Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Well it's один for the money, два for the show, три to get ready...

Viktor Ivanovich Sukhorukov's first words in English, at the age of 12, were: "To be or not to be..." My first words in Russian (also at the age of 12) were: Один. Два. Три. Четыре. ["One. Two. Three. Four."]

Viktor became an actor. I became a software engineer. But with vocab that extensive, I could have been a roadie! ... picking up microphones and mumbling: "Проверить. Один. Два. Три. Четыре." (Then again, shit-stirrer that I am, I'd probably go for the more subversive: "Чечня́. Один. Два. Три. Четыре." [That's "Chechnya... 1-2-3-4," dear reader!])

Just a quick post to let you know that I'm back in the proverbial saddle. After four months -- my longest break in more than a decade and a half -- I'm back in the Financial Review with a biggish piece on the 2007 Russian Film Festival, Russian Resurrection. It's up the centre pages, I'm guessing, of this weekend's edition. There are more goodies to come... like an interview with Laurie Anderson.

And, in case you're wondering, I spoke with Viktor (above, left) -- by phone, through a translator -- for the article. I also had the great privilege of speaking with Vitali Melnikov, director of Hit The Enemy, which has its world premiere in Melbourne, of all places, on Thursday night. The still is from that extraordinary film.

The aptly-named Vitali recently turned 80.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Sleeping Beauty is awake, but Maryanne Lynch is dreaming!

In her much anticipated defence of Sleeping Beauty: This Is Not A Lullaby, Maryanne Lynch belts the stuffing out of the show's critics. She wins in a first round knock-out! Trouble is, the critics she's beating up on are all stuffed with straw.

Lynch opens with the point that music is "high art and low culture, Bartok and Hilary Duff, Boys2Men and Beethoven... it’s a cry in the dark, it’s slutty and sleazy and brimming with life."

Not quite what you'd get if you shuffle played my thirty gigs -- more Webern, Webber and Wagner versus Girls Aloud, Sneaky Sound System and Kelly Clarkson (with a whole lotta stuff I'm not embarrassed about!) -- but unexceptionable.

But, for "some individuals", music is "a language that does not belong in a theatre precisely because of [its] intemperate status."

I wonder who these crazy individuals are? What acoustic-autistic caves they've been living in? (And why they're risking going to Mamma Mia-esque musicals!) And, indeed, where they expressed anything remotely like this?

"Sleeping Beauty," Lynch continues, "enjoyed a very successful season and created quite a stir. The biggest talking point has been our use of such music, with opinions sharply divided on this although most audiences were positive."
What our critics have found hardest to deal with is using popular music as the narrative of a theatrical work and how this might accurately reflect the journey of a young girl from childhood to adult life. Underlying both issues is that hoary old question “but is it theatre?”
This is the second of many puzzling failures to grapple with criticisms made about the control Lynch and the Malthouse Theatre team (Michael Kantor, Anna Tregloan and Paul Jackson) exercised over their material.

They rubbed the lamp, they loosed the genie, and they failed to harness it. Direct it. Instead of mysterious, Sleeping Beauty was just plain noncommittal.

Like a run-of-the-mill group-devised (I typed 'group-divided', how utterly Freudian) show, there were countless ideas which were waved over our heads like glow sticks only to be discarded -- like glow sticks -- cos they didn't shed enough light.

Sleeping Beauty didn't achieve its lofty (or not) goals because the team didn't agree on them. Or didn't agree on them explicitly. Or didn't agree on them early enough in the creative process.

It wasn't our failure to get the point, it was (at least partly) their failure to agree on one... and to articulate it.

I quite like Rorschach theatre -- what you see is what you project -- but this was a semiotic cornucopia, tons of tinsel tossed into the air to see what might catch the light... and all of it falling to the stage. Discarded. Trodden into the beer-soaked carpet.
So, the nay-sayers say, Sleeping Beauty was nothing more than a tarted-up Year 12 Eisteddfod...
No, my dear, the Year 12 Eisteddfod would've had a good ol' fashioned point. (Well, a point beyond manipulating. A point beyond merely fucking with our precious memories!)

It's not all whacking day in Lynch's piece, I hasten to add. Well, "casually and belatedly add" then. Cop this:
Our starting point in making Sleeping Beauty was that songs like ‘Rock’n’Roll Suicide’ and “Oops … I Did it Again!” are the fairy tales of our times — popular music has replaced the classic Grimm Brothers narrative with its own condensed cultural coding of the individual. We wanted in short to work with the very strictures of this genre — the melody that lodges in the brain, the chorus that lifts the heart beat, the thrilling guitar solo with the hint of frisson — and the often banal or at best simple lyrics that only leap into life when sung. It is precisely this combination of elements that serves in so many ways (love ‘em or hate ‘em) as the notation of our own lives.

Still, I can't help but think there is something really quite dismissive of pop in this argument. Underneath the tinny exterior of many a pop anthem is a "knife without a hilt"...

In the next par, for example, Lynch dismisses Axiom's 'A Little Ray of Sunshine' as "an ‘easy listening’ experience". (I still remember the time and place I first heard a Led Zeppelin song comin' out the Tannoys in a supermarket... what was really scary is just how little it had been altered from the original.)
Putting music in the theatre was also about us drawing attention to the theatre itself as a place of entertainment — a site of mystery and imagination and yet with its own desire to please, cajole and entice. Its own ability, in other words, to play “let’s pretend”. We, as theatre artists, offer this pretence to the audience and, all going well, there’s an act of mutual engagement aimed at getting to the truth of something else altogether. It’s up to the audience to work this out.
Yes, Maryanne, the engagement has to be mutual. It wasn't. You and the team didn't give us enough to work with. You gave us something which merely looked good and sounded good.

If this is what you meant -- that music was the Big Bad Wolf of your little parable, wanting to luring us to its lair, to ravish and consume us -- it shouldn't have looked quite so much like our dear old grannie.
The adolescent Sleeping Beauty, in our version of the story, is guided by versions of herself that are delineated by the songs of others, the songs of men. Contra the critics, however, she’s no blank slate. [My emphasis.]
God, damn! Who are these Contrary Mary(anne)s? What's so bad about the idea of giving Beauty a voice of her own, as one (I think anonymous) commenter on Theatre Notes suggested? How thrillingly transformative and just plain wonderfully unexpected that would have been...
Popular music tracks the pathways she could take but knows, as theatre does, its own limitations in terms of embodying the rich confusion of the journey. It satisfies us because it pins us down and we in turn take it up and spin it around. Like a record; like a tune in our heads.

Sleeping Beauty is awake and she’s playing the music up loud!
A cheap point, perhaps, but Sleeping Beauty showed no sign of knowing its limitations... which is an ever-present threat to group-devised projects. Pinned and pricked we might have been, but I wasn't nailed. (Or, indeed, staked through my undead heart.)

On second thoughts, Maryanne, you're not dreaming... you're hallucinating!

See also:

My Herald Sun review and some earlier comments.

And Alison Croggon's review (in which Sleeping Beauty is likened to Wagner's ideal of total theatre.)

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Monday, August 20, 2007

Tanja Liedtke: "one of us."

UPDATED, August 20, 21 & 22: some news and photo links appended...

Your twenties are no preparation for your thirties. It's axiomatic. And it's an axiom I pass on to anyone who cares to listen. I also add, quietly, that it keeps getting better. Life.

You get better at being you. You are, increasingly, the 'self' you have chosen. Have created. Have cast. Have trained for. It's a decade of apotheosis. Of detonations. Of rewards.

Tanja Liedtke was on the cusp of her thirties. A brave and amazingly assured young woman. One who had been given a huge break. Bigger than Stephen Page's at Bangarra. Bigger than Gideon Obarzanek's at Chunky Move. Comparable, in a way, to David McAllister getting the big gig at the Australian Ballet. Like McAllister, Liedtke is -- or rather was -- younger than the company she was appointed to lead.

At Sydney Dance Company headquarters
after her appointment was announced.
Photo link: The Daily Telegraph

Despite the fact that Tanja won out over more than fifty other applicants to secure the Artistic Directorship of Sydney Dance Company, I've not heard a single grizzle about the choice in the three months since it was announced. Respectful envy, definitely; but no jealousy.

It was an impossible position for the Sydney Dance board to find itself in, to have to find a successor for Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon. It seemed inevitable that the board's decision would merely shuffle deckchairs. But their choice was stunning. Thrillingly daring. Awe inspiring. Possibly visionary. And this, from a purely selfish point of view, is the great tragedy for the performing arts in Australia. We will never know what Tanja Liedtke would have contributed.

Performing in DV8's Just For Show, reviewed in Taipei.

This exquisite dancer (only Garry Stewart can tell just how challenging his choreography on her body was); this thrilling choreographer and theatre maker (Twelfth Floor -- seen in Adelaide, Perth, Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart last winter -- was a most unusual dance drama -- allusive and rich -- which stretched the abilities of all of its cast); this 'alumnus' of ADT and DV8... We will never know what she might have coaxed from the mighty dancers at Sydney Dance Company.

Twelfth Floor won the 2006 Australian Dance Award
for Outstanding Achievement in Choreography
(Photo: Chris Herzfeld, click on the image to enlarge)

It's no exaggeration to say that the arts community in Sydney is reeling. In shock. Distracted with sadness and grief. But the effect is wider. News of Liedtke's awful awful death didn't just head the afternoon and evening news bulletins, make the front pages here, it was reported with a genuine sense of loss. She was eulogised carefully. No need for hyperbole. It was enough to point out that she had earned her success. Her chance.

I've been wanting to say a few words -- more than just the comment I made at Barista -- about the passing of Simon Barley last week. At fifty, Simon was amazingly full of life. (Just take a look at the photograph!)

I can hardly put into words the contribution he made to dance in Melbourne in the 1990s. His designs for Danceworks and, later, for Company in Space, were utterly integral to the projects he worked on.

Still distracted by Barley's sudden death -- from unspecified causes -- I arrived in Sydney on Friday morning to the shock news of Liedtke's death, early that morning, in a road accident.

A dear friend -- a dancer and choreographer ten years older than Tanja -- called with the news. She felt her lost keenly. Tanja was "one of us". My friend despaired that anyone like her would get a chance like this again.

Cheated is the word. It's not enough that the right person was chosen once. What's next is everything. (Imagine if Albino Luciani -- aka John Paul I -- had presided over the Catholic church for decades instead of a few bright days... it would be like England without Thatcherism... the USA without Reagan...)

We're all anxious about the future. Anxious that the massive achievements of Sydney Dance not be lost or dissipated. The timing of Tanja's death, so close to the date of the beginning of her tenure, is like a knell. It seems terribly ominous. But there are many who can step up, even if it's just in a temporary capacity. Can lead. I don't wish to name names, to try to influence the decision of the board at this time of sorrow. Perhaps, even, Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon could stay their hands for another year...

But, for now, let's take a minute and imagine the future we have lost. Feel it. Mourn it. Then spare a thought for her loved ones, her family in Europe. Her partner here. Her friends. She was, indeed, one of us.

UPDATE: Here's the latest on Tanja's last hours.

There's a fascinating piece in today's Telegraph which gives us a UK perspective.
German-born but British-trained, Tanja Liedtke was a notable performer on stages in Britain, having made a powerful impact on recent tours by DV8 Physical Theatre (the leading London-based company run by Lloyd Newson) and, earlier this year, with her own choreography in London, Manchester, Bristol and Eastleigh.

She appeared as a shiftless seaside circus performer in Channel 4's 2004 film of DV8's The Cost of Living, while, in the extensive British tour of Just For Show in 2005, she was the leggy, brassy hostess in a tight dress who incarnated the image of self-absorbed beauty that Newson intended to satirise; while talking incessantly about self-improvement, she adopted ever more contorted poses to make Newson's point. The Daily Telegraph critic described her as having "a body like a pack of pipe-cleaners" with the ability to "tie herself in a double reef knot upside-down and still talk and smile cheesily".

You'll find a good profile, from last year, in Real Time.
"... I want to get to the underbelly, to see people as complex — affection and hostility are such great physical premises for dance."
The (Sydney) Daily Telegraph has posted a photo gallery of recent pics as well as some Twelfth Floor rehearsal shots and a couple of classic group shots from ADT days.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A post about "post-emotional responses"

There are some fascinating personal responses to theatre and criticism in the 'sphere, this week. Criticism, of course, is just another kind of response to theatre. Alison Croggon reveals -- as if we didn't know -- that she gets off on the conversation theatre starts... and that she, single-handedly, elevates! Meanwhile Ming-Zhu Hii just gets off on getting off. Love is the drug... (As Brian Ferry once crooned: "Dim the lights, you can guess the rest.")

Me? I review for entirely selfish reasons. When I'm not "working" -- god, what a job! -- I apprehend theatre like television. I let it wash over me. Reviewing brings me back. To tease out the thoughts and ideas. I get so much more out of a show if I review it.

Elsewhere, ad nauseam, I've compared my kind of reviewing to writing a diary. You live your life, engage with it fully, then ask -- later -- what pressed your buttons and why. Same with theatre. I don't believe in critical disengagement. The critic who detaches himself from the event might as well not be there. One must participate. Love it, hate it. Then get over that love and hate. "See through it" might be a better metaphor... since you don't want to lose the passion, the human side of engaging with the event.

In the last few weeks, I've been churning over the all-too-regular stand-offs between artists and critics. The various "bannings" and attempts at manipulating or silencing critics. I tried to talk a performer friend out of "banning" a particular critic last week. Yeah, sure, the critic doesn't get this artist's work. The reviews are unhelpful, at best.

To my surprise, Alison Croggon -- who has been on the receiving end of the mother of all bannings -- sided with the artist. Is it really better to have no reviews at all than to have one excoriating, ill-informed review after another? My attitude -- in its way equally surprising -- was: but he'll get it, eventually, won't he?

The flip face of the coin can be seen here. Matt Clayfield -- a young but almost shockingly authoritative and informed foodie -- has been bullied into pulling one of his terrific restaurant reviews from his own blog. Happily, the employer that commissioned the piece has left the damning review up for all to read. At a time when restaurateurs are just itching to get litigious, this takes considerable nerve. Read it now, while it's still up.

Critics are at their most vulnerable -- most susceptible to this kind of coercion -- when they are new at the game.

Sixteen years ago, when I was a trenchant and sometimes loutish young critic at The Melbourne Times, I scored myself a banning from a major company. (I used to joke that the company's Media Director took her job title overly literally... she attempted to direct what the media wrote and said.)

This company decided -- probably quite reasonably -- that they could do without reviews in what is, really, a glorified suburban weekly... read by a bunch of highly-educated, young and wealthy inner-urban professionals. (LOL!) "If you don't write glowing reviews," was the subtext, "then bugger you. Pay your own way. " (In a biggish aside... that brings me to an argument I once heard made by Leonard Radic: an invitation to review a show brings with it a kind of imprimatur. One has greater protection, Len suggested, under the rules of fair comment, if one's response has been sought. The producer acknowledges, in some small way, your right to criticise. They also tacitly acknowledge your authority to criticise. Russell Walsh, I should point out, used to say this argument was utter bollocks.)

Happily for me, the start of the ban coincided -- to the month -- with my ascension from the critical equivalent of County Cricket to the nation's First XI. From suburban drone to critic for a national daily. I went from the Bully List to the Suck-up-to List. But it was a line ball there. The Media Director did her damnedest to persuade my new editor not to hire me.

I still recall the telephone conversation that followed. With admirable (and uncharacteristic) cool, I explained to The Apoplectic One that we could do this the easy way or the hard way. My newspaper, The Australian Financial Review, was prepared to buy me tickets if necessary. And that -- hint hint -- might make me an even looser cannon!

The face-saving compromise, for the Media Director, meant that I wasn't invited for the next twelve months. I had to call and invite myself. (That was punishment enough, believe me!) This is roughly the time that Alison Croggon was banned by Playbox. (I was mortified by the shabby treatment meted out to her.)

Half a dozen years later, I even had some sympathy for that loud-mouth critical troglodyte Peter Goers, in Adelaide, when the local Festival declined to give him review tickets. Goers, at the very least, is an entertainer. He is, in his way, a great reviewer.
"It's the editors, finally, that need to be bitch slapped. They're the ones that need to be held accountable for the people they hire and fire."
But I've also watched as 20th (and now 21st) century "Music Monsters" killed new art, new dance, new theatre with the most appalling and reactionary abuse. They've held those forms back for years and years and years. It's the editors, finally, that need to be bitch slapped. They're the ones that need to be held accountable for the people they hire and fire.

On a lighter note, I have a confession to make. I once banned a company! Not because the shows were bad -- they weren't -- but bacause the artistic director was a tyrant with a persecution complex and a very short fuse. (He once wrested the phone from his personable media contact while I was responding to an invitation. I got abused -- racially abused, even! -- for a glowing review. But that's another story...)

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doubletap: Chapters from the pandemic by Angus Cerini

Angus Cerini in Chapters from the pandemic
(Pic by Marg Horwell, click on the image to enlarge.)

Here's a snip from my review (in today's Herald Sun) and a par or two that didn't make the cut...

After a spate of fairly conventional spoken word pieces, Cerini goes for full-blown wordless abstraction in Chapters from the pandemic. It's like a piece from the gentle end of the butoh spectrum, like something by the Japanese company Sankai Juku which, coincidencally, is about to visit Melbourne for the first time.

Chapters from the pandemic is also highly reminiscent of the extraordinary work Rainsford was making with his company Chapel of Change in the middle 1990s, both the early primitive pieces (Sweet Flowers of Perversity) and later lyrical works (The Descent).

But Chapters from the pandemic is a modest piece. Cerini's choreography is a catalyst for the rest of the team. A trigger. His body is a screen.


The completely abtract sections, I think, are more successful than the parts which push the narrative. The opening nest scene, on a metal bench, in which Cerini arched his back and clawed the air, and the scene that followed at the rear of the space -- in which he did little but lie on his side -- were among the most haunting.

Chapters from the pandemic. Written, directed and performed by Angus Cerini. Original music and sound composition by Kelly Ryall. Lighting design by Rachel Burke. Set design by Marg Horwell. Costume design (sic) by Marg Horwell and Angus Cerini. Video design by Michael Carmody.

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

What's buggin' Born Dancin'/Taking Coleslaw to KFC

Born Dancin' has posted some very sassy reviews of films he's seen at this year's Melbourne Film Festival. This lot, in particular, are well worth a peruse...

One film that really bugged him sounds like a screen adaptation of recent stage play by Tracy Letts. Just for BD's amusement -- and, who knows, maybe yours -- I've rummaged through the archives and back-posted my review of Red Stitch Actors Theatre's production of Bug.

In addition to Sarah Kane's 4.48 Psychosis (currently playing at the company's St Kilda East home), Red Stitch has a show on the road: Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things. It's winding up its tour (which has taken it from Hobart to Darwin, and Colac to Taree) with four dates in Sydney at the NIDA Parade Theatre, starting last night.

It's a brave move, if you ask me. Not that there's anything wrong with Tom Healey's production. I liked it a lot. It lets the script speak for itself. Thing is, the company is taking the show to a city that hosted Jeremy Sims' production for the Sydney Theatre Company... one of the high water marks of mainstream theatre in this country, in my not-so-humble opinion. (You can read my rave about that 2003 production here.)

So, yeah, it's a case of Coleslaw to KFC.

I don't think it's Red Stitch's first foray into the Sydney market... I've got a feeling that the company took Howie the Rookie there, a few years back. A play which "puts the steel cap into kick-arse". [There I go again, quoting myself...]

But if any of you lot see the show in this latest incarnation, I'd be keen to hear your reactions... It has had a cast change from the 2005 premiere, but it should be firing on all cylinders after two months on the road.

Kate Cole, Daniel Frederiksen, Brett Cousins
and Suzie Godfrey in
The Shape of Things.
NIDA Parade Studio, August 8, 9 and 11.

UPDATE: here's the imdb link to the film.

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

And (some of) the winners are...

UPDATE, 6:30 AM... complete list below... I picked a few winners too. Some deserving, some not!

Let me put all my anxious readers in Austria out of their misery!

This is a frustratingly incomplete list of 2007 Helpmann Award winners (nothing up, as yet, on the HAAC web site, at 5 am... slackers!), but the wire services report the following winners...

The Lost Echo has picked up five awards: Best New Australian Work, Best Direction of a Play for Barrie Kosky and Best Play for Kosky and Tom Wright. Deb Mailman and Paul Capsis won in supporting role categories.

Other winners listed:

Keating (Best Musical)

iOTA (Best Male Actor in a Musical, Hedwig and the Angry Inch)

Laurie Cadevida (Best Female Actor in a Musical, for Miss Saigon)

Rusalka (Best Opera)

David Campbell (Best Australian Contemporary Concert)

Adam Hills (Best Comedy Performer for Joymonger)

Finally, the full results have been posted:

Best Comedy Performer
Adam Hills for Joymonger

Best Opera
Rusalka (Opera Australia)

Best Musical
Keating! (Company B)

Best New Australian Work
The Lost Echo

Best International Contemporary Concert
Pink, the "I'm Not Dead!" Tour

Best Regional Touring Production
Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks

Best Play
The Lost Echo

Best Ballet or Dance Work
Structure & Sadness (Lucy Guerin Company)

Best Direction of a Play
Barrie Kosky (The Lost Echo)

Best Special Event
Billy Crystal 700 Sundays

Best Visual or Physical Theatre Production
Honour Bound

Best Australian Contemporary Concert
Murundak (Melbourne International Arts Festival and Arts House)

Best Direction of a Musical
Neil Armfield (Keating!)

Best Classical Concert Presentation
Australian Chamber Orchestra's Revolution

Best Direction of an Opera
Douglas Horton for The Hive

Best Choreography in a Ballet or Dance Work
Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui for Zero Degrees

Best Contemporary Music Festival
Big Day Out Festival 2007

Best Choreography in a Musical
Kelley Abbey and Kenny Ortega for The Boy From Oz

Best Male Actor in a Play
Jefferson Mays for I Am My Own Wife

Best Presentation for Children
Jackie French's Hitler's Daughter (Monkey Baa Theatre for Young People Ltd)

Best Male Dancer in a Ballet or Dance Work
Akram Khan for Zero Degrees

Best Male Performer in an Opera
Jonathan Summers for Rigoletto

Best Performance in an Australian Contemporary Concert
David Campbell Wild With Style

Best Original Score
Paul Keelan & Gary Young for Sideshow Alley

Best Male Actor in a Musical
iOTA for Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Best Female Actor in a Play
Ursula Yovich for Capricornia

Best Female Actor in a Musical
Laurie Cadevida for Miss Saigon

Best Music Direction
Richard Mills for The Love of the Nightingale

Best Male Actor in a Supporting Role in a Play
Paul Capsis for The Lost Echo

Best Female Performer in an Opera
Emma Matthews for The Love of the Nightingale

Best Female Dancer in a Ballet or Dance Work
Ros Warby for Monumental

Best Female Actor in a Supporting Role in a Play
Deborah Mailman for The Lost Echo

Best Male Performer in a Supporting Role in an Opera
James Egglestone for The Love of the Nightingale

Best Costume Design
Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner for Priscilla Queen of the Desert

Best Male Actor in a Supporting Role in a Musical
Terry Serio for Keating!

Best Female Actor in a Supporting Role in a Musical
Colleen Hewett for The Boy From Oz

Best Scenic Design
Brian Thomson for The Boy From Oz

Best Female Performer in a Supporting Role in an Opera
Orla Boylan for The Love of the Nightingale

Best Performance in a Classical Concert
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for the Master Series concert Courage under fire (Shostakovich Symphony No 7 Leningrad)

Best Lighting Design
Al Gurdon for Robbie Williams Close Encounters Tour

Best Sound Design
Michael Waters for The Woman In Black

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Monday, August 06, 2007

Help, man! The (bad) form guide to the 2007 Helpmann Awards...

UPDATE (August 7): you'll find a list of winners here...

You might need to make yourself a cuppa before you read this one... I bang on a bit!

The 2007 Helpmann Awards are presented tonight at The Capitol Theatre in Sydney. The 2007 awards year is fifteen months! It covers shows which opened between March 1st 2006 and May 31st 2007. (The comedy year is June 1st to May 31st. I assume that all divisions will now fall into line with a June-to-May year.)

In the Administration Committee's own words, the awards "recognise distinguished artistic achievement and excellence in the many disciplines of Australia's vibrant live performance sectors, including musical theatre, contemporary music, comedy, opera, classical music, dance and physical theatre."

Jefferson Mays not (yet) holding a Helpmann trophy

The Helpmann Awards are national awards. They're also industry awards. A majority of members of the various nominating panels work for performing arts companies, producers, arts centres and festivals. Artists and arts writers are also represented. Previous winners, too.

"The Helpmann Awards Administration Committee [HAAC] selects the Panel Chairs who then appoint Panelists to ensure broad geographic and artistic representation." [Reference.]

Typically there are four finalists in each category. Winners are then decided by ballot.

Having been associated with Melbourne's Green Room Awards Association (as Secretary, Public Officer, panel chair, executive member and now [very] ordinary member) since its incorporation, I can tell you that administering any awards organisation is no walk in the park. So I am not here to beat up on the HAAC or any of the panels.

If anything, the twentysomething year-old Green Room Awards are the prototype of the Helpmanns.

The Helpmann Awards web site doesn't spell out how the voting takes place. It does not specify, for example, if voters can only vote where they have seen all eligible shows or if votes are weighted according to the number of eligible shows each voter has seen, or if there is a multiple pass tie-breaking system...

I don't envy the task of voters in the Best Lighting Design category! Actually, I don't envy the task of the organising committee in finding any voters at all for the category! The finalists lit Robbie Williams "Close Encounters" concert tour (Al Gurdon), the opera Rusalka (Bruno Poet), the ballet Raymonda (Jon Buswell) and -- wait for it -- the Walking With Dinosaurs Experience (John Rayment).

In the Best Australian Contemporary Concert category, David Campbell faces off against The Countdown Spectacular. (Kylie and Olivia Newton-John vie for the performance award.) Pink goes head to head with Lou Reed's full blown realisation of his Berlin album for the Best International Contemporary Concert award. Big Day Out 2007 competes against WOMADelaide and the East Coast Blues and Roots Festival for Best Contemporary Music Festival.

As you'd expect, the "Musicals" categories are the neatest. But, even here, those pesky indy and cross-over shows can't be ignored. Competing for the Best Musical gong are Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Company B's Keating, Miss Saigon and Priscilla Queen of the Desert.

Nice to see iOTA competing for the Best Male Actor in a Musical award. iO's up against David Harris (Miss Saigon), Hugh Jackman (The Boy from Oz) and Tony Sheldon (Priscilla). Chrissy Amphlett (The Boy From Oz) is up for the Best Female Actor in a Musical award with Laurie Cadevida (Miss Saigon), Sharon Millerchip (Pippin) and Silvie Paladino (Sideshow Alley).

The opera categories are, on the whole, pretty strong... if you don't bother checking what's not included. The contenders for the Best Opera award are Alcina and Rusalka (both Opera Australia), Satyagraha (State Opera of South Australia, Leigh Warren and Dancers, The Adelaide Vocal Project) and The Love of the Nightingale (West Australian Opera, Perth Festival, Opera Queensland/Queensland Music Festival/QPAC and Victorian Opera). But before I'd put my name to this list, I'd demand that "the Melbourne season" be added to the Rusalka nomination. It was an ugly duck in Sydney, a swan in Melbourne.

And, I've got to say, it's baffling that Cheryl Barker is a finalist in the Best Female Performer in Opera award but Sally Matthews is not. Matthews' performance in the title role in Melbourne was far and away the highlight of the fifteen month year in opera. It quite eclipsed Barker's at the Opera House. The other finalists are Elvira Fatykhova (Traviata), Emma Mathews (Nightingale) and Susan Bullock (WAO's Tristan und Isolde).

The opera direction list is a strong one with the same caveats. Douglas Horton (ChamberMade's The Hive), Leigh Warren (Satyagraha), Lindy Hume (Nightingale) and Olivia Fuchs (Rusalka).

The obvious winner in this category isn't actually mentioned. Jean-Pierre Mignon's production of Così fan tutte for the new Victorian Opera company was every bit as good as the first outing of Neil Armfield's Opera Australia production of The Marriage of Figaro. Antoinette Halloran and Jacqueline Dark (as Fiordiligi and Dorabella respectively) were exceptionally good, incidentally.

The remaining divisions are more problematic, to put it mildly. Melbourne is virtually unrepresented in Theatre. Only 3 (of 24) nominees, were Melbourne-exclusive: Bojana Novakovic (Eldorado), Dan Wyllie (The Pillowman) and Matt Newton (The History Boys). 15 were Sydney-exclusive.

Pamela Rabe (left) and Hayley McElhinney (rear) in Mo Co
(Photograph Heidrun Lohr, click on the image to enlarge)

Intriguingly, two of the four finalists in the Best Male Actor in a Play category cross-dressed! Jefferson Mays (I Am My Own Wife, an MTC/STC/Hothouse co-production) and Peter Carroll (The Season at Sarsaparilla, STC) are up against the slightly more butchly dressed Cameron Goodall (Hamlet, STCSA/QTC) and John Gaden (The Lost Echo, STC). Actually, make that two and a half out of four, cos Gaden "frocked up" too. Tiresius lives!

Peter Carroll and John Gaden "frocked up" in The Lost Echo

I know I promised a form guide in the header, I'll get to that I suppose.

Here's one to whet your appetite:


Bojana Novakovic
Malthouse Theatre

Deborah Mailman
The Lost Echo
Sydney Theatre Company

Hayley McElhinney
Mother Courage and Her Children
Sydney Theatre Company

Rebecca Massey
It Just Stopped
Company B/Malthouse Theatre

Deb Mailman excepted, this is a great field. Novakovic and Massey were bloody terrific, almost too good. Too distracting. If I were a betting man, my money might be on Mailman. The best of this lot is Hayley McElhinney. And, guess what, she was in a mute role. Apart from having the most most raw ability of the whole STC ensemble (if I may quote myself), her performance was stunning. Deeply affecting, utterly centred.

For the Helpmann Awards to gain any traction -- let alone respect -- in the theatre world, the surface has to be scratched. Griffin, Black Swan, STCSA and QTC are represented, as well as the usual suspects. Meanwhile, the very best theatre goes unremarked. It's understandable, perhaps, that Melbourne's 11th Hour hasn't made a blip on the national radar, but Stuck Pigs Squealing is picking up awards from here to New York. Hell, the company has even made it to Sydney a coupla times (which seems to be something of a prerequisite with the Helpmann Awards)... but, so far, it has escaped notice. B-Sharp and Griffin Stablemates are also conspicuous by their absence. (Perhaps those shows don't rate as 'professional' in a MEAA/Equity sense.

In the last five years, I reckon the Helpmann folks have got it right once. And when I say "got it right" I mean that I've agreed with a majority of choices (though not necessarily the ultimate winners) in a majority of categories. Sure, these first ten years are the teething years. Even so, we should be impressed by the quality of the contenders, even if we don't agree with the ultimate winner. They should be unarguable.

Take a look at this category:


Honour Bound
Malthouse Theatre and Sydney Opera House

La Clique
Spiegletent International presented by Sydney Festival

The 7 Fingers
The Arts Centre

The Space Between
Spiegletent International and Circa, presented by Sydney Festival

This inclusion of The Space Between beggars belief. (It was so bad, I didn't think there was anything to gain from writing about it.) As much as I enjoyed La Clique, it hardly belongs in this category. My thoughts on Honour Bound are well known, but many people whose opinions I respect thought highly of this production. That said, my Green Room Awards mantra, in camera, is: only shortlist a show if you can live with the idea of it winning. So I would argue long and hard not to include it. The touring Seven Fingers was great fun and well done.

But where is KAGE's Headlock? Headlock should be a lock-up for this category. Where are Ridiculusmus and Nicola Gunn? Gunn's Unfortunate Woman would be a worthy contender here. Was it just not seen? Hell, it has toured widely enough... And continues to tour.

Most frustrating of the lot are the dance awards. This category is representative:


Kirstie McCracken
Structure and Sadness
Lucy Guerin Company

Lucinda Dunn
Don Quixote
The Australian Ballet

Michelle Heaven
Tense Dave
Chunky Move

Ros Warby
Melbourne International Arts Festival and Ros Warby

All four are consumate artists. All four continue to improve. (They're starting from a high base!) And, yet, all four have done much better work than the performances they have been nominated for, here. Where is Kristina Chan, stunning in Tanja Liedtke's Twelfth Floor? Where is the Australian Ballet's Kirsty Martin?

Another eyebrow knitting category is Best Choreography in a Ballet or Dance Work.

Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
Zero Degrees
Les Ballets C. de la B. and Akram Khan Company, presented by Sydney Festival

Lucy Guerin
Structure and Sadness
Lucy Guerin Company

Michael Kantor, Gideon Obarzanek and Lucy Guerin
Tense Dave
Chunky Move

Brisbane Powerhouse

Hmm. Why is Tense Dave here? It's a couple of years old. Where on earth is Glow by Obarzanek and Frieder Weiß? Or Tanja Liedtke's Twelfth Floor? (Perhaps it was considered in an earlier incarnation.) Or Obarzanek's Singularity? Zero Degrees is far and away best of this lot as it stand.

Funnily enough, Akram Khan gets a nomination for performance in that two hander, but his collaborator Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui does not! Youch!

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Saturday, August 04, 2007

Compagnie Dernière Minute & Théâtre National de Toulouse Midi-Pyrénées: érection

érection by Pierre Rigal and Aurélien Bory. Choreographed and performed by Pierre Rigal. Art production and mise en scène by Aurélien Bory. Sound creation and music by Sylvian Chaveau and Joan Cambon. Sound design by Joan Cambon. Video design by Nihil Bordures. Costume design by Sylvie Marcucci.

Compagnie Dernière Minute. Co-produced by Théâtre National de Toulouse Midi-Pyrénées. Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, until August 11, 2007. Then Mexico and USA.

I'm still getting my thoughts together on this dance/physical/visual theatre piece, but I wanted to put a hearty "go see this show" alert out in the meantime. You have until Saturday.

Actually, make that a "fall over yourself to see this show"... (You can leave at interval though! The second part of the bill is crap. Jejune, overacted, trivial...)

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