Monday, February 26, 2007

CD Review: Grinderman

Grinderman
Grinderman (Mute)

With all due respect to Nick Cave, you can date when his music stopped being ritual and started being performance. Stopped being art and started being entertainment. When Goth became Guignol. It was around the time when The Birthday Party morphed into Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

The transition was a blessing as well as a curse. The live performances would never be the same again, but now Cave could take himself a little more seriously as a songwriter and poet. And, later, as a musical dramatist.

But throughout his career, Cave has had a penchant for travesty. Think of the appalling cover version of 'These Boots Are Made For Walking' with The Boys Next Door, or the shambolic 'Ring of Fire' with Mister Pierre and Robert Forster, or -- worst of all -- the piss-soaked lugubriety of 'Death Is Not The End' with Shane MacGowan, Blixa Bargeld, Anita Lane, PJ Harvey, Kylie et al.


Nick Cave releases his inner chimp

Grinderman is Cave's newest spin-off project, a little like the Cavemen concerts in the early 1980s. Think of Grinderman as an open pseudonym for four members of The Bad Seeds: Cave, Warren Ellis, Martyn P. Casey and Jim Sclavunos. But at least they're playing their own songs.

Here, they get to be hairy-chested and foul-mouthed. Or, rather, more hairy-chested and more foul-mouthed. Brawly and brawny. Misogynistic, too, in a self-deprecating kinda way. In 'No Pussy Blues' Cave plays the old rock star who sucks his tummy in and does a comb-over hoping to pull the groupie. "But still she doesn't want me," is the bathetic refrain.

I thought I was going to hate this CD, but revulsion quickly turned to grudging admiration. Even adoration. Cave turns around even the vilest of ditties. Sometimes all it takes is the clack of a manual typewriter between songs. A tiny wink of irony. And the clack morphs into percussion.

And even at his stupidest, Cave is a formidable lyricist. No "love, dove, heavens above" here. More like "flower, hour, chihuahua."

'Go Tell The Women' sounds like something the debonair Robert Forster could have written... if he'd been a little luckier in love. Other songs are reminiscent of the Dead Kennedys, Patti Smith and even Kim Wilde!

For every loathsome number, there are two maddeningly likable anthems, like the title song and '(I Don't Need You To) Set Me Free'.



This review was published in Edition 273 of The Big Issue.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Philip Glass: Satyagraha. (2)

Satyagraha by Philip Glass. Libretto by Philip Glass and Constance De Jong. Directed and choreographed by Leigh Warren. Arrangement and music direction by Timothy Sexton. Set and costume design by Mary Moore. Lighting design by Geoff Cobham.

Performed by Leigh Warren and Dancers, The State Opera of South Australia and Adelaide Vocal Project. At the Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre, February 20. Season ends February 24.


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There’s a substantial tradition in Australia -- and around the world -- of inviting choreographers and those with dance training to direct operas, or at least having them assist. Robert Helpmann had a fine eye for placement and all round mise en scène. His talents were used by the Australian Opera (Alcina and a beautiful Roméo et Juliette) and by the Royal Opera, Covent Garden (Madama Butterfly and Le Coq d’Or).

One of the most extraordinary and memorable opera productions I’ve had the privilege of seeing was a luscious and thumpingly visceral production of Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice by Stefanos Lazaridis. His choreographic collaborator was Meryl Tankard, who brought with her a squad of her long-haired banshee dancers. It was a seamless collaboration.

Recently, Bessie and Bagnolet-winning choreographer Lucy Guerin had a hand in staging two small Baroque operas for Opera Australia.

Graeme Murphy did a dazzling Turandot for the Australian Opera, around 1990, and an inexplicably bad Salome two or three years later... which has disappeared without trace. Murphy’s Turandot made the transition from the old company to Opera Australia and -- as of 2006 -- is looking better than ever. That’s partly to do with the acting and movement skills of the chorus and partly to do with the director engaged to rehearse the revival.

When the curtain lifted on Leigh Warren’s Satyagraha, I thought of Helpmann -- the careful triadic placement -- and Murphy -- the vast scale and immediacy of the set -- and also of the joys of chamber opera. I thought of seeing a pair of first-rate Chamber Made Opera productions in Melbourne: The Fall of the House of Usher in the Merlyn and Improvement: Don Leaves Linda in the Playhouse.


(Production photographs by Tony Lewis, click to enlarge)

I wondered, not for the first time, how Adelaide -- a city of a million people -- does this. Not one but two kick-arse contemporary dance companies. A bantam-weight opera company that has pulled off not one but two Ring Cycles, complete. A city with not one but two of the world’s great arts festivals. Spoilt, no?

And, really, the only trade-off here was the size of the musical ensemble and the absence of acoustic instruments. The low opening arpeggios (played by Carolyn Lam on the Cavinova) were deliberate rather than slow but they were a gentle introduction to the complexities -- the shift and overlap -- of the music.

I’ve gotta say, Leigh Warren’s choreography (on his own dancers) was far less impressive and dramatically assured than his simple but strikingly effective placement of the singers. Now, I didn’t see Warren’s split-in-half production of Einstein on the Beach, performed over two years, but I did see -- and was mightily impressed by -- his first opera production... another Philip Glass opera, Akhnaten.

Satyagraha is a more orthodox opera production -- with substantially less emphasis on dance -- nevertheless I was surprised that choreography was so far down the list of highlights.

The other reservation I have about Warren’s production -- and it’s an issue which will challenge any opera director -- is about his use of the chorus. Most opera choruses -- and Opera Australia’s chorus is a shining exception -- are crap when it comes to acting and moving.

There’s a fundamental trade-off that has to be made between what needs to be done and what can be done, what’s doable and what’s worth doing.

Last year’s revival of Turandot was so brilliant -- better than previous productions -- because chorus members were willing and able to put their bodies on the line. To bend and swirl and flock.

Former dancer Lindy Hume -- currently artistic director of the Perth International Arts Festival -- has a knack of wrangling a chorus in a crowd scene no matter how inexperienced the chorus. Caroline Stacey is another.

This particular chorus -- the estimable Adelaide Vocal Project -- sang their hearts out for Warren. (In Sanskrit!) They got down on hands and knees and scuttled uphill -- backwards -- like insects for him. But, to be blunt, they were best when they stood and delivered... or sat and delivered.

So, two things: they couldn’t do well what Warren asked of them; and, to be blunt, it wasn’t really worth doing in the first place. Not even Warren’s dancers -- tall, lithe, skilled -- could make this tizzy choreography look good. It looked imposed on the drama, not a distillation of it.

True, I didn’t get much of it. But the bits I did get looked dinky and artificial. The wiggling Indian heads was barely forgivable. The cross-wrist clenched-fist ‘freedom’ gesture of the ANC was an odd inclusion too. With all due respect to the ANC, they aren’t exactly paragons of non-violent resistance! (‘Satyagraha’ is normally translated as passive resistance. But, literally, it’s truth force.)

In the pivotal scene in which Gandhi is hassled by a crowd on his return to India -- where an English woman fends off the mob with her parasol -- Warren has a buck each way. First up, Warren’s dancers play the attackers. Moments later they are his shield. Though this is dramatically awkward, this is the one scene in the opera where the dancers interact effectively with the singers, en masse.



It’s an effective scene for other reasons, too. Musically and operatically. For one, the woman who plays Mrs Alexander, Mary-Ann van der Hoek, has a stunning alto. It’s as if she comes to the rescue armed only with her vocal cords! Warren also manages to make explicit what is buried in the words and score. It’s as easy for Mrs Alexander to protect Gandhi from violence as it is to protect him from the sun’s rays. He is protected by the force of truth.

The final scene of the opera has the best and most dancerly choreography: a duet. There, Gandhi interacts with the dancing god and goddess.

Musically, and vocally, this production is a triumph. Warren can even take some of the credit for that. Placing seven of the men in the right hand aisle at the start of the second act was anything but a gimmick. The spatial spread of the voices allowed us to glimpse the architecture and dynamism of the music.

On the downside, there is a pervasive mock-religiosity in much of the posturing. (I can’t bring myself to call it acting!) At its worst, it’s reminiscent of a bad production of The Magic Flute.


N.B. The publicity image, top, is by Randall Calbert.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Philip Glass: Satyagraha. Directed and choreographed by Leigh Warren. Adelaide Festival Centre. (1)

Satyagraha by Philip Glass. Libretto by Philip Glass and Constance DeJong. Directed and choreographed by Leigh Warren. Arrangement and music direction by Timothy Sexton. Set and costume design by Mary Moore. Lighting design by Geoff Cobham.

Performed by Leigh Warren and Dancers, The State Opera of South Australia and Adelaide Vocal Project. Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre, February 20. Season ends February 24.



Take a deep breath, dear reader, this is gonna be a longy. In fact, I’ll probably split it over a couple of posts.


I have been planning to write about American choreographer Glen Tetley on this day, February 20, for many many months. For two reasons really. Firstly, it’s twenty years since the Australian Ballet premiered Tetley’s brilliant short ballet Orpheus, a work which has never been seen since. It remains in the company’s repertoire -- the Australian Ballet “owns” the work -- and, bafflingly, no other company has performed it.

I confess, I’ve been nagging the Australian Ballet’s charming director David McAllister to do Orpheus again ever since Matthew Lawrence came onto the scene a couple of years back. Lawrence is, I think, the first dancer the company has had who could, conceivably, fill the soft English shoes of David Ashmole, the original in the title role. (It was, in my mind, Ashmole’s greatest creation. That said, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I didn’t find a seconder for that motion!)

The second reason, of course, is that my review of Orpheus was the one that started it all. My first review for a newspaper.

But -- and here’s the rub -- I’ve only just discovered (while looking for some photographs of a particular Tetley ballet) that the 80 year-old choreographer died at the end of January. So, there goes the chance of Tetley doing the honours himself.

What’s all this got to do with Philip Glass? Apart from the coincidence that this new production of Satyagraha premiered on the 20th anniversary of Tetley’s Orpheus? And the even more dubious coincidence that Tetley in fact died on Phil’s 70th birthday? Not a great deal. But I did see moves in Leigh Warren’s choreography for Satyagraha that were pure -- or rather impure -- Tetley. In particular, a work Tetley created on NDT called Mutations.



Yes, that one... the notorious ballet with nudity... back in the day when pubes were de rigueur. And I couldn’t help but wonder if Warren really wanted his dancers letting it all hang out... instead of dressing them in breast-revealing ghastly blue fishnets and not a lot else. (Don’t get me started about the camel-toe look stitching on the girls... ugh!) But more of that later. Maybe.

And, yes, while I freely confess to having a vivid imagination -- especially when it comes to inkblots and contemporary dance -- Warren’s reading of Satyagraha subtly connects Gandhi and South Africa and colonial India with Australia of the late 1960s and early 1970s: the time of moratorium marches and the advent of Gough Whitlam. And that’s roughly the time when Tetley made Mutations. (And roughly a decade before Satyagraha.)

When identity cards are burnt in the final scene of the first act, set in 1906 South Africa, we see young Australian men burning draft cards rather than fight in Vietnam.


(Production photographs by Tony Lewis, click to enlarge)

The “sit in” at the end of the second act -- which could so easily have looked like a snotty and belligerent student protest -- reminded me of the quiet resistance of the Gurindji “poor bugger me” people. That thought was reinforced -- confirmed, even -- at the start of the third act when Gandhi makes his dramatic march to the sea “to make salt”. The distribution from one hand to another was identical to the gesture then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam made: symbolically handing back the land to Vincent Lingiari at Wave Hill.



Given that Satyagraha joins history and mythology and spans decades and continents, Warren’s easy use of another time and place is entirely in order. Unexceptionable. Though, it must be said, the initial reality-cracking gesture -- presenting Arjuna and Krishna as a digger and an airman -- caused some unease.


Flanking Gandhi (Adam Goodburn) are Arjuna
(David Hayton, left) and Krishna (David Cox)


I’ve gotta say, after David Freeman and Dan Potra’s Nabucco -- in which saracens and mongols, sufi holy men and soldiers in chain mail bearing huge medieval lances rub shoulders with jews in mid-20th century ghetto outfits -- such warping and splicing of reality is getting easier and easier to stomach!

Despite the fact that Satyagraha takes its story from the Bhagavad-Gita and is performed in Sanskrit, it rates as Philip Glass’s first commercially accessible opera. “Somewhat less radical” is the verdict in the Oxford dictionary of Opera. The Glass Ensemble trademark synth-and-woodwind sound was augmented with orchestral strings. The arpeggios and complex shifting patterns remain, but like his work for string quartets, the sound is infinitely lusher and less brutalising to a trad opera audience.

So, guess what? For economy of scale -- and good ol’ fashioned budgetary reasons -- the State Opera of South Australia and Warren have gone for a stripped down version. The whole shebang is now performed by four musicians. The entire score is performed on half a dozen Korg X5 synthesisers -- not even Farfisa mini compacts, the composer’s choice way back when -- and a solo Cavinova.

But the pay-off is substantial. What we lose in texture we gain in intimacy. The opera can economically be performed in a playhouse which seats hundreds, not an opera theatre which seats thousands.


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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Prick up your eyes...

It feels like a hundred years since I posted! But, apparently, it was considerably longer.

Having recently been dragged kicking and screaming into the present with the new Blogger -- til now I’ve been calling it Beta Blocker cos of its cranky unwillingness to let converts post comments on Classic blogs and vice versa -- I’ve been rummaging around looking for bugs and glitches. (As a sometime software engineer, I know that “early uptake” is for the wealthy, the foolish and the über-nerdy.)

Finally, I found one. In my profile. Check it out. I’m 250 years old.



How did that happen? I missed out on a few parties, I can tell you... not to mention the odd telegram from the Queen! Incomprehensibly, John Howard is still Prime Miniature. Love to see the Dorian Gray painting in his attic. (Ick!) And the greatest greenhouse emission in the 2210s is... John Howard, still bangin’ on about “clean, green” nuke-u-lar power.

Anyway, in my absence, Danny Episode at TV Is Furniture has unsheathed his poison pen once more after an even-more-hefty hiatus than my own. (It was so long, he forgot how to use the software!) Give the guy some hits, he’s feeling lonely and unappreciated.

While you’re at it, take a look at Vlad’s wrap of 2006 at Cowboy Mouth. The man has taste. And he’s seen more of the local stuff than me. (I wholeheartedly disagree with his number one pick... but, hey, opposition is true friendship!)

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Midsumma, Melbourne: Rageboy by Declan Greene.

Rageboy by Declan Greene. Midsumma Festival. Beckett Theatre, The Malthouse, until Saturday February 11.

The happiest day of Toby’s life is his ninth birthday, which he spends in a hospital bed... He’s been diagnosed with polio. Toby is like Forrest Gump and Bad Boy Bubby combined.

His dad’s 30. He survives cancer and chemotherapy then gets a swastika tattooed on his forehead... backwards! He’d rather be hated as a skinhead neo-Nazi than be pitied by strangers. His girlfriend is a blind albino woman who likes listening to porn.


Toby, the Jehovah twins & the rampantly gay Ashley in Rageboy
(Photograph by Vicki Jones, click on the image to enlarge)


At the very least, playwright Declan Greene has a keen eye for the crass, the bizarre and the incongruous. In one scene in this grossly offensive and grossly funny story, a young Jehovah's Witness attempts to convert Toby while porn plays on the TV in the background.

Like the deliriously offensive Fat Camp, which Greene co-wrote with Ash Flanders, Rageboy gleefully roots out taboos like a French pig snuffling for truffles.

Greene also has an amazing ear for funny lines. Toby is baptised in a “humungous lake where the drunk prostitutes drowned.”

I don’t think Greene has any overarching moral. He’s just as scathing about atheism as he is religion. I don’t even think he is striving for the same cathartic effect that Rolf de Heer achieved in Bad Boy Bubby. For now, Greene’s happy with hysteria.

So, Rageboy is closer to South Park than art or drama. Greene’s just sticking crackers down ant holes.

But he gets better and better at what he does each time he picks up his pen. Gets sharper. Gets more dastardly. One day -- sooner rather than later -- we’re gonna have a superstar satirist on our hands. Think Jonathan Swift, Max Gillies and Jules Feiffer rolled into one. I can hardly wait.


This review was published in the Herald Sun, February 12, 2007.

See also Fat Camp (Sisters Grimm, August 2006).

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