Thursday, November 29, 2007

Lucy Guerin: Aether

Dance Australia's annual critics' survey has been mopping up my spare hours over the last few days. I don't write for the magazine, but I am always happy to contribute to this poll of dance writers and critics around the country.

This year, there's a new "gripes" category in which we're all invited to vent! One of mine -- and a fairly minor one at that -- is that Melbourne's big name choreographers haven't given us new work in 2007. (Relax, Phil, we know you've got one about to happen!)

Chunky Move has recycled Tense Dave and Glow, and Lucy Guerin has repackaged/restaged Love Me and now Aether.

A past production of Aether (photo: Rachelle Roberts)

As I say, it's only a minor gripe as all of these works deserve to be seen and seen again. It makes sense, too, to show off works that are touring nationally or internationally. The Chunky Move shows have toured extensively since they were last seen in Melbourne.

I didn't get a chance to see Glow this year, alas. (Twice is not nearly enough!) I just couldn't fit it in. So, with that caveat, I've got to say that Lucy Guerin's Aether rates as my Revival of the Year -- shame there's no such category! -- and it has some stiff competition from Reg Lipson's A Large Attendance in the Antechamber (see here and here) which is, of course, not dance!

My review of Aether is after the jump.

Aether. Choreographed by Lucy Guerin. Motion graphics by Michaela French. Composer: Gerald Mair. Costume design by Paula Levis. Lighting design by Keith Tucker.

Presented by Lucy Guerin Inc in association with Malthouse Theatre. Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse, Wednesday November 28, 2007. Season ends Saturday.

Also Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, January 23-26, 2008, for the Sydney Festival.

At the risk of sounding like Neil Jillett, there really are some kinds of dance that are best watched with your eyes closed. Obviously I don't mean that literally -- as I think Mr Jillett once did -- but in the way that practiced dance audiences learn.

Not to focus too closely on detail. Not to see in a penetrative sense.

We need to turn off the visual cortex. We need to see with the body. To try to apprehend rather than comprehend.

In all but the plainest, unadorned, solo work, one has to make choices about what to watch. (My preferred approach is to see a work from middle distance, preferably slightly elevated and near the centre so I can see line and formation, then to return and watch the thing from up close... once I know where to look.)

In Aether, choreographer Lucy Guerin plays with this most basic decision making process. Apart from having to choose between the five dancers which start the work, we must also decide how much attention we give the mass of visual information filling the huge screen above and behind the dancers.

If you're up close, this is a no-brainer. No-one in their right mind would swing their gaze away from Stephanie Lake, Antony Hamilton et al.

The extraordinary Antony Hamilton (Rachelle Roberts)

Perhaps if you found yourself at the back of the theatre, the choice wouldn't be quite so clear cut. Even for a logocentric like myself, the words scrolling up the screen (like the coding of a web page, or rehearsal notes, or amateur choreology) were easily ignored. Perhaps too easily ignored.

Guerin's stated aim is to examine how we filter the information that we're constantly bombarded with. (Having gone into exile in the bush for 18 months in the late 20th century -- I was a country kilometre from my letter box -- I know how we lower our visual and aural defences when we can... I literally learned to see in my thirties.)

But, intriguingly, Guerin clinches her point obliquely. The motif through both sections of the work is waggling fingers. First, they're a bit like Tom Cruise doing his flippy fingered thing with the holographic display in Minority Report. Crazy typing, if you like. At the end it's reduced to a single digit, one of Antony Hamilton's, wiggling like a tiny sine-wave.

Like I say, I'm the logocentric. Words, words, words. Watching Aether, I felt I knew what it was like -- I felt what it was like -- to be one of these dancers... consigned to communicate through a medium that reduces the truth of the body to a tiny movement of a metacarpal. Into a keystroke.

Abstracted and abstracted and abstracted again.

Physical ideas transformed into thoughts, then into language... Not even into spoken language which at least has -- within it -- some revealed physical truth; even over the phone you can hear a lie. Not even written language. No marks on pages made with hand-held implements. No marks on a page made with a mechanical instrument... a typewriter or laser printer.

But turned into key strokes. And those key strokes are transformed into what you're looking at now. Low-persistence phosphors on a screen. Two-dimensional. Completely ephemeral. And yet... not. And yet... infinitely archivable. Reproducable. Transmittable.

But what do we lose? What is stripped from the physical feeling in this transformation? How can we communicate, each of us in our solitary confinement? Each of us confirming our prison.

Guerin, I hasten to add, is not another in the long line of theatre artists who have abandoned all hope. Who have despaired of the capacity of one person communicating to another. Of one group of people communicating to another group of people. (Dood Paard anybody?) (Inviting other people to despair too!)

As a diarist, I know that the most fundamental challenge of writing is not to communicate with another person, it is to record something in a way that will communicate to me at another time in my life. To make it real. To encode the thing in such a way, with such portable and intrinsic richness, that the retrovirus of emotion and truth will survive the process. The mediation. The viccissitudes of distance and time.

Guerin plays with dimensions. She reduces 3D bodies to 2D with some digital lighting. We feel -- we know -- that if these dancers were to turn side on, they would disappear.

But, man, her dancers are so evocative, so corporeal, so damn fine... expressive and talented and well-drilled... how can we possibly despair? How can we do anything but delight?

Labels: , , , ,


Saturday, November 17, 2007

Goes around, comes around...

Sixteen and a half years ago I took a uni friend to a show called Black Cargo, a full-length and full-scale musical about a skirmish between the "moderate" Waterside Workers Federation and the "communist controlled" Seamen's Union in 1949.

It was an adaptation of a John Morrison's short story by John Romeril with music by Irene Vela.

From memory, Black Cargo was the first Melbourne Workers Theatre (MWT) production staged in a real theatre. (Well, a real temperance hall! It was Anthill in South Melbourne.) It was also the company's first legit musical.

My guest, that night, was Andrea James... now artistic director of MWT and director of The Call, which opened Thursday night in one of the most legit theatres of them all... the Fairfax Studio at the Arts Centre.

And what a mighty fine job James does of Patricia Cornelius's latest play, a nuanced and clear-eyed look at our battery-chook working class. (My review's scheduled to run in Monday's Herald Sun.)

Don't imagine, for a moment, that I'd do an old mate a favour... Just ask her! Famously, we had a shouted exchange across the foyer of the Malthouse:
When are ya gonna give me a good review?
When are ya gonna give me a good show?
I think she was showin' off to her friends... otherwise she'd forgotten the rave review of Yanagai! Yanagai!

Then again, you're only as good as your last review aren'tcha?

Happy 20th birthday MWT. Happy birthday to all you true believers. You know who you are... And a big thank-you to the ever-present muse, Irene Vela.

For every failed 'agit-plop' show you've staged, you've given us two or three (or more) clarion examples of urgent, intense, vital political theatre. You've taken us into the lives of boxers and strippers, textile workers and taxi drivers, you've taken us into pumping stations and railway yards, sheltered workshops and ESL classes. At the very very least, it's been real.

Labels: , , ,


Friday, November 09, 2007


Moneypenny gets a lickin' from mum Maggie

Here we go again. It must be that time of the year! I have some new squatters in the backyard 'refuge'. This time, there are four. But, help me out here... whaddya feed five week-old kittens?

There's a black and white, a silver grey, a silver and white (top) and this little tiger, left. Note the similar M on the forehead.

I guess I'll be trawling around for some M-names...

All suggestions and advice will be gratefully received. (Spare me the obvious one... Maggie the Moggie -- who is currently seeking political asylum -- belongs to the folks next-door... and they don't believe in any forms of contraception! Just count the splaw-footed kids!) (heh!)

They sure are shy little critters...