Journeys across words and water

Sue Moss

Muirne Bloomer, Ballads

Muirne Bloomer, Ballads

10 Days on the Island, Tasmania’s first international festival of islands, offered a feast of physical theatre, visual arts, dance, music, literature, film, cuisine and sculpture installations. These elements combined to generate a frisson of excitement across 32 towns and
80 venues.

Robyn Archer’s program design enabled her to negotiate Tasmania’s fraught politics of localism while modelling the shape and energy of a festival decentralised away from Hobart. Her strategy introduced Tasmanian audiences to the excitement and diversity of the arts experience through performances by assured companies with immediate and accessible programs.

From this plethora of performances, CoisCëim Dance Theatre’s Ballads, Compania Segundo’s No 2 and Theatre Talipot’s The Water Carriers stimulated our desire for lost voices through reclamation of the orality and alterity of Irish, Pacific and La Reunion Islander cultures.

Books scattered, bundled and piled in dishevelled heaps provide the central and recurring motif of Ballads. Cellist/dancer Diane O’Keeffe lies covered by her cello, emblematic of a coffin lid. Rising from the grave on an angled board she scrapes and bows the sound of her diminished and famished self. Choreographer and director David Bolger unequivocally situates the audience in the grey unfolding of the Great Irish Famine and the Irish diaspora. CoisCëim dance the space of hunger, death and dispersal. Bolger’s choreographic style is that of narrative abstraction, fully utilising the devices of physical and dance theatre.

This production encouraged speculation on the globalisation of the book as a theatrical device. The Irish tenants of English and neo-English landholders were illiterate. Their narrative mode was the voice of story. Books codified morals and registered land holdings, weight and tonnage, profit, births, deaths and marriages. In Ballads the frenzy and fluttering of leaves of paper provides a record of both the dead and departing; the inter/leaving of stories.

Dancers Muirne Bloomer, James Hosty, Lisa McLoughlin, Jonathan Mitchell and Katherine O’Malley are finely honed in their physical responses to score and story. The finesse of their ensemble work, the staccato and stutter of their isolations and contractions invoked power and subtlety. Theirs is a dynamic of gravitas. The emphasis on each dancer’s audible breath provided an extra sound pulse as a reminder of the physical demands of dance and accent to the horror of death by starvation.

Ballads resonates with the wreckage of lives; of the broken blatherers and botherers of Ireland dispersed across aisles of ocean in a diaspora of phytophthora, the blight that caused the potato’s withering. Islands continue to disperse and receive peoples for whom old alliances are severed. The story lies mute in the mouth, furled for resurgence into another frenzy of word, a continuing record of the misplaced, unclaimed and differently named.

Writer Toa Fraser’s compassionate and humorous script is brilliantly enhanced by Madeleine Sami’s solo performance about family life in No 2. A single red spot on a solitary red chair establishes the domain of Nana Maria, the elderly matriarch of a rambunctious Fijian family. She moans and mourns her age, her departed husband and living in a house without singing, dancing, feasting and fighting. She decides that today she will name her successor. Her grandchildren will prepare a great feast day like they do in Sicily. Through a succession of deft movements Sami adroitly establishes the mannerisms of 9 characters as they prepare for the feast, cook the pig, discuss, dismiss and establish their claims to be named as Nana Maria’s successor.

Fraser and Sami reveal their lives through a performance which imbues each character with the fullness, foible and failure of family story. References to former and present colonising influences and icons are scattered: the royal family, the Catholic church, rugby, hip hop, race and class distinctions. No 2 is engaging theatre. The joi de vivre of Sami’s characters capture the weaving of English, Fijian and Maori cultures, inflecting each character’s aspirations; from Tyson’s dream of rugby fame and educational achievement to Hibiscus’ posturing as a wannabee model, to Sol’s seductive hip hop routine. Madeleine Sami is a young performer retelling the space of old story and familial connections through contemporary idiom and gesture.

A recurring motif of 10 Days is the turn and return of voices, as fragments of sound and utterance are shaped into theatre that wounds our logic and shifts imagination. Theatre Talipot’s The Water Carriers claims and renames Indian Ocean myth, memory and magic through physical theatre of intense immanence.

The Water Carriers is potent and prescient theatre for an increasingly water-starved world. The stark stage design establishes the vertigo of deep thirst. A river once provided the connecting thread between people occupying the mountains, the valley and the sea. The river as bearer and supporter of life has dried into a gorge. “Sing again water”, the dancers intone, “are you sleeping?” A shifting repertoire of voice and body is established through the precision and energy of the performers. Four dancers hallucinate across deserts, summon water from dried springs, and convincingly cross gender at the well of women.

The absence of water projects the performers into an obeisance of ritual and practical strategies. These include dance, percussion, and the weave of harmonic voices to entice the sky to deliver water through invocations of memory, fragments of song, sayings and dances. Their success will enable the roots of the talipot tree to glisten, moistened throats to resume the story, and a river to flow renewing peoples and their worlds again.

Water surrounds, connects with and separates all island cultures. The journey across water is an informing motif for all island inhabitants. 10 Days on the Island showcased international companies alongside high calibre Tasmanian visual artists and performers. Robyn Archer’s strategy of dispersing representatives of island cultures around the island state will hopefully ensure a strong and enthusiastic audience base for the 2003 celebration of islands and arts diversity.

Ballads, CoisCëim Dance Theatre, director/choreographer David Bolger, Theatre Royal, Hobart, March 30 – April 2; No 2, Compania Segundo, writer Toa Fraser, performer Madeleine Sami, director Catherine Boniface, Peacock Theatre, Hobart, April 4-8; The Water Carriers , Theatre Talipot, writer/artistic director Phillipe Pelen Baldini, composer/ interpreter Ricky Randimbiarison, choreographer Savitry Nair, Princess Theatre, Launceston, April 5-6

RealTime issue #43 June-July 2001 pg. 25

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

1 June 2001