the underground's big day out

adam jasper inside underbelly at carriageworks

SATURDAY NIGHT, THE MAIN EVENT FOR THE INAUGURAL UNDERBELLY FESTIVAL, WAS A PACKED HOUSE, A SELL OUT AT $25 A POP. THERE WERE DISCO DANCERS IN ROLLER SKATES, PUPPET SHOWS, VIDEO INSTALLATIONS AND BAROQUE LIVING DOLLS. THE EMPHASIS WAS ON SIMULTANEITY, A GIANT SHOW & TELL IN WHICH EVERYONE WAS TALKING AT ONCE, AND IT WORKED A TREAT.

Many of the most radical performance groups in Sydney were there, most of them so underground and so subversive that in a generation they’ll be blind and albino and have ASIO files devoted to them. The sum effect was of a carnival. The general public—and it really was a cross section, drawn in by the repeated articles in the media—wandered for hours amongst shows scattered throughout the building, sometimes genuinely astounded by what they found.

Administrators must have jumped at the chance to introduce some avant garde hip into the brand new CarriageWorks when Imogen Semmlar brought them her plans for Underbelly, a massive indoor public arts festival, in which dozens of groups of invited artists would baptise the building by doing…uh…stuff. They must be young, cool, and unrecognised, and consequently prepared to give their all for a shot at fame. Or just for the chance to hang out in a new space with other young artists. They would consecrate the space, give it that aura that only virgin sacrifices can achieve.

The rules of play were as follows: two weeks development time, all rehearsals to be open to the public, minimal funding. The incentive: free run of the building, a possible share in the proceeds, and a chance to be exposed to the almighty glare of an official venue and all of the blessings and curses that brings in its wake. Many of the performances were explicitly conceived as preparatory sketches for later shows. This is a good thing, as we can anticipate some great spin off events from Underbelly in the coming months.

Charlie Garber, Simon Greiner, Nick Coyle and Claudia O’Dougherty were clear house favourites with Pig Island. Ironically, theirs was the most conservative of the productions staged, being a straightforward play augmented with some improvisation. The plot centres on a pleasingly eccentric but doomed British aristocrat (Charlie Garber) unable to come to terms with modernity (Nick Coyle and Claudia O’Dougherty) or the possession of his 12 year-old puppet daughter with the restless soul of a 19th century Devonshire boy. Audiences were repeatedly and unnervingly transfixed by Garber railing in an upper class accent against the evils of puberty and travel over 30 km/h.

Similarly successful was Eddie Sharp’s Dance to the Max, a cinema remix of the Mad Max epics, performed by Mr Sharp, Kenzie McKenzie and Zoe Coombs Marr as a live voiceover with the aide of an extraordinarily proficient foley team—the way they managed to render the sound of a man walking in tight leather pants with only the use of a balloon and a sensitive microphone boggled more than the mind. In the new version, the villain Humongous is a kindly hippy who organises bush doofs and arrives with his army to announce a performance by techno artistes called HTML legends, and the imminent erection of a chai tent. The project is objectively hilarious, and will do well.

Jamie Gerlach took a blow for the Token group by almost severing his finger with a circular saw. Now, after some microsurgery and appearing on the TV show, RPA, he can nearly make a fist again. Token made an installation, a house warming party for a mythical man called Sidney, an engineer who might have been part of the Sydney Push, or then again, not, and who might have donated his body and all of his possessions to the arts or, then again, perhaps never existed. It half worked. Most people didn’t get the joke, which might have been made more clear by including Sidney’s coffin in the installation.

Phoebe Torzillo and Janie Gibson created a movement work in which Phoebe was murdered and her body dragged around the venue. The victim died like clockwork every hour, and the dance was performed with extraordinary grace and professionalism, allowing at several times, without flinching, for her face to be dragged along the concrete floor (!) as Janie humped her lifeless corpse around the foyer. It’s a bitter twist, and perhaps an intentional metaphor, that Phoebe and Janie—like many others on the night—are graduates of the combative Lan Franchis School of Performance. And speaking of Lan Franchis—what a terrible loss to Sydney its closure has been. All the arts launches and lunches in the continent couldn’t save it. Lan Franchis was a dirty speak-easy, a firetrap, and a source of countless noise complaints, and even if ArtsNSW had ever approved of it, it would have been closed on the spot for violating every OHS rule in the book. But it played host to more talent and better shows than the Opera House, and now it’s gone and there is nothing like it and there won’t be anything like it until the economy collapses or liquor licensing laws are liberalised, whichever comes first. All the while, Post mumbled lies to each other in a cold hotel room.

The Vespertine Project and Tetranomicon made perhaps the best use of the volume of the space, by filling it with architectonic projections with a hint of Albert Speer and roaming through the venue alarming guests, and Meem were allegedly excellent, but I was always somewhere else when they performed. That was the joy of the event, the pleasure of a carnival in which there is too much gelatinous popping and sliding, too much squealing and wailing, to take everything in, let alone name it.

underbelly, CarriageWorks, July 3-14

RealTime issue #80 Aug-Sept 2007 pg. 44

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

1 August 2007