Thursday, June 29, 2006

Meow Meow’s Beyond Glamour: The Absinthe Tour, part of alt.cabaret/not at Sydney Opera House (Friday June 30)

UPDATE, OCTOBER 2007: BEYOND BEYOND GLAMOUR: THE REMIX is at the Spiegeltent in Melbourne, for the International Arts Festival, from October 17 to October 23. Wednesday to Sunday at 9.30pm, then Monday and Tuesday at 11:30pm.

“Making people laugh is the best thing that I can think of doing. Making people laugh and making people think.”

UPDATE, NOVEMBER 15, 2006: Melissa Madden Gray can be seen in the Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Tomfoolery -- performing songs by Tom Lehrer -- from tonight through to December 16 at the Arts Centre Playhouse.

Melissa Madden Gray is to Meow Meow what Michelle Pfeiffer is to Catwoman, not so much an alter-ego as an altered ego. They’re both sexy as hell, but you’ve gotta make your choice: blonde or brunette? Law- and fine arts-graduate homecoming queen or Parisian Eurotramp? Do you like dancer’s high-arched trainers or stainless steel stilettos?

International singing sensation Meow Meow is in Sydney this week to do to local audiences what the French did to Mururoa Atoll... test some thermonuclear material out on it.

Meow Meow has become something of a sustaining role for the “blonde and booby-looking” Madden Gray. Meow is a blowsy, temperamental, “grotesque-slash-sexy” Eurotrash cabaret singer. “Through her own belief in her own mythology, she creates it,” says Madden Gray.

Meow sings crazy French ’60s pop songs, Piazzolla tangos and Kurt Weill... all the songs that Madden Gray loves singing. But then you are just as likely to see Madden Gray singing in a bog standard musical (she was Hedy La Rue in the Production Company’s How to Succeed in Business) as you are in a Mikel Rouse talk-show opera.

Days after a one-off performance in Melbourne at the L’Oreal Fashion Festival Gala, Madden Gray sang and danced Piazzolla tangos at the Berlin Philharmonic’s thousand-seat Kammermusiksaal. She has performed in a SoHo shop window (on Broadway, of course, darling!) flanked by go-go dancers, lectured at Princeton, performed for some Perth school children, and kicked up her long long legs in Shanghai at Michelle Garnaut’s Glamour Bar. Her accompanist, there, was legendary downtown avant-jazz pianist Anthony Coleman, who has worked with everyone from John Zorn to Iggy Pop.

Don’t be deceived by the gorgeous Karl Giant portraits. Meow Meow is as dangerous as Karen Finley doused with honey. Beware her sting. Madden Grays honours thesis was on performance art and pornography, and Annie Sprinkle in particular. She has also studied performance art in Berlin.

“Performing Meow Meow is another way of deconstructing that traditional cabaret repertoire and [mixing] it with an avant-garde sound. She’s very extreme but she’s also very accessible. She’s a clown, really. And people can tap into the funny side of her or the bleak side of her.”

“She’s like an old-time cabaret performer who works in multimedia. She’s grappling with the death of one form of entertainment, her continuing compulsion to create and her absolute need for celebrity and adoration. But there’s a genuine passion for music that she sings. That’s real.” Madden Gray is no stranger to the Opera House Studio, where she performs Friday night as part of the alt.cabaret/not series.

For a few mad days in January 2003, Madden Gray was making sketch comedy for the Seven Network in Melbourne, by day, and performing in Max Lyandvert’s “holocaust opera” Close Your Little Eyes in Sydney, by night. “It was quite grueling because I was rehearsing them both at the same time.”

Gruelling and more than a little surreal.

“I had just done a pastiche of Ursula Andress on the beach for the opening titles of [TV show] Big Bite, then had to race to the airport. I arrived for a costume fitting at the Opera House with fake brown tan and sparkles on me, and salt in my hair. It was hilarious.”

Meow Meow is a persona that Madden Gray dons for hours or even days at a time. She’s gone to a wedding, in Australia, as Meow. She even ended up at the 5oth birthday party of Vagina Monologue-author Eve Ensler as her brunette doppelganger. Oddly, Meow Meow is biggest in two of the world’s notoriously humourless markets: the USA and Germany.

“Maybe she’s easy to perform there because the taboos are greater. It’s easier to shock, or titillate or to play with it than somewhere else.”

Meow Meow is a political lightning rod, too. Heckled in America for being French, post 9/11, Meow Meow is also the darling of the smoker set in New York for daring to chain smoke on-stage. “I’ll usually have three in my hand. People congratulate me for flouting the [strict New York] laws, but they’re theatrical cigarettes. I don’t actually smoke!”

“I can’t control how people react. What I think is funny, you think is political. It’s like that line: what turns me on is erotic, what turns you on is pornographic.”
“The politics of performance are interesting to me, but I’m very aware that I’m... I worry about the theatre and music becoming, you know... I don’t want it to be for a small number in the know, I do want to be performing and entertaining people. Otherwise it’s irrelevant. You’ve gotta be making people laugh or think.

[Meow Meow] to me, has been a really fantastic vehicle. Aside from the other fantastic work I get to do with ensembles. Using comedy and this grotesque-slash-sexy character has completely opened up the possibilities of what I can say on stage...”

Meow Meow’s Beyond Glamour: The Absinthe Tour is the first performance in the Sydney Opera House’s cabaret season, alt.cabaret/not.

There's more information at the Opera House web site.

All photographs by Karl Giant. (Click on the images to see full-size.)

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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Kelvin Coe and Michela Kirkaldie in Scheherazade (Photograph: Branco Gaica)

Kelvin Coe and Michela Kirkaldie in The Australian Ballet’s 1980 production of Scheherazade, by Mikhail Fokine. This extraordinary photograph was taken by Branco Gaica. (Click on the image to see full size.)

The Australian Ballet is performing a classic early Ballets Russes program in Melbourne at the moment, with a triple-shot of works by Mikhail Fokine: Les Sylphides, Le Spectre de la Rose and a new-look Scheherazade.

Spectre is new to the company, though not new to the country. It uses a set designed and built for American Ballet Theatre. Les Sylphides (not to be confused with the two-act story ballet La Sylphide, the one with the kilt-wearing two-timer and a witch named Madge... hmm, not unlike Neighbours) is regarded as the first abstract ballet. The company has racked up almost 300 performances of Sylphides since it was included in the repertoire in the company’s first year of operation, 1962.

Scheherazade was first tackled by The Australian Ballet in 1980. I don’t think it has been performed since.

The same program will be mounted at the Sydney Opera House in November.

Incidentally, the late Don McMurdo photographed the exact moment that Gaica shot, above. McMurdo’s colour photograph is in the National Library of Australia’s collection, and can be seen here.

Photograph used with permission. Thanks to Natalie and Vanessa at The Australian Ballet.

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Saturday, June 24, 2006

With A Bullet: The Album Project. Curated by Natalie Cursio. Artshouse, North Melbourne Town Hall, until July 1.

With A Bullet: The Album Project. Eight dance ‘shots’ by Simon Ellis, Luke Hockley, Gerard Van Dyck, Shannon Bott, Phillip Gleeson, Natalie Cursio, Michelle Heaven and Jo Lloyd.

Set and lighting design by Matt Delbridge, costumes designed by Paula Levis and constructed by Naomi Van Dyck.

“In 1983, English Band Yes released their twelfth album titled 90125, the same year I started ballet lessons. One of my older sisters and I found my brother’s copy of the album, we pushed the furniture in the lounge room aside and made a dance to Owner of a Lonely Heart. This dance was the first of many that were performed in front of the Lloyd family... (Jo Lloyd, choreographer, dancer)

This is such a brilliant, populist, entertaining idea for an evening of dance, it’s hard to believe Gideon Obarzanek didn’t come up with it first! As it is, Gideon’s company, Chunky Move, is “maximising” the project. I assume that means providing cash and/or resources and taking on the role of co-producer.

The idea -- and it is Natalie Cursio’s idea -- is this: ask a group of choreographers to pick the music they first choreographed to, and to re-use it anew. In any way they like. It doesn’t have to be a recreation or a homage to the past or even, necessarily, nostalgic.

Nat calls the eight short works in With A Bullet “dance singles.”

It’s a fun idea, obviously. And virtually guaranteed to bring together poppy, hi-energy music which will bring out the joy and euphoria -- the freeing, heart-busting creativity -- associated with finding a voice... or, rather, the physical equivalent of a voice.

Musically, it’s a fairly even split between “oh my god, how embarrassing!” (the worst of Vangelis and Yes) and “yay, what a great song” (the best of Cyndi Lauper and The Who). What’s more interesting, though, is how the choreographers deal -- and occasionally fail to deal -- with the baggage the music carries.

At the end of the first piece, Simon Ellis’s Tight (danced to ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’), I scribbled in my notepad: Music 1, Dance Nil. Bravely, Ellis tried to resist the music. He imposed an orderly little story about an infatuation with a scooter-riding man on a rampantly energetic and anarchic song. Shannon Bott and Natalie Cursio executed some skippily well-drilled make-up routines... preparation for a hot date in front of tiny mirrors. Okay, okay, we get the point: dating this guy is a fun-ending, girlhood-ending choice... but audiences just wanna have fun too!

Using the done-to-death music from Chariots of Fire, Luke Hockley has created a piece -- Sensation Hunting -- that presents the moment in his life when his interest in athletics and gymnastics became something more ‘artistic’ (shall we say). Three men (Simon Ellis, Jacob Lehrer and Gerard Van Dyck) warm-up with soft-kicking handstands and then easy cartwheels. They’re joined by Bott and Cursio. They sprint to-and-fro, randomly breaking ranks. Hockley’s piece works on a number of levels. It reminds us of the physical joy of fitness and exertion and, inevitably, it reminds us of the competition and cameraderie in Chariots of Fire.

Van Dyck also uses film music for his piece, The Magnificent Something. He takes a section from Ghostbusters and, like Hockley, gives us a (tricksy, cartoon-like) piece that trades on the film’s content but also gives its audience a sly wink. There are skeleton costumes, mock murders and conjuring tricks.

The fourth piece -- Shannon Bott’s Won’t : Might : Does -- is the first to break the spell of the music. It does so with an inspired bit of dramaturgy. Bott takes a song by Dave Warner -- yep, that’s Dave Warner “from the suburbs” -- about persuading a girl that “no” might mean “maybe” or even, gasp, “yes!” and she enacts it (if you like) in the back seat of a car.

It’s all very minimal, to begin with. The movement is restrained, gestural, tiny. And the sound is deliberately tinny, piped through 1980-style car speakers mounted (no pun intended) on an little esky, upstage.

As the passion starts to burn, the fidelity of the music peaks. Bott and Van Dyck leap off the bench seat and execute a riotously funny routine in which they are joined at the lips, like a pair of kissing gourami, the Thai goldfish. Bott reminds us, though, that she made this dance when she was in Grade 4! So the reality is a bit of hand-holding.

I can hardly bring myself to describe Phillip Gleeson’s piece, ‘on’ Jacob Lehrer. Er... I don’t want to spoil the surprise. It’s probably enough if I say it includes butt-shrugging, winking and clenching. It’s very indulgent, very weird and, at times, almost painfully funny.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Natalie Cursio’s own piece is the killer app of the night. If I had an idea this good, I’d want to curate an evening of works allowing me to show it off too! Mild Things is a perfectly-formed mini-movie. Cursio puts a frame around a Leif Garrett song. It’s more than a frame, really. It whacks the song on an easel as well. Like Tight, Mild Things has an extended spoken word introduction. It is a recording of a reading by a psychic or an astrologer, warning a woman to be wary of another woman in her life who might not have her best interests at heart.

Meanwhile, Bott, Ellis and Jo Lloyd take turns at posing each other, moving each other like mannequins, showing us the complexity of their professional/personal triangle. Once the music kicks in, things get really interesting visually. Cursio actually uses an empty frame as a framing device. It’s something that’s been done recently in music videos. I’m thinking Arcade Fire, but I know that’s not right band. Someone of that ilk tho. Ultra modern, technologically. (Which Arcade Fire clips, patently, are not!)

But in narrative terms, Cursio’s “video” is pure 1980s. Like one of those extended clips that Cyndi Lauper did for the Goonies movie, all adventure and melodrama. Yes. ‘Melodrama’ is exactly right. A little, soapy operetta. It’s quite brilliant. Dazzlingly witty and fun.

If anyone could follow this impossible act, it would be Michelle Heaven. Or Jo Lloyd.

Heaven gives us ballet rebellion. Within the confines of a rectangle of light, her dancer (Gerard Van Dyke) uses his learning -- his learned technique -- for evil not good. A fur-wearing, drink-swilling, chain-smoking teacher (?) looks on... or, rather, fails to look on.

Though the photograph doesn’t quite capture the colours, the jumpsuits in Jo Lloyd’s piece, simply entitled Yes, are the most gorgeous pastels. They look like fruit tingles.

The dancers toss and spin each other around; they bang into one another like whirling coloured pencils. Cursio, Lehrer, Lloyd herself and Van Dyck remind us of where we are, in history, with some high-kicking “genre” dance I guess you’d call it. We’re post-Hot Gossip and, maybe post New Romancer. Maybe early Simple Minds? Intense, energetic, kinda grown-up... but definitely still clubby.

Here we have a one-all draw. A perfect outcome.

This show had its first night audience buzzing, trading stories about Cat Stevens and Billy Idol, liturgical dance and karaoke. It was a welcome reminder that mod and po-mo aren't all that far apart...

N.B. All of the images are medium-to-high res, and can be enlarged by clicking on them. Main photograph by Pete Brundle.

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Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Australian Ballet: bodytorque 3 -- face the music, Sydney Theatre; and the demise of Dance Works...

bodytorque 3 -- face the music. Works by Phillip Adams, Kristy Biggs, Timothy Farrar, Tim Harbour and Paul Knobloch. The Australian Ballet. Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay, June.

A staff member at Chunky Move told me a couple of weeks back that the audience for contemporary dance in Australia was .7% of the adult population. Now, I’m hoping that he got the decimal point in the wrong place -- easy enough to do -- as the total attendance by his reckoning wouldn’t hit six figures, nationally.

In the late 1990s, the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated that the audience for all types of dance came it at around 9 percent, with contemporary scratching just 6%. The ABS put the total over-15 audience for contemporary dance at 840,000.

That, to me, seems like an astoundingly large number, even taking into account the contemporary work of major dance companies like Sydney Dance and the Australian Ballet. I’d be amazed if total tickets sold was anywhere near that number. Even including ballet sales.

Tzu-Chao Chou in Action Ritual by Kristy Biggs
(photograph Branco Gaica, click to enlarge)

In Melbourne, a 12 performance run of Giselle ends on Monday. That production sold especially well, nearly filling the 2000-seat State Theatre. The Australian Ballet had its usual 20 performance season at the Opera House, in May, also of Giselle. The opera theatre is smaller, around 1600 seats, but has a substantially greater tourist trade -- visitors will see virtually anything that’s on at the Opera House -- allowing the company to sell more tickets and sell them at a higher price: $120 versus $99 for a premium seat, $100 versus $89 for A reserve, $88 versus $78 for B reserve, and so on.

So, if the Australian Ballet has a sell-out season in Melbourne, its sales will be around the 24,000 mark. It performs five separate seasons in Melbourne. The company would be pretty happy, one imagines, with annual ticket sales in Melbourne of 100,000, and 150,000 in Sydney. Visits to other capitals are still few and far between.

A contemporary dance season at Arts House -- the old North Melbourne Town Hall -- even by a name choreographer like Sue Healey, might pull a nightly audience of fifty-or-so over a five night season. That figure is barely one percent of the audience Giselle has pulled in the same city.

When the Australia Council reported on the prospects for contemporary dance nationally, it was typically blunt. Not only was the audience small, the disposable incomes of audience members were correspondingly small... they were far more likely to be buying student or other concession tickets. Fewer than half the attendees surveyed had paid top price.

The killer stat, however, was this...
A study of box office results of six capital city-based presenters (1997-99) showed paid attendances at contemporary dance performances had been between 230 and 350 per performance (105-118 performances in total). By comparison, the average attendance of 12 consistently-funded companies included in the present analysis over the four years to 2001 was 228 per performance.
Got that? The “consistently-funded companies” attracted substantially smaller audiences. Which possibly explains why one of the oldest and most radical contemporary dance companies in Australia recently announced it was throwing in the towel.

After the opening night performance of Duplicate, in the inner-Melbourne suburb of Prahran, the chairman of the board of Dance Works announced that the company could no longer realise its artistic vision under present funding arrangements. After 23 years, the company would be wound up.

With macabre timing, Dance Works’ Artistic Director Sandra Parker popped the cork off a bottle of champagne before the news had been digested by a stunned gathering of family, friends, and the usual first-night suspects. Sandy had a gallows grin on her face.

Founded by Nanette Hassall in the early 1980s, Dance Works has been remarkably successful in finding and grooming terrific choreographers: Sue Healey, Beth Shelton, Carolyn Hammer, Lucy Guerin, Trevor Patrick, Ros Warby, Helen Herbertson and
many many other. The tally of works created in that time would be around 150. Perhaps more.

But the company has never been the kind of drawcard that funding bodies have wanted it to be. When the Kennett Government announced it was planning to establish a contemporary dance company in Melbourne to rival Sydney Dance Company, it was as if Dance Works had never existed. It was invisible.

But if the thunder of champagne corks at the wake of Dance Works wasn’t bizarre enough, the premiere of the Australian Ballet’s third bodytorque season in Sydney, two nights later, had its own shock value.

Andrew Killian, Rudy Hawkes and Jane Casson in Eve by Tim Harbour
(photograph Branco Gaica, click to enlarge)

Now, bodytorque is the national company’s choreographic development program. That it exists at all is exciting enough. But the metaphorical leaps and bounds happening in the program, in just three years, have been gobsmacking.

The first program consisted of women choreographing on the company’s men. In that first program, choreographers from outside the company were welcome. Actually, they were a necessity. The 2004 season included Paulina Quinteros, best known for her work with Paul Mercurio’s company, ACE, the Australian Choreographic Ensemble in the early 1990s.

Last year’s season -- bodytorque.two -- was devoted to duets. Of the five choreographers, three were AB dancers including 21 year-old Kristy Biggs. A fourth was a former company member working in Europe. The best work last year, in my opinion, came from first time choreographer (and senior artist) Tim Harbour. Both he and Biggs backed up this year. And both created works that were both fascinating and impressive to commissioned scores, played live by a bantam-sized ensemble in the pit of the Sydney Theatre.

Resolution by Timothy Farrar (photograph Branco Gaica)

But the surprise -- the real shock -- of the program was the opening work. Why? Because it was choreographed by BalletLab boss Phillip Adams, who puts the mod into post-modern, to a crunchy score by David Chisholm. We’re talking the equivalent of Salman Rushdie getting an invitation to write an editorial for the Baghdad Post, okay?

And, well, Adams created something worthy of George Balanchine: fast, bouncy, delicate, quicksilver. Apart from guest dancer, Clair Peters, it was all done on AB dancers.

This might not sound like a dambusting collaboration in a world where Rufus Wainwright can be commissioned to write an opera for The Metropolitan, but in Australia... there is such hostility -- such lingering contempt -- for contemporary dance from the old guard of the ballet, that this combination of talent would have been inconceivable before David McAllister took the helm of the ballet company.

So, here’s the thing... The Australian Ballet might have a hand in building an audience for the avant-garde. The company might even bring the avant-garde in from the cold... and I'm talking cold, drafty, uncomfortable halls! What a world. What a world.


Raymonda (September 2006)

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Saturday, June 17, 2006

RAGE is screening 18 Go-Betweens songs tonight and other goodies

N.B. If you have landed on this page looking for information on The Go-Betweens, here's a review of Rob and Grant’s final concert together as The Go-Betweens (Sydney January 2006), a rare photograph of Grant from the early 80s, and a post on Grant’s death.

18 songs by The Go-Betweens -- not counting a live reprise of ‘Cattle and Cane’ -- head an even more perversely catholic playlist than usual on ABC TV’s RAGE, tonight.

Readers outside Australia (and that’s most of you!) might like to check out the video on demand service, here, and select RAGE (which is just below the middle of the page).

Now, it has to be said that Go-B’s music videos are to MTV-style music videos what DOGME is to Hollywood, but there are a couple of exceptions, like ‘Bachelor Kisses’... assuming they play the version I’m familiar with. So this is a qualified recommendation.

There are also a couple of songs by G.W. McLennan and a couple more from Jack Frost (Grant’s collaboration with Steve Kilbey) scheduled. Full list below.

There are also double shots from Martha Wainwright (including her lovely ballad ‘Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole’) and Antony and the Johnsons around five o’clock. It kicks off a little after midnight tonight.

Cattle & Cane - THE GO-BETWEENS - Live on Rock Arena
Here Comes A City - THE GO-BETWEENS
Caroline And I - THE GO-BETWEENS
Surfing Magazines - The GO-BETWEENS
Head Full Of Steam - THE GO-BETWEENS
Streets Of Your Town - THE GO-BETWEENS
Was There Anything I Could Do - THE GO-BETWEENS
Bachelor Kisses - THE GO-BETWEENS

Cattle And Cane - THE GO-BETWEENS
Spirit of a Vampyre - THE GO-BETWEENS - Live/Rock Arena
Cut It Out - THE GO-BETWEENS - Live/Rock Arena
The Clarke Sisters - THE GO-BETWEENS - Live/Rock Arena
Bow Down - THE GO-BETWEENS - Live/Rock Arena
The House That Jack Kerouac Built - THE GO-BETWEENS - Live
Boundary Rider - THE GO-BETWEENS - Live at The Tivoli
Every Hour God Sends - JACK FROST

Thought That I Was Over You - JACK FROST
Don't Blame The Beam - F.O.C.
If You Want Release - F.O.C.
Surround Me - G.W. McLENNAN
Simone & Perry - GRANT McLENNAN

The full playlist is available here... you might need it to see you through the bad patches... Starship, Roxette, Rick James... shudder!

The ABC publishes the weekend’s playlists late on a Friday, here.



Thursday, June 15, 2006

Malthouse Theatre: Eldorado by Marius von Mayenburg

Eldorado by Marius von Mayenburg. Translated by Maja Zade. Directed by Benedict Andrews. Designed by Anna Tregloan. Lighting by Paul Jackson. Composition and sound design by Max Lyandvert. With Gillian Jones, Robert Menzies, Hamish Michael, Bojana Novakovic, Greg Stone and Alison Whyte. A Malthouse Theatre production. Merlyn Theatre, June 14.

El Dorado was the fabled South American city where the streets were said to be paved with gold. Marius von Mayenburg’s Eldorado is a conquered citadel, ready for the taking. Ready to be pillaged. It offers investors “unique historic prospects.” It’s Baghdad and Sarajevo steamrolled into one.
“Von Mayenburg’s moral is that we humans are unlikely to get our bond back when our lease on the planet expires...”
But as in the mythical El Dorado, the riches in von Mayenburg’s Eldorado are a mirage. An unfulfilled -- and unfulfillable -- promise. The Middle East is the new Wild West: lawless, unpredictable, dangerous, provisional.

The new settlers are fairly ordinary folk. John Howard might call them aspirational. There’s a wealthy widow and her concert pianist daughter, the widow’s toyboy business partner and the daughter’s developer husband... But all are affected by the environment, by the amoral wasteland they live in. The mother is a drunk, the daughter is deeply disturbed, her husband is a paranoid schizophrenic. The husband’s boss might as well be a vampire. Or Satan. Instead of tempting, he lures...

The opening scenes in this godless passion play are reminiscent of both Stephen Sewell (Dreams in an Empty City) and British playwright Caryl Churchill (Mad Forest). This is a Sewellian clash of Titans, but it is a tale told with the kind of dark magic that Churchill conjures up. (The best scene in Mad Forest, set at the end of the Ceausescu regime in Romania, has a vampire chatting to a dog.)

Von Mayenburg’s moral is that we humans are unlikely to get our bond back when our lease on the planet expires, but he gets bogged down in a showing us that our way of life is making us desperately sick and unstable... quite, quite mad.

Von Mayenburg’s collaborator, here, is Benedict Andrews, an extraordinarily imaginative director. The productions I’ve seen of his, so far, have been unforgettable. Regrettably, every single one of those productions has been unforgivably slow.

This is the first exception. Lucky, cos the play clocks in at two and a quarter hours, straight through. All of the action happens behind glass, nine tall panels of it. Instead of a fourth wall, the stage has a fishbowl window. Are we looking in or out?

Greg Stone in Eldorado

Like von Mayenburg’s writing, Andrews’s direction is varied and episodic and rarely anchored to reality. If you’re willing to go along for the mad mouse ride, it’s exhilarating. If you’re not, you might just find it baffling.

But even if you’re one of the baffled, you will be mightily impressed by the look and sound of the production and by the heightened, eye-popping performances.

This review appeared in the Herald Sun on Tuesday June 27.

See also: The Cold Child (Das Kalte Kind)

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Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Clifford Hocking has died


All are invited to celebrate the life of Clifford Hocking at the Arts Centre’s Hamer Hall -- formerly the Melbourne Concert Hall -- on Tuesday August 29, 2006 at midday. There will be some very special guests performing.

I’ve never presented anything purely with an eye to commercial success. I’ve been delighted by success, but I have never gone out and said “I must book that person, cos that person will make money” -- I have never worked that way.
I’ve just received confirmation that Clifford Hocking died yesterday after suffering a stroke on Friday. Details are still very sketchy -- there’s nothing on the web as yet -- but he would, by my reckoning, have been 74.

Hocking was artistic director of the 1990 Adelaide Festival and 1997 Melbourne International Festival of the Arts. He was also a mighty concert promoter with rare good taste... one of the few willing to trust his judgement and wait for audiences to catch up.

A former employee of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, Hocking’s first private venture -- 45 years ago -- was to tour some classical Indian musicians. Years before the Beatles discovered Ravi Shankar, Australian audiences did. “People,” he told me with a chuckle, “thought I was totally insane!”

The payoff from another of his early ventures was more immediate and more long-lasting. Hocking persuaded Barry Humphries to return to Australia for a series of solo performances. His very first.

Hocking had a knack of staying a board-length ahead of the New Wave. He offered concerts of early music when such things were unknown here, he brought Arlo Guthrie, Allen Ginsberg, Keith Jarrett, Paco Peña and Kronos Quartet to Australia long before they became household names.

Though he was one of the most successful impresarios of his generation, he spoke like a lefty arts bureaucrat under a benevolent Labor administration. He claimed never to have done a budget in his life and talked about the “right to fail” like La Mama’s Liz Jones might.
If your attempt is valiant and your intentions are good... No-one wants to fail, but I don’t like to see people denounced for having failed, particularly in a festival context. It’s not as if you’re playing fast and loose with public money in a regular season, where people are structuring subscription series...
Hocking was a man blessed with taste and imagination and had a unique willingness to cultivate the sensibilities of the public by never underestimating their ability to appreciate and embrace the unfamiliar.
- A lot of people would be surprised that you’ve made a living from leading...
- I’m surprised myself!
Hocking was the man you turned to when you needed an arts festival programmed in a hurry. Dividing his time between Melbourne and New York, he was well-connected and skilled at ferreting out the exceptional.

He was approached by the board of the Melbourne Festival in February, 1996, after Leo Schofield stepped down as artistic director, to curate the 1997 festival. He initially declined. “I said: ‘I don’t want to do it, I’m too old.’ It was bad enough doing Adelaide in 1990 with more than two years notice. It takes three to five years to do something effective and exciting. The companies that we want here are booked five years ahead.”

I asked him, then, to describe the kind of festival he would create given the time and resources. He said he might have used Faust or Romeo and Juliet as a theme. But he dreamed, he said, of curating a festival that plunged headlong into the demilitarized zone dividing spiritual authority and temporal power.

What a shame we never got to see that dream realised.

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Saturday, June 10, 2006

John Banville on women, criticism and the role of the literary editor

Not being a big fan of the cross-post, but perfectly okay with shameless cross promotion, I’ll only provide a link to the essay I’ve posted at Sarsaparilla on Booker laureate, John Banville.

It’s called Banville’s Eclipse in my hand, Wrigley’s Eclipse in my mouth.

The piece is as much about the trials of interviewing -- and the greater trials for the ‘talent’ -- as it is about women, criticism and the role of the literary editor... Having said that, there are a few juicy quotations.
An awful lot of women write detective fiction, very few women read it!
My wife, for instance, says I don’t know how anybody can read Sherlock Holmes. It’s so wooden. It’s like doing a bloody jigsaw puzzle. It’s as unrewarding and boring as doing a jigsaw puzzle. When you finish one of those stories you have that ashen feeling that you get when you complete a jigsaw puzzle. I’ve done this… So what! I see her point. Women, I think, have — I hesitate to use the word — but they’re far more elemental than we are.

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Thursday, June 08, 2006

High Performance Company: Vaudeville X by Michael Dalley

Vaudeville X by Michael Dalley and High Performance Company. At Dantes, corner Gertrude and Napier Streets, Fitzroy. June 7, 2006.

Also BlackBox, the Arts Centre, Melbourne, January 17 to February 2, 2008. Part of the Midsumma Festival and FULL TILT.

On a Musical Nastiness Scale of none to ten, where Doris Day is zip and Eddie Perfect scores a perfect ten, Michael Dalley and his merry men are down the "sing with a smile" end. The three are as fresh-faced and innocent as choir boys in their dinner suits and shiny shoes.

But while these boys might be able to hide their raging hormones, purse their potty mouths and help our medicine go down with a shovelful of saccharine, their intent is entirely -- and savagely -- satirical. That's a Judas kiss they're planting on your behind. So you might as well turn the other cheek.

On one hand, the songs mourn the death of elitism and roll their eyes at the great, unwashed, latte-sipping masses. But they also aim cupid arrows at Nimbin New Agers who give great back rubs but won't push the buttons that count. The snakey tunes bare their grinning fangs at snobby college-kids slumming it -- backpacking around the world -- and gay husbands in denial.

Michael Dalley's songs might sound like bouncy football club songs, sung in blokey unison, but the lyrics are positively cowardly... as in Noel Coward. Well, they are if you can imagine Coward singing songs about "breakfast radio morons" and middle-class charity... of the tax deductible kind.

Dalley's primary target is hypocrisy. With pretention coming a close second. Hey, he even sends up the cabaret form he has chosen with a ripper song about failed music theatre singers. There's also a howlingly funny song about performers possessed "by the ghost of the post (modern dancer)".

Vaudeville X clocks in under an hour, but it is packed with wit. And there is more than enough castor sugar to hide the castor oil tang.

This review was published in the June 16 2006 edition of the Herald Sun.

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Monday, June 05, 2006

John Banville on fiction and art, a conversation with the Booker Prize winning author

I put in a request to speak to John Banville, one of the great authors of the English language, more than a year ago... before he was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, before his damning review of rival author Ian McEwan’s Saturday and long before the controversy that surrounded Banville’s eventual Booker win over a posse of the usual suspects.

I was keen to talk to him about ‘literary’ fiction and ‘genre’ fiction. Coincidentally, Banville has since written a genre novel, the first in a crime series, under the pen name of Benjamin Black. (Christine Falls is scheduled for publication, here, in November.)

We spoke in Melbourne, last week.


[John Banville:] Well, it never could be. The world is so bizarre. If you portrayed it as it is, nobody would believe it. I always tell the story... people accuse me of being exaggerated and grotesque and gothic... they used to anyway. And I’d tell the story of driving through Dublin the day after Christmas day, down this long empty street. Completely empty. Nobody, except me in my car and on the street corner three albino men deep in conversation.

I thought, if I put that in a book, nobody would believe it. They’d say, oh there’s Banville exaggerating again. Three albino men. [I thought:] Is there a convention?! A White Christmas?! I don’t know, it’s very strange.


I watched an epidode of The Simpsons yesterday, which I haven’t seen for ages. It’s quite -- it’s still genius. It’s just astonishing. The inventiveness -- and the complete disregard for the conventions of that kind of show... Just the weirdest things can happen. [It's a] great show.


When I started publishing, there was just fiction. There were good books and bad books, or successful books and unsuccessful books. We didn’t have this subgenre of “unshaven” fiction.

I would divide fiction into fiction that attempts to be art and fiction that is carrying on the grand old tradition. Let me put it this way, the distinction between George Eliot and Henry James, right?

George Eliot is writing -- as James [said] -- big, loose, baggy monsters of novels about society, ethics, politics, social matters, the industrial revolution, all that stuff.

Henry James [had] no interest in any of that. What Henry James wanted to do was make a work of art that would live through the ages. Live forever. And the way he did that was to take no notice whatsoever of what was going on in his own time. Which Joyce also did for instance. I mean, there’s no mention anywhere in Joyce’s work -- I mean, apart from the politics of 1904 -- there’s no mention of the World War, any of that stuff.
I don’t believe that it is the business of the artist to talk about these things. I feel that 9/11 should be banned as a topic for fiction for at least 15 years. Because that’s not what art is for.
I had this argument -- used to have it -- with George Steiner. Steiner says art has become problematic because concentration camp guards would read Goethe then go out and put Jews in gas chambers.

It’s not the point. You’re asking the wrong question. You’re asking the wrong thing. Art is not for civilizing people and stopping them from being monsters. People are monsters or not. And no amount of art will change anything like that... that’s not the point. And in a way, George is guilty of taking art too seriously.

[Art is] a wonderful thing. It broadens our lives, it gives us moments of transcendence and epiphany but it doesn’t make us better people... [It’s] nonsense to expect art to do that.

That just isn’t what art is for. I believe that absolutely. WH Auden said: “poetry makes nothing happen.” That’s the glory of [art]. That it’s completely useless.


I forget that I’m writing stuff that’s based on real lives. I made up most of [The Untouchable] anyway. I have no sense of responsibility to fact or so-called truth. “Blunt’s” childhood was Louis MacNeice’s childhood, in Ireland.

Fact becomes fiction when you start writing. As Wallace Stevens wonderfully says: “Thing as they are are changed upon blue guitar...” Art being the blue guitar.


Fiction’s a funny business. It’s so like our dreams. And yet, it has the kind of discipline and control that our dreams don’t have.

And the relationship between the reader and the novel has always fascinated me. I know it’s not true. I know it’s made up. I know the whole thing is “got up”. Yet I believe in it, while I’m reading it, far more vehemently than I believe in the reality around me.

When you’re reading a novel, it is absolutely real. This is a very strange phenomenon! Why do we do this? Is it that we never grow up and we want to... that we’re children and want to be told stories?

The difference is, Chris, that children want the same stories to be told over and over again. I wish we’d stay childish to that extent... people would read my book over and over and over again!

I’ll post more from this interview at Sarsaparilla, the new lit/media/culture blog, in the next few days. And keep an eye out for a piece on literary authors slumming it in genre fiction. It's scheduled to run in the Financial Review the weekend after next...

* Kerryn Goldsworthy asks “Will it make me a better person?” at A Fugitive Phenomenon.

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Cameron S Redfern: Landscape With Animals

Landscape With Animals
Cameron S Redfern (Penguin, A$24.95)

If the pseudonymous Cameron S Redfern turns out to be a man after all -- not a woman (which was my first guess) or a husband-and-wife team like Nicci French -- then, sure as hell, he has spent seven years as a woman! I even wondered if Redfern might be an alter-ago of a great novelist; if someone like John Banville might be taking an opportunity to get “down and dirty”.

Landscape With Animals is, unquestionably, the work of a master stylist. Or, rather, a mistress stylist. The prose in this smut-fest is plush and alarmingly evocative. It is, far and away, the best -- and best sustained -- erotic writing I have ever encountered.

There’s a striving to select the most appropriate word or metaphor, yet there is real control in the writing.

Redfern occasionally overshoots his mark, but for each febrile excess there are five diamond-tipped lines that will impale you. Like the illicit affair Redfern describes, Landscape With Animals’ one great flaw is that it has no awareness of past or future. It’s all in the moment. Utterly. There’s no overarching plotline, no drama, no tonic to resolve to. Nothing, finally, to see us through to the end of the story. Just dizzying, dazzling chapters.

See also: best books of 2006

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