Friday, August 25, 2006

Peter McCallum needs to get out more... or stay home more. I’m not sure.

Well, here’s a strong contender for inclusion in the second edition of Creme de la Phlegm. It’s Peter McCallum’s no-holds-barred review of Batavia, that multi award-winning shipwreck of an opera, which has sailed its way into Sydney Harbour.

The review, for the Sydney Morning Herald, opens thus:
“First I need to be honest and say that I found Peter Goldsworthy and Richard Mills’s Batavia the vilest thing I have experienced in the theatre...”
Mr McCalum goes on to say that he felt that he was in the thrall of “people with megalomaniacal visions” who were not going to release him until he had experienced their grand narrative:
“so that one felt raped by the volume, alienated by the lack of sensitivity or aptness in the musical symbols, and repelled by the unctuous sermonising.”
It certainly makes Alison Croggon’s response to the first act [the link to the sixth comment doesn't seem to be working... Alison writes “I was dragged out of the opera Batavia at interval by my embarrassed husband because I was standing up and booing”] seem positively restrained.

Mmm, maybe not!

Contrast McCallum’s review with that of David Gyger’s, in Opera Opera, after the premiere season in 2001:
“With Batavia, Richard Mills consolidates his claim to be considered Australia’s most promising composer of opera at the dawn of the new millennium.”
Me? I reckon Mills should go back to something more homey. I quite liked his singspiel version of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, which Richard Wherrett directed for the Victoria State Opera in October 1996, when the VSO was in its death throes. (Well, it was knocked-up and invites to the shotgun wedding with the Australian Opera had been roneod.)

Which reminds me: check out the company logo in Dan Potra’s set for Batavia... Curious coincidence, of course, that the brand new Victorian Opera company should have a VO5-style logo of Victorian primness... not unlike this one:

A couple more things for trivia lovers -- and Trivia was a goddess who could see in three directions -- when The Doll was on in The Playhouse, Batavia’s champion Simone Young was conducting Die Frau ohne Schatten in the adjacent State Theatre. (The Covent Garden production with sets by David Hockney.)

Incidentally, Lindy Hume -- who went on to direct Batavia -- was the short-lived artistic director of the VSO. She was appointed just days before the company was scuttled.

Yeah, right. You needed to know all that.

My review of the Melbourne premiere is posted here.

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Thursday, August 24, 2006

Opera Australia: Batavia by Richard Mills and Peter Goldsworthy

Batavia by Richard Mills. Libretto by Peter Goldsworthy. Directed by Lindy Hume. Opera Australia. State Theatre, Melbourne, May 11, 2001. Currently at the Sydney Opera House. Season ends August 31.

In response to recent chatter and Peter McCallum’s review of the 2006 Sydney season, here’s a review from the archives...

Opera is the last of the theatre arts that aims to paint the biggest of pictures; a medium which habitually tackles humanity’s elemental themes: love and death, sex and drugs... and that’s just Tristan and Isolde. Judging from his article in the Australian Financial Review prior to the premiere of Batavia in 2001, Richard Mills is one of opera’s True Believers. He knows that it is the ideal medium for a face-off between good and evil.

But his new opera Batavia, as it stands, is anything but the contest between good and evil he claims to have created. It’s not even a contest between order and anarchy.

Mills opposes action and inaction. The ‘good’ commander Francisco Pelsaert loses control because he fails to act. First he is conciliatory with his blasphemous underling, then he is sick with malaria when crunch time comes. The ‘evil’ undermerchant Jeronimus Cornelisz gains control through decisive and mutinous action.

For Batavia to work, dramatically, there has to be a chafing between the two combatants. But Pelsaert and Cornelisz are crucially out-of-phase with one another. The ‘good’ man has weak beliefs, untested and habitual. The ‘evil’ man has rational and strongly-held philosophies. The ‘good’ man has the lazy authority of Church and State. The ‘evil’ man has the sinewy and potent logic of a free-thinker. They hardly tread the same boards.

But even this potentially rich vein (blind faith versus secular logic) remains unmined. And undermined. Had Mills and his librettist built upon the Cornelisz’ ‘carpe diem’ rationalism, and portrayed his reign of terror after the shipwreck as ideology gone mad, them Batavia might have spoken to us all.

Bizarrely, any hint of the actual historical triumph of good over evil in the shipwreck story has been discreetly edited out. Mills and librettist Peter Goldsworthy present the single-father provost Wiebbe Hayes as saintly, but ineffectual. History tells us that the provost not only found water for his children and charges, he battled and finally captured Cornelisz before Pelsaert returned to pass judgement.

Hayes’ steadfastness and honour is the telling difference between him and the ship’s preacher, who becomes a collaborator in Cornelisz’ murderous regime. But Mills and Goldsworthy allow us to believe that the preacher’s god forsook him for no good reason. This is a rigged fight. How can we possibly be involved by it, let alone learn from it? The answer, of course, is musically, which is where Bruce Martin (Pelsaert) and Michael Lewis (Cornelisz) come in. The battle of the bass-baritones is a much squarer fight.

Mills gives Martin an ambling, apparently directionless, chromatic line in the Billy Budd-styled prelude. He sings an attractive but world-weary melody that degrades into something random, perhaps arbitrary. But always rich. Lewis is lean and hungry, the snake in the dry grass. His vocal line is charismatic, but rarely as alluring as it should be.

The music of Batavia is strident and eclectic, with excellent use made of brass (trombones and trumpets moved around the auditorium) and a baroque string trio with bass lute. Mills creates an impressive 3D effect and a real sense of waves crashing underneath us. With so much fire in his belly, it’s a pity that the composer’s timing is so off. Crescendos are late or quite detached from the action. The scene switches early in the second act are anything but seamless. When menace is required to clinch a dramatic point, on-stage, it is rarely provided.

Neither Mills nor director Lindy Hume give us any insight into the situation Batavia passenger Lucretia Jansz finds herself in. Jansz -- beautiful, wealthy and faithful to her husband in Java -- is brutalised and defiled (reputedly smeared with her own excrement) by Cornelisz and the crew while her maid Zwaantie goes gleefully feral. What happens to the two women in this production, however, is entirely unconvincing. And that is one of the major defects in Hume’s ungainly and faint-hearted production.

Yes, Hume is lumbered with an opera conceived and delivered without dramaturgical midwifery, but she singularly fails to give her singers a through-line and her audience a sensible narrative. In the absence of a credible dramatic framework and clear direction, individual performers revert to their preferred and largely incompatible acting tricks. Thus John Bolton-Wood wrings his hands in his big (and otherwise dignified) third act “losing my religion” number while Barry Ryan moons around nobly.

Singing, on the whole is excellent, though Anke Hoppner has too wide a vibrato and too little palate as Lucretia.

David Freeman, one of the world’s leading opera directors, was originally lined up to direct this premiere production, but the dramatic assistance he might’ve provided would have arrived a year or two too late.

This review first appeared in the Financial Review of May 19-20, 2001.

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Monday, August 21, 2006

Cirque du Soleil, Sydney: Varekai

Varekai. Written and directed by Dominic Champagne. Guy Laliberté, guide. Director of creation: Andrew Watson. Composer: Violaine Corradi. Choreographers: Michael Montanaro and Bill Shannon.

Design team: sets by Stéphane Roy, costumes by Eiko Ishioka, rigging by Jaque Paquin, lighting by Nol Van Genuchten, sound by François Bergeron, projections by Francis Laporte, make-up by Nathalie Gagné, clown acts by Cal McCrystal, aerial acts by André Simard.

Cirque du Soleil. Moore Park, Sydney. Also Brisbane, Auckland, Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth. (Tour dates below.)

UPDATE: 2009 European tour dates added.

Mythological and biblical stories of fallen angels have fascinated us for thousands and thousands of years. Apart from Lucifer -- the bringer of light -- the proud archangel who turned away from God, there’s Icarus, whose wings melted when he flew too close to the sun.

Gradually, these ancient stories of over-reaching and falling from grace have crossbred with stories of exotic and alien beings who have lost their power -- or become separated from its source -- and are then captured, persecuted and scapegoated. Experimented on. Stories as old as Gulliver and as new as Doctor Who. (Mark Halasi plays Icarus, left, in Varekai. Photograph by Véronique Vial. Click to enlarge.)

Think of the stranded alien played by David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth, or the angel Damiel who trades in his wings for mortality and love in Wim Wenders’ beautiful film, Wings of Desire. Damiel falls in love with a beautiful and solitary trapeze artist. Which brings us to Varekai.

The protagonist in Cirque du Soleil’s new show is named Icarus, but instead of falling into the sea and drowning as Icarus does in Greek mythology, this one (played by Mark Halasi) is robbed of his wings. He is literally netted -- caught in a web -- after a close encounter with a volcano.

The Fall of Icarus (photograph by Rick Diamond)

In the course of an awe-inspiring and magical few hours, he -- and we -- discover that the wings are not the source of power, they are an expression of it. The net which traps Icarus becomes a chrysalis. When Icarus emerges, he doesn’t have new wings; rather, he has turned the net into wings, as in the top photograph.

It’s not clear if the dark enemy of Icarus is evil or just ignorant and greedy. Tellingly, Varekai creator Dominic Champagne writes: “it is our duty not to surrender the world into the hands of fools...”

As we have come to expect from the Cirque du Soleil brand, Varekai is a pageant; it’s a feast for the heart, the soul and the senses. Of course it’s spectacular -- from a solo dance on curved-ended crutches to a superbly choreographed four-women trepeze act -- but it’s also quite remarkably sensual and intimate. (You’re never far from the action in the The Grand Chapiteau.)

Andrew and Kevin Atherton, aerial straps
(photograph by Rick Diamond, click to enlarge)

Varekai takes itself a lot less seriously than previous Cirque du Soleil shows, and it’s all the more endearing and human for that. Having said that, design and choreography are high priorities. On several occasions in Varekai, beautiful patterns (for example in the “triple trapeze”) won out over more breathtaking and death-defying options. This is a company seeking to do more than merely astonish.

Irina Naumenko -- a.k.a. “the betrothed” --
handbalancing on canes (photograph by Eric Piché)

The highlights are many, and often incandescently beautiful. At the top of that list are the boomeranging hats of juggler Octavio Alegria, the spinebending acrobatics of Irina Naumenko and the precision soaring of twin brothers Andrew and Kevin Atherton.

Smoking, we were told before the commencement of the show, is strictly forbidden inside the Cirque tent. Someone obviously forgot to tell the performers!

Cirque du Soleil’s Australian and New Zealand tour dates:
Brisbane, from November 9
Auckland, New Zealand from January 5, 2007
Canberra, from March 15, 2007
Melbourne, from April 19, 2007
Adelaide, from July 5, 2007
Perth, from August 2, 2007

Bilbao, Spain, March 26 - May 3, 2009
Lisbon, Portugal, May 15 - June 7, 2009
Gijón [Xixón], Spain, from July 9, 2009
Hamburg, Germany, August 28 - October 4, 2009

Also Moscow, "fall 2009".

All photographs © Cirque du Soleil, used with permission.

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Thursday, August 17, 2006

D’Arrietta Productions: The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead by Robert Hewett

Wellington-born actor Kerry Fox (An Angel at my Table, Intimacy, Shallow Grave) is returning to New Zealand, from London, to perform in Robert Hewett’s one woman play The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead for the Auckland Theatre Company (grossly misleading ATC publicity shot, left). It’s at the Maidment Theatre, University of Auckland, from August 24 to September 16.

One imagines it will be a very different production from the original Jackie Weaver roadshow, directed by Jennifer Hagan, which has just started a month long season in Brisbane before a 18 stop national tour.

Weaver plays seven characters: a four-and-a-half year-old IVF boy and the elderly widow who lives next door to him. She plays a blonde-bomb “minx from Minsk” and the Russian girl’s vile, beer-swilling lover, Graham. She plays a deserted wife, her nosy neighbour and the lesbian partner of a woman brutally bashed in a shopping mall.

Weaver only really nails one of the characters: Rhonda, the “vengeful redhead” of the title. But that’s enough, since Rhonda’s story is the linchpin. It’s her journey that counts.

The others are like a spread of characters from a Barry Humphries show. Joan, the farting old widow, is like a female Sandy Stone, Humphries’ sibilant, Robur-sipping throwback to the Menzies era. And Sir Les Patterson could easily stand-in for Graham, Rhonda’s vile husband.

Rhonda is dumped by Graham by phone, from work. Rather than cut up his suits, or do a Lorraine Bobbit with his rogue member, Rhonda goes nuts at the mall.

The consequences of her actions are terrible and far-reaching. But she is the only one of the seven players to examine her conscience.

Robert Hewett has written a kind of sketch tragedy. It’s not a monodrama so much as a series of monologues and comedy routines. Eight in all. It’s as if Hewett were attempting to write something like Little Murders by cartoonist Jules Feiffer, a tragicomic play (and a mighty good film) in which you can literally cry laughing.

But, in leading with the serious Rhonda stuff -- which Weaver does so well -- the coarseness of the subsequent humour looks like a misjudgement on Hewett’s part. Or on the part of director Jennifer Hagan.

It’s a great pleasure to watch Jackie Weaver, especially as the boy and the widow, and ‘The Blonde’ makes for what Sandy Stone might call a “nice night’s entertainment”, but with some more believable and weighty working-class characters (instead of these cartoon bogans) we could have had a major play instead of a very pleasant diversion.

The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead by Robert Hewett. D’Arrietta Productions. Presented by the Queensland Theatre Company. Directed by Jennifer Hagan, designed by Lawrence Eastwood, lighting by Peter Neufeld. At the Cremorne Theatre, QPAC Brisbane, until September 16.

Arts On Tour tour dates:

September 20, Queens Park Theatre, Geraldton
September 22, Walkington Theatre, Karratha
September 26, Griffith Regional Theatre
September 28, Drum Theatre, Dandenong
September 30, West Gippsland Arts Centre, Warragul
October 5, Entertainment Centre, Sale
October 7, Cardinia Cultural Centre
October 12, Whyndham Cultural Centre, Werribee
October 13-14, The Capital Theatre, Bendigo
October 17, COPPAC, Colac
October 19-20, Wagga Wagga Civic Theatre
October 23-28, Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, Wollongong
October 31-November 2, Bathurst Entertainment Centre
November 4, Dubbo Civic Centre
November 8, Empire Theatre, Toowomba
November 11-12, Caloundra Cultural Centre
November 14-15, Jetty Memorial Theatre, Coffs Harbour
November 17, Manning Entertainment Centre, Taree

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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Yvonne Kenny: A Touch of Venus

Yvonne Kenny: A Touch of Venus. For Musica Viva. Yvonne Kenny, soprano. Iain Burnside, piano. Hamer Hall, The Arts Centre, Melbourne. Also QPAC Concert Hall, Brisbane, tonight, and Llewellyn Hall, Canberra, Friday.


I would sacrifice my first-born to avoid seeing -- or rather hearing -- Kiri Te Kanawa feeling pretty. Or Sumi Jo glittering and being gay. Opera singers shouldn’t slum it. Show tunes and divas don’t mix. Period. No exceptions. So it was with a touch of trepidation that I lined up some tickets to see a variety show program featuring superstar Australian soprano Yvonne Kenny.

Now, I’m a Kenny groupie. I have five of her CDs, one signed and dedicated. But I don’t really want to hear her singing anything more recent than Puccini’s beloved daddy... unless it’s a Britten or a Canteloube or a Copland arrangement of a traditional song.

And this program -- more or less the same as the one she performed at Wigmore Hall in May -- had Weill, Sondheim, Coward, Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Rich Rodgers. Even one of William Bolcom’s Cabaret Songs. And the 20th century “mod squad” composers far outnumbered the Schumann, Handel and Purcell.

But Yvonne Kenny, above all else, is an artist of intelligence and taste. And the choices she made in this program -- with just one or two jarring exceptions -- suited her laser-bright voice, her acting skills and that knowing, severe, beautiful brow of hers.

(Yvonne Kenny, photograph by Paul Henderson-Kelly)

The emphasis throughout the night was on poetry: a Purcell setting of some Dryden, a Frank Bridge setting of some Matthew Arnold, Kurt Weill of Ogden Nash and so on. And Kenny’s voice -- accompanied only by the Steinway -- gave those verses wings.

She tossed a tassled, tequila sunrise-coloured shawl over her shoulders and sang “no stain shall blemish this constant heart” as if she were daring fate to seduce her. Iain Burnside’s piano trills, here, were precise, delicate, brilliant. Seductive.

Then Kenny trumped it with an exquisite rendition of Jerome Kern’s ‘All the things you are’... clear, soft and emotional.

Linking the songs were extracts from an old book of etiquette and some wry little quotations about boorish men and inconstant love from Dorothy Parker, Ivana Trump, Zsa Zsa Gabor... you can see where this is heading, right?

The best and the worst came in the encores. Brilliantly, Kenny led with Tom Lehrer’s ‘Masochism Tango’. And this, I’ve got to say, was the highlight of the night: dramatic, fun, black. As unexpected and shocking as a cigarette burn in a ball gown.

But from black coal we went to glass-cutting diamonds... of the “girl’s best friend” variety. At the final hurdle, we stumbled. Talk about ending on a brittle note.

Sandwiched between the Lehrer and the Leo Robin/Jule Styne tune from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was a pretty little song by Reynaldo Hahn: ‘Si mes vers avaien des ailes’ (If my verses had wings). In this company, alas, it was invisible. Too sweet and too frail.

3MBS FM recorded this concert for delayed broadcast.

An edited version of this review appeared in the Herald Sun, last week.

See also Sarah Noble’s passionate review of the same concert, here.

She writes, in part:
This is an incredible programme, so full of Yvonne, of what she does so beautifully and whats so beautiful about her — and also eerily full of me. Music I learnt from her and have only ever heard her sing; music Ive known for years and have never heard her sing, but now it too belongs to her. I could catalogue at length the universe of resonances and associations and delights at work for me in this programme but perhaps Ill just select a few.
And ends her review thus:
In my life Ive encountered few people so extraordinary. Her grace, her passion and her generosity inspire and uplift me always. She floors me, and I adore her.

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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Sisters Grimm: Fat Camp by Ash Flanders and Declan Greene.

Fat Camp by Ash Flanders and Declan Greene. Presented by Sisters Grimm. At Mechanics Institute Performing Arts Centre, Sydney Road, Brunswick, until August 19.

If you blush before you flush, then Fat Camp’s not the show for you. Come to think of it, if you’re at all squeamish, this review’s not for you either. Seriously.

Fat Camp’s co-writers Ash Flanders and Declan Greene are every bit as recklessly offensive -- as willfully ‘off’ -- as South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. And that’s not a comparison I make lightly.

Parker and Stone might not be to your particular tastes -- I hated Team America: World Police -- but the boys are responsible for the best legit musical to come out of the US in years: 1999’s Bigger, Longer & Uncut. It’s also the most vulgar, juvenile and repugnant musical written... before Robert Reid’s musical about the Belanglo murders, at least.

At this early stage in their careers, Flanders and Greene don’t go as far as Parker and Stone when it comes to religion and politics -- in one recent ep of South Park, Jesus literally takes a dump on George Bush and Mohammed appears in a piss-take of The Family Guy -- but the Aussie lads certainly know where our psychological buttons are hidden, and the finger them. Actually, no. They jam their knuckles into them.

They use and abuse stereotypes about fat chicks and waif-thin supermodels, about blacks and Asians, about ‘sluts’ and lesbians... They can turn a wrist slashing suicide attempt into an aerobics instruction video. It’s cruel and idiotic and crass. And it had the first night audience gasping and howling with guilty laughter.

In short, a bunch of girls end up at Camp Jolly, a “fat camp” run by Jed Gristle (played by Flanders). There’s a hooker, an orphan, a goth, a music theatre wannabe and a Manga girl. For one reason or another -- love action, psychosis, whatever -- it all goes horribly and hysterically wrong.

Though Fat Camp is a small-budget production, it aims high. More often than not, the cast and crew hit their marks. Lucky, really, cos they’re generally the moments we most want to look away.

If Flanders and Greene aren’t snapped up by the creators of South Park -- which is fast approaching its tenth birthday -- it will be Colorado’s great loss. Enjoy them while we have them.

This review was published in the Herald Sun on August 14, 2006.

See also Rageboy by Declan Greene, Midsumma Festival, February 2007.

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Not really about Not Like Beckett

Not Like Beckett by Michael Watts. Directed by Michael Kantor. Set and costume design by Anna Cordingly. Lighting by Niklas Pajanti. Composition and sound design by Darrin Verhagen. Malthouse Theatre, until August 20.

Not Like Beckett?

Not like bloody Hibberd either. More’s the pity.

This show made it four for four. The worst run I’ve had in Melbourne in years. Four shockers. Four shows I would willingly have left... if it had been possible to slip out unnoticed.

First, a disaster from the normally fine Arena company: Skid 180 by Louise Wallwein. Using a play and pro-am cast from Manchester, the Arena team threw everything at a lame piece about underage outsiders and their BMX half-pipe dreams.

The doom-and-gloom script -- angry as a blind pimple -- never quite heads up. Word for word, it’s kinda fun, a slammy mix of Manchester punk-poet-laureate John Cooper Clarke, Geezer-Rapper Mike Skinner (aka The Streets) and Billy Bragg. The youth, here, aren’t disaffected, they’re disinfected.

But the production was as unsubtle as the acting. The amplification of the voices blunt. The sound mix brutal and flat, though the original music and fx were okay. The video projections -- in real estate terms -- were an overcapitalisation. I couldn’t wait to get on my proverbial bike.

The very next night I made my annual pilgrimage to see a production by Melbourne Opera Company... to see if the company is (at long last) living up to the hype it generates and the warm support it enjoys from the local opera establishment; an establishment so desperate for a phoenix to rise from the ashes of the late, lamented -- and often lamentable -- Victoria State Opera.

Had I not been jammed into the middle of a row in the cramped Athenaeum Theatre, I doubt I would have lasted as long as I did. After the thunderous -- and dizzyingly hopeful -- opening chords, I had a terrible urge to stop the performance, to stand and scream at the top of my lungs: TUNE YOUR FUCKING INSTRUMENTS. (For some, in the woodwind section, having a tuned instrument didn’t actually help.) A couple of the singers might usefully have been advised to tune their instruments as well.

Bizarrely, the finale of Don Giovanni was used to preface the first act. Bad move. The finger-pointing “fires of hell” warning -- tutti -- was textbook ham opera, and far and away the worst acting of the first half. Which is where The Don and I parted company.

I’ve got to say that the acting -- finale/prelude aside -- was uncommonly good. Natural and persuasive. And a couple of the voices were good. Roger Howell, of course, as Leporello. Vanessa West’s Donna Anna was outstanding. She was physically committed to the part, too. But, musically, man... this Don was a Dog.

In the unlikely event that the Melbourne Opera Company had tendered successfully for the state funding crown, the best thing that could have been granted MOC would have been a real orchestra and a real theatre. Basic infrastructure.

That said, the younger, smaller Lyric Opera of Melbourne gives a far greater bang for the buck. A little over a year ago, Lyric mounted a production of Handel’s Orlando.

With an orchestra not much bigger than a string quartet, and five voices, the company reminded us that chamber music wasn’t meant for vast concert halls and opera houses, it was meant for chambers. The tiny Assembly Hall proved perfect for Handel. Its delightful, surround-sound acoustic is clear and warm; and remarkably even.

At the performance I attended, there were some bad-tempered problems between the cello and harpsichord, and a few unforced errors after interval, but the band was otherwise impressive.

It might sound like an oxymoron, but Lyric appeared to be providing a classical opera fringe: a genuine alternative to the blockbuster mainstage operas. With some scrims, a few chairs and some inventive lighting, the company transformed a bare concert platform into a place of theatrical magic.

In the next circle of hell was Complexions Contemporary Ballet, damned elsewhere, a company that still trades on its faded connections with the Alvin Ailey company.

Now, I happen to believe that dance is the performing art that reminds us why we have performing arts, but the Complexions show was so vacuous, so banal, that I feared that any newbie would look in and think: “Hmm, maybe dance isn’t for me.”

But I did stay to the end.

Bully for me.

Then Not Like Beckett. In the Beckett Theatre, appositely. (Named in honour of local designer John Beckett, dear reader, not Samuel.)

As a critic, I’ve seen literally thousands of shows. I know I clocked up an even thousand in four years in the mid ’90s. The more you eat, paradoxically, the better it gets -- if I can misquote a line from Godot -- the more tolerant of failure one gets. Even at the cinema, I piss my friends off by staying to the very end of the credits.

But, with Not Like Beckett, staying just wasn’t an option. Even if it was a mere 80 minutes, no interval. While I bided my time, I added a new answer to my on-going “why do we tell stories?” challenge. Bluster. Like some Douglas Adams joke -- I’m thinking of the telepathic alien species which developed inane smalltalk to head-off any unchecked thoughts -- Michael Watts’s play shores words against ruin. But the words are the ruin. The words are a Trojan Horse for La Nausée.
“The thing which was waiting was on the alert, it has pounced on me, it flows through me, I am filled with it. It’s nothing: I am the Thing. Existence, liberated, detached, floods over me. I exist.”
For the first time in my life, I climbed over people to get out of a theatre. Climbed? I almost fell over people to get out. The Beckett has seats that tilt forward when unoccupied, allowing for easier access to what might otherwise be a cramped space. (Depending on configuration, the theatre seats up to 198 people on two levels.)

Yes, out of courtesy to the hard-working actor, Russell Dykstra, I waited until I was out of eye-shot... then I fled. I had lasted barely 30 minutes. But I had been quietly gathering my possessions in anticipation.

A week’s a long time in politics, they say. But an hour trapped in a theatre can be eternal damnation. I went and slammed some slushy margaritas instead, figuring a cricket-bat hangover was far far better than faux-fur Beckett.

Skid 180 by Louise Wallwein. Directed by Rosemary Myers. Staging devised by Pete Brundle, Graham Clayton-Chance and Rosemary Myers. Video design by Pete Brundle and Graham Clayton-Chance. Stage and costume design by Vanessa Hawkins, lighting design by Mark Distin. Original composition and sound design by Hugh Covill with additional music by the Daywalkers. Choreographed by Luke George. North Melbourne Town Hall.

Don Giovanni by Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte. Directed and choreographed by Hugh Halliday, designed by Richard Jeziorny, lighting design by Nick Merrylees, costumes by Malcolm Cumberbatch. Conducted by Greg Hocking. Melbourne Opera Company. Athenaeum Theatre.

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Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Complexions Contemporary Ballet

Complexions Dance Company. Various works by resident choreographer Dwight Rhoden including RED/The Force (from Anthem), Pretty Gritty Suite and excerpts from The Cyclical Hour and Showman’s Groove. State Theatre, The Arts Centre, Melbourne. August 1. Season ends Sunday August 6.

Then Pittsburgh in September; Newark, Camden, Providence and New Haven in October; and Detroit in November. (Tour details below.)

Desmond Richardson and Miho Morinoue
(Photograph: Phil Mucci, click to enlarge)

For the last several weeks, since seeing an extraordinary life story turned into an extraordinary monodrama, I’ve spent every spare moment mulling over one of the theatre critic’s great “sound of one hand clapping” questions: why do we tell stories?

One of those snatched moments, waiting in a departure lounge for a delayed flight out of Sydney, was hijacked when the opening song from Massive Attack’s Blue Lines shuffled onto my iPod. ‘Safe From Harm’ is a pole dancer of a song. It has the sleaziest, groin-grinding, speedball bass riff imaginable. It’s impossible to sit still to. It was torture not being able to move to it. I thought, idly, how much easier it would be to answer the question: why do we dance?

It’s no accident that the muses are siblings. Sisters. They are the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. But music and dance, surely, are siamese twins.

Watching a sampler program from New York’s Complexions Dance Company last night, I realised that the two sisters don’t always get on. And when they fight... look out! It’s bitch fight city.
Co-artistic directors Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson do more than just rely on music. They prey on it. It’s constantly called on to paper over the banality of Rhoden’s tizzy choreography. Counterpoint, finally, becomes irrelevance.
Complexions’ program opened with the first act of the red white and blue ballet Anthem, created in 2002. Watching it, I guessed that the company might have just stepped off a plane. They looked jet-lagged. The dance was scrappy. Ungainly. Uncoordinated.

The dancers never quite caught up to the music. Who knows? Maybe it’s a voltage conversion problem and the computer/player clock was running faster than the company is used to, here in Oz. Otherwise they need to get the pro-tools out and slow the damn thing down.

The mash-up of Hendrix, Depeche Mode, Antonio Carlos Scott and Astor Piazzolla, incidentally, was clumsy and ear-splittingly loud.

Apart from a brief quintet for three men and two women, post Jimi Hendrix’s version of The Star-Spangled Banner, the choreography was like a comic parody of ‘serious’ dance. (And Anthem is, specifically, an examination “of the world and its complexities... [exploring] impressions of recent and past historical events.”) It’s full of high-fives and salutes and Broadway wrist flapping... as silly and insubstantial as the costumes.

Less, here, would have been much more.
I tried hard to focus on one dancer at a time, pick the best and hang on, to look for a syntax. Some hard meaning. But there was nothing in the dance but adverbs.
The mid-section of the program was better. The sinewy, slower trio for three men, Gone, which led after interval, was one of the highlights of the night. Even so, it had its silliness and melodrama and disposable detail. In the cute-but-slight Frankly (2005), two women (Adrienne Canterna and Ebony Haswell) danced up a storm while the objects of their desire stood around: hunky, gormless and oblivious. And here’s the problem... Every single eye in the 2000-seat theatre was trained on the stationary ones.

Next up was a song from Showman’s Groove, also created in 2005. Yusha Marie Sorzano and Jason Jacobs danced to a recording of Michael Bublé singing ‘A Foggy Day (in London Town)’. I couldn’t help but compare this piece to Twyla Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs... a piece that made everyone who saw it wanna run out and buy a ballgown or tux and get twirling. This made me wanna go to the zoo.

And DM Design, who created Desmond Richardson’s flouncy laplap should consider changing its name to DMF Design.

Out of charity, Sweet Charity, I won’t say much about Pretty Gritty Suite, which followed the second interval... except to say that it did as much violence to Nina Simone’s songs as Nine and a Half Weeks did to Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’. That’s some achievement, huh?

Oh, and the costumes by Epperson -- ragged, orange, shorty-pyjama pants and offcuts -- were so bad that I am considering submitting pictures of them to the gofugyourself girls. Cos I can’t think of anything sufficiently and appropriately insulting.

Well, if you don't like the costumes...
The united -- er -- Complexions of Benetton.

On September 7, Desmond Richardson is part of the 22nd annual Gala Des Étoiles at the Place des Arts, Montréal, Québec.

Future Complexions dates:

September 28, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

October 14 & 15: NJPAC, Newark
October 18: Camden, New Jersey
October 20: Providence, Rhode Island
October 21: New Haven, Connecticut

November 3 & 4: Detroit Music Hall

January 2007 dates include the New York City (Joyce Theater); Atlanta and Kansas City.

February 2007: Stamford, Boston, Princeton, Indianapolis, Columbus Ohio and Bloomington Indiana.

March 2007: New Orleans

April 2007: Norfolk Virginia

May: Lodz, Warsaw, Poznan, Bydgosz and Krakow Poland

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