To drive the work, compel the listening

Mary Ann Hunter

Margaret Cameron, Knowledge and Melancholy

Margaret Cameron, Knowledge and Melancholy

According to founder, Jill Greenhalgh, the international Magdalena Project emerged from anger at the suppression of women’s voices and frustration with the consequent lukewarm quality of their theatre. This fuelled a desire to create not ‘a women’s theatre’, but a forum in which women could cultivate greater discipline and rigour in their work and develop performance that would “compel the listening.”

That was almost 20 years ago and at the recent Magdalena Australia Festival at the Brisbane Powerhouse this aim was clearly still alive although anger seemed to be a less central motivating force. The annual Magdalena festivals have been likened to trade union meetings, lacking a secure funding base and geographic home, they’re hosted by artists with a passion and heightened sense of responsibility. In this case, actor Dawn Albinger conceived the colossal Brisbane event with her tireless Sacred COW performance collaborators Scotia Monkivitch and Julie Robson. With a steering committee and Indigenous working group, they aimed to ensure that Australia’s first Magdalena Festival was artistically engaging, culturally diverse, and grounded in the values and traditions of Indigenous peoples. For 10 days, delegates shared their work—at varied stages of development—and proffered performances, workshops, yarnin’ circles and debates. And while the Magdalena mantle may have changed considerably given the feminist impact on contemporary performance over the past 2 decades, the organisation continues to be driven by the work that women create, rather than by the ideologies that fuel it.

Coordinated by Kooemba Jdarra, the Indigenous program included workshops in contemporary movement and gospel choir, a screening of Black Chicks Talking with Leah Purcell, a dedicated Indigenous women’s meeting place, and a series of afternoon yarnin’ circles covering topics such as Indigenous protocols and intergenerational work. During the opening ceremony, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women shared stories and dances; a highlight was Aunty Delmay Barton’s extraordinary operatic voice singing us forward onto the festival proper. Similarly, the final yarnin’ circle in New Farm Park with Murri elders Aunty Vi McDermott and Aunty Ruth Heggarty enabled a spiritual and symbolic closure for delegates, providing sacred space to reflect on the past and give voice to the future.

The festival’s public performance program featured over 40 shows and offered all the pleasurable intertextualities and associated frissons that more generously funded and slickly-curated theatre festivals try so hard to provide. For the most part, the theme “Theatre-Women-Travelling” was interpreted metaphorically, with personal and spiritual journeying featuring in a number of pieces. Various approaches to stage-managing multiple truths in solo work created interesting generic points of reference, and debates about the ontology of theatre and corporeal presence filtered into a variety of performances and discussions.

Dah Teatar

An undisputed highlight of the festival was the poetically provocative Cirque Macabre by Belgrade’s Dah Teatar. Literally a circus dance of death, it was at once playful and violent, comedic and sinister. The misplaced hopes of the 20th century are embodied in 5 travelling players who create their arena—a wall-less circus tent—and deliver the cheerless refrains of a passionate and bloody era. Clad in evening wear, variously accessorised with army jackets and business suits, dance performers Aleksandra Jeli and Maja Miti march, writhe, distend and fall to the ongoing strains of piano accordion, double bass and violin. They perform dark tangos and “obscure circus acts” of lost balance, human powerplay and “double direction”, while the sombre and beautiful musicians are the ever-present observers, often suffering collateral damage as they counterpoint the dance or mark historical moments. The performance refuses stasis—each episode draws us inexorably into another of equal surprise and allure. With army boots balanced on shoulders, Jeli and Miti engage in a vigorous dance-off that reaches knife-edge agitation. The violinist lies down to play, without losing a beat. A routine facial shave is meticulously executed during a roll call of international commissions for conflict resolution and peace. Listed one after the other, the meetings “all account for nothing” while voice-overs of Bertolt Brecht and Martin Luther King ground the paradox of it all. Truths shimmer and dissolve in Dah’s work as we are instructed “it is only in the dark, that the stars are best seen.”

Cristina Castrillo and Margaret Cameron

“I didn’t want to do a show. What shall I call it? A performance, a thing…a…?” Umbral means threshold and is the title of Cristina Castrillo’s solo work which enthralled with its self-reflexivity and quiet parody on the process of conceiving theatre. Part narrative, part demonstration, Castrillo (of Teatro delle Radici, Argentina/ Switzerland) seamlessly merges the 2 modes with remarkable stage presence and wit. She embodies her dictum that “realness cannot just be found in verisimilitude”, demonstrating for herself and her audience-guests “how to be real and true without [producing] a single truth.” It was a life and art-affirming work that made me yearn for repeat viewing. As did Margaret Cameron’s Knowledge and Melancholy, a revelatory performance in its manipulation of the time/space/body of memory-truth. Shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Louis Esson Prize for Drama in 1998, the piece is a testament to the value of ongoing creative development and repeated outings. Further complexities have been mined as a result of Cameron’s collaboration with American dance teacher Deborah Hay on the choreography of her solo character’s lyrical and evocative journey through landscapes of absence and grief. Another so-called “lecture/demonstration”, the autobiographical work is rich with striking textual play and underscored with a sense of curiosity that balances its potentially disarming darkness. Cameron’s character is at once stoic and vulnerable, personifying the vexed state of melancholy.

Stace Callaghan

Personifications of a different kind were found in Stace Callaghan’s Between Heaven and Earth drawn from the experiences of St Teresa of Avila, Hildegard von Bingen, Freda du Faur and Muriel Cadogan. Callaghan skilfully tensions the physical with the metaphysical by centring these pioneering women’s narratives in the disjunctions of their obsessions and quests—for spiritual enlightenment, a sense of achievement, love. The accompanying video text, which features Callaghan scaling the grafittied cliffs of the Powerhouse with measured calm, provides a resonant contrast to her onstage shamanistic convulsions and punishing callisthenics. The shocking revelation of the fate of lovers Cadogan and du Faur at the hands of medical and religious establishments brings a highly charged sense of the political to a piece centred in experiences of the heart and soul.

Julia Varley

The much anticipated Dona Musica’s Butterflies by Julia Varley was another solo narration, but one that failed to ‘compel the listening.’ Directed by Eugenio Barba (Odin Teatret, Denmark), Varley plays Dona Musica, a character whose originating text (and reason to exist) is soon to be no more. Three personas—Dona Musica, ‘the actress’ and ‘Julia’—deliberate on the causes and consequences of this situation, with treatises on subatomic particles, illusion and transformation flitting through the text like Varley’s ever-changing prop of the butterfly. By all accounts Varley has been performing this piece for a very long time and, to many, it simply felt tired.

New media performance

More high-tech in its interface with notions of multiplicity was Swim—An Exercise in Remote Intimacy, a “raw work” showing by Avatar Body Collision. Performed live by “globally distributed performers” Helen Varley Jamieson, Vicki Smith (NZ), Karla Ptacek (UK) and Leena Saarinen (Finland), Swim was an investigation of intimacy and its discontents when devoid of physical proximity. As Varley Jamieson, the lone corporeal presence on stage, opens her laptop and logs on, she seeks intimacy with distant friends. She initially experiments with remote voyeurism by undressing for the webcam while some of her mates—whom we see simultaneously on screen—return the favour, an act witnessed in mechanistic time-delayed fragments. Together, they then enter ‘The Palace’, an online environment, adopting avatars and playing out mythical lovers’ fantasies. Admittedly disengaged once the avatars took over, I nevertheless caught myself empathising with Varley Jamieson’s lone figure left at performance end once the screen darkened and the laptop was folded. Less focused but more ambitious was S/W/ITCHES’ The Physics Project (Leah Mercer and Amantha May), which used simultaneous remote performance to trial the application of physics to the soft science of relationships. Like Swim, this work-in-progress was fettered by generally awkward webcam technology that is yet to successfully translate simultaneity. Yet it was this very limitation that created unexpected delights such as ironic slippages of action and response-time in the remote feed. It is difficult to know how history will treat these early experiments but, as Performance Space Director Fiona Winning commented in a festival forum on the topic, many new media artists internationally are grappling with similar difficulties. And while many at the forum failed to be convinced of the viewing pleasures of this kind of work, it provoked interesting debate on what is meant by ‘presence’ in live performance.

And more…

There was, of course, much more to the festival: Vulcana Women’s Circus’ seriously sexy new community show, the spectacle of Taiwan’s Uhan Shii Theatre and Teatro Nomad’s poignant Landless—7 Attempts Crossing the Strait. There was a range of engaging works-in-progress such as Geddy Ankisdal’s politically sassy theatrical concert No Doctor for the Dead, Sacred COW’s The Quivering, Angela Betzein’s Wicked Bodies for Zen Zen Zo, and an insightful improvised demonstration by Sarah Cathcart and Amanda Owen of their collaborative work processes. “Aotearoa Day”, inspired by traditional Maori rituals of encounter and hosted by members of Magdalena Aotearoa with Tii Kouka, was a celebratory feast of traditions, new work and cabaret, while off-site Christine Johnstone and Lisa O’Neill presented their gloriously gothic cabaret concert, Pianissimo at QPAC and Sheila’s Shorts showcased 4 darkly humorous new works by young Brisbane artists at Metro Arts.

Last mention, though, to an unlikely feature with an enduring effect. Waiting Not Drowning formed a treasured double-bill with Cirque Macabre early in the festival. Originally written by Sue Broadway in January 2002 as part of the Australian Women’s Clown Project, this version was devised with director Therese Collie and Fleur Evans. Collie’s pre-show ushering/security lazzi made way for the classic clowning of Broadway and Evans whose characters contrasted delightfully in appearance, temperament and acoutrements. Two people waiting, 2 people fronting nameless authority, 2 people eventually stripped of all possessions (including big shoes, fake nose and polyester Tom Jones collar). For a brief moment, the clowns morph into faceless travellers (or are they refugees?) alone yet not…waiting, waiting. For me this downtime was just long enough to recall images of the Tampa alongside all journeys of indefinite destination. As the characters reluctantly parted, Waiting Not Drowning encapsulated the multidimensionality of the festival theme but, perhaps more central to Magdalena’s creed, it compelled a special kind of listening—the kind that’s enabled best through laughter.

Magdalena Australia Festival, Theatre-Women-Travelling, International Festival of Women in Contemporary Theatre, artistic director Dawn Albinger, executive director Scotia Monkivitch, forum co-oridnator Julie Robson, Brisbane Powerhouse, April 6-16

Performing Lines and Performance Space will be bringing Margaret Cameron’s Knowledge and Melancholy to Sydney in August.

RealTime issue #55 June-July 2003 pg. 7-8

© Mary Ann Hunter; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2003
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