Saturday, January 26, 2008

"Sawdust and diamonds": Joanna Newsom at the Opera House with the Sydney Symphony

I'm gonna bang on a bit here, so I'll start with the Executive Summary: bloody amazing concert, last night. Quite perfect. Actually, it exceeded my ridiculously high expectations. So, if you know any scalpers, ticket holders open to bribery, very powerful people, minor deities... then do your best to see one of these concerts. If this isn't exactly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, it is -- so far at least -- a once a continent opp to see Joanna Newsom with an orchestra.

If you do have tickets, don't be late! There's no support act. It's all Joanna.



(Joanna Newsom, photo: Pete Newsom)

As a buddy of Julia Zemiro's -- and a RocKwiz devotee -- I often ask myself how I'd answer her "first concert?" question. It's not that I'm embarrassed about the first few concerts I went to as a teen... it's just they're so unrepresentative. Or, rather, that they're representative of a tiny part of the music I was (and am) into. First concerts are about opportunism, about getting to the concert. (Maybe the question should be qualified... What was the first concert you made it to on your own? Now that would be a question worth asking!)

Anyway, without rummaging through The Archives, I reckon the first was Melanie Safka at Dallas Brooks Hall. (Either her or Fairport Convention at the same venue. Sandy Denny was still alive, but had left the band.) In those days, 'Melanie' was as unique and sufficient an ID as 'Madonna' became twenty years later. And the 'Safka' bit was about as well known as 'Ciccone'. She's best known to Gen-xers for the Boogie Nights "Roller Girl" song 'Brand New Key'.

When I first encountered Joanna Newsom's first release The Milk-Eyed Mender, the best I could say about it was that it reminded me -- once or twice -- of Melanie. (Bits also reminded me of Mazzy Star -- just the pedal steel-like glides -- and, inevitably, of Alan Stivell's Renaissance de la Harpe Celtique... and please note the name of the first song on that album!) That said, the bits of Melanie it reminded me of were the annoying 'Alexander Beetle' bits.

And, if I might digress one last time, Melanie -- in that first concert experience of mine -- called for requests. She ignored my pleas for 'Some Say' [I always was a B-side kinda guy... 'Some Say (I Got Devil)' was the brilliant flip of 'Brand New Key' ]. "I heard a child's voice," she said. The kid wanted to hear 'Alexander Beetle'. She was brow-beaten into playing it by the loud-mouth bloke who relayed the request. A nice bit of theatre... Which happened the next night. And the next night. No-one seems to have heard the kid's voice apart from Ms Safka herself. My first concert and my first taste of musical mendacity. Sigh!

Anyway, I bought The Milk-Eyed Mender "sight unseen" on the strength of the universal acclaim it was getting from the indie music press around the world.

And I hated it.

But, weirdly, when an advance copy of the follow-up release Ys fell into my hands, I couldn't wait to listen to it. I put it at the top of a pretty big pile.

Watching Newsom play the five song set live, with the Sydney Symphony, I vividly remembered the first time I heard Ys and, in particular, the anxiety I felt as the first song (the twelve minute-plus 'Emily') ended and the second song began. What if the rest of the album was crap? What if the genius of 'Emily' wasn't sustained? How could it be? Given that the first seconds of 'Monkey and Bear' are a throw-back to extremes and eccentricities of The Milk-Eyed Mender, my fears looked grounded.

Why the 'flashbad' during the concert? Cos of the people I was sitting with. I was in the midst of Sydney Festival patrons rather than Newsom fans. Behind me was a couple expecting a concert with a harp soloist. I kid you not! (I overheard several comments along the lines of: "I've never seen a harp soloist before.") On my right were a group of rather glamorous women who looked infinitely more at home at the Opera House than the legions of waif-like Newsom fans in the gods.

And, yes, once the orchestra departed -- at interval -- so did a good number of the classical music fans. (The glam girls to my right -- who chose which Festival shows to see with a pin -- were groovin' away, even more smitten with Newsom when they had heard her with her "band" -- Joanna's word for mandolin & banjo playing "Frenchie" Ryan Francesconi and percussionist/backing vocalist Neal Morgan.) So, my anxiety was only partly warranted.

Good as the first half was -- Ys in its lush entirety with a bantam-sized orchestra -- it lacked the "now we are alone" quality of the second set. The eight songs included the traditionally folky 'Colleen' from the recent EP Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band and two new songs... So new that they don't yet have titles. One even came with the caveat that the lyrics were still in a state of flux. But I'll say more about the concert (I typed 'convert' first... there were one or two!) some other time.

Joanna Newsom with the Sydney Symphony, part of the 2008 Sydney Festival. Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, January 25, 2008. (Final concert tonight, January 26.) Also Howard Gilman Opera House at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, with the Brooklyn Philharmonic conducted by Michael Christie, January 31 & February 1, 2008.

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Compañía Nacional de Danza: Alas by Nacho Duato (Sydney Festival)



Alas. Choreographed by Nacho Duato, directed by Tomaz Pandur. Set design by Duato and Pandur. Costumes by Angelina Atlagic. Lighting design by Brad Fields. Compañía Nacional de Danza. At the Lyric Theatre, Sydney, January 12. Part of the 2008 Sydney Festival.

The first screenings of Wim Wenders' film Wings of Desire in Melbourne were part of the 1987 Film Festival. Prior to those screenings, Age critic Neil Jillett proclaimed Wings "one of those boring, arty" movies. My mate Sylvi and I coined the word 'boriarty' in honour of that little review.

Jillett is nothing if not consistent. In the pre-Adrian era, every cinephile knew: if Neil loved it, we won't. And if he hated it, we won't. On the strength of his damning review, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people -- me included -- queued down Bourke Street to get in. And adored it. It was, for many years, one of my favourite films... one of the most touching and beautiful I'd seen.

Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato (best known in Australia for his short work Por Vos Muero) has adapted Wings of Desire for the stage, for Compañía Nacional de Danza, of which he is artistic director.

On paper, it's an irresistible concept... Angels, mortality, whispering and silence, a trapeze artist, great music. What could possibly go wrong?



I can hear all you theatre-makers out there, as one, going: "Everything!"

Quite.

Alas (Spanish for wings, it sounds like the plural of Allah with a bit more sibilance) begins with a slow reveal of a tall, narrow, ice-sculpture-look tower with figures writhing behind its translucent panels.



Music by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt plays... And it all goes horribly wrong from there. The first dancer circles the stage in a hysterical and overwrought run. A second woman is plucked off the ground mid circle, held aloft by a millimetre and appears to glide, then she moon walks. And that's almost as good as it gets. Thighs are fondled, women are eaten out by their macho men. (Or should that be Nacho men?) There's oh-so-much desperate and impassioned and tragic groping. Duato's choreography has the dancers groping the air too. Grasping it. But it's all too fast, too emphatic.

In fact, Alas gets a lot worse -- the emotions are as overamplified as the pre-recorded music -- before a late rally. Too late, alas.

There's a fearfulness of stillness and silence that's entirely at odds with the work Duato is adapting. Duato takes the role of Damiel, the angel who chooses life... and thus death. But Duato pretty much dispenses with Marion, the love interest. Yup. No trapeze artist. Hell, I can hardly forgive him for wearing a short jacket instead of a long, op-shop overcoat!

The choreography is not all that bad -- and it's undeniably well executed -- but the effect is brutalising. Duato has the company move around the stage like a spooked school of fish to the sound of a whizzing truck. The male trio that follows (to the jagged strains of a string quartet) has some welcome abstraction, though it must be said it was not unlike watching a thimble and pea trick.

Throughout the 65 or 70 minute work, couples occasionally appear in flesh-coloured neck-to-knee cossies. I couldn't help but remember that Duato had worked with Jiří Kylián at Nederlands Dans Theater. And Kylián wasn't averse to a bit of full-blown nudity. He certainly would have risked it. If it was appropriate. (And, well, I didn't know why the couples were there... unless it was a way of showing Damiel what he was missing!)

More depressing though was Duato's failure to translate Damiel's wish to feel the weight of his body, every step, every gust of wind.


If you're happy and you know it, flap your hands...

One dancer (the program doesn't help identify the minor protagonists unfortunately) beat the air with his arms so eloquently he convinced us all that he was capable of flight, even with fists clenched. But, on the whole, the pivots, the torsion, the speediness of the dance rarely translated into anything exhilarating or uplifting.

Mock push-ups and terrible visual puns (an apple is plucked from the groin of one woman) kept the piece mired.

The heels of a good scene (in which a cold, hungry, Blixa Bargeld look-alike appears, for example) are invariably trodden on by something terribly splaw-footed and unworthy. In this case a cancan-like scene in black leather kilts that Michael Clark would have thrown out as too camp.

The belated appearance of Damiel's love interest is trampeled by a squad of fembots throwing stampy little fits. Water falls from the sky. What does out Damiel do? Sticks his arse in the air and has it rinse him like a cosmic bidet. Cute.

Costumes, on the whole, are awful. The shaggy floor-length 'tutus', when they appear, at least allow us to see the trail the choreography leaves, like something from Shen Wei.



In the final minutes of the work, with the stage flooded, Alas gets interesting. In the eddies on the floor and in the reflections on the ceiling of the Lyric Theatre, the afterimage of the slides and glides are evident. Traces. Smears. But even here, the wet flesh is unappreciated by the cold, lifeless lighting.



Duato slaps the ground beneath him in a quick triplet, like a spray of cowboy gunfire. Not so much an invitation to the dance as a cowboy threat. Dance. Dance for your life.


Bending over backwards for Nacho


Channeling Michael Clark instead of Jiří Kylián, alas!

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

Noun or Verb? Construct by Tanja Liedtke (Sydney Festival)


Kristina Chan in Construct

Construct. Conceived and directed by Tanja Liedtke. (Sydney season directed by Sol Ulbrich.) Choreographed by Liedtke in collaboration with dancers Kristina Chan and Paul White. Set and lighting design by Ben and Geoff Cobham. Sound design by DJ TR!P.

Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, until January 13. Then Lennox Theatre, Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, January 16-19, 2008.


When I got hold of the Sydney Festival program a few months back, the one inclusion that took my breath away was this show, Tanja Liedtke's Construct, a piece that premiered in the U.K. last May, around the time Liedtke's appointment as Graeme Murphy's successor at Sydney Dance was announced.

It's a brilliant inclusion for so many reasons. I'm guessing it might have won a place in the 2008 Festival in any case, assuming Liedtke herself had been able to spare the time. (She danced in the piece -- with Kristina Chan and Paul White -- in its premiere season.)

Her works -- not that there are all that many of them -- are little known in Sydney. Though Twelfth Floor (Liedtke's other hour-plus work) toured nationally in 2006, it was very much a fringe phenomenon seen by a relatively small audience. So, this would have been a really interesting introduction to her new home town. (And thanks to the Bluebottle team and DJ Tr!p it is superbly realised.)



I confess, what I had read about Construct after its premiere did nothing for me. It sounded a bit naff. But those early reviews completely failed to capture the daffy magic and bright-eyed wonder of the thing.

But how on earth could the piece be done without Liedtke? How on earth could it be done at all?

And yet here it is. With Alessandra Mattana stepping into the breach as Tanja's look-alike, smile-alike, doppelganger and Liedtke's partner, Sol Ulbrich, directing.

There's no need for words, no need for eulogies, no need to protest this young woman's genius. All Ulbrich and the team need to say is: cop this!

Yet that's precisely what these dancers are not saying. There's no arrogance here. Kristina Chan is one of the hottest dancers around. She's a superb technician, as close to perfection as you could hope to find. Paul White, likewise, is brilliantly capable, handsome and powerful. He epitomises this ability to show off without bragging. It's not about self. Or even the task. It's the outcome. The realisation of the vision.

What I didn't expect -- especially after the grim violence of Twelfth Floor -- is that Construct would be so riotously funny... not to mention joyful, sad as a clown and playfully bent. It's an unassuming and self-contained little masterpiece.



It begins with a sustained gag, a slapstick circus joke. The "he man" White tries to raise both women to their feet. They're lying stiff as boards, arms at their sides, and White tries to get them to stay upright. The scene might have been inspired by Antony Gormley's dummies that feature in the ever-so-serious Zero Degrees that Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui brought to the Sydney Festival last year.

Next, White produces an electric drill which he wields like a weapon. He has his way with the uncooperative bodies, each rev of the drill producing a robotic movement, a torsion, a hydraulic twist of a limb. It's dazzling and virtuosic. Again, it's reminiscent of other dance, other choreography... something from early Chunky Move perhaps.

Though Construct is as sunny as Alessandra Mattana's surprised smile, there's a melancholy in the piece that's as intensely felt as the extended last scene of TV show Six Feet Under. There's an acceptance of the flow of time. Of birth and death. Turn, turn, turn. Perhaps 'resignation' is a better word. Death and suicide are never very far from the trio.

Some viewers have glossed the story-line (such as it is) as a tale about a love triangle. (And when you get three gorgeous dancers hot and sweaty -- and semi naked -- the inkblots start to get down-and-dirty in the eye of some beholders!) Perhaps that was part of the impetus of the work. But what hits the stage is far less literal. Well, except for the extended and brilliantly imaginative mime section... in turn, the dancers take starring roles. The other two dancers wave around small planks of wood and form everyday objects in the protagonist's world: a sash window, a dunny, a shower, a scrubbing brush, even a playground swing.

There is, of course, movement that is recognisably dance too! But the choreography (on the whole) is athletic and acrobatic rather than balletic. Still -- or for that reason -- Construct has extraordinarily broad appeal. It will delight lovers of circus, theatre and physical theatre, as well as contemporary dance.

About the only complaint I can make about Construct is that Liedtke, apparently, didn't know how to end it. Like Beethoven, rummaging around for a way to end the fifth symphony, Construct is bursting with ideas. It refuses to resolve to the tonic.

After sixty minutes of compressed time -- of mating, pregnancy, birth and death, of picket fences and home beautiful -- the methodical contruction of a pyre-like ziggurat around Chan (by White) is a placid if sobering conclusion.

Construct packed out the Playhouse Theatre at the Sydney Opera House and has a second run in the coming week at Parramatta. It's a show that deserves to tour widely.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Rapt or rapped? 2007 all wrapped up...

Every few months someone asks: "When are you gonna write your book?" My stock reply is: "When I've got something to say." (It works, mostly. No-one ever asks twice!) By now (I feel sure) you've realised that I'm not one of those bloggers who post when they have nothing to say! At the very least, you will have picked me as one who doesn't apologise for having nothing (or nothing much) to say.

Today, though, I feel I need to explain why I haven't posted an end-of-year wrap. Not as an apology or a sheepish explanation that the ones I wrote for the Herald Sun (separate pieces on the year in ballet and the year in theatre) and the Financial Review (a coupla thousand words on the 22 "must have" books of 2007) were done for dough and/or cos they are part of the job description... The explanation is, I think, rather more interesting. Well, it's interesting to me and, I hope, it might be to you.

Each time I turned my thoughts to the year just gone, I found myself pulled in the other direction. I realised: I don't want to write a balance sheet of the year in our playhouses, opera theatres and concert halls, in our cinemas and book stores and dank fringe venues. I'm irresistibly drawn to the things to come. And that, I think, is remarkable.

Rather than bitch about the shows I hated in the last twelve months -- or try to make you jealous about the ones you've "missed out badly" on in that time -- I'd rather fire you up about the things to come... (I was gonna write "the life to come." Anybody know what I'm unwittingly quoting?)

I can't wait to see Joanna Newsom performing with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. I can't wait to see what Chris Kohn makes of Antigone in his debut in the main (upstairs) theatre at Belvoir Street. I can't wait to see The Season at Sarsaparilla again, this time in the Victorian Arts Centre. Plays by the usual suspects: Marber and Hare and...

I'm stoked at the prospect of seeing Harry Kupfer's Otello again -- one of the best and most exciting opera productions I've seen in years -- and even more stoked that Melbourne audiences finally have the chance to see it. (That said, without Simone Young wielding the stick, it will be a very different experience to the Opera House premiere in 2003... Young turned late Verdi into early Mahler. It was the first time I've understood why people have said Otello is the perfect opera.)

I'm even a bit excited about the shows that might well turn out to be road accidents... The stage adaptation of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, for one! I'm morbidly curious about the Queensland Theatre Company tackling Doug Wright's I Am My Own Wife... yep, they're doin' it for themselves.

But, then, one of the highlights of 2007 was the MTC's all-new version of The History Boys. Melbourne missed out on the whiz-bang touring production that stopped off in Sydney en route to Broadway... But, whaddya know, the local product was damn fine. At least as good as the touring show. Better, in many ways. So, why can't the QTC's Wife be just as good as the Broadway version? (Please, don't answer... We all know!)

There are some amazing concerts scheduled in the next months. Perth gets Feist (don't be put off by '1-2-3-4', she's quite the chanteuse) and Cesaria Evora in consecutive days in February -- I haven't heard if Leslie and Cesi are heading east. But everyone from PJ to KD is comin'. Arcade Fire to Foo Fighters. (Hell, they're honorary citizens anyway, no?)

I have to say that I'm apprehensive about this year's Sydney Festival -- it seems to lack the discrimination of previous years -- but I'd prefer to draw your attention to how bloody amazing Brett Sheehy's second Adelaide Festival looks... on paper. And, yes, I'm one of the people who -- when asked -- grumbled that his appointment as the next AD of the Melbourne Festival was a highly suspect decision. Why? Because his first festival in Adelaide completely underestimated the seriousness with which Adelaide folk take their culture. Like Fergus Linehan's 2008 Sydney Festival, Sheehy's 2006 Adelaide Festival was seriously lacking in good judgement and good taste. Real genius rubbed shoulders with real crap. And I mean REAL crap. Not just brave experimentation that didn't work and/or that I just didn't get. (Heh!) (Dood Paard, nothing is forgiven!)

So, here's to quick learners!

BTW, it's two years, today, since my first post here. (Just thought I'd slip that one in, see who's payin' attention.) And, since so many people have asked so nicely, I'll add some highs and lows of 2007 here and might even post a few more reviews and links. In the meantime...


BOOKS

As I wrote last year, books are an ideal place to begin a wrap because there's no way that any single reader can say: this is the best book published this year. I know that. You know that. So this list sets the tone... it's very subjective and very short!

The other thing that cracks me up about "Best Of" lists (in the MSM) is that they're invariably written and filed and often printed in November! Bummer if you published your masterpiece in December! Umberto Eco's On Ugliness might have cracked it onto the long list if it had been two months earlier!

One last aside... the week I decided that wraps were a waste of space -- and an outrageous abuse of readers -- I found The Observer/Guardian's annual round-up. They ask various lit luminaries about the best books they encountered in the previous twelve months... John Banville, my man, raved about Black Mass by John Gray. I bought it the same day -- $45 for fux sake -- but, my god, it's amazing.

Fiction: Don DeLillo's Falling Man

Non-fiction: Gunter Grass's Peeling the Onion (and John Gray's Black Mass!)


FILM

Andrea Arnold's Red Road (my review for the Financial Review [that's the other national daily, Alison, please note!] is here.)

Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days

Anton Corbijn's Control (the Ian Curtis biopic)

I loved Vitali Melnikov's Hit The Enemy. It reminded me, inevitably, of Wild Strawberries.

I also really enjoyed Shut Up & Sing, the doco on The Dixie Chicks I confess!

The Coen brothers' No Country For Old Men was over-hyped, but damn fine.

I was glad to have seen newies from Davids Cronenberg (Eastern Promises) and Lynch (Inland Empire) on the big screen, but don't rate them especially highly. Meh.

And I'm thinkin' about seeing Atonement... should I?


MUSICAL

Best: Phantom of the Opera

Worst: Priscilla, by a false eyelash, from Spamalot.


DANCE/BALLET

Zero Degrees. Directed, choreographed and performed by Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Complex, compelling and ravishing.

érection by Pierre Rigal and Aurélien Bory (Adventures 07, August)

The return season of Lucy Guerin's Aether was immensely satisfying. It has grown enormously since it's first outing.

Merce Cunningham Dance Company's Program A

Meryl Tankard's choreography for the Taikoz drummers in Kaidan was more impressive than her choreography on the dancers, but Tankard sure knows how to put a show together!

Angus Cerini's Chapters from the Pandemic, a sophisticated piece of soft-core Butoh.

Australian Ballet's double bill Destiny: Massine's futuristic Les Presages and a new version (by Krzysztof Pastor) of another Massine ballet, Symphonie Fantastique.

Stephen Baynes' Constant Variants, a likable, beautiful and substantial work.


DANCE LOWLIGHTS

Antje Pfundtner’s eigenSinn
Circa's The Space Between
Batsheva's Telophaza
Tess de Quincy's Transparencies...


OPERA

SOSA: Leigh Warren's production of Philip Glass's Satyagraha

OA: John Milson's production of The Barber of Seville

OA: the Opera North production of Rusalka (N.B. the Melbourne season with Sally Matthews, not the Opera House season which was a debacle and bloody amateurish by comparison.)

I was glad to have seen (less glad to have heard) Bruce Beresford's production of Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire, though Teddy Tahu Rhodes almost ruined it. (What's that line about snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory?) Anyway, god bless Antoinette Halloran... her Stella really was stellar... (Sorry if that sounds lame. But it was star stuff.)


CONCERT

Toshi Reagon, Spiegeltent, Melbourne.

CW Stoneking, State Theatre, Sydney. He was support act for Madeleine Peyroux! (!!)

Lou Reed, Antony Hegarty and Sharon Jones: Berlin. State Theatre, Sydney.

Laurie Anderson's Homeland

I also enjoyed Kinky (Meatmarket), Tiger Lillies (North Melbourne Town Hall), DBR (returning soon) and MCDC's Music Committee.

Ten minutes of Sigur Ros from the fifth row was pretty special too.

Most delightfully unruly concert of the year... or, perhaps, any year: Kronos Quartet with Bollywood "playback" superheroine Asha Bhosle. (KQ members were sledged by the predominantly Indian audience that night at the Opera House... They kept shrieking out something about them being cheeky monkeys... Funny 'bout that!) (Sorry, Sikh joke there...)

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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

A pinch and a punch from (a very merry) Chris...

Seen at Melbourne airport before Christmas, loitering near the baggage carousel of a Canberra flight:



From this, we can deduce a few things. John Howard even lost his seat on the flight to Tulla... he was a no-show. (And, now he's lost the VIP jet, he flies Jetstar! ROFLOL!)

Of course, it's all gone to hell in the nation's capital. (Woo bloody hoo!) The commos have taken over. But it's nice to know that the signage from the old Soviet Union has found a place in dear old Canbrrra.

Seen at the Canberra Centre Car Park, which may or may not be sign-if-i-can't:





And one for the mogbloggers... I call this -- in honour of Sinéad O'Connor -- I do not want what I haven't got.



All pics by yours truly, and all can be enlarged if you click on them.


P.S. Cranked up my 50,000th visitor today and, get this, my first from Mongolia! (That makes about 130 countries... but who's counting!)

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