Saturday, October 28, 2006

As a certain teacher at Springfield Elementary would say, rubbing her temples: “Calm blue ocean, calm blue ocean...”

A week or so before the 2006 Melbourne Festival opened, TMA extended an (unprecedented) invitation to theatre director Chris Kohn that, should anything fire him up and he had nowhere else to vent, he could do it here, “guest post” style. He didn’t -- or, rather, hasn’t -- taken up the offer. But, in the meantime, he has made some breathtaking contributions by way of the comment box at the end of my “past the point of return” posting.

Here’s part of his latest comment:
“I never feel the need to understand a text in order to direct it. If I read a script and feel that I understand it, I don't feel compelled to direct it. I have to feel that there is something there to discover, I have to feel that "investment" we were talking about, but I don't need to understand anything.”
Alison Croggon, too, made an extraordinary contribution, giving us an insight into the mind of the poet.
“People are trained to decode poetry, instead of experiencing it as something in which "meaning" occurs at several levels - cerebral, sure, and also (and maybe, in my mind anyway, firstly) intuitive and emotional and sensual, something that is evoked by the sensual and material aspects of the language. Often - and this can be true of my work - the sonic and carnal aspects of language are foregrounded above semantic considerations.”
Alison’s forensic ability with language and meaning makes her a great poet and formidable critic, but it can sometimes result in overreadings and overreactions -- where every choice of syllable (no matter how rushed or lazy) is treated as a clue or an indicator or some dastardly purpose... hence our superheated spat (over not all that much) at Theatre Notes.

Every week, more or less, TN sends out email alerts with a summary of what has been posted in the last week. In her latest missile -- I mean missive -- Alison explains that we have kissed and made up. Having said that, she does refer to me as Ms Boyd... possibly because I told the world I didn’t want to play Margaret Pomeranian to her David Crap-On on a proposed radio show. (I would have suspected her motives less if she had referred to herself as Mr Croggon... with me?) Hell, it’s not as if the ‘s’ and the ‘r’ keys are close together on the keyboard or anything, right? (Or that the same finger is used to hit both keys or anything, is it?!) So, I’m not going to overread... (As a certain teacher at Springfield Elementary would say, rubbing her temples: “Calm blue ocean, calm blue ocean...”)

Funnily enough, when TMA started out as a theatre cricket (rubbing his legs together, making shrill noises) just under 20 years ago, we routinely encountered a “Chris Boyd, I thought you were a woman!” response. The first time, the speaker was broadcaster-turned-gallery director, the estimable Mary-Lou Jelbart. My reflex response was a “Thank-you very much” which won me still more Brownie Points (as it were). Maybe it was quoting Simone de Beauvoir and Sandra Bem in my fourth review... I was pegged as a “bloody feminist”. (Once again, thank-you very much!)

It’s also something of a badge of honour that one of the very few ‘firsts’ TMA has received in his tarnished academic career was for a Women’s Studies/Theatre unit. (And the lecturer wasn’t at all grudging!)

Enough about me. (Yeah, right!) We reckon we’re pretty good, here, in picking winners. In our first ballet reviews for the Herald Sun, we singled out a corps dancer for her extraordinary musicality and technique. A few years later she’s a soloist -- a rapid if not quite breakneck advancement through the ranks -- and now, in Yet Another of those Star-is-Born breaks -- she’s taking the female lead in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake in China following an injury to principal dancer Rachel Rawlins. So, our thoughts and best wishes are with Amber Scott.

The last time we pointed out a kid in the back row and went “hey, wow!”-- 15 years ago -- it was Nicole Rhodes. And she went all the way. Very, very quickly. (So quickly it caused a few hairline fractures...)

Anyway, we’re also heartily stoked -- if I can revert to ’70s surfer lingo for a moment -- to learn from Mistress Mess that she’s been accepted into QUT. You may recall MM abandoned Law this time last year to devote herself to dance, to give it a real shot. We’re already imagining the book deals that will result when she’s the next Sylvie Guillem! (Or, okay, the next Amber Scott!!) We wish her well. And hope she keeps writing as assiduously, and brilliantly, as she has this past year.

Okay, enough. The Melbourne Festival ends tonight... and we’re going home to watch repeats of Iron Chef, RocKwiz and, maybe, Criminal Intent. Mmmm, brain death... Or, perhaps, just to sleeeep. Wake me when the Sydney Festival line-up is announced.

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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Peepshow. Written, directed and performed by Marie Brassard.

A few weeks before the Melbourne Festival opened, columnist Andrew Bolt let rip on this show. I’m not entirely sure why. It’s possible creator/performer Marie Brassard made some rather injudicous remarks. But then it’s equally likely that Mr Bolt has quoted her a little too selectively... making Brassard’s show sound like a fuck-fest extravaganza of paedophilia and bestiality... when it is merely -- and admirably -- a show about women desiring. Perhaps it was the title, Peepshow, that acted like a red rag to the Herald Sun’s op/ed wolf...

Mr Bolt held Peepshow up as an example of all that is wrong with (a) subsidised art, and (b) artistic director Kristy Edmunds’ stewardship of the Melbourne Festival.

Photo: David Clermont-Béique, click on the image to enlarge

Shame, really, as this is the one show of the festival that has enormous mainstream/cross-over appeal. (Though it has occurred to me that the tirade probably sold a fair percentage of the tickets!) One could imagine Mr Bolt taking his wife along -- even his maiden aunt -- and having a ball... of the non-1960s variety that is! Peepshow is a show that Melbourne Theatre Company subscribers would swallow whole, and hungrily, without the least indigestion. Comparable to -- not quite as good as -- Doug Wright’s brilliant monodrama I Am My Own Wife.

The weakest scene, as far as I was concerned, was the opener, which is the Bolt-offending scene... it ends with a naked and sexually precocious Little Red Riding Hood in bed with Mr Wolf... about to chow down. Or be chowed down upon. (Why do I think of The Two Ronnies here?! Oh, yeah... Their Little Red Riding Nude sketch... one of their finest!)

It’s all done with words... Mr Bolt, of course, knows just how powerful they can be. But if Peepshow presses his buttons, what on earth would be make of Greek Tragedy? Or Ovid? Or The Song of Solomon? Or unexpurgated Grimm fairy tales? Lest we forget what the so-called ugly sisters do in Cinderella... They hack their toes off to fit their dainties into the glass slipper. (Now there’s a scene I’d like to see Romeo Castellucci tackle!)

Photo: Simon Guilbault, click on the image to enlarge

The sad thing -- or not -- is that Mr Bolt won’t be able to judge for himself, as the show is booked out. Full to the roof from the very first performance. I can say that with some authority... as that’s where I was sitting... with my Big Issue colleague G-Lo. Under the roof. Behind the lighting and sound operators in the very last row of the gods.

Bloody unreserved seating! It’s my one gripe with the festival. Queues from the front door of the Merlyn Theatre that stretched all the way across the courtyard to ACCA next door. Unreserved seating and late dates, that is!

If Edmunds was doing what Bolt accuses her of, stuffing the Festival with unpalatable pinko fringe shit, we’d be able to get some decent frickin’ seats, now, wouldn’t we?

Peepshow. Written, directed and performed by Marie Brassard. Live music and sound design by Alexander MacSween. Scenography and lighting by Simon Guilbault. Dramaturgy by Daniel Canty. An Infrarouge production. Melbourne International Arts Festival. At the Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse, until Saturday October 28.

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Monday, October 23, 2006

MIAF 2006: past the point of return

By convention, the 17-day Melbourne International Arts Festival unfolds in three discrete waves, weekend after weekend after weekend. With a breather between each wave. Kristy Edmunds’ 2006 festival, however, is more like a vast ice-breaker ploughing steadily through the centre of the city. On sixteen of the festival’s seventeen days, a new show opens or there is a one-off event.

Seasons are typically very short, such is the way of the world when large touring ensembles or complex productions are involved, but it’s almost possible to see everything this year... and a few are trying! (I had a head start, seeing Mantalk in its Fringe incarnation and Now That Communism is Dead at its B-Sharp debut in Sydney last month.)

A scene from I La Galigo photograph by Russel Wong

Paradoxically, my “run of luck” turned -- dramatically for the better -- exactly one week into the Festival, when the second wave would, traditionally, have kicked in.

Just when I was starting to worry that it might be my problem that nothing was pushing my aesthetic buttons, the tide turned. Works by Robert Wilson, Sekou Sundiata, William Yang, Lucy Guerin in a bit over 48 hours. Simple and complex, wordy and wordless, poetry and dance...

I La Galigo advances Wilson’s quest to create a piece of total theatre. It might even be the culmination of that quest. The individual parts -- music, singing, movement, set and lighting design, the text and performance text, even the priestly blessing and supervision of the show -- are so perfectly harmonised so as to seem indivisible.

It’s not uncommon in Wilson’s oeuvre for one element to pick up the slack when another loses its way. (When the music is brutal and stodgy at the start of Act II of Einstein on the Beach, for example, the choreography is glorious. When the direction is feeble, in the next scene of that act, the music is inspirational. And so on.) Here, though, it’s less about quality and more about energy. When our attention starts to flag, thrilling percussion kicks in and makes us sit up and pay attention anew.

When the performance in the vast State Theatre begins to feel distant and two dimensional, vertical gold filaments are lowered at the rear of the stage -- maybe fifty of them -- and more widely spaced filaments are lowered at the apron of the stage -- ten of them -- lending an extraordinary sense of depth and drawing us in, once more, to the action.

The placement of the Bissu Priest (who initiates and drives the story) mid-way between stage and audience is a device Wilson has used before; also in Einstein on the Beach. (The Einstein character sat in exactly the same spot, playing the violin, facing the audience... both participant and witness.)

Coppong Daeng Rannu, centre, as the Goddess of Rice

In his notes for I La Galigo, Wilson writes: “Often people ask me what my theatre is about: usually I say I do not know. My work is, in most cases, formal. It is not interpretative. To me interpretation is not the responsibility of the director the author or the performer: interpretation is for the public.”

As I write in my review of the show for Herald Sun, from most theatre directors -- the ones who have far too many ideas or far too few -- that would be a cop-out. You know: if you don’t get the show, it’s your fault. You’re not trying hard enough.

Wilson shapes the material, paces and phrases it. He creates the space in which we can imagine. Puts a frame around it. And he invites us to imagine.

Instead if dissipating into a void, the energy is contained and builds. Meaning evolves. Accretes. We feel secure enough -- brave enough -- to read meaning from and into the gestures and images and sounds of an alien, ancient culture.

When the daughter of the ruler of The Under World and the son of the ruler of The Upper World meet in I La Galigo’s epilogue, we watch her gestures -- horizontal sweeps of her hand, palm flat -- and his -- vertical sweeps like a wave of greeting -- slowly entwining and merging in a complex, sensual and incredibly evocative resolution to an unfamiliar tonic. That’s quite some achivement, Mister Wilson.

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Thursday, October 19, 2006

Melbourne International Arts Festival: Voyage by dumb type

Voyage by dumb type. Visuals by Shiro Takatani, Takayuki Fujimoto and Hiromasa Tomari. Sound by Ryoji Ikeda. Playhouse, The Arts Centre, October 18.

In festival terms, dumb type’s Voyage is the blank tile in the Scrabble game. It can fit in anywhere, neatly; it can mean whatever you say it means. But it’s filler and you get no points for playing it.

The fact that this blank tile comes from dumb type is especially disappointing. It is the work of a company that has lost its way. This team of stars was once a star team as well. This recent work already looks oddly dated.

Voyage is a series of visual and aural vignettes -- simple and complex, serious and silly, abstract and literal -- linked, ostensibly, by the idea of voyage.

But the individual atoms float in a void. To call their interaction with one another counterpoint would be unnecessarily polite. There’s no rhythmic or melodic interaction between pieces of the puzzle. There’s not all that much intersection.

Voyage is the kind of work that requires a paranoid imagination to make up for the lack of shape -- and shaping.

(Photo: Kazuo Fukunaga, click to enlarge)

The piece opens with a slow, elegant and mechanical solo dance between three massive Mummenschanz-like nerf balls. In its articulation, torsional twists, scissoring and swing-wing moves, the choreography is reminiscent of Shen Wei’s. It’s pretty to watch in the half light, but it literally goes nowhere.

I won’t bore you with descriptions of each and every scene, as few of them are all that interesting to describe or watch. (Most, however, are amusing.) Fewer still are representative of the company when it is firing on all cylinders.

One set-piece has a woman in shirt and trousers cutting a diamond-shape out of a map which she then feeds into an old IBM electric typewriter on a table. She lies on that table, next to the humming typewriter, and bangs out an itinerary. This is videod, from above, and projected onto the rear screen. Footage of the ocean swell is also projected giving a sense of being at sea. It’s a quaint, conceptual, performance art-style scene with a technological twist.

More effective -- though of dubious relevance -- is a recorded monologue by a woman in a floral dress who lies sprawled on an otherwise empty stage. Once again, the scene is shot from above and projected. A horizontal band wipes down the image, sapping colour and life from the scene and the woman. We get a momentary glimpse of her, dead.

(Photograph: Emmanuel Valette, click to enlarge)

A hard-working audience member might imagine that the stationary woman is journeying into the underworld or the afterlife, whatever you want to call it. To me it was touching -- affecting even -- but nothing more than spectacle.

As you’d expect, dumb type team member Ryoji Ikeda contributes some incredible sound effects, from quaking subwoofing to his trademark pings, but there was nothing here to match his solo projects, visually or aurally.

In one of the final scenes, we get a key-hole satellite view of the world. Scanning. Hunting. I thought, for a moment, we were looking for a target to ‘acquire’. But, no. Just aimless hunting. For a point. Which is never found.

Funny thing is, dumb type calls itself a political company. Perhaps they are political in the sense that their collaborative process is democratic. They are a true collective.

But true collectives are anarchic. And while one person’s idea of anarchy can be transmuted into brilliant, effective, revelatory art, collective anarchy -- without shape, without aim, without trajectory -- is indistinguishable from self-indulgence. Or laziness.

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2005 Melbourne International Arts Festival: formula [ver.2.3] and c4i by Ryoji Ikeda

One from the archives...

formula [ver.2.3]. Music and direction by Ryoji Ikeda. Video materials and editing by Shiro Takatani. Computer graphics by Hiromasa Tomari. Lighting and stage design by Takayuki Fujimoto.

In a rare moment of stillness in c4i, a line from Thomas Pynchon’s 1966 novel The Crying of Lot 49 is projected: “Shall I project a world?” It’s the author’s agony in the garden, the modern day equivalent of Eliot’s cry: “do I dare disturb the universe?”

Japanese composer and visual artist Ryoji Ikeda takes Pynchon’s words literally in c4i, one of the matched pair of audio-visual presentations he has brought to this year’s Melbourne Festival. Rather than create a world, he smashes one to bits. One of the most memorable images Ikeda creates, in its place, is a Borg-cube of digits.

c4i is Koyaanisqatsi for the new millennium, a world mapped and digitised, abstracted into wire-frame patterns and trillions of numbers. Like Pynchon, Ikeda is fascinated with technology and appalled by America, the “giant mistake.”

c4i is a military model of the world. The four Cs of the title are Command, Control, Communications and Computers; the I, intelligence.

Next to formula [ver.2.3], c4i is a smell-the-roses test pattern and music. formula [ver.2.3] literally assaults the senses with retina-scorching strobe lighting and violent extremes of sound: ultra and infra, nose-bleed highs and bowel-shaking lows.

Images © Ryoji Ikeda, photographs: Kazuo Fukunaga

formula [ver.2.3] is, by far, the more sophisticated of the two works; it’s drier and abstract. It teases us with fragments of image that the human mind hungers for. Actually, formula [ver.2.3] tortures us with images. It denies us the whole. It distorts and debases.

The basic sound unit is like a submarine’s sonar ping, only vastly louder and a couple of octave’s higher. Visually, the piece is constructed from sweeping lines, vertical and horizontal, left to right, top to bottom. Their sweeps and stuttering trails trigger percussive sounds and drones.

formula [ver.2.3] is a work of great craft, but -- as art -- it lags way behind the great works made by Europe’s Granular Synthesis in the middle 1990s. For audiences that had the good fortune to see Modell 5 at ACMI in 2004, formula [ver.2.3] is a determined and formulaic assault on the senses with a blunt object. No less, no more.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Flogging on: a whip ’round the blogs

At Sarsaparilla, the team wavers between wary suspicion and downright hostility when it comes to novelists who suddenly take up blogging when a new book is rolling off the presses, only to abandon the blog with the same alacrity when the book tour is over.

The publicity stunts are fairly easy to spot, as are the writers who are in it for the medium-to-long haul. Sometimes though a writer’s diary or an artist’s diary which concentrates on the actual gestation process can be fascinating, even if it is a fleeting thing. I’ve read some rippers by theatre directors in rehearsal periods (Ariette Taylor’s springs to mind, sorry, I don’t have a link) and by playwrights about the same jostling between writer and director (see George Hunka’s Superfluities for the playwright’s take on things!) as well as accounts by touring playwrights, dancers and comedians. Their scribblings are a combination of venting, processing and hypothesising. Here, the short-lived nature of the exercise isn’t necessarily a liability. The reader gets a glimpse into the mind of the creative artist caught in the act.

The latest addition to the pantheon is the improbably-titled Wake up Mr. Sleepy! Your Unconscious Mind Is Dead!, a blog by iconoclast theatre maker Richard Foreman. “Wake up Mr. Sleepy! Your Unconscious Mind Is Dead!” is the title of Foreman’s work in progress. (Ontological Theater’s production is scheduled to open at St Mark’s Church in New York on January 18th, 2007.)

Now that Communism is Dead my Life Feels Empty

But he writes in such a profoundly interesting way that readers on the far corner of the planet might well be interested. Especially those who are planning on seeing Max Lyandvert’s production of Foreman’s play Now that Communism is Dead my Life Feels Empty which is at the Malthouse Theatre, part of the 2006 Melbourne International Festival. Here’s a taste of Foreman’s musings:
Most theater depicts people navigating the currents of every-day life. I admit I find this suffocating and non-revelatory.

Instead, I am passionately interested in what throbs behind normal “social” life— a hypnotic yet inaccessible influence from levels both above and below that common life within which the impulsive twitches of the conditioned mind and body dance their every-day dance.

For me, the true JOY in art is to display such behavioral lurching in counterpoint against a more formal, non-human backdrop that is both literal (projected film tableaux) and symbolic (a relatively abstract grid of words and sounds) which combine to create contrapuntal complex patterns into which the human mind inevitably projects visions of the transcendence that haunts all non-human “empty space”-- that void that exists between everything from atomic particles, to mental concepts, to human beings, or individual moments of pulsating consciousness.

What I do in my theater is simply to layer different self contained ‘realms of being’ (image, sound, idea, or movement) over one another in ways that allow such overlapping layers to bleed through each other and create thereby, maps of new mental territory in which heightened sensibility re-energizes the internal mechanism we all share in common.

So—nothing to be afraid of or to anticipate as “hard to understand” in my plays, because one should not try to laboriously translate them into what they are not. They are NOT pictures of the “outer” world. They are NOT even pictures of the “inner” world. They simply use left over pieces of both inner and outer worlds to build a PARADISE where the mind and feelings dance as if the world were in fact—total music. (And perhaps it secretly is!)
The other great new blog on the theatre scene is by pro critic and editor David Cote, best known for his writings for Time Out New York. His blog is Histriomastix.

I’m bloody envious at the way this man hit the ground running. It’s clear he had some pent-up creativity. (He is a reformed actor, incidentally, and appeared in a Foreman play in the late 20th century.) It is vented, big-time, is posts like Suffer the little children, which is ostensibly about the film Jesus Camp -- but really about Cote himself!

Locally, let me draw your attention to a couple of wildly different responses to Romeo Castellucci’s Tragedia Endogonidia Br. #04 Bruxelles. First up, Alison Croggon’s at Theatre Notes. Alison writes:
“This is work that communicates at levels both beneath and beyond speech, and it leaves you filled with a profound wordlessness. I don't think I have seen any theatre which so radically and powerfully questions the place and meaning of language.”
And concludes her review, thus:
“This is work that remains essentially mysterious, in the way that human existence is mysterious, erupting beyond mere intellect to lodge in the psyche's obscurities. Where, believe me, it takes root: I had some very strange and disturbing dreams that night. Astounding, unforgettable theatre.”
Cross town, Danny Episode (in his typically pithy way) dismisses the piece as “unmitigated crap.”

Danny also has an interview with Yumi Umiumare, butoh artist extraordinaire, who is appearing -- believe it or not -- in Ngapartje Ngapartje.

Camille O’Sullivan is a swinger...
(Photo: Marc Marnie, click on the image to enlarge.)

Last, but by no means least, George Hunka has taken the liberty of posting one of Camille O’Sullivan’s songs on-line, here. Have some smelling salts handy. It’s Nick Cave’s (Are You) The One I’ve Been Waiting For?

Update: Superfluities has moved... The home page is here.

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Sunday, October 15, 2006

24 hours from Salt Lake City: The Tulse Luper Suitcases by Peter Greenaway

The Tulse Luper Suitcases. Written and directed by Peter Greenaway. Original Music by Borut Krzisnik. Cinematography by Reinier van Brummelen. Visual Effects by Francesco Paglia and Mauro Vicentini. Part 1: The Moab Story. Part 2: Vaux to the Sea. Part 3: From Sark to Finish.

The reports, the ricochets, the echoes are beginning to emerge between festival events.

The plain white set in Tragedia Endogonidia Br. #04 Bruxelles is like the room that George Orwell imagined (where there is no darkness) in a way that the gunmetal grey set that The Actors’ Gang uses is not. In Vaux to the Sea, the second part of Peter Greenaway’s Tulse Luper Suitcases, an ornate marble room is spattered and smeared with the blood of men -- beaten and killed -- just as Castellucci’s set is, in Bruxelles.

Greenaway gives us a palace in occupied France during the Second World War... yet another prison for his writer-hero, Tulse Luper.

Castellucci’s arena is more modern; stylish enough to be corporate, clinical enough to be medical, anonymous enough to be five star accommodation. A place suitable for a cocktail party, but one that can be hosed clean... like an abattoir.

In an earlier scene in Vaux to the Sea, Tulse is held captive in the bathroom of a railway station. He is pulled from a tub and belted until his blood sprays on the tiled wall behind him. It’s like an action painting in bodily fluids. Cinema of cruelty.

A team of stenos transcribe the writings of Tulse Luper
(click on the image to enlarge)

With its vague preoccupations with Uranium and, in its latter parts, with the extermination of the Jews, The Tulse Luper Suitcases has much in common with Castellucci’s Genesi: from the museum of sleep. Genesi begins with Marie Curie showing radium to Lucifer. The bringer of light is brought a substance -- the only earthly substance -- that radiates light. Radium is Lucifer’s way of returning to his heavenly father... by bringing the fires of hell to man.

Castellucci described Lucifer as a lost soul and argues that he acts out of love. Likewise, he describes Cain -- the first murderer -- as a lonely and tragic man. We watch Cain strangle his brother in the third section of Genesi. Cain’s withered arm -- his monkey’s paw of cataclysmic wishes -- has been seen twice before: at mankind’s annunciation with nuclear power in the first scene, and in Auschwitz, the setting for Genesi’s middle section.

Marble and tiles can be hosed clean. Sterilised. Evidence can be removed.

Two quick points: in Bruxelles, a faint red discolouration remained on the floor after the blood was mopped up. Maybe Lady Macbeth was right after all. Secondly, before the beating began, evidence tags -- cards with letters like we’re used to seeing placed next to gun shell casings at crime scenes in TV dramas -- are placed on the pristine floor.

Inevitably, we’re reminded of Nazi showers. Of gas chambers. Children were the first to be gassed, writes Castellucci. In Genesi’s innocent and dreamy middle act, child’s play is a metaphor for mankind’s inability to comprehend the magnitude of its loss of innocence. It closes with a ghostly image of children dancing under a mist of milky water. The spray is so fine it might be gas. (This image is repeated and varied in the final moments of the third act as ashes fall lightly onto the naked body of Cain.)

Apart from imprisonment, persecution and torture, the other great emerging thread in Kristy Edmunds’ festival -- so far -- is history. There is no such thing as history, we’re told in The Tulse Luper Suitcases, there are only historians.

In Bruxelles, history is shuffled and snuffed out. Erased. In Tulse Luper, it’s imagined; conjured up like the 1001 stories of Scheherazade. In George Orwell’s 1984, history is as malleable as mercury. (Those that control the present, control the past. And those that control the past, control the future.) Even in Ros Warby’s commando-ballet solo Monumental -- itself a kind of passion play -- history has to be fixed. Fixed like a photograph that is.

I have to say that the most interesting, inspiring and the most theatrical show I’ve seen so far in the 2006 Melbourne Festival is The Tulse Luper Suitcases. Just as Warby is eclipse by filmed footage of her shot by Margie Medlin, the performing arts, here, are trumped by a piece of cinema. Piece? Make that masterpiece.

It’s going to be a challenge to prove to you that a work of cinema can be theatrical, but Peter Greenaway’s project transcends the limits of the cinema form. Okay, yes, Greenaway’s project does that literally. (Apart from the seven hours of images projected on a screen and many DVD releases, there are on-going exhibitions, live VJ ‘performances’ and a massive, multi-player online web game that consists of various puzzles and quests. The ‘prizes’ include 92 sections of another self-contained film, one minute each.)

But Tulse Luper also transcends the form metaphorically. There’s an immediacy in Greenaway’s work that establishes something akin to kinaesthetic empathy. That’s rare enough in live theatre, but in an ACMI cinema, that’s almost unprecedented. Except for IMAX 3-D films of dance or physical theatre...

I was engaged so thoroughly that I involuntarily covered my mouth when one of the characters turned to face me while I was mid yawn. Seriously. It was the same reflex you have in the theatre when you can be seen from the stage: you don’t want to distress an actor by having them think you’re bored when you’re just tired!

There’s a strange and strangely effective staginess in Greenaway’s film, especially in the first section, The Moab Story, which (in the cut screened here) runs for three solid hours. A strip of post World War 1 houses in Newport, Wales, has been constructed in what looks like a warehouse. It’s like something out of Patrick White’s Season at Sarsaparilla. There’s no attempt, here, at conventional realism.

Ten year-old Tulse and his friend Martino Knockavelli turn a re-enactment of WW1 trench warfare into a fence vaulting race, from one back yard to another. End to end. The bricks are too fresh, too red. As fake as the astroturf. But this bookending hyper-coloured scene is like the Wizard of Oz inside out. We go from stagey to verismo -- sort of -- and back.

The opening credits step aside for footage of various screen tests and auditions made for the 92 key roles. (92, the number of suitcases that Tulse assembles -- to “represent the world” -- is also the atomic number of Uranium.)

But rather than being a kind of jokey out-takes reel, this is a sustaining idea of the film: audition, rehearsal, repetition, revision, correction. Doing it until you get it right, like an actor’s exercise.

I’ve gotta say, I’m not a fan of Peter Greenaway by and large. I admit to having seen -- and liking -- Prospero’s Books and The Pillow Book at their cinema release, and I forced myself to watch several others because of the esteem in which they are held. But, frankly, the feeling was never remotely shared. I saw pompous windbaggery, mostly. But this... this is as fresh as Tristram Shandy must have been in 1759. Fractured, picaresque, crack-brained and exuberant.

Tulse Luper loses his cherry, again...
(click on the image to enlarge)

To look at, The Tulse Luper Suitcases is reminiscent of Prospero’s Books with its cut-ups, waves of text and extraordinary digital effects. Given the sheer mass off the visual and aural information -- it is (almost) as insanely detailed as Gravity’s Rainbow -- watching The Tulse Luper Suitcases is surprisingly stress-free. The story telling is delicious. Often pointless. Perhaps always pointless. But it is indulgent and sensual. And utterly utterly gorgeous.

One of the things I liked about this film is that it doesn’t join its own dots... despite the fact that there are numerous narrative voices, talking head experts on Tulse’s life as in a grand TV documentary. It might not even know how to join its dots.

Let me give you one example. One of Tulse’s suitcases (the 85th) is filled with blood and ink. They’ve sloshed together but not quite merged. This is glossed by one of the experts, but it’s up to us to recognise that the dark, blueish ink is like venous blood. De-oxygenated blood. The cyan of death. That blood is heading back to the heart to be revived, to be made red again.

Blood is spilt, but in the ink of the artist -- the writer/story-teller or the sketch artist -- will become indelible proof of its spilling. Blood can be washed away, but ink -- like memory -- bears witness.

Throughout the last two-hour installment, From Sark to Finish, we can hear the persistent and liminal chatter of a typewriter. It’s as distinctive of the ticking of clocks in a Bergman film. It’s another reminder that were are in a world conjured up by a writer.

It was an extraordinary privilege to be one of the hundred-odd people who witnessed the Australian premiere of this project -- in its entirety -- over three days.

Regrettably, only one cycle has been scheduled.

You can find out more about the game here. It’s also in the ACMI games lab for the duration of the festival.

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Saturday, October 14, 2006

Socíetas Raffaello Sanzio: Tragedia Endogonidia Br. #04 Bruxelles by Romeo Castellucci

George Orwell’s 1984. Adapted from Nineteen Eighty-Four by Michael Gene Sullivan. Directed by Tim Robbins. Scenic design by Richard Hoover and Sibyl Wickersheimer. Costume design by Alison Leach. Lighting design by Bosco Flanagan. Sound design by David Robbins. Presented by The Actors’ Gang. State Theatre, The Arts Centre, Thursday October 12. Season ends October 15.

Tragedia Endogonidia Br. #04 Bruxelles. Directed by Romeo Castellucci and Chiara Guidi. Set, costume and lighting design by Romeo Castellucci. Vocal, sound and dramatic score by Chiara Guidi. Trajectories and writings by Claudia Castellucci. Original music by Scott Gibbons. “Statics and dynamics”: Stephan Duve. A Societas Raffaello Sanzio production. Merlyn Theatre, The Malthouse, Southbank. Friday October 13. Season is sold out.

Michael Gene Sullivan’s two-scene one-set adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four presents the story of “6079 Smith” via his interrogation and torture. Winston (P Adam Walsh, left, photograph by Jean-Louis Darville) is shackled throughout.

Four party members, bearing reproductions of his diary, read out his thoughtcrimes and re-enact various scenes while he confesses to the face and voice behind the various viewsceens. (O’Brien, Winston’s friend and tormentor, appears in the latter part of the play.)

Sullivan’s text is shrewd, if occasionally rather heavy-handed. It’s at its weakest in the few places where it deviates from Orwell’s plot-line. (At no point, for example, is there any possibility of Winston’s release after his ‘cure’ in Sullivan’s version. Winston’s execution is a fait accompli.)

The script demands an intense and physically committed performance. Which, unfortunately, it singularly fails to get.

Under the direction of Tim Robbins, this Actors’ Gang production has all the physicality of a radio play... broadcast on AM radio through tinny speakers.

It’s a modest and bloodless production especially unsuited to the Arts Centre’s State Theatre, a three-level, 2000-seat opera theatre. Even the Royal Shakespeare Company gets lost in this theatre.

Radio microphones can’t compensate for an absence of physical intensity. And the Gang’s “head acting” is essentially undramatic. Anti-dramatic even. (Photograph of Brian T Finney, VJ Foster and Kaili Hollister by Jean-Louis Darville.)

Though this is an incredibly inauspicious curtain raiser for the 2006 Melbourne Festival, I suspect that George Orwell’s 1984 is a kind of overture to the festival. The ideas and themes the production raises -- and the images conjured up by Orwell’s words -- will resonate through many of the scheduled events.

Another night, another bitter disappointment. Off-the-plan, my “pick of the festival” was a single instalment of Romeo Castellucci’s 12-part Tragedia Endogonidia. [N.B. There are eleven numbered parts, but M.#10 Marseilles is in two parts which are performed at separate theatres. See the complete list, below.] Just sixty minutes in duration... But anyone who has seen a Societas Raffaello Sanzio production will know how rich and dense and affecting an hour in the dark can be; will know how much havoc can be let loose in mind and heart.

I saw Castellucci’s three-part work Genesi: from the museum of sleep in Melbourne in 2002 and then again in Perth the following year. A single act of that work could fill a mind to overflowing. Seen in sequence, in the course of a single evening, three silenced me with a chaotic awe.

But Bruxelles, on its own, had no centre. No artistic gravitational pull at its core. No obvious through-line. I don’t mean plot, here, necessarily. This is imagist theatre. What you see is what you project. But I’m a firm believer that for audiences to make meaning (impute meaning, call it what you will) from a piece, any piece, the performers themselves need to have some idea about why they are doing what they are doing. I got no such sense.

Bruxelles (Photograph by Luca del Pia, click to enlarge)

They went through the motions... so it seemed. Mopping marble floors, dressing and undressing, pouring blood in pools, beating the crap out of a prisoner with batons, pulling teeth, smashing fluorescent tubes and so on.

While it was possible to delight in certain aspects of the performance -- a tiny dance, some agonised writhing, some shadow puppetry, strobing fluorescent lights, design elements and so on -- the noise to signal ratio was way out of whack. Too many signifiers and no detectable significance.

Of course, there’s every chance that Bruxelles would make more sense in context -- as one station of the cross in a vastly bigger work -- but it’s as meaningful on its own as the middle act of Siegfried, say, without the rest of the Ring Cycle.

The numbered sections:

C.#01 Cesena
A.#02 Avignon
B.#03 Berlin
BR.#04 Bruxelles
BN.#05 Bergen
P.#06 Paris
R.#07 Roma
S.#08 Strasbourg
L.#09 London
M.#10 Marseille
C.#11 Cesena

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Friday, October 13, 2006

21st Melbourne International Arts Festival

On September 15, 1986, the curtain went up on the first Melbourne Festival. Or, rather, on the Spoleto Melbourne Festival of Three Worlds.

One of the “early bird” punters, I found myself seated behind the Governor Dr Davis McCaughey and film director Ken Russell at Russell’s own production of Madama Butterfly in the brand spanking new State Theatre. That production -- in which Cio Cio was a mail-order bride-hooker in 1930s Nagasaki -- ended with a retina-scorching H-bomb blast. People stood and cheered, or stood and booed. Well, one person booed out loud, the rest quietly envied his courageous and mature response to a outrageous and immature production.

Yesterday, on one of the hottest October days on record in Melbourne, the curtain went up on the 21st Festival, which now trades as the Melbourne International Arts Festival after a recent and surreptitious changes of alias. (Perth can get away with having an International Arts Festival, it makes a cute acronym, but MIAF? Really...)

Tragedia Endogonidia BR.#04 Bruxelles
(Photograph: Luca del Pia, click on the image to enlarge)

By my reckoning, Melbourne’s arts festival has had almost as many names as it’s had artistic directors: seven and nine respectively. But that’s an observation rather than a criticism. It’s a reflection of the evolution of the festival and the on-going grappling with the need to find a purpose for a festival in an city that doesn’t actually need a festival.

Like Sydney, Melbourne is well catered for when it comes to the performing and visual arts. (For most of its first 20 years, the Sydney Festival was a transparent attempt to stop people leaving town in January... a perfectly respectable raison d’etre civically speaking!)

In the first few months of 1986, Melbourne was visited by Lauren Bacall (the fourth widow Bogart played the booze-soaked and forgotten film-star Alexandra Del Lago in Sweet Bird of Youth), heard the massed forces of the USSR State Symphony, saw the Royal Shakespeare Company (Antony Sher had a hunch he was going to be King Richard III), the brilliant Medieval Players and star baritone Håkan Hagegård in a most sublime recital. Melbourne also saw Philip Glass and his ensemble and the string soloists from the Berlin Philharmonic. The Australian Opera performed no fewer than eight productions in its Autumn season in the new theatres building of the new Victorian Arts Centre. Our theatres ranneth over.

According to Paul Clarkson, author of 1986-2005: the first 20 years, the impetus for an arts festival in Melbourne came from the top. In the winter of 1977, Premier Dick Hamer (who was also arts minister and treasurer) asked his arts council to investigate the possibility of having an arts festival -- “perhaps similar to Adelaide’s” -- in Melbourne. The advice he received was to wait for the completion of the Arts Centre, and that an annual festival could be managed by the Arts Centre.

Clarkson, a modest and thoughtful man, headed the state ministry for the arts and served on the board of the new festival from its foundation in 1984 until his retirement as a bureaucrat, 11 years later. His account of the genesis of the festival is concise and scrupulously fair.

Clarkson doesn’t gloss over the brutal treatment that the Melbourne media and its arts establishment dished out to ‘outsiders’ like Leo Schofield -- who rode it out quite spectacularly -- and Richard Wherrett... who got on his horse and rode out of town a year early.

With the softening of time, references to union action over the mass importation of talent, disputes over fugly arches over St Kilda Road, the recession that turned Melbourne into a tarnished buckle on the rust belt, all seem oddly benign.

The book is divided up into sections by artistic director, from the Menotti years to the Archer years, and it closes with a preview of the first Kristy Edmunds festival, last year. It briskly covers the visions of each director and the programs they oversaw. Like the challengers in Iron Chef, virtually every festival director bemoans the lack of lead time.

1997 director Clifford Hocking told me “it takes three to five years to do something effective and exciting. The companies that we want are booked five years ahead.” It was a sour irony for Hocking that he was invariably called upon to pull festivals together at the last minute. He had just two years to curate the 1990 Adelaide festival and less than 20 months to pull the 1997 Melbourne Festival together after Leo Schofield’s abrupt departure.

Clarkson writes about Hocking’s “black book” of contacts. Ultimately, it was this perceived need for international contacts that led to Melbourne hitching its artistic wagon to the tiny Italian town of Spoleto in the mid 1980s, to open the black book of the director of its festival “dei Due Mondi”, composer Gian Carlo Menotti.

In its first three years, ‘Spoleto’ had mixed success. It was loved by the aficionados who got to experience Nikolais Dance Theatre, Byakko-Sha and Cloudgate first hand; the English Shakespeare Company doing the entire War of the Roses cycle and the Comédie-Française... but it was hardly noticed by the wider community.

It took John Truscott to make it a festival of the people. And of the city. Wherrett and Schofield knew what they wanted, but perhaps not what Melbourne wanted; Hocking made it a Renaissance Festival... one that had comprehensive music and visual arts programs; Sue Nattrass gave it a conscience; Jonathan Mills gave it Bach; and Robyn Archer gave it Bollywood.

In her second festival, Edmunds is offering uncomfortable political reality. Rebellion. Resistence. A veritable insecurity council of disunited nations.

In the next two and a half weeks, Melbourne gets to sample recent work from The Actors’ Gang (George Orwell’s 1984), Richard Foreman (Now That Communism is Dead My Life Feels Empty), Romeo Castellucci (one instalment of his Tragedia Endogonidia), Peter Greenaway (Tulse Luper), Bill T Jones (Blind Date), Sekou Sundiata (51st [Dream] State), Dumb Type (Voyage), Robert Wilson (I La Galigo), Lucy Guerin (Structure and Sadness), Marie Brassard (Peepshow) and many others.

It’s not a festival for the masses, but that makes it all the more exciting. Watch this space!

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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

A blind date with Bill T Jones...

TMA gets the gentlest of bitch slaps from Bill T Jones in his latest blog entry for our gratuitous use of the P-word in a recent phone interview. It took a full half-hour to recover from my nervous use of the word ‘politics’ mid way through my very first question. D’oh!

Bill T Jones and Leah Cox in Blind Date
(Photograph by Paul B Goode, click on the image to enlarge)

As Bill T says, since William Forsythe’s Three Atmospheric Studies arrived in Europe, the press -- and the dance world -- has been all ‘atwitter’. In our defence, Bill went into autopilot when he heard the P-word and didn’t really respond to the context. Nor, for that matter, did he wait until I had finished phrasing the frickin’ question!!

And TMA can hardly be accused of jumping the Three Atmospheric Studies bandwagon. Hell, you’ll find us at the very start of the wagon train! (See our review of the Adelaide Festival performance in March.) (If you google Three Atmospheric Studies you’ll get 12 or 13 million hits. And TMA was ‘minor premier’ last time we checked... it’s been good for business!)

Here’s the opening salvo from Jones, verbatim.


[Bill T Jones:] I don’t understand what makes Still/Here political?


Right now, when I speak oftentimes to journalists... As a matter of fact last week there were two conversations with a writer from the Guardian who was writing a piece that was provoked by reaction to Billy Forsythe’s piece, which obviously seems to be touching a nerve in Europe, maybe it’s because Billy is thought of as a formalist choreographer suddenly he’s transgressing. I think because he is dealing with the war, it falls now into the category of politics.
“Now, in my way of thinking since the time of Euripides, people like that have been pondering the nature of war and tragedy... and even stupid leaders.”
And this is not intending to back off, but I think that we need a new language right now to talk about the departure from what I think is a High Modernist legacy. High Modernist legacy found such power -- and I dare say provocation -- in abstraction somewhere in the mid 20th century. I think we’re still under its long shadow. And, quite frankly, the circus has moved on. A long time.


The work that I try to make -- Still/Here, Blind Date -- is all trying to deal with the poetic, the poetry of the world that I live in --


Erotics are good, too! One way I’ve been able to talk about it is trying to understand what Robert Rauschenberg was doing in the 60s with collage. With his collage, or his ‘combines’ more precisely, he was able to take the stuff -- the detritus of the society -- a lot of it was literally junk -- newspapers become junk when the news is old -- placing it strategically within a frame [and] throwing paint at it, which in fact gave it a connection to the other great experiment -- the formal expressive experiment -- of the era: abstract expressionism. And, as a result, making it somehow greater than the sum of its parts.

Still it was highly personal. Which is what I think sometimes we mean when we say a work is political... I guess, by default, political. Because the stuff that you saw in the canvas, the primary material -- I’m thinking of an american eagle, I’m thinking of JFK -- is set next to next to a picture of a missile, set next to a [mushroom] cloud formation, maybe a person starving in some area of the world. These juxtapositions were loaded and they dug deep into the psyche of the observer because of the shared terrain that we call the social terrain. We all read the papers, we all watch the media. And the personal associations that we each have with that experience of trying to put together disparate elements, trying to think about paint splattered by an individual the same as ink on a piece of newsprint talking about the assassination of a president. Each individual was shaken or pulled into this cos it felt so much like what [it was] like negotiating life at that time.

I think that comes close to what I am doing in Blind Date. I always say that maybe right now the work that I’m making is less about what we call politics [than what] I call moral dilemma.

The moral dilemma is: we all are inundated with the same overload of information. We all know that there is something profoundly wrong. And when we try to express it... We have different avenues of expression: we can write a letter to the editor of the paper, we can get out and vote -- or we have to look at -- as Lord Buckley says -- at Mr Inside Me. Mr Inside Me -- and Mr Inside You -- is either beleaguered or they’re in a total froth understanding where they’re going. They’re in a total froth or they’re in some some sort of open rebellion against the constraints of the world.

Which one are you? Which one am I?

[Blind Date] is layered, referencing topical things, even as it’s trying to bore deeper into the inner life of each person watching it. Therefore, I’d say it’s a type of poetry.

Now, can I win votes with this? Can I go our and change the world with this? I’m not sure. I’m not sure. That’s not really what I think the domain of art primarily is. The domain of art can maybe add to those discourses but ultimately it’s about this burrowing in. Asking the question of the viewer: what do you think about this world as it is depicted here, confused as it is? What are your moral imperatives? This is what the inventor of this spectacle is asking himself. Quite frankly, I’m dealing [with] something akin to paralysis. And that is maybe what the work is trying to talking about, this overwhelming sense of hopelessness and confusion. And is that political? I don’t know. I find that in the realm of the poetic, or I’d say it’s about a moral dilemma.





Was that supposed to be put-down for the play itself?


One runs a risk when one does work that truly has an issue like war is bad. Well, who can argue that war is bad?!

So, what about war? Once again, why are you making a piece that deals with war? It has to do with the decisions that men and women make, and what [they reveal] to us about our predicament. That is where poetry is, and that’s where the endless fascination is, as far as I’m concerned, when you use something that is dealing with injustice or what have you. And that’s what my piece is about. It’s called Blind Date for a reason.

I say that my country -- that somehow prides itself as the oldest democracy on the planet and there’s irony inside of that these days -- was based on ideas of French intellectuals from the 18th century, older than that, the enlightenment philosophers. And the founders of my country had these ideas about tolerance, progress, deism -- this separation of church and state -- and the political discourse in my country. And I think perhaps the world right now is fraught with cynical people who, in order to get votes, push a lot of buttons about morality and our democracy and so on. But I think it’s becoming more and more repressive, human rights are the first casualty even in a ‘democracy’ (quote unquote) like ours.

There is a great deal of chest thumping around ‘moral values’ -- whose values... if it’s a ‘Christian nation’? If it’s a christian nation, then what about issues of abortion and homosexuality and all of those things. Now that’s the actual milieu that Blind Date is coming out of. It’s asking the question: what we say that we are -- our 18th century lineage -- and what in fact we’re doing -- becoming more and more conservative, repressive, Fascistic even -- those two actions seem to be in a collision course in my mind. I use the trash title for a non trash investigation. The trash title is Blind Date; if you’re going on a date with someone that you’re really incompatible with and the outcome is unclear.

It is a theatre work, beautifully designed.

It has a beautiful company. As always, we’re quite varied. As a matter of fact, as I’ve said on many occasions, our work is in a way kind of a documentary.

If you take a multi-national company like ours, and you ask each of its members what their personal feelings are about the nasty political discourse of their host country...

Someone like Wen-Chung Lin comes up with a very touching discussion of what patriotism has always meant to him... being that he is from Taiwan, a country that is not recognised by the world. Asli Bulbul -- she’s from Turkey -- she talks about the symbol of the moon in the east and as a woman who is an Islamic women.

This piece is, on some level, a kind of a documentary existing in an abstract world.

Yes, there is a text that talks about courage, honour and valour. Those are ideas that I, as the choreographer, the conceiver of the work, have been wrestling with for some time now cos our political discourse here -- cynical or not -- may use those words to bludgeon doubters.

We’re “at war” and if you question the decisions that are made you’re sometimes accused of being unpatriotic, not courageous; matter of fact the people who want to leave Iraq now are called cowards because they quote want to cut and run.

Valour. What is valour? You see young idealistic people being blown up every day. And we’re supposed to just applaud them as heroes... And quite frankly what they are doing is quite heroic but I think it’s misguided. [That’s] a difficult thing to say. What does an intellectual do? And that’s what Blind Date is. We feel, in a way, kind of hamstrung in the discourse.

So that is what the piece it about, that ambiguity and disjunction.

Blind Date is at the State Theatre, Melbourne, from October 25.

2007 tour dates:

Tryon Festival Theatre, Krannert Center, Urbana, Illinois, January 27
Creteil, France, March 15-17
Teatro degli Arcimboldi di Milano, Italy, April 16 & 17
Het Muziektheater, Amsterdam, April 25-28
Centro Cultural de Belém, Lisbon, May 3 & 4

UPDATE: OCTOBER 26. My review of Blind Date.

Blind Date. Choreography and direction by Bill T Jones. Original text by Bill T Jones and the company. Original music and arrangements by Daniel Bernard Roumain (DBR). Creative direction and set design by Bjorn G Amelan. Video design by Peter Nigrini. Lighting design by Robert Wierzel. Costume design by Liz Prince. Media control software created by Peter Nigrini and Matthew Ostrowski.

Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company with Akim ‘Funk’ Buddha (throat singer/percussionist), Neel Murgai (sitar, daf, vocals), Amie Weiss (violin) and DBR (laptop, violin, piano). Performance reviewed: October 25, 2006.

To understand the art coming out of the United States right now, we need to remember that America is a country at war. It’s population -- and leadership -- is paranoid, traumatised, fearful and belligerent. So, works like George Orwell’s 1984, 51st (Dream) State and Blind Date will, inevitably, have political content, even where they don’t necessarily have political intent.

Poor and black America feels especially close to the front line, as it is their young men and women -- young recruits -- who are typically dodging the bullets and home-made bombs in Iraq. New Yorkers, too, feel that the front line is downtown Manhattan. So when Harlem-born black Americans like Sekou Sundiata and Bill T Jones care to comment on the state of the world, it’s because that’s everyday reality.

To Jones, the ideas of service, loyalty, bravery and honour are at stake. Are honourable deeds -- like fighting and dying for one’s country -- still honourable when done in the service of a dishonourable (or foolish) cause?

Jones is adamant that Blind Date is not a political work. He is not questioning the rights and wrongs of the war on Iraq. There isn’t a single George Bush reference aside from a single slide -- one among hundreds projected -- of US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Jones is focussing on individual and collective moral dilemmas.

The unnamed man who asked Jones for “more rage on stage” is bound to have been disappointed by Blind Date, for it has to rate as one of the most lyrical and placid works I’ve seen from Jones. It’s almost joyous in its physical exuberance; its swirls and twirls, hip-twitching, groin-grinding dynamism. It has more trust games than a church school camp.

And what a stunning and multi-talented group of dancers he has to bring this choreography to life! There’s not the body type range we saw in the company when it was here 11 years ago, when big man Larry Goldhuber was a key company member, but there is a deliberate diversity -- racially, ethnically and physically -- within the company.

Jones overdoes the AV side of things -- there are multiple screens with slides, video and text which add little to the impact of the work -- but the live music (from Bach violin sonata through to throat singing and beatbox) is glorious.

This is a work that affirms the common men and women of the world who just happen to be -- whether by birth or by choice -- Americans. How’s that for political!

This review was published in the Herald Sun on October 30, 2006.

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Monday, October 09, 2006

Andrew McGahan: Underground

Andrew McGahan (Allen & Unwin, A$29.95)

“I don’t suppose that the residents of a police state really grasp the truth about their nation until they become fugitives within that state.”
Future generations will decide if Underground is the first Great Aussie Novel of the new century or one of the last beer belches of ocker literature. Ocker literature... now there’s an oxymoron!

Set a decade after 9/11, this “half-arsed caper” takes place some time after a nuclear bomb has been dropped on Canberra by Islamist terrorists. Australia is in a state of siege and is ruled by PM Bernard James, a former lickspittle of John Howard’s. Muslims have been rounded up and put in ghettos. The American military presence is significant and visible. The Department of Immigration has been replaced by the Orwellian and all-powerful Department of Citizenship.

In this crazy-brave new world, the Australian Cricket Board has been radicalised! Pakistanis, of course, are no longer welcome on Australian soil. The South Africans are boycotting us for our inhumane treatment of detainees. Even the New Zealanders are frozen out as “peace-mongering lunatics” who haven’t yet locked up their Muslim population.

As the novel’s unlikely Galdalf-figure Harry explains to the PM’s fugitive twin brother Leo: “We can’t just keep playing England and India for the next ten years.”

A shady property developer and womaniser, Leo is an embarrassment to his conservative and dour twin. But when Leo is kidnapped by a cell of a group that boasts having nuked the nation’s capital, the PM is compelled to act.

In a bizarre and bizarrely funny sequence of events -- that involves a beheading and a cyclone named Yusuf (“if something looks big and dangerous, [they] find a means to link it to Islam”) -- Leo and his albino kidnapper Aisha (nee Nancy Campbell) end up in the hands of the the good guys: The Undergound... an organisation that has connections in the public service and military. And, yes, even the ACB.

Andrew McGahan’s writing moves freely -- effortlessly -- between crassly funny thigh-slapping jokes and deadly-serious political satire; one moment bleak, then gently mocking, then wonderfully perceptive and accepting of Aussie foibles.

The plotting (some of which, I fear will prove to be extraordinarily prescient) is better than the writing, I have to say. There are several missed opportunities, page for page, and some slackness in both conception and expression. Nevertheless, the book is as demotic and adorable and unique as Brisbane’s Ekka.

This review was published in edition 264 of The Big Issue (Australia)

See also: best books of 2006

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Sunday, October 08, 2006

Ride On and Black Lung: Debris by Dennis Kelly

Debris by Dennis Kelly. Directed by Tanya Goldberg. Designed by Mark Campbell (set) and Ailsa Paterson (costumes). Sound design by Max Lyandvert. Lighting design by Luke Woodham. Produced by Bojana Novakovic. Black Lung Theatre. 55 High Street, cnr Westgarth Street, Northcote. Until October 14.

A Sydney reviewer likened the brother and sister characters in this play to Bart and Lisa raised by wolves. But these ferals, really, have been thrown to the wolves, not raised by them. They've had no affection, no attention -- except from a paedophile ring -- and no care of any kind. They fend for themselves.

They make sense of their world by telling tall tales: gruesome, nightmarish, psychotic parables of escape, transformation and tenacious survival. They're like a mash-up of Ovid, Bad Boy Bubby and Daniel Keene.

Their world is brutal and simple. 12 year-old Michael tries to strangle his little sister, who is "nine and three quarters" years of age, because he thinks it will raise his chances of being rescued by the creepy "Unclearry"... their word for Uncle 'Arry. There's no malice on his part, it's just his animal drive to survive.

Though he has never been shown love by his father, Michael instinctively craves it -- recognises it when he sees it through a neighbour's window -- and shows it to a baby he finds in a rubbish heap. Michael names the child Debris and lets it feed on his blood.

Michelle's stories are all about the death of her mother in childbirth. "My mother died of joy," she tells us, while Michelle was still suspended in the 'aspic' of the womb. We eventually get the banal truth: that Michelle was 'reaped' from her mother's corpse on a hospital slab.

The story telling is imaginative and poetic, the words are extravagant and obscene. Thomas Campbell and Bojana Novakovic play the desperate ferals. Novakovic, in particular, throws herself into her role, but both are engrossing.

This review was published in the October 10, 2006, edition of the Herald Sun.

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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Australian Ballet: Raymonda by Stephen Baynes

Raymonda by Stephen Baynes. Music by Aleksandr Glazunov. Costume design by Anna French, set design by Richard Roberts, lighting design by Jon Buswell. The Australian Ballet. State Theatre, Melbourne. Performances reviewed: September 19, 20 & 30. Also Adelaide Festival Centre, October 6-11, and Sydney Opera House, December 1-20.

Raymonda (Kirsty Martin) and her Prince (Steven Heathcote)
Production photographs by Jim McFarlane (click to enlarge)

It seems to me that the elements that distinguish Australian ballet and opera from the ballet and opera of the rest of the world are attention to dramatic detail and, most of all, acting finesse.

In opera, they are compensation for not being able to field dream team casts, a function of distance and dollars. But in ballet, where our talent is second to none, these elements make the national company the envy of far bigger nations. The Russians might be able to field a squad of 32 tall disciplined swans, but they covet the verismo of our eight or sixteen. The English, too, envy the heat generated on-stage.

A material girl... Raymonda.

The Australian Opera’s full-time chorus has benefited hugely from years of acting and movement training. They’re uncommonly good when it comes to playing Mediterranean peasants in Cav & Pag, but they’re also equally committed -- even fearless -- when performing more abstract works or in “out there” productions.

By contrast, the Australian Ballet company is visibly better when it has a story to deliver or has the scaffolding of some kind of through-line... from La Sylphide to Nacho Duato’s Por vos Muero. Aside from various productions of Giselle (one in which the leading duo were coached by prima ballerina assoluta Galina Ulanova; another, recently, by former artistic director Maina Gielgud), the company is at its very best when performing renovated classics, especially Graeme Murphy’s rewrites of Nutcracker and Swan Lake.

Murphy’s “gumnutcracker” turned a hoary old Christmas yarn into a celebration of the roots of classical ballet in Australia in the latter half of the last century. His Swan Lake had an emotional complexity that the young dancers related to and then conveyed. Instead of good versus evil, black versus white, Murphy gave us shades of grey.

But the AB’s ability in -- and success with -- the story ballets locks it into something of a time warp. Many of the dancers resist the spine-bending, loose-limbed, modern moves and contemporary repertoire. The company has only just come to terms with Balanchine. Tharp’s In The Upper Room looked bad on the company, even in a reprise season. Cranko? Brilliant. Even Bejart.

But it’s hard to imagine the Australian Ballet delivering choreography by Javier De Frutos or Michael Parmenter as well as the Royal New Zealand Ballet does, say. Let alone the recent work of William Forsythe.

So, there is an undertone of hesitation -- a bat squeak of anxiety for the future of the company -- tempering what is, otherwise, a rave review for this brand new version of Raymonda. What it does, it does brilliantly. There is confidence and sophistication here that deserve acclaim.

Now, it’s not uncommon for a classic story ballet to have three, four or even five different casts, even in a short season. And I’ve noticed, over the years, that differences in interpretation are not only tolerated but encouraged. It’s not solely a matter of ability -- Rachel Rawlins was brilliant in the second act of Giselle, for example, but didn’t quite master the first act -- it’s also about how the key dancers interact with one another. As in theatre, there’s a text (the choreography, mise en scene, whatever) and a performance text. And, yes, it might surprise you to learn that performance text in ballet can be a dynamic and responsive thing.

In the premiere season of Raymonda, I saw all three casts. And the differences were striking.

Stephen Baynes has abandoned virtually everything but the music in his new Raymonda. Instead of a hokey yarn about a crusading knight, a saracen stalker and defended honour in medieval Hungary, Baynes gives us a movie star, Raymonda Grey, about to abandon her career and her rat pack friends to marry a European Prince. Dateline 1955. Sound familiar? Grey. Grace. What’s in a name! (Above: Prince Rainier of Monaco and Grace Kelly on their wedding day, fifty years ago.)

Raymonda has a few doubts and moments of anxiety -- which translate into a bad dream on the eve of her wedding -- but that’s pretty much the entire story of this two-hour story ballet.

But the nuance and detail are photoreal. The sets (2D chandeliers excepted) and costumes would stand up to any close-up shots.

Baynes sets the scene with breathtaking skill and economy. In the first seconds of the performance, we watch Raymonda and her dashing Hollywood co-star Adam Drake on the battlements of a castle in a Hamlet-like encounter. The partially lifted and partially parted curtains forming a cinematic rectangle. Before we have time to frame the thought -- God, how overacted! -- the order to “cut” is issued, and the curtains reveal a film crew, the set is struck, the actors come out of character. Director, dressers and make-up staff, paparazzi and PAs swarm after the take. Then the Prince arrives. Is revealed.

In the first cast, Kirsty Martin is Raymonda: coolly regal and every bit the superstar. Steven Heathcote is her prince. As you’d expect from Heathcote, who is in his 20th year as a principal dancer with the company, he is utterly charming and persuasive in the role. Not wooden, not forced. And Damien Welch makes a wonderful Adam Drake: pushy, impertinent, dastardly. Hellishly charming.

In the first cast, the Prince’s devotion is utterly solid. We believe it. Raymonda believes it. More, she believes she’s entitled to it. Worthy of it.

In the second cast, intriguingly, Lisa Bolte’s Raymonda is visibly more doubting of her Prince’s devotion. Bolte is resident guest principal (another of those oxymorons we’ve been encountering of late!) and quite a bit older than Martin. Robert Curran plays her Prince. He’s less Princely than Heathcote, less comfortable with the trappings of his position, but his devotion -- his power -- is made visible through his dance and, especially, his powerful lifts.

Prince Jean de Brienne (Steven Heathcote)
declares his love to Raymonda (Kirsty Martin)

Now, it might seem like I am drawing a long bow, here. Over reading. But dance has a very strong metaphorical role in Baynes’s ballet. Especially in the first act and a half. Dance as attention, dance as an enactment of love. It’s even a euphemism for sex.

We sense that Raymonda fears that her Prince won’t have enough time for her. (Much of Raymonda’s dance in the first act is done on her own. ) Her Prince doesn’t partner her as often as she’d like. Adam and the other members of the “Rat Pack” are the epitome of oily charm. They’re all too willing to dance with her. But they put it about a bit too much for Raymonda’s liking.

Raymonda knows what she wants, but will she get enough of it?

By way of contrast, in the second cast (Bolte and Curran and with Matthew Lawrence as Adam Drake) and even more so in the third cast (Rachel Rawlins and Tristan Message with Welch reprising his ratpacker role), Raymonda doubts her worthiness and, perhaps, her desirability.

Rawlins is more girlish as Raymonda, and her prince is the youngest of the lot. (Message is a soloist with the company, all other key roles are taken by AB principal artists.) And, correspondingly, this Raymonda is the least convinced of her Prince’s love. Indeed, in the late night scene where the Prince suddenly declares his adoration for Raymonda, Message’s protestation looked a little like the backlash of guilt, as if he had done something he was ashamed of.

The other variable in the equation is the Prince’s old flame, a princess in her own right, Arabella, played by Olivia Bell, Lynette Wills and Danielle Rowe. When Kirsty Martin meets Olivia Bell, Raymonda -- still a commoner -- goes to curtsey before the Princess Arabella. Bell stops Martin before she bobs down. But, in the second cast, Wills fails to stop Bolte from bowing. In the third cast, Rowe even goes as far as placing a patronising hand on the shoulder of Rawlins.

These differences might appear minor, but the fit between pieces of these separate puzzles is too tight to be incidental.

Another illustration. The second scene of the first act is set in Europe, in the palace, the day before the wedding. Raymonda’s friends are visiting while she has a veil fitting. The four friends crowd around Raymonda as she scrutinises herself in a mirror. The lights change and Raymonda apparently steps out of the picture. As performed by Martin, Raymonda does a small circle of her friends. We feel her sense of unreality. Of dissociation. But there’s also a distinct feeling that Raymonda is somehow above it all.

When Bolte steps out of the scene in the second cast, it has an entirely different significance. She’s thinking: “They don’t see me...” She steps out and back.

Likewise, in the ‘nightmare’ sequence, Raymonda dreams that the Prince’s family rejects her and that he marries Arabella instead. (In her dream, the Prince is ‘played’ by her Hollywood co-star, Adam Drake! Such are the idle thoughts of people who impersonate others for a living!) In the first cast, Kirsty Martin looks on with puzzlement. Bolte, however, seems fearful of the possibility. Again, there’s this sense that Bolte doesn’t believe her good fortune. Doesn’t believe that the royal family could possibly accept her. With Martin, the choice apparently remains with her.

As you’ve possibly guessed by now, this Raymonda is not a choreographic masterpiece. The dance is very much at the service of the scenario. It’s discreet rather than flashy. Modest even. It gives the dancers an opportunity to execute it brilliantly rather than being brilliant in its own right. But, at every point, the dance advances the action. (I wonder how long it will be before Baynes is snapped up to choreograph -- or even direct -- a full-blown musical?)

Bucks and hens

Martin is an exquisite Raymonda. She is, far and away, the one to see, if you have that choice. (Thanks to a minor ankle injury, she won’t be performing at all during the brief Adelaide season. Fingers crossed if you are in Sydney.) She carves the air, shapes it, with the easy swish of her limbs.

Matthew Lawrence is less of a cad than Damien Martin as Raymonda’s co-star, Adam Drake, but he makes the role more dancerly.

Lucinda Dunn as Phyllis in Raymonda

Each cast has its riches. I’d hate to have to choose between Lucinda Dunn and Madeleine Eastoe as Raymonda’s girlfriend Phyllis. Gaylene Cummerfield and Camilla Vergotis are excellent, too, as Lucille.

Above all, this is a romance for grown-ups. It’s a fantasia for lovers of beauty and style. It’s escapism from the ugly reality of skanky 21st century stars and starlets. It’s a myth, a beautiful illusion, a dream, for those who need to believe in a world of gods and goddesses. In a sense, it is the perfect ballet: all form, no function.


bodytorque 3 -- face the music (June 2006)

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