAGE FROM TIPPING POINT AT PERFORMANCE SPACE WAS THAT THE JOB OF SCIENTISTS ON CLIMATE CHANGE IS LARGELY DONE. THEY HAVE PROVED BEYOND REASONABLE DOUBT THE SCIENCE BEHIND GLOBAL WARMING—WHAT REMAINS IS TO GALVANISE PEOPLE TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.

Tipping Point was formed in the UK by Peter Gingold to create a network of environmentalists, scientists and artists committed to achieving this aim. Gingold explained that he was moved into action after renowned environmental journalist, and founder of 350.org, Bill McKibben bemoaned the lack of cultural material on climate change: “where are the books? The plays? The goddamn operas?” Tipping Point aims to fill this gap with a variety of creative works that inspire us to change the impact human society is having on the earth.

Tipping Point has taken its own message for change seriously—its conferences were regionalised (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane) to avoid large numbers of people expanding their carbon footprint by traveling to one central event. Some sessions were held with natural lighting to avoid burning up electricity and some invited speakers spoke via Skype rather than make the resource-costly trip in person. Concurrent with the idea that the facts are largely self-evident and the key change that needs to happen is our willingness to act, the conference was structured like an extended coffee break; the majority of time given over to open space, informal meetings and small group discussions.

The two days began with an icebreaker game—all participants formed two circles and moved along introducing themselves to each other. While it would have been impossible to allow the 100 or so people to actually introduce themselves this exercise gave the impression that this should and would continue to happen over the ensuing two days (and in large part it did). In my part of the circle was Steve Pekar, one of the few keynote speakers flown from overseas to address the conference in the next session.

Pekar is a Geology Professor at Queens College and has been investigating past climate and oceanographic changes during times (45-16 million years ago) when CO2 was as high as predicted for this century (500-1000 ppm). His frustration over the lack of action on climate change burned with the focused intensity only possible in someone who spends their entire life researching its potential consequences. His speech was full of familiar yet terrifying statistics as he rolled out maps of the “hot plate” our earth is to become if we continue to emit carbon at current levels.

After the first presentations we moved into a room with four signs pinned to the wall; “Legislation and Compulsion”; “Fear and Aversion”; “Incentive and Rewards”; and “Vision and Inspiration.” We were asked to choose which we felt would be the most motivating to stop human induced climate change. The crowd spread unevenly with the largest group forming in the “Vision and Inspiration” corner and the smallest in “Fear and Aversion.” This activity had the desired effect of highlighting the importance of artists in bringing change. While not armed with all the facts Pekar had at his fingertips, we were hopefully qualified in “vision and inspiration.”

The rest of the conference was mainly spent in “open space” sessions. Despite the loose title given to these, they were in fact highly structured around a set of axioms: “whoever turns up is the right group,” “whenever it starts is the right time,” “whatever happens is the only thing that could have.” People were encouraged to be “bumblebees and butterflies,” bumping noisily into conversations or drifting around the room looking for something interesting to talk about.

Having spent most of the last decade in various environmental and social justice conferences that got bogged down in intense and sometimes pointless fights between competing left factions I can see the appeal of such a structure. It was nice to be free to drift, to listen when you wanted to, to interrupt whenever you felt like it, to avoid any attempts at domination by any group or individual.

However the discussions sometimes lacked a certain depth. Encouraged to be “mobile” people wafted away from discussions that sometimes needed commitment to bear fruit. Perhaps I was too schooled in my left training; I stayed in my group until the end and it was only starting to get interesting when the session was politely, but firmly, closed for the next to start.

While I enjoyed the open sessions I felt they were, on the one hand, a little too de-centred and, on the other, not quite de-centred enough.

Tipping Point Australia, Sydney

Tipping Point Australia, Sydney

Tipping Point Australia, Sydney

The conference organisers encouraged a specific culture of discussion that facilitated positivity and openness yet discouraged disagreement and the difficult, time consuming yet potentially rewarding, struggle to find common ground.

Whatever the structure of conferences, people inspired by each other will usually find time to meet and talk. Deliberately creating time for this to happen within the conference planning is definitely a worthwhile shift in how we talk about politics.

Whether we write operas, books or plays about climate change as a result might not be the right premise for Tipping Point. Jean Luc Godard once commented that he didn’t want to make political films—but to make films politically. While everyone who attended Tipping Point might not make a work directly on the topic of climate change (although I hope many do) I think all of us will think a bit harder about the ways we make our works and how this could become more sustainable.

I would like to see the discussions begun at Tipping Point continue and deepen to foster an active network for artists, arts organisations and scientists planning how we can reduce our own carbon footprints whilst also contributing to a campaign for genuine political action against the companies and decision makers who make our carbon feet look like twinkle toes. We might not have that much time left before “vision and inspiration” give way to “fear and aversion.”

Tipping Point Australia, producer Angharad Wynne-Jones, Tipping Point UK directors Angela McSherry, Peter Gingold, Performance Space, Nov 5-6; http://tippingpointaustralia.com

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 14

© Zanny Begg; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

clockwise from top left - Toby Schmitz, Ewen Leslie, The Wild Duck; Robyn Nevin, Neighbourhood Watch; Lucy Guerin Inc, Human Interest Story; John Gaden, Maeve Dermody, The Seagull

clockwise from top left – Toby Schmitz, Ewen Leslie, The Wild Duck; Robyn Nevin, Neighbourhood Watch; Lucy Guerin Inc, Human Interest Story; John Gaden, Maeve Dermody, The Seagull

clockwise from top left – Toby Schmitz, Ewen Leslie, The Wild Duck; Robyn Nevin, Neighbourhood Watch; Lucy Guerin Inc, Human Interest Story; John Gaden, Maeve Dermody, The Seagull

BEYOND THE APPEAL OF THE SELECTED PLAYS AND ARTISTS, THEATRE COMPANY SUBSCRIPTION BROCHURES DON’T USUALLY PROVIDE EXCITING READING, BUT THE 2011 BATCH IS EXCEPTIONAL ON SEVERAL COUNTS. SAMPLING THE BROCHURES FOR BELVOIR, SYDNEY THEATRE COMPANY, GRIFFIN THEATRE COMPANY AND MALTHOUSE, REVEALS SIGNIFICANT TRENDS WITH REGARD TO THE CLASSICS, NEW AUSTRALIAN PLAYS, WOMEN AND INDIGENOUS ARTISTS, OTHER FORMS OF PERFORMANCE AND ADD-ONS TO ATTRACT AUDIENCES TO THE THEATRE. INDIVIDUALLY THE BROCHURES ARE TELLING IN TERMS OF DESIGN, ATTITUDE, THE AMOUNT OF INFORMATION AND THE EXPRESSION OF THEMATIC CONCERNS—SOME ARE ACTUALLY A GOOD READ.

 

belvoir

Belvoir’s 2011 booklet-brochure design is strikingly spare, exuding a certain European seriousness and stylishness, its string of performer portraits suggesting that actors share a common stage and the productions a collective strength. The notes are equally spare but are convivial, energetic and purposeful. As well, there’s a very marked sense of newness—new title (Belvoir instead of Company B Belvoir), new artistic director (Ralph Myers), new logo (chair+boot=horsey; that’s the magic of theatre), new roles—resident director (Simon Stone, associate director Eamon Flack and an associate artist, composer Stefan Gregory)—and upstairs and downstairs programs as part of a continuum. The very openness of the design underlines the freshness of the venture.

The notes are pithy and sometimes drolly ironic. For Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, to be directed by Stone, they read: “At the core of [Ibsen’s] work is the idea that anything less than total honesty and an exhaustive conscience will sow the seeds for future tragedy—which makes Ibsen the ideal dramatist for contemporary Australia.” The Business, based on Maxim Gorky’s Vassa Zheleznova and transposed to an Australian setting, “relates to one of the great Australian themes: how we hauled ourselves out of our working class past and set out on the road to a relaxed and comfortable future.” For Shakespeare’s As You Like It, to be directed by Eamon Flack, the note reads, “At its heart is a heroically foolhardy attempt to begin society all over again, which makes this a perfect end to the first year of the new Belvoir.” Myers’ earnestly impassioned introduction is likewise tempered with a photo from the rear of him holding a copy of Bluff Your Way in Theatre.

Classics make up a large part of the program; these days they’re bound to be challenging interpretations in the hands of Simon Stone and Benedict Andrews. The latter will direct Chekhov’s The Seagull with a very strong cast: Emily Barclay, Gareth Davies, Judy Davis, Maeve Dermody and John Gaden. Neil Armfield is to direct Ray Lawler’s The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, with Robyn Nevin, Yael Stone, Helen Thomson and Dan Wyllie, while The Business will be directed by Cristabel Sved who has adapted the Gorky text with Australian playwright Jonathan Gavin.

Other new writing includes Melbourne playwright Lally Katz’s Neighbourhood Watch, “a comedy about hope, death and pets,” directed by Simon Stone and featuring Robyn Nevin. Duncan Graham’s The Cut is to be directed by Sarah John; Susanna Dowling will take on four short works by Chekhov, Kate Chopin, Peter Goldsworthy and Guy De Maupassant grouped as The Kiss; and Leticia Caceres is to direct Brendan Cowell in Brisbane playwright Angela Betzien’s utterly chilling award-winner, The Dark Room.

Given the concerns loudly voiced earlier this year about limited opportunities for female artists at Belvoir, the allocation of directorial roles to Sved in the upstairs theatre and downstairs to John, Dowling and Caceres will doubtless be welcomed. As well, Kylie Farmer (seen in The Sapphires) will direct Roxanne McDonald in David Milroy’s Windmill Baby, an account of Aboriginal life on a pastoral station half a century ago with tragic dimensions. The other Indigenous work in the Belvoir program is Ilbijerri Theatre Company’s Jack Charles V The Crown, coming after its successful Melbourne International Arts Festival premiere (see review).

Belvoir has adopted Malthouse’s well established policy of including dance and contemporary performance works in its program, encouraging audiences to take a broader view of the performing arts and acknowledging the the changing nature of theatre itself. Version 1.0 and Post appeared at Belvoir Street this year and next year Melbourne’s collective “anti-institution,” The Black Lung Theatre and Whaling Firm, make their Sydney debut with Gareth Davies’ And They Called Him Mr Glamour—”a pathetically hilarious tale of a man, alone on stage, desperately seeking the audience’s attention.” (The team also appear in the 2011 Queensland Theatre Company season with the large-scale work I Feel Awful.) Belvoir also now offers dance to its patrons in the form of Lucy Guerin Inc’s spooky account of the impact of mass media triviality, Human Interest Story (RT99).

 

sydney theatre company

Sydney Theatre Company’s vivid brochure is the antithesis of Belvoir’s. STC continues in the vein of its 2010 publicity in which every show had its own design, but this year each is more vivid, more richly coloured, suggesting a theatrical cornucopia. Even more than this, it’s a publication that offers plenty of reading: a lively and thoughtful introduction from artistic directors Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton, detailed notes about each play, testimonials, something from John Birmingham about the nature of Sydney and a page for your own notes.

In line with Blanchett and Upton’s determination to develop a cultural precinct for Sydney from Walsh Bay to the Botanic Gardens, there are engaging hand-drawn maps of the area indicating venues, eateries, walking and transport routes, including discount offers for STC subscribers.

The artistic directors write of their selection of plays from the 20th century, “We feel theatre gives you a chance to lead many lives, to experience many more moments than those (too few) allotted to us by fate. At the theatre we are outside looking in; sometimes in awe, sometimes in terror, always further. This year’s throw is loaded with the force of history. As we enter the second decade of the 21st century it seems timely to have a think about the 20th…Two World Wars, two A-Bombs, various forms of Fascism and an array of failed revolutions. Oddly for such a dark century there is a farcical quality to much of the work that emerged from it, a pitch black comedy that cuts through, delving beneath the hysteria, the fanaticism and the g-force change-rate that characterises the Age of Extremes (as Eric Hobsbawm christened it).”

As for the purpose of the selection, “The 20th century never looked crazier. The past never looked so close and snapping as it always is at our hurrying heels. Hurrying on to the future we are. A future that we convince ourselves will be better than the past we have either erased, ignored or sentimentalised. No, let’s face it. Let’s stop and take a bit of time and wonder who, what, where and why?”

The highlight of the season should be Botho Strauss’ epic, Gross und Klein (Big and Little, which was seen in productions in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney in the 80s) with Blanchett as Lotte who wanders through an opaque, ungiving and increasingly bizarre world—either Lotte or society is disintegrating. The English language version is by leading UK playwright Martin Crimp, who shares not a little stylistically and thematically with Strauss, and the director is France’s Luc Bondy, a figure usually associated with major opera productions and one who should ably manage, like Blanchett, the work’s huge demands.

Among other 20th century classics are Andrew Upton’s adaptation (already successfully staged in London) of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard, Raimondo Cortese’s adaptation of The Threepenny Opera, directed by Michael Kantor with performers Paul Capsis and Eddie Perfect in a Malthouse co-production, Joe Orton’s Loot (director Richard Cotterill), and Harold Pinter’s rarely seen No Man’s Land, perfectly cast with John Gaden and Peter Carroll and to be directed by Michael Gow in a Queensland Theatre Company-STC co-production. I saw the premiere production in London in 1975 with John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson and can still recall the play’s disturbing power, emanating from its variation on the ‘unwelcome guest’ trope intensified by the faltering memories of the aged antagonists. The Malthouse production of Brecht’s Baal and a new production of Lorca’s Blood Wedding to be directed by Iain Sinclair with a cast that includes Lynette Curran and Leah Purcell, complete the substantial set of classics in the 2011 program.

New writing in the program includes the much-anticipated premiere of Zebra, an STC commission by Ross Mueller, one of the current handful of Australia’s brightest playwriting talents. Set in New York, it’s described as “a fast-paced, mid-life crisis comedy…ruminating on who we are post-GFC. What has plummeting from the dizzy heights of prosperity done to us as a society and as individuals? How has humiliating failure altered our self-image? Will Australia’s obsessive love affair with all things American end acrimoniously in the wake of the fall?” Zebra features Bryan Brown and Colin Friels; as with No Man’s Land, another interesting male pairing.

Also much-anticipated is Bloodland, the Indigenous component of STC’s 2011 program. From a concept by Stephen Page, story by Kathy Marika, Stephen Page and Wayne Blair, script by Wayne Blair and direction by Page, Bloodland will be performed in Indigenous language and pidgin “incorporat[ing] spiritual and physical languages, ceremonial traditional dances and mimicry of modern western culture, filtered through Aboriginal tradition.” The cast will comprise “both traditional Yolgnu people and well-known actors, to compose a new Australian work that dramatises the bitter tug-of-war taking place in a community which, despite being wracked by pain and division, hums with hope.”

In their introduction, the STC artistic directors emphasise the season’s many great roles for women; this is evident in directing as well as acting. Lee Lewis directs Zebra, Pamela Rabe takes on Sarah Ruhl’s In The Next Room, or The Vibrator Play and Sarah Goodes stages Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness while in the Education Program Naomi Edwards stages her adaptation of Hamlet, Sarah Giles directs Matt Cameron’s Ruby Moon and Roslyn Oades revives her innovative Stories of Love and Hate, originally produced by Urban Theatre Projects.

There’ll be a welcome return visit by Belgium’s provocatively experimental Ontroerend Goed (Once and for all we’re gonna tell you who we are so shut up and listen, RT93; RT89) and the 2011 Next Stage program will be announced shortly.

 

griffin theatre company

Griffin Theatre Company’s relatively small ouput is exceeded by its influence in pinpointing talent and developing plays that will go on to have long lives. Its achievement is celebrated with a return season of Andrew Bovell’s Speaking in Tongues which was developed by former artistic director Ros Horin and premiered in 1996, later becoming the screenplay for the Ray Lawrence feature film Lantana (2001). The play will be directed by Griffin’s new artistic director Sam Strong.

Also on the program is Lachlan Philpott’s Silent Disco (a Griffin, Hothouse and ATYP co-production, directed by Lee Lewis), focused on the problematic youth world “of Speds and Bitches—fuelled by Red Bull and iPods.” The script, “with its incendiary language and defiant theatricality,” won the 2009 Griffin Award. And No More Shall We Part, by Tom Holloway, the most exciting of Australia’s younger playwrights, will receive its Sydney premiere, directed by Strong, after winning the 2010 AWGIE for Best Play and the 2010 Louis Esson Prize for Drama. The play focuses on a couple parting after a lifetime together. Local writing comes in the shape of Jane Bodie’s This Year’s Ashes, directed by Shannon Murphy, tracking the fate of a young woman in a “reluctant romantic comedy about Sydney, grief and cricket.”

Strong writes of his 2011 program, “Coming in for special attention this year is the need to connect with other people that drives us into relationships (and for that matter the theatre).” The theme is extended to Griffin Studio which will bring together writers Ian Meadows and Kate Mulvany and directors Shannon Murphy and Paige Rattray to focus, as part of their duties dramaturgical and otherwise, on the development of Museum of Broken Relationships for production in 2012. The team will invite the Griffin audience to contribute to objects and/or stories about relationships past, thus “playing a part in Australia’s very first narrative museum.” It’s an interesting way in the Facebook era to engage with an audience who’ll doubtless come looking to see if they’ve made it onto the stage.

The Griffin brochure, with its distinctive criss-crossing of text on the cover and woven through its pages—a reminder of the company’s preoccupation with words—sticks to the facts. There are no wry references to matters political or philosophical or what the director thinks Australian society needs—the plays will speak for themselves.

 

malthouse

The Malthouse Season 1 brochure is attractively produced as an elegant, dark green notebook with floral endpapers and the frontispiece announcement “This is a beginning, Like all beginnings.” Marion Potts is the new artistic director of Malthouse.

Rarely sighted classics are strongly represented. Potts will direct the late Jacobean tragedy by John Ford, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, with music by Andrée Greenwell; Eamon Flack directs Robert Menzies in Samuel Beckett’s The End (a co-production with Belvoir); and Bertolt Brecht’s early work, Baal, will be directed by Simon Stone in a new translation by Stone and Tom Wright. Former artistic director Michael Kantor will direct a major new work by Lally Katz, A Golem Story: “if God has turned his back on the world, who has the right to take His place?

The company’s continued commitment to dance is more than evident in the Malthouse component of the 2011 Dance Massive festival—Chunky Move’s new work Connected, Narelle Benjamin’s In Glass (see review), BalletLab’s Amplification (see review) and Gideon Obarzanek’s Faker (see review).

Pamela Rabe will direct Australian playwright Vanessa Bates’ Porn.Cake , described by Playwriting Australia’s Chris Mead as “politely ferocious and charmingly obscene.” And there’s also a return season of the much praised, Moth, a Malthouse/Arena collaboration (RT97). And that’s just Season 1.

 

a good read

Yes, they’re brochures not books, but they are very telling, about a period of theatre in transition, one engaging with a larger performative and cultural framework, offering more opportunities to women and Indigenous artists, hard-nosed in their treatment of classics and the nurturing of new talent (never enough room), and alert to the need to engage audiences in extra-theatrical ways (talks, post-show music etc). As well, compared with a decade ago, even five years back, current programming is rich with co-productions that ensure we see works that might never have travelled beyond their points of origin or indeed had second lives, or more. There’s also a great sense of communality, of sharing and overlap between companies of directors, writers, designers and actors and with this a growing sense of an Australian theatre both richly local and national. That’s worth reading about.

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 34-35

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Tomorrow, When the War Began

Tomorrow, When the War Began

“GET READY. THIS IS REAL. THIS IS TRUE.” SO READS THE BLURB ON MY BATTERED PAPERBACK COPY OF TOMORROW, WHEN THE WAR BEGAN, JOHN MARSDEN’S RIPPING YARN FROM 1993 ABOUT A BAND OF TEENAGE GUERRILLAS DEFENDING THEIR HOME TURF. ONE OF THE MOST POPULAR AUSTRALIAN ‘YOUNG ADULT’ NOVELS OF ALL TIME, TOMORROW SPAWNED NINE SEQUELS AND HAS NOW MORPHED INTO A BIG-SCREEN ACTION-ADVENTURE THAT MARKS THE DIRECTING DEBUT OF STUART BEATTIE—ANOTHER LOCAL HERO, WHOSE HOLLYWOOD SCREENWRITING CREDITS INCLUDE THE FIRST PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN (2003) AS WELL AS COLLATERAL (2004).

Marsden’s book and Beattie’s film share a simple, irresistible premise: seven high school friends—three boys, four girls—go camping in the bush outside their country town, in an Edenic secret valley ironically known as “Hell.” On their return, they find that everything has changed: power lines have been cut, dogs slaughtered, family members are nowhere to be found. Australia is at war with an unnamed country and these kids just happen to be at ground zero of the attack.

In both book and film, the trick is that the invasion is equally a nightmare and a wish-fulfilment dream. Marsden’s novel combines derring-do and soap-opera romance with open-ended moral inquiry, catering to his readership’s yearning for maturity while proposing anguish over bloodshed as part of the price. Beattie adheres to a simpler version of the same coming-of-age formula: “I want to do more, see more, I want to be more,” Corrie (Rachel Hurd-Wood) tells the protagonist Ellie (Caitlin Stasey) early on, never guessing how swiftly her prayers will be answered.

From Marsden’s perspective, Ellie and her mates aren’t so distant from, say, the gang in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, using jokey camaraderie to fend off darkness without and within. Far more streamlined and externalised, Beattie’s outwardly faithful adaptation is closer to Home and Away with guns. Where Marsden refuses easy philosophical solutions, Beattie’s slant is straightforwardly Darwinian: Ellie may express guilt over the death of an enemy her own age, but this is merely a character beat, a step on the transformative journey to adulthood.

Struggling to manufacture chemistry between his actors in the awkward dialogue scenes, Beattie is more at ease with a convention familiar from horror cinema, whereby pent-up emotions are relieved in bursts of cathartic violence. Unlike her counterpart in the novel, Corrie announces at the outset that she’s had sex with her boyfriend Kevin (Lincoln Lewis), a ‘loss of innocence’ that irrationally seems to trigger the destruction of her cosy childhood world. By contrast, Ellie remains a tough virgin resembling the Final Girl in a slasher flick—though keeping the franchise possibilities in mind, Beattie avoids bumping off any of his leads.

Jingoistic speeches are kept to a minimum, and we’re briefly reminded that the mainly Anglo heroes are themselves the beneficiaries of an earlier invasion. Not quite dog-whistle cinema, Tomorrow still serves its purpose as ideological propaganda, in the vein of recruiting advertisements (“The Army – The Edge”) that continue to screen regularly in Australian multiplexes. Beattie’s exploitation of the teen-soldier gimmick recalls both John Milius’ World War Three adventure Red Dawn (1984) and Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi satire Starship Troopers (1997); while in plot terms the invaders of Tomorrow could be replaced by extra-terrestrial bugs, the point of the exercise lies in bringing the fantasy back home, letting us view an outlandish scenario as potentially ‘real.’

There’s little doubt that this frightening yet enticing prospect matches the national mood in an era when “border security” is not only an election issue but the title of a top-rating reality show. Back in the pre-Howard days, John Marsden felt obliged to cover his tracks by refusing to specify the origins of his bad guys, as well as assigning a central heroic role to a Thai-Vietnamese character (played here by Chris Pang). For his part, Beattie unambiguously portrays the invading army as Asian, a decision he has justified in interviews by noting that geography limits his options: “Why would New Zealand invade Australia? It doesn’t make sense.” No, indeed—but with China or Indonesia, it’s presumably a different story.

Crook: It’s Good to Be Bad

Crook: It’s Good to Be Bad

The boot is on the other foot in Mohit Suri’s Crook: It’s Good To Be Bad, another paranoid fantasy of an alternate-universe Australia torn apart by racial warfare. Already a Bollywood veteran at twenty-eight, Suri shot part of the film in Melbourne last year, inspired (if that’s the word) by attacks on Indian students that gave the city the kind of media profile money can’t buy. Predictably, the film’s eventual release in Australia was beaten up into a minor controversy: “Bollywood Movie Paints Melbourne As Racist,” announced a disapproving headline on the ABC news website. Had those cheeky sub-continentals gone too far?

Or not far enough? A typical Bollywood melange of song, comedy and melodrama, Crook (like Tomorrow) exploits an attention-getting theme while disavowing any goals beyond the unimpeachable one of ‘entertainment.’ The initial comic sequences in Mumbai introduce us to Jai Dixit (Emraan Hashmi), a larrikin packed off to Australia by his uncle (Gulshan Grover) in order to get him out of the DVD piracy game. But his eye for the main chance remains undimmed: after an effort to impersonate a scholarship student, he settles for pursuing the beautiful radio presenter Suhani (Neha Sharma), though it’s unclear if he cares more for her personal attractions or her Australian citizenship.

As Jai explores his new surroundings, Crook idles in first gear for half an hour or more, reinforcing a dubious image of Melbourne as a sporty city by the bay that harks back to the touristic glamour of Siddarth Anand’s Salaam Namaste (2005). Suhani inexplicably lives in a million-dollar mansion with ocean views, while Jai joins a group of expatriates in a purple bungalow complete with backyard swimming pool, at the end of a suburban cul-de-sac with an inner-city nightclub just round the corner.

Jai’s quest to win over Suhani is complicated by her firebrand brother Samarth (Arjan Bajwa), a racial separatist who denounces Australia as a decadent land of former convicts and rampant pre-marital sex. Jai himself is more susceptible to the lure of the mysterious West, finding a secondary romantic prospect in a bottle-blonde stripper (Sheila Allen) with a troublesome brother of her own (Francis Michael Chouler). Just to complicate the film’s racial politics, a handful of scenes were shot with Cape Town doubling for Melbourne, and both these representative Aussies speak in what seem to be South African accents.

Meanwhile, student bashings are on the rise, with the connivance of at least some members of the Australian Police. For a few moments the film takes on the appearance of an agitprop documentary as Indian activists gather in protest, though collective struggle holds little interest for the stubbornly individualistic Jai. For my money, the highlight of Crook comes immediately before interval, when the hero slips away from a brawl and races desperately towards Flinders Street Station—just as Ava Gardner did all those years ago in On the Beach (1959).

Thereafter, the narrative goes haywire: the nightclub burns down, a major character is revealed as a serial killer, and the city looks set for a full-scale riot unless our feckless hero manages to mend his ways and convince us all to get along. Lurid but not ill-natured, Crook ultimately goes out of its way to propose a moral equivalency between Anglo and Indian bigots (other ethnicities hardly get a look-in) while depending like Beattie’s film on a strictly enforced opposition between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ What Asia will make of Tomorrow, When the War Began is anyone’s guess, but Melbournians may be legitimately perturbed that their city has become an internationally recognised byword for prejudice: even a distorting mirror can reveal genuine faults.

Tomorrow, When the War Began, director, writer Stuart Beattie, novel John Marsden, cinematography Ben Nott, editor Marcus D’Arcy, production design Robert Webb; Crook: It’s Good To Be Bad, director, story, Mohit Suri, script Ankur Tewari, music Pritam, producer Mukesh Bhatt

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 15

© Jake Wilson; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Richard Roxburgh, Hugo Weaving, Uncle Vanya

Richard Roxburgh, Hugo Weaving, Uncle Vanya

Richard Roxburgh, Hugo Weaving, Uncle Vanya

THE SYDNEY THEATRE COMPANY PRODUCTION OF ANTON CHEKHOV’S UNCLE VANYA LAYERS A PATINA OF THE ACCENT AND LIGHT OF MID-20TH CENTURY RURAL AUSTRALIA OVER THE PLAY’S LATE-19TH CENTURY RUSSIAN SETTING. ITS PRODUCTION OF SAM SHEPARD’S TRUE WEST, PLAYED BY AUSTRALIAN ACTORS, ONE OF THEM INDIGENOUS, IS RIGOROUSLY AMERICAN IN VOICE AND EMBODIMENT. UNCLE VANYA IS DIRECTED BY A HUNGARIAN, TRUE WEST BY AN AMERICAN. CROSS-CULTURAL COLLABORATIONS AND FIDELITY TO TEXTS HAVE YIELDED MORE THAN MERELY MEMORABLE THEATRE.

In each production a pair of superb male performances, Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh in Uncle Vanya, Wayne Blair and Brendan Cowell in True West, provides the volatile dynamic that unleashes new realms of feeling and insight.

uncle vanya

In the beginning, harsh sunlight glares into a huge barn of a room, flies buzz persistently, a worker in the distance chops wood. At the play’s end, the walls have closed in, the light dimmed and cut logs fall through an open door as if in readiness for the internal exile imposed by the coming winter. In the meantime relationships have unravelled to the point of violence. Talk for talk’s sake, denial and alcoholic release have failed to veil the disappointments of love and ideals unrealised.

Central to Tamas Ascher’s direction, as it was in his Ivanov for the 2009 Sydney Festival, is a superb sense of rhythmic momentum: stillness followed by sudden propulsion, outbursts, reflection, dancing, subtle personal moves (Yelena’s hand momentarily on Vanya’s), household comings and goings and obstructions—a large door that comes to symbolise emotional barriers. These alternations are embodied in the performers’ characterisations: the doctor, Astrov (Hugo Weaving), energetically and loquaciously idealistic, immediately has an eager- to-dance bounce in his loping step. Richard Roxburgh’s Vanya is awkward, restive, his clothes don’t fit and his hair sticks out at odd angles—it’s as if he’s just got out of bed and is trying to make sense of a world with which he is out of step, making him all the more frightening when he moves, gun in hand, with the energy of a killer.

Cate Blanchett’s Yelena is, as one of the characters sarcastically puts it, “a sleek, beautiful ferret,” elegant, 1950s stylish. She attempts to move smoothly through the irruptions created by her husband’s self-pity, Vanya’s advances and Astrov’s attractiveness, her self-contained rhythm only broken temporarily in a bout of loose-limbed, tipsy playfulness with her step-daughter, Sonya (Hayley McElhinney), or in a desperate, passionate embrace with the doctor. Elsewhere her empathy for Vanya and Sonya can’t be allowed to get in the way of a necessary obtuseness that goes with a protected, if loveless, life with her wealthy husband, Serebyakov (John Bell). Sonya, on the other hand, is stolid and pragmatic, her stabilising presence and her physical assuredness soon undone by her passion for Astrov, as is the comforting rhythm of managing farm life with Vanya.

What is striking about Ascher’s account of the play is his perfect balancing of tedium and tension with immediacy and viscerality—when Vanya sees Astrov and Yelena embracing, he is like a man winded; when Yelena is exhausted by Vanya’s courting she slumps from the waist almost to the floor; when Vanya and Astrov dance it is almost dangerous; even the hypochondriacal Serebyakov confined to his chair bristles with an explosive nervous energy. These are not people living in a reverie of hope and despair or slow-motion rural life; body and soul they face a crisis. And although their jobs, their roles remain the same, we have seen them change, learn, suffer—Sonya’s first yearning for love, Yelena’s glimpse of love with Astrov, Vanya’s knowledge that he is unloved, the death of friendship between Vanya and Astrov. Life will go on as before but, equally, will not.

Performances overall are excellent, vividly detailed and constantly surprising. Roxburgh and Weaving together constitute the production’s greatest strength, partly because their joint dynamic is embodied in the writing—these friends are emotional and philosophical opposites and their shared attraction to Yelena the thread around which much of the play is delicately woven. In performance, the actors’ characterisations are idiosyncratic, contrastive but compatible, and each has a particular energy, emotional and physical—Roxburgh’s fascinatingly lateral, Weaving’s forthright. This is felt right to the end when Astrov has to retrieve the stolen morphine with which Vanya might suicide.

Andrew Upton’s adaptation is lucid, the language unlaboured, unadorned (effectively homing in on a few key words like “disgusting” and “nothing”) and peppered with just enough of the vernacular in the mouths of the minor characters to make sense of the unforced cultural transposition.

Ascher’s Ivanov for the Sydney Festival in 2009 located that earlier Chekhov work in 1960s Hungary (the effect, both seductive and disturbing, as I mentioned at the time [RT89], was not unlike watching one of Czech director Milos Forman’s 60s films). With its broader, less centred social palette and Ascher’s large company, Ivanov allowed for radical stage invention and an acute sense of analogies drawn between different eras. The STC-Ascher Uncle Vanya is much more restrained in its transposition; doubtless the play’s tighter structure left little room for anything more than Australian ambience in sound, light, occasional diction alongside uncluttered, un-rhetorical contemporary playing. Chekhov’s ecological sensitivity voiced by Astrov, still feels starkly contemporary. This surprised some in the audience who suspected adaptor Andrew Upton of updating the play because the STC has just gone seriously green at its Wharf venue (www.sydneytheatre.com.au/visit/greening-the-wharf).

Brendan Cowell, Wayne Blair, True West, Sydney Theatre Company

Brendan Cowell, Wayne Blair, True West, Sydney Theatre Company

Brendan Cowell, Wayne Blair, True West, Sydney Theatre Company

true west

A suburban home outside Los Angeles: kitchen, pot-plants, a writer at work, someone standing in the dark behind him. The sense of threat is immediate (the set thrusts out almost into the audience) and is sustained throughout American actor and director Philip Seymour Hoffman’s account of Sam Shepard’s True West.

The threat develops an increasingly delirious edge as the renegade desert-dweller Lee (Wayne Blair) takes over the life of his screenplay writer brother Austin (Brendan Cowell), goading him into crime (Austin opts for the non-violence of stealing toasters), usurping Austin’s contract with a producer so that he can get his ‘true’ western made, and forcing Austin to help him script it (“I want to do it myself…just help me get the talking right”). Lee, however, becomes preoccupied with the very art he has hitherto viciously derided (“What? You’re paid to dream?”) while Austin begins to reject anything that will compromise his integrity as a writer. He declares there is no true West (the streets of his childhood now look to him like replicas) and grows seemingly insane, but appears, at the very least, to be his own man. Art becomes too much for Lee who decides to return to the desert, despite having admitted that it has never constituted freedom so much as a refuge from the punishing suburban life that rendered him an outsider in the first place.

Shepard, like his near contemporary Harold Pinter, generates menace by creating in Lee a master manipulator who uses the ambiguities of language to trap his less verbally skilled prey with skewed logic and rhythmically forceful delivery. Lee’s aggression is compounded by physical threat, driving Austin to hide ineffectively amidst the pot-plants and to reluctantly comply with his wishes. Lee likewise repeatedly smashes the typewriter that will not yield the words he wants and, with Austin, eventually trashes their mother’s home as their joint reality becomes increasingly unhinged.

Blair’s Lee speaks with an almost movie-gangsterish growl, occupies space as if it was his alone, moves suddenly from sheer stillness into attack mode, and, most frighteningly, in his moments of revelation, stares wide-eyed into the distance as a prelude to some act of nastiness. Cowell’s Austin is tight, hands kept close to the body, his speech and walk neat, verging on fey. As the role reversal unfolds, Austin manically asserting himself (making a mountain of toast) and Lee rattled by the demands of art, the mood and body language changes: Austin becomes the threatening, psychotic presence. Blair and Cowell execute the reversal expertly, on the way adroitly playing out the episodes Shepard binds to riffing arguments about Idaho plates, art, golf, movie car chases and scriptwriting (a rare moment of hilarious unanimity over the rightness of, “I’m on intimate terms with this prairie”).

Wayne Blair, Brendan Cowell and Phillip Seymour Hoffman have finely realised True West’s raw, scary, scintillating portrait of brotherhood—loveless, intimidating and, finally, deadly, revealing how exclusion, the broken family and (as the nearest-to-hand excuse for Lee) Hollywood-fuelled creative ambitions can combine explosively. True West is a further step in STC’s welcome engagement with American theatre, its plays and its artists, while the invitation to Tamas Ascher to direct Uncle Vanya has proven to be even more cross-culturally inspired.

Sydney Theatre Company: Uncle Vanya, writer Anton Chekhov, director Tamas Ascher, performers Richard Roxburgh, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, John Bell, Hayley McElhinney, Sandy Gore, Anthony Phelan, Jackie Weaver, Andrew Tighe, designer Zsolt Khell, lighting Nick Schlieper, composer/sound designer Paul Charlier; Sydney Theatre, opened Nov 13; True West, writer Sam Shepard, director Philip Seymour Hoffman, performers Wayne Blair, Brendan Cowell, Alan Dukes, Heather Mitchell, designer Richard Roberts, lighting Paul Jackson, composer, sound designer Max Lyandvert; Wharf 1, STC, Sydney, opened Nov 2

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 36

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Madeline Ritter

Madeline Ritter

Madeline Ritter

FROM THE EARLY 1990S MADELINE RITTER, A TRAINED LAWYER, HAD BEEN AN INDEPENDENT DANCE PRODUCER AND PRESENTER IN GERMANY WITH A STRONG INTEREST IN EXPERIMENTAL DANCE FILM AND VIDEO AND DANCE INCORPORATING NEW TECHNOLOGIES. SHE INITIATED LABORATORIES, NETWORKS AND FESTIVALS, CURATED DANCE PROGRAMS AND SAT ON JUDGING PANELS IN EUROPE AND THE UK. AS A FUNDER, SHE NOW WORKS ON THE STRUCTURES FROM WHICH ARTISTIC PRODUCTION CAN EVOLVE.

Ritter has been the director of the five-year Tanzplan Deutschland (Dance Plan Germany) which, although completed in 2010, has left significant legacies for German dance, yielded new ventures and been imitated in many other countries. I met Ritter when she recently accepted an invitation from Ausdance to visit Australia.

The aim of the Tanzplan project from 2005 to 2010 was to act as “a catalyst for the German dance scene…to provide dance in Germany with more recognition and establish it as an art form of equal value along with opera and theatre in the public perception and in the perception of those responsible for cultural policy” (www.tanzplan-deutschland.de). Tanzplan, Ritter explained, was initiated by Germany’s Federal Cultural Foundation. She describes the foundation as “very unusual, a new organisation with an annual budget of €35million and an artistic director—something totally new for a funding body—with an artistic policy. The artistic director Hortensia Völckers had been the director of the Dance Festival München and an independent art curator.

“To put it simply, there are two strands to the foundation. One is very well defined; people can apply for funds and there are juries and so on. Then there is a significant part of the budget which is totally free— an amount that is not set and the Federal Cultural Foundation can decide itself what to do with the money it allocates. The foundation looked at the state of art in society and the first thing it did when it started in 2002 was to take up different themes like shrinking cities, migration or the future of work. It allocated several million euros, talked to people and secured art organisation partners to do very practical, hands-on things—praxis as research—in a very sophisticated way.”

Ritter explained that an initial focus on dance allowed for the emergence of Tanzplan Deutschland with a budget of €12.5m over five years. “The community was asked what the deficits in dance were and what could be done if a lot of money was given to an organisation. Two deficits were indicated: limited professional education and a lack of awareness, visibility and understanding of dance in society. First it was thought that we needed to do the biggest dance festival of all—a national festival for people to really see what dance is. Twelve curators were asked to present ideas—I was one of them. I looked at the deficits and I thought a festival wouldn’t solve them. A festival has to have an independent artistic spirit, and if you impose a cultural policy agenda it won’t fit.”

Ritter instead addressed other problems: “As an independent producer I had been frustrated with the way funding bodies looked at or were communicating with artists, producers and organisations. These were the ones doing the work, not as people needing funding, but as those who can really define the city, who are partners in developing what culture means in the city. How could we bring these two sides together, on equal footing? So the backbone of the Tanzplan strategic plan came from my experience as an independent producer and a lawyer who is used to looking at points of contention.”

Consultation ensued and became a constant in Tanzplan’s operations. “We travelled, invited politicians and artists to meet us in cities where there were professional dance scenes and institutions and we said, ‘We’re willing to invest €1.2m in your city if you have a great idea, a vision of what would really help dance in your area.’ We asked them to be very specific and to work together. In the end nine cities were selected for Tanzplan Local, “including the big ones from Berlin to Frankfurt but also middle-scale cities like Potsdam and Bremen.” All projects had to “be based on an existing, active dance scene, had to forge alliances with regional and community cultural administrators and local partners, have obtained 50% co-funding from their city or state authority, or from foundations or sponsors…[and] provide points of contact between classical and modern dance, theory and practice, the ordinary public and professionals, open up dance to a new audience and communicate its activities [and] continue to function sustainably after the end of the project” (www.tanzplan-deutschland.de). Ritter says that with the completion of Tanzplan Local “most of the projects have received local and regional funding to go on without our help.

“Over 450 dance institutions collaborated over the five-year period, nearly 900 dance works were produced and thousands of young people participated in the educational projects. These ranged from the creation of a unique space in Hamburg for a new choreographic centre, K3 at the Kampnagel arts venue, to a touring program for state-run and independent companies in northern Germany and the establishment of well-equipped residencies in several of the Tanzplan cities. In Düsseldorf, tanzhaus nrw collaborated with more than 20 local institutions to involve in and infect with dance as many kids and teenagers as possible. In Essen, PACT Zollverein creatively nurtured thinking about dance and in Dresden Semper Opera, Palucca School and Centre for European Arts Hellerau joined forces to support young professionals. Dance congresses in 2006 and 2009, an international co-production fund and Tanzplan’s comprehensive educational initiatives added to the assault from all sides. Through matched funding the original budget of €12.5 m was raised to €21m.”

Ritter regards ample time and independence as the essence of the success of Tanzplan: “There was a gestation period of over five years, each city had plenty of time for their project and was totally free—it could change direction when something wasn’t working. What I really learned was communication. We used mediators and external consultants to work on really concrete problems, how to bring people together to dialogue. A tough one in the education program was the challenge of bringing together the heads of all the dance universities, all 11 of them to talk to each other and work together. It took my colleague Ingo Diehl one year of preparation before we got them together for the first meeting. On the matter of archiving we invited an Australian, Michelle Potter to advise us; we were inspired by the way Australia brought together the National Library and the National Film and Sound Archive to create the Dance Collection. This was a good way to beat resistance to the sharing of archives.” There is now an Association of German Dance Archives.

The Education Program has been an important aspect of Tanzplan: “Now we have a dance biennale for students, the next generation of professionals: they meet every two years with funding which in the future will be secured from the Minister of Education. Our goal is to enhance not just awareness of but knowledge about dance—of what’s happening in dance in the world, the praxis.”

Another major project in education has been the establishment of the Inter-University Center for Dance Berlin (HZT) which started out as a pilot project of Tanzplan Berlin in 2006 and is now administered by the University of the Arts Berlin and the School for Dramatic Arts in cooperation with the Network TanzRaumBerlin. Ritter says that the centre “developed from the independent dance scene and its needs. Anyone can apply to do the bachelor degree—a gardener say, because it’s not about bringing everyone on stage and making them beautiful dancers but giving them a profound knowledge of dance which they might later use for anything they do.” Ritter laughs: “A little problem: the gardener wanted to dance on stage!” The university’s BA and MA programs “offer a reflective and experimental approach to study and combine practice-led artistic and theoretical teaching, as well as practical career guidance” (www.udk-berlin.de/sites/tanz/content/index_eng.html).

Another Tanzplan legacy is Dance Techniques 2010, a publication in book form, DVD and website, available in English (ISBN 978-3-89487-689-0). It is the outcome “of a three-year research project on contemporary dance techniques in which renowned dance institutions in Germany and Europe were invited to take part. Its goal is to provide comparative insight into the various transmission models of dance technique and to make practical and theoretical knowledge applicable” (www.tanzplan-deutschland.de).

Madeline Ritter is now working on another Federal Cultural Foundation initiative, a four-year funding project on the heritage of dance and on the partnering of schools and dance organisations. “I will be working on this with a colleague with all the knowledge we acquired from Tanzplan. Other things we are doing include setting up a national dance office because we feel a communicator-moderator is needed, and also creating a Digital Dance Atlas with the Academy of the Arts, Berlin, to be launched in 2011.” The Atlas “offers viewing of full-length dance works and access to treatises covering many aspects of dance, and the history of dance since 1900, with a particular focus on Germany. An additional area has been set aside for documentation and thematic dossiers” (www.tanzplan-deutschland.de). Ritter adds, “We’re also looking at what other countries are doing. We feel a real affinity with Ausdance, which is so connected to the needs in dance and the people in the field.”

Beyond her latest plans, Madeleine Ritter feels that art in Germany has to deal with too much established infrastructure: “I would like to infiltrate the state theatre system and its 62 dance companies, open them up and bring the outside world in.”

Madeline Ritter visited Australia at the invitation of Ausdance National, assisted by the Goethe-Institut, the Australia Council and Tasdance.

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 24

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Armadillo

Armadillo

“YOU HERE FOR THE FILM FESTIVAL TOO?” THE IMMIGRATION OFFICIAL ASKED WEARILY. WITH OVER 300 FEATURES SCREENING IN 10 DAYS, TORONTO HAS NOW OVERTAKEN VENICE AS THE MAIN FESTIVAL IN THE SECOND HALF OF THE YEAR. IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO SEE EVERYTHING BUT, BY CONCENTRATING ON CERTAIN STRANDS, YOU INEVITABLY CARVE OUT YOUR OWN FESTIVAL. THIS YEAR, MINE INVOLVED THE DOCUMENTARIES THAT SHOWED FILMMAKERS PUSHING NON-FICTION FORMS IN NEW DIRECTIONS.

Just as new lightweight technologies spurred the reinvention of documentary forms in the late 1950s, digital technologies have made documentaries easier to shoot, but more importantly, easier to market through a more diverse range of distribution platforms including more television outlets which concentrate on non-fiction, and the burgeoning film festival circuit. Cannes, Toronto and the festivals that feed off them, now serve as launching pads as important as the specialised doco festivals.

patricio guzmán, nostalgia for the light

Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light was cast in the light of a personal essay which begins from the director’s desire to recover a lost past—a sense of belonging to his country Chile in the period before Pinochet. He approaches this indirectly through his focus on two groups, both of which seek clues to understanding the past, working in the Atacama Desert. The dry atmosphere makes this an ideal place for astronomers who look back across immense stretches of time with their telescopes. The second group are archaeologists whose interest in the past is all too immediate by comparison. They join relatives searching for the burial sites of those disappeared by the military during the junta years.

Guzmán’s film is indignant yet fiercely intelligent, movingly beautiful but unyielding in the understated way it countenances the horrors of Chile’s recent history. The two sciences study the universe in extremes of wide shot and close up. The role of the artist is to synthesise the two. As its unlikely comparisons emerge, they are startlingly obvious. Patterns of calcium can be found in the traces of stars and moons, just as surely as in the bones of the dead. When you wonder whether there is anything to be added to the sorry history of the Chilean junta, someone puts it into a larger pattern that finds a powerfully new way to suggest how everything is connected.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

werner herzog, cave of forgotten dreams

Archaeology is similarly the focus of Werner Herzog’s 3D film Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which continues his project of re-describing science within the terms of Romanticism. The Chauvet Caves in southern France contain paintings that date back over 30,000 years. Herzog has a long-standing interest in the physicality of cinema and his adoption of 3D technology here is meant to underscore the way that these wonderfully detailed cave paintings are constructed around the contours of the rock.

Herzog’s interest is the origins of homo spiritualis—beings with a consciousness of having a soul. His career has focused on seeking out the limits of human experience where the outlines of this soul can be grasped most clearly. Here the limit is not a geographical one, as in Encounters at the End of the World, but rather one that is at the start of human time.

In contrast to Guzmán’s interest in the past, Herzog’s interest in archaeology lies in its capacity to provide us with the materials to think ourselves into the position of others. The postscript of the film, which employs the metaphor of albino crocodiles (nothing can be everyday in Herzog’s world) reaching out towards their own refracted reflections, acknowledges that the quest is an impossible one, that all we have to grasp at are representations.

errol morris, tabloid

Errol Morris is another filmmaker whose documentaries foreground the limitations on what documentary can tell us. He makes no pretence at being able to capture the truth. All we can know is what can be assembled from competing stories and the way we can connect these to a stock repertoire of images. His latest film Tabloid is the bizarre story of Joyce McKinney and her moment of fame in the late 1970s when she was charged with kidnapping a Mormon in England and holding him as a sex slave. Joyce’s life has been one lived in the thrall of larger fantasies: gods, dogs and finally the self-conscious drama of her own life.

Morris reconstructs the mosaic of stories put forth by McKinney and other surviving participants, particularly the British tabloid reporters who have certainly never been held back by onerous notions of truth. He frequently interpolates graphics and clips from old movies and TV shows, and uses a wash of abstract music as a distancing effect. These are fairly familiar tactics for Morris, though the sensationalised story of McKinney doesn’t provide the type of rich contrast of more serious stories (The Thin Blue Line) or political memoirs (The Fog of War). At his best, Morris works to abstract and defamiliarise the documentary form and make us question the way we arrive at judgements concerning the truth. On more lightweight material, his style seems merely clever.

janus metz, armadillo

It is a commonplace these days to question the distinction between fiction and documentary. Janus Metz’s Armadillo is a documentary which edges its way towards a realist fiction such as The Hurt Locker in its exploration of the adrenalin rush of contemporary war. We follow a team of Danish soldiers through a tour of duty in Afghanistan with intertitles counting down the remaining months in a device similar to Kathryn Bigelow’s film. There are plenty of other devices familiar from fiction films: slow motion, extensive use of non-diegetic music, montage sequences, gradation filters. The assumption is that you need to augment phenomenal reality if you want to arrive at the truth of a moment.

And the truth at which Metz arrives is pretty unvarnished. These soldiers are neither mythicised heroes nor vulnerable innocents. They are a bunch of blokey types sent to do the wrong job. Their training is in shooting people, and while they are keen to do some of that, the bulk of their task turns out to be talking with the locals, fielding the complaints of farmers whose fields are trampled, whose animals are killed and whose families are caught in the crossfire.

Armadillo (the code name of the Danish base) provides a genuinely fresh and immediate perspective on the war in Afghanistan by showing that the war isn’t something that happens only to our soldiers. It happens to Afghanis and the glimpses we see of their commonsensical scepticism about the western military speak volumes about the futility of our engagement there.

jørgen leth, erotic man

Last, and certainly least, we come to Jørgen Leth’s essayistic documentary, Erotic Man. Leth (who you might remember from Lars von Trier’s The Five Obstructions) travels around Latin America making this film and screwing women. The two are closely related. He thinks he is making the film as an anthropological examination of erotic attraction, but it seems more likely that it’s a way for him to get laid. He pursues eroticism with such ponderous self-absorption that is hard to care either way. Leth has become one of those bores who endlessly contemplates the type of film he is making. He claims to have a deep love for women but, of course, it is a love only for the very limited ideas about women he imposes on a bunch of aspiring actresses unwise enough to become the objects of his camera/dick. And here we have it: Jørgen Leth has become the caricature of the cinema that a lot of bad theory in the 1970s saw as its totality.

35th Toronto International Film Festival, Toronto, Canada, Sept 10-19, http://tiff.net/thefestival

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 16

© Mike Walsh; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Matthew Day,Thousands

Matthew Day,Thousands

Matthew Day,Thousands

THE SYDNEY FRINGE FEATURED SOME 200 SHOWS OF WHICH I CAUGHT A MERE HANDFUL AT PACT AND CARRIAGEWORKS. IT GRABBED A LOT OF MEDIA ATTENTION, ATTRACTED LARGE AUDIENCES FOR SOME SHOWS (ESPECIALLY AT CARRIAGEWORKS), SMALL FOR OTHERS (SOME ARTISTS COMPLAINED TO THE PRESS ABOUT LACK OF MARKETING SUPPORT), HANDED OUT MANY AWARDS WITH ITS SPONSORS AND TRUMPETED HUGE TICKET SALES, 35,000, AND MASSIVE BENEFITS FOR THE LOCAL ECONOMY. WISELY FOCUSED IN INNER CITY SUBURBS (REDFERN, ERSKINEVILLE AND MARRICKVILLE), THE SYDNEY FRINGE MAY WELL HAVE GAINED SUFFICIENT TRACTION IN 2010 TO GUARANTEE ITSELF A FUTURE.

matthew day: thousands

We’re seated mere feet away from Matthew Day, alert to the increasing tension in his body as he balances horizontally, close to the harsh floor on a mere two points of contact, suspended for a brief eternity before unfolding into a rotating, standing series of subtle transformations for…I don’t know how long. Time is erased as Day seamlessly mutates into slow-mo, non-literal evocations suggestive of body-builder, dance clubber (bizarrely headless as he faces away from us, head dipped), martial artist, butoh dancer, sportsman… as well as suggesting the body young and then strangely aged. The precision, control and focus are breathtaking. This is not dance in the usual sense, but it takes all the skill, strength and creativity of a talented dancer-choreographer to realise this acutely delineated state of being. Day, who studied at the University of Western Sydney and the Victorian College of the Arts, describes himself as a choreographer and dancer who works across dance, performance, film/video, queer cabaret, drawing and theory. Watch out for more from Matthew Day.

Skye Gellmann, Retinal Damage

Skye Gellmann, Retinal Damage

Skye Gellmann, Retinal Damage

skye gellmann: retinal damage

Skye Gellmann, of Scattered Tacks fame (RT97), likewise induces an altered state in his audience. Two small rows of us face each other across a narrow performance space, plunged into darkness save for the flickerings of a slide projector that enable the artist to undo our perception of space. We see Gellman appear and disappear; we feel the rush of air and the too-near proximity of his body as he somersaults between us in the dark; we watch with the scary luxury of a close-up as, inches away, hands on wooden blocks, he walks upside down. As with Matthew Day, the proximity of the performance, the artist’s control, focus and inventive visual play, and a sense of risk, make for a very special experience of the body.

appelspiel: appeloft

Appeloft is performance taken to the nth degree of informality and apparent happenstance. Again, intimacy rules, but skill and focus are out of the picture—calculatedy elided in favour of building an aura of spontaneity. We’re seated on ancient lounge suites, fed homey cakes and treated like acquaintances who’ve wandered into a student party and are expected to participate, if with minimum pressure. The performance climaxes in a collective dance in sleeping bags. It’s painless fun with stories that don’t go anywhere (these people remind us just how slick Forced Entertainment are), games that don’t make sense and a silly making of a radio play that amusingly toys with vegetables and the relation of image to sound. But threaded through the non-sense are matters that are not played for their drama but nonetheless suggest deeper concerns: a female performer who is losing her eyesight decides she wants to cut the fruit that will be handed out to us, and an odd tale is told of the opening of revealing letters to a presumed-to-be-dead previous tenant. This is amiable performance, hovering between script and improvisation and dependent on the company’s ability to consistently riff in the party manner, which it largely did. I look forward to seeing what Appelspiel (whose members studied together at the University of Wollongong) can get up to beyond the party format.

elbow room: tiny chorus

Elbow Room’s well-travelled, much praised, Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney Fringe festivals’ audience favourite, A Tiny Chorus is a clever take on the mechanics of clown duos of the ilk of Laurel and Hardy but, significantly, without manifesting the physical violence that typically results from dumb errors, envy, greed, embarrassment and one-upmanship that characterise the form. These are all on show in A Tiny Chorus, but crystallised into near stillness, slow, slow burns, simple motifs (a red straw and scissors) and routines (involving variously a jar of gherkins, jelly and a balloon) and climaxing with the requisite pathos as one clown gives the other heart, and a voice. The director and performers clearly know their clown stuff, even if it is stripped back and very knowing, delivering a meticulously crafted production, occasionally funny, if never hilarious.

aerialize: clammy glamour from the curio-cabinet

The sense of risk and mortality inherent in circus is made palatable by the pleasures of clowning, spectacle and the erotic. In Clammy Glamour from the Curio-Cabinet, Annabel Lines and Simone O’Brien, directing for the Aerialize circus training centre, heighten the engagement with death (a skeleton man, a possible killer) and sexuality. They weave together a large cast of skilled performers in an impressionistic, Edwardian gothic saga of seduction, rivalry, abduction and murder where the tools of the circus trade (ribbons, ropes, nets, trapeze and hoops) become the means not merely for virtuosic performance but equally for entrapment. The variety of characters (a lizard-like green imp, a hare, a clockwork doll, ‘diabolical’ twins), routines and layered deployment of the large performance space lend Clammy Glamour (there’s not a little sweat exuded) an epic quality that overrides the opacity of its delirious narrative. A little trimmer, more organic re-working would be worth a return season.

tantrum theatre: peepshow

Newcastle’s Tantrum Theatre presented a version of their March 2009 production Peepshow, a site-specific response to the architecture and history, real and imagined, of the city’s Civic Arcade. Inevitably that specificity was lost when transposed to PACT’s courtyard, foyer and performance space, but we did get a glimpse of some of the talent of this youth company’s senior ensemble. We were led through a series of solo performances, entailing encounters with a scary homeless guy blessed with tunnel-vision wit; a feckless party hostess determined to keep imaginary sexist male guests at bay; another hostess, anxious that we know our place and manners; an abrasive, sexist porn filmmaker who corralled us into auditioning; and, finally, a business woman frantically grappling with a whiteboard with a mind of its own—a finely sustained piece of comic business. While most of the performers got the tone right for their personae, the overall impression of Peepshow in this setting was of incomplete episodes and an absence of overall structure and context, for which the calibre of the performers was some compensation.

The Sydney Fringe: Matthew Day, Thousands, sound design James Brown, PACT, Sept 18-25; Skye Gellman, Retinal Damage, www.skyebalance.com, PACT, Sept 10-17; Appelspiel, Appeloft, PACT, Sept 17-25; Elbow Room, A Tiny Chorus, director Marcel Dorney, performer-devisors Eryn Jean Norvill, Emily Tomlins, CarriageWorks, Sept 10-25; Aerialize, Clammy Glamour from the Curio-cabinet, directors Annabel Lines, Simone O’Brien, CarriageWorks; Tantrum Theatre, Peepshow, director Brendan O’Connell; PACT Sept 16-23

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 37

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Karen Pearlman

Karen Pearlman

Karen Pearlman

“IF EDITORS CANNOT ARTICULATE WHAT MAKES EDITS, EVEN ‘INVISIBLE’ ONES, GOOD, THEN THE JOB OF EDITING MIGHT AS WELL BE DONE BY SOMEONE CHEAPER, FOR EXAMPLE THE DIRECTOR’S BROTHER WHO IS GOOD WITH COMPUTERS.” KAREN PEARLMAN

There are some great books on editing. There is The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing, in which Michael Ondaatje interviews the smart and passionate Murch on his work as a film and sound editor. There is director Edward Dmytrk’s On Film Editing where he discusses the essential craft and practice of editing from a filmmaker’s point of view. There is also Sam Rohdie’s Montage and Jacques Aumont’s Montage Eisenstein, which are poetic studies of the aesthetics of editing in the work of filmmakers as diverse as Renoir, Antonioni, Kitano, Fuller, Rivette, Resnais and Eisenstein. So what could a new book on editing offer? Well, actually, quite a lot.

Cutting Rhythms: Shaping the Film Edit is an insightful new book written by Dr Karen Pearlman who is Head of Screen Studies at the Australian Film Television and Radio School, co-director of the Physical TV company, a professional film editor, dancer, choreographer and lecturer. Pearlman combines her knowledge, skills and experience from her different creative and educational practices in this book. In fact, it is her work as a dancer and how it informs her thinking about editing that makes this book such an original and refreshing contribution to the literature.

Pearlman tells us that one of the first things that motivated the book was the mysticism and vagueness that surrounds the way so many editors talk about their craft. She cites editors who have described their approach to editing as “magic” (Sheldon Kahn), as something that “feels right” (Carl Kress) and something that is “exclusively in the realm of intuition” (Merle Worth). The repetition of these responses led Pearlman to the central questions of her book such as, “How is this intuition developed or acquired and how is it actually working in the process of editing rhythms?” The book, based on her PhD dissertation, goes a long way towards answering these questions.

In the first section Pearlman unpacks and demystifies several key concepts as well as discussing her own particular approach. She begins with a fascinating discussion of the mysterious notion of intuition, making good use of Guy Claxton’s work in The Intuitive Practitioner. Claxton proposes that intuition consists of six types of thinking: expertise, implicit learning, judgment, sensitivity, creativity and rumination. Pearlman uses these ideas to try to understand intuition, arguing that it is, in fact, something that can be learned and developed through “practical and theoretical experience and education.” She brings together the poetic observations of the filmmaker Tarkovsky with the work of neurologists and physiologists to establish a foundation for “rhythmic intuition” that is based on the knowledge of the human body. In the case of the editor, she says that intuition can and should come from knowledge of the world, knowledge of the editor’s own body and knowledge of the cinema and its actors. She suggests that editors need to sensitise themselves to these different kinds of knowledge and bring this to their practice.

The central concept of rhythm is something that Pearlman goes on to explore at length, examining the many ways in which rhythm can be shaped, and what its function and role in our experience of the cinema might be. For Pearlman, editing is the art of shaping movement, and movement is the material that the editor works with to create rhythm. This art of shaping movement is something that she has developed in her work as a choreographer and dancer. She describes choreography as “the art of manipulating movement: phrasing its time, space, and energy into affective forms and structures.” She links this in compelling ways to editing which she argues is also a form of choreography, and suggests that “dance and dance-making processes might provide craft and inspiration for editing.” The connections between choreography and editing as arts that both manipulate movement lead Pearlman to some surprising techniques.

In the second section of the book Pearlman provides an extended examination of different kinds of movement and rhythm and discusses how they work in the process of editing. Each chapter involves an account of key concepts like physical, emotional and event rhythms that are then followed by case studies as well as activities to illustrate and demonstrate these concepts. There are instructive case studies of films as diverse as The Godfather (1972), Goodfellas (1990), The Great Train Robbery (1904), Snatch (2000), Requiem for a Dream (2000) and Gone with the Wind (1939), to list just a few. Pearlman writes about films as a practitioner with a passion for understanding the way that images work together to move and engage an audience. Her analysis takes us beyond narrative and characters to energy and movement and the experience of movement and rhythm.

Possibly the most interesting case study in the book is the one in which Pearlman examines the final dance scene of Thursday’s Fictions (2007), a film made by her own production company and which she also edited. The Physical TV Company productions are stories told by the body, and there are parts of the film where the entire story is “carried by the physical.” She explains that her job as an editor was “to re-create not the precise choreography, but the feeling of the choreography.” Pearlman defines the processes she uses to “shape the physical rhythm” of a scene in terms such as “re-choreographing,” “physical storytelling,” “dancing edits” and “singing the rhythm.” She then demonstrates and elaborates on them through close analysis of a scene from the film.

This is a very readable book, written in an accessible style that should appeal to a broad cross-section, including editors, teachers of editing and film enthusiasts.

For those who might be interested in looking further at how Karen Pearlman has put her own theories into practice, she has recently edited Jeni Thornley’s marvellous documentary Island Home Country (2009, available on DVD), which is definitely worth chasing up.

Karen Pearlman, Cutting Rhythms: Shaping the Film Edit, Focal Press, Burlington US, Oxford UK, 2009

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 17

© Anna Dzenis; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Never records, Ted Riederer

Never records, Ted Riederer

Never records, Ted Riederer

OBVIOUSLY BIENNALE FATIGUE HAD SET IN! I HAD DESTROYED MY FAVOURITE PAIR OF SHOES CRISS-CROSSING LIVERPOOL BUT WAS STILL HAUNTED BY THAT UNDER-NOURISHED SENSATION: SURELY THERE MUST BE MORE? AND WHERE WAS THAT MYSTERIOUS SOUND ART SHOW ANNOUNCED ON THE SMALL FLYER I KEPT SPOTTING IN VEGAN CAFES?

I knew I was getting close, somewhere on a cobbled side street just off the Rope Walks, in Liverpool’s manic club zone. I finally stumbled into a doorway with the correct address, but no, just a very funky record store, with a bunch of feral dudes setting up piles of well worn equipment. “Some kind of sound art show around here?” I ventured, “Sorry pal, maybe over the street like.” It looked interesting though, so I hung around a bit; there was even a record cutting lathe in there and heaps of old vinyl—but I was on a mission, my cultural stamina flagging and pressed for time, so across the cobbles I went.

The light switched on only a day or so later while I was discussing the Biennial with Asher Remy-Toledo the curator of No Longer Empty on the Road. I realised the funky record store was indeed an art project, but so convincing a simulation that even the roadies were duped!

Ted Riederer recreated his Never Records project which had made its debut in January 2010 in the old and abandoned Tower Records store in New York City. Riederer’s angle was to propose the record store as a site of social exchange and cultural production, part shop, part archive and part recording studio (hence the roadies with all that gear). During the Biennial, Never Records worked directly with the community, running performance and recording sessions and cutting and publishing vinyl—the local musos were very impressed!

No Longer Empty (www.nolongerempty.org) is a relative newcomer to the New York cultural scene but has already been astonishingly prolific. NLE is a volunteer-run program that takes over empty buildings and public sites, transforming them with temporary site-specific installations and events, often with little or no financial support. Not some flakey, mural painting hobby group, it is structured around professional museum curatorial practices, but is also plugged into the grass roots of artistic production in NYC and offers a platform for young arts professionals to volunteer their services in curatorial, management and PR roles. Asher Remy-Toledo, the co-founder and co-director of NLE, has recently branched out with an international version, NLE on the Road, with the first incarnation at Liverpool (so watch this space).

Okay, just across that cobbled street is a large semi-industrial building, either half-finished or half-demolished, another of those grand architectural projects that ran out of cash, another still-born investment. But just because it didn’t make it as a suite of IT or architects’ offices doesn’t mean it can’t resurrect as a great venue for sound art! Normally contemporary architecture makes a vile context for the sonic arts but this structure is so unfinished and labyrinthine that the 10 audio projects survive without too much cross-talk.

I head for the basement where traces of harmonic pulsing are seeping up the fire stairs. As I fumble around in the darkness of this bunker-like space the harmonics rise and fall, accompanied by swirling, circular traces of LEDs. The eyes acclimatise and the skeletal towers of Ray Lee’s Murmur come into focus, each topped by a rotating jib armed with a speaker, a visual ballet mechanique but sonically closer to the drone of a million industrious honey bees. Concerned about the work’s capacity to hypnotise, I head upstairs.

Turning a corner I narrowly miss falling into Phil Jeck’s Pool of Voices, a whimsical sculptural re-working of 1960s vinyl record players and paraphernalia. Jeck discovered three large pits sunken into the concrete floor and developed a site-specific work around them, literally turning sections into pools in which vinyl discs sink or swim, whilst others contain serried ranks of late valve or early transistor-powered turntables playing a chorus of voice fragments and synthetic sound. Jeck, a Liverpudlian who has worked with records and electronics since the 1980s, focuses on the excavation of meaning and poetry from the traces of history and memory that infuse abandoned technology, as one of his aptly titled prior works announces—Vinyl Requiem.

Leaving the domestic and anecdotal metaphors of the Pool of Voices, I enter a mausoleum-sized space to the sound of Old Glory and a visual horizon formed by five large and very black coffins. Giuseppe Stampone’s Play is inspired by the five countries that have contributed most effectively (and generously) to the collapse of the world economy. Play is a disarmingly simple work, at once theatrical and sinister and as such not unlike any normal funeral. This medley of national anthems is a wake for the wellbeing of millions in which profits have been privatised and debt has been made public—are you still proud enough to sing along?

I have run out of time (and space) and have to jump on a train (and plane) to get back to my own sound art show in Finland, but just before I go, around the corner from Lime Street station is another sound work in the historic Renshaw Hall, now incongruously (one might say savagely) gutted as a car park. Marina Rosenfeld’s soundscape Public Address No. 2 emanates from old-style spectral speakers mounted in the gods of the building, sweeping the transient vehicular traffic with fragments of an abstract composition. To broker a deal to install sound in a public space is one of the trickiest things ever, ergo the almost total paucity of permanent public sound-works. We make a polite and concerned tech-check with the lads in the pay booth and ask after their tolerance for really loud sound art. They grin; as we already know, Liverpool lads are pretty tough!

No Longer Empty on the Road, curator Asher Remy-Toledo, SQUAT program (Social Questioning Using Art Today), www.squatliverpool.com, Liverpool Biennale 2010, Liverpool, UK, Sept 18-Nov 27

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 38

© Nigel Helyer; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

ARS ELECTRONICA 2010 TOOK PLACE IN THE BREATHTAKINGLY CAVERNOUS TABAKFABRIK IN LINZ. THE 160 YEAR OLD PROCESSING PLANT ONLY CEASED PRODUCTION IN 2009, SO THE DUSKY, DAMP SMELL OF TOBACCO WAS STILL IN THE AIR. IN WHAT WAS BOTH A CONCEPTUAL EXPLORATION OF ‘FESTIVAL AS FACTORY’ BUT ALSO AN ATTEMPT TO FILL SUCH A LARGE VENUE, THE MASSIVE PROGRAM OFFERED A MULTIPLICITY OF RESPONSES TO THE THEME OF ‘REPAIR,’ SOME PERHAPS IN DIRECT OPPOSITION TO EACH OTHER, AND MANY DECIDELY ANTI-ELECTRONIC. WITH SO MUCH ON OFFER, I CHOSE TO LISTEN TO THE FESTIVAL FACTORY’S WORKINGS.

winning works

The centre of the festival is the Prix Ars and this year’s Digital Music & Sound Arts category yielded several excellent works. My personal favourite was the kinetic sound sculpture Cycloïd-E by Cod.act (Swiss brothers Michel and André Décosterd) which received an award of distinction. The work comprises five pieces of piping attached at the ends in a way that allows them all to swivel 360-degrees. The base pipe is attached to a motor that causes it to rotate, in turn causing the four other sections to spin on their own axes, resulting in endlessly changing articulations. Within each pipe is a small speaker and oscillator, so the haunting hollow chords doppler as the sculpture dances. For all its complex engineering, Cycloïd-E appears elegantly simple and is totally mesmerising.

Surprisingly, this is the first time that Sound Art has been included specifically in the Prix Digital Musics Category. As we head into the second decade of the 21st century, perhaps this reflects a new ambivalence towards technical wizardry for its own sake and a stronger appreciation of aesthetics. The fact that Canadian artist Martin Bédard’s piece, Champs de Fouilles (Excavations), received an award of distinction certainly exemplifies this. A purely audio experience conceived for speaker orchestra and made from field recordings of excavations around Quebec, Bédard’s piece has direct lineage to the musique concrète and acousmatic schools and is a rich and dramatic exploration of texture and structure. Unfortunately the work suffered from being exhibited in a stairwell, a place of transit rather than contemplation, and was accompanied by the constant thwumping of heavy doors leading to exhibition floors. While Bédard was good-humoured about the situation, it’s unfortunate that a festival so actively engaged in sound culture is still struggling with these elemental issues around the presentation of sound works.

Japanese artist Ryoichi Kurokawa was awarded the Golden Nica for his audiovisual creation rheo: 5 horizons, which fared much better in its presentation context. The installation consisted of five channel audio and vision exploring the flow of exquisitely barren landscapes intertwined with precise digital draftsmanship and was housed in its own half of a warehouse space. However it was in concert form that this work truly came to life with the sense of connection between organic, digital, audio and visual elements combining in an indivisible union that was simultaneously grand and meditative.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable sound performances in the festival took place as part of the Frozen Music opening night events. Japanese artist Ei Wada’s Braun Tube Jazz Band is a wonderful exploration of human-machine interaction. Gathering a bank of old cathode ray television sets, he sonifies the electromagnetic radiation and plays the whole installation like a giant drum machine. The sets are highly responsive to micro and macro gesture as Ei Wada taps, swipes and pinches the hum and drone into complex beats and melodies equally at home in a gallery or on a dance floor.

Rupert Huber, Franz Hautzinger, Sound Space, Ars Electronica 2010

Rupert Huber, Franz Hautzinger, Sound Space, Ars Electronica 2010

Rupert Huber, Franz Hautzinger, Sound Space, Ars Electronica 2010

sounding spaces

An impressive aspect of the festival was the focus on the sonic potential of the Tabakfabrik complex itself. A massive empty warehouse with a natural 12-second reverb was named The Sound Space and programmed with three modes of presentation. Part of the day it was used to channel back sounds from around the site for treatment by the space itself; it was also the place for a range of workshops; and finally it was a performance venue. In reality I’m not sure the space was ever still enough to experience the first mode, blending frequently into the workshop situations. The performances offered a tighter focus, a range of approaches from the vocal play of AGF and the gentle piano mediations of Rupert Huber to the mass improvisation under the guidance of Marco Palewicz. While I’m not sure that all of the performers were consciously exploring its acoustic properties, the space certainly imprinted itself on performers and audience alike: huddled in the centre, dwarfed by its vastness, one felt a kind of humility, according almost a sense of sacredness to these performances.

The Long Concert was a roving event that explored almost the entire Tabakfabrik and, given it was in collaboration with the Brückner Orchestra, featured for the most part a contemporary classical repertoire. Starting off in the long galleries of Bau 1, Karleinz Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglige could have been amazing if it had been presented on the multi-speaker system for which it was composed, or at the very least on something more than the two very small speakers placed in the ceiling. The large crowd had been supplied with cardboard stools requiring origami-like construction, so the entire presentation was accompanied by the shuffling of the arriving audience and their cardboard manipulations. Positioned further down the space, Arvo Pärt’s piano works fared marginally better, as the audience began to settle and let Pärt’s profound simplicity float in the dusky light. Pärt’s music was the focus of the program, with a seated orchestral concert in the main hall and an epilogue of his Fratres pieces in the belly of the Magazin building. Not so adaptable to ambulatory placement, the contemporary classical repertoire was best served by the concert hall setting, but nonetheless produced an intriguing experience that drew in a large local crowd keen to explore the Tabakfabrik.

hearing the hum

A real highlight was the inclusion of Christina Kubisch (Germany) as a featured artist (and juror of the Digital Music & Sound Art Category). Kubisch has developed her practice around electromagnetic reception and transmission. Some of her past works have involved creating content to be received by her specially modified headphones within site specific installations (RT60), but lately she has concentrated on the pure reception of the electromagnetic hum of the world around us. Also exhibited was a recent series of works undertaken in the densely populated Ruhr area of Germany where Kubisch has recorded the electromagnetic hum of transport systems and public spaces. The centre piece is Bewegungen nach entfernten Orten (Movements to Distant Places), a six channel sound installation in which the recordings are composed into a stunning soundcape of shifting waves and overlapping fields of elemental vibration. In another installation, Ruhrlandschaften 2010, Kubisch places 40 numbered photographs on the wall and the visitor, armed with a standard gallery audio guide, can punch in the number to hear the sound of the various locations. This work highlights the surprising range and subtlety in the hum of objects around us: the deep earthy thrum of high tension wires; the staccato beats of a fluorescent sign; the high-pitched whine of a public telephone.

In addition, Kubsich offered walking tours so we might directly experience these energy fields. Having picked up a pair of her special headphones in the city centre, you could follow a designated route of traffic lights, street signs, overhead wires and security gates, or you could wander on your own sonic adventure. You could also go on a tour with Kubisch herself around the Tabakfabrik; this was particularly engaging because she had access to closed off areas such as the power plant. Initially Kubisch was disappointed, as most of the electrical infrastructure had been removed when the factory closed down; however what emerged in its place was perhaps even more interesting. Many of the festival artworks had their own electromagnetic signatures, so Kubisch opened up the possibility of an alternate way of experiencing Ars Electronica—a completely sonic Ars Electronica. Works such as Matthew Gardiner’s Oribotics (origami robots) or Jacob Sikker Remin’s KUBEN made from fluorescent lights, the flat screen monitors of Ryoichi Kurokawa’s rheo: 5, or the numerous video projectors took on whole new aural aspects. This accidental discovery was gently subversive, and a wonderful way to explore the exhibitions.

What Christina Kubisch’s Tabakfabrik intervention highlighted was the many ways to explore and access Ars Electronica 2010. You could experience the elite of media art; marvel at what corporate money can achieve with Honda’s robot ASIMO on display at the Ars Electronica Centre; talk code with the open source community; get your hands dirty repairing furniture in the workshop; or ‘repair’ yourself through self-help workshops. Like the many departments of a manufacturing plant, each area had a different agenda and often a different audience, but working together they brought into meaningful and joyously sonorous production the curators’ vision of the ‘festival as factory.’

Ars Electronica 2010: Repair; Tabakfabrik, Linz, Austria, Sept 2-11

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 18

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

Johannes Sistermanns, SoundPlastic

Johannes Sistermanns, SoundPlastic

Johannes Sistermanns, SoundPlastic

THE GUTTED QUEEN’S THEATRE IN ADELAIDE, A HERITAGE-LISTED GALVANISED IRON AND BRICK CAVERN WITH AN ASPHALT FLOOR, IS THE SITE FOR THE AUSTRALIAN EXPERIMENTAL ART FOUNDATION (AEAF) EXHIBITION (TO) GIVE TIME TO TIME, A GROUP SHOW SURVEYING EPHEMERAL AND TIME-BASED ART PRACTICES THAT HAVE EMERGED SINCE THE 1970S. COLOGNE-BASED ARTIST JOHANNES SISTERMANNS’ PERFORMANCE, IN TIME IS TRANSITION, TAKES PLACE AMONGST THE OTHER WORKS IN THE SHOW, INCLUDING HIS OWN INSTALLATION, INTUITION ROOM.

In the back corner of the theatre, lengths of kitchen clingwrap are tautly stretched between two pillars and the wall to demarcate a small space—the Intuition Room. Two piezo transducers attached to the wrap transmit a high-pitched but barely audible sound recording that lightly vibrates the stretched surface. The wrap reflects ambient light from other exhibits, overhead windows and the distant doorway. This fragile, whispering, Art Povera enclosure contrasts with the barren grandeur of the empty theatre, eliciting a sense of the uncanny.

Sistermanns enters from the far doorway pulling a thick roll of cling wrap, the end of which is attached near the entrance. He walks slowly, stretching the wrap to breaking point behind him, and more sound emanates from tiny loudspeakers in his pockets. He winds the plastic around another pillar and continues his walk, stopping occasionally, sometimes pushing his face into the wrap and singing a wordless falsetto through it that becomes a growl, vibrating it like a piezo and finding the theatre’s sonic resonance. He mimes eating the material before finally reaching the Intuition Room and so connecting the building’s entrance to this temporary space. The boundaries between performance and installation and between installation and site seem deliberately vague, as if they are a continuum. The slowness and abstraction of Sistermanns’ movement suggest powerful emotions on the verge of expression but ultimately withheld, inviting the audience to join in this pre-conscious and even cathartic moment.

Sistermanns later revealed that the sound is a mix of birdsong and ambient noise recorded at Oratunga in the Flinders Ranges, blended with ‘room tones,’ the standing waves created when sound is used to map a room’s sonic character. He has conducted performances at Oratunga in collaboration with architect and academic Gini Lee. This performance is an extension of that project, bringing to the city the sounds of the distant Flinders Ranges, a site that is significant for its Indigenous heritage and for being the location of some of the world’s oldest fossils. Time there is measured in eras.

Sistermanns’ 30-minute performance speaks of wrapping, not in the literal Christo & Jeanne-Claude manner, but symbolically, with the creation of a new space and the transient projection of sound into it to shift its form and character. Transparent plastic wrap can be made visible in the right light and, when transmitting sound, the insubstantial material acts as a carrier of information. Sistermanns has installed such work in a variety of locations and even in a garden to show how sound and space function in relation to each other. The location itself is appropriated as a novel element of the work and renews the audience’s perception of that space. The addition of the performance makes the awareness of sound in space still more acute, even poignant.

Australian Experimental Art Foundation, (To) Give Time to Time: Johannes Sistermanns, Intuition Room and In Time is Transition, Queen’s Theatre, Adelaide, Sept 11

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 40

© Chris Reid; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

{$slideshow} THE OPENING PARTY OF THE LIVERPOOL BIENNIAL RESOUNDED THROUGHOUT THE MASSIVE VOIDS OF THE OLD STANLEY DOCKS—ONCE AN ENGINE OF EMPIRE (AND STILL THE LARGEST BRICK STRUCTURE IN THE WORLD) PUMPING THE ECONOMY OF A CITY THAT, IN ITS HEYDAY, HANDLED 40% OF WORLD MARITIME TRADE. SITUATED JUST TOO FAR EAST ALONG THE DOCKS ROAD TO BE RE-DEVELOPED, THIS GOTHIC LEVIATHAN RECALLS THE LIVERPOOL OF MY UNDERGRADUATE DAYS, A CITY OF FOREBODING POST-INDUSTRIAL LANDSCAPES, BOMB-RUINED WHARVES, DANK COBBLED STREETS, BOND STORE CELLARS WITH SLAVING RINGS STILL INTACT—THE WELLSPRING OF MY DREAMS FOR YEARS TO COME.

The sun has long ago set on the Empire; Blair’s Cool Britannia has likewise sunk beneath the waves, thankfully carrying with it the YBAs [Young British Artists] who now look like the corporate advertising stunt they always were. The Royal Navy may not even be able to afford its four new Trident submarines in what promises to be an economic bloodbath. Only the charity organisations of the Big Society are left to staunch the wounds.

Ironically, the Brits have long recognised the soft power inherent in the arts (cheaper and ultimately more effective than the aforementioned Tridents and their franchised supply of American rockets), so it will be fascinating to watch the two contradictory processes meet head-on over the next year or two. The ever-present and earnest desire in the UK to redefine and renegotiate its social and cultural system along with the stringent restructuring of the economy and governance will create a collision that will prove either toxic or tonic to the arts.

Arts funding in the UK does not shy away from strongly defined policies of social inclusion, cultural cohesion and urban regeneration and has spawned a range of arts organisations (and artists) acutely aware of their social and cultural mission.

Hidden in the old Ropewalks (an area of former rope manufacturing) between the oldest Chinatown in Europe and a massive pedestrian city centre renewal, FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) is one of those curiously British arts centres that operate in the nexus between social engagement and the avant garde.

This is an arts model recognised in theory but yet to be realised in Australia—a multi-arts production house, replete with cinematheque, cool cafe and bar, underpinned by a savvy, socially engaged curatorial program that asks real questions and delivers tough and inventive exhibitions. In Sydney, imagine the MCA without the pretensions and the snobbish restaurant (or the view), an Artspace with an ambitious commissioning program for national and international art projects, a Performance Space that controlled CarriageWorks, or an ICE (Information & Cultural Exchange) that has cultural prominence. Combine all of these and you would be halfway there!

Carl Jung characterised Liverpool as the City of Dreams; for Ginsberg it was The Pool of Consciousness; and for FACT at this year’s Biennial it was Touched—as by a mother, as by a return to an almost forgotten place (I don’t think anyone used that word ‘affect:’ touched denotes so much more).

As ever, biennales are ashes and diamonds affairs; the FACT exhibition was a small cache of the latter, starting with Life Work a One Year Performance by Taiwanese artist Tehching Hsieh (RT90). Dating from 1980 to 1981, this work records an action in the artist’s studio in which he clocked-on to an industrial workers’ time punch device each and every hour of the year, simultaneously photographing a self-portrait, naturally recording his ever flourishing hairdo. The documentation spooled back in the gallery as a time lapse amidst acres of punch cards and small still images. Of course some silly but pragmatic questions arise: how did he go shopping, socialise or stay sane with this regime? However, this self-imposed house arrest may have been the perfect art production strategy for an ex-pat Taiwanese artist in New York working 30 years before the China Art tidal wave swept the world. Hsieh ‘retired’ around 2000 and his elegant endurance performances have gained the status of legend.

Set against the coolly obsessive program of Hsieh’s serialist work the temperature rises in the video by South Korean Minouk Kim that seems to document a group of protagonists (are they a simple tour group somehow lost in the urban jungle, a detachment of citizen protestors or a cell of determined terrorists?) wandering through the contested Four Rivers Project tourist development site in Korea. We are not going to be told and anyhow this is no documentary as the material is shot in the infra-red spectrum using heat-seeking cameras that add overtones, not only of a surveillance and military targeting, but of a post-Holocaust mise en scène. Ironically the aesthetic of the work transcends its politically caustic potential, rendering it eerily mesmerising with a colour palette that recalls exotic tropical aquaria. Like all mature artwork it leaves the material hovering between significations, the synapse of metaphor active.

As we grow older the sound of our mother’s voice over the telephone, once so central, intimate and enveloping, acquires a tinge of sadness that grows with temporal and physical distance. Japanese Meiro Koizumi’s My Voice Would Reach You (single channel video, 2009) delivers us a man engaged in an unchecked emotional outpouring to his mother, but unfortunately distanced by mobile telephony and the frenetic backdrop of downtown Tokyo. Mother, however, isn’t available and the surrogate is a flustered call centre operator attempting to navigate the torrent of speech. The telephonic fracture is a classic exemplar tracing the fissures and voids created by urbanism and technology, a communication network that only makes sense when we are apart, in a ghostly vis-á-vis.

Queues at exhibitions are not my cup of tea, so I skipped Yves Netzhammer’s Dialogical Abrasion (2010) the first time around but the soundscape intrigued me so much that I joined the line, and it was worth the wait. This new project commissioned by FACT is a compound of three elements beginning with an animated 3D netherworld of crash-test dummy characters populating a De Chirico-like dreamworld, performing wordless rituals and transformations. Developing from this dreamscape is a series of IKEA-gone-wrong sculptural situations serving as the domicile of a crash-test being, plus an intermittent spatial soundscape by the composer Bernd Schurer, alarmingly loud and cross-linked with the gallery lighting to illuminate elements of the installation as if in a thunderstorm, an indoor Donner und Blitz.

The final work in the FACT exhibition falls outside of the scope and modus operandi of the above and was curated by Asher Remy-Toledo of No Longer Empty (p38). Finnish artist Kaarina Kaikkonen worked in the atrium of FACT to create a site-specific installation that conceptually looped back into the central theme of Touched, in that it reprised the maternal labour and care expressed in the mundane chores of family life. Kaikkonen collected second hand clothes from the Liverpool community, laundered them and used the fabric to create a large architectural net, ballooning down over the foyer entrance, a work at once communal and familiar but also carrying individual narratives and memories, a combination close to the heart of FACT.

Touched, 6th Liverpool Biennial: International Festival of Contemporary Art, FACT, Liverpool, UK, Sept 18-Nov 28, www.fact.co.uk

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 19

© Nigel Helyer; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Carolyn Connors, The Itch, Chamber Made Opera

Carolyn Connors, The Itch, Chamber Made Opera

Carolyn Connors, The Itch, Chamber Made Opera

I GOT LOST, THE CHAMBER MADE OPERA SIGN HAD FALLEN DOWN IN FRONT OF THE ELWOOD HOME, AND I WAS GREETED AT THE DOOR BY A LABRADOR PUPPY, BUT EVENTUALLY I WAS MILLING AROUND THE OPEN PLAN LIVING SPACE WHERE THE ITCH WAS TO BE STAGED.

Chamber Made Opera’s initiative is bold and timely: to address the arts’ fixation on government subsidy by producing a series of chamber operas in living rooms around Melbourne. The audience commission the work through buying tickets, while the host provides the site and context for the performance. As the lights of Fiona Sweet and Paul Newcombe’s kitchen were flicked on and off, the patrons seated themselves for the itchiest night of their lives.

The 19th century music theorist Eduard Hanslick diagnosed as “pathological” music whose principal effect on the listener was a “morbid irritation of the nervous system.” Beyond the physical excitations of rhythm and melody, music needed form if it was to satisfy the mind as well as the body. Though Alex Garsden’s agitating timbral creations for viola, cello, double bass, and female voice are fitting examples of Hanslick’s “pathological” music, they find their form as the physical side of an allegory, which I would like to call the “itch-scratch” model of the creative process developed by director Margaret Cameron. If Garsden’s music provides the itch, then the scratch is the dramatic form provided by Atul Gawande’s article from The New Yorker, June 30, 2008. If the itch-scratch model applies to all creative activity, then it also applies to Garsden’s compositional process. His use of both traditional and graphic scoring techniques not only represent the creative itch, but also influence the dramatic form of the work.

Gawande tells the story of M who awoke one morning with an itch on her scalp. The itch would not go away: not after medication, surgery nor scratching through her skull to her brain. Gawande likens M’s itch to a phantom limb resulting from a neuropsychological misrecognition of what is really going on in the body. Phantom itches are particularly easy to conjure: I have scratched my scalp three times just writing this paragraph. As The Itch demonstrates, Hanslick’s physical and Gawande’s mental pathologies are closely connected; thinking words such as ‘itch’ and ‘scratch’ is nothing compared to hearing Garsden’s score.

Himself informed by a bout of chicken pox during the composition period, Garsden conjures phantom itches using the most physical of musical resources. With a string trio scraping, rasping and rubbing their instruments for the better part of an hour, the composer makes it impossible to forget that every bowed instrument comes with half a metre-odd of taut, coarse, sticky, powder-coated hair. There are moments of simply unbearable tension produced through brutal, grinding bow-strokes contrasted with niggling tremoli on the edge of hearing.

Performer Carolyn Connors’ seemingly limitless timbral repertoire carries the audience through M’s bildungsroman-like battle with the itch. The audience feels a visceral sympathy with the woman as she resists the temptation to scratch with hair brushes, paint scrapers, gardening forks and bread knives. At least one person had to excuse herself in a (I like to think) sonically induced coughing fit. Though uncomfortably effective in its physical communication of itchiness, Cameron believes there is more to The Itch than meets the ear.

To the director, the itch is a “creative proposition,” an irresistible desire to create that cannot be directly satisfied. As Cameron suggests, “you can develop a relationship to it, a congruent relationship, a kind of equivalence between form and content.” M’s “congruent” answer to her itch is religion, a non-resolution that sees her exhaustedly croak a creepy chorale, holding aloft a crucifix of wire brushes. The pained chorale gives momentary form to her fathomless itch. She holds the crucifix immobile, as a ward against the temptation that previously saw her draw brushes and knives closer and closer to her vulnerable skin, or carve open a grapefruit filled with viscous, green fluid.

If M seeks momentary respite from her affliction through religious rituals and artefacts, Cameron seeks to allay the creative itch with dramatic structure, a process that she frames in terms of making dramatic sense of Garsden’s music. However, Garsden’s own congruent itch-scratch informs the dramatic structure of The Itch through his juxtaposition of traditional and graphic scoring techniques. Garsden’s graphic scores are collages of blood, bone and brain, unfortunately obscured from the audience’s view by the performers’ music stands. The performers read the scores using parameters set by Garsden. The horizontal axis determines duration, while gradations of shade and hue indicate timbre and pitch respectively. As Garsden noted, while the traditional score was made from a sonic basis by sampling and arranging workshop recordings, the graphic scores were produced through a primarily visual process. Like M and her crucifix, Garsden’s graphic resolution to the musical itch evades the fraught business of musical scratching.

In the context of The Itch, Garsden’s juxtaposition of traditional notation and graphic scoring results in contrasting moments of intense, timbral sophistication and freer, wandering movements. While performers and composers attempt to make the rendering of graphic scores as precise as possible, much relies upon a performer’s ability to improvise around a score’s parameters. In this instance, Garsden gives the performers freedom to wander on the vertical axis of the score as they move horizontally through the image, gaining access to different timbres and pitches. The performers also improvise dynamics and the techniques they use to render the timbral and pitch specifications. Providing moments of reflective calm between Connors’ tortured recitatives, they add interest to a performance that threatens to become a too-literal setting of Gawande’s article. Graphic and traditional scoring then form a cross that informs the dramatic structure of the piece. With its restless combination of dramatic form and pathological music, The Itch is itself an example of creative congruency.

Chamber Made Opera, The Itch, composer Alex Garsden, director Margaret Cameron, performer Carolyn Connors, viola Phoebe Green, cello Judith Hamann, double bass Anita Hustas, conductor Brett Kelly; private home, Melbourne, Nov 19, 20

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 40

© Matthew Lorenzon; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

RealTime issue 1 featuring Angharad Wynne-Jones

RealTime issue 1 featuring Angharad Wynne-Jones

RealTime is 100! Well, not exactly. But we have reached our 100th edition and, after a very busy 2010, will celebrate on the occasion of our 101st in February 2011. Performance artist Angharad Wynne-Jones appeared on the cover of our first edition in 1994 before becoming house manager and then artistic director of Performance Space and, later, director of LIFT (London International Festival of Theatre). Most recently she’s been the organiser in Australia of the Tipping Point forums on the relationship between the arts and the future of the environment. The RealTime issue 1 cover reminds us how far we’ve come and the changes the arts have been through and how they’ve changed the world—and not. There’s work to do. We look forward to celebrating our 101st with you in 2011.

Our thanks go to the 40 NSW artists, companies and organisations who wrote statements of support for RealTime after we failed to win funding from Arts NSW for two years running. Now we’re back on the Arts NSW books and deeply appreciative of your generosity. Meanwhile, in the way of the swings and roundabouts of arts funding, after many years of receiving support from and engaging in joint publishing ventures with what is now Screen Australia, we no longer fit that organisation’s more corporate bill or its tiny funding allocation for screen culture. But that won’t deter us—we’ve had an excellent year and 2011 is looking good.

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg.

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

postcard, Dear Father…

postcard, Dear Father…

postcard, Dear Father…

WHEN, IN THE OLDEN DAYS, PEOPLE USED TO WRITE LETTERS TO EACH OTHER, HOW DID THEY IMAGINE THEIR CORRESPONDENTS? TODAY, WHEN WRITTEN COMMUNICATION PROCEEDS VIA EMAIL, SMS, FACEBOOK, TWITTER AND OTHER FORMS, HOW DOES THE WRITER CONVEY A SENSE OF SELF, AND HOW IS IT RECEIVED ON THE OTHER END? THESE ARE THE SOME OF THE QUESTIONS EXAMINED BY ESTHER MILNE IN LETTERS, POSTCARDS, EMAIL, A THOROUGH, SCHOLARLY STUDY OF MEDIA FORMS AS “TECHNOLOGIES OF PRESENCE.”

Central to Milne’s book is the concept of presence; she helpfully offers a working definition of it early in the first chapter: “Presence is an effect achieved in communication…when interlocutors imagine the psychological or, sometimes, physical presence of the other.” The concept is inherently paradoxical, as Milne demonstrates with a degree of skill and subtlety. As she explains, presence “is aligned with the concepts of intimacy and disembodiment,” yet it is achieved via material technologies such as the postal service or email system. The fundamental paradox is that the sense of presence depends on the absence of the other; the “absent body” in correspondence means that “communication partners are not physically present to one another.” Milne is particularly adept at teasing out the implications of this paradox in her historical study of communications from the origins of the postal network to Twitter.

This historical approach is achieved through detailed analyses of a series of correspondences across the centuries. First is a network of British letter writers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, including a correspondence of over 700 letters between Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Mary Russell Mitford. Milne first surveys the beginning of the British postal service before providing a close account of its mechanisms and the types of communication it made possible. One feature emerging from this epistolary correspondence is a longing for “unmediated converse,” that is, for a transcendent presence of the other without the need for the mediating material form of the letter. Yet at the same time, these letter writers thrive on the absence of their correspondent; these prolific senders of letters rarely meet each other in person. Here again is the “strange paradox indeed” of disembodied presence, which Milne traces throughout her study.

The next stop on the journey is the postcard, originating around 1865. Milne sees this media form as the transitional phase between old-fashioned letter writing and email. Communication on postcards was truncated, written quickly and dispatched; these were messages of the
everyday sent by ordinary people rather than the literary middle class. The messages on postcards were also potentially public, at least to anyone who came across them. Yet Milne demonstrates, through a close reading of 140 cards sent by the Australian soldier William Robert Fuller to his sister from the battlefield of WWI, that intimacy, and hence the presence of the writer, could be conveyed by the postcard. This section of Milne’s historical survey, however, is under-developed in comparison to the studies of the letter and of email.

To this latest stage on the journey, Milne devotes considerable energies. She sketches the origins of the internet, investigating claims of its military origins before settling into an examination of presence in email communication, using the list Cybermind as source of examples. The immaterial nature of digital information adds a further twist to the presence/absence paradox, yet Milne uncovers the persistence of the desire for presence in the digital age. This is the theme of her book: that over a 200 year period, spanning different media technologies and distribution systems, the longing for the presence of the other has endured. Milne counters the idea that the progression from letters to emails entails a new distance and loss of personal warmth, by pointing to the abundant evidence of intimacy in email correspondence. She argues that “despite the potentially disruptive, interactive and theatrical nature of email discussion lists, subjects are able to express feelings of intimacy, warmth and affection for one another.”

The strengths of Milne’s book lie in its supple treatment of complex ideas. She is careful in analysis, aware of the pitfalls of overstated theorising, such as claims for ‘revolution’ in media, or the supercession of old media forms by the new. The historical perspective is enlightening, bringing a depth to the study of communication. Claims for the newness of high volume email communication are placed in perspective, for example, when it is remembered that in 18th century London the mail was delivered up to 12 times a day. Milne’s detailed analysis of correspondences made using letter, postcard and email are a valuable feature of her book.

There are weaknesses, however, mostly derived from the book’s origins as a PhD thesis. These are most apparent in the overly dense referencing of secondary sources and the unnecessarily guarded qualifications (“arguably” is used far too many times when stating a position). Some of the long excursions into media history are tangential to the main argument, so that the book becomes bogged down in peripheral details of the pre-history of email or the speed of mail coaches. These rather fruitless excursions come at the expense of some other considerations, which are strangely absent for much of the book. For example, Milne does not discuss the differences between writing a letter by hand and word-processing an email until near the end of the book, and then only by quoting another theorist. Yet surely handwriting—unique in each case—is a major contributor to the specific sense of presence generated from letter writing.

Similarly, Milne mentions only in passing that emoticons were invented in 1979 in response to the “loss of meaning” in computer-mediated communication—but again she makes nothing of this media-specific development. Part of the difficulty here is the reluctance by many academic media scholars to appear ‘technological determinist’ or media determinist—yet considerations of this type are necessary to some degree in this area of study. At least Milne does not succumb to the spurious ‘metaphysics of presence’ arguments perpetrated by Derrida and his followers, although their influence does obscure her theorising at times. Overall, Milne’s arguments are insightful and persuasive, leading us through a 200-year fascination with presence.

Esther Milne, Letters, Postcards, Email: Technologies of Presence, Routledge, New York, 2010

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 20

© John Potts; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Accelerated Geographies, Alex Monteith

Accelerated Geographies, Alex Monteith

Accelerated Geographies, Alex Monteith

ALEX MONTEITH’S ACCELERATED GEOGRAPHIES IS ONE OF ONLY THREE SHOWS IN THE GOVETT-BREWSTER GALLERY’S 40-YEAR HISTORY THAT HAS COMMANDEERED THE ENTIRE VIEWING SPACE. AT THE ENTRANCE, VISITORS ARE ISSUED WITH FLUORESCENT YELLOW EARMUFFS, THOUGH MOST PREFER TO ABSORB THE FULL POWER OF THE HOWLING AND THROBBING THAT PERMEATES THE GALLERY SPACE.

Monteith has put the audio back in audio-visual, and long before you have sighted the full spectrum of multi-screen video installations, your eardrums have become acquainted with their soundtracks, blending subtly, and not so subtly, into a sonic whole that makes the gallery pulsate.

Works are numbered but there is no need for sequential viewing. There is no ‘narrative’ and in a sense all Monteith’s works do the same thing differently, riffing off each other as different angles or points of view trained on the same territory. And territory is one of the things Monteith’s work is all about.

It’s tempting to ascribe the artist’s fascination with the politics of place to the fact that she grew up in Northern Ireland, which perhaps also offers a clue as to why military vehicles (helicopters and airplanes) figure so prominently in her landscapes. It might also explain her deep sympathies with the Maori sovereignty movement, in which issues of land, ownership and occupation remain barely healed wounds.

But there’s another, more immediate aspect to Monteith’s practice which both augments and destabilises her politics; her love of danger and the throbbing machine. Not since the Italian Futurist Marinetti eulogised speed as the only beauty worth celebrating and the motorcar as its ultimate incarnation, has an artist derived such thrills from where the rubber meets the road. Apart from the surfing video Red Session #2, 2009 (Monteith was herself a surf champion), the entire exhibition can be read as a love letter to the internal combustion engine. Unlike Marinetti’s impassioned manifesto, however, Monteith’s digital love letter comes post-peak oil, where the future of excess consumption is uncertain at best. But Monteith’s political persuasions are the polar opposite of the proto-Fascist Marinetti, which makes her 21st century reworking of his macho-machinist lexicon all the more confounding.

But therein also lies the key to her success—for Monteith the petrol-head, the adrenaline junkie is deeply engaged in the communities of pilots, surfers, activists and motorcyclists she portrays. This isn’t some relational art junket where the artist travels the globe forcing dictatorial outcomes upon people she’ll never see again. Alex Monteith is committed to the sports she portrays; whether surfing or motorcycling, she’s just as likely to be in shot as out of it. When this attention is transferred to another community of expertise, for example the Royal New Zealand Air Force, her up-close and personal experiences with the technicalities of risk and speed allow her access to worlds that remain closed to most of us. Speaking a kind of universal language of controlled acceleration, she is, in effect, one of the blokes. Yet her non-bloke status gives the works a subtle nuance, another level in the discourse around insider/outsider, another perspective on territory and community.

The first work the viewer is confronted with is also the most recent, Composition with RNZAF No. 3 Squadron Exercise Blackbird For Three-Channel Video Installation, 2010 (Monteith’s titles are all very Kosuthian in their ‘what you read is what you get’ logic). Three Air Force Iroquois helicopters take off from the South Island’s Leese Valley, tussock grass billowing like tousled fur. I use the furry metaphor deliberately, because for a show all about machinery, there’s a strangely animalistic evocation in the gallery, a growling presence. Perhaps it’s the wildness within that we designate as animal because it scares us? The helicopters are plenty scary as they hover, black and brutish, over misty mountain peaks, the sublime natural landscape matching the magnificence of the war machines. The US Military named the majority of their helicopter models after Native American tribes, and ‘Iroquois’ graced the machine that is forever linked to the Vietnam War, a bitterly ironic label given its use in the attempted subjugation of an indigenous population.

The flipside to military might occurs in a quiet room, where Red Session #2 laps away along four screens, while two protest videos play back to back on a diagonal screen. These aren’t images of people marching or shouting, rather, in keeping with Monteith’s predilection for the motor, and in the era of the shopping mall and the drive-thru, they are vehicular. One features two red Land Rovers flying Tino Rangatiratanga (Maori sovereignty) flags in the Taranaki region, while the other depicts a small phalanx of vehicles, similarly decked out, being escorted by police over the Auckland Harbour Bridge on Waitangi Day 2008 (subsequently, the government decided to allow the flying of the Tino Rangatiratanga flag from the bridge on our national day). Monteith has dedicated Red Session #2 and the Taranaki protest work to the late Te Miringa Hohaia, who was a bridge between Maori and Pakeha activist and artist communities. Hohaia put Parihaka back on the map as the legendary Taranaki site where Maori prophets Te Whiti and Tohu gave birth to passive resistance while Gandhi was still a boy. Parihaka, as much as the Govett-Brewster, has brought artists of a political persuasion to Taranaki, particularly the collective Local Time, of which Monteith is part.

In all this talk of communities, however, let’s not forget the art community, to whom Monteith pays homage with the intense rigour and formalism she brings to each project. The video screen can be likened to an abstract picture plane, and nowhere is this more apparent than Ascents and Descents in Real Time, V1 and V2, 2008, in which motocross riders traverse a sand dune, carving brushstrokes across a great golden canvas. In Composition with RNZAF Red Checkers for Five-Channel Video Installation, 2009, the five yellow tail wings maintain a central verticality while the landscape tilts, other planes loop and veer, and contrails billow across the blue sky. And in Looping Manoeuvre with Shaun Harris and Onboard Dual-Cams for Two-Channel Video Installation, 2008, the motorcycle champion creates lurching diagonals, which are either mesmerising or sick-making, depending on your constitution. It’s a kind of Stargate Sequence for would-be racers, an opportunity for voyeuristic thrills. But what differentiates Monteith is that she is not a voyeur, but a participant. Her work is about delivering her audience that coveted point-of-view shot, so that they, too, can be up close and personal with the action. Her work does not describe these worlds, it lives these worlds, presenting them to us with palpable integrity.

Alex Monteith, Accelerated Geographies, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, Taranaki, New Zealand, Sept 25-Nov 28; www.govettbrewster.com/

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 41

© Tessa Laird; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Cameron Campbell, Suspended Motion

Cameron Campbell, Suspended Motion

Cameron Campbell, Suspended Motion

OON THE CUSP OF THE COMMERCIAL CRACKDOWN ON SKATER CULTURE DURING THE EARLY 80S TWO SKATE MAGAZINES CHAMPIONED OPPOSING MOTTOS: ‘SKATE AND CREATE’ WAS PITTED AGAINST ‘SKATE AND DESTROY’ (SEE THRASHER MAGAZINE [1982] AND TRANSWORLD SKATEBOARDING [1983]). AS TWO ASPECTS OF CHAOS, THE DESTRUCTIVE AND THE CREATIVE ARE PRESENTED AND EXPLORED IN THE EXHIBITION SUSPENDED MOTION CURATED BY JAMES HENSBY AT ARTRAGE’S NEWLY REFURBISHED BAKERY COMPLEX.

These themes are not so much polarised but rather conjoined under the banner of ‘creative transgression.’ The exhibition offers a unique interpretation of the conjunction of art and skateboarding by diverging from the art genres generally associated with skate (street art, illustration and graphics), to deliver a contemporary cross-media display of design, installation, video, performance, sculpture, print, paint, kinetics and an accompanying publication of glorious creation and construction shots.

The opening night witnessed an excitable crowd enthusiastically drawn to artist Ben Barretto’s painting machine and performance. This piece had local skaters pull tricks back-and-forth within the shipping-container spaces of the Bakery and trigger the production of quasi-Modernist paintings. The machine was a sophisticated but also visually awkward contraption and amidst the crowds it was difficult to discern how the real-time action and raw presence of the skating prompted the movement and execution of the multicoloured wheel-like forms on canvas.

The physicality of skating was perhaps more directly communicated in the works displayed in the Black Box space. In Morgan Campbell’s piece, a bench sits alongside a video to bring the creative/destructive collusion to the fore. Violence in the action of skating is demonstrated in the repetition of surface damage; the denting, scratching, staining, scraping grind of not only the surfaces the skate-board hits, but the board itself. A stop-motion video displays the accumulation of paint from a bench transferred to the underside of a board alongside a video of the same board used to pull tricks on the bruised bench, which sits before the video with an air of well worn pathos.

On the opposite wall, a video by Cam Campbell traces the destructive effect of a board as it literally rips through sheets of paper. A ribbon of paper is messily splayed and bundled on the gallery floor and what resembles a loop of this paper is transformed into a ramp that dominates the corner of the room. Again, the evidence of action is present in the ramp’s scarred surface, the process of which can be witnessed on a monitor embedded in its cut-out core. This room has it all—props, documentation, traces of past actions, impact on the built environment, demonstration of tactical manoeuvring and sound to match. It also communicates the high degree of physicality inseparable from the act of skating. Movement is more remembered than suspended and tightly interconnected with materiality and context.

In the Bread Box gallery the works resonate more with abstraction and less with the rawness of the physical act of skating; they are about the conceptual, the minimal, form and design. Tom Muller’s mirrored plywood spine-ramp peaks like a Swiss Alp and recalls the mirrored effect familiar to classic skate videos. Unlike works in the previous room this piece is far removed from the grind of wheels, but it is also a tease because it is skateable. Skateability is then utterly banished in Jason Hansma’s sculpture which also reconfigures the aesthetic of skating through mirroring. It borrows the form and dimension of the ramp from the opening-night performance and reflects it to make a diamond shape. The surface of this shape is overlayed with slick black Perspex, its gleam clearly stating ‘don’t touch,’ its clean, reflective properties celebrated with a thin neon strip placed on the adjoining wall.

The video works in both rooms are distinct in their own right, but it is difficult to read them without being reminded of Shaun Gladwell’s classics, such as Kickflipping Flaneur (2000), where skating as creating is mesmeric and portrayed in conversation with art history. Like Gladwell’s works, the video pieces in the show operate on a different level from the familiar fast, choppy, fish-eyed aesthetic of many traditional skate videos. In continuity with the other works in the show, they meditate on the act of skating as creative and visually compelling, if not romantic, as well as rough and dirty. This re-emphasises the themes of destruction and creation which come together in Suspended Motion to culminate in what is ultimately a dynamic and original engagement of art and skateboarding.

Suspended Motion, curator James Hensby, artists Ben Barretto, Cameron Campbell, Morgan Campbell, Jason Hansma, James Hensby, Tom Muller; the Bakery, Breadbox Gallery, Oct 23-Nov 4

This article was originally published online Nov 22, 2010.

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. web

© Laetitia Wilson; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Elio Gatti, Chiara Guidi and Ashley Dyer

Elio Gatti, Chiara Guidi and Ashley Dyer

Elio Gatti, Chiara Guidi and Ashley Dyer

CHIARA GUIDI ESTABLISHED HER FIRST CHILDREN’S THEATRE EXPERIMENTAL SCHOOL IN 1995 IN CESENA, THE REGIONAL ITALIAN BIRTHPLACE OF ANOTHER WELL KNOWN THEATRICAL PROJECT SHE IS INVOLVED IN, SOCÌETAS RAFFAELLO SANZIO. THE INVITATION FOR CHILDREN TO PARTICIPATE IN THIS THEATRE WORKSHOP WAS POSTED AROUND THE TOWNSHIP.

The young participants could play “a game of war without killing anybody,” or “suffer hunger but never be hungry.” “With my theatre you can do all the things that don’t exist,” because, pointedly, she winks: “theatre is to pretend to be someone who is doing things that are real.”

Guidi’s language, a kind of elegiacally spoken poetry (translated by Elio Gatti at her public talk “The Art of Play within the Contextual Work of the Fairy Tale” at Campbelltown Arts Centre in September), is full of such simple but biting profundities, which underpin what for her is the true condition of theatre. Theatre does things that are real by engaging in pretence. It is a “substitute language” for “words that are poor of world.” It feels, hears, sees, touches and tastes in ways that “reason cannot.”

The adult repertoire of Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio has been well celebrated for its treatment of the sensory materiality of the theatre, a practice that connects intimately to their dramaturgical inversions of real time stage action and fictional image. As theorist Joe Kelleher has written, for example, the infamously brutal bashing scene in BR#04 Brussels (see Lucy Taylor’s review in RT58 and Adam Broinowski’s online) displaces our shuddering reception of the work to become—poignantly—an “image that suffers” on its own terms.

International Masterclass in Contemporary Theatre for Children

International Masterclass in Contemporary Theatre for Children

International Masterclass in Contemporary Theatre for Children

Guidi’s logic, it seems, is that children are less interested than adults in understanding hypothetical divisions between reality and fiction, materiality and language, and hence can intuit how images might suffer and also how to make them do so. She is candid about her reliance upon the genius of childhood for inspiration. This process is a “reverse pedagogy,” she explains, “we are needy of children,” “I need the games of children” to “explore their ability to see through the senses.” This is not merely a theatre for children, nor really even a theatre for childhood, it is a childhood of theatre, and from within it, an adult outsider might just glimpse the time before reality overtook imagination, or indeed, language overtook sensation.

Guidi’s Sydney talk was part of a two-week masterclass for a selection of adult artists and local children to translate and share a kind of prototypical process borne from her Cesena School. One might conjecture that Guidi was teaching artists in Sydney how to teach children to re-teach the adults themselves about the world of theatre. In the documentation images of both her process at the Cesena-based school and the Sydney masterclass, however, this inverse/reversed pedagogy looked both like something never quite seen before and a genuine—although at times intensely dark—collaboration between generations of theatrical imaginers.

The Cesena process began as an experiment with seven meetings over three months. It evolved into a three-year journey, depicted in Guidi’s talk through images that convey the “otherness” of the theatrical world she was co-assembling with her ensemble. For the second year of their journey, for instance, the children wore only white, they focused on gesture and repeated actions and words in a completely white space, they practised how to hear vocality “underneath language,” they imagined “all the weight of a reality”—the precise components that might write their ultimate theatrical scenography. A white horse dreamt up by a child appears in the documentation footage, dancing against a shadowy backdrop, becoming almost-unicorn in the rehearsal space. This is indeed the land where the things that we do have magically real effects. The children—with their painted white faces, white gowns and hoods—crouch around a low-lit dining table of sorts, part mini Ku Klux Klan, part angels. This is the complex dramaturgy that envelops them.

International Masterclass in Contemporary Theatre for Children

International Masterclass in Contemporary Theatre for Children

International Masterclass in Contemporary Theatre for Children

The Sydney artists spent a week with Guidi workshopping her process before the children arrived. Guidi’s structure for the children’s week involved the unfolding of a fable of opposing forces—light and dark—over the length of five days. On each day, a new sensorial perception was explored in the blackened theatre space, as the narrative battle between lightness and darkness (played as characters by the artists) developed. The artists worked all day in preparation for the arrival of the children for a two-hour slot each afternoon, planning and rehearsing, remembering how to imagine the theatricality that a child might take for real. The children’s relationship to the theatrical world expanded over time such that, by the final day, the disappearance of a dog from within the story was cause for despair. This theatrical real feels real; it hurts.

If the world of childhood presents each of us too briefly with the world of theatre, then Guidi, it seems, both encourages the children whom she works with to take their theatrical imaginaries for real, and relies upon those imaginaries to recall the childhood of theatre to herself and others. In an Australian cultural context where working with children is currently so deeply politicised and fraught, Chiara Guidi’s anti-alarmist impulse for a purity of imagination, somehow, cuts straight to the heart of the matter.

“The Art of Play within the Contextual Work of the Fairy Tale,” Public Talk by Chiara Guidi, Sept 30; International Masterclass in Contemporary Theatre for Children, director Chiara Guidi, Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio, in collaboration with Jeff Stein, artistic advisor Jason Cross, produced by Campbelltown Arts Centre, Sydney, Sept 20-Oct 1

This article was first published online, Oct 22, 2010

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 32

© Bryoni Trezise; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

James Turrell, Within without, 2010
lighting installation, concrete and basalt stupa, water, earth, landscaping 800 x 2800 x 2800 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased with support of visitors to the exhibition Masterpieces from Paris

James Turrell, Within without, 2010
lighting installation, concrete and basalt stupa, water, earth, landscaping 800 x 2800 x 2800 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased with support of visitors to the exhibition Masterpieces from Paris

James Turrell, Within without, 2010
lighting installation, concrete and basalt stupa, water, earth, landscaping 800 x 2800 x 2800 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased with support of visitors to the exhibition Masterpieces from Paris

james turrell—space within space

“My work is about space and the light that inhabits it. It is about how you confront that space and plumb it with vision. It is about your seeing, like the wordless thought that comes from looking into fire.” So says American artist James Turrell, whose major new Skyspace work, Within without, recently opened at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Commissioned by the NGA as part of its Stage 1 building project, Within without is located in the new Australian Garden on the south side of the building. In order to enter the work, the audience walks down a long, sloping pathway. Once inside, there is a series of spaces: a large square-based pyramid with soft red ochre interior walls, within which there is a stupa made of basalt; inside the stupa is a viewing chamber—a simple domed space, open to the sky. Within without is at its most dramatic and complex at dawn and dusk, marking the transition between night and day. For those who want additional drama, however, there is also a concert on November 27, featuring the music of John Luther Adams, Gavin Bryars, George Crum and Arvo Pärt. James Turrell, Within without (2010), National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; http://nga.gov.au/turrell/

Lyndal Jones, Rehearsing Catastrophe #1: The Ark in Avoca

Lyndal Jones, Rehearsing Catastrophe #1: The Ark in Avoca

Lyndal Jones, Rehearsing Catastrophe #1: The Ark in Avoca

australian ark

Light is also central to Lyndal Jones’ latest creation, Rehearsing Catastrophe #1: The Ark in Avoca, in which a team of artists and locals will work in the twilight to transform Avoca’s Watford House into an ark using large-scale video projections, sound and live animals. The installation, according to Jones, is meant as a “humorous and imaginative preparation for the next flood” and will also produce a video for exhibition on the Big Screen at Federation Square on December 14. Part of the decade-long Avoca Project (see RT83), Rehearsing Catastrophe #1 is Jones’ first performance at Watford House, working with the local community as well as national and international artists, scholars and climate change experts. Rehearsing Catastrophe #1: The Ark in Avoca, Watford House, 16 Dundas Street, Avoca, Victoria; Dec 2-4; www.avocaproject.org

investigation, meditation, immigration

Still in Victoria, the Melbourne Workers Theatre and La Mama present Yet to Ascertain the Nature of the Crime, a production prompted by the recent spate of attacks against Indian students in Melbourne. The show is described as “part-investigation and part-meditation” and seeks to address the attacks within the broader contexts of current economic, education and immigration policies. The show is structured around a compilation of perspectives from Indian students, as well as verbatim material from politicians, doctors and other social commentators. It also features writing by Roanna Gonsalves, Raimondo Cortese, Damien Millar and the company. See also Jake Wilson’s RealTime 100 review of Suri Mohit’s Bollywood feature film Crook on the same subject. Yet to Ascertain the Nature of the Crime, Artshouse, North Melbourne Town Hall, November 24-28; www.lamama.com.au

Natalie Rose, Zoe Coombs Marr and Mish Grigor

Natalie Rose, Zoe Coombs Marr and Mish Grigor

Natalie Rose, Zoe Coombs Marr and Mish Grigor

the complete idiot’s guide to the gfc

Regarding verbatim and documentary theatre, Sydney’s version 1.0 are conducting another of their performative investigations—this time into the global financial crisis and the near collapse of capitalism, as part of a double bill with post (Zoe Coombs Marr, Mish Grigor and Natalie Rose) to be staged at Belvoir St Downstairs Theatre. Titled A Distressing Scenario, the production consists of two parts: Everything I Know About the Global Financial Crisis in One Hour, in which post attempt to explain the recession based on as little research as possible; and The Market Is Not Functioning Properly, in which version 1.0’s Jane Phegan and Kym Vercoe examine how phrases such as “toxic debt” and “stimulus package” have entered the vernacular. A Distressing Scenario, a double bill by post and version 1.0, Belvoir St Downstairs Theatre, Nov 25-Dec 19; www.belvoir.com.au

live art in brisbane

One of the websites we here at RealTime keep an eye on is live art list australia, which recently led us to discover the Brisbane-based event exist-ence. In the event’s third incarnation, the Judith Wright Centre Shopfront will be “transformed into a breathing, shaking, writhing space for performance, live and action art” over two nights (website). Local artists, including Dan Koop, Goran Tomic, Jan Baker-Finch, and Melody Woodnutt, will present a range of projects including solo, collaborative and durational works. There will also be international artists streaming live online into the venue and presentations of DVDs, archives and “art-i-facts.” exist-ence: a festival of performance, live and action art, Judith Wright Shopfront, Nov 26-27; www.judithwrightcentre.com

Victoria Hunt, Dancing the Dead, LiveWorks

Victoria Hunt, Dancing the Dead, LiveWorks

Victoria Hunt, Dancing the Dead, LiveWorks

inbetween time

If you’re attending exist-ence or tackled Liveworks at Performance Space recently, then you might consider it training for Bristol’s Inbetween Time Festival, which features 75 events by 130 artists. Several Australians are among their number including Ben Frost, Sarah-Jane Norman, Fiona Winning and Victoria Hunt as well as Back to Back Theatre. They’ll be in the mix with Blast Theory, Tim Etchells, Quarantine, Duncan Speakman and Nicola Canavan, among others. The program is divided into several sections such as D-Stable, Lecturama and What Next for the Body; the latter will then continue at Arnolfini until February 2011. Having participated in Inbetween Time in 2006 (RT72), this year RealTime will produce a special e-dition of reviews and articles from the festival to be published online in the second-last week of December. Inbetween Time Festival of Live Art and Intrigue, Dec 1-5 2010; http://inbetweentime.co.uk/

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. web

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

Kym Vercoe, Seven Kilometres North-East

Kym Vercoe, Seven Kilometres North-East

Kym Vercoe, Seven Kilometres North-East

VERSION 1.0 FIRST FOUND FAME THROUGH THEIR GROUP WORKS, SUCH AS CMI (A CERTAIN MARITIME INCIDENT) AND WAGES OF SPIN. MORE RECENTLY, HOWEVER, THEIR SOLO SHOWS HAVE BEEN GARNERING ATTENTION: PAUL DWYER’S BOUGAINVILLE PHOTOPLAY PROJECT AND NOW KYM VERCOE’S SEVEN KILOMETRES NORTH-EAST. LIKE DWYER’S, VERCOE’S WORK IS ABOUT HER AMBIVALENT ENTANGLEMENT WITH ANOTHER COUNTRY, TOLD THROUGH AN ELEGANT COMBINATION OF STORY, SONG AND IMAGE.

Sitting in the slightly dingy surrounds of the Old Fitzroy, spectators see a small stage with two stones, which double as stools; on the opposite side is a shelf with tea, beer and a few books. In the background is a large white wall, onto which the image of a rotating propeller is projected. Vercoe stands on a small stage above this, pegging pillowcases to the four clotheslines that stretch across the upper reaches of the space. Once she has completed her task she enters the lower stage via a door in the middle of the screen.

From here Vercoe introduces herself and her home away from home—Bosnia and Herzegovina—a country with which she feels an inexplicable, and inescapable, connection. She has visited three times, in 2004, 2008 and 2010; or, as she puts it more poetically, in autumn, summer and spring. She has more than 17 hours of video footage from these visits which video artist Sean Bacon has helped her to edit down to a more modest, though still mesmerising 80 minutes. Throughout the play, images of rivers, mountains, flowers and birds dance before our eyes. In fact, birds are a recurring motif, with each section named after a particular species and aligned with a series of video tapes. In between each section, a “songbird” sitting in the audience stands and performs a folk song.

Tapes 1-3, titled Prologue, deal with her first visit: there is a party; a man; some linguistic misadventures; and the discovery of Ivo Andric’s book The Bridge Over the Drina. Tapes 4-7, The Swallow (the symbol of return), deal with Vercoe’s second trip and her visit to this famous bridge in Višegrad. In one striking moment she spreads coffee grounds on the floor in the shape of the bridge and enacts a passage from Andric’s book, her lithe body dancing along the bridge. Towards the end of her trip, in Tapes 7-11 The Cormorant (sometimes a symbol of deception), she visits Vilina Vlas, which is located roughly seven kilometres north-east of Višegrad (hence the title). The hotel is nice enough, however when she returns home she discovers that it was a rape camp during the Bosnian war, a fact not mentioned in the guidebook. This discovery prompts her to email the author. More significantly, it prompts the slow, sickening realisation that in order to make peace with herself (and perhaps to make this piece of theatre), she is going to have to return to the scene of the crime.

Kym Vercoe, Seven Kilometres North-East

Kym Vercoe, Seven Kilometres North-East

Kym Vercoe, Seven Kilometres North-East

The final section, titled The Nightingale (whose song is sometimes interpreted as a lament), sees Vercoe back in Bosnia where she meets the author of the guidebook as well as journalists who covered the war. When it all proves too much, she puts on her headphones and listens to A-Ha’s “Take On Me.” The music blasts through the space as she dances her way across the floor, smearing the coffee bridge in the process. The movements resemble Vercoe’s previous dance, which we had assumed was her interpretation of Andric, but thanks to video footage in the background we can now see that she has borrowed the moves from someone we assume to be a Bosnian busker.

For the most part, Seven Kilometres North-East is thoughtful, beautiful and beguiling, so if there is a criticism to be made of the performance, then it is a criticism of memory culture more broadly. Vercoe’s easy (over)identification with the victims—unable to sit where they might have sat, thinking about how her own unknowingness echoes theirs—means that her role, and ours as bystanders go largely unexamined. Though we may not have stood and pegged clothes on the line while looking at the rape camp down the hill, we are all complicit in the crime to varying degrees. Indeed, this is one of the insights of the show, which could be pushed further—innocent, ignorant, distant and belated, it may be that there are many types of bystanders, many modes of complicity.

There are also many modes of erasure. When Vercoe contacts a local history centre for the information about the women who were in Vilina Vlas, their names cannot be released—one final annihilation, as she puts it. Similarly, when the new guide to Bosnia is released, the entry on Vilina Vlas has not been amended but simply deleted.

On that note, Vercoe strips off, opens the door and steps into the shower. The image of the bridge is projected onto her naked back as she washes herself clean of sins that were not hers, are not ours and yet are everyone’s. Eventually she steps out of the shower but the water continues running, weeping, cleansing—until finally, it stops.

Version 1.0, Seven Kilometres North-East, devisor and performer Kym Vercoe, video artist Sean Bacon, dramaturg Deborah Pollard, musical director Sladjana Hodzic, lighting designer Emma Lockhart-Wilson, production manager Frank Mainoo, producer David Williams; Old Fitzroy Theatre, Sept 30-Oct 6

This article was first published online Nov 8, 2010.

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 33

© Caroline Wake; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Lanfranchi’s Memorial Discotheque, You Little Stripper

Lanfranchi’s Memorial Discotheque, You Little Stripper

Lanfranchi’s Memorial Discotheque, You Little Stripper

SEARCHING FOR A SUITABLE NAME FOR A NEW WAREHOUSE ARTS VENUE, CO-FOUNDER LUCAS ABELA DECIDED TO COMMEMORATE ONE OF THE SEEDIER MOMENTS OF SYDNEY’S HISTORY: THE ‘ALLEGED’ SHOOTING IN THE 1980S OF WARREN LANFRANCHI BY POLICE OFFICER ROGER ROGERSON IN A CHIPPENDALE BACKLANE.

The elaborate full titling—Lanfranchi’s Memorial Discotheque—took a little practice to get rolling off the tongue, but in retrospect it seems impossible to imagine it being called anything else: the reference infused the place with the spirit of the underworld and the underground. It seems equally impossible to imagine the Sydney arts scene in the mid 2000s without it. But like all good things, especially illegal performance venues, it came to an end (after an impressive five years) and filmmaker Richard Baron was there to document its death throes.

In the final phase of Lanfranchi’s there was a significant increase in performance events, as opposed to the music (admittedly often performative) that had been more prominent in the earlier days of the venue. Grainy footage captures the raucous freedom of performance nights such as Cab Sav; the incredibly popular Wonka live cinema experience, developed in the venue; and the antics of people doing strange things with electricity that is DorkBot. The debauchery reaches its zenith with the Marrickville Jelly Wrestling Federation—people slip-sliding all over each other in various states of costume and nakedness, performing acts of frenzied exhibitionism. Having experienced quite a lot of ‘serious’ (ie clothed) experimental music at Lanfranchi’s, I was slightly saddened that this aspect of the venue was not so well represented in the film, but in fairness, it is a document of the last 60 days of the venue when perhaps the mayhem was reaching its peak.

However it’s not all good times. Baron’s camera is there when the residents are being harassed by the landlord’s heavy, who comes each morning to disconnect the electricity in an attempt to speed up the eviction when they are still legally entitled to be there. One of the residents is subsequently electrocuted (fortunately not fatally) trying to reconnect power and the camera shows us his blackened hand and singed eyebrows. The camera is also secretly left on during heated discussions with council representatives and police giving us audio snippets and groin shots. But rather than labouring the negatives of the experience, they are included as just part of the whole package.

Baron conducts informative interviews with residents such as Phoebe Torzillo, Pia van Gelder and Tega Brain who each offer glimpses into the different micro-cultures that clustered around the venue. Not surprisingly Lanfranchi’s co-founder Lucas Abela is highlighted, with some gruesome footage of the glass playing/smashing performance that he developed in the space after finding an old window pane lying in the corner—an act he has subsequently toured worldwide. Alex Davies, another co-founder and resident to the bitter end, is given less personal screen time, but offers much to the film through his video and photographic documentation, succinctly capturing the essence of many of the events.

Lanfranchi’s Memorial Discotheque, Lanfranchi's residents

Lanfranchi’s Memorial Discotheque, Lanfranchi’s residents

Lanfranchi’s Memorial Discotheque, Lanfranchi’s residents

Initially I was concerned that the documentary might suffer from amnesia about venues and activities which preceded, or ran concurrently with Lanfranchi’s. (In an opening interview Abela insists that there were galleries but no venues before Lanfranchi’s—perhaps technically true, but many of the galleries had strong histories as performance venues as well.) However as the documentary unfolds, Baron pieces together anecdotal histories digging up the Evil Brotherhood of Mutants (a posse of Clan Analogue members) who occupied the same space in the 90s. He also works in references to some of the many other artist-run spaces around town past and present: Imperial Slacks, Space 3, Hibernian House, China Heights to name a few. (The accompanying website also provides a comprehensive list of artist-run spaces.)

The film also takes steps towards analysing the complicated interplay of the underground and mainstream art scenes. A topic in several of the interviews is whether to work within or without the system, or whether you can balance a bit of both. That Lanfranchi’s’ demise roughly coincided with the opening of CarriageWorks is an irony also not lost on the filmmaker. However he cleverly allows CarriageWorks’ then CEO Sue Hunt to make his point for him, as she speaks of how the complex will be “a place for creativity and innovation,” and then discusses how “thrilled” she is to include Channel 10’s “contemporary dance piece” So You Think You Can Dance.

This self-funded film project took almost three years to complete. In contrast to much of the outrageous work undertaken at Lanfranchi’s, Richard Baron’s approach is stylistically straightforward, letting the footage, both his own and that accumulated from a range of sources, speak for itself. Underscored by the vivifying soundtrack drawn from many of the artists involved in the space, the film conveys a tangible sense of the moment. Grounding this, the considered editing of interviews ensures that the film is not just the documentation of good times past, but also offers some analysis of the broader Sydney arts culture. Of course there are new (and ongoing) spaces that continue to nurture Sydney’s underground/underworld, and each have their own flavour…but the sheer seediness and reckless abandon of Lanfranchi’s Memorial Discotheque so far remains unrivalled.

Lanfranchi’s Memorial Discotheque – The Documentary, Richard Baron, Bitterman Films, www.lanfranchismemorialdiscotheque.com/

Lanfranchi’s Memorial Discotheque – The Documentary won the Director’s Choice Award at the 2010 Sydney Underground Film Festival, Best Documentary at the 2010 Melbourne Underground Film Festival

This article was orginally published online, Nov 8, 2010.

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 22

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

en masse

en masse

en masse

THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (JACK ARNOLD, 1957) CONTAINS ONE OF MY FAVOURITE MOMENTS IN SCIENCE-FICTION CINEMA. AFTER HAVING BEEN EXPOSED TO A MYSTERIOUS RADIOACTIVE CLOUD, THE FILM’S PROTAGONIST, SCOTT CAREY, FINDS HIMSELF PHYSICALLY SHRINKING AT AN ALARMING RATE. DOLL-SIZED, HE FLEES TO THE HOUSEHOLD BASEMENT WHERE HE IS FORCED TO NEGOTIATE A FORMIDABLE ARRAY OF ONCE FAMILIAR DOMESTIC OBJECTS (CRATES, MATCHBOXES, PINS, MOUSETRAPS) AND DO BATTLE WITH THE FAMILY CAT AND OTHER PREDATORS.

Struggling up from the basement to the garden, Carey realises that he might soon become ‘infinitesimal’. He looks up the night sky whereupon tiny and immense phenomena suddenly become intertwined. As his body dwindles to the sub-atomic level, the camera shifts skywards to reveal grand-scale celestial bodies and astronomical vistas. The garden and Carey dissolve into a succession of stars while Carey’s voice-over reminds us that even the “smallest of the small” matters in the larger scheme of things. For myself, what makes this sequence such a powerful and incredibly poetic moment is its refusal to set-up the ‘large’ and the ‘small’ as oppositional perceptual terms. Indeed, Carey himself comes to understand perceptual scale as relative: “the unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet”.

The mobile and sliding scale of perception is by no means specific to the realm of science-fiction?just think of how tiny things such as a childhood treasure box or dollhouse can contain endless imaginative possibilities while immense landscapes or intricately detailed aesthetic objects hold the capacity to make us feel small, inferior or insignificant, by comparison. Our perception of the large within the small or the vast within the miniature alerts us to the dynamism that is seeing itself; the ways in which embodied encounters can unleash a sense of eeriness or displacement as well as liberation in aesthetic experiences, through the power of what the experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage once beautifully described as the sheer ‘adventure of perception’.

Perceptual scale—through the experience of visual and sonic shifts between the grand and the miniscule, the intimate and the elusive—was fundamental to the two mixed media installations, en masse and epi-thet, that were presented at Arts House for this year’s Melbourne International Arts festival. Neither work, however, could justly be described as awakening the kind of sensual engagement or intellectually curiosity that might be befitting of Brakhage’s perceptual ‘adventure’. While filled with intriguing conceptual promise, the conjunctions of imagery, sound and setting that occurred in each installation either failed to deliver upon their intended poetics, make maximum use of our visual and sonic immersion within their respective spaces or induce a perceptual de-familiarising of the everyday.

en masse

En masse is the result of an artistic collaboration between Australian recorder virtuosi, Genevieve Lacey, and UK filmmaker Mark Silver. Silver provided the footage for its multi-channel projections which display migrating starling birds, shot against a stark grey sky at sunrise and sunset. Silver’s footage is luminous and evocative, with the birds initially appearing as distant and almost abstract patterns, only to resolve into closer figurative detail (beaks, feathers) as the work unfolds. From a series of initial musical improvisations to which other musical collaborators (led by Lawrence English) were invited to respond, Lacey has designed a purpose-built soundtrack to accompany the footage. That electroacoustic track is synced to the imagery of the flocking starlings, at the same time as Lacey performs live within the half-hour staging of en masse.

While touted as ‘part concert, part installation, part film’, en masse does not make for a cohesive fit. That disharmony has nothing to do with Lacey’s obvious skills as a performer/composer nor with Silver’s often stunning footage. Rather, it arises because the different elements of en masse (performance, sound, time-based installation) are in phenomenological conflict with one another. During the performance Lacey’s spotlighted presence, gently wandering about the space, actually distracts from fully attending to the projected imagery or attuning oneself to the soundscape. Similarly, the clunky black-box installation feels at odds with the artistic intent of creating a heightened perceptual state for its audience. Ushered into a circular room, we must lie down to experience en masse; yet, its projections are of variable sizes and the audience is only able to see what is directly in front of them. The effect is disempowering rather than sensually immersive, effectively restricting and minimising our field of vision to 180 degrees. In this performative mode, the work seems to be unsure whether it is intended as theatre or installation and its uneasy mix of media ruptures our affective and mnemonic engagement with the sights and sounds on show. However, en masse was also viewable as an installation without performance during the day. On these occasions, the audience was largely left to their own devices and could potentially view the work from a range of positions and as a purely audiovisual experience.

epi-thet

epi-thet

epi-thet

epi-thet

Epi-thet (Madeleine Flynn, Tim Humphrey and Jesse Stevens), by contrast, makes highly considered use of the Meat Market in its sound-based installation. Upon entering the work, sounds emanate from all sides, ping-ponging and ricocheting through the vast space. The visitor encounters three platforms lined up horizontally, each suffused with a soft red light as the piece rests in its ‘inactive’ mode. Attached to each platform are a series of mounted microscopes. As you step onto the platform, the light abruptly changes to a white spotlight—chromatically alluding to the fact that both you and the work are here to engage in a mutual performance. The sound and light shows that accompany each viewing of the microscopes are unique; generated by the height and posture of the participant, as well as the particular time of day.

Yet for all its insistence on individual composition and the presence of the participant as being crucial to the work, epi-thet remains eerily disembodied and inaccessible. The sounds that are generated are often indistinguishable, lacking in expressivity or material sources in the world. The linkages between the ‘sonification’ of medical research data, the interactivity of the piece and the microscope animations (tiny bird-like objects accumulating in patterns, with text fragments) are also unclear. Instead of amplifying our engagement with the work through the lures of sound—by playing to the fact that, as French theorist Michel Chion suggests, sound itself is decidedly un-framed and able to ‘fill’ a space in ways that an image cannot—epi-thet ends up subjugating our sonic involvement to the tiniest of visions. As we struggle to discern and understand the miniscule animations contained in its microscopes, sound drops out of the experience at the expense of vision.

Given their perceptual mismatches between the large and the small, as well as vision, space and sound, it is disheartening to find that the conceptual promise of these works has not been realised.

en masse, composition and performance Genevieve Lacey, film Marc Silver, installation sound Lawrence English, musical collaborators Steve Adam, Taylor Deupree, Christian Fennesz, Ben Frost, Nico Muhly, dj olive, lighting designer Paul Lim, Trafficlight, systems designer Pete Brundle, nice device, costume designer Paula Levis; Arts House, Oct 19-23; epi-thet, creators Madeleine Flynn, Tim Humphery and Jesse Stevens; Arts House, Oct 19-23; Melbourne International Arts Festival, Oct 6-22

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. web

© Saige Walton; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

BalletLab at the Australian Ballet Studios in development for Aviary

BalletLab at the Australian Ballet Studios in development for Aviary

BalletLab at the Australian Ballet Studios in development for Aviary

JUST BACK FROM TROY, NEW YORK STATE, VIA SAN DIEGO, ARIZONA AND DUSSELDORF, PHILLIP ADAMS HAS BEEN OFF THE BEATEN TRACK OF LATE. I MEET HIM AS HE PREPARES TO DEPART FOR ANOTHER DESTINATION—TIJUANA, MEXICO. WE TALK ABOUT GLUCKSCHWEIN, THE PRODUCTION HE IS MAKING WITH THE MEXICAN DANCE COMPANY LUX BOREAL. THE PIECE WILL FEATURE A SHEPHERD, DANCERS DRESSED AS SHEEP, 50 MEMBERS OF THE PUBLIC ON STAGE PLAYING TOY PIANOS AND SOME RITUALISTIC SACRIFICE.

festival de mexico

Wild as it may sound, Gluckschwein is actually part of a formal exchange between Mexico and Australia, run by the very respectable Australia Latin America Foundation, with dedicated funding devolved from the Australia Council. Over two years from 2010 to 2011, there will be residencies in dance, physical theatre and music, “aimed at sharing skills and creating new work between Australian and Latin American artists and artistic companies.” David Clarkson of Stalker began the initiative with a physical theatre project in Colombia and Roland Peelman of The Song Company is working in Guadalajara, Mexico. Alongside Adams, another Melbourne based choreographer, Rebecca Hilton, is working with Mexican dance company La Lagrima in Hermosillo.

Phillip Adams has been to Tijuana twice already. The four weeks of rehearsals to come will precede a final visit to prepare the work for its world premiere at the Festival de Mexico in March 2011. He is inspired by the openness of the Mexican dancers, who recovered well from his initial attempts to freak them out. Broken in by running naked through the streets and confronting some of Adams’ more extreme preoccupations, they were quick to overcome cultural barriers and throw themselves into the experience.

Gluckschwein is an echo of the parallel production, Above, that Adams will make with his own company BalletLab. It addresses similar themes of death, mortality and transcendence. For over a decade, Adams tells me, he has been pursuing related ideas. He traces an arc through the 1999 production Amplification (RT33) and its 2009 companion piece Miracle (RT93) that encompasses all his work. “Above will be the closure of this journey,” he says, “Why not finalise this enquiry into sex, life and death with a look into the afterlife?”

Adams saw work in the Festival de Mexico last year and is confident that audiences will enjoy the extremity of his vision and that the material will touch a chord. He has not attempted to incorporate specific cultural references but is sure that they will emerge in the work that he has devised with the Mexican dancers. Whilst Gluckschwein will tour for Lux Boreal and already has dates in San Diego and parts of Mexico in 2011, Adams will focus upon his BalletLab work as soon as he is back from Tijuana.

mona foma

Adams will spend the latter part of this year developing Above; which will make its world debut at MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) FOMA (Festival of Music and Art) in Hobart, Tasmania in January 2011 (see preview). Commissioned by MONA, Above will be presented as part of a trilogy, alongside Amplification and Miracle. These works will constitute the only dance presentations in the festival, which is curated by Brian Ritchie of Violent Femmes and characterised by a hard rocking, left-field, internationalist aesthetic. This prominence is testimony to the long-standing relationship between BalletLab and MONA founder and art collector David Walsh, whose own much-anticipated museum will be opening its doors to the public at the same time as the third “MOFO” festival. Adams is proud to be so closely associated with what he anticipates to be “a landmark event for the arts in Australia.”

Walsh’s previous support for BalletLab includes a pivotal investment in the New York State residency that led to the creation of Miracle. “This level of patronage and prestigious recognition is highly unusual,” says Adams. He is extremely excited by this opportunity to show his works together in the way in which they sit so coherently in his mind. “Above will be more of an event than a performance,” he says. “It will have the same impact as Amplification and Miracle but on a larger scale. Like Gluckschwein, Above will feature 100 toy pianos on stage and an element of public participation. There will be biblical motifs and an exploration of sacrifice.”

In his press material, Adams talks about the work as “a fairytale in the guise of a modern road movie.” When I ask about the artistic collaborators in the work, he tells me that he will only work with the dancers, and that he will undertake all other design elements, taking the design of Miracle as the starting point. “I am looking for a raw, pared back aesthetic for this piece,” he says. This makes Above unusual for Adams, whose strong mission for BalletLab has always benefitted from the input of first class composers, costume designers and other design professionals such as architects.

ballet and beyond

Whilst Adams has no current invitations to present the entire trilogy elsewhere, he is confident that such offers will come. Amplification, the work that really broke BalletLab on to the international scene in 2000, with its sex and death concerns and brutally beautiful dancing, will receive another outing at Melbourne’s Malthouse in the Dance Massive festival in March 2011. Miracle, the piece that premiered at Melbourne’s State of Design Festival last year, was recently shown at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Centre (EMPAC) in Troy, New York State, in its Filament festival. EMPAC presented Amplification in 2007 and supported the Miracle residency in 2008, and this year, demonstrated their ongoing investment in BalletLab with two presentations of Miracle and an artist talk. EMPAC also worked with the company to invite other North American presenters to see the work. Adams hopes that further US touring will emerge from his long-standing relationships with the region and is also pursuing opportunities in Europe. His recent showcase presentation at the Internationale Tanzmesse NRW in Dusseldorf, a large dance platform and networking event, was an unusual move for an Australian company, but one that he is hoping will lead to commissions to make work with international companies and invitations to tour the BalletLab repertoire.

And Phillip Adams continues to add to that repertoire, with another work to premiere in Australia in 2011. Aviary is the result of a partnership with the Australian Ballet instigated through the Australia Council’s Interconnections program, which encourages a sharing of resources between arts organisations large and small. In 2009 Adams brought his contemporary dancers into the studios of the Ballet to work with classically trained dancers. Inspired by the music of Oliver Messiaen and by themes of war, masculinity and royalty, all overlaid with conceptual ideas about birds, the choreography pursued a meeting point of contemporary and classical.

A second development introduced the “dandy” aesthetic, drawn from a fruity palette of references from Beau Brummell to Gilbert and George. The collaborators for the final development, to take place in December this year, are a very BalletLab-like group, including milliner Richard Nylon, visual artist Gavin Brown and fashion designer Toni Maticevski. Adams says, “We are all of a generation; all Melbourne dandies.” Adams himself will perform in the piece, alongside five BalletLab dancers and one graduate of the Australian Ballet School. Aviary will be a large scale work for the proscenium arch, fitting, Adams says, “of the prestige of the relationship with the Ballet and the ambition of the piece.” This grand vision presages exciting times ahead for followers of the inimitable Adams and his BalletLab.

BalletLab, www.balletlab.com; MONA FOMA, Hobart, Jan 14-20 2011, http://mofo.net.au/

This article was originially published online, Nov 8, 2010.

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. web

© Sophie Travers; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Junee Train, Rolling Stock

Junee Train, Rolling Stock

Junee Train, Rolling Stock

rollin, rollin, rollin

If you feel like an excursion to the country, or if you live in regional NSW, then you should head to Junee on Saturday November 20 for Rolling Stock, a range of site-specific installations experienced while riding though the countryside on a heritage locomotive. Many of the installations will be the result of a week of residencies in which artists collaborate with the local Junee community and curator Sarah Last has brought together an impressive list of contributors including Alan Lamb, Kate Murphy, Joel Stern, Ross Manning, Garry Bradbury, Justy Phillips and Ryszard Dabek, Dave Noyze and Shannon O’Neill. The special guest is UK artist Chris Watson, ex-Carbaret Voltaire band member turned field-recordist, who will present ‘El Tren Fantasma – The Ghost Train’, reworking field recordings he has made for Rick Stein’s documentary Great Train Journeys, into a surround sound experience on the train. The PVI collective will also be offering their participatory tug-o-war and while you travel you will be entertained by Australia’s own king of country Renny Kodgers. When you alight from the journey, the party continues with a Rockabilly band at the Junee Licorice and Chocolate Factory. Rolling Stock, Nov 20, 12pm–12am, journey starts at Junee Railway Station; www.rolling-stock.org (bookings essential)

Change, 2005, Blair Trethowan

Change, 2005, Blair Trethowan

Change, 2005, Blair Trethowan

muma

New York may have MoMA but Melbourne has a newly reinvigorated MUMA: the Monash University Museum of Art. The new museum, designed by Kerstin Thompson Architects, “combines increased gallery space and capacity, a landscaped sculpture court and a major architecturally-scaled public art installation by artist Callum Morton, titled Silverscreen” (press release). To celebrate, the museum is hosting a new exhibition called Change. Sourced entirely from the extensive Monash University Collection, the inaugural exhibition brings together more than 75 major works by Australian contemporary artists—from painting to photography, installation and performance. Change places work by John Perceval, John Brack, Charles Blackman and Roger Kemp alongside more contemporary work by Mike Parr, Tracey Moffatt, Susan Norrie, Marco Fusinato, Lydia Galbal Gjinabalyi, Raquel Ormella, Daniel von Sturmer and Blair Trethowan. Change, Monash University Museum of Art, Oct 27-Dec 18; www.monash.edu.au/muma/

Byron Perry, Anthony Hamilton, Simon Obarzanek, Ross Coulter, Untrained, Lucy Guerin Inc

Byron Perry, Anthony Hamilton, Simon Obarzanek, Ross Coulter, Untrained, Lucy Guerin Inc

Byron Perry, Anthony Hamilton, Simon Obarzanek, Ross Coulter, Untrained, Lucy Guerin Inc

totally awesome

The phrase may recall the 1980s, but the Awesome International Arts Festival for Bright Young Things is happening here and now, meaning Perth in November 2010. Chief among the attractions is Lucy Guerin’s Untrained, which premiered in Melbourne in 2009 and was reviewed in RT90. Other intriguing performances include Track, a performance in which Vincent de Rooij, Udo Akerman and Daan Mathot (Netherlands) blend film and theatre to create a short film before your very eyes. “Udo’s miniature film studio (which happens to be a sea container) captures the action on camera in real time, using everyday objects as sets and characters, and is streamed live via projection on the opposite end of the sea container” (website).

There is also The Library of Nearly Lost Moments, which is to be installed at the State Library of Western Australia. The audience is invited to “check their pockets and see if there’s anything you can leave behind to preserve a moment in time…a train ticket? A sweet wrapper?” (website). For junior film lovers there is a series of animated films thanks to a partnership with the Los Angeles International Children’s Film Festival. Finally there is the Home Ground installation and exhibition, both of which are the result of a year-long program involving young people from 11 regional and remote communities. Awesome International Arts Festival for Bright Young Things, Perth, Nov 19-28; www.awesomearts.com/festival

Dancing Dreams

Dancing Dreams

Dancing Dreams

bring back the biff

If you miss the animated films in Perth then you may be interested in the animation programs at this year’s Brisbane International Film Festival. First up, there’s the International Animation Showcase, which features 13 of the finest short films from the archives of Britain’s Animate Projects, which has spent the past 20 years funding and producing animation. BIFF has also secured Sylvain Chomet’s (The Triplets of Belleville) new animated film The Illusionist, which is based on an unproduced script by French comic Jacques Tati, who wrote it between Mon Oncle and Playtime. But for those who like their bodies “live,” and not animated, perhaps Dancing Dreams will appeal. The documentary focuses on Jo Ann Endicott, an Australian dancer who spent roughly 30 years with Pina Bausch’s company, as she works with a group of Germans to restage Bausch’s Kontakthof. Bausch herself appears throughout the documentary to mentor and encourage the cast—the final footage captured of the choreographer before her death in June last year. Brisbane International Film Festival, Nov 4-14; www.stgeorgebiff.com.au

power to the powerhouse

While in Brisbane you may also like to check out the Brisbane Powerhouse, which is hosting two interesting events over the coming weeks. First, there is the new exhibition Spare Parts, which brings together a diverse range of artists using prosthetic limbs as their canvas. In addition, there is Ten Hands, a new one-hour work from Topology who we’ve previously reviewed in RT93. Ten Hands apparently evolved over an extended period in the rehearsal room where the group recorded their collective improvisations, then notated the best bits which were then used “as basis of the next jam session… This process went on repeatedly, with each member adding their own development and transition ideas until a single, unified, continuous one-hour piece emerged—strong, honed, individual voices intermingled into one sinewy whole, rich in musical thought” (website). Spare Parts, Nov 8-Dec 5, Topology, Nov 14, Brisbane Powerhouse; www.brisbanepowerhouse.org

Gail Priest, Presentiments from the Spider Gardens

Gail Priest, Presentiments from the Spider Gardens

listening, moving and launching

We’re famous! Well, sort of. Some RealTime regulars are launching books and CDs this month. First, on November 14, there is the launch of VOICE: Vocal Aesthetics in Digital Arts and Media, edited by Norie Neumark, Ross Gibson and Theo van Leeuwen, all of whom have previously appeared in RealTime in one way or another. (We reviewed Memory Flows, an exhibition that Neumark both curated and contributed to, in RT97; read Gibson’s book The Summer Exercises in RT91; and reported van Leeuwen’s remarks on film education in RT98.) Then on November 16, there is the launch of Erin Brannigan’s Platform Paper, Moving Across Disciplines: Dance in the 21st Century. Founding director of ReelDance and now a lecturer at UNSW, Brannigan has written many articles for us over the years, most recently an introduction to our Archive Highlight on Lucy Guerin and an article on dance infrastructure in NSW (RT91). Finally our very own associate editor Gail Priest has just released her second full length CD, Presentiments from the Spider Garden, courtesy of Endgame Records. The album weaves “field recordings, vocals, instrumental material and extended digital methodologies into a haunting cabinet of curiosities” (press release). VOICE: Vocal Aesthetics in Digital Arts and Media, Ed Norie Neumark, Ross Gibson and Theo van Leeuwen, Gleebooks, Nov 14, rsvp www.gleebooks.com.au; Moving Across Disciplines: Dance in the 21st Century, UNSW, Nov 16 rsvp Jennifer Beale, j.beale@unsw.edu.au; Gail Priest, Presentiments from the Spider Garden, Endgame Records, www.endgame.com.au

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. web

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

Groote Eylandt Dancers, Mahbilil Festival

Groote Eylandt Dancers, Mahbilil Festival

Groote Eylandt Dancers, Mahbilil Festival

IT’S THE GOLDEN HOUR BY THE SHORES OF LAKE JABIRU, 300KM FROM DARWIN, AT KAKADU IN THE NORTHERN TERRITORY. AS THE MAHBILIL FESTIVAL SEGUES FROM AN AFTERNOON OF DODGEM CARS AND EXHIBITIONS INTO AN EVENING PROGRAM OF LIVE MUSIC AND DANCE, A GENTLE BREEZE ARRIVES. THIS IS THE ‘MAHBILIL’ FROM WHICH THIS LOCAL COMMUNITY FESTIVAL GETS ITS NAME, AND FITTINGLY, AS IT HITS THE GRASSY GREEN SHORES OF THE TOWN’S MANMADE LAKE, SO DO THE CROWDS.

The local miners and their families, the Bininj and Mirrar people who are the traditional custodians of Kakadu, the park rangers and outback tour operators who have been manning stalls throughout the hot afternoon, all gather before the Mahbilil Festival stage to enjoy the entertainment and to party on into the night.

In this, his third festival, producer Andrish Saint-Claire has managed to combine a smorgasbord of arts and activities where there is indeed something for everyone. From dodgem cars and waterslides to demonstrations of traditional Indigenous arts and crafts and Magpie Goose cooking competitions, variety is the order of the day.

The festival began at midday, as a family afternoon of stalls, fun rides and a showcase of performances and exhibitions by local children from all the workshops produced by the Kakadu Youth Centre through the Jabiru Area School. The atmosphere is reminiscent of the local markets for which Darwin is renowned—friendly, familiar, laid back. This is the time to sample buffalo stew and barbecued magpie goose cooked up by tour operators Andy Ralph and his wife Jen from the Kakadu Culture Camp; to chat with Kakadu rangers about killer crocs (if one ever bites your leg, punch it in the eye); and to sit with the local Bininj women as they weave their baskets out of pandanus painstakingly plucked from the bush and stripped, split and boiled up in ochre dyes over the camp fire. A casual attitude belies the deft artistry of these traditional women—and they have a canny knack, too, of always managing to find the coolest spot, anywhere, to spread out their tarp and pass the afternoon.

Goose Lagoon, Mahbilil Festival

Goose Lagoon, Mahbilil Festival

Goose Lagoon, Mahbilil Festival

Dance was a feature of this year’s Mahbilil Festival, and again, the program was diverse. Balinese dance group Tunas Mekar, based in Darwin, brought a touch of Asia to a captivated bush audience and excerpts from Gary Lang’s Darwin Festival hit Goose Lagoon added a contemporary flavour to the program. The Bunggul—the traditional Indigenous performances that are part of any Top End Festival on Country—was led by the Groote Eylandt Dancers and Band. Displaying a great capacity for invention, these Groote Eylandt songmen were backed up by a rock’n’roll outfit with electric guitar, which added a foot-tapping beat to their mesmerising droning tones. They were definitely a crowd favourite, followed closely by the contemporary New Zealand ‘Maori Poi’ dance, which was taught and led by a local Maori teacher at the Jabiru Area School and performed with luminous ‘pois.’

Adding further spice to the multicultural mix was a Congolese dance troupe that appeared later in the program: such a confluence of cultures and influences has never been seen in Jabiru.

Techy Masero, Connor Fox and collaborators, Mahbilil Festival

Techy Masero, Connor Fox and collaborators, Mahbilil Festival

Techy Masero, Connor Fox and collaborators, Mahbilil Festival

For all of this action and activity, the artistic highlight of the Mahbilil Festival was not by the lake but on it: a stunning installation of three giant traditional Indigenous figures, surrounded by giant floating lotus flowers, that stood sentry over the proceedings. Created by Darwin artist Techy Masero and a group of Territory artists who regularly work in Jabiru, the sculptures represented yawk yawks—the half-human half-fish mythological creatures, which, according to Indigenous cosmology, inhabit waterholes around the Top End.

Further artistic innovation was to be seen in the giant ‘turtle’ installation that formed part of the children’s parade. The turtle was both a canvas for a sequence of beautiful media projections and an interactive ‘set’ for the children of Jabiru, who emerged from the turtle’s mouth at twilight.

Mahbilil came to a close at midnight, with the rocking sounds of the Sunrize Band from Maningrida. The promise of something for everyone was met: this was an event that one could wander into and around at leisure, dipping into events and activities here and there, or, alternatively, settling onto a picnic blanket to watch the parade pass by—clowns, puppeteers and stilt walkers weaving their way through the crowd.

Staging any event in a remote area is a challenge, to say the least. And in Jabiru, which is a mining town, a regional hub, a gateway to a national park, there are entirely different ‘types’ if you like, living lives that never intersect. Yet with Mahbilil, Saint-Claire—a Darwin-based arts worker with extensive experience in remote Northern Territory communities—and his team have succeeded in bringing the community together for 12 hours by the shores of their manmade lake.

This is the strength of community arts. This is why, in this age of instant entertainment and constant distraction, they survive. Indeed Festivals on Country in the remote Northern Territory are thriving: they’re a live, visceral, dusty counterpoint to cyberspace, and combine contemporary culture with traditions and customs stretching back thousands of years.

As a relatively young venture, Mahbilil is still finding its way. It is certainly a festival to watch. The strong arts component—particularly the twilight art installations—set it apart from other regional festivals and has great potential to develop even further. With the strong support of the people, artists and sponsors, the festival looks set to become a feature of the Top End’s already flourishing Dry Season Calendar.

Mahbilil Festival, Jabiru Lake, Jabiru, Northern Territory, Sept 11

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. web

© Jane Hampson; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Richard Hilliar, Hybrid Dream

Richard Hilliar, Hybrid Dream

Richard Hilliar, Hybrid Dream

IN HYBRID DREAM, ECLECTIVE PRODUCTIONS, A GROUP OF ARTISTS WHO HAVE LARGELY EMERGED FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF NEW ENGLAND, ARMIDALE (NSW), CREATE A KIND OF DELIRIUM BY SEATING THE AUDIENCE IN THE CENTRE OF THE SPACE AND ENCIRCLING IT WITH PROJECTED IMAGES, SOUND AND PERFORMANCE IN A WORK ABOUT DREAM AND RELATED STATES.

Further unease is generated when single characters appear to be embodied by two performers at opposite sides of the space or two speakers at microphones face each other, intoning texts. The ensemble gathers, walks unexpectedly backwards in a circle, finally falling. Performers watch themselves projected onto screens around the space, the images slice up horizontally—nothing is stable. A man chalks “Nowhere” on a black wall. There are bursts of panic: we hear of someone stuck on the edge of a well: “I have no arms!” One performer chats to us about sleep: “Your imagination is at its strongest when you’re not even aware of it.” We hear of a woman who recalls an accident where she was badly hurt, but her serene version doesn’t include the screams that others heard. A performer watches a projected image of herself, shrieks and runs from it.

Projections in various degrees of close-up reveal a tasteful striptease act with feathers, danced to a woozy, gliding trumpet. Little flesh is revealed—it’s a classic tease—but meanwhile, in the dark on the mezzanine above us, the audience gradually becomes aware of a woman (the same one?) removing her clothes without any artistry until naked.

Hybrid Dream was an intriguing if sometimes infuriating experience: images were unnecessarily sustained, the work’s structure was opaque, some acting was over-the-top and performance and movement skills were uneven. However, the work’s stark evocation of dream states and parallel universes was generated with bracing fervour by a committed ensemble supported by a seriously sombre score ably delivered by a trio of musicians and a sound artist. It’ll be interesting to see where Eclective Productions take us next.

Eclective Productions, Hybrid Dream, creators, designers, directors Rachel Chant, Alanna Proud, performers Imogen Dodwell, Jonny Dutaillis, Lizzie Gibney, Richard Hilliar, Ben Horsley, Rhia Parker, Alanna Proud, Tristan Randall, Joanne Villacruz, sound designer Joseph Dutaillis, new media Grant Stewart, lighting Jamie Exworth; PACT Theatre, Sydney, Aug 11-15; www.eclectiveproductions.com

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. web

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

I HAVE NEVER SEEN THE MACDONNELL RANGES BUT TONIGHT THEY APPEAR BEFORE ME AS IF BY MAGIC. UPSTAGE, THE TWO BACK WALLS OF BELVOIR’S CORNER STAGE HAVE BEEN PAINTED BLACK AND COVERED WITH AN ENORMOUS WHITE CHALK MURAL DEPICTING THE RANGES AND THE GHOST GUMS THAT SURROUND THEM. WE ARE IN WESTERN ARANDA COUNTRY, THE HOME OF BOTH ALBERT AND KEVIN NAMATJIRA. THE FORMER IS THE FAMOUS WATERCOLOURIST WHO IS THE SUBJECT OF TONIGHT’S PERFORMANCE; THE LATTER IS HIS GRANDSON, AND AN ARTIST IN HIS OWN RIGHT, WHO IS ACTUALLY PRESENT, WORKING AWAY ON THE TEMPORARY WALL PAINTING FOR THE DURATION OF THE SHOW.

In front of these ghostly mountains, in the middle of the stage, is a large structure made of laminated wood that looks simultaneously like a deconstructed piano, an amorphous piece of public art and a section of undulating sandstone. Downstage is Trevor Jamieson, perched on a stool as the artist Robert Hannaford paints his portrait. The portrait looks well advanced but earlier production photos (see right) indicate that Hannaford started with a blank canvas, and like Kevin Namatjira, has been slowly adding to it each night.

Jamieson begins by introducing himself and his collaborators before sliding off his stool and telling the two seemingly unrelated stories of Albert Namatjira and Rex Battarbee. Namatjira was born as Elea but christened Albert by the Lutherans at Hermannsberg, where he stayed until he was in his early teens, at which point he returned to Arrernte country with his parents. Then at 18 he met and married his wife Rubina. Co-directors Scott Rankin and Wayne Blair throw the switch to vaudeville for this episode, with Jamieson as Albert and Derek Lynch as Rubina shimmying around the stage to Barry White’s “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love.”

Derek Lynch, Namatjira, photo Brett Boardman

This first story is intercut with a second: that of Rex Battarbee, a whitefella who grew up in Warrnambool until he enlisted to fight in the First World War. While away he saw England and France before being seriously injured and returning home. Towards the end of the act, Namatjira and Battarbee meet and become friends, with Albert showing Rex his country, and Rex showing Albert his watercolours.

In the second act, the story gains momentum, just as Namatjira’s life did, and we move briskly through his many successes: his first exhibition (1938); his entry into the Who’s Who (1944); the award of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation medal (1953); his meeting with the Queen herself (1954); and his attainment of citizenship (1957, a full 10 years before the referendum). However, success is bittersweet. Having money means that he has to support an extended family that numbers nearly 600 and having citizenship means that he has access to alcohol, which he is expected to share. When a woman dies on his property, it is he who is prosecuted because he is the only ‘citizen’ present. Namatjira is sentenced to six months hard labour, but after a public outcry is permitted to serve out the sentence at Papunya, where he eventually suffers a heart attack in 1959. The play finishes with his burial, and as we watch the man who has played him and the man who is descended from him stand in silence, it is as if we are witness to a second burial—the ghost of Namatjira is laid to rest in front of the ghostly mountains his grandson has conjured.

Trevor Jamieson, Namatjira, photo Brett Boardman

Beyond the impressive set (Genevieve Dugard), the principal pleasure of Namatjira is in watching Jamieson’s charismatic performance, as he slips between stories and characters, comedy and tragedy. Derek Lynch’s many sashaying women (black, white and a Queen to boot) are also enjoyable and Genevieve Lacey’s soundscape all-enveloping. The only false note in the evening comes after the curtain call when a stage manager reveals a small screen and we watch footage of the Big hART team working in the community. Presumably this is meant to reassure the audience about the nature of their engagement but it reads as both an odd sort of ‘reveal’ (and now, here are the real people) and as a pre-emptive strike against possible criticisms—one the production does not need since it is clear from both the program and the production itself that there has been not only consultation but also collaboration.

In a sense this collaboration echoes that of Namatjira and Battarbee, who apparently used to sit around in the evenings, talking about art, language and the world; two highly, if unconventionally, educated men, both of them globalised subjects before the word ‘globalisation’ even existed. This companionable image could serve as an analogy for the performance itself, for Namatjira is a convivial and thought-provoking night of stories, conversations and reflections.

Big hART and Company B Belvoir, Namatjira, writer Scott Rankin, co-directors Scott Rankin and Wayne Blair, creative producer Sophia Marinos, community producers Sia Cox, Pru Gell, performers Trevor Jamieson, Derek Lynch, artists Robert Hannaford, Kevin Namatjira, Evert Ploeg, Elton Wirri, musicians Nicole Forsyth, Genevieve Lacey, set designer Genevieve Dugard, costume designer Tess Schofield, composer and music director Genevieve Lacey, lighting designer Nigel Levings, sound designer Jim Atkins; Belvoir Street Theatre, Sept 25-Nov 7; www.namatjira.bighart.org/

Namatjira will tour to Melbourne, Dandenong, Geelong, Canberra and Illawarra from August 12 to September 30 2011. There are also plans for a national regional tour in 2012.

This article was first published online, Oct 12, 2010.

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 33

© Caroline Wake; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Top image credit: Trevor Jamieson, Robert Hannaford, Namatjira, photo Brett Boardman

Bloodbath, Bump Projects and the Sydney Roller Derby League

Bloodbath, Bump Projects and the Sydney Roller Derby League

Bloodbath, Bump Projects and the Sydney Roller Derby League

TEAMS OF GIRLS ROLLER-SKATE AROUND A TRACK BENEATH THE LIGHTING RIG. THEY’RE DRESSED IN LITTLE SHORTS, RIPPED FISHNETS AND CROP TOPS, THEIR TATTS, DYED HAIR AND MAKE-UP CREATING A MISH-MASH OF EVERY CONCEIVABLE SUBCULTURE—PUNK, GOTH, ROCKABILLY, METAL. THEY’RE ALSO PADDED, HELMETED AND GUARDED TO THE GILLS. THEY SKATE FAST AND HARD; THEY’RE AGGRESSIVE SHOW-WOMEN, EGGING US ON WITH SUDDEN RUSHES OFFTRACK, KNEE-SKIDDING FLAMBOYANTLY TO STOP JUST METRES BEFORE THE ‘SUICIDE SEATING.’ THEY’RE LIKE THE TOUGHEST CHICKS YOU EVER CAME ACROSS IN SUBURBIA WHO YOU WANTED TO HANG WITH OR ELSE WERE SCARED OF. AND THE REAL GAME HASN’T EVEN BEGUN.

Roller Derby is an American sports entertainment currently enjoying a global revival, with roots going back through various forms of contact sport and competitive skating to Depression era games that gave poor women an outlet. Contemporary derby is mostly female and driven by a DIY ethos. Sydney’s Hordern Pavilion is routinely booked out by a crowd that ranges from westie families to inner-city dykes. Australians seem born to it— feral, ironic, in your face, and underneath the piss-take, bloody serious about their sport.

It’s the perfect theatre for Bump Projects, a formidable team of some of the best new media artists in the country—Linda Dement, Francesca da Rimini, Kate Richards, Nancy Mauro-Flude and Sarah Waterson—who in collaboration with Sydney Roller Derby League presented Bloodbath, a mediation of bodies through technology. The artists created a system to collect data from sensors placed on the skaters’ helmets, and in tonight’s game used this data to trigger works screened above the stage.

Bloodbath, Bump Projects and the Sydney Roller Derby League

Bloodbath, Bump Projects and the Sydney Roller Derby League

Bloodbath, Bump Projects and the Sydney Roller Derby League

This was where the first problem lay. The smallish screens lined up side by side above the stage made for somewhat static viewing. The context is gladiatorial, in the round, but the screens stilled the gaze and crowded one another somewhat. Bigger and placed at intervals around the track, they would have integrated better with the action, a friendly bout between The Pistola Cholas and The Smackdown Sallies. (Yes, the team names, in keeping with the overall style, are facetious, OTT kitsch. Don’t get me started on the players’ names.) A quick look at the website indicates Bump themselves may have preferred a more spacious screen arrangement.

In this way the diversity of the works would also have been better appreciated. Dement’s, for me the most successful, was a bruise whose slow formation seemed a radical contrast to the mayhem of the track. But this clear articulation of trauma was apposite, the bruise healing to neutral skin, finishing with a lightly drawn flower or triggered by a collision to form another bruise immediately. Adjacent to Dement, Mauro-Flude’s text feeds were unfortunately barely legible to us in the bleachers opposite. The idea is interesting though: quotes from skaters, audience and artists, fed across the screen in a status update frenzy.

Kate Richards’ work, like Dement’s, seemed to survive the technical hitches best, her material being archives of old games. The alternately gliding or stertorous movements of the footage, colours becoming more intense with increased impact, complemented and grounded the event. As popular as the game is now, few of us have context for it, and this work went some way to providing it.

Bloodbath, Bump Projects and the Sydney Roller Derby League

Bloodbath, Bump Projects and the Sydney Roller Derby League

Bloodbath, Bump Projects and the Sydney Roller Derby League

Da Rimini’s rich amalgam of medieval imagery, poetic fragments and mythical references felt too allusory for the context, but it has stayed with me. Waterson’s pink guitar, activated by the ramming blockers to play chords from Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock’n’Roll,” couldn’t be heard until towards the end and the visual was so subtle the whole thing didn’t appear to be working for much of the night.

Due to the many technical problems beyond the artists’ control, I felt I was attending a scratch version of Bloodbath, so my criticisms are reluctant. What could emerge from this project is incredibly exciting. If the works were to be fully integrated, they could become intrinsic. Roller Derby has a quasi-futuristic feel, partly because it’s women out there engaging in the sanctioned violence that draws us to sport. At the same time it’s the most ancient form of theatre, something that Francesca da Rimini is pointing to. The medium and method are attuned to the game, it’s just a question of the artists being given all they need for their works to be fully realised.

The second match of the night, Sydney’s Assassins vs Canberra’s Vice City Rollers, was a corker. Sydney led for much of the first half, then Canberra surged and it was neck and neck until a three point win by Sydney scored in the very last minute.

Bump Projects and the Sydney Roller Derby League, Bloodbath, artists Linda Dement, Nancy Mauro-Flude, Kate Richards, Francesca da Rimini, Sarah Waterson, producers Linda Dement, Kate Richards, original concept Linda Dement, technical development Mr Snow, House of Laudanum; Hordern Pavilion, Oct 9; http://bumpp.net/

This article was first published online, Oct 25, 2010.

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 22

© Fiona McGregor; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Next of Kin, Restless Dance Theatre

Next of Kin, Restless Dance Theatre

Next of Kin, Restless Dance Theatre

restless relatives

Restless Dance Theatre is typically described as a youth dance company that works with dancers of mixed abilities (see our reviews of Bedroom Dancing and Safe From Harm). However, in their latest show Next of Kin, they will be working with dancers of mixed ages as well. Next of Kin has an intergenerational cast of six to 60 year olds (some of whom are related in real life) and, according to the press release, “focuses on the family unit and its complex effect on kin relationships, personal decisions and individual responsibilities.” The show features a set designed by award-wining designer Gaelle Mellis and music by Zephyr Quartet’s Hilary Kleinig. The show also marks the directorial debut for Philip Channells, the company’s new artistic director. Restless Dance Theatre, Next of Kin, The Opera Studio, State Opera of South Australia, 216 Marion Road, Netley SA 5037, Nov 12-20; http://restlessdance.org/

physical music

Ensemble Offspring, who describe themselves as “champions of innovative new music” (previously reviewed in RT99 and RT92), are collaborating with one of Sydney’s most engaging performers, Katia Molino, and director Carlos Gomes of Theatre Kantaka, in a one-off event that is “as much physical as it is musical” (press release). The show, called Sounds Absurd promises to investigate “the visual spectacle surrounding the live performance of music” and will include “dancing hands, body slaps and musical instruments in nooses and upside-down cellos in drag” (press release). The evening will feature the music of Mauricio Kagel, a world premiere from Australian composer Moya Henderson, along with works by Thierry de Mey, Vinko Globokar, Matthew Shlomowitz, Stephen Stanfield and Jude Weirmeir. Ensemble Offspring, Sounds Absurd, CarriageWorks, Nov 30; www.carriageworks.com.au

musing and commuting

If you’re in Melbourne this month and, more specifically, passing through Southern Cross Station, keep an eye out for a studio, tea station and lounge. Set up by the artist collective one step at a time like this (formerly bettybooke), this installation is part of a project called Southern Crossings. Commuters will be invited to visit the group of artists at the station and contribute their stories about who they are, what they are doing and where they are going. Drawing on elements of their previous project en route (praised by Jana Perkovic in RT94), these stories will then be integrated into Southern Crossings, an audio journey on iPod which guides audience members through the station. “[I]ndividuals have an opportunity to see and experience the railway station beyond its everyday use—to think about people and places—and to engage with an iconic landmark from a different and more personal perspective” (press release). one step at a time like this, Southern Crossings, Southern Cross Station, stories collected Oct 25-Nov 16, showings Nov 18-Nov 28; www.onestepatatimelikethis.com/

Suspended Motion

Suspended Motion

Suspended Motion

skaters in suspense

Over in Perth a similarly interdisciplinary project is underway at the Breadbox Gallery. Suspended Motion, features five artists—Ben Baretto, Cameron Campbell, Jason Hansma, James Hensby, and Tom Muller. Working with a team of builders and “skateboarding creatives,” including professional skateboarder Morgan Campbell, the artists will take over the Bakery to create sculptural installations, video and images where skateboarding will be used as a creative medium. You can see the video trailer here and read Darren Jorgenson’s review in our November 22 online edition. Suspended Motion, curator James Hensby, the Bakery, Breadbox Gallery, Oct 23-Nov 4; www.nowbaking.com.au

Dawn Albinger, No Door On Her Mouth - A Lyrical Amputation

Dawn Albinger, No Door On Her Mouth – A Lyrical Amputation

Dawn Albinger, No Door On Her Mouth – A Lyrical Amputation

shut your trap

Perth is also the place where writer/performer Dawn Albinger will be premiering her intimate new solo No Door On Her Mouth – A Lyrical Amputation. Using her signature tragic-comic style, she deploys fragmented narrative, poetic text and subtle humour to dislodge dominant readings of ‘romance,’ ‘femininity’ and ‘desire.’ Invoking choking divas, handless maidens and flightless women, the performance (with dramaturgy by Margaret Cameron and video art by Samuel James) offers “a philosophical answer, and performative response, to Irigaray’s question of how to say ‘I love you’ without it meaning ‘I wonder if I am loved’” (press release). Albinger’s Heroin(e) was reviewed in RT88) and this show will be reviewed in RealTime 100. Dawn Albinger, No Door On Her Mouth – A Lyrical Amputation, Blue Room Theatre, Oct 26-No 13; www.blueroom.org.au

light up, light up

Paris doesn’t immediately spring to mind when thinking of Brisbane, but Brisbane is in fact becoming a city of lights if not the city of lights. More specifically, it is currently hosting the Light from Light exhibition, which is showing simultaneously at the State Library of Queensland and the Shanghai Library in China. Visitors in each location come face to face with artworks that Australian and Chinese artists have embedded in collection spaces and public areas. In addition, they are also able to experience the same artworks in each other’s locations via webcam. The 20 light-inspired and light-generating artworks include neon art objects, light sculpture, images generated by solar telescopes and illuminated texts. Collectively they explore “the properties and metaphors of light, and the notion of libraries as sites of enlightenment” (website). The artists include Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley, Eugene Carchesio, David Haines and Joyce Hinterding, Lin Tianmiao, Archie Moore, Pak Sheung Chuen, Josef Strau, Wang Gong Xin, and Zhang Peili. Light from Light is an initiative of MAAP – Multimedia Art Asia Pacific. Light from Light, State Library of Queensland and Shanghai Library, from Oct 1; http://maap.org.au/

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. web

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

Waangenga Blanco, Leonard Mickelo, Angel, RILEY, of earth and sky, Bangarra Dance Theatre

Waangenga Blanco, Leonard Mickelo, Angel, RILEY, of earth and sky, Bangarra Dance Theatre

Waangenga Blanco, Leonard Mickelo, Angel, RILEY, of earth and sky, Bangarra Dance Theatre

SOFT WHITE CLOUDS DRIFT ACROSS BLUE SKY. OUT OF THE DARK BELOW, ON THEIR BACKS, CRAWLING BUT TORSO AND FACE UP, CREATURES SLIDE INTO DIM LIGHT. THEY WALK, BUT BEND THEIR KNEES TO THE GROUND, ARMS RIGHT-ANGLING OUT. LIKE STRANGE, EMERGENT ANIMALS THEY FORM BENEATH THE IMAGE OF A BOOMERANG AND TWIST, TURN AND ARCH, PERHAPS AT ONE WITH ITS SHAPE AND IMAGINED FLIGHT. THEY STAND, THE BOOMERANG FADES. ANOTHER CREATURE SCUTTLES THROUGH THE DARK AND A LOCUST FORMS BEFORE US, AGAIN ICONICALLY SUSPENDED IN CLEAR SKY.

In Bangarra Dance Theatre’s new season, Of Earth & Sky, the company is introducing a promising new Indigenous choreographer, Daniel Riley McKinley (24 years old, four years with the company) who has chosen as the subject and inspiration for his first major work the Cloud Series by the late Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi photographer and filmmaker Michael Riley (RT76; RT77). McKinley has selected six of the 10 images—feather, locust, bible, boomerang, broken wing, angel—objects suspended mysteriously in blue skies, and which for him relate most directly to Aboriginal culture. Omitted, for example, is Riley’s jersey cow, an almost comically displaced figure but equally indicative of ruinous environmental and cultural invasion.

Each image is projected onto a large screen behind the dancers and one by one is graphically realised and interpreted. Beneath the locust, dancers’ arms become wings as they cluster in groups and then en masse, to a buzzing electronic score and a riffing, insistent piano. The choreography manages to express not only a locust swarm, but also the gestures of those protecting themselves from it in a series of alternations. The plague escalates into a highly organised frenzy of sound and movement—straight lines and rapid circles, a fear-inducing army. Just as suddenly it stops. Something else scuttles across the stage.

A Bible, worn leather cover, hovers and a curiously abstract ritual of oppression ensues, hauntingly embodied by Elma Kris and soon multiplied in a row of other women on a diagonal across the stage, gold crosses emblazoned on—or ‘branded on’—their backs. They kneel, hands pushed up behind their backs, as if bound, and their heads drop to the earth. They rise, walk, go down on their knees as an eerie, distant female choir is heard buried deep in the music. They stand, elbows above their heads, hands behind their heads, palm to palm, like a distorted image of prayer or tortured angel wings, passing before us across the front of the stage and into the dark. The psychological pain induced by an alien religion that converts by bondage is palpable in the sheer otherness of the strange patterns that McKinley makes.

The Bible is replaced by a fragmented view of a graveyard sculpture. In this powerful episode two men with whitened bodies appear, one borne elegantly on the other’s shoulder, his body in a gentle arc, two bodies as one: is this the Angel? As the carried body extends further out, it’s as if gravity is being defeated. The bodies twist and roles are reversed, carried becomes carrier in a sequence of sinuous moves, as if on air, in this the most ambiguous of McKinley’s episodes. It’s as if he’s asking, are there angels, divine helpers, and can they be as beautiful and strange as this—and Waangenga Blanco and Leonard Mickelo can answer this for him.

In a mysterious return to the Bible, men in short skirts, the same gold crosses extending the length of their backs, dancing wide-stanced, like Pacific Islanders perhaps, execute obscure tasks, move angularly and fluently dance in a circle of blue light, almost warrior-like in contrast to the equivalent female episode—an image here of some kind of accommodation? McKinley writes in his program note: “The men represent the other side of the religious experience as an exaggerated religious presence.”

The screen turns white. A woman (Jasmin Sheppard) swathed in feathers crawls across the floor to a low cello growl, her body wracked, struggling to rise in a painfully exquisite pattern of elaborate moves that seem to engage every part of the body in the effort as Michael Riley’s Broken Wing image appears on the screen.

Riley’s Feather replaces Broken Wing and the whole ensemble dance: the patterning is formal, the movement light and elegant, no longer saturated with symbolism, animism or literal image-making. As they leave, the dancers gently drop feathers to the floor. McKinley writes that “in Wiradjuri culture, a feather can represent the marking of a journey had…I feel that Riley is my feather, it has connected me to Michael…”

McKinley’s work is sometimes more abstract than the company’s has been, but also at times quite literal, if always about the embodiment of land, animal and spirit and what puts these at risk. There is inventiveness and welcome unpredictability in the choreography, if not always convincingly sustained, and a theatrical assuredness if not always on top of its symbolism. But Riley represents a strong beginning for McKinley’s work with Bangarra and a welcome new vision.

If McKinley’s Riley is the sky of the program’s title, Of Sky & Earth, Frances Rings’ Artefact is its earth from the very first image, titled Museum (see cover image). It’s as if something very alive and alien has sprung from the soil in the form of a large possum cloak that writhes, revealing multiple arms and human legs (Daniel Riley McKinley and Travis de Vries). It’s an astonishing image that gives more than literal life to the idea that this encased museum object once sheltered many people, even across generations; it suggests a spiritual relationship between artefact and wearer and, as Rings writes in her program note, the maker. Artefact is a work of restoration in more than the museum sense of the term.

The next image also astonishes: a pale, out-sized, huge curved bark, such as might be used to carry food, a coolamun, gradually appearing upstage. It will rock, be climbed, turned over, inhabited and appear to float. From it people dance out to forage, the women harvesting with their string bags, the men to grind stones in dances that hover engagingly between representations of making and extended explorations of movement.

In Bodies, the work’s most literal episode, heritage is denigrated by 19th and early 20th century Western attempts to ‘scientifically’ prove that Aboriginal people are an inferior species—the missing link to the Stone Age. If Bodies labours its point with projected images and mechanical movements of measurement to show how Aboriginal people were themselves made museum artefacts, we are soon returned to the magic of objects and their making.

A wary, wide-eyed woman dances sensually in a flowing head-dress and grass skirt and, in Weaving, a huge golden skein of woven pandanus leaves—of women’s making presumably—envelops the men while the women’s dance has been itself a kind of weaving. Then, as often with Bangarra, Artefact concludes communally, if ambiguously. I was left with a rewarding sense of Rings’ restoration of life and spirit to artefacts, their making and makers, realised with Jacob Nash’s design, especially the giant coolamun for its poise and balance, and Gabriela Tylesova’s costumes that so aptly expressed their making.

With its focus on contemporary images and the ancient heritage of artefacts and their embodiment in and through dance, Bangarra’s Of Earth & Sky is an engrossing and thoughtful artistic exploration of a living culture.

Bangarra Dance Theatre, Of Earth & Sky: Riley, choreographer Daniel Riley McKinley, Artefact, choreographer Frances Rings, design Jacob Nash, costumes Gabriela Tylesova, composer David Page, lighting Damien Cooper, artistic director Stephen Page; Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, July 23-Aug 28

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 4

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Solar Equation, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer

Solar Equation, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer

Solar Equation, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer

“EVERY CULTURE HAS A UNIQUE SET OF SOLAR MYTHOLOGIES AND THIS PROJECT SEEKS TO BE A PLATFORM FOR BOTH THE EXPRESSION OF TRADITIONAL SYMBOLISM AND THE EMERGENCE OF NEW STORIES.” — RAFAEL LOZANO-HEMMER

Commissioned for Federation Square’s Light in Winter Festival, which celebrates the cultural, communal and physical qualities of light, Solar Equation offers us an opportunity to engage in a new way with the most powerful light in our lives. This scale-model of the sun brings together both the personal and social aspects of spiritual beliefs and practices the sun has inspired throughout time.

As the life-source of our planet, the sun’s majesty and mystery make it challenging to represent. Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project (2003) in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall successfully illuminated an interior space to recreate the effect of the sun’s presence in our lives. With Solar Equation, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer has brought the sun closer so that we might see the complex behaviours occurring on its surface. In doing so, he has created a work that establishes an entirely different relationship between us and the sun. Experiencing this first iteration of the work, I was struck initially by how tame the sun appeared at this scale in the Melbourne sky. Viewed from a distance, the appearance of this burning sphere against the night sky was however impressive and brought to mind any number of apocalyptic visions. But up close I was also moved by the questions the work raises about the role science plays in our relationship with nature.

The sun in Solar Equation is created by five projections onto a 14 metre diameter balloon. It’s the largest spherical balloon in the world yet is still 100 million times smaller than the actual sun. At 18 metres above the ground in the middle of Federation Square and at relatively human scale, not only is the size of the sun reduced. For millennia, the astronomical wonder of the sun has been looked upon from Earth with awe, worshipped and feared; scaled down, visible only to a small number of people in one city far down in the Southern Hemisphere, this sun suddenly appears manageable and, therefore, controllable.

Seemingly inverting this notion of control, the visual content of the work is produced by a series of dynamic equations that are uncontrollable. The use of generative visual simulation to create emergent behaviour patterns implies that the visual imagery in the work shows us what the sun’s surface actually looks like. Yet this representation is heavily mediated and relies on a belief that mathematical equations are able to faithfully replicate natural phenomena. The work’s fusion of science and nature—of science as nature—is what, for me, makes Solar Equation an intriguing and inspiring artwork. It presents a visual representation of the latest solar observations by NASA and the European Space Agency to give us a close up, dynamic view of our sun and in doing so reduces this powerful mass of nuclear explosions to something constructed, interpreted and contained by humans.

While the violence of the sun’s nuclear fusion appears as beautiful, mesmerising visual patterns in the work, the representation of such immense power in this way questions how far science can or will go in the desire to tame nature. The possibility, then, of interacting with the work (through an iPhone app) further enhances this problematic human-nature relationship. By selecting various options that apply, for example, particle effects or perlin noise, you can ‘disturb’ the turbulence, flares and sunspots on the surface. The sense of engagement is quite immediate; watching the different effects each equation has on the imagery creates a more personal connection that makes this sun seem alive.

Yet this sense of control and the idea that you might be able to affect the behaviour of the sun (even in this scale model version) harks back to those apocalyptic visions to remind us that our own capacity to influence our environment should perhaps also be approached with a degree of awe and fear. In this way, Solar Equation achieves the artist’s desire to evoke both past and future solar stories: it reminds us of the wonder of being confronted with natural phenomena we may never understand, while simultaneously questioning whether our present and future attempts towards such understanding might dispel the sense of magic that so ignited our collective imagination in the first place.

Scott McQuire’s interviews with Rafael Lozano-Hemmer about Solar Equation appeared in RT97, and in RT89.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Solar Equation, The Light in Winter, Federation Square, Melbourne, June 4-July 4

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 24

© Emma McRae; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Dean Johnson, Dreams of a Forgotten City

Dean Johnson, Dreams of a Forgotten City

Dean Johnson, Dreams of a Forgotten City

IF NEWCASTLE IS A SORT OF FORGOTTEN CITY—LARGE BUT NOT THAT LARGE, NOT A STATE CAPITAL, AND A SAFE LABOR SEAT SO RARELY THE RECIPIENT OF EITHER STATE OR FEDERAL BRIBES—THEN FORT SCRATCHLEY IS A SORT OF FORGOTTEN CITY WITHIN A FORGOTTEN CITY. BUILT IN 1892 ON A HEADLAND THE AWABAKAL PEOPLE CALL TAHLBIHN, THE FORT’S MOST FAMOUS MOMENT CAME IN 1942, WHEN ITS GUNNERS REPELLED A JAPANESE SUBMARINE THAT ATTACKED NEWCASTLE. SIXTY-EIGHT YEARS LATER IT IS THE SCENE OF SCHOOL EXCURSIONS, THE OCCASIONAL WEDDING AND, TONIGHT, TANTRUM THEATRE’S LATEST PRODUCTION.

Dreams of a Forgotten City proceeds in three parts. To begin with we are split into seven groups of seven, each group and its guide starting at a different point within the walking tour. Our group starts by stumbling upon a young man slumped in a doorway. He asks if we have the time—his watch has broken and as his monologue proceeds it becomes clear that his heart has too, waiting for a sweetheart who might not be coming back. There is another lone man in the marshalling yard, shouting commands and marching. For a moment he reads as a soldier, surrounded by a company of ghosts, then it seems as if he himself is the ghost, then as he continues his increasingly demented march, it is as if we the audience are the ghosts—privy to some sort of secret ritual.

There are plenty of secrets in this space; indeed there are plenty of secret spaces. Standing around the barracks we watch through the windows as a performer enters a room, dances and then seems to disappear. I get a huge fright when he sneaks up behind me and an even bigger one when I realise that there is another group of spectators standing behind him, watching me watching. Later, we find ourselves in their position, enjoying a moment of meta-spectatorship. Further up the hill, a girl in purple taffeta tells us “it seems that we have met before, and laughed before and loved before.” She repeats her actions and movements but in silence; she too seems to be waiting for someone.

The second section starts in the marshalling yard, where we are ordered to split into slightly larger groups. Highlights of this section include a scene on a wooden bridge, under which a small girl and boy are hiding. The performers post messages on scraps of paper between the planks, which spectators read aloud. It is a series of love letters, but alas love is not to be as a woman walks out from under the bridge and away from her childhood sweetheart. (There are perhaps too many whimsical lovers in the piece, as if this were the only type of history to emerge from war.)

In part three, we reassemble in the yard, forming in different groups again (it is starting to feel strangely like school). One of the most satisfying moments of the performance comes when we watch the man who was marching alone woo the girl in purple taffeta. The song “Where or when” in the background includes the lines she was rehearsing earlier and as it ends he presents her with his fob watch. Finally we reconvene in the yard, with the audience around the edge and the performers on a small hill on the other side. One performer sings “We’ll Meet Again” before they walk across the yard to thank us as the evening ends.

There are some lovely moments in Dreams of a Forgotten City, especially as the scenes start to overlap and connect, but there is too much waiting in between. Of course, some waiting is inevitable in a site-specific performance that involves huge logistics. However, the work loses momentum and the audience patience as they stand in the cold wind, waiting—yet again—for the group in front to finish viewing a particular section. Nevertheless, there are some strong performances and the cast of nine feels like a cast of thousands, effectively portraying soldiers, lovers, fathers, mothers and ghosts.

Dreams of a Forgotten City is Tantrum’s latest site-specific work (see my review of The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other, RT95, pg10) and the company continues to investigate the intersection of place, space, story and performance. Dreams allows us to rediscover Fort Scratchley—to peer through its windows, nestle in its nooks and crannies and re-imagine its many histories. Most satisfyingly of all, the performance itself is now a part of this history—a dream within a dream about a city within a city.

Tantrum Theatre, Dreams of a Forgotten City, director Brendan O’Connell, dramaturg Rachel Jackett, performers Florence Barrett, Liam Bird, Dean Blackford, Mitchell Bourke, Ben Freeman, Dean Johnson, Kate Neilson, Jasmine Skye Payne, Stephanie Priest; Fort Scratchley, Newcastle, Aug 18-21

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 39

© Caroline Wake; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Mindbox, Humatic, SEAM 2010

Mindbox, Humatic, SEAM 2010

Mindbox, Humatic, SEAM 2010

seamlessly: action & image

SEAM explores the very latest in technological engagement with performance and the ways that the relationships between art, science and audience are being reconfigured, yielding innovation and “breaking down established distinctions between performer and audience, and between rehearsal and performance” (Press release). Comprising workshops, exhibits and a symposium, SEAM is a collaboration between Margie Medlin, director of Sydney’s Critical Path, Garth Paine of the University of Western Sydney’s VIPRE Lab (Virtual Interactive Performance Research Environment) and UTS.

SEAM 2010—Agency and Action, a public symposium at the Seymour Centre, will include a keynote address from Stelarc, the exhibition of his Articulated Head and other interactive installations. The impressive roster of presenters includes Ruth Gibson (UK), Frederic Bevilacqua (IRCAM, France), Volker Kulchmeister (Germany), Christian Ziegler (Germany), Simon Biggs (UK) and Sue Hawksley (UK), collectively representing some of the more important developments in the contemporary integration of technology and performance in their work with leading artists.

The organisers write that they wish to provide “a resource-rich, stimulating environment for local dancers, choreographers and media artists to interact with local and international leaders in the field of interactive technologies and allied arts disciplines. We want dancers and choreographers to take away with them a raft of new tools, new knowledge, philosophical and performance frameworks, contacts and possible future partnerships in the creation of new or more profound directions within their contemporary choreographic practice.” SEAM 2010—Action & Agency; Public Symposium, Seymour Centre, Oct 15, 16; for workshops and exhibitions see http://seam2010.blogspot.com/p/about-seam2010.html

glow fires again

Chunky Move’s Glow (RT78) has had a long, successful life touring the world, illuminating the possibilities of bringing together dance and interactive media: it now makes a welcome return to Sydney as part of SEAM 2010. This deeply engaging, visceral short work was the first of two Chunky Move collaborations with German interactive video artist Frieder Weiss [RT84]; the second was the full-length work Mortal Engine.

In Glow the audience peer deep down into the dark at a still form that suddenly convulses into life, scattering about it brimming light, staccato geometries and threatening shadows. What makes Glow, a disturbing evocation of evolution and emergence, doubly exciting is that the light is triggered and controlled by the dancer’s movements making light and movement eerily seamless. Chunky Move, Glow, Seymour Centre, Oct 13-16, http://sydney.edu.au/seymour/season/glow.shtml

dream realised: maricor & maricar

Among the the British Council’s five Realise Your Dream scholarship winners this year are Sydney-based designers Maricor and Maricar Malano, twin sisters who have worked for the agency Mathematics, “producing video clips for bands including Architecture in Helsinki for whom they hand-sewed scores of embroidered characters which were later animated” (press release). In the UK they hope to engage with Partizan Lab and Studio AKA and do short technical courses at Central St Martin’s College. As well as introductions, the scholarship provides air travel and $8,000 spending money. Other winners include Melbourne-based theatre maker Samara Hersch, Adelaide theatre director Geordie Brookman and Alice Gage, founding editor of Ampersand Magazine. www.britishcouncil.org

unbelievable yet true

Not In A Million Years is the title of the much anticipated new work from Sydney’s Force Majeure about “almost unbelievable—yet true—stories of people who have survived, endured and created extraordinary experiences during their life time.” Created by the company’s artistic leaders Kate Champion, Roz Hervey and Geoff Cobham, the work will be performed by Vincent Crowley, Sarah Jayne Howard, Elizabeth Ryan and Joshua Tyler. The stories have been plucked from around the world: a man wakes from a coma in Buffalo, USA; a NSW paraglider rides above a storm higher than Everest; in Mexico, “an unlikely athlete sets the greatest track and field record of all time”; and in Scotland a woman’s life is ruined by a lottery win. As ever with Force Majeure it will be through movement and innovative design that these stories will be powerfully realised. Force Majeure, Not In A Million Years, CarriageWorks, Sydney, Nov 17-27, carriageworks.com.au

bold, black, brilliant

That’s the title of the Ilbijerri Theatre Company’s retrospective exhibition, which is currently on display at the Bunjilika Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Melbourne Museum. The exhibition marks the 20th anniversary of Ilbijerri, which was created by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists in Melbourne in response to seeing non-indigenous theatre companies telling Indigenous stories. From the breakthrough production of Jane Harrison’s Stolen, commissioned in 1992, to the upcoming world premiere of Jack Charles v The Crown (a collaboration between the actor and the playwright John Romeril) at the Melbourne International Arts Festival, the company has toured nationally and internationally, finding resonance and critical acclaim with Indigenous and non-indigenous audiences alike.

The retrospective gives visitors a behind-the-scenes look at life in the theatre company through objects including sets, props and photography from Ilbijerri productions. It’s being displayed alongside From Little Things Big Things Grow, an exhibition about Aboriginal activism in Australia between 1920 and 1970.

20 Years: Bold. Black. Brilliant., curator Ben McKeown,?Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre, Melbourne Museum, July 9-Oct 31; http://museumvictoria.com.au/melbournemuseum/

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 55

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

Ngurrumilmarrmiriyu (Wrong Skin), Chooky Dancers

Ngurrumilmarrmiriyu (Wrong Skin), Chooky Dancers

Ngurrumilmarrmiriyu (Wrong Skin), Chooky Dancers

WHETHER IN THE CREATIONS OF BANGARRA DANCE THEATRE OR MARRUGEKU OR HERE IN THE CHOOKY DANCERS’ NGURRUMILMARRMIRIYU (WRONG SKIN) AT THE SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE SPRING DANCE FESTIVAL, THERE’S A RECURRENT, RESTLESS, CHURNING DIALECTIC AT WORK, SEEKING TO BRING THE PAST INTO A DYNAMIC RELATIONSHIP WITH THE PRESENT—IN ARTISTIC ACTS OF RESTORATION, CONTRIBUTIONS TO SELF-UNDERSTANDING AND POSSIBLE RECONCILIATION BETWEEN INDIGENOUS AND WESTERN CULTURES.

While Bangarra is an independent Indigenous company that works with white collaborators on set and lighting design, Marrugeku and the Chooky Dancers’ Wrong Skin (and, interestingly, the film Ten Canoes) structurally replicate the cultural dynamic of Aboriginal and non-aboriginal collaboration—an evolved, shared black and white artistic direction of Marrugeku and with Wrong Skin a collaboration between Elcho Island people (the island is off north-eastern Arnhemland), writer-director Nigel Jamieson and other white collaborators.

After seeing Wrong Skin at this year’s Adelaide Festival, Carl Nilsson-Polias wrote in “Dialectical entanglements” (RT97) that he admired it as “a brilliant populist work.” However he felt that although the use of “the complex Yolngu moiety laws as the basis for a forbidden-love story, with overt references to West Side Story along the way [gives Jamieson] a straightforward narrative hook on which to hang various dance sequences and video montages of life on Elcho Island…it also imposes a stifling rhythm on proceedings and created a strange tension: are the performers co-creators or merely the subjects of the work? Occasionally, it even reveals the technical shortcomings of the dancers when they are required to step out of their own style.”

Wrong Skin is a hugely enjoyable creation, at its best in its dancing, its sense of humour and dexterous multimedia realisation. But there is no denying that the work’s embracing buoyancy evaporates towards the end as the love tragedy is acted out conventionally (which is not to say that the actors are inadequate). It seems a curious modus operandi given the radicalism of the Chooky Dancers’ cultural collaging that underpins much of the work alongside the multimedia layering of live performance and film. Another form of telling might have been more apt, and more palpably belonging to the performer co-creators.

These concerns aside, Wrong Skin succeeded on other fronts. The dancing ranged from the Chooky Dancers’ famous YouTube take on Zorba’s Dance to Bollywood and Hollywood inflected routines (developed with choreographer Gavin Robbins). These were performed on red earth rising in clouds and with more detail, speed, articulation and overall shaping than I’d anticipated—there’s much more than energy and charisma at work here.

The Chooky Dancers’ performance gained unexpected additional complexity when the large screen behind the performers revealed footage of the Elcho Island community, especially children, dancing furiously. Here is culture where pop, Bollywood and Hollywood and more exotic musics (Turkish, Arabic) are a part of everyday life. Suddenly we knew that the Chooky Dancers were not a one-off, a bunch of young men with a show to get on, but of their culture, absorbing and integrating forms that they like. The dark side is, of course, modernisation that plays havoc with kinship constraints.

There were other surprises, even shocks. In particular, we witnessed on film the funeral ceremony of an elder—his body in an open casket, a huge community gathering and, in its midst, a woman hurling herself repeatedly to the ground in grief. There was no way to avoid feeling like an intruder, especially since we are used to Aboriginal constraints on naming the dead, seeing images of or hearing them in the media, let alone witnessing something like this. But the Elcho Island community collaborated on Wrong Skin and one of the show’s island producers, Margaret Garawirrtya, told a post-show reception that the man, her husband, had been a key instigator of Wrong Skin and that the show was presented in “the memory of Frank, ‘the father of music’ in north-eastern Arnhem Land.”

Moments like these, alongside images of poverty and objections to the ‘Intervention’ were juxtaposed with happier representations of home and community and a playful embrace of the modern in routines with portable DVD screens and supermarket trolleys given low-budget Busby Berkeley treatment. The mobile phone in the plot proves a more problematic indicator of cultural stress when it comes to the issue of keeping people apart in the name of tradition.

The great strength of Wrong Skin is that it draws on the Chooky Dancers’ joyous integration of tradition and modernity, multiplying it with a range of media and performative means, revealing both its enormous creative potential but also delineating its impediments and pointing to what might be lost. Wrong Skin’s ending—a death, love thwarted, a community divided—suggests that the Chooky Dancers’ synthesis of tradition and the new is but one celebratory part of something much more difficult to resolve.

Ngurrumilmarrmiriyu (Wrong Skin), writer, director, designer Nigel Jamieson in association with the company, associate director, movement Gavin Robbins, associate director, community and cultural liaison Joshua Bond, costumes Mathew McCall, film & video design Scott Anderson, video production Mic Gruchy, lighting Trudy Dalgleish, composition, sound design David Page, Basil Hogios; ?performers Djakapurra Munyarrun, Djali Donald Ganambarr, Frances Djulibing, Rarriwuy Hick, Anthony Djamangi, Lionel Dhulmanawuy, Anthony Djamangi; Chooky Dancers: Aaron Djimilkinya, Daren Matan, Nathan Guymangura, Gerald Dhamarrandji, Wakara Gondarra; Spring Dance, Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, Sept 2-12

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 6

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Mokuy, Nawurapu Wunungmurra

Mokuy, Nawurapu Wunungmurra

Mokuy, Nawurapu Wunungmurra

THE 27TH TELSTRA NATIONAL ABORIGINAL AND TORRES STRAIT ISLANDER ART AWARDS (NATSIAA) HAVE BEEN ANNOUNCED. THERE IS ADDITIONAL EXCITEMENT THIS YEAR AS A NEW PRIZE CATEGORY HAS BEEN INTRODUCED IN RECOGNITION OF THE GROWING NUMBER OF INDIGENOUS ARTISTS WHO ARE EMBRACING NEW MEDIA AS PART OF THEIR ARTISTIC PRACTICE.

Previously, such works fell into the Wandjuk Marika 3D Memorial Award category where, for example, Nyapanyapa Yunupingu won in 2008 with her bark painting and video installation Incident at Mutpi, 1975 (RT87, p10).

The inaugural Telstra New Media Prize has been awarded to Nawurapu Wunungmurra for his work Mokuy.

Mokuy (spirit) is an elegant sound sculpture with video projection that evokes images and sounds of the coming together of spirits associated with sacred yams, “Morning Star feathers,” scrub fowl and doves at the sacred ground called Balambala: “The Yirritja mokuy come in on the birds djilawurr (scrub fowl) and bugutj-bugutj (banded fruit dove). The Dhuwa mokuy, they come in from rangi side (saltwater)” (Quoted material from awards website). RT

The 27th Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin. www.nt.gov.au/nreta/museums/exhibitions/natsiaa/

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 24

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

Malcolm Whittaker and Laura Caesar, Starfuckers

Malcolm Whittaker and Laura Caesar, Starfuckers

Malcolm Whittaker and Laura Caesar, Starfuckers

FOLLOWING IN THE TRADITION OF FAMOUS ARTIST COUPLES SUCH AS MARINA ABRAMOVIC AND ULAY, PERFORMANCE MAKER MALCOLM WHITTAKER AND HIS PARTNER LAURA CAESAR, BILLED AS A “PRIMARY SCHOOL TEACHER AND ARTS AND CRAFTS ENTHUSIAST,” DEVELOPED AND PERFORMED THE DURATIONAL PERFORMANCE STARFUCKERS. WHITTAKER AND CAESAR’S SUBURBAN NARRATIVE LANDSCAPES OFFER A SIGNIFICANTLY MORE INTIMATE IF LOWER-KEY PERFORMANCE TO ABRAMOVIC AND ULAY’S BREAK-UP EVENT, GREAT WALL WALK (1989).

One at a time, our partners in love and art step up to a microphone and read out a story. Some are diary entries written during the making of the project, and some are personal relationship memories. Each of these stories has been printed out and inserted into a magazine—Woman’s Weekly, Who, New Idea—torn out after they have been read and put immediately through a shredder. At the other end of the room, the detritus of these pedestrian love stories with their glossy celebrity underlay is transformed into papier-mache, moulded into figurines and baked in a small oven. Wearing aprons, the performers take turns to read, share and deliver the shreddings to be glue-soaked and flour-covered, shaped, baked and finally displayed in an ever-multiplying tableau across a long red-covered table. The small studio seems overly warm, filled with the crisp smell of baking paper, and over the hours a small army of tiny figures—effigies of the performers themselves?—gradually populates the long central table, filling up the space previously occupied by language alone.

Over the three hours of the performance, these accumulations form a strangely unsentimental love-crafting, the product of an idiosyncratic confessional cottage industry. Against the saccharine celebrity romance sagas of the gossip magazines, Caesar and Whittaker insert their more prosaic relationship perspectives, and do so in a gently self-deprecating way. As they note: “We hope we are interesting enough, beautiful enough, enough of enough.”

Whittaker first met Caesar when she took pity on him while he was tied to a tree at a scout camp, the victim of some gleefully cruel practical joke. It was clearly destiny, of a kind. An image of George Clooney’s face is shredded after Caesar details her perspective on a night in which the couple stayed at the apartment of a meth-smoking stranger “with crazy eyes.” In Whittaker’s version of events, everything was fine, no one was ever in danger and sleeping on the floor of a stranger whom the couple only met that evening was a perfectly normal thing to do. In Caesar’s story, she doesn’t sleep a wink, remaining alert and highly alarmed. Whittaker was tired, so he slept, and everything ended up alright, and so from his perspective there never was any problem.

Rarely do the lovers offer the same perspective on any given event, and the process of this diarising itself inflects the relationship. “I worry that my art practice is interfering with my personal life,” states Whittaker, observing ruefully that perhaps their almost non-existent sex life at the time of writing was due to the fact that Caesar doesn’t wish sexual intercourse to appear in their journal. At another moment, Caesar reads an entry in which she informs Whittaker that her current course of antibiotics makes her contraceptive pill ineffective, meaning that there won’t be any sex unless he buys “something else.” But he won’t. They both know and accept that he is just too cheap.

Our lovers tell their audience of perceived petty grievances, anxieties and affections. All of the stories provoke moments of recognition—I’ve been to these places before, though (I tell myself hopefully) not with quite Whittaker’s often-uncomfortable level of too-honest hubris. The diary entries and other writings detail uncertainties, mild confusions, potential infidelities and a great many misunderstandings. Despite these regular romantic imperfections, our lovers map out their past and gently imagine a shared future, even if its exact terms might always remain a point of contention.

Starfuckers is a product of Merrigong Theatre Company’s new Independent Producers Program, a welcome initiative recognising the growing number of significantly promising contemporary performance makers currently emerging through the University of Wollongong’s performing arts course, of which Whittaker is a graduate. I hope that this program continues to offer opportunities to facilitate such deeply engaging experiments as Starfuckers.

Starfuckers, creators, performers Laura Caesar, Malcolm Whittaker, Merrigong Theatre Company Independent Producers Program, Bob Peet Studio, Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, July 23-24

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 40

WeTube LIVE, Stompin’ Youth, Junction Arts Festival 2010

WeTube LIVE, Stompin’ Youth, Junction Arts Festival 2010

WeTube LIVE, Stompin’ Youth, Junction Arts Festival 2010

I’M STANDING IN THE MIDDLE OF AN ANALOGUE VERSION OF A DIGITAL EXPERIENCE. TO MY LEFT, RIGHT, FRONT AND BEHIND PERFORMERS DANCE, YELL, SCREAM, PLAY GUITAR, TALK AND GESTICULATE WILDLY. EACH IS WORKING WITHIN ONE OF A HUNDRED NOTIONAL STAGES MARKED OUT BY WHITE SQUARES ON THE FLOOR. A GIANT ‘DIGITAL’ CLOCK CLICKS OVER AT THE REAR OF THE HALL. I AM FREE TO WALK THROUGH THIS THREE-DIMENSIONAL RECREATION OF YOUTUBE AND IT IS DELICIOUSLY CHAOTIC.

WeTubeLIVE is part of the Junction Festival held as an adjunct to the Regional Arts conference of the same name, drawing over 500 delegates from all around Australia to meet and discuss a wide range of issues relating to arts practice. Launceston is a small centre in the North of Tasmania and rarely hosts events that register themselves all over the city with installations, performances, temporary live venues, projects and roving interactive performers, plus an injection of enthusiastic, creative strangers. I regularly heard locals ask with amazement, “Am I really in Launceston?”

WeTubeLIVE is a festival highlight. Devised and directed by Ben Speth with Stompin Youth, the work is simple but powerful. Each of the performers was asked to select a favourite YouTube clip and reenact or reinterpret it in any way they wished within their ‘screen,’ their square. All of the performers are teenagers, making the subject material incredibly pertinent. While a core of the group simply dance energetically on the spot in a range of styles from classical to street, the remainder do anything from play guitar in a bear suit to climbing inside a quilt cover and performing a soliloquy. And there is a lot of screaming, angst-ridden noise and strong gesticulation peppering the grid.

When the audience is set free, WeTube is already ‘playing’ and we walk among the players. Within a minute, the audience fills the grid and it becomes difficult to tell the difference between the two groups. Refresh points happen every 10 minutes, with all of the players stopping with eyes closed, leaving their squares to chat or curl on the floor. It’s really interesting to see how the audience behaves, chatting casually within the chaos, then falling silent as the players stop. As time wanders on, the audience also loses and refreshes its attention span, the players start to exhaust themselves and a strong aroma of teenage sweat builds within the grid. At the end of an hour, as we leave, WeTube continues.

This is a work of its time. All of the detail is perfect. The selection of YouTube clips by the players, their personal sound systems and the distinct performance spaces become a reflection of the cult of the individual and the seam of vanity now epitomised by Facebook. And yet, underneath it all, WeTube reveals a desire to build communities in whatever way possible, through numbers of friends, conversations within comment threads or just through laughing at the same clip. As in YouTube, the interface and the outcome are democratic. Not only are there no lead players, WeTube is open to anyone and there is little difference between audience and performers—making the ‘we’ appended to ‘Tube’ in the title more meaningful.

Carcophany is another show that connects with our moment in time while linking to an aspect of local Launceston culture. It has three variations over two days, but the performance I catch is in the ground level of a multi-storey carpark after dark. The show is built around sound emerging from 12 cars parked around the edges of the concrete space like a monstrous stereo. Each car forms one channel in the composition and is parked with its rear to the audience with doors, boots and hatches open so that the sound washes out across hard surfaces. The guitar-based soundscape that emerges and builds is an immersive experience that I would liken to sitting front and centre at a Dirty Three concert (which is a pretty lovely thing to do).

Composed by Mathew Timmis, Carcophony is intended to explore a global obsession with cars, but also keys into the Launceston blockie culture. Cars, with stereos booming, matching each other around the one-way circuit of the CBD, or doing blockies, is a well-known Launceston phenomenon. So it was quite fabulous that an artist grabbed that culture and transformed it into a symphony.

Connecting with these works ‘of their time’, Hobart-based IHOS Opera’s Borders picks up on contemporary fears and political concerns. In a deliberately tight, claustrophobic space, in traverse arrangement, the audience is introduced to a short, but visceral work about being on a journey involving considerable uncertainty, the pain of waiting and the anxiety of limbo. The players are a young man caught on this purgatorial journey, an operatic and decidedly bureaucratic angel and a seemingly benevolent panda. The young man is a hostage to his situation, which might be the razor wire enclosure of a refugee processing centre or the concrete walls of a hostage cell. The angel, depicted on large screens behind each half of the audience, sings the rules to him as he begins to lose the plot, while the panda cautions patience, speaking in English and Mandarin. Having been ordered into randomly numbered seats, facing each other within a smoke filled room, we are trapped with this man, waiting our turn to lose faith. At one point a wind machine blows loose plastic bags through the space; at another we are all ‘de-contaminated,’ recalling pre-landing aeroplane cabin spray. It is an intense and slightly esoteric experience, but if the aim is to communicate the texture of fear known to refugees and hostages, then it is successful. I leave feeling windblown, stomach churning.

Inclining much more to delight than fear, Toronto-based Mammalian Diving Reflex (MDR) present a work that has been staged across the world. Haircuts by Children is exactly that, a performance within a local salon—in this case Studio Hair and Beauty—where local children become hairdressers. The work is part of Social Acupuncture, explained at the conference by producer Natalie de Vito as performance that makes small incisions into the urban fabric that are a little uncomfortable, but inevitably lead to people feeling better. While initially dubious about the participation rate in Launceston, I discover a delightful chaos of mini hairdressers in the salon. Each child has been trained over a number of weeks by local hairdressers in order to prepare them for their part. There is a lot of excitement and giggly chatter, but I see that some precision work is happening as a young boy carefully sprays colour onto a woman’s hair, his young assistant holding a shield protecting her eyes. Tricky shaved patterns, spray dots and many tiny pigtails emerge in the city as a result.

Also dishing out delight was PANE staged in Retrovision’s shop window. In this show by MADE, devised by Glen Murray and Nicole Robson, seven women pitched as 50s housewives, dance in white gloves in front of an overscaled photographic backdrop of a 1950s kitchen and loungeroom. MADE is a group of ‘veteran’ dancers who were probably all born a few years shy of this decade, so the staging has an amusing underlying irony. Their slow mime-style dance with expressive, cheeky faces and touches of irreverent humour is a hit with the gathered audience, particularly a vibrant three year-old who dances throughout the performance, bows as we applaud and then joins the dancers in the window space. As we all stand around on the street, rugged up in winter clothes in the growing dark, gazing into the windows of an electrical store, there is a wistful connection with the days when this was the only way most could watch television and those kitchen canisters in your kitchen weren’t yet retro.

I’ve only explored five of Junction’s shows here, but I hope I’ve communicated the rich experience there for the taking in Launceston over five days in August. Works that really hit the mark for me were those that tended to break or stretch the rules and to reach out a hand, figuratively or otherwise, to the audience. I’d forgotten how much fun and how energizing it is to be in a city awash with events, the scale of Launceston making it possible to dash between conference and festival without driving or running a marathon.

Junction Arts Festival, part of the Regional Arts National Australia Conference, Launceston, Aug 26-29, www.junction2010.com.au

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 8

© Judith Abell; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

10 Transforming Youths, Philip Brophy, Signal Arts Studio

10 Transforming Youths, Philip Brophy, Signal Arts Studio

10 Transforming Youths, Philip Brophy, Signal Arts Studio

MELBOURNE IS SPOILT FOR CHOICE WHEN IT COMES TO ARTS AND CULTURAL INFRASTRUCTURE. IT SEEMS BARELY A YEAR GOES BY WITHOUT THE INAUGURATION OF A NEW COMPANY OR THE OPENING OF A NEW VENUE. THE MELBOURNE RECITAL CENTRE, THE MTC THEATRE, THE WHEELER CENTRE AND VICTORIAN OPERA ALL SPRING TO MIND AS RECENT ADDITIONS TO THE CITY’S CULTURAL CAPITAL.

Another element that characterises the ever-evolving cultural landscape of the city is a penchant for converting its unique architecture and old buildings into new environments for creative expression. The City of Melbourne has lead this approach, with public art programs such as its well-established Laneway Commissions and versatile spaces such as ArtPlay on Birrarung Marr, a studio space for primarily school-aged children, and Arts House at the Meat Market.

The newest addition to this family is Signal—the ‘big sibling’ of ArtPlay—a multipurpose art studio for young people aged 13 to 20, which opened in February 2010. Located behind Flinders Street Station on the north bank of the Yarra River, the heritage-listed building was a decommissioned train signal box, gutted by fire in 2002. It has since been re-fitted with a downstairs performance space, an upstairs studio area, multimedia facilities and dedicated exhibition spaces such as the outdoor plaza area and projective windows on the building’s upper level.

The establishment of any art space dedicated to young artists is welcome news, but as a flagship youth venue in the City of Melbourne’s evolving arts program, it is interesting to consider what unique and new opportunities Signal will add. After all, the majority of art galleries, companies and organisations have dedicated education and engagement programs to target students and youth participants. Councillor Jennifer Kanis, Chair of the People and Creative City portfolio, says that Signal will offer “the opportunity for young people to develop as cultural citizens by engaging in a range of creative programs…It is our intention to provide the opportunity for young people to develop skills or just engage in a creative experience” (email Sept 6).

It is with this sentiment in mind that Signal has started its journey, not by focusing programs specifically around educational outcomes or vocational training as many youth arts programs do, but instead by encouraging broad and varied creative expression. It is a welcome approach, which acknowledges the value of developing young people who are culturally engaged and creatively stimulated, regardless of whether they want to become professional artists or makers.

Being unattached to an established arts organisation, Signal should be less restricted by art form or formal educational standards. Initially, its programming has been markedly diverse and its creative remit wide. With regular programming on Friday evenings and Sunday afternoons, facilitated by local artists, Signal covers a wide range of activities and art forms. Workshops are repeated over the course of a few months. This means that participants can, in one week, create their own animations, new media and sound artworks, or learn about printmaking, zine writing and craft techniques, and then continue in the following weeks with hip hop performances from Cultural Infusion, dance workshops with Jason Coleman’s Ministry of Dance, graffiti workshops with street artists Ghostpatrol and Acorn, or performances in the Signal Art Orchestra.

Already, Signal is building connections with established youth-focused organisations and initiatives, such as SYN FM, Express Media, St Martin’s Youth Art Centre and FReeZA. In this sense, Signal seems to be positioning itself as a central hub of youth creativity, a singular venue in its own right as well as a springboard into other pursuits and opportunities.

Despite not promoting itself as an ‘artist training’ facility, Signal is offering opportunities for its participants to gain industry experience. Through its Signal Curators program, young people will have the chance to visit and learn from other local arts organisations over a seven-month period. The intent is not just to develop knowledge of professional practice, but for participants to return to help curate and deliver the ongoing series of programs at the venue.

This type of program shows foresight, because one of the problems that youth organisations can encounter is what to do with participants once they reach the ‘upper age limit.’ Rather than automatically losing participants when they become ‘too old,’ it is very important for new youth organisations to identify ways to retain and re-engage these members in different yet rewarding ways. So far, Kanis writes that feedback in the program has been positive, with participants “pleased they have the opportunity to be engaged with a range of Melbourne’s arts organisations and experience how they work.”

Of course, some organisations, artist-run initiatives and collectives thrive on being ‘homeless.’ However, to promote youth engagement it is particularly important to provide a stable and dedicated space. Young artists benefit from having a space that is not only welcoming and comfortable, but one that is solely dedicated to their pursuits, which they can inhabit and make their own. Many creative youth projects are obliged to use existing spaces and venues, sharing with other community groups and having to ‘pack up the hall’, to make room for the next night’s activities.

Too often the arts—particularly in the context of local government—are bundled together with ‘leisure’ and ‘lifestyle’ activities. The value of a venue like Signal is that it reinforces for young people the idea that art and culture are vital forms of self-expression, and can be more than a pastime or hobby, if they want.

Signal’s programs of workshops are run by practising artists, while another aspect of artist engagement is achieved through its strand of high-profile, site-specific commissions. The inaugural recipient was Philip Brophy with his piece 10 Transforming Youths, a graphic animation that explores the physical and aesthetic processing of ageing and transformation, reflecting society’s cultural and commercial obsession with youth. Ten young figures—all resembling contemporary visual phenomena like internet avatars, anime characters and advertising graphics—gradually track across Signal’s external screens until they each morph into older, decrepit and sometimes grotesque versions of their stereotypically youthful alter egos.

These Signal commissions fulfil at least two important functions. They allow young participants to experience outstanding creative practice in the same setting in which they themselves are creating artworks. Secondly, the program has been an important way to inaugurate the space and raise its profile within the broader arts community. Signal has also presented curated programs for the 2009 and 2010 Melbourne International Arts Festivals, an important gesture that recognises youth art as being not at the periphery of established arts practice but rather an important contributor and participant in the broader dialogues within Melbourne’s art community. It will be interesting to see if Signal can establish its voice in the dense Melbourne artscape.

Signal, Flinders Walk, Northbank, Melbourne (behind Flinders St Station towards Sandridge Bridge); signal@melbourne.vic.gov.au

http://.www.melbourne.vic.gov.au/Signal/Pages/Signal.aspx

http://www.philipbrophy.com/projects/10transyouths/background.html

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 25

© Kate Warren; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Jo Stone, Paolo Castro, Superheroes

Jo Stone, Paolo Castro, Superheroes

Jo Stone, Paolo Castro, Superheroes

THE CHARACTERS OF STONE/CASTRO’S SUPERHEROES ARE RESIDENTS IN A REST HOME—A KIND OF REHABILITATION FACILITY FOR THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS. THE WALLS OF THE FACILITY ARE PAINTED AN INSTITUTIONAL SHADE OF GREEN. THE LIGHTING IS SUPPLIED BY BRIGHT FLUORESCENT STRIPS. THE RESIDENTS ARE SHIELDED FROM THE OUTSIDE BY A SUITE OF VENETIAN BLINDS HUNG AGAINST PLATE GLASS. BY THE SET’S IMPLICATION, THE AUDIENCE IS ALSO ON THE INSIDE. WE ARE RESTING TOO. THROUGH THE WINDOWS LIES THE WORLD BEYOND—AT WAR.

Occasional nationalisms drift through this work like warped memories from another time and place. A male nurse plays air guitar as if protesting Jimi Hendrix’s mind-bending rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” But the pride of upright posturing is long dispersed. The residents hang their heads and turn their backs on us. They slouch disconsolately on plastic chairs, and fall short of distracting each other with their paranoid suspicions, their rants of boredom and mistrust. Mail from the world outside is delivered to the home, but the prospect of a missive fails to arouse. At least the parcel is not a bomb. One resident is reading Graeme Alford’s Never Give Up, but he too struggles to retrieve much motivation from the prose. The other residents want toast—to eat. They are adamant about that.

In the midst of their exhaustion, Superman (Paolo Castro) arrives from China, a dress-up super hero flying into the scene on an electric wheelchair. Temporarily energised, two other residents also dress in Superman costumes. But, despite their capers, we somehow know that none of them will save the day. Spiderman makes a cameo appearance, and Wonder Woman’s gestures of transformation are briefly referenced. These superheroes are really just distractions, serving to divert attention from the tedium but failing to relieve the trauma.

Beyond the comforts of the rest home, the war is raging on. The residents sing “God Save Our Queen” with flagging enthusiasm. They aimlessly fold sheets of paper into aeroplanes, and just as lamely send them flying—across the room and outside to a lone soldier in the desert amidst potted palms. Computer game-style animated graphics of armoured tanks and shells exploding are splattered on the back wall, accompanied by earth-rumbling sound effects. Like the residents of the rest home, we watch the violence at a distance from behind the panes of glass.

The residents are mostly men—actors Julian Crotti, Nick Bennet and Hew Parham perform with dancers Lewis Rankin and Nigel Major-Henderson. Only one resident is a woman, played by actor and director Jo Stone. She is pregnant, visibly so. But she doesn’t want to bring her son into this world—at least not while Superman is inside sleeping as the explosions of the war reverberate outside. That this lonely woman, dressed in yellow, already intuitively knows her baby’s gender is a tacit signal of the work’s religiosity.

More explicit on this aspect is the mother’s cradling of the dying soldier, an enactment of the Pietà. No tears of lamentation in this production, but the loss of religion—or rather, the loss of coherence in religious belief—is keenly felt. Stone writes in the program of her doubts and fears: “Our ideals define the landscape of the world our children will inherit, and I fear our ideals are so brutally disconnected from each other that the future landscape seems to me very bleak.”

Another key to the anxieties animated in this work is a speech in which a resident confesses to his shame that his penis is a source of laughter for other men in the showers. It is a speech of protest against the impotence of war: his struggle to assert his masculinity through stand-up tricks amidst the exhaustion of the rest home. In the end, he fails. There is a lot of smoke, but there isn’t any fire. The residents’ commitment to the regime of the rest home is secured with the conformity of an exercise routine.

Superheroes is reflective, contemplative theatre. Its violent prospects are displaced. The work is scripted by Paolo Castro, who in performance also provides an energetic anchor for the ensemble. The meanings of the words resonate on stage with images and actions, but the intensity of their expression isn’t always handled evenly by the cast. Some have worked before with Stone and Castro, and this production suggests the promise of an ensemble practice.

Stone/Castro & Adelaide Festival Centre inSPACE Program, Superheroes, director Jo Stone, writer, dramaturg Paulo Castro, performers Julian Crotti, Nick Bennett, Lewis Rankin, Jo Stone, Paulo Castro, Hew Parham, set design Wendy Todd, lighting Kerry Ireland, video Nic Mollison, sound Sascha Budimski, Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Theatre, July 2-24

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 42

© Jonathan Bollen; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Life Streaming

Life Streaming

Life Streaming

WHATEVER TERM YOU PREFER (AND I PREFER ‘RELATIONAL’, AS THIS IS PRIMARILY A THEATRE OF SOCIAL AND SPATIAL RELATIONS), THIS FORM DOMINATED THE LONDON SUMMER OF 2010. BATTERSEA ARTS CENTRE (BAC) PRESENTED AN ENTIRE FESTIVAL OF ONE-ON-ONE WORKS, WITH OVER THIRTY ONE-MAN-(OR WOMAN)-SHOWS CRAMMED INTO THE OLD BATTERSEA TOWN HALL IN SOUTH LONDON. THE MORE CENTRALLY LOCATED LIFT (LONDON INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF THEATRE) DEDICATED THE LION’S SHARE OF ITS PROGRAM TO EVENTS THAT COULD JUST AS EASILY HAVE BEEN TERMED MASS GAMING, COLLECTIVE SKYPING OR SCAVENGER HUNTS.

At the Barbican, during the same period, You Me Bum Bum Train entered history as their fastest-selling show ever: part theatre, part Thank God You’re Here, it turned each audience member into the protagonist, made to improvise their way through a series of dramatic situations in front of the supporting cast of 200. With so much emphasis on you, the spectator, forgive me if the rest of this article privileges the second-person singular.

one-on-one festival

An immersive event in its own right, One-On-One Festival was possibly its own greatest achievement. The least one could sign up for was a marvellously organised afternoon of mingling through a building crammed with secret one-man wonders, appointment card in hand. The atmosphere was surprisingly welcoming, even festive: performers and spectators crossing paths in the same courtyard and café, recommendations exchanged, friendships commenced, queues spontaneously forming outside the rooms with hidden gems on the strength of on-the-spot word of mouth. Repeatedly diving into a 2-or-3-minute intensely collaborative performance, being in turns swung and shaken, kissed and sung to, frightened or intellectually challenged, by the end of the day one had no personal boundaries left to speak of.

Despite being cumulatively great, One-On-One also demonstrated how quickly an emergent genre can settle on a limited range of solutions. One kind seemed tailored to break through fears of intimacy: Abigail Conway’s On Dancefloors invites you to dance; Emma Benson sings a song with you in Me You Now. Most radically, Adrian Howells gives you a bath in The Pleasure of Being: Washing, Feeding, Holding, while Ansuman Biswas’s more open-ended 2 FREE offers the possibility of engaging with a naked, blindfolded man. However trivial they may sound conceptually, these were some of the most powerful performances in the festival, spoken about in hushed, almost spiritual tones. You found yourself entering these rooms with the same mixture of compulsion and terror with which you might climb into a roller-coaster (and they certainly act as a kind of psycho-social one, including the lag with which you process the experience afterwards). But if theatre is ever genuinely life-changing, it is in the strangely liberating afterglow that follows consensual nudity.

Another, quieter type of performance centred on material reality, and the tactile dimension of the experience generated, not so much inter-personal intimacy as greater understanding of how the world works. Barnaby Stone’s A Little Bit of a Beautiful Thing is a story of a wooden beam, a finely polished slice of which you will receive at the end. In Ray Lee’s Electric, your body becomes a conductor. Another focused on creating a first-person narrative, employing cascades of clever sensory illusions: for the 10 minutes of Just For a Moment, by Three Blind Mice, you have a drink at a pub, lie on the beach, dance Macarena in the world’s most terrible discotheque, witness a fight and have to be walked out of the pub at the end of the night, despite being blindfolded in a single room. Stan’s Café use mirrors, projection, costumes and clever framing to generate a 240-second film noir before your very eyes, with you as the chief villain, in It’s Your Film. While these works were longer, more carefully shaped and satisfied some of that need for dramatic spectacle that drives people into theatres on perfectly lovely summer days, their beauty again seemed to derive chiefly from the promise of intimacy, of being made-to-measure and the soporific pleasures of being touched, rather than from well-executed tricks.

The most accomplished works brought together the cerebral and the felt, offering an encounter while questioning its limitations. Sarah Johns’ Below plays with your perceptions: dragged into a dark room, her performance catches you before you can make sense of where you are. Facing a mirror and a singing girl, your focus shifts abruptly from one detail to another, resulting in a series of mesmerising, well-defined impressions, as if in a film. And of course, towering above the rest, is Ontroerend Goed’s trilogy of brief, but flawless works that boldly question the gullibility of the audience.

As Peggy Phelan writes, theatre has always been a meeting place, always offering the promise of a communion, an exchange—even across the proscenium arch. The relationship between audience and performer is, in her words, “the always already unequal encounter [that] nonetheless summons the hope of reciprocity and equality” (Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, Routledge, 1993). Relational performance is the inevitable end-product of this quest. Yet in it, intimacy emerges not only as a tool and a goal, but as a major concern: can we have it, how, by what means and why do we desire it in the first place? A number of works at BAC traded on the false promise of quick intimacy, and most fell short: after all, the obvious difficulties of building a rapport with the actor in five tightly scripted minutes cannot be overcome just by holding hands. Ontroerend Goed’s Smile Off Your Face, Internal and A Game of You capitalise on this disingenuousness. Internal, in particular, set up as a speed-dating session followed by a sweetly cruel group debrief, builds the illusion of a budding attraction only to break your heart (comparing notes with other viewers is soul-crushing). Yet, for all its oversharing, Internal provides a dose of needed realism in a universe made of caresses. It stands as a reminder that there is no such thing as conveyor-belt romance, no intimacy on a mass scale, and that audiences often give their hearts away too easily.

Best Before, Rimini Protokoll

Best Before, Rimini Protokoll

Best Before, Rimini Protokoll

lift 2010

The polar opposite of the high-concept One-On-One, LIFT 2010 was a festival with an identity crisis. Rubbing shoulders were weekend events for kids, formalist community theatre and the occasional think piece. Yet here, too, the most interesting works were from the relational family.

Rimini Protokoll’s Best Before (RT96, p2) is a computer game for the whole audience. Represented by a globular multi-coloured blip, for two hours you live as a proud citizen of Bestland, making personal choices (tertiary education? children? buy a house? own a gun? try heroin?) and participating in collective decision-making (legalise drugs or guns? form an army? welcome immigrants? equal capabilities or a diverse population?). As the game progresses, you reap the fruits of some decisions and suffer the limitations of others, while your range of choices progressively narrows as you age. It is a game of consequences, but also of chance—some blips are randomly wiped out by epidemics and war while, ultimately, the whole population dies of old age. I found the end unexpectedly poignant, realising that there was no final payoff for all my prudent life choices (I had grown old with a big family and plenty of real estate). I suspect the experience varies according to your age and life experience, but also audience demographics.

Bookmarking the game is Rimini Protokoll’s trademark presence of non-performers, or rather ‘reality experts’—in this case, the game designer, a game tester, a lobbyist and a traffic flagger whom the other three would have passed by on their way to work. Their guidance and stories serve both to contextualise gaming in the real world, to relate Bestland to the political choices that Vancouver has faced, and to reconnect our personal choices to non-virtual consequences. The tension between the two aspects of Best Before, which never quite connect, is a productive one, even though I found the four Canadians’ lives infinitely more intriguing than my avatar’s cyber-shenanigans.

The real treat of the festival was Dries Verhoeven’s Life Streaming. The concept is minimal: in a makeshift internet café, each audience member conducts their own video chat with a young person in Sri Lanka. In the interstices of the poetic, but tightly orchestrated structure, filled with pre-prepared text and film and guiding us through such topics as the tsunami, loss and grief, my interlocutor and I manage to insert a real conversation about life, healthcare, the scent of the sea and lying in bed with total strangers. The work keeps the question of its own intent open, incorporating sensorial stimuli to create an exuberant experience not unlike a perfect holiday in South-East Asia, while at the same time allowing for an unusual degree of self-propelling interaction. Consequently, you come away with a real connection to a human being—if you so wish. Like Ontroerend Goed’s trilogy, Life Streaming raises big questions about art, reality and intimacy, but lets you choose your own answers.

to shop or not?

Elinor Fuchs argues that relational theatre is the last step in theatre’s commodification: after the ice-cream in the interval, now we can get ice-cream during the performance. Indeed she terms it “shopping theatre” (The Death of Character: Perspectives on Theater After Modernism, Indiana University Press, 1996) as it can so closely resemble a walk through a department store. It allows us to buy a reproduction of an experience that could not be bought otherwise. The physical set up, finally, is remarkably similar to a brothel—the room, the queue, the illusion of unique relationship.

However, I am not sure I entirely agree. At its worst, relational theatre combines the direst aspects of amusement parks and popular psychology, perhaps. But at its best, it incorporates the most conceptually interesting aspects of drama therapy, while allowing us to see our own experience through a critical prism. It highlights the qualities of everyday life, in all its mundane materiality, without distortion, in ways naturalistic theatre has consistently failed to achieve. Finally, the illusion of intimacy, of giving, which has existed for as long as theatre, can now be scrutinised in genuinely interesting ways. Relational theatre allows the exploration of the encounter between the artist and the spectator, an encounter that may be obviously staged, but is also more frank about its limitations. Once there are really only the two of you, the artifice becomes first disappointing, then bearable and finally, perhaps, genuinely empowering.

One-On-One Festival, Battersea Arts Centre (BAC), July 6-18, London; LIFT 2010: Rimini Protokoll, Best Before, created by Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi, dramaturg Tim Carlson, game design Brady Marks, video design Candelario Andrade, set design Andreas Kahre, sound design Stegan Smulovitz, with Duff Armour, Brady Marks, Ellen Schultz, Bob Williams/Arjan Dhupia, June 30-July 3, Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA); Life Streaming, director Dries Verhoeven, dramaturg Nienke Scholts, technical production Joffrey Kranen, Silk BV, National Theatre, June 23-July 4, LIFT Festival, London, June 23-July 13

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 10

© Jana Perkovic; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Victimless Leather, Ionat Zurr

Victimless Leather, Ionat Zurr

Victimless Leather, Ionat Zurr

WA’S SYMBIOTICA—A KEY INTERNATIONAL CENTRE FOR THE BIOLOGICAL ARTS—IS NOW AROUND 10 YEARS OLD, TUCKED AWAY AND THRIVING IN UPSTAIRS LABS AND OFFICES BEHIND THE LEAVES AND SANDSTONE OF THE UNIVERSITY OF WESTERN AUSTRALIA (UWA). IT RUNS A RANGE OF ACTIVITIES THAT STRETCH ART/BIOSCIENCE ENGAGEMENT TO ITS VISCERAL EDGES. ITS AUGUST SYMPOSIUM, BODY/ART/BIOETHICS, FOCUSED ON THE BODY—THE HUMAN-ANIMAL ‘FLESH-MACHINE’—WHILE ALLOWING SPACE FOR A BROAD RANGE OF TOPICS OF INTEREST TO INTERDISCIPLINARY BIO-ARTISTS.

In the absence, for personal reasons, of the first programmed speaker, biopolitics researcher Catherine Waldby, “renowned Australian writer” Elizabeth Costello instead moved to the first session, delivering a strident address against the human abuse of animals drawn word for word from the JM Coetzee novel that bears her name. Tired from travel like her fictitious namesake, Costello referenced the Jewish Holocaust to evoke the horrors of what is done to animals in laboratories—and, by implication, perhaps in art too.

Whatever the purpose or extent of the hoax (how many took Ms Costello for the real thing?), these ideas, while in many ways ‘old school,’ created an undercurrent that flowed beneath much of the day’s subsequent discussion. If Costello’s didactic tone was easily dismissed, the arguments themselves seemed to resonate at some of the symposium’s most ethically uncomfortable moments.

UWA’s Darren Jorgensen suggested that the ephemerality and even failure of bio-arts as a category doomed it, like all avant garde movements. Orlan’s idea of the living Harlequin Coat, he said, finished up as an installation; while Stelarc’s ‘third ear’ never hears. Jorgensen compared bio-arts to the 1970s ‘earthworks’ movement, which featured direct human intervention into the landscape. “Bio-art, like earthworks,” he said, “presumes to occupy and simulate the place of nature itself:” its subject is “ a new cosmological order.” Ultimately, the earthworks movement suggests an ethics of “being in a conscious relationship with a system,” rather than presuming that nature still exists as a discrete, non-human category.

SymbioticA’s Academic Coordinator and Co-Founder of the Tissue Culture and Art Project, Ionat Zurr, focused on the ethical discomfort of working in bio-arts. Growing a semi-living ‘stitchless jacket’ from immortal skin cell lines (Tissue Culture and Art Project, Victimless Leather, 2004) entails walking a somewhat visceral ethical borderline. Scientists and the military routinely “cross the line,” Zurr said, while few but the religious and artists ask questions. By creating “semi-living sculptures and/or objects of partial life,” Zurr aims to prompt thought about the meaning of such life. “As long as I’m uneasy about what I’m doing,” she said, “I’m in the right place.”

In “Interspecies Collaborations,” US artist Kathy High explored intimate relations between artists and animals through her own work and that of other artists. Focusing on recognisable and familiar animals, High introduced a literally ‘warm and fuzzy’ theme centred on relationship, and (citing theorist Donna Haraway) the importance of interdependence based on response and respect.

High’s presentation included discussion of two artists whose works lie at apparent extremes. In Adam Zaretsky’s Transgenic Pheasant Embryology Art lab, students manipulate pheasant embryos through a ‘window’ in the eggshell in order to create mutant living forms. Watching this tampering with a life form that US law doesn’t count as an ‘animal’ is subliminally disturbing, even if Zaretsky’s workshop aims to prompt ethical discussion. By contrast, former SymbioticA resident Kira O’Reilly collaborates with animals using a potent combination of critical engagement and empathy. The UK artist has both co-cultured the skin cells of newly-dead pigs with her own to create hybrid, living skin and devised confronting, tender durational performances including Falling asleep with a pig (which is just what it says) and inthewrongplaceness (2005) in which she cradled a slaughtered pig for several hours.

History sheds light on contemporary ethical practice: Ethan Blue, a US historian currently at UWA discussed the photographs of early 20th century prison doctor LL Stanley, who recorded his ostensibly ‘corrective’ experimental surgeries on prisoners with “different bodies.” For Blue, Stanley’s photos “amplify the terror and participate in the crime.” Blue believes Stanley was “just trying to see what would happen,” and the subtext is clear, if confounding: every scientist and artist sets their own boundaries (and often with ethics committees as compulsory arbiters), but how clear can the line ever be?

Bio-arts may face the same threat that not-for-profit researchers grapple with as life processes are increasingly commercialised, according to keynote speaker Luigi Palombi. An expert in biotechnology patents based at the Australian National University (ANU), Palombi provided a passionate and erudite explanation of the way entrepreneurs like Craig Venter are attempting to license gene sequences as though they are not discoveries but ‘inventions.’ Adding to earlier discussion around the commercial cloning and sale of human cell lines (often without patients’ consent), Palombi’s spectre of magnates like Venter profiting from ‘ownership’ of human products offered bio-artists rich territories for critical interrogation.

As the day drew to a close, two of SymbioticA’s current interdisciplinary researchers, Tarsh Bates (NZ) and David Khang (Canada), each asked, “How do we construct bodies when making art—who’s exploited, and how do we make political, ethical, poetic art?” Bates focused her attention on “what kind of world we desire,” explored through the lens of reproductive technology and complicated by race, geography, education and wealth. Khang, an artist and dentist, has produced visceral works juxtaposing extracted human teeth—markers of human mortality—with the poetic extremes of ox-tongues and butterflies. His gallery-based performances, such as How to Feed a Piano, employ symbolic language to confound cultural categories, including race.

In closing the symposium, SymbioticA Director Oron Catts pointed to the variety of critiques of biotechnology and bio-arts presented. Not only do the practices of art and science need to be ‘unpacked,’ he said, so too does the history of art itself and “the ethics of the hype” around scientific discovery and so-called ‘revolutionising’ research such as the Human Genome Project.

Catts stressed the acute need for bio-artists to provoke ethical consideration, from artists’ own informed and participatory perspective. Bio-art, he said, is sometimes judged by its ambiguity to be “flaky,” but this ambiguity is its strength: art sits in a privileged place where disturbances and disruptions provide powerful engagements with ethical issues but where problems need not be solved.

Body/Art/Bioethics symposium; SymbioticA —Centre of Excellence in Biological Arts, University of Western Australia, Aug 6

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 27

© Urszula Dawkins; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Zoe Ellerton-Ashley, Brad Williams, Dying City

Zoe Ellerton-Ashley, Brad Williams, Dying City

Zoe Ellerton-Ashley, Brad Williams, Dying City

ONE OF THE AXIOMS BY WHICH WE SITUATE A WORK OF ART IN RELATION TO OUR WORLD IS ITS ATTITUDE TOWARD DEATH. THIS ISN’T RESTRICTED TO GENRE—A COMEDY THAT NEVER EXPLICITLY ADDRESSES MORTALITY CAN STILL CONVEY A MORE ‘SERIOUS’ UNDERSTANDING OF DEATH THAN A DRAMA WHICH MAKES IT AN OVERT SUBJECT. BUT, PERHAPS UNCONSCIOUSLY, THIS ATTITUDE IS A FRAME THROUGH WHICH WE DEFINE FOR OURSELVES WHAT IT IS WE ARE APPROACHING.

Two independent productions which recently played Melbourne put this notion into relief. Do Not Go Gentle… was the first full production of a remarkable play by Patricia Cornelius which had been circulating for half a decade. It was a risky work, perhaps too dangerous for the mainstage, which was eventually mounted by a solid cadre of theatre professionals working outside the usual channels (and special commendation should go to venue and producing partner fortyfivedownstairs, who provided much support for the premier production).

Part of the threat of Do Not Go Gentle… is the presence of death in its very fibre. It features a roster of characters who are almost all in their 80s, and the nearing horizon of finality cannot but be recognised in every moment. At the same time, the work itself is less interested in death per se than in grieving at life—at lives wasted or unrealised. It takes a brave writer to create thoroughly original characters in their twilight years whose sadness is not evoked by referring to their impending passing but through a distressing depiction of the regret than can take hold—that age needn’t beget wisdom or understanding or even acceptance.

Christopher Shinn’s Dying City takes a less nuanced position, as may be apparent from its title. Death is again a constant here but figures as presence rather than absence. A woman entombed in her New York apartment after the suicide of her husband in Iraq is visited by his identical twin brother; in between their exchanges we are provided flashbacks to her life with the dead man. It’s one of theatre’s most enduring dynamics— establishing a fictional death in order to magically reverse it. In Shinn’s play, however, this attempt at producing pathos through reference to death is partially undermined by the perpetual presence of the dead figure or his simulacrum. Even when his widow is alone, the other’s arrival seems imminent.

The shortcomings of Shinn’s text were more than compensated for by the two performances—Zoe Ellerton-Ashley proved once again that she is a formidable addition to Melbourne’s stages and Brad Williams simply astonishing in his ability to play the brothers (I wasn’t the only attendee to wonder if real twins had been cast). It’s one of those rare occasions when a production was worth catching purely on the strength of its actors—and, certainly, I’ll be looking for more from this pair.

Do Not Go Gentle…, writer Patricia Cornelius, director Julian Meyrick, performers Paul English, Jan Friedl, Rhys McConnochie, Terry Norris, Anne Phelan, Pamela Rabe, Malcolm Robertson, design Marg Howell, music & sound design Irine Vela, lighting Richard Vabre, fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne, Aug 6-29

Dying City, writer Christopher Shinn, director Matt Scholten, performers Zoe Ellerton-Ashley and Brad Williams, designer Kat Chan, lighting Tom Willis, music Ben Keene, Hoy Polloy, MIPAC, Brunswick,August 6-21

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 42

© John Bailey; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

{$slideshow} MORE AND MORE, AND PERHAPS IN RESPONSE TO THE GLUT OF PERFORMANCE IN FRINGE FESTIVALS, A SMALLER, MORE FOCUSED AND, MOST IMPORTANTLY, CURATED KIND OF FESTIVAL OF INDEPENDENT WORK IS EMERGING. IN AUSTRALIA WE HAVE SYDNEY’S IMPERIAL PANDA AND TINY STADIUMS FESTIVALS, AS WELL AS MELBOURNE’S DANCE MASSIVE, WHICH IS, AS ITS NAME SUGGESTS, SLIGHTLY LARGER. THE FOREST FRINGE MICROFESTIVAL TOOK PLACE AT LONDON’S BATTERSEA ARTS CENTRE FOR THE FIRST TIME THIS YEAR, A TWO-NIGHT LINE-UP OF WORKS-IN-PROGRESS, ONE-ON-ONE PERFORMANCE PIECES AND SITE-SPECIFIC INSTALLATIONS.

In theory, if not always necessarily in practice, such festivals offer the audience a certain concentration of quality, as well as the reassurance that sometimes comes with a curatorial seal of approval. Everything has been programmed for a reason. Russian roulette, which navigating a fringe festival program sometimes feels like, it is not.

Presented by Collective:unconscious and Brooklyn’s East River Commedia at Manhattan’s Performance Space 122, the Undergroundzero Festival of Theater Artists, now in its fourth year, is very much a quality-controlled fringe festival, one of many that take place in New York City during the summer months as a prelude to the city’s official fringe festival in the autumn. Curated by East River Commedia’s Artistic Director, Paul Bargetto, this year’s three-week festival comprised some 20 works from the United States and abroad, including Australia, and impressively redressed the usual imbalance between quantity and quality.

It was also impressive in its scope. Curation is often an act of creation, with the festival programmer a kind of auteur, stamping their imprint on their festival and indulging their own formal and thematic concerns. Bargetto is an exception to this rule: his festival revealed little about what sort of work he favours or what sort of stories and themes float his boat. With a line-up of performance styles as varied and distinctive as any fringe festival’s, only with several hundred fewer works with which to achieve such variety, his festival saw high brush up against low, opera against burlesque, contemporary dance against musical comedy and adaptation against improvisation.

Of this last dichotomy, Dangerous Ground Productions’ From Dawn till Night (The Earth is Uninhabitable like the Moon) and Anna Brenner’s Are We Here Yet? served as representative examples. Using live video and an open-plan set to collapse time and space (not a particularly original approach, but nonetheless visually arresting), the former was a multimedia adaptation of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s In a Year of Thirteen Moons, while the latter was based on a series of improvisations that followed the four-strong cast’s observation of people in Riverside Park on the Upper West Side. Both productions comprised a series of one-on-one interactions unfolding in abstract space: in the former, the transvestite and the straight man he loved, his distant mother, his sympathetic best friend; in the latter, the old man and the social worker, the political candidate and the virile younger man, the book club president and the washed-up author. But the ends sought by each production could not have been more different.

While Brenner aimed to explore the interconnectedness of people—Are We Here Yet? was essentially a four-hander in the vein of Patrick Marber’s Closer or Jane Bodie’s Fourplay, only with a theoretical bent explicitly stated in the text that occasionally took precedence over character or story—From Dawn till Night’s Romanian-born director-designer Doris Mirescu was interested in the utter isolation of individuals, even, indeed especially, from themselves.

Isolation and alienation, of course, were the great themes of Andy Warhol, who once famously claimed, among many other things, that he never felt the need to be close to anybody after he purchased his first television set. Like so many of his public statements, this one was at once caustic, ironic, truthful and sad: humorous because shameless, disconcerting because familiar. Combining elements of Warhol’s biography, philosophy and aphoristic wit, Theater Bielefeld’s Forever Art attempted to capture these contradictions, which so characterised the artist and his work. To the extent that the production—not a one-man show, but close—was successful, it was due to John Wesley Zielmann.

The actor channelled Warhol as though he were a cadaverous mad scientist poised between explosion and implosion and liable to go one way or the other at any given moment. The uncanny physical resemblance of Zielmann to Warhol was compromised a little by his voice—the production was in German with shoddily typed surtitles that could have done with a proof-reader—but the actor’s evocation of the artist’s constituent strangeness and sadness was stunning. In the production’s most memorable and terrible scene, Zielmann engaged in a contemporary dance number that saw him convulsively slamming his fists against his chest and his body against the floor, almost as though he were performing an exorcism on himself.

A much lighter, if occasionally foul-mouthed kind of musical number was offered by Blue Dress Reduction, easily the funniest and most immediately charming production at the festival. Written and performed by Eliza Bent, Jasmin Hoo and Elizabeth Stevenson, the low-budget musical comedy was the sort of piece you tend to find by accident at fringe festivals or in the smaller, less well-attended venues of a comedy festival, another example of how curation can often help to separate wheat and chaff for an audience. Blue Dress Reduction told the story of the three writers’ real-life visit to England to be bridesmaids at their best friend’s wedding, with culture shock and the usual unplanned mishaps of travel helping to turn the event into an unmitigated disaster.

In addition to the musical numbers, with their delightful, slightly unpolished air, the piece was notable for its unscripted sequences, where the house lights came up a little and the three women spoke candidly to each other about the trip, and its parodic characterisation of those who occupy the other side of the pond. Eliza Bent, whose She of the Voice premiered at last year’s festival, was particularly impressive as the hoity-toity mother-of-the-groom, and one senses that it was she who was the creative force behind the project. In any case, she is one to watch, with all the makings of a great comedienne.

The festival’s most affecting work also told the story of three friends, though only one of them was ever onstage, and instead of singing musical numbers he chanted for his football team: Ireland, during the November 2009 World Cup qualifying match that saw Frenchmen Thierry Henry’s hand make sure the paddies wouldn’t be going to South Africa in 2010. Named for an Irish number that is traditionally sung at the end of a gathering of friends, Dermot Bolger’s The Parting Glass, produced by Dublin’s Axis Ballymun in association with New York’s terraNOVA Collective, was a fascinating monologue about emigration and the meaning of home, as well as family, loss and friendship. A sequel to Bolger’s 1990 play, In High Germany, which saw the three aforementioned friends move away from Ireland, The Parting Glass dramatised the decision of one of them—played brilliantly by Ray Yeates, with genuine warmth and feeling—to return.

The results were often funny, often moving, and also very often political. The piece was highly critical of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger years, insisting that far fewer benefited from the country’s economic boom than perhaps could or should have, and was similarly unimpressed by the post-boom period, to which Yeates’ central character returns. But its polemic was held close to its chest, wherein beat a lot of heart. And it was this heart, more than any economic or political critique, that made the piece the intense experience that it ultimately was.

But perhaps the festival’s most striking work was Fabiana Iacozilli’s Aspettando Nil, a feminist take on Waiting for Godot that actually felt more like a cross between The Glass Menagerie and Abbott and Costello. Elisa Bongiovanni and Giada Parlanti played chain-smoking mother and daughter, respectively, preparing themselves, like Tennessee Williams’ Amanda and Laura Wingfield, for a gentleman caller to arrive—which he would do, mother told daughter, when the two of them were “ready.” And so they readied themselves for the man—for any man, really—excitedly dressing and putting on make-up, prettifying themselves in a series of slapstick sequences and talking about what sort of responsibilities the daughter would have towards her new beau.

Like The Parting Glass, Aspettando Nil was at once both humorous and moving, as well as fiercely political. Unlike The Parting Glass, it was also formally inventive, using Waiting for Godot as a launch pad for its own satirical exploration of gender roles, insisting, as its title suggests, that a woman who waits for a man is waiting for nil, for nothing. The meaning of Beckett’s play, of course, is somewhat more ambiguous, open to interpretation where Aspettando Nil is rather explicit. But one can certainly understand why Iacozilli thought it appropriate to her ends. After all, Beckett’s is the play in which, famously, nil happens twice.

Collective:Unconscious & East River Commedia, Undergroundzero Festival of Theater Artists, PS122, New York, July 7-26; www.ps122.org/performances/undergroundzero_festival.html

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 12

© Matthew Clayfield; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

NOW IN ITS 17TH YEAR, THE FILMMAKING SUMMER SCHOOL IS PART OF THE PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT PROGRAM OF SCREEN STUDIES, UNIVERSITY OF MELBOURNE, OFFERING INTENSIVE TEACHING IN ALL ASPECTS OF PRACTICAL FILM PRODUCTION. IT’S THE IDEAL TIME OF YEAR TO ACQUIRE SKILLS BUT ALSO GET A PERSPECTIVE ON AN INDUSTRY THAT LOOKS LIKE IT’S FINALLY GETTING ON ITS FEET AFTER SOME HARD YEARS. YOU CAN EVEN LEARN HOW TO ROLL WITH THE BLOWS DELIVERED BY CRITICS.

The teachers are leading Australian film industry practitioners. For the 2011 school they include screenwriter Mac Gudgeon (Good Guys, Bad Guys, Last Ride), composer Cezary Skubiszewski (Two Hands, Bootmen, Bran Nue Dae, Blessed), sound designer Craig Carter (Romeo & Juliet, Babe, Rabbit Proof Fence, Kenny, Home Song Stories), director Nadia Tass and cinematographer David Parker (Malcolm, The Big Steal, Amy, Matching Jack), producer Sue Maslin (Japanese Story, Hunt Angels), production designer Jo Ford (My Brother Jack, Road From Coorain, Kidnapped, Last Ride) and a host of others.

Areas taught cover screenwriting, cinematography, producing and production management, directing actors, production and sound design, editing, digital effects, film music, screen language, film business and legalities, marketing and distribution and documentary filmmaking.

There will be lectures on genre films and Wendy Haslem will interview critic and film festival director Paul Harris in a session titled “The Critics and your Film.”

Courses included “From Script to Screen”, “Cinematography Intensive” taught by Ellery Ryan (Angel Baby, Dead Letter Office, Van Diemen’s Land, I Love You Too) and “Digital Cinematography” with the latest in HD technology to hand. And you can live-in at the university if you wish. RT

Filmmaking Summer School 2011, Trinity College, University of Melbourne, Jan 5-25, summerfilmschool@me.com; http://www.summerfilmschool.com

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 27

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

Tamara Saulwick, Pin Drop

Tamara Saulwick, Pin Drop

Tamara Saulwick, Pin Drop

THE NORTH MELBOURNE TOWN HALL IS A STATELY EXAMPLE OF CLASSICAL VICTORIAN ERA ARCHITECTURE. IT MAKES SENSE THEN THAT PERFORMER TAMARA SAULWICK SHOULD COMMAND ATTENTION CENTRESTAGE WHILE INTERACTING WITH THE RECORDED VOICE OF AN ELDERLY WOMAN—ONE WHO MAY HAVE ONCE HUNG HER SHAWL ACROSS A BALUSTRADE WHILE DANCING WITH HER BEAU IN THE BUILDING’S GRAND HALL. BUT MORE LIKE THE OLD MOB-CONNECTED VICTORIA MARKET, STILL CONSORTING JUST AROUND THE CORNER, SAULWICK, INSTEAD, HAS FEAR ON HER MIND.

While listening to the elderly woman’s croaky recollections, Saulwick simultaneously relates a tale directly to the audience. Both stories are characterised by a general sense of disquiet. But it remains difficult to ascertain exactly the detail of each, as a circumlocutory speaker system situated above, behind and to the left and right of the audience, dislocates the content of both narratives. When the two tales collide, however, Saulwick’s live delivery splinters the elderly woman’s sonic representation, and the latter’s recorded voice undergoes a sonorous transformation. Tremolo, reverb and other software manipulations reduce the elderly woman’s voice to a singular chant or a sound resembling a repeated monotone emanating from a large gathering.

Meanwhile, Saulwick rises from her chair and advances upstage, situating herself behind a teak display case resting on a stand. As the recorded chant becomes incremental and fills the theatre, the artist tilts her display case up and forward, gradually revealing its contents: a pair of chrome plated scissors, a large plastic syringe, a roll of cellophane tape and a collection of automotive ties secured in a bundle among other objects. Simultaneously, the infiltration of sound that has vibrated throughout the inner ear coalesces into a recognisable phrase, “I did not scream.” The aural, visual, and verbal interplay comprising Pindrop integrates, relaying this and subsequent information precisely to the audience. We have witnessed a descent from the relative security of the actual world into the murk of the unconscious. But whether this descent has occurred within the mind of an unseen elderly woman or is, instead, a journey into the imagined experience of performer Tamara Saulwick, remains unclear.

Several distinctive female voices soon populate the theatre. One tells of the terror associated with receiving an obscene phone call. Another reflects upon its psychological implications—maintaining that fear is a natural human reaction, one that protects individuals in threatening situations. Fragmented and transient, these discharges of strategically placed sound are then subsumed by a coherent, recorded narrative. An apprehensive, upwardly mobile female voice speaks of hearing a suspicious noise in a bedroom of her Darlinghurst apartment. Investigating its source, she opens a wardrobe and out springs an assailant who thrusts her onto a bed where she endures a terrifying moment without end, in which her sense of personal safety is ruptured. The resulting violation then becomes a transitional moment for the performance. Saulwick, wearing a nondescript blue dress and knee high boots, absorbs the prolapse of light and sound, then regurgitates the same recorded tale, but now, as a real time narrative that engages while it disorients.

Interpreted as a commentary upon the mediated exchange, and the ancient tradition of oral storytelling, Pindrop skirts that interminable question: who, or what, is an author? But in spite of Saulwick’s alluring stage presence, some evocative imagery, a sophisticated lighting and sound design, and a movement vocabulary that speculates on the relationship between animate beings and inanimate objects, this fundamental question remains unanswered. Consequently, when the narrative shifts in location yet again, it does not generate empathy. Quite simply, amidst the 12 voices that proliferate throughout, I remain in doubt as to who is actually speaking.

Saulwick’s skill at self-directing in a tech-heavy performance is commendable. But I suspect she neglects some of the basic tenets of dramatic form. Who owns and undertakes the journey in Pindrop, and how does a performer locate within herself the experience of extreme fear, then express it theatrically? A very stylish and ambitious performance, these questions answered will assist in Pindrop’s potential being realised.

Pindrop, creator-performer Tamara Saulwick, sound design Peter Knight, movement Michelle Heaven, lighting design & production Ben Cobham & Frog Peck, costume design Harriet Oxley, Arts House, Future Tense, North Melbourne Town Hall, Aug 25-29.

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 43

© Tony Reck; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Opening Night, Toneelgroep Amsterdam/NTGent

Opening Night, Toneelgroep Amsterdam/NTGent

Opening Night, Toneelgroep Amsterdam/NTGent

BY BRINGING A JOHN CASSAVETES FILM TO THE STAGE, ONE WOULD SUSPECT THAT DIRECTOR IVO VAN HOVE WANTS TO START A CONVERSATION ABOUT THE INTERPLAY BETWEEN CINEMA AND THEATRE. INDEED, THE FACT THAT THE FILM OPENING NIGHT IS SET IN A THEATRE APPEARS TO CONFIRM THIS SUSPICION. AND BY INCLUDING A RAFT OF SCREENS AND CAMERAS IN THE PRODUCTION, VAN HOVE APPEARS TO BE MAKING SOME STRONG OPENING REMARKS. BUT IN TRUTH, HE HAS NEVER SEEN THE FILM HE IS STAGING AND THINKS OF THE CAMERAS AS THEATRICAL, RATHER THAN CINEMATIC DEVICES.

Now 52, van Hove was 19 years old when Opening Night was released. He might have missed that film but, growing up in Antwerp, he had made a habit of visiting the local art house cinemas and devouring Cassavetes’ earlier works, along with those of Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Pier Paulo Pasolini and Luchino Visconti.

As a teenager, the emotional and psychological terrain of Cassavetes’ films was alien to van Hove, but the intimacy and rawness of the work were evident and infectious. When he returned to the films in his 30s, he felt their full impact and set about bringing them into the theatre. Adapting films for the stage has been brilliantly lampooned by the likes of Wes Anderson (Rushmore, 1998), however, van Hove is not strictly interested in staging films—he is interested in staging screenplays. The difference is more than academic because by removing the desire to mimic or deconstruct the visual and aural language of cinema, van Hove can simply concentrate his efforts on realising the text with the same set of skills and theatrical inventiveness he brings to any play.

Film titles—Scenes from a Marriage, Teorema, Rocco and his Brothers—leap out from van Hove’s directorial résumé. He sees these screenplays as an exciting frontier because staging them for the first time is effectively to premiere them. Instead of being the thousandth director to tackle The Cherry Orchard he can be the first to tackle Cries and Whispers on stage. And he looks at Antonioni and Bergman not in terms of the aesthetic markers that characterise their cinema but in terms of their thematic uniqueness—who does death better than Bergman, who examines love in modern society like Antonioni?

And Cassavetes? Open, actor-oriented screenplays dealing with adult relationships in all their sensuality, vicissitude, violence and, most importantly, artifice. In 1997, van Hove presented a staging of Faces in the Netherlands, which, in a brilliant perversion of cabaret seating, had the audience lying shoeless in beds as the actors performed around and almost on top of them. He wanted next to tackle Husbands but Cassavetes’ wife Gena Rowlands politely withheld the rights because of the very personal subject matter. Instead, van Hove came to read Opening Night and found in it a story equally compelling. The film centres on a famous actress, Myrtle Gordon (played by Rowlands), who is struggling through the rehearsals of a new play, which also stars her ex-husband (played by Cassavetes). Gordon’s internal conflicts burst to the surface when an adoring young fan dies in a car accident (a dramatic catalyst quoted by Pedro Almodovar in All About My Mother, 1999). Cassavetes’ screenplay avoids pinning down exactly what is at the heart of Gordon’s psychological turmoil and instead revels in its complexity and unresolvedness. It could simply be viewed as a portrait of an aging actress driven to despair by the death of her younger self (the fan), but van Hove sees it also as a family tragedy. Either way, in its examination of inner lives curtailed by social mores and niceties, it continues John Cassavetes’ obsession with the difference between people’s private and public faces—the masks and artifice of adult life.

The first words van Hove wrote in his copy of Opening Night were “Neil Young.” Music always plays a vital role in van Hove’s theatre, whether it is Steve Reich’s minimalism in his latest production in New York, The Little Foxes, or six hours of live percussion in his compendium of Shakespeare’s Roman tragedies. Indeed, van Hove is happy to label his work “music-theatre” just to emphasise how much more music is than wallpaper to him. In this case, Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” provides what van Hove refers to as “an extra layer of humanity” with its “good-sentimental” tone.

Alongside that song, Marc Meulemans’ sound score for the stage production is a constant companion that sometimes underscores moments of choreographed movement. These interludes of physical expression are some of the most apparent theatrical extrapolations on the source material. Van Hove is fascinated by the way in which psychological subtexts can be explored or made manifest by physical motion and he emphasises that his actors are always very physically engaged with the text they are speaking. He cites the French opera, theatre and film director Patrice Chéreau as a key influence on the way in which he directs bodies in space. But the physical dynamics at work also reveal the creatively symbiotic relationships between van Hove and his Belgian contemporaries: Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker, Alain Platel and Jan Fabre.

But what of the cameras? By giving the theatre the capacity for a close-up, they enlarge and expand the emotions on stage. Hence van Hove thinks of them and the video screens as a contemporary extension of some of the oldest theatrical devices we know of—Greek masks. In this sense, one could argue that the video aspects of van Hove’s Opening Night reaffirm Cassavetes’ obsession with the many masks that people wear. Yet van Hove shies away from such thematic neatness and points instead to practicality and circumstance as the reasons for video’s inclusion. On the one hand, he wanted to reduce and simplify the many locations of the film but, on the other hand, to maintain the sense of the text being set in a theatre. He and his designer Jan Versweyveld created a theatre on the stage, complete with paying audience. Thus, the set is a rangy agglomeration of public and private spaces, some of which simply cannot be seen from the main auditorium without the aid of cameras.

Of course, even this reductive explanation reveals that the cameras give the audience access to spaces, both physical and psychological, that would otherwise remain hidden or private. In fact, the best analogy for van Hove’s use of video in Opening Night is the fly-on-the-wall documentary crew that lucks out by happening on a crisis. As people attempt to maintain appearances and gloss over problems, the cameras reach behind the delusions and obfuscations.

The constricted, magnifying gaze of the camera with this power to unravel and reveal can be intoxicating, but van Hove maintains that the screens do not diminish the importance of the actors being physically present (the fundamental differentiator of theatre). To ensure this, he frustrates the audience by never giving them everything in one medium or the other. In other words, it is impossible to receive and follow every moment of Opening Night by watching the screens or the stage in isolation. It is only in their combination that the narrative unfolds, that the characters reveal themselves and that we see both sides of the mask.

Melbourne International Arts Festival, Toneelgroep Amsterdam/NTGent, Opening Night, by John Cassavetes, directed by Ivo van Hove; Playhouse, Arts Centre, Oct 20-23; http://www.melbournefestival.com.au/program

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 15

© Carl Nilsson-Polias; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Kristy Ayre, Timothy Harvey, Luke George, NowNowNow

Kristy Ayre, Timothy Harvey, Luke George, NowNowNow

Kristy Ayre, Timothy Harvey, Luke George, NowNowNow

“SUBLIME IS THE NAME GIVEN TO WHAT IS ABSOLUTELY GREAT. BUT TO BE GREAT AND TO BE A MAGNITUDE ARE ENTIRELY DIFFERENT CONCEPTS…” IMMANUEL KANT, THE CRITIQUE OF JUDGEMENT

The sublime teeters between the dizzying heights of abstraction and the ground of the earth, between nature and art, mathematics and the ineffable. According to Kant, the mathematically sublime is beyond calculation, beyond quantifiable measurement. And yet, Grace Walpole entices her audience with the sublime qualities of π, a household ratio that would appear to be eminently measurable. Or is it?

We know that the circumference of a circle is the square of its radius times π. No matter what size the circle, this formula holds. Walpole rolls an everyday circle, a dinner plate, along her leg, extolling the sheer reliability of its numerical calculation. Surely nothing could be more concrete? Yet a precise articulation of π requires a mathematics of infinite numbers, belongs to the irrational number system and smacks of transcendence: π goes on forever.

Walpole plays between these two mathematical spheres, between the concrete body as that earliest of measures and the filigree of pure maths, between the sensible and the Platonic worlds. She spins a plate, she swings a rope, twists a string. Interspersed between these bodily musings, Walpole offers her audience a discourse on the mathematics of each gesture. She stands in front of us in order to lecture, exhibiting a mixture of delight and awe in face of the mathematically sublime.

But the body is not merely a means of measurement. Throughout Mathematical Models of the Sublime Walpole repeatedly turns to the work of entomologist Justin O Schmidt, who personally rated and described a bevy of horribly painful insect stings. Walpole locates this weird attempt to quantify pain within her own clinical experience as a doctor. While Schmidt can numerically contrast “caustic and burning” (paper wasp) with “bold and unrelenting” (red harvester ant), it’s not so easy to find a common measure of pain that holds between bodies. One patient’s agony could be another’s discomfort.

All in all, Mathematical Models of the Sublime is a kind of researched whimsy, a conversation held between two sisters (Grace and Helen), an investigation turned into art. The body plays a role in this meditation, not merely as an aesthetic medium but because the thinking embedded in the work addresses matters corporeal: How do mathematics invoke the body? Can we quantify pain in the body? Could we unravel three dimensional string theory? There is something very nice about two sisters together making art. In another epoch they may have written a series of letters to each other, staged experiments in their own home or addressed an audience of amateur scientists. There is a sense of conversations had in this work, of the drawing room as well as the drawing board, of common pursuit being opened out for a wider audience. While the work engages the cutting edge of mathematical thought, it also suggests the 19th century salon. Grace Walpole’s manner of address is quaintly direct, slightly mannered. My own feeling is that the text and its delivery could have been more textured, more aestheticized in line with the rest of the performance. Mathematical Models of the Sublime was nevertheless gently infectious, a mindful and gracious exploration of things great and small.

Luke George’s NowNowNow was different, action-based rather than discursive. Its aim was to stage an event where all three performers sustained an ‘in the moment’ focus for the entirety of the performance. According to Buddhist monk, Chögyam Trungpa: “Speaking generally what happens is that, once we have actually opened, ‘flashed’, in the second moment we realize that we are open and the idea of evaluation suddenly appears. ‘Wow, fantastic, I have to catch that, I have to capture and keep it…’ so we try to hold onto the experience and the problems start there…” (Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism).

The difficulty of staying in the moment is that there are so many of the damn things. One moment slips into another. However achieved—and there are several ways to skin a cat—remaining ‘in’ any given activity is easier said than done. For a start, nothing stays the same. There’s a lot to keep up with in this world of becoming-performance. Plus, the body-in-movement is streets ahead of the mind-that-keeps-track. My foot finds the floor. The moment of their meeting is achieved in the passage towards another step. Three performers jump, then jump again. It would seem that repetition takes over. But then again, isn’t each jump a particular jump, a unique meeting between foot and floor, launch and landing? Maybe jumping is the iconic kinaesthetic moment: in motion, negotiating multiple forces, the pull of gravity, the body’s memory, the body in this moment.

And what of the audience? Is the audience inside or outside this experience? The white, felt flooring laid for NowNowNow made the space a kind of pure interiority. Audience members took off their shoes and were folded into this springy space. Unfortunately, this feeling was not supported by the rows of seating, oriented down towards the spectacle.

Sometimes NowNowNow bristled with presence, a moment held aloft for all to see, sometimes it was almost autistic in preoccupation, head down, doggedly following some score. So the question arises: what kind of moment are we talking about? Playing X-Box is a completely captivating experience but lacking in interest for non-players, whereas a shared moment between all three performers, in that second before it evaporates, well that’s exciting, because we can all identify and participate in that moment.

While Mathematical Models of the Sublime invited gentle contemplation, NowNowNow took off, a bird flying into plate glass time and again. Somewhat episodic, its attempt at the humanly impossible was an attempt to scale the sublime. Would it be “absolutely great” to be in the moment, moment after moment? Or would we be like Sisyphus having pushed the boulder uphill, taking in the view just before it bloody well rolls down again? Sometimes, just sometimes, a performance is infectious. To be in the moment is to die a little death, to let go of the evaluator. For the moment, that’s all there is. Isn’t it awesome?

Mathematical Models of the Sublime, concept, development Grace and Helen Walpole, animateur, performer Grace Walpole, writer, designer Helen Walpole, composer David Corbet; Dancehouse, Melbourne, July 14-18; NowNowNow, choreographer Luke George, performers: Kristy Ayre, Timothy Harvey, Luke George, design Bluebottle, dramaturg Martyn Coutts; Dancehouse, Melbourne, July 29-Aug 1

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 30

© Philipa Rothfield; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Madeleine

Madeleine

Madeleine

I’VE EXPERIENCED JENNY KEMP’S WORKS AS MORE AKIN TO CONTEMPORARY PERFORMANCE THAN CONVENTIONAL THEATRE IN THAT THEY DON’T CONFORM TO THE CONSTRAINTS OF PLAYWRITING (WHICH CAN AND DO GENERATE GREAT DIVERSITY OF FORM), INSTEAD THEY REALISE AND EXPLORE, WITH GREAT ACUITY AND INTENSITY, STATES OF BEING THAT DISSOLVE TIME AND PLACE WHILE MULTIPLYING AND OVERLAYING PERSONALITIES. IT’S PERHAPS NOT SURPRISING THEN THAT KEMP HAS MOVED ON TO ENGAGING WITH SPECIFIC PATHOLOGIES—BI-POLARITY IN KITTEN AND SCHIZOPHRENIA IN HER LATEST WORK, MADELEINE, FOR MELBOURNE’S ARTS HOUSE AT THE NORTH MELBOURNE TOWN HALL.

madeleine

Of all of Kemp’s creations (save Kitten which I didn’t see; I’m told the extreme state it generated was apparently overwhelming for some), Madeleine is the one that appears to come closest to conventional play making. It unfolds a linear narrative that moves resolutely to a climax, its characters are briskly delineated and their motivations transparent. The dialogue is spare and direct, and largely stripped of Kemp’s usual poetry except at certain key moments of schizophrenic revelation. But, no less than her previous works, Madeleine compels us to enter an unfamiliar state of consciousness. This is achieved with a lean, fable like narrative, stark shifts between two worlds (the real and a schizophrenic’s fantasy), the distressful overlapping of these, a breathtaking central performance and, not least, Kemp and her designers’ scenographic virtuosity.

Kemp, Ben Cobham and Bluebottle create an immersive, light-sculpted, closed circuit of a world governed by a young woman’s fragile state of mind. It’s like looking into a black hole (no-one does black better than Bluebottle). From this emerges a square of light not quite of a standard colour, eerily misty on the edges. Here the woman encounters her family as themselves and then, gliding out of the dark in golden crowns, as a tyrannical royal family. In this, her otherworld, she also hears the voice of a Minister who relentlessly, if unemotionally, tests and instructs her. Before long he speaks to her while she’s with her family, throwing real world conversation even further out of kilter.

The sense of immersion is heightened by 19 year-old Madeleine’s construction of her consuming reality, fusing childhood and adolescent images that draw on fairy tales (a pin prick, a royal family), Through the Looking Glass (“Off with her head!”), mental arithmetic tests (built around the 28 days of the menstrual cycle) and the alphabet (she is planting a real world garden based on the first letters of plant names). But it is religion that makes her world cohere—the Pope, the Bible, the drive to become a Bride of Christ and to create a second Garden of Eden. The fragility of this construction is threatened all too easily—the birthday gift of a purple cardigan cannot be accepted (only the Pope can wear purple) and panic ensues when her father removes blackberry bushes to improve the garden, thus eliminating B.

What is frightening is the insistent way in which Madeleines takes up elements of her family life and weaves it into her fantasy—why is her mother’s name, Madelaine, the same as hers; why does she have her grandmother’s hands—and not her own; how did her two year-old twin drown, is her mother a murderer; why was she born backwards; is her sister Charley the real princess and she an imposter? Unanswered, these questions leave her “just black inside.” Either there is no way they can logically be answered or the subject is off-limits. Denial, in fact, is central to the psychodrama: both parents refuse to acknowledge the seriousness of Madeleine’s condition, the mother ignoring it in favour of her business ambitions, the religious father sheltering his daughter, inadvertently reinforcing the fantasy. The sister, Charley, returned home after three years, has no way of breaking through her sister’s resistance or long-induced parent-child patterns of repression. Only Madeleine moves through and beyond these binds, with terrible consequences, completing herself, re-named with a G as Magdalene, in her Garden of Eden.

Jenny Kemp’s Madeleine is an undidactic attempt to help us understand a mental state, a version of schizophrenia (not a condition reducible to any universal). She achieves this by revealing the inexorable logic of the girl’s fantasising and its result when brutally, but innocently, applied to the real world. Visually the work correspondingly verges on the claustrophobic as we watch Madeleine quiver in the near dark, orgasming to become a Bride of Christ, or later writhing and shuddering, screaming with fear. Nikki Shiels’ Madeleine rapidly alternates between oblivious innocence, tunnel vision determination, hard logic, delirium, panic and fear, all encased in child-like vulnerability and, after all her tests and suffering, certainty. It’s a remarkable performance from an actor in her early 20s.

As the other family members, Ian Scott (father/king), Margaret Mills (mother/queen) and Natasha Herbert (sister/princess) capture the denial and helplessness that is their characters’ sorry lot. Kemp’s warning is that Madeleine’s fantasy world cannot be undone while the family’s world is just another such closed circuit. At the end of the front row, his back to us, Richard Murphet, quietly intones the insistent words of the Minister, his placement implicating the audience as fellow administrators of Madeleine’s world, which is not to forget that the Minister is ‘really’ only ever the agent for Madeleine’s unconscious ventriloquism. The totality of conception and the potent imagery of its realisation make Jenny Kemp’s account of the power of a deeply thwarted and flawed imagination chillingly memorable. It should be seen more widely.

August: Osage County, The Steppenwolf Theatre Company

August: Osage County, The Steppenwolf Theatre Company

August: Osage County, The Steppenwolf Theatre Company

august: osage county

Back in Sydney, another family drama, inevitably familiar, such is family life, but with more hours and words and characters to express every possible aspect of the social form compared with Kemp’s focus on a single if complex state of being. The Steppenwolf Theatre Company from Chicago performed the Tony Award-winning, much travelled August: Osage County (written by company member Tracy Letts) with enormous ease, verve and conviction on a set—a rural family home—you could live in. In terms of performance alone, it was a rivetting experience to see an American ensemble at full stretch, and to admire the sheer dexterity of Letts’ writing. (The plot is too elaborate to spell out here: you can read a precis on Wikipedia.) The surprise was that the play is so funny, especially coming hard on the heels of the STC production of A Long Day’s Journey into Night with which it, and a host of American family dramas, shares a number of characteristics. Ingredients include a central, problematic mother figure, a family reunion to trigger the drama, madness, drugs, an unravelling marriage or two, an almost real time unfolding of events (preferably overnight), a ‘buried child’ or variation on same, and other secrets usually uncovered by the play’s end. The prevailing mood is dark and many home truths are spoken. This replaying of the family in crisis has almost become ritual in its predictability. What Letts does is pretty well include most tropes and add a few more—sexual abuse of a minor, incest and, in an outsider role, a Native American.

It’s the humour, from the mother’s acid wit to her daughters’ constant quipping and the conscious and unconscious comedy of other characters that makes the play different from its predecessors. When it’s undercut or suddenly emptied out it’s as if a safety net has been taken away. But the downside of the writer’s comic impulse is that the play too often, especially in the second act, mutates into something like a sporting match, the audience taking sides, applauding the best jibes and wildly cheering the trouncing of the mother.

The laughter does fade, however, towards the play’s end, when the addicted mother rejects any assistance (she is unwilling to ask for it), her elder daughter leaves and the Native American helper stays on in the now otherwise empty house—having declared she’s only doing the job for herself. It’s a grim account of contemporary America—drugged, divorced, secretive, divided; only a couple of characters seem likely to achieve happiness. But it’s a good old-fashioned play full of sharp-edged wit with contemporary touches and audiences around the world are mightily cheered by it. Competing critics have argued for and against it as either a great play or a grand entertainment, none denying the writer’s skill or the excellence of the performances. With a large cast and several hours of stage time, Letts manages to balance brisk, sometimes furious pace, akin to sitcom, with passages of sustained emotional engagement reminiscent of O’Neill and Williams. It’s an uneasy mix, satisfying but not, and maybe it’s a metaphor for modern America without going near anything directly political, despite the academics and literati among its characters and the largely symbolic role of the Native American.

our town

I was mindful of the dark ending of August: Osage County when I saw Iain Sinclair’s production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town for the Sydney Theatre Company, faithfully presented on an empty stage, our imaginations worked with words and a mountain of sometimes taxing mime. The lightness and folksiness of the first two acts are unnervingly inverted by the writer into something almost Strindbergian—hopes undone, a failed marriage, lives mourned, a sense of the vastness of the universe making the everyday almost nothing as the dead wait “for the eternal part to come out clear.”

Emily Webb’s painful discovery that she cannot turn back time is the high point of Maeve Dermody’s fine account of the character. Darren Gilshenan as the Stage Manager narrates engagingly, though when the audience laughed at the early line, “Nice town, y’know what I mean?”, which he delivered without irony, my partner recalled Spalding Gray’s account in Monster in a Box (1991) his savagely criticised performance of the same role. He was astonished to be charged with being “snide, flip and condescending.” One critic wrote, “This just goes to prove avant garde actors can’t act.” The rest of his account of what proved to be an enjoyable season is well worth reading. The tragically depressive Gray (subject of a forthcoming feature documentary by Stephen Soderbergh) found the play uplifting. I’m still assimilating its strange vision, but am very pleased to have finally encountered it on stage.

Madeleine, writer, director Jenny Kemp, performers Margaret Mills, Natasha Herbert, Nikki Sheils, Ian Scott, Richard Murphet, dramaturg Richard Murphet, set, lighting design, Bluebottle, Ben Cobham, ArtsHouse & Black Sequin Productions; ArtsHouse, North Melbourne Town Hall, Aug 3-8; Sydney Theatre Company: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, August: Osage County, writer Tracy Letts, director Ann D Shapiro, Sydney Theatre, opened Aug 17; Sydney Theatre Company, Our Town, writer Thornton Wilder, director Iain Sinclair, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, opened Sept 18

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 46

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Pandit Chitresh Das, Samuel Smith, Kathak Tap

Pandit Chitresh Das, Samuel Smith, Kathak Tap

Pandit Chitresh Das, Samuel Smith, Kathak Tap

PARRAMASALA IS AN IMPORTANT NEW FESTIVAL SOON TO PREMIERE IN WESTERN SYDNEY, CELEBRATING SOUTH ASIAN CULTURE, ANCIENT AND MODERN, AND FREQUENTLY AS SYNTHESES OF THESE IN COLLABORATIONS BETWEEN TRADITIONAL AND CONTEMPORARY ARTISTS, INDIAN, WESTERN AND FROM THE INDIAN DIASPORA. WHILE ADELAIDE’S OZASIA, NOW IN ITS FOURTH INCARNATION, HAS PLAYED A UNIQUE ROLE IN CONNECTING AUSTRALIA BROADLY WITH THE REGION, PARRAMASALA IN 2010 OFFERS A MORE CULTURALLY INTENSIVE FOCUS—INDIAN MUSIC, DANCE, FILM, RITUAL AND CELEBRATION, STAND-UP COMEDY AND CRICKET.

Artistic director Philip Rolfe, a former Executive Director at the Sydney Opera House where he played a key role in expanding the House’s programming of contemporary practices, tells me that over the next two years the range of work covered in Parramasala will expand “to include Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Himalayan countries and the influence of these in the broader region ,but also their global impact on contemporary arts. Choosing South Asian work from Europe and the US is part of what we’ll do into the future. But it’s also about the impact these have had in Australia. We’re attempting to construct a festival that is very contemporary and very much about collaboration between different artists, cultures and countries.”

Why this focus on South Indian culture? Rolfe explains, “The event is clearly in a community that will be supportive. Parramatta is a kind of epicentre of Sydney, New South Wales’ and probably Australia’s South Asian cultures—a massive population.” An impressive example was provided by the response to the AR Rhaman concert in Parramatta Park in 2009: “The NSW Government took up an invitation from Rhaman to do a free concert. He wanted to do it in Parramatta around the issue of what was happening to Indian students in Australia next to the positives of collaboration and multiculturalism, as opposed to the one-sided view coming across in the media. Unbelievably, 60-70,000 people turned out.” Rolfe is hoping for 15-20,000 to see the hugely popular Bollywood soundtrack singer Kailash Kher and his band Kailasa in The Crescent—“a natural, enhanced amphitheatre in Parramatta Park beside the river; it’s Sydney’s best outdoor venue.” The event is free.

The Crescent will also be the venue for Throw of A Dice, a screening of the silent movie epic, says Rolfe, “shot in 1929 in India by a mad German, like Cecil B de Mille! The British Film Institute restored it: it’s in pristine condition.” The film will have spectacular aural accompaniment from UK-based composer Nitin Sawhney at a grand piano and with his band and orchestra. The beautifully filmed German-Indian co-production was directed by Franz Osten, based on an episode from the Mahabharata and, according to the festival brochure, “was shot on location in the breathtaking mountains, forests and palaces of Rajasthan with over 10,000 extras, 1,000 horses and 50 elephants.” The showing is another free event.

In Parramatta, the annual Hindu Festival of Lights is celebrated at the Deepavali Fair at Parramatta Stadium. Rolfe recalls, “I went to Deepavali last year and was blown away by how well it was organised by the Hindu Council and put together with volunteers. The Council were really eager to be part of Parramasala. Their interest is to open up Deepavalli to non-Indians.” As well as stalls and performances, the fair includes the burning of a 45-foot high effigy with pyrotechnic effects and, at the end of the day, spectacular fireworks.

Tradition is given its due in Parramasala, says Rolfe: “Ideally, the way we want to set the festival up is that each time there is one beautiful, pristine traditional event. This year it’s The Desert Wedding.” This program features music for marriage, birth and life performed by the hereditary caste musicians of Rajasthan, people originally supported by wealthy patrons to preserve the history and ceremonies of wealthy families. Rolfe says that the groups—the Manganyars, the Langas and Kamad, performers of the ancient Teratali dance—come straight to the festival from their villages in Rajasthan and are the best in their regions.

anandavalli

The great Australian-based, traditional dancer Anandavalli (of the former Lingalayam Dance Academy, Sydney and later the all female Lingalayam Dance Company in Canberra) comes out of stage retirement to dance solo to the accompaniment of musicians Anil Srinivasan, a western trained classical pianist, and his regular collaborator Sikkil Gurucharan, a vocalist in the ancient southern Indian Carnatic tradition.

kathak tap

This blend of ancient and modern is evident in a number of shows, most unusually in Kathak Tap, where Kathak dancer Pandit Chitresh Das (India/USA) and tap dancer Samuel Smith (USA) each perform separately with their own musicians, then swap musicians (Kathak dancing to a jazz trio and Smith tapping to tabla, sitar and saranji) before finally dancing together in demonstrations of contrasting yet sympathetic footwork.

the chennai tapes

In a purely musical meeting, the Australian Art Orchestra continues its long-term dialogue with classical Carnatic music in The Chennai Tapes (Into the Fire), a collaboration dating back to 1996 between superb jazz musicians and Guru Kaaraikkudi Manir’s Sruthi Laya Ensemble from Chennai. On CD the dynamic weave of such different musical traditions is by turns lyrical and visceral, and always gripping—it should be even moreso on stage.

guru of chai

Rolfe has eagerly programmed Guru of Chai, “a performance by one of my favourite small companies from the region, New Zealand’s Indian Ink Theatre Company with Jacob Rajan and Justin Lewis. They have been working now for 20 years, and make everything themselves. It’s a bravura comic performance by Jacob, very accessible and deserving wider exposure in Australia.” Supported by a musician and employing shadow play, Rajan transforms himself into a host of characters in a tale about a poor tea seller and an abandoned girl who is a remarkable singer, a young policeman in love and a “disreputable poet.”

masala nights, cricket and more

Philip Rolfe has cleverly devised Parramasala as an instantly live-in festival. Parramatta’s Church Street will be transformed from late afternoons into a street market with food, things to buy, projections and performances by Erth, Dva and Polyglot. The free, large scale performances in Parramatta will attract big crowds and cricket fans will turn out for the first Parramasala Trophy match which has the support of Cricket NSW (whose Chair, Dr Harry Harinath is also one of the festival’s patrons) and Parramatta Cricket Club. There are stand-up comics, Indian film screenings in partnership with Popcorn Taxi, artist talks, Nitin Sawhney DJ-ing at the Roxy and, in a shop window on Church Street, the cutting edge British-Indian arts organisation Motiroti, based in East London, is screening 60 x 60 seconds—60 one-minute films from India, Pakistan and the UK about relations between these countries.

asia-australia: improving connection

I recall Rolfe complaining to me a couple of years ago about how mainstream arts organisations and festival programmers had failed to engage with Asia. Clearly he’s correcting that with Parramasala. We discussed how “Australia Council policy was set in place in the early 90s where half the international funding was to be directed into Asian collaborative projects. There was a lot of incredibly interesting activity in terms of individual artists, developmental work and on the edge arts organisations but the mainstream never engaged. Where it made its mark was in the visual arts and Asialink residences and in the thinking that created the Brisbane Asia Pacific Triennial. The arts festivals around Australia generally show interest but when it comes down it to they tend to choose shows that suit Western appetites.”

There are some heartening signs: the Brisbane Powerhouse engagement with Indonesian performance [RT81, p11] in 2009 and dance in the 2010 Brisbane Festival and Rosie Hinde’s programming of the Kenneth Myer Asian Theatre Series at Melbourne’s Arts Centre. With OzAsia and now Parramasala and the Asia Pacific Triennial, alongside Asialink’s enduring work and smaller ventures, the Asian-Australian connection looks set to strengthen. Rolfe is clearly enjoying the venture: “What gives me a kick is to start something from scratch and try to do it really properly and then leave it good hands after three years.”

culture & distance

If Parramasala works, and it surely will, the cultural divide between South Asia and Australia will be reduced, between continents and within Australian communities. But there are other distances to challenge. Rolfe would like people from outside of Sydney, and within, “to come to Parramasala and ideally stay overnight—see a couple of shows and stay next day for another one. There’s no shortage of hotels, and there’s great food, some of the best I’ve come across in Sydney—and half the price. People think it’s too difficult to get here but the trains are in fact very efficient, it’s not that very far, and when you’re here you can walk everywhere.” There’s no excuse; cross the divide.

Parramasala, Australian Festival of South Asian Arts, Parramatta, Nov 4-8, http://parramasala.com

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 14

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Heath Barrett, Rachel Ogle, Martin Hansen, Personal Political Physical Challenge, Hydra Poesis

Heath Barrett, Rachel Ogle, Martin Hansen, Personal Political Physical Challenge, Hydra Poesis

Heath Barrett, Rachel Ogle, Martin Hansen, Personal Political Physical Challenge, Hydra Poesis

THE OPENING SCENE OF THIS INTRIGUING NEW WORK BY PERTH COMPANY HYDRA POESIS RESEMBLES A REHEARSAL FOR A SERIES OF DOOMED COME-BACKS. A MAN STUMBLES BLINDLY ACROSS THE STAGE IN AN ENORMOUS KARL MARX HEADPIECE. ANOTHER SPORTS THE WIG AND TIGHTS OF A FRENCH ARISTOCRAT, WHILE A WOMAN WHO LOOKS A LOT LIKE JANE FONDA DOES HER BEST TO WORK IT ALL OUT IN A SCOOP-NECKED, CLAMMY NYLON LEOTARD AND KNITTED LEGGINGS. THEIR ENCOUNTERS ARE CLUMSY; THEIR BRIEF ENSEMBLES DO NOT ENDURE.

The roller-door lifts on a young middle-class suburban couple. Their malcontent is narrated by a tyrannical MC: “Happiness has become boring,” she spouts on behalf of the woman. “Pleasure is boring…Food is boring…Our lifestyle is not a life…I want to be something more;” she wants “drama and resistance.” In a garage filled with props from the local Bunnings, the performers borrow from worn-out manuals of terror. Scenes of Maoist self-criticism are followed by basement interrogations. Ethical double binds leave the couple on different sides of the fence. Their union under threat, they join forces in a parody of enslaved labour, moving bags of cement about the garage in repetitive and meaningless acts of physical endurance.

In Personal Political Physical Challenge director Sam Fox and his talented collaborators offer a comic vision of an (a)political present desperately repeating the stereotypes of a political past—the first time as tragedy, then as farce. The audience is offered an abridged history of ambiguous truth-status that goes something like this: in the 1970s Jane Fonda abandoned Vietnam and found(ed) aerobics. With the failure of Marxism and the Fall of the Wall in 1989, we dispensed with the Brotherhood and the Internationale (performed nostalgically or humorously—the modality is ambiguous—by Martin Hansen), acquired a home loan and set to work on our privatised spaces of house and body. Cut to 2010. If a higher cause is needed, there is Live Art, there is ballet and Pilates and contemporary dance to stand in for physical capital. In the absence of hard work, girls and boys, we can work hard.

There are moments of poignancy and clarity in this provocative work. The choreography is tenuous, desperate, the unions fragile. The movement feels open-ended and exploratory, as befits a small budget, limited rehearsal time and good ideas. The composition by Stina Thomas drives us towards the very intensity of yearning that lies at the core of the performance. With self-realisation and belonging no longer possible through identification with the Workers and other Grand Narratives, how do we register intensity and ecstasy? Where is that ‘something more’ to be found?

Beyoncé’s “Halo” is playing. Martin Hansen is naked but for a set of placards stacked around his neck. Rachel Ogle is dancing next to him. He flips the cards and delivers her a series of hand-written directives. To the tune of a perfect Hegelian hit, Rachel Ogle closes her eyes and attempts transcendence. It is a schizophrenic little narrative that Hansen engenders, brilliantly capturing the absurdity of the individual subject’s contemporary predicament. Over-interpolated and under-resourced, Rachael Ogle does her best to follow the provocations. Privatised loungeroom subjectivity (“Dance Like Nobody is Watching”) is followed by unbearable public scrutiny (“But They Are—The Whole World is Watching”), which leads to self-aggrandising and terrifying globalised responsibility (“And The World is on your Shoulders”). In the flip of a board there remains global holocaust (“And the World is on Fire”), and personal humiliation (“And You are Naked”).

While the movement, sound and choreography articulate this yearning through intensity and repetition, the spoken text is less rigorously conceived. Rich undecidability sometimes gives way to confusion. As set out in the director’s notes, ambiguity in the performance mirrors a contemporary absence of political direction. We lack in Australia “clear benchmarks of political belief.” So we find ourselves in late 2010, at the end of Politics and Meaning, performing rigorous workouts which stand in for the absence of work (in the Marxist sense). At the risk of being horribly literal (Stalinist?), I wonder what is lost and gained in exploring that void (if it exists) through old truisms of terror borrowed from the bogies of Marxism and Maoism—albeit in an ambiguously comic turn? A strange choice for a set of artists well under 40, I thought. The rich discourse of resistance may have lost its centre, and there were plenty of people all over the world who were pretty happy about that. But if you ask me, there is no shortage of things to get worked up about closer to home. On the ground and in the sky.

Hydra Poesis in association with PICA, Personal Political Physical Challenge, director Sam Fox, choreographic collaboration Martin Hansen, Rachel Ogle, Sam Fox and dancers, performers Rachel Ogle, Martin Hansen, Bianca Martin, Heath Barrett, Kathryn Puie, composer Stina Thomas PICA Performance Space, July 16-20

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 31

© Josephine Wilson; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Kookaburra

Kookaburra

Kookaburra

WHEN JAY ‘JP’ PARRINO COVERED MEN AT WORK’S “DOWN UNDER” ON AUSTRALIA’S GOT TALENT IN LATE 2009, ONE COULD WITNESS CULTURE IMPLODING IN MANY WONDERFUL WAYS. EMPLOYING LIVE SAMPLING TECHNIQUES, HE BUILT UP LAYERS OF ACOUSTIC GUITAR TO CREATE A POVERA DIGITAL IS TYPICAL OF THE CONTEMPORARY BUSKER. WHILE JP’S DEVICES WERE PERCEIVED AS A NOVELTY BY THE SHOW’S AUDIENCE AND JUDGES, HE EMPLOYED THEM AS MEAGRE USER-FRIENDLY TOOLS, NOT AS FLASHY INSTRUMENTS. HIS MODUS OPERANDI WAS TO LITERALLY BUILD A BACKING FOR HIS VOICE AND ACOUSTIC GUITAR ACCOMPANIMENT.

Performing against and with live looping was instigated by Alvin Lucier in the 60s, developed by Robert Fripp in the 70s, spectacularised by the Young Gods in the 80s, matrixed by Jeff Mills in the 90s and deployed with virtuosity by Battles in the 00s. It’s safe to say that live looping is now a given vernacular in the technological production of music. Occurring within a mainstream context like Talent, JP’s use of the process demonstrates well how musical culture is now shaped. He simultaneously deconstructed ‘the song’ (voiced by Men At Work) and aurally constructed ‘a song’ (voiced by JP). The song this man made through his work clearly connected to both live and televisual audiences by virtue of how deftly he collapsed what was his and what was not. In an era wherein media has moved from saturation to atomisation (from the congealment of large forms to the unleashing of fine particles), performances like JP’s populist yet radicalised rendering of “Down Under” demonstrate how musical texts now implode without losing their identity.

In shows like Talent, the surrendering of the performer to his/her performance marks the event as a social communion for those within earshot. As a desultory figure unconverted to the show’s jingoistic narrative, I try to maintain distance from its Red Rooster-like moniker, its flag-waving set design, its pathetically professional panel, its bug-eyed audience, its predictable swells of applause. Yet I cannot deny the power of song, of singing and of an audience enthralled by a singer’s self-surrendering performance. True to the diacritics of folk culture, JP’s version sets up a dialogue with the original Men At Work version, and the two are empowered by a textual link where the songs speak to each other as much as they speak to me as an auditor of their voices and voicings.

Now, those with refined Rock sensibilities have long made sardonic quips about the numerous competitive TV shows based on Pop musical performance (the global franchises of Idol, Talent etc). But might not the predominance of these spectacles of amateur gumption, innocent drive and hysterical dreaming reveal the role song plays in popular culture? Songs are a particularly dialectal form of expression and intercommunication. The simple musicalisation of argot—of whittling a melody out of a popular epigram—is a form of linguistic sonography born of a living, breathing culture. Words are always at a fork in the linguistic road: they can turn one way to be weighted by their written inscription (the rationalist law of the text) or turn the other way and be airborne by their melodic transformation (the transcendent charm of the song). Say something enough times and it will eventually be sung.

mean larrikins

If there is one demographic watching and listening to Australia’s Got Talent on Channel 7, there must be another one watching Spicks And Specks on ABC. And if the former is defined by the supposedly insidious machinations of the Pop industry’s controlling of audiences incapable of articulating their relation to song other than mere consumption, then the other must be inversely defined. Despite being largely ignorant of the fact that the ABC stole the format for their 2005 show from UK Channel 4’s 1996 show Never Mind the Buzzcocks, the Spicks audience is congratulated on their upwardly mobile shift toward knowing when they are being manipulated and when they are not. The format of the show smacks of puerile academicism—uncomfortably echoing the panels first televised in Channel 7’s It’s Academic in the late 60s. Comedians, of course, are used to distract audiences from such irksome fare, but watching wannabe-cool comedians and grinning presenters fall over each other trying to prove their wit constitutes a far more embarrassing performance than the most inept of Talent’s hopefuls.

There are scant fragments in the televisual stream of Spicks that do not stray from the high-versus-low culture ossification which unwisely emboldens the intelligentsia. The trivia format suits the trivialisation of Pop music in general, while the show’s incorporation of local and select overseas touring musicians fluffs up its notion of ‘real/true/roots/indie/non-mainstream/Rock’ musical culture. It’s a show suited to parents who remember their tertiary education via playlists garnered from JJJ. Like everything on ABC TV, the ideological compaction and congestion of its slanted views, adopted poses and supported truisms make it an insult to bother applying any semiotic reading of its monophonic voice.

But a late 2007 “Children’s Music Edition” episode on the show became unintentionally infamous when one question innocently proposed a melodic connection between the 1934 Girl Guides campfire sing-along “Kookaburra” composed by Marion Sinclair, and fragments of the flute interlude in Men At Work’s international number one song from 1981, “Down Under.” Less than two years later in mid-2009, the purported owner of the copyright of Kookaburra—Larrikin Music Publishing—claimed copyright infringement of said property and moved to sue the owners of “Down Under”’s copyright—EMI Music Publishing Australia and co-composers Colin Hay and Ronald Strykert.

A lot of press has since danced a predictable waltz around this case: freedom of speech; money-grabbing lawyers; pop music always ripping-off; denial of technical harmonic quotation; ethical averment of fair usage etc. The intersection of the arts and legality exacts such a tiresome charade of grandiose ethics. This case is not about money, music and ethics. It’s about the forced divide between pop culture and folk culture (in shows like Spicks). It’s about how the two are implosions of the other, how they live off the other, and how their mechanisms are now more than ever shared (as in shows like Talent). And it’s about how the intelligentsia slathers ethical-mongering, political-correctness and proscriptive-nationalism on such a public incursion of national identity crisis (as in the Larrikin vs EMI case), rather than provide contextual, critical insight into the deeper issues which shape these cultural ground swells.

thieving magpies

Like the atomisation which now defines ‘war’ as an asynchronous concatenation of disparate events and locations with no holistic sense of convergence or interconnection, ‘cultural wars’ no longer require metaphors based on Great Wars, where notions of frontlines and avant gardes romantically heroicise how individuals contribute to the shaping of culture. This is ultimately a good thing, for culture—from its conservative models of anthropology to its radicalising models of neurology—is best interpreted as noise of the crowd rather than scripture of an author.

“Down Under”’s para-conscious quipping and cribbing of “Kookaburra” can be viewed semiologically (though not ‘legally’) as a therapeutic retort to having suffered the indoctrination of “Kookaburra” in primary schools, where kids were forced to listen to such songs broadcast on ABC radio through PA systems fixed atop the blackboard in a scenario straight out of George Orwell’s paranoid mind. Am I alone in detesting “Kookaburra” and every single faux-folksy, pseudo-pioneer, colonial-jumbuck, banjo-jangling ditty which the ABC ideologically served up as part ‘children’s music’ and part soft enforcement of a default-leftist, neo-Maoist, pro-Folk, anti-Pop statement of Australiana? Both “Kookaburra” and the Larrikin copyright claim recall an epoch of reclaiming iconography for a dangerously jingoist, post-convict liberation, with Blinky Bill, the Easter Bilby, Cuddlepie and the Southern Cross rebutting overseas imperialism. (Ironically, it was the populist “Down Under”—through its appropriation by Australia II upon winning the America’s Cup in 1983—and not any folksy tune that sung the praise of Australia internationally.)

When Larrikin sued Men At Work, they impressionistically painted their case like the Eureka Stockade, with true blue Australian Folk music battling the corporate ogre EMI. Larrikin—personified by the APRA-lauded aegis of self-appointed Australian folk historian Warren Fahey—has long wheelbarrowed a divisive and separatist notion of Australian Folk music, often intoned as if a local hero is struggling to gain respect for the unsung songsters of white rural colonial history. Yet if Larrikin adopted a modern, diffusive notion of Folk dissemination, they would realise that their battle was long won once Qantas Airlines forced its boarded patrons to suffer a broadcast playlist of semi-acoustic, pub-rockish, sunburnt country Aussie spirit fodder (remarkably similar to the ‘live’ sounds on Spicks). The risible iconography that attempts to monopolise the Australian voice as one big rural campfire round is as ideologically loaded as chants on Cronulla Beach. When Qantas and their corporate brethren of image marketeers broadly assume the cultural validity of such ‘music of the land,’ it suggests that what Larrikin would claim to be Folk is now the most pervasive form of nationalistic Pop.

The word “kookaburra” comes from the Wiradjuri “guuguuburra.” The voice of the kookaburra underwent indigenous and colonial linguistic translations before the Girl Guides claimed kinship with its song via the colonising practice of western diatonic harmony. While Larrikin attempts to grandstand a mean-spirited sense of folk culture by suing Men At Work as the Girl Guides Association celebrate their centenary, lyrebirds mimic car alarms, bell birds interface with mobile phones, bowerbirds collect plastic bottle tops. And magpies continue their chattering in the magpie culture of music wherein all is borrowed, all is robbed, and all is sung.

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 45

© Philip Brophy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

From You Were in my Dreams, Van Sowerwine and Isobel Knowles

From You Were in my Dreams, Van Sowerwine and Isobel Knowles

From You Were in my Dreams, Van Sowerwine and Isobel Knowles

HOVERING AND HUMMING IN THE AIR ABOVE THE GALLERY OF MODERN ART’S MEDIA GALLERY FOYER, THEIR ACRYLIC SKELETONS VEINED WITH AUDIO ELECTRONIC WIRING, ARE FOUR DELICATE, TRANSLUCENT SCULPTURES. AS THEY GENTLY SWAY AND WEAVE IN INVISIBLE CURRENTS, THE UNMISTAKABLE ELECTRONIC WARBLE OF A THEREMIN RESONATES FITFULLY THROUGHOUT THE SPACE. ARTIST NIGEL HELYER’S INTRICATE VOXÆTHER_01-04 SERIES DERIVES THE RADIATING FORMS OF SOUND WAVES, AND FROM THE RADIOLARIAN, THE ENDLESSLY ELABORATE PROTOZOA FAMOUSLY CLASSIFIED BY THE 19TH CENTURY NATURALIST ERNST HAECKEL.

As the visitor enters the gallery, the incidental reflections generated by light passing through the sheer planes of the sculpture create glancing angular teal and silver shapes on the foyer wall, recalling both screen-glow and the eerie bioluminescence of the deep sea. Combining the precision of laser-cut perspex with the unpredictable extraterrestrial vocals of the theremin—originally called the aetherophone—Helyer’s thoughtful hybrids connect the history of gestural interface devices with the drive to open ourselves to the invisible in our world.

These framing sculptures effectively highlight the exhibition’s prioritisation of the scope of meanings for that vexed term, new media. The National New Media Arts Award encompasses Helyer’s high tech sculptures, plus remixed documentary and video art, machinima, robotics and interactive animation. For all its heterogeneity, what emerges in the shortlist is the achievement of an exceptional synthesis between traditional approaches to media art with cutting edge technologies.

Found footage practitioners Soda_Jerk’s work exemplifies the richness and intelligence of contemporary recombinatory video practice. Their Astro Black: A History of Hip-Hop reworks the 1974 intergalactic free-jazz docu-fantasy, Space is the Place, with a sophisticated suite of samples from the annals of hip hop heritage. While for some, any tampering with Sun Ra’s Afrofuturist masterpiece could constitute sacrilege, what might sway even some of the more ardent purists here is the work’s emphasis on the film’s ongoing power as a hip-hop ur-text. The inviting 4-channel projection, insightful juxtapositions and witty use of the turntablist form drawing out the extensive stylistic legacy of the film—on artists including DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash and Public Enemy—is all the argument needed for the critical potency of the contemporary remix artwork.

Also using high definition video, but with a different approach, Lynette Wallworth’s immersive installation, Still:Waiting2, depicts a twilight scene of stern red river gums in the Flinders Ranges. The presence of the audience contributes to the revelation of this 2006 work, causing the dramatic arrival and decamping of unruly flocks of white corellas. Sequestered behind a filmy pale veil, the installation courts the viewer’s attention through its slow unfolding, which Wallworth explains in a reflective wall text on the origins and intentions of the piece. Duration is at the heart of its aesthetic, as waiting for the work to exert its sudden payoff—the wild explosion of screeching, careening bodies across the sky—is exquisite. That the exuberant electronic soundtrack from the neighbouring installation can override much of the quiet waiting part of the experience of Wallworth’s work is indicative of the ongoing challenge represented by the sonic components of media art works.

The sound bleed is from Chris Howlett’s Metropolis: Part I-III, a machinima work that recuts footage from the SimCity Societies game with sounds hacked from the game’s engine bites, to reconfigure the authoritarian and capitalist operations of that virtual 3D environment. Like Philip Brophy’s work in the show, 10 Flaming Youths, which uses images sourced from youth marketing sites that combust as they near us at the front of the screen, Howlett’s work raises key questions about the complex relations between these digital surfaces: both works are evidently antagonistic towards, and curiously symbiotic with, the commercial applications of the technologies their work critically engages.

In You Were In My Dreams, Van Sowerwine returns to her theme of the lost child, explored in works such as the award-winning stop-motion animation, Clara (2004). Only, this time, in a collaboration with Isobel Knowles, there’s a twist: the child is ‘lost’ to the dream-world. This installation, the winner of the 2010 Queensland Premier’s New Media Arts Award and specially reconstructed for the exhibition, involves the viewer in a journey through a mythical jungle landscape that begins with the figure of the sleeping child. As the participant peers into the viewing device, a live video feed capturing facial expressions in real time translates their face into the diegesis, so that the spectator becomes the dreamer, integrated into the world of the animation. (A similar urge to directly address the participant animates Wade Marynowsky’s entertaining entry, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeois Robot, a frilled and spangled cousin of the Dalek who approached and, by many accounts, unnerved visitors to the exhibition).

Clever lighting and attention to resolution details mean that the experience of You Were In My Dreams is uncanny but not entirely unflattering; here, the identification with the protagonist, such an article of film theory, is literalised. Spectators, jovially cheering their friends’ jungle antics (“Pat the monkey!! Grab that vine!!”), reveal that the critical effect of this exceptional artwork is to draw the form of animation into a deeper conversation with the practices of social media and first-person gaming culture. Ironically, the work’s presentation in a wooden viewing box recalls the myriad pre-cinematic projected and animated ‘devices of wonder’, while the textured two-dimensional cut-outs reference Russia’s Soyuzmultfilm and Iran’s IIDCYA, Harry Smith’s No. 12 or Heaven and Earth Magic (1962), and the meticulous silhouette puppetry of Lotte Reineger. As labour-intensive and perhaps atavistic as Sowerwine’s creative urges inevitably are, this work manages to elegantly transcend nostalgia by drawing sustenance from the fertile traditions of stop and shadow animation to provide an entrancingly distinctive context for digital interactivity, and so to propose new homes to long for and dream of.

As with Howlett’s reconfiguring of the stuff of games, regarding them less as finished entities and more as a set of design tools for experiment, and Wallworth’s viewer-triggered ecology, Sowerwine and Knowles treat the work as an open and ongoing process. If, as many now argue, new media art succeeds when it subverts uni-dimensional media institutional distinctions between producers and consumers, the works in this exhibition confirm the engaging creative potential of this emergent multi-dimensionality. The National New Media Art Awards offer some compelling evidence of the increasing aesthetic sophistication of Australian media art practice, highlighting the ways artists working with new media technologies are using the past, to inform not just the present, but also the future.

Van Sowerwine and Isobel Knowles were awarded $75,000 and You Were in My Dreams becomes part of the Queensland Art Gallery Collection. The judges highly commended Wade Marynowsky’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeois Robot 2. Queensland artist Claire Robertson was awarded the $25,000 Premier of Queensland’s New Media Scholarship.

Premiere of Queensland’s National New Media Arts Awards 2010 Exhibition, Philip Brophy (VIC), Nigel Helyer (NSW), Chris Howlett (QLD), Isobel Knowles and Van Sowerwine (VIC), Wade Marynowsky (NSW), Soda_Jerk (NSW), Lynette Wallworth (NSW), Gallery of Modern Art, Aug 28-Nov 7, Brisbane

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 15

© Danni Zuvela; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Rennie McDougall, Jorijn Vriesendorp, Mix Tape

Rennie McDougall, Jorijn Vriesendorp, Mix Tape

Rennie McDougall, Jorijn Vriesendorp, Mix Tape

AFTER BYRON PERRY, ANTONY HAMILTON AND MICHELLE HEAVEN, STEPHANIE LAKE IS THE FOURTH YOUNG DANCER TO PRESENT A FULL-LENGTH CHOREOGRAPHY UNDER THE AUSPICES OF CHUNKY MOVE IN THEIR NEXT MOVE SERIES. A SPECTACULAR DANCER, LAKE TOO IS AN ARTIST WHO HAS CLOSELY COLLABORATED WITH GIDEON OBARZANEK AND LUCY GUERIN, HAVING OVER THE YEARS CONTRIBUTED TO MANY OF THEIR MOST ACCLAIMED WORKS.

Lake’s previous short works have been charming and soulful miniatures exploring banality: displays of physical affection, emotional reverberations of pop music, everyday language—all important ingredients of Mix Tape, which purports to be a study of love. This is unheroic, unremarkable love, built out of banal language and humdrum gestures (such as, indeed, making a mix tape). Lake builds the work out of three distinct elements: audio recordings of interviews about love, pop songs (spanning Bob Dylan and Joanna Newsom, Caribou and Fleetwood Mac), and the bodies of four dancers (invariably young, slim and petite). The stage is domestic, but minimal: a bookshelf filled with tapes and music players, including an old reel-to-reel, and suitcases full of clothes. The effect is resolutely homey, verging on agoraphobic. It is not merely the setting that is domestic: the performers linger on stage, lying down and changing costume, inhabiting it as their private space.

The movement energetically illustrates some of the conflicting emotions brought up in the accompanying recorded interviews and songs: two couples interlock in intimate embraces, planting small kisses in hidden spots, while at other times bodies are helplessly flung about or confront each other in violent fights. Lake shows great ability to create beauty out of everyday motifs (in particular, she uses the vocabulary of domestic affection to great effect), but the choreography is greatly indebted to Guerin: from tiny but swift hand and facial gestures, through loose and less articulate movements of the torso, down to strong reliance on domestic gadgets as catalysts of choreography, mirroring duets and the predominance of 45-degree spatial relationships. The semi-documentary nature of the work displays the influence of Obarzanek’s methodology, but without his editing discipline.

Most troubling, however, I found the choice of performers. Is it possible to illustrate the possibilities of physical affection on such a narrow range of bodies? The voices in songs and interviews were greatly more varied. I longed to see the complex emotions they expressed developed by wiser, older bodies whose lived experience would allow them to express some of the subtle complexity of long-haul love. The second problem is numerical. Two couples can represent neither the universal exceptionality of a single couple, nor the diversity of a multitude—at best, they seem to represent a parochial range of, say, ‘me and my friends’.

The merely illustrative nature of the choreography rarely pulls the interviews and the songs into focus: as a result, spoken word seems to hold more meaning than it necessarily ought. The individual introspective revelations are skimmed through, and yet the work never builds into a sociological study either. It rambles, rather, remaining charming but fragmentary, its shape never rising above a sort of list of different things we might say about love. It is difficult subject matter, on which everything has been said many times over—including within dance. The dangers of falling into glibness and pure cliché are enormous, and Mix Tape only occasionally avoids these. While Lake’s approach, equally open to sentimentality and to sociology, is intriguing, it requires greater structure and critical distance to succeed.

Chunky Move, Next Move: Mix Tape, direction, choreography Stephanie Lake, performers Sara Black, Rennie McDougall, Timothy Ohl, Jorijn Vriesendorp, lighting design Benjamin Cisterne, Blubottle, sound design Luke Smiles–motion laboratories, costume design Harriet Oxley; Chunky Move Studios, Sept 2-11

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 31

© Jana Perkovic; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

New Music Network members, top; Erik Griswold

New Music Network members, top; Erik Griswold

NEW MUSIC HAS BECOME AN ELEMENTAL PART OF THE CULTURAL YEAR IN SYDNEY FOR ME. THERE WERE SOULLESS TIMES WHEN THIS WAS NOT THE CASE BUT NOW THERE’S A STEADY STREAM OF QUALITY CONCERTS FROM ESTABLISHED AND EMERGING INNOVATORS GUIDED, PROMOTED AND SUPPORTED BY THE SYDNEY-BASED NEW MUSIC NETWORK. WHAT’S MORE, THE NETWORK REACHES ACROSS THE COUNTRY AND I CAN BE CHALLENGED AND THRILLED BY THE LIKES OF CLOCKED OUT FROM BRISBANE AND APHIDS AND SPEAK PERCUSSION FROM MELBOURNE.

The seemingly tireless Network Manager, Philippa Horn, is at the front desk of many of the network’s concerts, welcoming audiences, selling tickets, serving wine. The organisation’s amiable president, James Nightingale, who performs with Continuum Sax and produces the Concert Series with member input, is often present as well. I spoke with Horn and Nightingale recently about New Music Network, its history and its strategies for promoting new music—a truly challenging but, it seems from their joint enthusiasm, rewarding task.

New Music Network started in 1995 as a Sydney based organisation, says Nightingale, at the prompting of new music stalwarts Daryl Buckley and John Davis, who convened the initial meeting at the Australian Music Centre with founding members austraLYSIS, Contemporary Singers, Coruscations, Elektra String Quartet, ELISION, Machine for Making Sense, The Song Company, Spring Ensemble, Sydney Alpha Ensemble, Sydney Metropolitan Opera, The Seymour Group, Synergy Percussion, SIMA and Voiceworks. Initially, says Horn, “the meetings were about sharing mailing lists and cross-promoting each other’s activities.” Nightingale adds that the focus was “to lobby the cause of contemporary music, to find economies through collaborative ventures and to build audiences.”

The subsequent years weren’t easy ones in terms of continuity and funding, but in 1999, the NSW government provided support for administration, plus an event, the Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address with a performance. This would later form the beginnings of the concert series envisaged by Marshall McGuire and Roland Peelman. More substantial funding was granted by the NSW Government in 2003 and the main concert series commenced, quickly joined by the mini series. In 2008 the Music Board of the Australia Council also became a significant supporter. Now the Network has some 30 members and an annual national program of activities including the New Music Concert Series, the New Music Mini Series and the Glanville-Hicks Address.

members of Speak Percussion

members of Speak Percussion

members of Speak Percussion

The organisation’s initial focus was in and around Sydney, says Nightingale, “but it gradually expanded, not only in number but in the range of organisations joining.” These include diverse contemporary classical groups like Ensemble Offspring, austraLYSIS with its electronic creations and the experimental sounds of Machine for Making Sense. SIMA, the Sydney Improvised Music Association, is also a member—“they have a similar brief to ours, so we support each other as best we can. They’re important for promoting our mini-series. The network is very inclusive.” Horn mentions that Adelaide’s Soundstream [see article] and Perth’s TURA, producer of the annual Totally Huge festival, have recently joined, giving the network even greater national scope.

“When we decided to go across the border,” says Nightingale, “it was with a combination of desires.” These included expanding the network but also hoping that they could help groups perform in their own cities as well as in other states. Horn is proud that “this is the first year we’ve presented concerts from our main members in both Melbourne and Brisbane, and we have a Mini Series Concert in each city.”

Horn and Nightingale feel that the signs are good, that the organisation is seriously realising its goals. Partly this is because of the aforementioned inclusivity—they cite the membership of Melbourne sound installation artists Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey [RT98] who jointly act as Secretary to the network’s Executive Committee. Horn sees cross-media membership as important for the organisation, along with new platforms and venues, like Campbelltown Arts Centre, west of Sydney “with their extremely strong focus on new music.” The centre is now a member of New Music Network—a significant development, says Horn, excited by the potential impact of new regional arts centres for new music.

Wondering how member groups are supported by the network, I’m told concerts are promoted through an e-newsletter to 1,700 recipients nationally, groups are profiled on the network’s website, advice is given about timetabling of concerts to avoid competing dates, there’s a fine brochure and some financial support. However, Nightingale is emphatic that “the intangible benefits of being in the network are often the ones which are the most difficult to promote and yet are the most rewarding. For example, we try in our concert series to promote artistic collaboration between our members. We don’t have money to make that happen, but it does.” The soprano duo Halcyon has recently been collaborating with australYSIS and Song Company with Ensemble Offspring, who will appear with Machine for Making Sense in a performance in Sydney Harbour National Park on November 7.

“The other intangible is the mentoring that goes on for the up and coming groups from those who have been in the scene much longer. Roland Peelman, artistic director of Song Company is the most obvious example with his openness to all the groups he collaborates with—including Ensemble Offspring and Continuum Sax. Being in a concert series that includes Synergy and Song Company, Continuum Sax gains a lot from just seeing how they operate and just how difficult it can be even if they have a couple of staff members. How much work that goes on in the sector is underestimated. Continuum Sax has no administrator, but we are helped by New Music Network.”

Melbourne composer, former Aphids director, current director of Chamber Made Opera and Vice-President of New Music Network is David Young, another valued role model, says Nightingale: “He’s always full of good advice and has shown what can be achieved through multi-artform collaboration. Aphids’ work is not just about music, but it’s really intelligent when it is and that’s something all of us admire and aspire to.”

I wonder about the role of the network in supporting emerging artists. Horn says that “those who participate in the mini-series are so grateful to get an opportunity to perform. We get about 50-60 applications for the series each year from which we can only choose five.”

What do groups generally need? Nightingale explains that it varies from group to group: “Song Company needs very little from us; we benefit from them, and from Synergy too. Other groups we can support in the Concert Series with a substantial fee to pay for their performers. The Mini Series artists receive a token fee.” Horn adds, “And we look after the venues for them as well as promotion and some paid advertising.” Nightingale explains that “with our artistic oversight, the relationship with the ABC’s Australian Music Unit at Classic FM is very strong. They’re extremely supportive of what we do. Being involved in the mini-series opens doors for people. It’s hard to quantify those sort of connections, but that’s what a network is, a set of constantly dynamic, constantly changing relations. The Halcyon and austraLYSIS concert was broadcast and the artists interviewed as part of it.”

It’s surprising that such an effective organisation is administered by Horn a mere two days a week (I bet that doesn’t include front of house duties); she works the rest of the week for the Australian Music Centre. Her role entails scheduling, booking venues, getting marketing and promotion up for the concert series, delivering the e-news and updating the website, calling for applications, preparing budgets and getting grant applications in on schedule.

I ask Horn and Nightingale if their roles are more than labours of love. Nightingale asserts that “the network is something that will have long lasting consequences. I feel that the new music scene in Sydney has really thrived since the concert series started. For a lot of groups it provides a focus around which they can arrange other things and take advantage of the schedule. When you see the younger groups like Chronology Arts [RT97] and Kammer Ensemble with their wealth of activity and the young composers coming out of the Conservatorium; it wasn’t like that a while ago.”

As for audience development, Horn says that every angle is explored, including sharing mailing lists and doubling audiences with collaborative shows. She’s been inspired by partaking of ISCM festivals in Europe (she played a pivotal role in the wonderful Sydney ISCM World New Music Days earlier this year; RT96). “It broadened my horizons to see lots of small presenting organisations similar to us and so many networks, but very well funded, as in Belgium. But here it’s only us.”

Asked if the network is involved in commissioning new works, Nightingale explains that it would not want to compete with its member groups: “Our contribution is making sure that the performances happen. Back in the 1980s and 90s works commissioned were often not performed or if they were they never came around again. It was unsatisfactory on every level and not a good use of the money and dreadful for the artists. The relationships between composers and performers are now evolving in a very positive way—more new work means a lot more performer input and works are developed more collaboratively.”

With its growing membership across Australia, its concert series and the support it offers groups, its encouragement to collaborate and its openness to new platforms, New Music Network has proven itself an invaluable and sustaining part of new music culture. Nightingale says, “Sometimes people think we’re classical and composer based but we bring other models onto the page and when the edges get messy, that’s when it’s most interesting.” I can vouch for that.

New Music Network: 2010 Concerts: Clocked Out, After the Kingfisher’s Wing, composer Erik Griswold, Ian Hangar Recital Hall, Qld Conservatorium, Oct 6, 6.30pm; Machine for Making Sense & Ensemble Offspring, West Head Project V at Middle Head, Sydney Harbour National Park, Nov 7, 4pm; Double Duos, Recital Hall East, Sydney Conservatorium, Nov 21,5pm; Halcyon with austraLYSIS, Music Workshop, Sydney Conservatorium, Dec 15, 7.30pm; www.newmusicnetwork.com.au

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 46

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Trash Humpers

Trash Humpers

ONE OF DAVID LYNCH’S GREAT QUIPS AROUND THE TIME HE MADE INLAND EMPIRE IS THAT THE PROBLEM WITH HIGH DEFINITION VIDEO IS THAT IT LEAVES NO MYSTERY FOR THE VIEWER, YOU ARE ALLOWED TO SEE EVERYTHING—NO FUZZINESS, NO BLURRY EDGES OR STRANGE VISUAL ARTEFACTING. LYNCH EQUATES LOW DEFINITION VIDEO WITH THE FILMS OF THE 1930S WHEN THE EMULSION WASN’T SO GREAT, PROVIDING LESS INFORMATION ON THE SCREEN, ALLOWING THE MIND TO GO DREAMING.

Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers is a film of mystery in many ways of which I’m sure Lynch would approve. A feature length film shot in glorious VHS, full of bad tracking and noise glitches, it recalls the bizarrely nostalgic aesthetic of 80s domestic video, offering a refreshingy beaten-up and wonderfully degraded audio visual experience—something that the crystal clear and all too perfect high definition world of contemporary video misses.

Korine has spoken about what attracted him to shooting the film on VHS: “There was a strange beauty in the analog. You almost have to squint to see things through the grain and the mist. There’s something sinister about it.” Now numerous films from Blair Witch to Paranormal Activity have attempted to exploit these ‘sinister qualities.’ Domestic video functions as a recorder of real events unfolding before us, adding to the overall verisimilitude and scariness of film, but none has done it so succinctly or perversely as Korine with Trash Humpers.

The theme of Korine’s latest delve into the depraved depths of white trash involves another kind of beating up and beating off—geriatrics (actually Korine and co in old people masks and orthopaedic shoes) going about humping trash and generally fucking shit up. The film, exactly like the title suggests, depicts old folk humping trash—in fact trees, mailboxes, and anything else that doesn’t move. Korine’s treatment of this material appears in general like an improvised shoot and run approach. The camera follows its manic-decrepit characters through abandoned streets and parking lots as they hump, smash up property, murder, commit home invasion and along the way meet an assortment of other weirdo characters, including conjoined twins and a guitar strumming sex obsessed cretin.

Lynch’s sense of low definition video’s ‘mystery’ also extends to the premise of the film itself: just what are we watching? If HD video shows us everything of the world, the VHS of Trash Humpers reveals the unseen, the unknown, the hidden—old people who come out at night to connect with the world around them in ways not normally seen. Far from shock value, one of the characters in Trash Humpers offers us what could be described as one of the more poignant moments in this bizarre film as he discusses how these people are free, free to do whatever, unlike the rest of society trapped by rules and conventions.

Trash Humpers’ freak show characters recite nursery rhyme fragments and chant repetitive nonsense as they go about their depravity, recalling the wonderfully disturbing onscreen personas of artist Paul McCarthy. In McCarthy’s Painter (1995) the artist intones phrases in a demented, high-pitched voice, and in Family Tyranny (1987, with Mike Kelley) he repeats over and over remedial phrases to disarming effect. McCarthy too has long explored the use of mutant masks in various performances, providing him, like the grandpas and grandmas in Trash Humpers, a certain crazed freedom to play out all manner of debased activities.

Trash Humpers adds up to a surreal, creepy and wonderfully perverse experience. Like a good horror movie, the film’s abrasive and nutball images stay with one for days afterwards. Apparently it was Korine’s intention to make a film that might be unearthed in a thrift store on an old VHS tape, a fuzzy analogue artefact from another time and place. He even flirted with the idea of leaving copies of the video on the sidewalk, for unsuspecting viewers to find.

The end result is a recombinant mix of nasty home video, jackass inspired pranks with a sexual bent, performance based video art and horror, all seemingly improvised into a macabre, vaudeville horror show. Trash Humpers celebrates destruction, vandalism and perverse freedom. It’s the perfect antidote to the worthy and important art house fare of the Melbourne International Film Festival and its grating byline this year: “it’s a matter of taste”.

Harmony Korine is an American director whose films include Gummo, Julien Donkey Boy and Mister Lonely. Trash Humpers won the DOX Award at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival and screened in the 2010 Melbourne and Sydney Underground Film Festivals (MUFF and SUFF).

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 16

© Ian Haig; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Human Interest Story, Lucy Guerin Inc

Human Interest Story, Lucy Guerin Inc

Human Interest Story, Lucy Guerin Inc

A GROUP OF RELAXED YOUNG PERFORMERS WATCH A LARGE TV SCREEN, CASUALLY OBSESSED BY WHAT THEY SEE AND HEAR AS JOSTLING NEWS STORIES OSCILLATE BETWEEN, ON THE ONE HAND, THE DAILY HORRORS OF WAR, MASS STARVATION, INTERCEPTED ASYLUM SEEKERS AND, ON THE OTHER, ‘HUMAN INTEREST’ STORIES, BUT WITHOUT DISTINCTION—THE NEWS AS ENTERTAINMENT. IT’S ALL HUMAN INTEREST, AND YOU CAN CHATTER ABOUT IT AND, HERE, DANCE TO IT.

The rhythms of news broadcasting appear to infect these people, knocking them slightly off-kilter and stimulating excited physical responses: sign language-like gesturing and tightly patterned, exquisite dance moves in twos and threes with unusual manipulations. But the sense of mutual pleasure is interrupted: one of their number (Stephanie Lake) wanders to one side: “Steph, what are you doing?” “Just doing a bit of a dancing.” Unlike the others, her dance is loosely lyrical, introspective, less highly articulated. A motif takes shape as Lake peels away again and again—her head in an everyday reverie…children to look after, food…It’s a motif of attempted separation that will return darkly when the work moves to its conclusion. As the news worsens (the massive fires in Russia) and simultaneously grows sillier (Anton Enus from SBS World News Australia plays himself in a pre-recorded episode), the group dance as one, eyes on the screen, its pull evident in the almost involuntary drag of arms that lead.

As our eyes adjust we see upstage an army tank, the only substantial design element, an ominous full-scale presence. As a series of increasingly grim images unfold, the sense of imminent war or crushed resistance grows—not that the dancers pay any attention to the tank or confront or dance on it, although I expect them to at any moment. They inhabit, save for Lake’s sidestepping, an apparent closed circuit. Sunny coloured costumes are replaced by black and white outfits.

However, while Lake’s ‘dissidence’—“just dancing”—is tolerated, a sole male (Alisdair Macindoe) is soon assaulted by his fellows in a darkening, dimly lit world. Slowly and neatly, they lay out rows of newspaper pages and then stuff them into the man’s clothing until he his swollen and bulging like the Elephant Man, disabled, an object to be played with, spun on the spot, high, low and crouching, faster and faster…knocked down, left to empty himself of news. As in Guerin’s Structure and Sadness (2009) the power of dance as installation is felt—design as integral, neither mere backdrop nor frame.

Human Interest Story, Lucy Guerin Inc

Human Interest Story, Lucy Guerin Inc

Human Interest Story, Lucy Guerin Inc

If the paper man episode amplifies the sense of news as not merely absorbed and embodied but also brutally inculcated, then another episode takes the earlier notion of news danced to and meaninglessly ‘interpreted’ a step further. Again, as if taking its cue from performance art, this episode is painfully durational: a woman (Harriet Ritchie) dances in a strict diagonal of low, yellowish light, any movement she makes along it, staccato leaps and spins, always resolving in a thumping, bouncing on the spot with no apparent counter-release to ease the appalling jolts. We no longer hear the noise of news; it’s as if the damage has already been done and here are the self-harming symptoms.

A group of dancers forms upstage, tangled, gesticulating, travelling forward in a rush, on the edge of violence, but returning and repeating the same action compulsively. One of them is Lake. As earlier, she breaks from the pattern. She combs her hair. She rejoins the group. The action resumes. Lake breaks away, this time leaving the auditorium—we hear her asked, “How’s the show going.” She returns, but this time is locked into the pattern—no escape. Meanwhile another group, on a parallel line, appears to “just dance.”

If this motif of ‘just dancing’ looks like a temporary reprieve from the horrors and the absurdities of the news, or even a kind of freedom, the show’s final image is not reassuring. The dancers cluster tightly in golden light upstage, the tank looming behind. Some gesture rhetorically, like politicians, one plays air guitar, others look up as if in awe, but there is nothing transcendent in the image, no-one breaking from the crowd or differentiated from it. No dancing.

It’s difficult to do justice to Human Interest Story from one viewing, to describe the significant role of Jethro Woodward’s gritty score or to be sure that one’s reading of this theme-driven but viscerally realised work is adequate, although the unexpectedly blunt ending appears to mesh with Guerin’s apparent pessimism. Although the early representations of the flattening of affect by the news seem protracted, Human Interest Story moves dynamically from everyday states in which we can recognise ourselves into a deeply disturbing, ever-darkening embodiment, both literal and metaphorical, of the traps set us by the contradictions of the news media. Lucy Guerin, as ever, has created a work at once cerebral and emotional, a dream turned memorable nightmare. It’s apt that Human Interest Story is part of Company B Belvoir’s mainstage program for 2011 in Sydney. That’s great news.

Lucy Guerin Inc, Human Interest Story, choreographer Lucy Guerin, performers Stephanie Lake, Alisdair Macindoe, Talitha Maslin, Harriet Ritchie, Stuart Shugg, Jessica Wong, set design Gideon Obarzanek, realising designer Anna Cordingley, costumes Paula Levis, lighting Paul Jackson, composer, sound designer Jethro Woodward; A Malthouse Theatre, Lucy Guerin Inc & Perth International Arts Festival Commission; Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, July 23–Aug 1

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 32

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Australian Percussion Gathering, Brisbane, 2010

STEVEN SCHICK, ONE OF THE DISTINGUISHED GUESTS AT THE AUSTRALIAN PERCUSSION GATHERING HELD RECENTLY IN BRISBANE, GAVE AN INTIMATE RENDITION OF KURT SCHWITTERS’ 1924 URSONATE WITHIN A MASTER CLASS TITLED “NO STICKS: USE OF THE VOICE, THEATRE AND BODY IN PERCUSSION.” HIS RENDITION OF THE DADAIST, ECHOLALIA-INFUSED PIECE—WRITTEN AS “A WEAPON AGAINST LOGIC”—WAS PERSONAL, INTIMATE AND EXTREMELY MOVING, IN A WAY I HAVE NEVER EXPERIENCED.

Previously, I’ve heard its nonsense lines (“Fümms bö wö tää zää Uu”) delivered with a sense of comic attack or even aggressive ejaculation, but Schick soft-shuffled the floor in a thoughtful perambulation, the piece’s sound clusters driving a necessity to speak. Why does he speak? Why should we listen? These are questions Schick asks of every performance he gives. Here is a master musician plumbing a lifetime of emotions, experiences and ethical considerations, giving immense respect to his audience.

Schick’s Ursonate affirmed the voice (and lips, tongue and glottis) as an instrument equal to any of a percussionist’s tools, only perhaps more bared. Many of the Gathering’s master classes talked less of technique (“technique is merely the means,” insisted Sylvio Gualda) than of playing from your bones. Discussions centred on refining choices to do with aesthetics, timbrel groupings and the building of textures. Not every teacher said so baldly that you have to ‘play from yourself’ as did Phil Treloar, but with many it was implied—the Gathering’s strong emphasis on collaborative improvisation provided a context where, across the spectrum of ages and experience, people could plumb themselves.
Barry Quinn, The Gathering

Barry Quinn, The Gathering

Barry Quinn, The Gathering

Schick emphasised percussion’s humble, tribal origins: the contact of skin-to-skin, hand to drum membrane. He even quietly threw the challenge to younger students to consider the shamanic origins of performance, a player perhaps passing through membranes to other or hidden worlds. This provocation matched the tone of the conference as a whole, which was remarkably uncompetitive and non-aggressive. The discipline’s earliest mentor in Australia, Barry Quinn, was honoured on the final night. A player of international repute, Quinn would apparently teach anyone who could throw a stick at a wall and catch it on the rebound. He has influenced three generations of practitioners who continue his method of encouragement and positive mentoring to this day.

But as Artaud wrote, “Being has teeth,” and ‘Being’ can be both encouraging and fierce. There was nothing quite like witnessing Sylvio Gualda (for whom Yannis Xenakis wrote his exacting percussion solos) demonstrate “not ffff [quadruple forte] but energy“ with barely a flick of his wrists. It was like the Concorde’s sonic boom at 10 paces within two seconds. Whilst Japan’s Kuniko Kato plays Xenakis taiko-like, a knife forcing silence out of sonic space, a contained Gualda holds this split-second ignition in his ribs.

Solo percussion in music of the classical tradition is a recent phenomenon, developing from the late 1920s works of Edgar Varese through John Cage to the contemporary environmentalist John Luther Adams. It was an honour to be in the room with master artists for whom many of the pieces performed were actually written. Especially moving was Schick’s bow to Sylvio Gualda as his tribal elder in the wings. This honouring of lineage was characteristic throughout the event.

It’s also an honour, always, to hear works made as we listen. Darryl Pratt and Phil Treloar exemplified this in their improvised duo, marimbas playing both sweet and dry, wiry and full of dew—a gracious marriage, despite the 20 year gap since their last playing together. Perhaps experience teaches skills of giving in.

But for Schick, repeating a work holds the same challenge—to make every time like the first. Here he performed Xenakis’ Psappha for the 250th time. ‘Fresh’ is not the word so much as volatile as gunpowder-in-waiting. Schick kicks the side drum like a tempestuous goat, obsessive, fixated and seething within the Sapphic cells of rhythmic measure that generate the piece. His master class gave techniques—layerings, placing, personal challenges—to keep one fresh and able to surprise oneself in performance.

In an evening concert, Varese’s monster masterpiece, Ionisation (1929-31) was performed twice, under two different conductors, providing another example of how to reignite an old flame. It highlighted the impact of interpretation, with huge differences of timbre and tone. But there were also quieter intimacies. Speak Percussion’s Eugene Ughetti performed a solo by choreographer Deborah Hay in a delicate, wiry, hiccupping and side-stepping dialogue between feet and floor, skin and space. He awaits the companions who never quite fall onstage from the wings. This was so poignant a performance that, although comic, no one laughed. Ughetti’s body dances like an amoeba yet we never lose sight of the fine musical choices with which he recites and drums the hand gong.

In Driftwood, Ughetti gently dismantled and recomposed a marimba like a father playing ‘toss’ with his child. He and Matthias Schack-Arnott kissed bows with their lips. This threshold of the lips was also, more explosively, explored by Schick in Touché by Globokar. Based on Brecht’s play Life of Galileo, the piece is a bravura, agon-like dialogue between voices of faith and fear, the yoked vocal consonants and paired glocks always threatening to break partnership with each other.

Among the students, Defying Gravity partnered in as sinuous and athletic a dance with marimba as if it had a skirt and legs (oh that keyboard girl!) and Ba Da Boom rumbled suitcases and tossed coins in the space. High school kids performed with aplomb. Rebecca Lloyd-Jones, Matthew Horsley, Cameron Kennedy and Robert Oetomo made outstanding contributions and were awarded special prizes.

Brisbane group Clocked Out continued their exploration of unusual sound and visual objects, and miniature toys. It was a pleasure to hear how Erik Griswold’s aesthetic has matured over the past decade. To end the conference, the full coterie of students, teachers and guests performed in the concrete circle of the SunCorp Plaza playing Michael Askill’s 1000 Gongs (how many moods can a gong make?—one thousand), a sequence of 14 improvisations which incorporated a massive two-metre diameter tam-tam, song, movement, spoken word, trumpets and water gongs in a two-hour ritual traversing words and tonalities from Marc Bolan to Yogi Bhajan, Messiaen to Stockhausen. Many of the general public who wandered in to the performance stayed the distance.

The final day saw a trip to the Sunshine Coast hinterland, to the Cooroora Institute run by Tamsin Kerr, Ross Annels and their daughter Anika, for a day of listening and playing in the rainforest. The primary tool here was communication between ear, heart and land. Convenor Vanessa Tomlinson wondered how everyone would respond.

A young woman suddenly starts walking on all fours, boots on her hands (becoming animal); a senior percussionist rustles a tree (becoming mantis); two young men rumble a dying branch to its sonic death. Drums become insects and call to invisible partners across the mountainside. A song is improvised beside a Bunyip’s waterhole. Jan Baker-Finch rustles her body like leaves, moving, being moved by the winds of other improvisers. We finish the day with mulled wine by the fire.

The Gathering, convenor Vanessa Tomlinson with Michael Askill and Tom O’Grady, Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University, Aug 26-30

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 47

© Zsuzsanna Soboslay; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Entanglement Theory

Entanglement Theory

Entanglement Theory

RICHARD JAMES ALLEN AND KAREN PEARLMAN (PHYSICAL TV) AND COLLABORATORS HAVE INVESTED MUCH IN THEIR 10-MINUTE FILM, ENTANGLEMENT THEORY, MELDING PHYSICAL AND VIRTUAL PERFORMANCE, CONNECTING A DANCING MAN (ALLEN) AND HIS SECOND LIFE AVATAR ACROSS IMPONDERABLE TIME-SPACE DISTANCES. SPEAKING WITH ALLEN AND PEARLMAN REVEALS JUST HOW MUCH THINKING AND WORK HAS GONE INTO THE FILM AND WHAT THEY HOPE THEIR ALREADY GLOBAL AUDIENCES ARE EXPERIENCING.

Borrowing directly from Quantum Physics’ Entanglement Theory, dancer and avatar in the film are like bound particles—however far apart, a change in one results immediately in a change in the other. In the film, the characters’ discrete worlds are parallel ones until, in the end, their realities overlap—as Allen dances on a timber bridge over a pond, transparent figures glide about him and, finally, now spirit-like himself, he enters the Second Life city of his avatar and they dance high amidst its buildings.

Allen is attracted to Entanglement Theory’s resonances with Vedic philosophy and with a dualism that perpetually resolves into the oneness of together-apart. This is not made literal in the film; there’s no explanatory content. You simply enjoy a fantasy that might translate into something more than a man who dances through intimate, inner city streets (while his avatar inhabits a hard, Second Life cityscape), falls asleep in a humble room (his doppelganger lounges in luxury before a blazing log fire), dozes on a park bench and then dances with his other as their worlds overlap. But Allen hopes you might feel a more heightened form of enjoyment.

Thinking, meditation and yoga are the usual means of apprehending or entering transcendent states but, says Allen, in the film they’re to be found in dance and dream. As well as defying gravity, dance can be ecstatically transcendent or subtly contemplative (Allen, like a Hollywood musical character dances past pedestrians, breaking with the everyday), while sleep opens the door to the avatar’s world. For Allen, the state to aspire to is Turiya, which in Hindu philosophy is beyond waking consciousness, dreaming and deep sleep, and beyond time and space. He and Pearlman have therefore structured the film around waking, sleeping, dreaming and Turiya.

Research for the film began with Pearlman and Allen working with Gary Hayes (“a Second Life genius,” says Allen) of MUVEDesign at Critical Path in January 2009 mixing real and Second Life through improvisation and developing “intermedia choreographic ideas.” Some of the outcomes were performed live with screen projections in Do Avatars Dream of Human Sleep? and then work began on Entanglement Theory.

Both makers are now intrigued by how enthusiastically their film has been taken up by audiences and programmers, including ABC TV, and suspect that viewers intuitively pick up on its deeper resonances. With almost 20 screenings this year, Allen says that the take-up is the fastest they’ve had for one of their films. Entanglement Theory has been shown in dance film and other festivals in São Paulo, Ghent, Michigan, Bergamo, Helsinki, Fort Worth, Tulsa, Trieste, Naples, Oklahoma, Johannesburg and at the Dungog Film Festival (NSW). It will screen at EDIT 2010 International Dance Film Festival in Budapest in October and at the Inshadow International Festival of Video, Performance and Technologies in Lisbon in December.

When the film appeared in the Animation Event of the Dance on Camera Festival in New York in January this year the New York Times reviewer wrote of the program: “It’s striking here that almost all of these shorts combine cartoons with live-action photography. In the best of these, Entanglement Theory…this mixture gives a new vitality to the dream states that preoccupy so many of the current crop of Dance on Camera filmmakers” (NYT, Jan 30).

While there’s a long history of mixing live dance with animation (peaking in 50s MGM musicals and revived in the digital era), Physical TV’s exploration of the possibilities of working with Second Life animation reveals the increasing range of technical means available for creative use by (and within the reach of) artists. While the Second Life aesthetic will never be to everyone’s taste and avatars cannot as yet move as subtly as their human counterparts, there are in Entanglement Theory moments of supple elegance and in the overall oscillation between worlds a fluidity of movement and editing that makes for a seductive reverie. See for yourself when it screens on ABC TV.

Entanglement Theory will be shown on ABC2, October 31 at 8.20pm and ABC 1 on November 7 at 4.20pm.

Entanglement Theory, choreographer, director Richard James Allen, Second Life artist, animateur, machinimatographer Gary Hayes, editor, dramaturg/writer Karen Pearlman, supervising sound editor Andrew Plain, composer Fiona Hill, producer Physical TV.

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 16

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

Racing Hearts/Hummingbird, Tasdance

Racing Hearts/Hummingbird, Tasdance

Racing Hearts/Hummingbird, Tasdance

WIPING THE FACE. TEARING IMAGINARY MATTER FROM THE MOUTH. SHAKING IT OFF. RAW SOUNDS OF BODIES AND BREATH FILLING AN OTHERWISE EMPTY STAGE. TEXT BUILDING AND DISSIPATING ON A SCREEN. WASHES OF COLOUR. THESE ARE IMPRESSIONS OF RACING HEART/HUMMINGBIRD BY CHRISSIE PARROTT—THE FIRST OF TWO WORKS IN TASDANCE’S NEW PROGRAM, HEART MATTERS. IT COULDN’T BE ANY MORE DIFFERENT THAN ITS COMPANION PIECE, FORTY MILES—A RIVER OF DREAMS, CHOREOGRAPHED BY GRAEME MURPHY, WHICH VEERS TOWARD REPRESENTATION RATHER THAN ABSTRACTION IN CONTENT.

Heart Matters is the latest in a long series of works from Tasdance built around guest choreographers, although the show really began with director Annie Greig’s dream to collaborate with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, which in turn brought two composers into the frame. Constantine Koukias developed a score for Parrott while Carl Vine arranged his fifth quartet for Murphy. As the program’s title indicates, the shows are linked under a thematic banner relating to those things in life that move the heart.

Parrott’s Racing Heart/Hummingbird focuses on emotional and physical responses to writings on love, be they pithy, passionate texts or long, sultry passages. This text is the literal backdrop to the dance, with evocative phrases such as “my wrists are aching as you pulse through my veins,” appearing and disappearing as if typed onto a glowing screen at the rear of the stage. Thanks to Joe Mercurio’s deft lighting design, it appears as though the dancers are washed with the light of the screen while the text and colour also rinse across Leon Krasenstein’s costumes—graduated reds, blues and greens layered with phrases from the show.

The choreographic language of Racing Heart evolves from a suite of tender movements between dancers, signifying the beginnings of a love affair and tends toward ever more spasmodic and violent gestures as the work builds and love stumbles. Parrott has focused much energy in the dancers’ hands, with repeated flicking, slapping and shaking gestures characterising the choreography. Koukias’ oscillating oboe and strings create a tense space that enhances the growing agitation of the dancers while, underlying the live score, a soundscape comprises elements such as whispered readings, bells ringing, a heartbeat and a life support monitor.

While still dwelling on matters that touch the heart, Graeme Murphy’s Forty Miles—a river of dreams concentrates on feelings evoked by the landscape between his Northern Tamar River home and the city of Launceston. Veering away from Parrott’s empty stage and abstracted language, Murphy’s work stamps itself as a representational and symbolic work from the opening moments. His stage is a vast landscape in miniature. A silken river divides mountains from a forest created by the dancers bearing quivering, bare clusters of branches. Their costumes—also by Krasenstein—rendered in delicate shades of grey suggest that they are part of the fabric of this natural scene.

This work is unashamedly classical in structure, choreographic language and score telling a simple story of growing love between lead female (Floeur Alder) and lead male (Joel Corpuz). Such are the shape of arms, lines of movement and arrangements of the company that I keep expecting the dancers to transition into pointe work at any moment. Looked at more closely however, the detail is contemporary and compelling, with swift, smooth and technically complicated lifts, holds and interactions between the lead dancers reminding me of Murphy’s wealth of choreographic experience. The composition for strings by Vine melds with the fluidity of Murphy’s choreography, though it leads the mood at the end of the work with a lively—if a little out of character—sequence performed by the whole company.

I really want to be able to say that Heart Matters was a dazzling experience. I was so excited to see the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra tuning up under the lip of the stage and the thought of live, contemporary composition paired with seasoned choreography was very appealing. But unfortunately my heart didn’t soar. And that does matter, particularly as contemporary dance relies on emotional connection. I’ve given some thought to why I feel this way and I think that perhaps the main players underestimated the weight that such universal subject matter brings to a work. To make a show about love or the heart, one must innovate in a way that allows it to rise above all of the other ghosts of dances past. While there were beautiful glimmers of difference throughout each of the works—particularly in the duets between Alder and Corpuz in Forty Miles—unfortunately Parrott’s evolution from the flush of new love to betrayal and loss, followed by Murphy’s rendering of the beauties of nature, did not strike enough new notes to dispel those ghosts.

Tasdance, Heart Matters: Forty Miles—a river of dreams, choreography Graeme Murphy, composition Carl Vine; Racing Hearts/Hummingbird, choreography Chrissie Parrott, composition Constantine Koukias, animation Jonathan Mustard; dancers Floeur Alder, Sofie Burgoyne, Joel Corpuz, Trisha Dunn, Sarah Fiddaman, Malcolm McMillan, Jason Northam; costume & set design Leon Krasenstein, lighting Joe Mercurio; Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, conductor Kenneth Young; Theatre Royal, Hobart, July 23, 24

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 33

© Judith Abell; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Nicolas Collins in his basement workshop, Chicago, Il (USA) 2006

Nicolas Collins in his basement workshop, Chicago, Il (USA) 2006

Nicolas Collins in his basement workshop, Chicago, Il (USA) 2006

THE HISTORY OF ELECTRONIC MUSIC IS AS MUCH A HISTORY OF INVENTIVE ELECTRONIC DEVICES AND EXPERIMENTAL INSTRUMENTATION AS IT IS OF MUSICAL FORM AND STRUCTURE. FREQUENTLY, THE TWO ARE INSEPARABLE—THE METHOD IS THE MUSIC. AMERICAN ARTIST NICOLAS COLLINS DESCRIBES HIMSELF AS A HARDWARE HACKER, AND HE HAS LONG BEEN AN INNOVATOR BOTH MUSICALLY AND TECHNOLOGICALLY, MAKING A POINT OF REJIGGING ELECTRONIC GADGETRY TO CREATE HIS MAGICAL MUSIC AND REDEFINING MUSIC ITSELF.

Collins began experimenting with electronic equipment in the early 1970s, and, when the desk-top computer appeared, began writing computer programs that would emulate or extend the sound-generating strategies he had developed. He studied with Alvin Lucier and has evidently absorbed John Cage’s interest in experimentation as well as his curiosity and playfulness. Collins’ seminal device consisted of a found circuit-board attached to a battery and a loudspeaker, and activated with electrodes or a damp fingertip to produce buzzes and squeals with which to make music.

Collins likes the idea, literally, of a hands-on approach, where the player can touch the circuit board to generate sound, experimenting with degrees of deliberative action in the process of music-making. He is also concerned to explore the disruption of pre-programmed output to create alternative sonic output and thus a new instrument. Instruments that require performer intervention to defy inbuilt automation reveal the profound difference between analogue variability and digital predictability and reveal analogue as so much more seductive. Another early work featured a toy train running along a straight track and touching a tautly stretched wire connected to a contact mike so as to generate a sound as it moved. Such ‘folk’ instruments are easily accessible to the layperson.

I attended Collins’ talk and then his concert, since an understanding of how his gadgets work and how much human intervention is involved is essential to full appreciation. The concert comprised four works that epitomise his philosophy: Salvage (Guiyu Blues) (2008), performed with a team of players armed with found circuit boards; Pea Soup II (1973/2002); The Talking Cure (2002); and In Memoriam Michel Waisvisz (2008). Some of his devices automate randomness and the output can also be affected by extraneous influences uncontrolled by the composer/performer—the gently mesmerising Pea Soup involves running a signal from an auditorium mike through laptop-mounted phase shifters and filters that modify or delete particular tones in response to accumulating feedback. The sound thus stabilises itself around an automatically self-edited set of tones that sonically characterise the room’s acoustics and respond to ambient sound such as audience noises. At moments, a cellist and a saxophonist add further monotonal material to the mix. Talking Cure is a piece for spoken word, the rise, fall and texture of Collins’ voice triggering piano tones to produce a sound pattern that parallels his speech. These works are an oblique extension of Lucier’s I am Sitting in a Room (1969), in which speech is recorded, played back and re-recorded with the ongoing speech to disrupt verbal intelligibility and respond to the space. In Talking Cure, Collins is translating speech into music and simultaneously generating both verbal and musical meaning. We’re reminded that voice tones are as important as content in conveying the meaning of the spoken word.

In Memoriam Michel Waisvisz involves a small metal box inside which is a tiny circuit board, a 9v battery and a birthday cake candle burning brightly. The flickering of the candle stimulates a light sensor connected to an oscillator, emitting a howling scream whose pitch and intensity are determined by the flicker. For extra effect, a realtime image of the apparatus is projected onto a screen in the auditorium in vivid close-up. There is a post-industrial sculptural beauty about some of Collins’ devices, and there are other works in which he has coupled his sonic gadget with visual effects, for example, using LEDs salvaged from computer games to create new imagery that defeats the narrative of the games and denies player participation.

Collins’ aesthetic lies in balancing human intervention with the automation of sound so as to create an attractive and stimulating musical work. It also arises from the beauty of Chaos theory—the sonic result will be different every time. A composition will not be intended to produce a fixed set of notes, timbres or effects, but will be broadly indeterminate within the range of possibilities inherent in the design of the device and its usage. Indeterminacy is extended through the improvised nature of performance. The aggregated, automated interventions of these musical robots, such as multiple tone editing and phase shifting in response to ambient stimuli, take the form of electromechanical daydreaming—this is a kind of primitive, undirected thought, telling in its implications.

Collins also transcribes his sound works for acoustic ensembles, capturing the timbres, textures and structures of the original in the ensemble’s score while introducing new forms of intervention to create engaging and unpredictable chamber works that have an intense and unique musicality.

This body of work is about accessibility, vernacular materials and participation, questioning the idea of the genius artist/composer. Virtuosity here involves combining the radical and telling disruption of everyday hardware, programmed self-editing and adroit randomisation. Collins’ work is ironic in its postmodern subversion of technology, reminding us of the extent to which new technologies, whose capacities we do not fully understand but which we take for granted, permeate and control our lives. He has recolonised the circuit-board, demystifying and challenging automation and disposability. And he investigates how sound functions and what speech is, addressing the processes of reception, recognition and comprehension of sound and word. The issue of originality and authenticity is another important theme, as he plunders machinery and programs, samples radio transmissions and borrows performative concepts to create new syntheses. The result is conceptually demanding and perversely entertaining, with a powerful current of humour running throughout.

Collins is an articulate and engaging writer and speaker, and his texts, full of joyful anecdotes, form an absorbing personal history of electronic musical experimentation and groundbreaking innovation. Importantly, though, he is a musician, not a techno-geek, and this is seriously interesting music. On his website, you can find recordings, videos and detailed explanations of how the instruments and works were developed. You can download a piece of his software to make your own version of one of his works and there are scores for other works. His book Handmade Electronic Music is on his page and includes instructions on how to solder components and how to make contact mikes and oscillators. You are strongly encouraged to try this at home.

Nicolas Collins, “Collaborations in Sound/Intersections of Science and Art,” University of South Australia, June 11; Works of a Slightly Misused Technology, with cello Jack Ward , saxophone Derek Pascoe, and salvage Seb Tomczak, Christian Haines and the Adelaide Hacking Philharmonic, RiAUS, The Science Exchange, Adelaide, June 12; presented by Elder Conservatorium of Music, University of Adelaide with the Royal Institution of Australia (RiAUS) and the Australian Experimental Art Foundation (AEAF); www.nicolascollins.com.

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 48

© Chris Reid; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Zhao Tao in I Wish I Knew (Hai shang chuan qu)

Zhao Tao in I Wish I Knew (Hai shang chuan qu)

THERE IS A SPECTRE HAUNTING JIA ZHANGKE’S RECENT WORK:THE SPECTRE OF TIME, OF MEMORIES BEING DISPLACED AND HISTORY ERASED. FROM THE CITIES DISMANTLED TO MAKE WAY FOR THE THREE GORGES DAM IN HIS FILM, STILL LIFE, THROUGH THE UNSPOKEN DISAPPOINTMENTS HANGING OVER THE FORMER COLLEGE STUDENTS OF CRY ME A RIVER, TO THE DISCOMFORTING QUESTIONING OF WHAT IS REAL IN A COUNTRY WHERE THE PAST IS CONSTANTLY REWRITTEN IN 24 CITY, JIA’S FOCUS HAS SHIFTED FROM HIS EARLY PORTRAITS OF ECONOMIC FRINGE DWELLERS TO A PROBING OF CHINA’S FRACTURED HISTORICAL CONSCIOUSNESS.

But whereas Still Life and 24 City implicitly asked where a nation’s emotional, ethical and philosophical centre lies when so much of its heritage has been destroyed, Jia’s new documentary I Wish I Knew attempts to answer this question by reclaiming history from the ground up.

Through 18 interviews, Jia delves into the history of Shanghai, which as a colonial creation and centre of nationalist sentiment, hotbed of vice and incubator of radical politics has long embodied the conflicting forces that have shaped modern China. Home to the most cosmopolitan aspects of China’s Republican culture of the 1930s and 40s, the city was also a stronghold of radical leftism during the Cultural Revolution. Nowadays China’s largest city stands as a symbol of the country’s traumatic colonised past and growing 21st century might. Within each of these broad historical brushstrokes are a million small stories of heroism, betrayal, idealism and exploitation. I Wish I Knew takes a cross-section of these tales, related in talking head interviews, and weaves them into a broad historical net cast over the city as it undergoes a makeover in the lead-up to the 2010 Expo.

The contested nature of Shanghai’s past is highlighted not only through personal remembrances from various political and historical perspectives, but also through the filmmaker’s reflection on the ways in which the city’s life has been represented on screen. Shanghai has long been the centre of China’s film industry, and even when Hong Kong dominated Asian cinema, its industry was nurtured by Shanghai refugees who had fled the mainland in the wake of the Communist takeover.

The cinematic allusions begin when we see the daughter of an executed Communist Party activist watching young actors marching down a fake Shanghai street on a film set. The woman tells the story of her father’s execution by Guomindang forces shortly before her birth, an event recorded by a Hong Kong journalist in a series of black and white photos. “I only know my father through these images,” she says tearfully of the shots of her father’s last moments. She goes on to recall her mother’s subsequent breakdown as she ran alongside Communist troops when they entered the city in 1949, searching for her dead husband among the ranks of the living.

From the woman’s tale we segue into the 1959 propaganda film, To Liberate Shanghai (director Wang Bing), featuring deliriously happy crowds greeting Communist soldiers as their officer declares in close-up, “The liberation of Shanghai marks the complete smashing of imperialist forces in China!”

From this cartoon triumphalism the film moves to the quiet memories of Wang Toon, director of the 1966 Taiwanese film Red Persimmon, based on his childhood experience of fleeing Shanghai as the Communists closed in on the city.

Jia follows this diasporic thread across the Formosa Strait, interviewing elderly Shanghai residents stranded in Taipei since 1949, as well as the famed Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien about his 1998 feature Flowers of Shanghai. Later Jia’s camera wanders to Hong Kong, via a clip from Wong Kar Wai’s Days of Being Wild, starring Rebecca Pan as an aging Shanghai refugee. Jia talks to the actress, herself the daughter of a Shanghaiese woman who fled to Hong Kong in 1949, about the struggles of Shanghaiese in the British colony during the 1950s and 60s.

Memories of the Maoist era are evoked through an interview with one of Mao’s “model workers,” who played herself in Huang Baomei, a 1958 film by legendary third generation director Xie Jin. After happily recalling her brief time as a star of the screen, Huang revisits the Shanghai workshop where she spent her entire working life, now an abandoned derelict shell.

Moving to the present, we see the Shanghai Expo site under construction, the workers labouring under banners urging them to “Stage a Great Expo for the Glory of the Nation.” This nationalistic sloganeering is subtly undercut by a young worker breakdancing beside a boom box, an echo of the roller-skating girl seen gracefully gliding around a rooftop in 24 City, and a mark of Jia’s ongoing interest in moments of spontaneous creative expression.

Between all these remembrances and scenes of Shanghai’s contemporary reconstruction, Jia’s artistic and life partner Zhao Tao wanders the city’s streets, dressed in white—the Chinese colour of mourning—looking for something she apparently never finds. Her silent figure speaks not only of the pain hidden from Shanghai’s glittering neon lights, but also the stories that still cannot be told—or perhaps are already lost.

I Wish I Knew resists simply positing an alternative narrative to what appears in mainland Chinese history books, or validating the version of Shanghai’s past told in Taiwan. Instead, the film redefines the very notion of history in China by refusing all singular, linear accounts of Shanghai’s development. For millennia succeeding dynasties rewrote or simply wiped clean what went before in China in order to shore up their own power, a tradition the Communists have pursued with violent determination. In contrast, Jia’s film gives voice to the vanquished as well as the victors, marking out history as an ever-evolving, always disputed discourse comprising a multitude of competing voices.

There are personal truths in all these tales, even as none of them can individually capture the sprawling complexity that is Shanghai’s past. Most importantly, in assembling this mosaic of human memories and fading filmic images, Jia has forged a poignant memorial to the millions of men, woman and children who have lived, loved, and suffered in China’s most crowded and contentious metropolis.

Zhao Tao, I Wish I Knew (Hai shang chuan qi), writer/director Jia Zhangke; producers Wang Tianyun, Yu Likwai, Meg Jin, Lin Ye, Xiong Yong; People’s Republic of China; 2010.

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 17

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Anthony Steel with Adelaide Festival poster 1984

Anthony Steel with Adelaide Festival poster 1984

Anthony Steel with Adelaide Festival poster 1984

ANTHONY STEEL’S “ANECDOTAL MEMOIR,” PAINFUL IN DAILY DOSES, IS ANYTHING BUT TORTUOUS. SWERVING ENTERTAININGLY BETWEEN ESSAY, DIARY, AUTOBIOGRAPHY AND HISTORY, VIVIDLY EVOKING EVENTS, PERSONALITIES AND PRODUCTIONS, THE MEMOIR RECOUNTS THE INCIDENTAL MAKING OF AN ARTS FESTIVAL DIRECTOR, FROM CHILDHOOD TO THE 60S IN THE UK AND THE SUBSEQUENT REALISATION OF A DISTINCTIVE CAREER IN AUSTRALIA IN THE 70S, REACHING ITS PROUD APOTHEOSIS FOR STEEL IN THE ADELAIDE FESTIVAL OF 1986 AND THE BRISBANE BIENNIAL INTERNATIONAL MUSIC FESTIVAL IN 1993.

Painful in Daily Doses is a cosmopolitan, picaresque romp of a book replete with the requisite ingredients: food, drink, sex, a life on the road and in the air, heroes and villains, epic travel, dead-ends, sackings and successes—fate largely dealing the man a very good hand. And it’s often funny. Above all it celebrates the art that Steel has resolutely and passionately championed, broadening and deepening Australian engagement through bold programming, commissioning and sheer force of personality. But what kind of personality is revealed in this memoir?

Steel was the first director of the Adelaide Festival Centre (a product of the Dunstan Enlightenment), subsequently artistic director of five Adelaide Festivals in their golden age, director of the first Brisbane Biennial International Music Festival and other events as well as playing an advisory or instigatory role for other important festivals (and not a few that never manifested), setting up his own business, Anthony Steel & Associates, and sitting on Boards of the Australia Council for the Arts.

The book’s title comes from Bruce Macklin, Chair of the Adelaide Festival Board at the time of Steel’s departure in 1978: “When asked what it had been like working with me he replied, ‘Like a shot in the arm; stimulating, but painful in daily doses.’” The book’s voice is animated, opinionated and frank, mildly confessional and, at times, dismissive (a barely introduced figure can be declared ‘a crashing bore’ and is gone in a sentence; productions are dealt fatal judgements in a few words). But the overall tone is benignly authoritative rather than authoritarian—before he came to Australia Steel had to suffer autocratic bosses who not only treated him like a glorified office boy but, he admits, could scare him. He would be different. In a stint in his family’s erstwhile steel manufacturing business he had learned to delegate to much better informed employees.

Other kinds of authority figures would later beleaguer Steel: politicians, board members, sponsors, critics and the vocal wowsers Adelaide has long given undue attention, but Steel himself comes across as a team-player, developing camaraderie in the new Adelaide Festival Centre and reliant, across the decades, on the skills and enduring loyalty of employees and associates like Marguerite Pepper, Rob Brookman and others. There are moments, for example in the late 70s when he’s going through a rough patch (work, drink, a belated sexual revolution) when he is surprised to hear that he might not have had the loyalty of his Festival Centre lieutenants, but these are exceptions.
Ian North, Anthony Steel, 2007

Ian North, Anthony Steel, 2007

Doubtless Steel’s opinions and strength of purpose could and did irk on a daily basis: his one-line putdowns when defending his festivals, contemporary art, artists and colleagues against recurrent charges of elitism, or waste or obscenity (what’s new?) could keep parochial journalists and other complainants busy for weeks. In an ABC TV interview he declared, “Of course the festival is not for the people in the same way a cricket match is not for me.” At one point a short-lived ‘festival action group’ demanded a festival comprising a ball, a mardi gras and a full racing week. Much to his relief, Steel was once banned by Adelaide journalists from being interviewed for a month. He aptly calls himself “a proseletysing modernist”—his festivals were evidence of that and we revelled across two decades in first Australian appearances by John Cage, Phillip Glass, Molissa Fenley, Merce Cunnigham Dance Company, The Wooster Group, Billie Whitelaw doing Beckett, Spalding Gray, the Rustaveli Theatre Company, Cricot 2, the Shostakovich Quartet, Tenkei Gekijo, the Bread and Puppet Theatre, Jan Fabre, music of 20th century American and Australian composers including commissions, a string of modern operas and music theatre works and much more.

Relative to the terseness of Steel’s opinions, Painful in Daily Doses is positively garrulous, not a trait I’d associate with the man, who has always struck me as somewhat shy. He writes, “Every considerable drinker has his or her sound reason (at least in their own eyes) for the habit. Mine was my painful shyness in the company of all but those whom I know very well.” Elsewhere he turns to a few drinks for the “dutch courage” with which to face the Sydney Festival Board, is non compos on several important occasions in the 70s and is obliged in Georgia by the wonderful Rustaveli Theatre Company to consume large amounts of alcohol, a form of negotiation sometimes endemic to his job. What’s interesting is not the alcohol, so much as evidence of an intrinsically shy personality who might blurt out an opinion, deeply felt but, on occasion, quite untimely and inadvertantly suggesting a dominating personality. Curiously, on first meeting Don Dunstan he is non-plussed by the man’s inability to make small talk. Like many an artist, Steel appears to be of the introvert-extrovert mix, but in Painful in Daily Doses he’s very much at ease and we feel like he knows us all very well.

Part of the book’s charm is manifest in Steel’s openness to life and chance. He mentions several times that his career moves were unpremeditated. In his account of his evolution into famed festival director, he often seems to have been in the right place at the right time and destined to mix with seriously talented artists. His family loved music. His sisters and their spouses were professional musicians. As a child he played clarinet with Dame Myra Hess at the piano, as school choir leader he chatted with composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, at Oxford he sang in a choir conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham and in concert versions of Mozart operas conducted by young Colin Davis. He never stops singing, in university and rural choral groups, in the London Philharmonia under Klemperer and Guilini, at the opening of the Adelaide Festival Centre—Steel sees Prime Minister Whitlam to his seat and “duck[s] back to join the tenors in the chorus” for Beethoven’s Choral Symphony. If unhappy with his bosses at the London Mozart Players and the London Symphony Orchestra (doubtless learning that autocrats can be their own worst enemies) he met great artists and learned much, especially as “right-hand man” to Daniel Barenboim who was curating the adventurous Southbank Summer Music program in the late 60s, just before Steel was lured to Adelaide.

If these experiences and his love for music served him well, so did another love—of language. Steel learnt to speak Russian during a stint in national service in the Cold War 50s. It proved an invaluable asset for the future festival director, alongside his French and an ear for dialects and inventive obscenities. There’s a rich vein of linguistic observation in the book. Steel recounts that when he moved to Adelaide in 1971, ASIO attempted to enlist him to monitor entrepreneur Michael Edgley’s dealings with Russian artists: “I showed them the door.”

What is fascinating is how Steel, on a quite unpredictable journey, rapidly expands his practice from assistant manager in London music organisations to artistic director of a new arts centre and then a major festival in Adelaide, fuelled by his love of music and the remarkable flourishing of the arts he’d witnessed in 60s London, and making the most of connections he’d made in the UK and beyond. Steel’s accounts of the opening of the centre, of its internal politics, his remarkable 70s festivals (a blessing for us young Adelaideans), his stepping in to take over Elijah Moshinsky’s “unnaffordable” 1984 festival, and the triumph that was the 1986 festival are all vividly conveyed, warts and all.

What follows is a search for work around the world, the wrong job with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra (alleviated by a Ford Mustang, soul food and Zubin Mehta’s concerts in black churches), back to Australia, The International Theatre Season, the National Australian Theatre Festival in Canberra, the World Expo 88 On Stage, the 5th Festival of Pacific Arts (the diary account of a dash around the South Pacific is worth reading in itself), the Brisbane Biennial International Music Festival, where his love of music could fully flower, and the Sydney Festival. Sadly too many of these innovative festivals were cut off before their potential could be realised—some of the cultural gaps remain. As Steel writes of the National Theatre Festival, “it fell by the wayside with the typically Australian malady of political cowardice and underfunding.”

For those of us who lived through the period of the book, it’s a wonderful reminder of the riches and intricacies of the development of the arts and particularly of festivals in this country. For emerging festival directors it’s a superb manual on how to handle, or (instructively) not, boards of management, the occasional outrageous demands of artists (see the wickedly funny account of Tadeusz Kantor’s visit), censorious sponsors, uninformed critics and the growing “fundamentalism of the bottom line” (Steel quoting the prophetic Donald Horne). It’s also an enjoyable piece of travel writing: Steel makes it clear that works have to be seen before they’re programmed or disaster ensures (and it did), and this took him, and often Brookman and Pepper, around the world. There’s also a strong chapter on arts politics which among other things unhappily reminds us that “Australian political parties do not properly value the arts as a vital part of a country’s liberal democracy.”

Painful in Daily Doses is, in the end, nothing less than an autobiography, if a loosely constructed one, hence ‘memoir,’ conversational, hence ‘anecdotal,’ and unapologetically without an index (a pity) and at times only broadly chronological as Steel loops back and forth at will like a dinner table raconteur riding on a wave of associations. Many will relish the book as the welcome rarity it is, a substantial slice of cultural history in a country loath to document its artistic life, especially in the performing arts. Above all it celebrates the creative life of an idiosyncratic personality, brave, sometimes necessarily foolhardy: “In the mad, risky game of running festivals, there is always that constant tension between two virtually irreconcilable goals”—excellent work that “provides an experience out of the ordinary” and a balanced budget. Despite modest losses on his two best festivals, Steel resolutely believes that “the director’s foremost duty is to the program.” And this belief, acted on, has been well and truly to our benefit.

Anthony Steel, Painful in Daily Doses: An Anecdotal Memoir, Wakefield Press, 2010, ISBN 978 1 86245 875 6

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 34

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

ames Nightingale, Martin Kay, Christina Leonard, Jarrod Whitbourne

ames Nightingale, Martin Kay, Christina Leonard, Jarrod Whitbourne

ames Nightingale, Martin Kay, Christina Leonard, Jarrod Whitbourne

TWO RECENT CONCERTS IN SYDNEY WERE ILLUSTRATIVE OF THE GROWING RICHES TO BE ENJOYED IN THE CITY’S NEW MUSIC SCENE, FEATURING UNUSUAL INSTRUMENTAL EXPLORATIONS AND A MULTITUDE OF WORKS BY AUSTRALIAN COMPOSERS FROM THE EARLY 80S TO THE PRESENT AND EMBRACING POETRY, MYTH, PHILOSOPHY AND THE AUSTRALIAN LANDSCAPE.

continuum sax & match percussion

Gyorgy Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles (1923-2006) for saxophone quartet is a miracle of invention, revealing the rich, fluent capacities of the instrument in chorus and the virtuosity of the Continuum Sax ensemble. From sublime gallops and Eastern European folk dance riffs to serene high flights over deep burbling waters that recall Ravel to a final cartoony brass band chase, Six Bagatelles (originally from a piano work, then adapted for wind quartet) is driven with rapid, supple gear changes in volume, timbre and mood that make for exhilarating listening.

Margery Smith says in her program note that her Lost Blues for saxophone quartet and percussion duo (2010) was inspired by “the very dirty, cranky blues music of Tom Waits.” You can hear it, particularly in the unusual instrumental and rhythmic juxtapositions—sax, drums, marimba—more experimental than Waits and erupting in one passage into a gliding and warbling eccentric big band sound, followed by a moment of loud high passion and then a brisk resolve.

Mary Finsterer, composer of IONIA for saxophone quartet and percussion (2010), writes that the work is inspired by the sixth century Ionian school of philosophy—“Everything flows, nothing stands still” and a passion for bringing opposites into balance. Of the composition’s structure, Finsterer mentions in particular “small permutating cycles of clearly identifiable material repeating within larger cycles.” These are contrastingly realised across emphatic changes of mood and pace: a lyrical solo saxophone opening passage, a sudden tom-tom-triggered dance, deep staccato saxophones against pulsing marimbas and a sustained episode that builds cumulatively into something curiously like Lully gone wild. On first listening, IONIA suggests a work worth return visits.

Chun Ting Pang’s In Different Spaces for percussion duo (2010) juxtaposes marimba, tom-toms, suspended cymbal and woodblocks in a beautifully textured, evocative exploration of the five elements in Chinese philosophy including “condensation of water on a metal plate” and “wind which helps spread the fire in wood.” The work is highly articulated, sometimes demandingly fast but frequently ethereal. Matthew Hindson’s Song of Life (2007) for solo violin is a short tribute to Father Arthur Bridge, a significant contributor to the commissioning of new works. Natsuko Yoshimoto’s playing was at once precise and passionate for a work that variously evoked 19th century melodiousness, folk music evident in glissandi and brusque stroking, and 20th century angularity, but which resolved into satisfying unsentimental unity.

Brian Howard’s Last Blues for solo violin, saxophone quartet and percussion duo (2008) is a formidable, bracing and beautiful work, and one difficult to do justice to from a first hearing. Conductor Roland Peelman writes in his program note, “From the faintest violin harmonic to the grittiest saxophone texture, Last Blues unfolds not as a sultry dance or as a sad and sentimental song, but as a force of nature where all elements inextricably lead to one single purpose.” The combination of saxophone, violin and percussion is an unusual one (Howard quipped in a pre-performance interview, “sometimes it’s easier to get a weird piece performed”) but very effective, yielding a delicious otherness most felt in the work’s three time-stilling ‘cadenzas.’ If the blues are to be felt anywhere amidst the growl of saxophones, the bowing of vibraphones, the nervous, rapid rattle of percussion and the sudden emotional surges by the ensemble en masse, it is in the violin part, again, exquisitely realised by Natsuko Yoshimoto. Indeed Lost Blues stays with you like the recollection of a concerto, the instrument’s range is widely exploited, and when it sings and the tenor saxophone then soars with it and beyond, the work’s sense of interiority, of aloneness, but also of fragile togetherness is most felt.

halcyon: where the heart is

While not a program of the scale and potency of Extreme Nature (RT93) which featured big, challenging works by Australians Elliott Gyger and Nicolas Vines, Halcyon’s Where The Heart Is, is a program featuring six more Australian works, all fascinating and revealing a rich variety of practice.

Ross Edwards’ Maninya (1981), inspired by the natural environment, comprises hypnotic if rhythmically complex series of apparently meaningless syllables sung by Jenny Duck Chong to Geoffrey Gartner’s talkative cello in passages that evoke lullaby and reverie and closing with a cello jig.

Elliott Gyger’s Petit Testament, like From the Hungry Waiting Country (2006 and soon to be released on CD) in the Extreme Nature program, responds to Australian poetry, here in the form of the last of the Ern Malley hoax poems. Once again Gyger provides Duck Chong and Alison Morgan the opportunity to “highlight one of our particular skills—the illusion of singing ‘as one’ and masquerading as one another” (program note). As Gyger writes, “My setting re-enacts James McAuley’s and Harold Stewart’s dazzling feat of ventriloquism (two real poets masquerading as one fictional poet) in employing two voices to project a single musical lie, slipping unpredictably between unison, heterophony and interior dialogue.” The sopranos dexterously managed the overlaps, sharply articulated modulations and shared sentences while the Stuart & Sons piano (played admirably by Sally Whitwell) provided a resonant other voice, alternately dramatic and ironic, lyrical or ‘going to pieces.’ Gyger aptly evokes both fraudulent excess and the odd beauty of the poem.

One of two highlights of the concert was Andrew Schultz’s To the Evening Star (2009; Best Song Cycle, Paul Lowin Awards), a reflection, writes the composer, on the inner creative life, responding to poems by Yeats, Hopkins, Longfellow, WH Davis and Blake. Yeats dreams lyrically of rural escape while the busy piano suggests both the “bee-loud glade” and “the roadway…the pavements gray.” For Hopkins’ Pied Beauty, Schultz and singer, Alison Morgan, hit the syllables hard and rapidly, evoking excitement at the density of natural riches. Longfellow’s anxiety about a creative life only half fulfilled is rendered emotionally, a soaring complaint, the piano thundering in empathy, while Davies’ Money, O! contrastively celebrates being poor but happy in a vigorous folksy, music theatre idiom. Finally, Blake’s To the Evening Star is a gloriously sung prayer for divine protection framed by piano scoring that seems to embrace the whole of the world, the playing constantly pushing out to the bottom and top-most notes simultaneously until at rest.

Ann Boyd’s Cycle of Love (1981) is in the form of three sung ancient Korean poems and two instrumental interludes (Gartner’s cello and Sally Walker’s flute in exquisite dialogue). For all the meditative Korean and Japanese influences, the compositions are lively, even dramatic and certainly heartfelt in their longing.

The final work, folk singer and musicologist Ruth Lee Martin’s Wimmera Song Cycle (2010), a setting of Kevin Hart’s Wimmera Songs, surprised me with its transparent structure, its deceptively musical theatre character and ease (apt for the uncomplicated syntax of the poet’s finely crafted image-making). Sopranos, cellist, pianist and flautist combined in various permutations to evoke the spread and detail of the land, through moments of delicate observation, pain (“the other silence that fits your head inside a vice”) and the potential for transcendence—“Think like a cloud / Go where the clouds go.”

New Music Network: Continuum Sax and Match Percussion, violin Natsuko Yoshimoto, conductor Roland Peelman, percussion Alison Pratt, Daryl Pratt, soprano saxophone Christina Leonard, alto saxophone James Nightingale, tenor saxophone Martin Kay, baritone saxophone Jarrod Whitbourne; Eugene Goossens Hall, ABC Centre, Sydney, Aug 24; Halcyon, Where the Heart Is…celebrating homegrown music, CarriageWorks, Sydney, Sept 13

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 49

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Mother Fish

Mother Fish

KHOA DO’S NEW FEATURE FILM MOTHER FISH BEGINS WITH A BLACK SCREEN, THE SOUND OF RUNNING WATER AND THE OFFICIOUS TONES OF KEVIN RUDD. THE THEN PRIME MINISTER IS ANSWERING MALCOLM FARR, POLITICAL REPORTER FOR THE DAILY TELEGRAPH AND OCCASIONAL COMMENTATOR ON THE ABC TV’S INSIDERS, WHO IS ASKING ABOUT THE “12 BOATS AND 700 PEOPLE” THAT HAVE RECENTLY ARRIVED AT CHRISTMAS ISLAND AND THE POSSIBILITY OF REINTRODUCING MAINLAND DETENTION CENTRES.

The reply is vintage Rudd (“there’s a purpose-built facility there for that purpose”) but it fades into the background as the sound of water grows louder and the camera focuses on a pair of hands washing and chopping vegetables. We hear a voiceover in Vietnamese, spoken in the second-person: “What are you cooking today? You only ever eat greens…You always put too much sugar…I’ll wait for you in the car. Don’t forget to turn the TV off.” The volume on Rudd’s voice increases again and we hear him saying “boats [have] been coming to this country, Malcolm, as you know, since the 1970s.”

From here, we follow the woman (Hien Nguyen) as she drives to work—a small factory with several sewing machines and multiple racks of identical clothing (trendy red checked shirts and long purple skirts). The female voice accompanies her throughout the day and when everyone finally departs in the evening, the woman stays to retrieve a toy monkey that she, or rather the voice, has taken a liking to. The monkey clearly triggers something in her as the present falls away, the past intrudes, and the voice pleads with her to stop.

In an instant the factory transforms into a small boat, with a sewing machine standing in for a motor, a bobbin for a pull cord, and a skirt for a sail of sorts. This rather Brechtian approach, reminiscent of Lars von Trier’s Dogville (2003), is not without its risks but for the most part it works. In this way, Mother Fish effects an unusual reversal: having previously made a rather filmic piece of theatre (RT86) director Khoa Do has now produced a rather theatrical film.

In the absence of actual ocean, the film evokes its presence through camera movement (constantly pitching up and down, as if on a heaving sea) and sound effects (water slopping against the side of the boat, the low drone of the motor). Similarly, the set transforms over the course of the film from a steel-toned workshop—all grey, gold and silver with the occasional shot of red thanks to the bobbins of thread—into a rusted, blasted and scorched shell of itself, barely recognisable under a layer of mud.

On board the “mother fish” are the two sisters Kim (Kathy Nguyen) and Hanh (Sheena Pham), their uncle (Hieu Phan) and a young man Chau (Vico Thai). Sailing out of the harbour, the sisters argue about what they have been allowed to bring and what their mother might have packed for them. However the argument comes to an abrupt end when they hear the sound of a patrol boat and shots being fired. Once out on the ocean, the journey alternates between boredom and terror. During the dull patches they remember the past (dad’s exploits, mum’s food) and rehearse the future (“you’ll never have to cook again because everything comes in a can: chicken in a can; cow in a can; fish in a can”). However these moments are few and far between as the mother fish and her crew endure horror upon horror: first the boat is attacked by pirates, who rape one sister while another watches helplessly; then they are forced to forfeit a precious necklace to bribe an official to tow them into a refugee camp where they are then pushed back out to sea; later Chau jumps ship never to be seen again while Hanh teeters on the brink of death.

Mother Fish

Mother Fish

These scenes have the potential to be voyeuristic on the one hand or sentimental on the other, but remarkably they are neither. Instead, this film sails straight and true thanks to the immense restraint of both its actors and director. For their part, the actors play the scenes with absolute control: emotion is evoked through little more than a turn of the head, a glimmer of a tear, or a gentle glance of affection. What little dialogue there is, is spoken with sensitivity and nuance and Thai’s reading of the line “I’m sorry, I’m sorry” hints at his character’s pain and regret as well as compassion. This emotional and verbal reticence is complemented by Do’s visual restraint. For example, when filming the rape scene, gauze drops down over the lens as if to screen it out. Similarly, when characters are at their most vulnerable and distressed often all we see is a cheekbone, a veil of hair or a hunched shoulder.

In the final scenes, we see the younger Kim washing onto the shore and touching the feet of her older self. Once again the camera hovers over the older Kim’s shoulder as we follow her home. She attempts to cook a meal but unable to eat she instead goes for what we think is a walk in the park. However, when the camera finally tilts down it becomes apparent that she has walked into a pond and is plunging into the water. Several silent seconds later (the soundtrack is effectively minimalist), her younger sister and her younger self burst from the water, gasping and reaching for one another. In one of the final images of the film, a small hand reaches for a larger, older one and we hear (once again in Vietnamese), “Sister, is that you?”, to which Hanh replies, “I’m here.”

The film finishes with the astounding statistic that between 1975 and 1996, over 1,500,000 people fled Vietnam. Of those, only 900,000 made land meaning that 600,000 were lost at sea, a catastrophe on a par with 1,700 SIEV Xs. Of the survivors, approximately 137,000 came to Australia. It is now 35 years since this migration started, yet it is only in the past 10 or so years that these stories have started to emerge into the mainstream. Think for instance of exhibitions such as the Casula Powerhouse’s Viet Nam Voices (1997), Viet Nam Voices: Australians and the Viet Nam War (2001-03) and Nam Bang! (2009) [http://realtimearts.net/article/issue90/9390] as well as Nam Le’s book The Boat (2008). Perhaps the first generation was so busy surviving that it is only now, as the second generation makes its mark on the world and starts to have children of their own, that these stories can be told.

Intriguingly, Khoa Do is also planning to tell stories with and about other refugee communities. Mother Fish is the first in a planned “refugee trilogy” with the second film, Falling for Sahara, already in post-production and the third in the early stages of development. Mother Fish suggests the trilogy has the potential to become an Australian film classic.

Mother Fish, writer, producer, director Khoa Do, executive producer Matthew Riley, performers Kathy Nguyen, Sheena Pham, Hieu Phan, Vico Thai, Hien Nguyen; Australia, Titan View

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 18

© Caroline Wake; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Victoria Hunt, Dancing the Dead, LiveWorks

Victoria Hunt, Dancing the Dead, LiveWorks

Victoria Hunt, Dancing the Dead, LiveWorks

PERFORMANCE SPACE, SYDNEY’S HOME TO INNOVATIVE PERFORMANCE AND VISUAL AND MEDIA ARTS, IS PRESENTING ITS SECOND LIVEWORKS FESTIVAL IN NOVEMBER. THE FIRST WAS HELD IN 2008 [RT88] REVEALING A POTENTIAL THAT MIGHT NOW BE MORE FULLY REALISED AS THE EVENT TAKES OVER THE WHOLE OF CARRIAGEWORKS.

The festival will, says Performance Space publicity, “animate” the venue’s massive foyer and “confound the performance spaces.” The success of the 2008 LiveWorks suggests that the 2010 version is bound to be a great live-in, four-day, value-for-money experience, a chance to engage with a series of challenging works.

Artistic director Daniel Brine tells me that hiring the whole building was prompted in part by Nightshifters, an exhibition of works from eight leading video and media artists and part of Performance Space’s Live Live season as well as LiveWorks. Using all the CarriageWorks foyers, Nightshifters will address our sense of time and space by engaging magically with the twilight hour, as curator Bec Dean explains to Ella Mudie on page 51.

LiveWorks is promoted as “a fast and furious festival of new ideas” with over 20 artists and groups presenting experimental theatre, performance, live art, dance and installation alongside talks, debates, screenings and hands-on activities. Brine says that Performance Space put out a call for works from which they’ve programmed a mix of established and emerging innovators, including “artists we might not have otherwise encountered. It’s exciting but risky and could be hit or miss,” he says, “but that’s part of the festival experience.”

Brine also says that he and his team were keen “to encourage artists to think of other formats, to have a showing of ideas.” Consequently there are a number of performative lectures of various kinds running alongside performances, experiential one-on-one works, talks and installations. Brine wants each audience member to “make their own experience,” selecting from shows that run on the hour from 2pm each day. But he hopes too that they’ll take breaks, meet artists and each other. He emphasises too that LiveWorks is a level playing field festival, no big star international acts—“it’s about discovering the works for yourself.”

The big line-up of artists includes performance art provocateurs Brown Council who’ll restage A Comedy [RT98], an exercise in testing the limits of comedy, as well as appearing in Portrait of Brown Council by Brown Council, a session investigating the relationship between performance and work—“developing ideas for future work, debating the success of previous work and fielding questions from the audience.” The discursive Malcolm Whittaker [p40] performs A Lover’s Discourse—“a participatory art/love project in which strangers in Bristol and Sydney have conversed in handwritten love letters…It’s about our ever-evolving world and how the earth can alternately feel too big, too small and sometimes… just right.”

Nicola Gunn’s “psychological detective story,” At the Sans Hotel [RT96], entranced our Melbourne reviewer, John Bailey, with its enigmatic unfolding and its “brilliantly likeable performer.” With minimal but effective theatrical means, Tayla Rubins will perform Of The Causes of Wonderful Things (also shown in the Brisbane Festival’s Under the Radar program), investigating “what happens when something too dark to accept arrives on your doorstep. When five children disappear in a small town, the world of the dead begins to impact on the world of the living”. In The Vorticist, Jason Maling, continues his mysterious consultations which will be revealed only if you arrange a date: www.thevorticist.com.

Victoria Hunt (often seen with De Quincey Co) and former Performance Space artistic director Fiona Winning present Dancing the Dead: A Performed Conversation, probing Hunt’s Maori Heritage. Roarawar Feartata (Benjamin Cittadini, Brigid Jackson, Craig Peade and Georgie Read) will tackle notions of public space and performative identity in an engagement with outer Sydney suburb, the often-maligned Mt Druitt, in I Luv Amanda Crowe 4Eva. Georgie Read also appears in Paper People—“frivolous play with the particularity and peculiarity of some of the habits that make up human activity.”

The Berlin-based but frequently nomadic and likewise very lateral Paul Gazzola offers If I Go Like You, “simultaneously an installation, performance and social gathering…an opportunity [for audiences] to transform their persona through the exchange of clothing.” In another intriguing LiveWorks event, Sydney dancer, choreographer and dance curator at Campbelltown Arts Centre, Julie-Anne Long, presents The Invisibility Project, Now You See Her, which “follows a series of performance parties presented in private homes where the guests are both the audiences and participants…[T]his public intervention addresses the invisibility of middle-aged women in our society.” Long’s notable collaborators include choreographer Narelle Benjamin, Clare Britton (My Darling Patricia), artist activist Deborah Kelly and video artist Kate Murphy.

Curiously, Fondue Set member Jane Mckernan’s latest work, Opening and Closing Ceremony, is a solo performance “inspired by mass group physical displays of communist Czechoslovakia, the history of gymnastics as a nationalist form, the Brisbane Commonwealth Games opening, and a family celebrating the Bicentenary in 1988”. McKernan wonders “where the individual body intersects with notions of family, community and nation.” Another idiosyncratic performance-maker, Karen Therese, presents The Comfort Zone: A Performance Lecture, combining “humour and humiliation to examine the meaning and impact of our need to feel comfortable”. In another performative lecture, The Last Remaining Relative, Jiva Parthipan tackles the privilege of travel. Now that he’s been granted Australian residency after leaving the UK, Parthipan, says Brine, “completes his story with this performance”.
inda Luke, 3 Day Habitation, LiveWorks

inda Luke, 3 Day Habitation, LiveWorks

inda Luke, 3 Day Habitation, LiveWorks

Dancer Linda Luke (who also performs with De Quincey Co) and composer Vic McEwan present Thirteen: A 3-Day Habitation, “a series of performance installations reflecting upon teenage homelessness and exploring our relationship to home, borders and displacement”.

If version1.0 have adapted forms like the parliamentary enquiry, press conference and TV interview in order to cast light on actual events, in This Is It, Team MESS (Dara Gill, Sime Knezevic, Frank Mainoo, Natalie Randall and Malcolm Whittaker) will “use the format of the film press conference to construct a completely speculative event.” Spin doctor heaven? In Thrashing Without Looking, from Melbourne, Martyn Coutts, Tristan Meecham, Lara Thoms and Aphids artistic director Willoh S Weiland will fit you with video goggles for “a ride through the dirty gems of dance mania and metaworld.”

Choreographer-filmmaker Sue Healey’s [see Archive Highlight] Performance Lecture, Variant, looks at “diversity and variation within the human form,” as part of her Curiosities series: “Each artist brings a different frame of reference to the body—physical ‘disability’, physical dexterity and extreme variations in practice”.

For an intense one-on-one experience, extensively exhibited UK installation artist David Cross invites you to enter “an inflatable fun house…an artwork designed to test our fears of dark, tight spaces and our limits of trust.” Also in CarriageWorks’ largest theatre, LiveWorks will complete its reign of disorientation with NightTime Spotlight: Ladies and Gentlemen we are Floating in Space, with a multitude of inventive artists and a single spotlight “exploring suspended states, be they political, metaphorical or beyond our understanding.”

A new initiative from Performance Space and Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA), P4 (Pilot), “addresses the experience and influence of live art in Australia and beyond.” This could generate interesting discussion given that the term live art has gained limited traction in Australia and there have been few attempts to locate it theoretically or even descriptively in the Australian performance landscape. But it is being taken up slowly as a label, as in Next Wave, by artists who see themselves as working outside the parameters of performance art on the one hand and contemporary performance on the other.

As a key part of P4, UK artists FrenchMottershead will bring a work to Sydney and Perth that “invites people to question their relationship to the public realm.” They ask people in the street to re-enact stories appearing in newspapers. They then rewrite the stories, publish them as newspapers and issue them in the streets. The process exemplifies P4 as “a series of live art projects framed by four simple creative parameters: practice, publish, participate and perform.” The other participating artists from P4 in Sydney are David Wills (conducting a mass games night), Lily Hibberd (whose work will be realised though she won’t be on hand) and Jason Sweeney (by remote communication). Artists working in Perth on P4 are Barbara Campbell, Makeshift (Karl Khoe, Tessa Zettel) and Hiromi Tango.

There’ll be plenty to choose from in LiveWorks with season or day passes (no tickets on sale for individual sessions) and you’ll doubtless soon accrue a sense of not just the trends in but also the immediacy and experiential intensity of contemporary performance, dance, live art and video installation. Daniel Brine’s invitation to LiveWorks is to “come and build your own festival and be in it for the ride.”

LiveWorks Festival, Performance Space, CarriageWorks, Sydney, Nov 11-14, www.performancespace.com.au; bookings www.ticketmaster.com.au

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 36

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

John Addison, Soundstream 2010

John Addison, Soundstream 2010

John Addison, Soundstream 2010

THERE HAVE BEEN INNUMERABLE DEVELOPMENTS AND DEFINING MOMENTS IN THE EVOLUTION OF COMPOSITION AND PERFORMANCE THROUGH THE 20TH AND INTO THE 21ST CENTURIES. SOUNDSTREAM NEW MUSIC FESTIVALS SHOWCASE RARE AND SIGNIFICANT CONTEMPORARY CHAMBER WORKS FROM THIS ERA, AND THE FOUR CONCERTS OF THE MUCH ANTICIPATED 2010 FESTIVAL PRESENTED SOME RADICAL AND DEMANDING WORK, OFTEN ENLIGHTENING, SOMETIMES INTENSE AND SOMETIMES LIGHT-HEARTED. IN MANY, THE EMPHASIS WAS ON TIMBRE AND HARMONICS, TEACHING US TO FORGET TIME AND FOCUS ON THE SOUND IN THE MOMENT—TO REALLY EXPERIENCE MUSIC.

the visionaries

The first concert, The Visionaries, opened with distinguished Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin’s Hommage à Chopin (1983) for four pianos, played superbly by Anna Goldsworthy, Jonathon Heng, Deborah Ng and Gabriella Smart. The inclusion of this work celebrated the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth and acted as a gateway to the festival. Proceeding from fragments of Chopin’s introspective Prelude in C minor No. 28 Op.20, this is a thickly layered and extroverted work of multi-voiced variations on Chopin themes that blends the romantic with the modernist sublime and group pianism with solo virtuosity.

This diverse concert included Adelaide composer Andrew Wiering’s Vortex (2006) for six percussionists, a powerful orchestration of percussive forces ably led by Wiering on timpani; Sydney-based Katia Tiutiunnik’s To the Enemy (2005), a striking setting of a contemporary poem by Eva Salzman for soprano (Sidonie Henbest) and two percussionists (Wiering and Nick Parnell); and Smart’s seductive performance of the third movement of Canadian composer Howard Bashaw’s structurally complex Minimalisms II (2005).

Pianists joined percussionists for The Visionaries concert centrepiece, the 1953 revision of George Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique. The logistically challenging 1924 original was intended to accompany a Dadaist film and was scored for 16 player pianos, sirens, aeroplane propellers, electric bells and extensive percussion as well as conventional pianos. This version, for just four pianists (Smart, Goldsworthy, Ng and Heng) and six percussionists (the Vortex Ensemble), with the siren and propeller sounds rendered through a sampler (John Addison), shifts the focus from visual or electromechanical spectacle to the musicality of the composition. With its multiple competing lines of sound, forceful rhythms and dynamics and urgent pace, Antheil’s high-energy work dramatically evokes modern industrial society. Under the direction of Roland Peelman, this performance electrified the eager audience.

ensemble offspring: the spectralists

On Friday, Ensemble Offspring gave us The Spectralists, a concert on the theme of Spectralist composition in which the analysis of the timbral or harmonic spectrum of a sound is used as the basis for composition or musical language. Spectral composition gained prominence in the 1970s especially through Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail, and the concert opened with Murail’s Thirteen Colours of the Setting Sun (1978), a classic of the genre. Scored here for flute, clarinet, piano, violin and cello, it explores the harmonics surrounding a single high-pitched note and takes the emerging tones in new directions. With reduced rhythmic emphasis, the result is cosmically dreamy, nakedly revealing the timbral character of the instruments. By contrast, Gérard Grisey’s absorbing Talea (1986) alternates loud attack with quiet passages in swirling patterns that evolve as they are repeated.

This concert also premiered Australian violinist James Cuddeford’s enchanting KOAN I (2010), in two movements for flute, clarinet, violin and cello, a musical representation of an insoluble riddle, seeking philosophical resolution musically and ending questioningly. Also revealing the influence of Eastern philosophy were works by Giacinto Scelsi and Claude Vivier. Scelsi’s exquisite Ko-Lho (1966) for flute and clarinet is a meditative exploration of the sonic blend that emerges from the two instruments as they dwell on one pitch. Sounding at times like a single instrument, they produce densely woven microtones and overtones, requiring virtuosic playing to generate the required colouring. Similarly, Vivier’s Pièce pour Violon et Clarinette (1975) involves a simple melodic line played by both instruments and repeated with digressions to create a distinctive timbral compound. Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho extends these ideas in her Cendres (“ashes”; 1998), which blends the contrasting characteristics of the flute, cello and piano into a complex sonic tableau. The appeal of such work lies in the blend of melodic linearity and harmonic density, and you listen to each sound as an evolving entity. Ensemble Offspring was outstanding, combining sustained control of tone colour with excellent ensemble playing, and this knockout concert was an education in the genre.

brian ritchie trio: the rebels

In the Brian Ritchie Trio’s early Saturday night concert, The Rebels—former Violent Femmes bassist and shakuhachi master Ritchie, pianist Tom Vincent and bassist Leigh Barker—gave us their hybrid musical form that draws on the ethereal, meditative grace of the shakuhachi and the syncopated rhythms of jazz. The highlights were a new rendition of John Cage’s Ryoanji and scintillating re-workings of pieces by John Coltrane and Free Jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler. The result was hypnotic, balanced towards one or other musical tradition to suit the work.

john addison, the larrikins

Late Saturday night, John Addison presented The Larrikins, a technically demanding concert for solo cello, opening with Sydney composer Alex Pozniak’s Mercurial (2009), a gestural work of huge dynamics and writhing, neck-length glissandi that requires both tactility and theatrical athleticism of the performer. Addison, a star of last year’s Soundstream Festival, collaborates with composers, and a workshop he gave generated Pozniak’s work as well as Luke Altmann’s Somniloquy (2010), which brilliantly evokes the troubled sleepwalker, and Kat McGuffie’s wryly engaging The Tune is Out There (2010). The latter begins with a parody of the opening of Strauss’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, segues into fragments of Fly Me to the Moon, the Jaws theme, Dvorak’s 9th Symphony and Stairway to Heaven, and ends with a Deep Purple riff with the cello held horizontally and strummed. In an ABC radio interview, Addison suggested that so-called extended playing techniques “are just techniques.” Composers now draw on a broader range of these, so it’s actually composition that’s being extended. An eloquent and captivating performer, his approach is refreshing the cello aesthetic.

Addison continued with New York composer Toby Twining’s slow, mournful 9/11 Blues (2001), whose shrill harmonics suggest electric guitar feedback, and Brisbane-based Stephen Stanfield’s emotional and introverted A Lenient Me (2010). He concluded with a gem, Tatata (1998), for tape and cello by Dutch composer Jacob ter Veldhuis (aka Jacob TV), which includes the morphed recording of an old soldier singing “ta ta ta” rhythmically repeated over the cello line, and ending with the voice of Apollinaire sampled from an old phono disc.

Soundstream Festivals greatly support local composition and Gabriella Smart’s informed artistic direction is expanding our musical awareness. The ABC’s comprehensive coverage of these vital festivals is a welcome development.

Soundstream Adelaide New Music Festival 2010: Anna Goldsworthy, Jonathon Heng, Deborah Ng, Gabriella Smart; Vortex Ensemble; Sidonie Henbest; Ensemble Offspring, conductor Roland Peelman; Brian Ritchie Trio; John Addison; artistic director Gabriella Smart; ABC Studio 520, Adelaide, Aug 26–28

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 50

© Chris Reid; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

The Time That Remains

The Time That Remains

DECREPIT WHEELS ON A RUSTY BICYCLE CARRYING FOLDED CARTONS CRISSCROSS THE GROTESQUELY PEOPLED STREETS OF THE ‘DESERT KINGDOM’ OF DUBAI—A FAR CRY FROM THE OPULENT ARTIFICIAL LUSTRE THAT ENVELOPS ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS OF THE OIL RICH EMIRATE. TO THE SUBDUED BACKGROUND MUSIC OF MANDOLINS, THIS IS THE OPENING SCENE OF THE FIRST FEATURE LENGTH FILM PRODUCED BY AN EMIRATI, ALI MOSTAFA, TITLED CITY OF LIFE. IT OFFICIALLY LAUNCHED THE NATIONAL 2010 ARAB FILM FESTIVAL (AFF) IN SYDNEY.

Through a series of intersecting plotlines and stunning visual hyperbole reminiscent of Hollywood blockbusters, Ali manages to recount a postmodern narrative about a cosmopolitan Dubai that houses the fragile dreams of its itinerant populace.

With the same overarching artistic zeal of the past few years, the festivals’ co-directors, Mouna Zaylah and Fadia Abood, endeavoured to present a multifaceted selection of films that in their words “showcase stories from diverse Arabic-speaking cultures to broad Australian audiences that reflect the complexity and diversity of Arab communities and experiences.”

Touring nationally to five major cities, the AFF has generated its own scene, making its presence known by collaborating with local communities and reaching out to newer audiences with record attendances throughout. In a sense, AFF offered a cultural antidote to the increasingly virulent Islamophobia gripping the current state of western political discourse—be it over items of clothing or over building permits near sacrosanct, politicised sites. As the directors point out, AFF provides a sovereign domain of imagination that “addresses the (mis)representations of Arab culture through film…by presenting alternative representations of Arab cultures, subjects and narratives; and by supporting the development and presentation of new screen-based work by Arab-Australians.” Films screened this year transgressed the traditional political boundaries of the Arab world and also spoke with the diasporic intonations and regional polyphonies of a vibrant language that were wonderfully exhibited in the homemade Arab-Australian archival footage sent in by local participants.

scheherazade, tell me a story

In Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story, audiences were confronted with a brutal admixture of gender and class in modern Egypt and how women in their various social positionings are caught within the entangling webs of cultural modernity and religious piety. Yousry Nasrallah, a protégé of the masterful director Youssef Chahine, skillfully continues the avant-garde revival of current Egyptian cinema with mass appeal by conflating social taboos regarding sexuality and domestic violence. The deliberately subversive strain indicated by the title uses the narrative device of a late night Oprah-esque talk show host who exposes the moral decay of her own society by broadcasting testimonies of Egyptian women navigating the perilous paths of misogyny in their search for love in their personal relationships. At times comedic and in other parts kitschy in its forced acting style, Nasrallah’s film manages to reveal the sensuous aspects of corruption in the private and public spheres of Egyptian life. Perhaps the most gruesome scene—a forced abortion for an educated middle class woman seduced by a professional con artist—underscores how violence manifests itself within contemporary Arab societies in the most mundane yet graphic ways.

kickoff

Other films such as Kickoff or 12 Angry Lebanese are slower paced with their more palpable narratives, wrenching in their intimate depictions and intense in their visual qualities. Kickoff is a well crafted film that uses the cinematographic hues of sepia tones strategically to convey the bleak realities of internally displaced Kurdish Iraqi refugees in a soccer stadium in the city of Kirkuk. The fortified complex of the stadium with its worn out pitch, houses goats, nets, mattresses, burning rubbish drums and humans. These people co-exist within a tense serenity where lives are conducted in a circularity mimicking the Olympic track that engulfs their everyday transactions, economic or otherwise.

The main character, Asu, is tragically killed when leaving the insular space of the stadium to enter the genocidal geography of the city in order to buy a fake trophy for a soccer competition he stages with support from the competing ethnic groups of Arabs, Kurds and Turks. The stadium in Giorgio Agamben’s term is classed a “state of exception”, standing as a microcosmic edifice of juridico-temporal confusion in the midst of the anarchy of occupation or a larger “state of exception” that is now Iraq. Safety and sovereignty ironically reside in the disfigured zone of a no man’s land. The director, Shawkat Korki, brings an aesthetic sensibility tempered by slow moving shots and close ups to reveal the scarring effects of an occupation through the aridity and barrenness of the stadium and the authentic feelings of his characters.

12 Angry Lebanese

12 Angry Lebanese

12 angry lebanese

12 Angry Lebanese, a documentary by comic actor and drama therapy teacher Zeina Daccache, moves into similar territory by leaving the viewer in a suspended state of irreconcilability. On the one hand, the film tracks the transformational psychological journeys of men trapped in Beirut’s most notorious prison, Roumieh, through their staging of an elaborate adaptation of the famous American play 12 Angry Men. Yet, the men still remain physically entrapped.

The autobiographical testimonies of the prisoners to the camera interspersed throughout are painfully moving in their exploration of what Lebanese Australian anthropologist Ghassan Hage terms a “de-phallicised masculinity.” They are disparagingly honest, ironic and extremely self-reflexive in their laying bare of narratives not tainted by juries or judges. It is interesting to juxtapose 12 Angry Lebanese with Scheherazade, Tell me a Story as both films use the confessional mode of storytelling to convey the complex reality of being a man or a woman in the contemporary Arab world with the literary quality of the first person narrative.

Over 15 months, the prison doors were opened to a committed director and the enthusiasm of those incarcerated to liberate themselves from the internecine, intergenerational violence and conflict manifest in their melancholic recounting of filial memories. Their narratives, and bodies, sit uncomfortably before cameramen following their every move. The prisoners are subjected to another panoptic gaze but eventually become accustomed to the cameras, performing not just for shows where an audience is let into prison for the first time but also for the camera. They invite it to share in their honest journeys of self-discovery where shame can have an ethical energy not to be found in the quotidian spaces of metropolitan Beirut.

the time that remains

The closing film of the Sydney screening, The Time That Remains, captures the absurdist brilliance of Elia Suleiman and his mesmerising screen aura as director and actor. Inspired by the diaries of his father and private letters of his mother, Suleiman’s film is essentially a palimpsest voyage through the lost memories and forgotten landscapes of Palestine from 1948 to the stalled intractability of this conflict today. The searing tragicomic thread is hauntingly meditative, an almost elegiac Mahmoud Darwish poem that becomes transposed onto the screen with its meandering plots and its incongruous hilarities. Suleiman’s repetition of certain scenes in a Groundhog Day fashion alludes to the draining affects of occupation. This repetition reads like an introspective love letter that does not have a recipient and is almost guaranteed never to be read. As with all the films screened this year, The Time That Remains allowed the audience to experience a landscape overlaid with cultural and individual narratives of loss and love on multiple levels and to ultimately enter the emotional and physical subjectivities of a world immediately beyond their own.

Arab Film Festival, July 1-31; http://arabfilmfestival.com.au/

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 21

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

pvi workshopping resist: the right to revolution, CIA Studios

pvi workshopping resist: the right to revolution, CIA Studios

pvi workshopping resist: the right to revolution, CIA Studios

WALKING AROUND THE RE-PURPOSED CORRIDORS OF THE OLD SCHOOL BUILDING IN NEWCASTLE STREET, YOU GET THE FEELING SOMETHING IS HAPPENING ALMOST BY STEALTH IN PERTH. FROM OUTSIDE, THE BUILDING IS BARELY MARKED; I FIND MY WAY TO A REAR DOOR AND AM LED INTO A SPACIOUS LABYRINTH OF CORRIDORS, OFFICES AND STUDIOS WHERE, HERE AND THERE, RESIDENTS ARE AT WORK. THE CHALK DUST COULD ALMOST STILL BE HANGING IN THE AIR—BUT THE ROOMS ECHO WITH THE SOUNDS OF CONSTRUCTION, EXPERIMENT AND COLLABORATION.

Kelli McCluskey and Steve Bull are co-founders of cia studios, Perth’s burgeoning Centre for Interdisciplinary Arts. They are also core members of tactical media arts group, pvi collective, creator of works including transumer (Sydney Biennale, 2010) and resist—the right to revolution (Awesome Festival, WA, 2009).

R&D is at the core of cia’s brief, with residencies, creative labs, workshops and “mixer nights” enabling interdisciplinary practitioners to develop work and collaborate with others. McCluskey emphasises cia’s focus on the process of making rather than “end product.” What cia does particularly well is provide a fertile environment in which practitioners are directly “informed, invigorated and challenged” rather than working in isolation.

Far from being a glossy government initiative, cia emerged in 2008 via a “window of opportunity.” As founders of pvi collective, Bull and McCluskey knew there was a need to house a growing community of interdisciplinary practitioners and catalyse what was happening in the sector. When WA’s Department of Culture and the Arts provided pvi with a new peppercorn-rent studio space for a year, the collective capitalised on the opportunity that the space provided—developing a two-year business case for cia studios as a co-located entity and requesting seed funding.

“To our complete amazement the department agreed,” says McCluskey, “and provided us with start-up funds as well as key strategic advice…Essentially what they were saying was, start small, find our feet with it and establish support from within the community.”

Having previously served as WAAPA’s production and lighting department, the old school building comes blessed with three-phase power, a sound recording studio and capacious rooms, including mezzanine spaces that allow discreet audience viewing. Long term resident company Hydra Poesis utilises a range of spaces for various projects: in the past year it has produced a durational performance installation, Trademark Manoeuvres #1 with collaborator Aimee Smith (also a cia resident), the performance work Personal Political Physical Challenge (PICA, 2010, see article), a short film for Next Wave and major R&D for its WATDI-funded hybrid work, Prompter Live Studio (RT97).

Hydra Poesis director Sam Fox says cia allows “multiple things on the boil” without the “logistical nightmare” of finding rehearsal, meeting and storage space. The collaborative and peer relationships that develop within cia—“our work connects through a criticality and political consciousness”—are also a reason to hang around. Fox would like to see funding for more intensive collaboration between current and incoming residents, “where we exchange practice, set each other experiments and really capitalise on the connections that are here but limited by time and resources.”

Project manager Kate Neylon outlines cia’s model for “research/practice interrogators,” something cia would like to implement for all residencies. “We would allocate resources towards securing a senior practitioner to work with resident artists, via key Skype sessions, providing input, guidance and provocations that would stimulate that process and expand professional networks internationally.”

“[pvi has] had a few pilot runs of this with ourselves as guinea pigs, first as research interrogators for an emerging artist test lab at cia with Meredith Godley and also with Matt Adams from Blast Theory (UK) working with us on developing our current project, transumer. Hydra Poesis have also used the model to bring out a member of the renowned UK performance group Pacitti company, Dicky Eaton, to work with them on Prompter Live Studio.”

Under the name ololo, “three like-minded friends” share cia’s studio 5 with local cyberpunk Jerrem Lynch, a driving force behind their work with interactive technologies. ololo has been researching hardware and software based systems for performance and installation works, including multi-touch surfaces. “It’s been the first time we have had freedom to explore ideas that were too big to fit on our kitchen tables,” says ololo’s Steve Berrick. Other residents include performer Aimee Smith, currently heading north to participate in The Arctic Circle international creative residency, and performance and image maker Jen Jamieson.

And then there’s pvi collective, now creating a companion to transumer with the working title, the coming insurrection. Like transumer, it aims to ‘fuck it up’, creating on-site interventions to suggest what an “anti-consumerist uprising” might look like. Bull, McCluskey and Neylon cite practical, strategic and catalytic ways that pvi’s interdependency with cia works for them as a group. Bull: “we are able to activate the space from within.” Neylon: “we get space for our practice” (and a small but consistent source of operational income for pvi). McCluskey: “It’s allowed the company to grow in ways that we never expected…it’s inspired, driven and motivated us to keep on truckin’”.

Current challenges for cia include, says Neylon, gaining some studio ‘down time’ and dealing with the organisation’s reliance on funding cycles while trying to sustain an ongoing program. Nevertheless, the next 12 months will include expanded activities including management of a live art season at PICA (hopefully with concurrent residencies at cia by some of those artists) and an expansion of artist talks, work-in-progress showings and collaborations. If funding is secured, says Bull, cia will bring UK performance company Reckless Sleepers to Perth for a creative lab late in 2011.

Bull is ambitious about where cia could go in the longer term: “If all goes to plan—and we are aware a lot could fuck up on the way—we hope cia will become for live and interdisciplinary arts what Perth-based SymbioticA has become for the bio-arts sector internationally. SymbioticA is the place to go for applied research into the life sciences and attracts artists from all over the world to partake of a range of practice-based opportunities. The interdisciplinary sector needs this sort of initiative to spearhead experimentation and look to define an area of practice that’s constantly slippery to pin down.”

In early October, cia studios will be calling for applications for residencies March 7, 2011-February 28, 2012.

cia studios, 480 Newcastle Street, West Perth, ciastudios.com.au

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 36

© Urszula Dawkins; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

From Yia Yia’s song, Kate Murphy (with Basil Hogios), 2010, Digital video still, Multi-channel HD video and sound installation

From Yia Yia’s song, Kate Murphy (with Basil Hogios), 2010, Digital video still, Multi-channel HD video and sound installation

From Yia Yia’s song, Kate Murphy (with Basil Hogios), 2010, Digital video still, Multi-channel HD video and sound installation

“ONE OF THE ASPECTS OF COMING INTO THE SPACE FOR THE FIRST TIME THAT’S REALLY EXCITING FOR ARTISTS IS ITS SCALE AND ITS DEPTH OF HISTORY AND THE WAY THINGS RESONATE IN THIS ENVIRONMENT.” PERFORMANCE SPACE ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR AND CURATOR BEC DEAN IS TALKING ABOUT CARRIAGEWORKS, THE VAST AND LABYRINTHINE POST-INDUSTRIAL BUILDING THAT HAS BEEN THE LONG RUNNING ORGANISATION’S RECENT HOME SINCE 2007.

By now this admittedly atypical exhibition space is a familiar one among the Sydney arts community. But as I sit down with Dean to hear more about their upcoming visual arts program, Nightshifters, it’s clear the company’s commitment to finding new ways to engage audiences with the space remains strong.

An exhibition of moving image works from eight of Australia’s leading video and media artists to take place over 10 days in November during the Live Live season including the four days of the LiveWorks Festival (p35), Nightshifters may just prove Performance Space’s most ambitious installation on the site to date. For the first time, the exhibition will be geared around evening viewing, capturing “the idea of the night shift, the changeover of stewardship and the replacement of one set of realities with another,” as Dean describes it. “Sometimes I feel privileged to wander around this building in the dark when everything is closed down and I guess I wanted to share that with audiences.”

For Dean, this means not only extending viewing hours but also getting visitors out beyond the usual spatial confines as well as offering artists an opportunity to create new site-specific works. “I was interested not so much in that wallpaper technique of video on architecture but actually having the artists engage with all facets of the site,” she says. As such, artists are responding to “the environment of the former Eveleigh Railyards, its histories and its manifestation in the present,” according to the program’s media release. However, Dean is quick to point out the site-specificity of the program isn’t intended to produce literal responses.

insect life

“I haven’t been didactic or prescriptive about that at all, it’s not a heritage project. So some artists have consciously made an engagement with the site’s history while other artists have worked with the transformation of the site as it is today. Angelica Mesiti, for example, has developed a project that has really engaged with how nature has taken over quite a large part of the Eveleigh Railyards, and so she is looking at making a work that is kind of like an epidiascope. She’s researching a way of attracting insects and bringing them into a real time, light and shadow-based work rather than a pre-edited video. So she is consciously working in a different way to the practice that she is becoming well-known for and taking a chance on an experiment, which is very exciting for me.”

Mesiti, who also works as a member of collaborative art group The Kingpins, is set to join a cast of artists who variously blur the boundaries between performance and the visual arts. Cinematographer Cordelia Beresford, video artist Sam James (p54) and the now Australian-based Belgian artist Alexis Destoop, for example, each bring with them strong histories of engaging with dance and experimental performance in their work. Kate Murphy will be collaborating with composer, music producer and sound designer Basil Hogios on Yia Yia’s song, which will contain multiple audio channels and is intended to be unsynchronised so that it can be experienced as a different score each time. A floor-based multi-screen projection by Eugenia Raskopoulos will poetically intertwine culture, history and language while John Tonkin and Dominic Redfern are set to imaginatively respond to architectural features spanning narrow passageways and mechanical drive shafts.

in the cracks

And where some, like Mesiti, are casting a glance well beyond the CarriageWorks interior others will transform close-range observations of the site into performative translations. “Sam James has done a lot of work with us over the years as a videographer, so it is really great to be working with him as an artist in his own right,” says Dean. “He has really focused in on these tiny spaces, the imperfections in the material of the space, the intersection of cracks in the concrete with train tracks and other parts of the environment that have that layered age to them. He is working on a multi-channel work and none of the images will be more than 45cm wide, so audiences will have to seek them out in this huge space. Collaborating with Georgie Read, who is a performer and has worked with Sam on many occasions, he will be bringing a figurative dimension into these tiny spaces and apertures.”

nightworkers

With a growing number of arts venues across Sydney now being housed in post-industrial conversions, it is easy to become cynical about the apparent fetishisation of these spaces. Yet this neglects the significant mediating role architecture has to play in our culture, especially when built structures are among the few tangible remnants of a past that still demands to be grappled with. One of the first artists Dean approached for this program was Cordelia Beresford, who will be exhibiting a work filmed at Cockatoo Island, a site that shares some affinity with the CarriageWorks space. Titled Night Shift, the film follows a security guard on the island portrayed by Indigenous performer Djakapurra Munyarryun. The synopsis sets out the action: “in the dead of the night he does his rituals. He listens and observes the space; aware of its history, seeking a conversation with what remains.”

reawakenings

This impulse to connect with the past arguably becomes easily submerged in everyday life and requires reawakening. And while daylight brings with it a rush forward to greet the future, evening offers pause to reflect. The spaces around us can become vehicles for such reflection, provoking an awareness of evolutions and accretions over time, something Dean has experienced first hand from her own observations of the Eveleigh site. “Since I was successful in finding the funding for this project, a lot has changed onsite. More spaces have been bulldozed or fenced-off.” Dean feels that Nightshifters is an opportunity “to try to engage with the place before it is changed irrevocably.”

Nightshifters, curator Bec Dean, artists Cordelia Beresford, Alexis Destoop, Sam James, Kate Murphy, Angelica Mesiti, Eugenia Raskopoulos, Dominic Redfern, John Tonkin; Performance Space, CarriageWorks, Sydney, Nov 4-14

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 51

© Ella Mudie; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Wasana Dixon, Indigenous & Social Circus Skills Workshop

Wasana Dixon, Indigenous & Social Circus Skills Workshop

Wasana Dixon, Indigenous & Social Circus Skills Workshop

While we think of visual art, music and now film as forms in which Aboriginal artists have had great success (if not always enjoying the benefits), theatre and dance have been more problematic. We admire Bangarra Dance Theatre, but it’s the only professional contemporary Aboriginal dance company in the country. In theatre, Perth’s Yirra Yaakin has survived a difficult period with a proud 15-year record, but Brisbane’s Kooemba Jdarra now appears only intermittently. Ilbijerri continues to produce significant work, presenting Jack Charles v The Crown with the Melbourne International Arts Festival and staging an exhibition of its 20 years at the Melbourne Museum (see in the loop). But are there sufficient opportunities for Aboriginal performers, established and emerging? Last year there was heated debate over Wesley Enoch’s proposal for a national Indigenous theatre as a means for coherently developing Aboriginal theatre. Since then he has been appointed Artistic Director of the Queensland Theatre Company, but how much Aboriginal work will he feel he can program? Training is another key issue. The Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts in Brisbane (RT98) and the NAISDA Dance College in Karlong (NSW) provide important opportunities, but in physical theatre and circus, if you can’t get into the National Institute of Circus Arts (NICA, Melbourne) and live in remote parts of Australia, what can you do? Simone O’Brien’s report on Heads Up at CarriageWorks reveals a considered and serious attempt to galvanise Indigenous and social circus artists, projects and companies across the country into a supportive network, not only to build careers but also a sense of community, dignity and purpose. Also significant is the need for dialogue between Aboriginal artists: Performance Space’s Indigelab (Oct 28-Nov 5) offers just that. Led by Wesley Enoch, it is designed for “Indigenous artists…keen to develop and extend languages to talk about their practice and in particular issues of cultural identity in relation to interdisciplinary practice.” Other opportunities include cross-cultural collaborations evident in Marrugeku’s considerable body of work and the Elcho Island-Nigel Jamieson collaboration, Ngurrumilmarrmiriyu (Wrong Skin). The major theatre companies also have a role to play: in the 2011 Sydney Theatre Company season, Bangarra’s Stephen Page and director Wayne Blair have united to create Bloodland to be performed in Yolgnu and pidgin, with traditional and contemporary movement and with well-known Aboriginal performers and Yolgnu people.The value of opportunities to come together, to share, to train, to talk, cannot be underestimated.

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 1

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Alexander Proshkin, The Miracle

Alexander Proshkin, The Miracle

DEFINING A FILM IN REFERENCE TO ITS NATIONALITY (A FRENCH FILM, AN AUSTRALIAN FILM, A RUSSIAN FILM) IS AN INCREASINGLY TENUOUS BUSINESS THESE DAYS. IN AN AGE OF GLOBALISATION, IT WOULD SEEM THE BOUNDARIES OF A NATION STATE ARE NO LONGER IMPERVIOUS ENOUGH TO ALLOW FOR THE INCUBATION AND GROWTH OF A DISTINCTIVELY NATIONAL CINEMA. CONTEMPORARY RUSSIAN CINEMA REFLECTS THESE CHANGING ECONOMIC AND CULTURAL CONDITIONS MORE ACUTELY THAN MOST OTHER NATIONAL CINEMAS.

For so long culturally isolated and protected by the Iron Curtain, the Russian film industry has, since the fall of the Soviet Union, been forced to undergo a quick and radical transformation. Most significantly, Russian cinema has had to contend directly with Hollywood, the international monster that other national film industries have been struggling with or against for over 90 years. The goal has been simple: to survive in a monopolised marketplace without losing a distinctively national voice. After a shaky start in the 1990s, a definably ‘new’ Russian cinema emerged in the new century, a cinema that, for better or worse, has asserted itself as a producer of popular, economically viable films that participate in the populist aesthetics of Hollywood while also drawing on Russia’s prized and ofaten traumatic cultural heritage.

The career of Russian director Alexander Proshkin (b1940) in many ways reads like a biography of this transformation. Beginning his career in Soviet television in the 1960s and 1970s, Proshkin asserted his reputation as a director of quality television drama before achieving box office and critical success for his 1988 feature Cold Summer of 1953. That film—a dark, violent and dramatic thriller set in the early days following Stalin’s death—was in many ways a pioneering work that offered a model for what Russian cinema could become in the post-Soviet era. Integrating historical and politically contentious subject matter within a generic scenario lifted from a Hollywood western, Cold Summer of 1953 demonstrated the possibility of a culturally respectable, serious, yet also populist and exciting cinema.

Proshkin’s latest feature The Miracle, which played at this year’s Russian Resurrection Film Festival, is also an entertaining film of serious ambition. Like Cold Summer of 1953, The Miracle is set in the early Soviet ‘thaw’ of the mid-1950s, a period when Nikita Khrushchev initiated a relaxation of the paranoid grip of Stalinism. Proshkin was in his mid-teens at the time, and must have experienced the cultural atmosphere as a powerful liberation. “The time is significant,” he explains, “because 1956 is the year which marked a turning point in our history. Khrushchev’s address at the 20th Congress [of the Communist Party] marked the arrival of the new post-Stalinism period. With one foot, we were still in the past, while with the other we were in an uncertain future.”

Presented as a film based on historical events, The Miracle’s narrative offers a fictionalisation of the characteristically Russian cultural myth, or true event, known as the “Standing of Zoia.” Said to have taken place in Kuibyshev (now Samara) in January of 1956, the story goes that while dancing with an icon of St. Nicholas, 21-year-old Zoia Karnaukhova froze solid in her living room for 128 days, only thawing at the arrival of Easter. In a culture very accommodating to superstition, news of the “miracle” was frantically suppressed by the Soviet government, and circulated only by word of mouth. Proshkin explains:

“In Russia, such information is often referred to as ‘bush radio,’ where one person tells one person and he tells another etc. Our scriptwriter, Yuri Arabov, was told about this incident by his grandmother, when he was nine years old. To the wider community, this information was kept confidential til about the end of the 1980s.”

With names altered and dramatic twists thrown in (Kuibyshev becomes Grechansk, Zoia becomes Tatiana and Khrushchev himself gets involved through a deus ex machina) The Miracle manages to engage with the complex problems of Russia’s Soviet past without losing the narrative momentum of contemporary popular cinema, a balancing act that, in Proshkin’s view, Russian filmmakers can no longer afford to neglect. Just like everywhere else, he explains, Russian filmmakers are now answerable to the dictates of the mass audience: “The filmmaker’s role—or existence—has changed in our nation… Before there was an ideological influence, now it’s a commercial one.”

Despite being unambiguously popular in its presentation, there are considerable dimensions of depth in The Miracle. As an allegory, the film would seem to present a metaphor of a society, frozen by Stalin’s terror, coming back to life. For Proshkin, however, the film’s narrative has less specific connotations:

“It is an attempt to explain the mentality of Russia, which in essence has not changed over time. Waiting for so-called ‘miracles’ has been embedded into the national character and we often put things down to simply being miracles.”

Proshkin’s interest in the “mentality” of Russia, and especially in the profound incompatibility between Russian social life and systematic centralisation, echoes throughout much of the director’s work. Open to the possibility of the miracle, but not certain of it, his is what might be called an agnostic attitude, significantly distanced from the more fervent religious cinema of contemporary Russian directors like Andrei Zviagintsev and Pavel Lunguin (whose epic Tsar also featured at this year’s festival). Asked whether he considered his film to belong to the growing ‘religious’ genre of Russian cinema, Proshkin replies:

“For me it was always a mystery: how could a nation, which existed for 1000 years with the Christian-orthodox faith, suddenly condemn its pastors, destroy its churches and reject its religion? Religious belief, which was nurtured for 1000 years, cannot just disappear in one particular moment. It simply moved into the subconscious… Spiritual movies represent the character of our culture and its peculiarity.”

This concern with the Russian subconscious leads me to pursue another subject. If anything can be said to have persistently pricked at the conscience of Russian filmmakers for the past 50 years, it would be that most traumatic chapter of the country’s Stalinist nightmare, the Second World War. At this year’s festival, a retrospective of World War II dramas made in the post-war era—The Cranes are Flying (Kalatazov, 1957), Ivan’s Childhood (Tarkovsky, 1962), Trial on the Road (German, 1971) and The Ascent (Shepitko, 1977)—offered a captivating and sobering glimpse of the war’s centrality in the Russian memory. These are some of the finest films of their time. And yet still today, narratives set during the war continue to be made, as untold stories come to light. One such film is Vera Glagoleva’s One War, perhaps the finest new feature at this year’s festival. Other films explore an adjacent period: Stanislav Mitin’s lyrical gem Backdoor is set in 1949 and Nikolay Dostal’s award winning Peter on His Way to Heaven takes place in 1953.

For Proshkin, there’s a specific rationale in Russian cinema’s preoccupation with the trauma of Soviet history. Raking over the past is, it would seem, a way of processing the unacceptable, making sense of the incomprehensible:

“It’s not a matter of history. It is just that that period influenced the formulation of the mentality. Until we actually rid ourselves of the past which has been infused into our blood, we will never find the road to the future.”

2010 Russian Resurrection Film Festival, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Canberra, Aug 19-Sept 19; www.russianresurrection.com

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 22

© Tom Redwood; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

The Trial

The Trial

The Trial

‘KAFKA’ IS ONE OF THEATRE’S OWN NEUROSES; A SCENE COMPULSIVELY RETURNED TO BUT WHOSE PLAYING OUT NEVER ACHIEVES RESOLUTION. THE AUTHOR’S WORK IS FAMOUSLY UNFINISHED IN VARIOUS SENSES, FROM THE POSTHUMOUSLY PUBLISHED NOVELS ASSEMBLED FROM MANUSCRIPTS TO THE OPEN-ENDED MEANINGS SUGGESTED BY THE WORKS THEMSELVES. BUT THERE’S ANOTHER UNFINISHEDNESS TO KAFKA—TO GET THEM RIGHT IS TO GET THEM WRONG, AND VICE VERSA. KAFKA CAN’T TRULY BE TRANSLATED TO THE STAGE, WHICH IS WHY SO MANY ENDLESSLY ATTEMPT TO DO JUST THAT.

Nabokov’s assertion that “one cannot read a book: one can only reread it” is apposite here. Were a production of The Trial to really nail it, the potency of the novel would be nullified. Perhaps the enduring appeal of Kafka’s writing stems not from its status as a glorious achievement, but as a kind of wound—the theatrical adaptations that most intrigue are those that pick at the scab rather than cauterising the wound.

Which is a roundabout way of approaching Matthew Lutton’s take on The Trial, which certainly seemed to pluck at the sutures rather than applying any salve. It wasn’t a satisfying work, but in thinking about that I increasingly wondered what such a thing would look like. Kafka’s literary worlds are anxious, paranoid ones tiptoeing the blade’s edge between self and other and frequently losing their footing. They are endless, circular, self-annihilating and uneven. They shouldn’t make for a particularly fine night at the theatre.

In some ways The Trial felt like the work of a young director approaching a canonical text: it appeared a surface rendering lacking a thorough engagement with its source while struggling to produce its own, original vision against the grain of the original. The thickly ironic comedy became farce; the sinister sexuality mere posturing; the infinite narrowing of Josef K’s agency was diminished by the set which confined him from the outset.

Most disappointing, for me, was the intrusion of more contemporary surrealist imagery onto a work that could only crudely be aligned with the modalities of surrealism. The films of David Lynch were an obvious reference, from the curtain design to a soundtrack song taken from one of Lynch’s own films. These were problematic allusions, since Lynch’s aesthetic is of a different paradigm to Kafka’s—like confusing Jung and Freud or Camus and Sartre.

But Lutton, while relatively young, isn’t a young director—his resume is both deep and reckonable and to dismiss his work here as that of a neophyte is an easy way of avoiding having to really become involved with it. If some of his directorial choices seemed superficial, it’s worth considering the dialogue between depth and surface that continues to characterise much of the work of his peers and mentors.

It’s a cliché to state that theatre is a collaborative medium. I think it’s usually true to say, however, that no one agent can bring low a superlative work of theatre, just as no star can make a mediocre work shine. In reality, it’s rare that any production doesn’t canvas a spectrum of success, and that’s not even factoring in the interpretative diversity of its audience.

Ewen Leslie’s K suffers from a common disregard for the specificity of the character. Too often Kafka’s protagonists are figured as beleaguered Everymen when each possesses a particular voice, often hysterically rendered. Josef K isn’t merely an icon of the average soul dumped in an absurd situation, but is marked by a comic indignation lacking in Leslie’s accounting.

So too do the rest of the cast veer toward caricature rather than complexity. There’s little evocation of the terrifying strangeness behind the face of a neighbour, since all are figured as sideshow clowns from the get-go. The only element of this production which really achieves a rich and unsettling density is the superb sound design and composition (by Kelly Ryall and Ash Gibson Greig, respectively). Half-heard voices and other aural pinpricks floated around partial melodies, suggesting a troubling presence that could never finally be located.

I think that any niggling complaints about this rendering should be balanced, however, by the broader view. Nabokov’s point, in his call for rereading, is that narrative is a time-based thing, and that we can never perceive it as a whole. When we are at the end, we can no longer understand the beginning as beginning. After each pass, we rewrite what came before, and the lasting works of art are those that find some niggling grounds for appeal each time we threaten to deliver a final judgement. This is why a definitive rendition of The Trial would be self-defeating, why this production still maintains a certain necessity. It’s a cruel process, as Josef K’s bleak scenario suggests, but the alternative—for the character or the text—is arguably worse.

Malthouse Theatre & Sydney Theatre Company, The Trial, adaptation Louise Fox from the novel by Franz Kafka, director Matthew Lutton, performers John Gaden, Peter Houghton, Rita Kalnejais, Ewen Leslie, Belinda McClory, Hamish Michael, Igor Sas, set design Claude Marcos, costumes by Alice Babidge, lighting Paul Jackson, composer Ash Gibson Greig, sound design Kelly Ryall; Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse Aug 13 – Sept 4.

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 37

© John Bailey; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Alison and Bridget Currie, Three Ways to Hold

Alison and Bridget Currie, Three Ways to Hold

Alison and Bridget Currie, Three Ways to Hold

THERE’S A FLUCTUATION BETWEEN CARE AND NOT QUITE CARE THAT FLOWS THROUGH THE PERFORMANCES OF THREE WAYS TO HOLD THAT IS INITIALLY DISCONCERTING. AN ATTENTION TO DETAIL—COLOUR COORDINATED SNEAKER LACES, AN OVER CAREFUL FUSSINESS IN THE LAYING OUT OF CANVAS DROP SHEETS THAT COVER THE GALLERY FLOOR—COUPLES WITH A DELIBERATE CARELESSNESS AS SHEETS ARE BUNDLED AND DROPPED, LEFT WHERE THEY LIE.

The impatient shuffling of the audience out of the way in Fold and the performer’s pernickety attention to the arrangement of objects as they’re bundled into a giant sack in Collect—as if it really matters how things are done—is seriocomic, an absurd rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic activity. Yet it’s the vacillation between these moments and states of attention that draws the audience’s notice to the things that really do matter in the work.

Three ways to hold creates and demands a certain type of attentiveness over the arc of its four performances. As each performance slides between attentive states and moments, so it asks for a dual kind of attention and noticing, a specific type of refined observation as it brings intangible processes under our consideration. Each performance is named after an action—Fold, Lift, Prop and Collect—and as each becomes a performative enquiry these concerns are played out in the interaction of volume, mass, weight and space and their transformation through the performers’ actions.

In creating a closed system where the base materials are introduced in the first performance and remain in the space til the last, the possibility of novelty is removed and our attention concentrated on these formal processes of activation, recombination and change in an evolving space of forces and relations.

This concern with the activation of space and transformation of forms is one pursued by both artists in their discrete practices as visual artist and dancer. Here, these individual preoccupations are brought together and refined in a piece that deftly conducts a subtle and intelligent dissection of intangible states and an exercise in extending our awareness.

Appearing sometimes coolly cerebral, at others, Three ways to hold reveals a gentle sense of the absurd. In pastel costumes complete with knee and elbow pads, the performers Alison and Bridget Currie become super heroes or terrestrial trapeze artists underscoring a sly humour and the sense of effort brought to bear in the constant reshaping of their small enclosed world.

Fold is an exercise in expansion and contraction of volume serendipitously aided by the size of the first night crowd. Barely able to be seen at first, the performers dart outside and back in carrying slabs, blocks and wedges of polystyrene. Taking canvas sheets from laundry trugs the performers almost impatiently shake these out and lay them on the floor, adjusting them with that fussy carefulness. Edges are butted together and folds smoothed out as the space is covered with the canvas’s enlarging surface. In a neat reciprocity of action as the canvas expands, the crowd contracts—forces in motion. Almost as soon as the floor is covered, the performers turn to transforming the flat canvas into compact stacks of folded cloth. Gathered and pleated, fabric rolled between fingers to bring corners into alignment, the sheets are folded. Switching between this over-carefulness and almost carelessness we are made aware of the intent and effect of each action as each dense slab of stuff hits the floor.

The four performances create a durational arc over as many weeks. Objects are left where they fall at the end of each performance, suspended in a state of flux so that time is stretched out, so that attention is slowed to a state where notice can be taken of the invisible forces at play.

In Lift, the heaps of folded cloth form a vestigial history of Fold. It begins with the performers urgently making constructions out of polystyrene blocks, running and lifting each block above their heads in a comic show of strength and ending with a frantic game of tag across the space, palms slapping the walls. As Alison dances and feints boxer-like around the space, Bridget shakes out each cloth, giving it a weightlifter’s clean and jerk before placing it around Alison’s neck like the proverbial boxer’s towel. There’s comical huffing as this continues, yet as the heap accumulates the weight is palpable and it becomes a question of resistance and endurance rather than force. Finally, Alison, with real effort, throws off the sheets so they lie disordered again on the gallery floor.

This play of force is directed inwards and slowed almost to inaction over the seven hours of Prop with the artists developing intense attention to the effect of every action as one performer takes responsibility for the other in the literal and constantly modified act of propping. Prop becomes an intense meditation on cause, effect and responsibility.

It’s into the remnants of Prop, the blocks and wedges of foam and heaped sheets that the audience for Collect gathers. There’s no seeming diminution of the audience and it appears that attention can be sustained over this arching space of time. Bridget and Alison collect up all the wedges, blocks and slabs, bundle away the sheets and stack them into their ever expanding bag. One holds the bag open while the other arranges and rearranges things, compacting them, fitting them together. As it grows weightier, they drag their sack around the space, lifting, folding, fitting.

Tying off the neck of this amorphous robbers’ swag neatly shuts down the performance and this careful system that has been created and investigated over time. Our attention has been sustained and now lingers on a system of things folded, lifted, transformed and put away.

Alison Currie’s show 42a, “an interactive space where the audience itself affects the display and presentation, purely by where they stand, where they move to and what they do,” has toured to Sydney and Brisbane and will be at Melbourne’s Fortyfive Downstairs October 12-23

Three ways to hold (fold, lift, prop and collect), created and performed by Alison Currie and Bridget Currie, costume design Gemma Stocks, SASA Gallery, Adelaide, Aug 11-Sept 3.

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 52

© Jemima Kemp; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Indigenous and Social Circus Skills Workshop

Indigenous and Social Circus Skills Workshop

Indigenous and Social Circus Skills Workshop

OVER 50 INDIGENOUS AND COMMUNITY CIRCUS ARTISTS FROM ALL OVER AUSTRALIA GATHERED AT CARRIAGEWORKS, SYDNEY IN JULY TO ATTEND HEADS UP 2010, THE FIRST NATIONAL INDIGENOUS AND SOCIAL CIRCUS CONFERENCE AND PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT PROJECT. PHYSICAL THEATRE PERFORMER, WRITER AND DIRECTOR SIMONE O’BRIEN WAS ONE OF THE ORGANISING COMMITTEE. REALTIME ASKED HER TO REPORT ON THIS SIGNIFICANT EVENT FOR INDIGENOUS PERFORMERS.

An exciting array of circus and physical theatre artists was brought together for the first time by Heads Up 2010, united by their passion for gutsy, raw and determined circus and physical theatre. Over the week, rising stars and established luminaries gathered to learn skills, develop material and create a showcase performance, Flying, which opened the weekend conference.

The depth of raw talent and finely tuned skills among these emerging and established circus artists was as huge as the geographical divide and the distances travelled to overcome it. Artists participating included Blackrobat from Koranda in far northern Queensland, who are one of Australia’s longest running Indigenous acrobatic troupes; two of the young Chooky Dancers from Elcho Island; Broome’s Sandfly Circus; Lismore’s Creative People’s Collective; Slippry Sirkus from Wauchope, NSW; Circus Monoxide, Wollongong; senior students from Airds High, NSW; Aerialize, Sydney; the Flying Fruit Fly Circus; Vulcana Women’s Circus, Brisbane; Westside Circus, Melbourne; Circus Ruccis, Melbourne; and Slipstream Circus from Ulverston, Tasmania. There were independent artists such as Louise Moriarty who has run many projects in Broken Hill, some in partnership with Cirque du Monde and the National Institute of Circus Arts (NICA); Jill Watkins from Gunnedah, NSW; Ira Seidenstein, Mikayla Anderson, Natano Fa’anana and Donna Carstens from Brisbane; Felicity Horsley from Melbourne and Nellie Simpson and Michael Smith from Perth.

Many of these artists also spoke at the weekend conference attesting to the incredible benefits of social circus programs. They gave moving accounts of their personal and professional experiences in making profound differences to young people’s lives. One stand out example is the story of Michael Smith and Nellie Simpson.
Larissa Deak and David Clarkson, Indigenous & Social Skills Workshop

Larissa Deak and David Clarkson, Indigenous & Social Skills Workshop

Larissa Deak and David Clarkson, Indigenous & Social Skills Workshop

talent in the long-term

Michael Smith is a rising Indigenous dance and circus star from Western Australia, currently studying second year dance at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA). He was 10 when he met Nellie Simpson, a circus artist at a pilot community circus project in Hilton, a suburb of Perth largely populated by Indigenous people and older generations of war veterans. Michael became an immediate circus enthusiast and, as the project grew, he became an instrumental link between Nellie and the community, travelling in the van with her as she collected kids to take to the project, providing helpful information about people’s whereabouts and family situations.

Nelllie Simpson’s holistic approach to her work was a source of inspiration for Michael as he felt that he was engaged in something more than just a project, that he was part of a philosophy. Many of the artists at the conference agreed on the importance of long term and holistic approaches in effecting real change; as Nellie put it, “Change happens slowly and over time.” Inevitably, questions about sustainability arise when looking at long-term strategic development and ongoing support for the sector in Australia.

stop the circus leaving town

From a bunch of circus vagabonds turning up to an outback town or housing estate to teach a bunch of bored kids to the high profile ventures of Cirque du Monde (an international social circus initiative between Cirque du Soleil and Jeunesse du Monde, a youth focused NGO) questions about the usefulness of short-term projects arise. What happens once the circus leaves town? As a young Brewarrina participant summed it up for the departing artist: “Thanks for fuckin nothin”, a kind of thanks-for-showing-us-what-we-haven’t-got. For some of these young people, the future can appear worse.

The sector has seen tremendous growth over the past decade as many Indigenous and non-indigenous communities have embraced social circus as an effective model for community engagement. Paul Woodhead, a high school teacher and founder of Circus West in Dubbo, noted that there were 60–80 schools in Western NSW alone that had circus programs and that he had worked with 5,000 students over 20 years in youth circus programs, and 350 of them had performed publicly.
Aunty Malu aka Marlene Cummins (Redfern Women’s Traditional Dance Group), Indigenous & Social Skills Workshop

Aunty Malu aka Marlene Cummins (Redfern Women’s Traditional Dance Group), Indigenous & Social Skills Workshop

Aunty Malu aka Marlene Cummins (Redfern Women’s Traditional Dance Group), Indigenous & Social Skills Workshop

liberated by circus

Donna Carstens, an Indigenous circus artist from Brisbane, now living in Sydney, discussed her project, Behind Closed Bars, which taught circus skills to young people whose mothers were in detention. Donna delivered the project with Sisters Inside, an organisation set up to support women in detention and their children. With the massive overrepresentation of Indigenous people in detention, most of the children involved in the project were Indigenous. Donna worked with the kids to create a circus show, which would then be videoed and sent to their mothers. It would take another two years before the video was seen in prisons.

The Behind Closed Bars initiative won a National Crime Prevention Award because from 60 participants only one went back to juvenile justice while others went on to do TAFE courses. One of the most moving stories came from a young girl who said that before she started the project she felt she had nothing to live for as her mum was in gaol and that she didn’t go to school and had been sniffing glue and petrol. Since doing the circus project she had found something she absolutely loved doing and couldn’t wait for the next class so she could climb on the trapeze. She had found something to be proud of and which she could show her mum when she got out.

Donna’s own story of circus helping her to escape the juvenile justice system was echoed by Noel Tovey. Noel opened the conference speaking about his experiences as an Indigenous artist who was on the street at 11, in gaol at 17 and dancing at Sadler’s Wells in London at 24. He cites the arts as his saviour, stating that if not for the performing arts he would not be here today as it strengthens and promotes Indigenous culture on a personal, spiritual and social level.

Alisha White, Indigenous & Social Circus Skills Workshop

Alisha White, Indigenous & Social Circus Skills Workshop

Alisha White, Indigenous & Social Circus Skills Workshop

the circus opportunity

Wendy Holland, an Indigenous academic and Associate Professor at University of Western Sydney, spoke at the opening of the conference with a paper entitled “Re-imagining Aboriginality to the Circus Space.” This fascinating talk traced Wendy’s family connections to Aboriginal circus performers travelling Australia in the late 19th century, her great grandparents being respected performers in the Fitzgerald Brother’s Circus. Wendy spoke of the opportunities the performing arts offered her ancestor Harry Kadellar in south-western Queensland in 1888, where he was ‘taken’ as a child into the circus. This gave him the opportunity to train as an equestrian acrobat from age five onwards and a better chance at survival (two years after he was taken from his family, his mother died of strychnine poisoning).

The circus was a place where Harry could celebrate and capitalise on his difference, providing him with income, travel and a diverse and ‘exotic’ family in which he could find his niche. Today social circus offers Indigenous and marginalised young people similar opportunities to rise above their circumstances through skills development, determination and talent to create a better life, however without adequate industry and government support, this may prove to be true for only a handful of artists.

the national view

One of the aims of Heads Up was to bring all the relevant stakeholders together to gain a national perspective on developments in the sector. Audiences heard from Marrugeku, Circus Oz, Legs on the Wall, Redfern Community Centre, Moogahlin Arts, National Institute of Circus Arts, Orana Arts, the Brewarrina Youth Circus, the Chooky Dancers, the Australian Circus and Physical Theatre Association and many of the artists mentioned above. This presented a unique opportunity to discuss the issues affecting the national development of the sector, such as on-going access to resources, training facilities and further career pathways and employment options and ways to identify strategic and sector wide approaches to address these issues.

flying

The other reason for the event was to bring together a unique set of highly talented artists and give them access to professional skills development and performance opportunities. The resulting showcase performance was an exciting blend of traditional dance, gender bending, short films, acrobatics and hip hop, dance and circus and an all-in group dance led by the Chooky Dancers. Raw talent flew beside highly trained technique, aerial routines were imbued with traditional dance. It was a fruitful skill share and rich cross fertilisation between Indigenous and social circus artists from all over Australia who had not had the means to work together before. It was an amazing week of workshops, performances, histories and testimonies that reflected the resilience of Indigenous cultures and closed the gap, bringing the sector together.

the future

Kate Reid from the Brewarrina Youth Circus was the main instigator of Heads Up. Her hopes for the future include “more inclusion of Indigenous artists and leaders across the board in the national circus industry…in order to develop realistic training options, artistic and managerial positions for Indigenous artists and leaders to help foster the development of the Indigenous circus arts sector from within existing organisations and in assisting new groups, programs, training centres and artists as they emerge.”

Heads Up 2010 organising committee: Kate Reid (Brewarrina Youth Circus), Josh Bond (Chooky Dancers), Lily Shearer (Redfern Community Centre and Moogahlin Arts), Simone O’Brien (Legs on the Wall). Major sponsors included CarriageWorks, Legs on the Wall, Redfern Community Centre, the Australian Recreational Centre for Aerial Arts and the Brewarrina Youth Circus. Financial assistance for this Project was provided by Arts NSW and the Federal Government through the Department of Health and Aging and the Indigenous Sport and Recreation Program.

Heads Up 2010, Indigenous and Social Circus Conference, CarriageWorks, Sydney, July 12-18

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 2-3

© Simone O’Brien; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Metropia

Metropia

IN ITS 13TH YEAR, PERTH’S REVELATION FILM FESTIVAL HAS COME A LONG WAY FROM ITS EARLY DAYS IN THE BASEMENT OF THE GREENWICH CLUB. WELCOMING BACK ITS LOYAL FILM-LOVING FANATICS, REV TURNED THE HEADS OF A WHOLE NEW GROUP OF FILMGOERS WITH A 40% BIGGER AUDIENCE THAN THE PREVIOUS YEAR. SETTING OUT TO BRING WEST AUSTRALIANS A SELECTION OF FILMS THAT CONTAIN A LITTLE SOMETHING PROGRAM DIRECTOR JACK SARGEANT LIKES TO CALL ‘ATTITUDE’, REV SHOWCASED FEATURES, DOCUMENTARIES, SHORTS, ANIMATED FLICKS AND 30 NATIONAL PREMIERES ALL PACKED INTO A SNUG 10-DAY PROGRAM.

With subjects such as an outlaw American comic, through to a pint-sized 13-year-old paparazzo, by far some of the most intriguing films on this year’s program are documentaries. Reporter follows the work of Pulitzer Prize winning journalist of the New York Times Nicholas Kristof as he endeavours to raise awareness of developing world tragedies. Battling shrinking news organisations and newspaper readership as well as humankind’s numbing to mass tragedy, Kristof sets off into the Congo alongside two young American bloggers, seeking out the most tragic stories for his readers. Directed by Eric Daniel Metzgar the film captures the courage and determination of journalists like Kristof, who face those who act with impunity and translate stories of incredible injustice for their readers in the hope of change. With the 20 million Pakistanis displaced by recent floods, Reporter reminds us of a world outside our own that desperately needs our compassion.

Music fans had plenty to inspire them with rockumentaries—The Night of the Triffids, When You’re Strange and Wheedles Groove—which drew huge crowds. The Family Jams took its audience on tour with a unique look at life on the road. The film opens in summer 2004, with an introduction to director Kevin Barker’s family at his grandmother’s 100th birthday celebration in Hawaii. Crossing the ocean Barker sets out to capture a different type of family, that of Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart and Vetiver, three San Francisco-based musicians about to make it big on a tour Antony Hegarty believes is a “significant moment for culture.” Hampered by a car accident, an awkward father-son reunion and personal tragedy, the travelling group manages to pull together, sharing experiences of writing, performing and their deep connections to music. The Family Jams offers viewers an incredibly honest look into the world of those with a love and a talent for music, and the family-like bonds that can form over a tune.

A highlight of the Late Shows, The House of the Devil captured the true spirit of the fright flick. Set in the 1980s, Director Ti West’s 16mm film follows Samantha, a cash-poor student desperate to move out of her college dorm. Finding her dream lodging, Samantha takes an out-of-town babysitting job to pay her security deposit, only to realise her employers are not exactly kosher. With a genuine selection of 80s sets, costumes, cinematography and lingo, The House of the Devil’s slow-building tension plays true to such horror classics as Rosemary’s Baby and When A Stranger Calls.

One of the many premieres at Revelation this year was popular animated feature Metropia, directed by Egyptian-Swedish animator and producer Tarik Saleh. Set in Europe in 2024, Metropia depicts a bleak world where natural resources are depleted and global financial markets have collapsed, leaving people to labour in their ruin. Underground tunnels connect most of Europe, yet conspiracy theorist Roger feels something’s amiss. Battling inner voices he sets out alongside a mysteriously familiar stranger to uncover a bizarre scheme. Voiced by Vincent Gallo and Juliette Lewis, the film echoes the building isolation and paranoia of today’s world. With incredible attention to detail and use of photomontage Metropia appeals to animation enthusiasts as well as those not yet fans of the genre.

Continuing with the dystopian theme, One Hundred Mornings took its audience to a not-so-distant post-apocalyptic world. Setting out to create a film that captures the director’s worst fears, Conor Horgan’s feature explores the consequences of a societal breakdown and the conflicts that arise between “groundless optimism and pessimistic realism.” Following an unknown catastrophic event, two couples occupy a cabin hidden away within an Irish mountain village, fighting off hungry wanderers, corrupt police, infidelity and boredom. Drawing on the chaotic social unrest of post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, Horgan sets building animosity and silent conflicts against minimal dialogue and beautiful cinematography—a nod to the director’s formal training in photography. One Hundred Mornings depicts an uncomfortable reality we all face should our fragile existence take a turn for the worse.

No doubt a crucial training ground for WA talent, Get Your Shorts On! showcased a number of short films from Western Australian filmmakers. Among the impressive line-up, the Corrie Jones-directed film Water follows the struggles of eight year-old Toby, wanting a normal life that his mentally-disabled father cannot provide. Set in a seaside community, Water quietly exposes some of the untold difficulties families and carers of the disabled face, delivering an emotional punch usually hard to capture in short-length cinema.

Denise Groves’ short doco, My Nan & the Yandi, tells the story of how a small piece of metal, the ‘yandi’, saw the filmmaker’s grandmother and hundreds of Aboriginal people through the decade-long Pilbara strike of 1946. In separating tantalite, tin and gold from the soil, the yandi offered an alternative income for jobless families fighting for wages instead of just rations. Filmed in Western Australia’s Marble Bar, Groves’ delightful short captures the resourcefulness and resilience of the Roy Hill Njarparlies, as told by ‘Nan’ herself.

A Special Event highlight in the 2010 program, the Best of Domefest, sampled a number of international films created over the last seven years for the 180-degrees ‘fulldome’ environment. Traditionally an Albuquerque (US) festival, Domefest screened here at the Horizon Planetarium, featuring snippets of large-format film that journeyed beyond the typical space-themed content to include immersive art and storytelling works that explore the surround experience. Australian Network for Art and Technology’s Program Manager of Art Science, Vicki Sowry, opened the event, presenting a number of exciting ideas for the format including a fulldome horror flick—sure to leave audiences with nowhere to turn short of closing their eyes. The night’s schedule included a number of trippy audio-visual pieces, some leaving the audience slightly woozy. Two Black Hole excerpts unravelled some of the fascinating mysteries of the space phenomenon but left viewers wanting a little more, while Seeds of Spring ditched space altogether, following a time-lapse of a quirky, bearded farmer planting and raising a crop from greenhouse to field.

Emerging in the 1990s, fulldome video technology has come far, offering a wonderful opportunity for filmmakers to engage audiences in a whole new way—an approach the festival truly champions.

Revelation eschews big budget blockbusters and celebrities that most people mistake for cinema, instead applauding innovation. From low-budget Mumblecore experiments and off-beat documentaries through to the RevCon conferences on cinema and screen culture, the festival’s films are no mere time-kills; they take you places. One of Australia’s most idiosyncratic film festivals, Revelation rebelliously celebrates the true spirit of cinema. Some of the best films in this year’s line-up were not first choices, so my tip for future audiences is, challenge yourself.

Revelation Perth International Film Festival, director Jack Sargeant, Perth, July 8-18

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 23

© Claudia Cukrov; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

(please give: it a moment), detail of installation at  Wallwork Studios

(please give: it a moment), detail of installation at Wallwork Studios

(please give: it a moment), detail of installation at Wallwork Studios

NOW IN ITS SIXTH YEAR, THE ON EDGE FESTIVAL IN CAIRNS IS INSTRUMENTAL IN INTRODUCING NEW WORKS TO NEW AUDIENCES IN FAR NOTHERN QUEENSLAND. THIS YEAR’S PROGRAM, CURATED BY NICHOLAS MILLS, INCLUDED SOUND ART (LIQUID ARCHITECTURE), VIDEO ART (CAO FEI) AND DANCE ON SCREEN (REELDANCE) AS WELL AS PERFORMANCE WORKS. THREE OF THE PERFORMANCE HIGHLIGHTS WERE ELIZABETH DUNN AND JESSIE HALL’S (PLEASE GIVE: IT A MOMENT), POST’S SHAMELESSLY GLITZY WORK AND NICHOLAS MILLS’ OWN 2WHYTE. FOR ME, EACH OF THESE WORKS HAD A REFLECTIVE QUALITY AND MINED THE INNER WORLD OF THE SUBJECT FOR MATERIAL.

(please give: it a moment)

Wallwork Studios has been transformed into an interactive obstacle course. As I enter, I am handed a conical mask with hand-drawn features, suggestive of a shy creature that spends a lot of time in the dark. Wearing this makes me feel as though maybe I too will find a bolthole in which to hide. This is (please give: it a moment), where each audience member becomes the work’s subject via their physical engagement with it. Created by Cairns artists Elizabeth Dunn and Jessie Hall, it is fresh from the Next Wave festival in Melbourne.

Other masked creatures inhabit the space. We are guided past fabric mounds and along the way encounter a larger crafted hillock where a life-sized figure made from wool curls like a cat in repose. We move on to a table where we are invited to partake of a conversation conducted entirely via pen and paper. Tea is offered, along with written advice and the messages then affixed to the studio wall—as a sort of ‘moodboard’ of the soul. It’s tea and sympathy and the writing is on the wall.

We are then gently coerced into a cubby constructed of translucent paper, with moving images projected on the back wall. These are landscapes, seemingly shot at twilight from the window of a moving vehicle. By now, I am overtaken by the persona of the mask; I become a kind of hybrid creature that scratches at the door of both human and animal worlds, and it seems that I am viewing these images through new eyes. They offer up a whole new world of opportunities, should I find the courage to step over the threshold of my hidey-hole and venture into the beyond.

(please give: it a moment) is a refreshing take on the interactive installation form, where participants experience a nuanced and subtle trip through the psyche, like animals being coaxed from a subterranean burrow.

shamelessly glitzy work

This offering from Sydney’s Post has had rapturous receptions in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, so it was a sweet treat to see it in Cairns. The piece itself, however, was not without some deliciously tart satire. To open, three sparkly, spangled magicians tease us for an extended time at the microphone with inhalations, lip smacking and inane smiles. What follows is a series of faux magic routines where the performers build up our expectations for the big showstopper to reveal…well that the performer is wearing a patchwork jumper identical to the one she has just removed. The performer gestures “Ta-da!” all the while looking at us knowingly.

As the show progresses, there is a meditation on the rave scene replete with glitter in the laser lights and an account of an incident outside a nightclub where a woman, a self-described melange of Bonne Bell, Maybelline and feminine hygiene spray, considers an offer from a potential suitor. She tells us, “Guys in Barinas have yelled at me before, but this was different.” There are ruminations on contemporary security policies too, where nameless organisations reminiscent of George Orwell’s Thought Police encroach on civil liberties. The performers describe a quasi Big Brother state where the control of one’s mind and fast food choices—“I’ve got the fish burger in my hand, but I really wanted a chicken burger”—rate as equallyserious social concern.

The centrepiece of the show is a vignette where the performers bounce for over 10 minutes to techno music while one boozily bawls “C’mon ladies!” This slowly turns into a wet t-shirt competition and then something more sinister where blood pours from mouths of the ‘contestants.’ This act is chilling in its evocation of sexual objectification and abuse, reinforcing the idea of performance as a political act that can both challenge and reassert structures of power.

The writing is a revelation in a formal sense; all that is said in the first half of the show is repeated in the reverse order in the second. As well, the characters constantly allude to the audience’s presence through eye contact and gesture. This staginess, or self-conscious awareness of what Peggy Phelan calls performance’s “maniacally charged present” (Unmarked, Routledge, 1993), is echoed in the performers’ oft-repeated line: “I definitely feel something.” I felt something too, Post, and even if you were being ironic you were generous enough to let us in on the joke.

2Whyte

2Whyte was held on the last weekend of the festival and is best described as a work in progress. It has an interesting premise, with Nicholas Mills bringing together two established dancers with the same surname but from very different disciplines. Raymond D Blanco is a prominent Indigenous dancer, choreographer and director who has been at the forefront of Indigenous dance and its development, while Raphael Blanco is a 76 year old Cuban dancer and teacher and reportedly one of the first Cuban immigrants to arrive in Australia. Together they bop, boogie and cha cha cha their way through the show, finding common ground through dance.

As the houselights dim we are shown projected text, first about the history of Cuba and then Australia and the Torres Strait. The source cited is Wikipedia and I’m not sure if the team are being ironic or simply relaxed in respect to their research. Next there is a demonstration of Cuban dance moves, projected documentary-style footage and live onstage interviews with the dancers, interspersed with examples from Raymond’s repertoire. His evident joy in performing to Silver Convention’s Lady Bump (presumably a favourite from his formative years) is so infectious that we find ourselves bopping along in our chairs.

One audience member described this work as “docu-dance” and it shone when we were able to glimpse the dancers’ psyches. Each grappled in their own way with the notion of being categorised as an ‘older dancer’ and the significance of this for their careers resonated with the sympathetic audience. Perhaps the work would benefit from a little more finessing and teasing out further synergies, however, the performers held us with their charm and zeal.

Like the individual performances within it, the On Edge festival offers fascinating insights into the interior worlds of artists and audiences alike. The festival makes a valuable contribution to the far northern landscape and its arts community with its celebration of contemporary performance and media works from all over Australia and the world.

2010 On Edge Festival: (please give: it a moment), creators Elizabeth Dunn and Jessie Hall, Wallwork Studios, July 4-7; post, Shamelessly Glitzy Work, created and performed by Mish Grigor, Natalie Rose and Zoe Coombs Marr, COCA Theatre, July 8-9; 2Whyte, director and media Nicholas Mills, performers Raymond D. Blanco and Raphael Blanco, COCA Theatre July 15-17; www.onedgeart.com/

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 38

© Victoria Carless; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Modes of Misunderstanding, 2010, video still, Samuel James

Modes of Misunderstanding, 2010, video still, Samuel James

Modes of Misunderstanding, 2010, video still, Samuel James

IT IS AXIOMATIC THAT ARTWORKS VIEWED BY CRITICS UNDERGO CERTAIN TRANSMUTATIONS IN THEIR RECALL. IN THAT SENSE WE ARE NEVER REVIEWING ART, ONLY OUR MEMORIES OF ART. THEIR TRANSMUTATIONS WILL BE SHOT THROUGH WITH OUR OWN IDIOSYNCRATIC EXPERIENCES, KNOWLEDGE, OBSESSIONS AND DESIRES. BUT BEYOND NEURO-CHEMISTRY, BEYOND SUBJECTIVITY, THERE IS A KIND OF INTEGRITY WHICH MUST GO BACK TO THE WORK ITSELF. MOST SIMPLY, WE CAN SAY, I TRUST THIS. OR NOT.

In Samuel James’ Modes of Misunderstanding I & II, two large projections on the wall alternate between a farmer striding across a dry paddock towards the camera and a group of performers staggering through the bush in a state of amused disorientation. The farmer, initially a distant dot on a vast expanse of cracked earth, approaching with the inevitability of weather, recalls tropes as various as Bill Viola’s shimmering quasi-Biblical figures and Australian news reports of drought. It’s such a familiar image, in fact, that I disregard it at first. The bush, a section of coastal dune forest at Bundeena, is lush and intimate, the trees perhaps small paperbarks. While one performer touches a tree inquisitively, another falls about laughing. They are lost, but they’re having fun. Beside these, doubled as well— reflection upon reflection—are small videos filmed on rock shelves across which the comedy of the lost souls trails also. With the faintest reproductive interference, the place resembles a lunar landscape.

Belgian choreographer Hans van den Broeck, who directed these group performances, wanted to do a piece that showed these people relating to the landscape. James’ take is that as middle-class whites who live in the city, the notion of them having a connection to the bush is risible: indeed, van den Broeck’s wish can seem like a typical naïve foreigner’s bucolic fantasy about Australia. In this sense the farmer and his arid paddock are endgame. But James’ wit and ingenuity offer a more open view, in spite of himself: there is a connection of sorts taking place here: fumbling, uncertain, insistent. In whatever fashion, these people are a part of this place.

In the next room is Amygdala: Fear Conditioning, the centrepiece in a way, conceptually if nothing else, because the amygdala is the structure in our brain that processes emotion and anxiety, and it is the expression of this process that underpins all James’ work here. Fear also is noted as the driving force behind the performances. Some of us will remember the originals from which archival footage was reanimated and projected onto screens of different sizes suspended throughout the room. Often the performers are completely disembodied: Brian Fuata’s face stares out from a tree trunk; Julie Vulcan’s from somewhere else. A face in a cow, opening, closing, who is it? Martin del Amo’s body judders in freeze frame, then continues its spiralling leap, and I remember Under Attack (not the live performance: a video of). Sometimes the soundtrack synchs perfectly with the images, as in a vignette of Rosie Dennis, which imparts a strong sense of claustrophobia. Here, as elsewhere, as deconstructed as the footage is, it retains the spirit of the performance. Indeed, the strength of these video works as a whole is the maintenance of their connection to their primary human resource: all technical wizardry is in service to this.

808.838/grandfather paradox, Ms&Mr

808.838/grandfather paradox, Ms&Mr

808.838/grandfather paradox, Ms&Mr

The same can be said of Ms & Mr’s 808.838 / grandfather paradox, where the dialogue between this collaborative couple binds the work with warmth and humour. The title relates to time travel, wherein the conundrum of going back in time to delete a life or an event, thereby changing your own present so that you cannot do this, remains unsolvable.

Mr’s late grandfather shimmers on a screen facing the entrance. Bearded and naked from the waist up, in advanced middle age, he seems to be standing in water. The image is static, but alive. In diptych is a baby’s face—Mr—in close up, looking towards the grandfather. This old super 8 footage is played with: eyedrops are administered to the baby, whose expression hovers between fear and wonder. And Mr, the artist as he is now, leans down over his grandfather, and pumping his chest, attempts to resuscitate him.

Other elements balance the installation: a rocket shaped screen and one in the shape of a baby in a nappy, on which are projected a litany of images endless and chaotic. From the ceiling hangs a long copper cable—or is it a placenta?—that droops down into a thick coil on the ground. The world, a blank white globe, also receives projections. The space as a whole, as in James’ Amygdala, is used to its full potential in showing how these elements play off one another. Grandfather paradox is an eerie, mesmerising work, deeply personal, with the amniotically ambivalent feel of being trapped, or held, in time/technology/space, or simply in relation to another.

My only qualm was that James’ Amygdala was installed in such a way that did not invite the audience right in. Hovering at the doorway gave one a good, but limited view. On opening night, however, we stepped right inside the work, encouraged no doubt by the size of the crowd pressing into the room. (“Notice how much more fun opening night is”, someone remarked to me, “when it’s full of performance artists?”) The installation from the inside was enriched, apposite: silhouettes of punters’ heads animated some screens. The projections, changing as you walked through them, refracted yet again (perhaps due to the layout of the room, and unavoidable).

Unfortunately I am reviewing this show after it has closed, so if you didn’t go you won’t get to see it. All you will have to go by is the divergent memories of those who did see it. Trust me, Amygdala—Fear Conditioning, Modes of Misunderstanding I & II, and 808.838 / grandfather paradox added up to one of the richest, most stimulating experiences I have had at Artspace in years.

Samuel James, Amygdala—Fear Conditioning, Modes of Misunderstanding I & II; Ms & Mr, 808.838 / grandfather paradox; Artspace, Sydney, Aug 13-Sept 10

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 54

© Fiona McGregor; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

bakchai

bakchai

bakchai

IT’S USEFUL TO THINK ABOUT THE BODY AS A SITE OF CULTURAL INSCRIPTION. ARTISTS EXPLOIT RECOGNIZABLE SYMBOLS TO EFFICIENTLY COMMUNICATE AN IDEA TO AN AUDIENCE. A THIN, BROWN-HAIRED PERFORMER WEARING NOTHING BUT A CLOTH AROUND HIS GROIN AND A CROWN OF THORNS BECOMES SHORTHAND FOR ‘JESUS’. BUT IF, AS IN THE FAMOUS EXAMPLE OF P.#06 BY SOCIETAS RAFFAELLO SANZIO, THREE CARS FALL OUT OF THE SKY BEHIND JESUS, AND JESUS GETS INTO ONE, AND IF THE BACK END (AND ONLY THE BACK END) OF A HORSE PROTRUDES FROM A DOOR IN THE STAGE-LEFT WALL, THE STAGE SYMBOLS BECOME VERY HARD TO READ. PUT TOGETHER LIKE THIS, WHAT CAN THEY MEAN?

Contrary to script-centric theories of performance that treat stage elements as texts to be deciphered by spectator-readers, many theatre artists insist on the unreadable material presence of the performer—they foreground the body in such a way that the spectator is invited to confront a performer-body as a thing-in-itself, a body you encounter with your own body. At this year’s Het Theaterfestival, a showcase of cutting-edge Flemish and Dutch theatre that takes place in Belgium, more than a few of the shows exploited the body versus word dichotomy.

bakchai

In Bakchai, a free adaptation of Euripides’ The Bacchae, performer-creator Jan Decorte (De Roovers, Belgium) stretches the tension between the readable and unreadable to the breaking point. His stroke of genius is casting Benny Claessens as the god Dionysus. We’re first introduced to Claessens as a marble-white leg that sticks out from behind two rough pieces of plywood tacked up at centrestage. The leg is huge and clearly belongs to an obese individual. Downstage three other performers, including Decorte, play the other central characters from Euripides’ tragedy. The large, unmoving leg might be the limb of a giant. With fearful anticipation I await the appearance of a massive god-body that will devastate the playing field.

Eventually Claessens emerges—naked and with hair dyed gold. He looks like an oversized cherub. At first he has his back to us. Across his shoulder blades is written, in gothic characters, the word ‘body’. This textual signifier is pointing out the thing it signifies, but by nature of being attached to the thing it signifies can’t be separated from it. The body represents itself; so it doesn’t really represent at all, it just is itself. Signifier and sign collapse into one. Of course, Decorte didn’t have to spell it out for us. There’s no denying the body-ness of Claessens’ body.

From the ancient Greek perspective Dionysus comes from exotic, decadent Asia. The sheer mass of Claessens makes the point: there’s too much of him, how did he get to be so big? Surely this is a product of the excess of the East. But the actor isn’t Asian. He’s about as white as they come. So the racial categories are destabilized. Transforming the eastern ‘darkie’ into a western ‘whitie’ highlights the hypocrisy of the western view (ancient or modern) of the Asian as ‘other’ and uncivilized. But even these cultural symbols lose their relevance in the continuing encounter between the spectators and the overpowering presence of the performer. It’s not just his size and nakedness; Claessens is the ultimate tease. He makes a show of being embarrassed by his nudity while playfully manipulating our voyeuristic impulses; he adopts a subordinate role but works it so expertly there’s no doubt about who’s in control of the encounter. With his coy, cherubic teasing, Claessens might be the ultimate child-god in a universe that defies adult rationality. It seems Decorte uses Euripides play to create a childlike game in which the life and death passions of the non-Dionysian characters are made to look ridiculously adult. What’s the queen got up her bum? Why can’t everyone just relax and get some perspective? At least Benny Claessens is having fun. We’re having fun watching him do his thing.

unfold

A number of years ago you might have seen something like Oleanna by David Mamet or a Shakespeare at this festival but they’ve been rare during the four-year directorship of Don Verboven who’s overseen a deliberate shift towards performance that doesn’t privilege the written word. This has provoked accusations of elitism. Turning away from more conventional forms has been seen as a bar to accessibility. The question for an adventurous programmer like Verboven (and the three-member juries that make the selections each year) becomes, “How far can you stretch an audience, and when do you know if you’ve gone too far?” There’s no obvious answer.

Unfold by kabinet K (Belgium) was so far removed from traditional models of theatre and dance that it was unclassifiable. Yet it was one of the most loved shows at the festival. It begins with a young girl standing with her back to us before a gauze curtain that stretches across the stage. She contemplates a column of postcards, letters, and old photographs hanging on the fabric. Behind the gauze another child appears at a microphone reciting a poem in Flemish. Then the first child exits and reappears at a sewing machine behind the gauze. It looks like she’s stitching the postcards into a strip of the same fabric. Not being a speaker of Flemish, I don’t know what the child at the microphone is saying, but about a minute into the poem laughter just sort of falls out of the audience. There’s something very genuine and relaxed about this collective response. Together, the voice of the child, the scenographic elements and the audience’s waterfall of laughter conspire to open me up to the performance event. I don’t know why I’m so full of delight and easy anticipation, but I immediately feel that with kabinet K I’m in good hands.

Images continue to appear and disappear behind the gauze: an adult male carries one of the children across the space, another man performs a brief duet with a third child; eventually the gauze is pulled away and the two men and three children create a tableau. Are they a family of sorts? One of the men picks up an electric guitar and sings a ballad, while the girl returns to the sewing machine. We enjoy a guitar and sewing machine duet. The individuals break off into tasks such as drawing a picture of a house with windows that float away from it or making a tent from a large piece of white cloth on the floor.

One of the highlights is watching the children perform a contemporary dance trio. The technique and choreography are such that the children’s bodies aren’t distorted in the way they are in ballet and some other dance techniques. The movement seems very natural to them, unforced and yet performed by the children with aesthetic focus. It’s the most enjoyable contemporary dance I’ve seen in a while.

There’s a tender balance between the two men and three children: the impression is of a functioning group that has the creative tools and understanding to deal with what comes, including crisis—although there is no crisis presented. Unfold engages us without the necessity of dramatic conflict or even of the angst or cynicism common to so many contemporary dance performances. Children and adults move, invent and sing. To me it feels pre- rather than post-dramatic. It’s as if the children haven’t yet internalized the forms of traditional dramatic structure. Is Unfold about something? The program notes say, “It’s about not being able to understand, and still being happy.”

iraqi ghosts

Maybe not understanding requires a certain kind of spectator—not an elite patron, but one who doesn’t need textual or verbal logic to have a significant performance experience. Brilliantly crafted dialogue, or even brilliantly excerpted text, can prompt a transcendent experience for a spectator. But of course words can get in the way. “Too many words,” was a frequently uttered criticism of Iraqi ghosts (Irakese geesten) by Mokhallad Rasem (Belgium). Part fable, part autobiography, Iraqi ghosts is a wild anti-war rant by five artists, three of whom are survivors of the recent invasion of Iraq. The scenes are presented in Arabic, Flemish and English. Too often they are followed by unnecessary verbal commentary. Occasionally this works in the artists’ favour: a dinner scene, in which non-stop verbiage in Arabic is punctuated by the mutilation of several melons and other parts of the meal, takes an everyday ritual to the heights of hysteria.

For me, Iraqi ghosts was most engaging when the talking stopped completely: in what felt like the eerie silence after a bombing, disoriented figures—actors with large masks over their heads—wandered the stage, dazedly trying to help one another up. The masks had grotesque and mournful expressions

They were bald and elderly, as if the trauma of war had fast-forwarded the aging process. For the first time I shifted from watching someone’s loss to feeling it. Maybe this is the genius of the piece: to bombard us with words so that in their aftermath we sit in horrified silence.

springville

If this edition of the festival needed an answer to the accusation of elitism, Springville by Miet Warlop (Belgium) was it. Instead of a text-driven story, Warlop presents a wordless landscape—by which I mean a large cardboard house on a bare stage. For the duration of the show, Buster Keaton-like antics are performed by a dining room table with human legs, a box that acts like a pet, a man with a double-length torso and the house itself, which gets up, cracks in half to reveal a smaller styrofoam house within. It’s a delightful hour of controlled chaos. As fellow writer Alexander Schackenburg put it, “It’s about nothing, and you miss nothing.” Springville is the best of early cartoon animation brought into the 3D world of the stage.

Het Theaterfestival, Antwerp, Belgium, Aug 26-Sept 4; www.theaterfestival.be

Vancouver-based writer, actor and director Alex Lazaridis Ferguson is part of an international theatre journalism exchange. He and two European journalists are investigating the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival (Canada), PAZZ (Germany) and Het Theaterfestival (Belgium). Articles by the writers are appearing in Urban Mag (Belgium), RealTime (Australia), Plank Magazine (Vancouver) and a forthcoming website dedicated to the project called Performulations (Germany).

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg.

© Alex Ferguson; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Sylphides

Sylphides

Sylphides

ANNIVERSARIES ARE A TIME TO LOOK BACK. SOME SIFTING THROUGH THE PAST, ALBEIT IN AN EFFORT TO CLEAR A PATH FOR THE FUTURE IS INEVITABLE. THE 30TH EDITION OF MONTPELLIER DANSE FOUND THE FESTIVAL IN PENSIVE MOOD; CELEBRATING A BRIGHT FUTURE IN THE PROGRAMMING OF FRESH NEW WORK, BUT ALSO RUMINATING, IN WORKS WITH DARKER SUBJECT MATTER, ON DEATH AND THE LEGACY OF DANCE ITSELF, IN AN INDUSTRY THAT HAS LOST MANY BRIGHT STARS SUCH AS PINA BAUSCH AND MERCE CUNNINGHAM IN RECENT TIMES.

bengolea & chaignaud

In the vein of young and fresh came several works by Cecilia Bengolea and François Chaignaud, a French duo currently enjoying a meteoric rise in France. Their first work, Sylphides, inhabited the darker end of things; body bags in fact. Opening on a stage strewn with three large inflatable pillows, it wasn’t long before these seemingly inanimate objects were deflated to reveal the contours of human bodies claustrophobically encased, as if smeared in tar. It was just possible to make out tiny mouthpieces protruding from each body, which allowed a small but vital flow of oxygen. Save for this, the dancers were blinded, pinned down by swathes of fabric, and doubtless restricted in hearing too. Despite these impediments, the prone bodies began seeking out one another, navigating by touch. Sinuous squirms gave way to a slow progression to standing, and finally, to extravagant pogo stick bounces throughout the space.

The success of this work arose from the improbable situation in which the dancers found themselves, and the sinister connotations of bodies helplessly trapped within a physical form. Smothered in bags resembling the receptacles into which many of us will be zipped at the end of our lives, Sylphides shrank things, both literally and metaphorically, to a matter of life and death. Watching the Pompeii-esque tableau unfurl, it was difficult not to fixate on the potential for catastrophe, if a dancer were to faint and drop their mouthpiece. It was hard not to scan for zips (there were none), and exit strategies, and in all this, notions surrounding the entrapment and limitations of the human (and dancing) body hovered. Death, it seemed, was never far away but rebirth too, especially at the work’s end when slowly, gingerly, bags were prised open to reveal a man and two women, quite alive and staring impishly out into the auditorium.

Similarly conceptually captivating, but somewhat limited in realisation was Castor et Pollux, also by Bengolea and Chaignaud. Inspired by twin godheads in Greek and Roman mythology, Castor et Pollux occupied not the stage of Montpellier’s plush Opéra Comédie, but the vast tract of space in the flies above it. Naked from the waist up and smeared in garish body paint, Bengolea and Chaignaud hung 50 feet in the air, knotted together in a sensual clinch. Movements were languid, with bodies fusing to create indefinable shapes. Initially exciting, with dizzying perspective afforded through the staging, Castor et Pollux veered unceremoniously towards the camp and mawkish. The initially ominous score became saturated with squawks and shrieks, relegating the climactic low swooping of the dancers to the category of cheap thrill. Visually arresting, this work seemed to exhaust itself and appeared overly burdened by the mythological depth which its title conjured.

william forsythe: installations

In an entirely different aesthetic vein was a series of videos by renowned choreographer William Forsythe which populated the white gallery space of the Pavillon Populaire. Through visual trickery, and intimate video depictions of Forsythe dancing and interacting with objects, the installations questioned the placement and legacies of choreography. Where in conceptual space does choreography exist for instance—at the moment of execution through movement, or previously? And what remains of choreography once enacted? In pondering the transience of the art of choreography, Forsythe’s installations became tinged with a mildly morbid air, with similarities between the nature of choreography and of human mortality itself all too evident.

One video saw Forsythe enacting a virtuosic solo in black and white. Camera angles varied, closing in on the moving body, severing limbs out of shot, then panning back to reveal the precision of the feet, or the attack and arrest of the torso. This was dancer-as-vessel of the choreography: there was wholeness to the image, a sense of the moving body as the endpoint of a choreographic train of thought. Travelling to the next screen however, one was greeted with a small monitor bearing a recognisable image of Forsythe’s face. To the saccharine lyrics of “Dancing” from the musical Hello Dolly, the mug-shot of Forsythe was severed; fading into sections which disappeared into a haze, only to slowly reform. There was a mesmeric quality to this, with comment gently provided by the incessant lyrics questioning “Now that we’re dancing who cares if we ever stop…”

In a later video, Forsythe abandoned the traditional dance canon to bind himself meticulously in heavy black rope. Two camera angles allowed differing viewpoints of the scene as he entrapped first his torso and then, more disturbingly, his neck, head and face, with imagery becoming increasingly violent. Yells, either for help or of defiance suddenly punctured the space, before the process was laboriously undone; ropes unwinding to release their captive. Albeit in a more confrontational manner, this sequence pursued the line of questioning which the preceding videos began. It attempted to open up the spaces before and after choreography, to question whether it is possible to dislocate the body from the act of choreography, and whether the idea of choreography can in fact exist in and of itself. By pushing his body to physical extremes it seemed Forsythe was testing not only physical capability but the life expectancy of the choreographic act.

Raimund Hoghe, Astrid Bas, Emmanuel Eggermont, Si je meurs, laisser le balcon ouvert

Raimund Hoghe, Astrid Bas, Emmanuel Eggermont, Si je meurs, laisser le balcon ouvert

Raimund Hoghe, Astrid Bas, Emmanuel Eggermont, Si je meurs, laisser le balcon ouvert

raimund hoghe

From musing on life and death in Sylphides, to the intangible traces of choreography and existence in Forsythe’s installations, came Si je meurs, laissez les balcons ouvert (If I die leave the balcony open), by Raimund Hoghe. Conceived originally as an homage to the late Montpellier choreographer Dominique Bagouet, Si je meurs was an exercise in learning to say farewell, in a world in which, according to Hoghe, “we have the lost the way to say goodbye”.

Often in Hoghe’s work, emotion hovers in the ether, abstracted through an oblique layering of music and deadpan gesture. Here however, it exploded outwards in contorted facial expressions and frenetic choreography. Movement was carved by gestures of defiance rather than wistful doodling, with dancers whirling about the stage in angry or mock-comic froth. A moment halfway through the piece found Hoghe coaching dancer Ornella Balestra in the art of expressing grief. Demonstrating with hands placed on his ribcage, aggressively pushing for more, more, more, Hoghe was eliciting not demure sniffles but vast, wracking sobs and gulps of air from the unfortunate Balestra.

Tracing a progression of loss and grief, the work operated at times on the cusp of frenzy: that wired, angry edge of bodies grappling with insurmountable emotion, seeking oblivion and balm. It seemed an homage not to Bagouet but to grief itself; and to the many ghosts in the dance world. Journeying from funereal tristesse and pious ceremony to the kitsch and wistfully romantic, Si je meurs finally found a bittersweet resting place. During the last moments of the work, the backdrop doors were thrown open to the night, flooding the space with twilight sounds of crickets and the pall of a lone street lamp. One dancer, Emmanuel Eggermont, remained in the fading light. Ever moving, ever dancing, he offered an indelible trace of humanity, and of choreography.

Montpellier Danse.10, Cecilia Bengolea & François Chaignaud, Sylphides, Studio Bagouet, June 30-July 1; Bengolea & Chaignaud, Castor et Pollux, Opéra Comédie, June 27-28; William Forsythe, Installations, Pavillon Populaire, June 22-July 2; Raimund Hoghe and company, Si je meurs, laissez les balcons ouvert, Théâtre de Grammont, June 3-July 1; Montpellier Danse.10, June 18-July 7

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 29

© Mary Kate Connolly; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Sweat, Branch Nebula

Sweat, Branch Nebula

Sweat, Branch Nebula

FOLLOWING THE SUCCESS OF PARADISE CITY (see review), WHICH TOURED AROUND AUSTRALIA AND TRAVELLED TO SOUTH AMERICA, SYDNEY-BASED BRANCH NEBULA’S LATEST WORK IS SWEAT, A SHOW ABOUT WORK FEATURING PARKOUR, B-BOYING, FOOTBALL, NOISE ART AND DANCE. I SPOKE WITH THE COMPANY’S DIRECTORS LEE WILSON AND MIRABELLE WOUTERS ABOUT THE SHOW FOCUSING ON JUST HOW IT WAS ENGAGING WITH ITS COMPLEX SUBJECT.

One of the challenges in creating a show about work is how to represent it. Although keen not to give too much away Wilson and Wouters seem to be aiming for a balance between representing work practices performatively and at the same time showing Sweat itself to be a form of work. Potential audiences are advised that there will be no seating and Wilson mentions that sound equipment and lights will also be on the move in the space, “but we wouldn’t want it to be read as a show about setting up a theatre show.”

What’s significant for the directors is that they’re looking at a contemporary notion of work and not in the usually anticipated factory or industrial setting: “We’re concerned particularly with low paid and services industry work that we often see around us, and at the way we engage with these services on a day-to-day basis.” Wilson explains that he’s interested “in the intimacy we can share with someone who’s providing a service for us but at the same time we have no knowledge of them—who they are or where they come from. Through the course of the show we’re interested to bridge that gap.” As for the work itself, “We try to evoke images and associations for the audience without trying to be too specific about particular forms. You might see images of cleaning, for example, but we’re more interested in issues of power and status for the low-paid worker.”

When researching and developing Sweat, Wilson says that the company “played with the idea of integrating the artists’ skills into the physical language of work but found that resulted in a ‘Cinderella’ effect. For example, mopping a floor and then transcending that into a complex choreography may be very beautiful but it just doesn’t seem very realistic. What we’ve tried to do is to have the skills entering into Sweat almost in opposition to the work—as a way of conveying something personal about the performers. It’s a way of connecting with the performers on a human level.” At the same time, says Wilson, “We’re looking at the way self-esteem is eroded by being constantly in service for very low pay and how that can affect workers psychologically.”

Wilson says “in this show our interest is not about relationships between the performers, but between performers and audience. That’s a real challenge for us. We’re very good at creating relationships between different forms, how football and B-boying might have a conversation and so on. But for Sweat, we’re supporting the artists to pursue their own practice and develop their material but also prodding and provoking them to extend that material choreographically.”

As the show’s designer, Wouters is focused on the impact for an audience entering a space without a set as such and with the staging shaped by the movement of performers and equipment. Not only is the work therefore inevitably site-specific but costumes are also important: “There’s the work wear—overalls for grunt-work—and then there’s the service work clothing—pastel colours and whites. The costumes are working really powerfully. The moment the performers put them on, they become something else.

It has to do with the invisibility of the people doing these tasks, like the cleaning that happens around you. It’s like it needs to be invisible, as if we don’t want to notice the people doing it.”

The sound for Sweat is by Hirofumi Uchino. As with the other artists in the show, Wilson says, “We’ve tried not to work with him as a sound designer, but as an artist and a noise musician. But the show is different from a noise gig where you go for an extreme experience—some of what Hiro can do feels like it’s changing your DNA. But he has enjoyed the challenge of working outside that framework. What he does with noise will reflect on the psychological aspects of continuous, monotonous or uncomfortable or dangerous or dirty work. I find that the noise in combination with the material we’re doing really does give a psychological weight to the work and has the power to shift you viscerally.”

Wilson spoke of the company’s ambitions for Sweat: “We’re certainly hoping to reach different audiences and experiment with how audiences react to it. I think it will be a unique experience because there are quite a lot of ingredients coming together, whether it’s intimate choreography performed around you or larger scale technical aspects. There are text-based elements and noise. Then there’s the combination of forms—parkour, B-boying football and dance. It’s a pretty amazing mix of stuff. At the same time I think it’s a challenging work. We haven’t set out to make a necessarily ‘pleasing’ show.” But, adds Wouters, “Although the whole set-up for the piece might be out of the ordinary and not something audiences will necessarily be used to, the actual material is quite accessible—it’s something that’s quite close to everybody’s day-to-day life.”

With an appropriately young, ethnically diverse and talented cast—a Sri Lankan soccer player (Ahilan Ratnamohan), a Colombian performance maker (Claudia Escobar), a Filipino/Spanish contemporary dancer (Marnie Palomares), a Vietnamese parkour/martial artist (David Vo), a Bboy (Erwin Fennis) and a Japanese noisician (Hirofumi Uchino)—and Branch Nebula’s trademark inventiveness, Sweat promises to be a significant comment on and a new immersive look at work.

Branch Nebula, Sweat, co-creators Mirabelle Wouters, Lee Wilson, producer Performing Lines; Performance Space, CarriageWorks, Oct 19-30, www.branchnebula.com; tickets www.ticketmaster.com.au

See the RT Studio entry of Sweat in development

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg.

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net