Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Holding the fan...

This post was actually composed as a comment on Theatre Notes, but Blogger has been rather "temper mental" (as Chrissie A. might sing) this morning. And rather than compose and lose this One More Time (grrr grrr) there, I'll post it in 'the comfort of my own'. [Damn... I suppose that means I'll have to do some fact- and smell-checking.]

First, you had better read Alison's review of Holding the Man and Julian's comment. Now...

So, whaddya want, Alison? Brideshead Revisited ? ;-)

I'm with Julian on the sentimentality thing. Fond? Definitely. But sentimental? Nahhhh... I was actually very grateful that the production didn't set out to drag our hearts around. I thought it was all rather coolly handled. (No sobbers around me, mercifully! That might have irked me!)

But I disagree with Julian (as if agreement/disagreement is at all appropriate here) on the issue of it happening to real people being irrelevant.

Part of the appeal of stories that purport to be true is that we relax a bit. In the PreMo (as opposed to PoMo) world, the only 'author' fucking with us is the Divine Author Himself. [And, by definition, nasty-arse Fate is male. Agreed?] What Thomas Hardy called crass casualty. In stories where the good get done over I get into an almost Zen-like state of detachment to protect myself.

Do you know what I mean? How often have you sat through a play or film, or read a book, and thought: they'll either go broke or get rich, survive or perish, have a baby or have an abortion, live happily ever after or die horribly? So much story telling is totally arbitrary. A toss of a coin. But not in biographical "this-is-your-life" story telling.

Funnily enough, had Holding the Man not been "true", I wouldn't have believed that the boy got the boy. The most touching thing for me about the entire play was the scene in which Tim picks up John. And that it really happened. The gay boy got the jock. At a Catholic Boys' School. In the 1970s. Nobody got poofter bashed. Nobody got murdered with a hammer. Nothing was set alight. The jock didn't have second thoughts. (Okay, yeah, they all die horribly, but you know...)

If this had been fiction, I simply wouldn't have believed it.

Watching it, I remembered a Canadian? dyke film from the '90s (?) which has a title something like Better Than Chocolate (I typed cockolate first time through... how embarrassment!) in which the grrrl gets the grrrl. It was a big lesbian romance. Gorgeous. Erotic. Saccharine sweet. I saw it with my Best Dyke at the time. And she adored it. I thought it was a bit ho-hum. My BD explained that it was such a relief to see lesbians portrayed in near-mainstream cinema who aren't serial killers or serially killed.

I hasten to add that this is not turning into an apologia for second-rate theatre making. I'm not (or, er, not intentionally) being patronising. I really enjoyed Holding the Man as a piece of theatre. But I thought it was too much of a good thing. Overdirected. Excessive. But the bits I found superfluous (the Snuff Puppets AIDS victims, for example) struck a chord with others.

I wanted more insight into Tim's root-ratting. I didn't get that. If lust combined with love isn't enough then, Houston, we have a problem.

So, in short (at last, a conclusion... of sorts!), I loved Holding the Man because it didn't end in a schmaltzy 'orgasm'. I loved its fluffiness. I loved its goofiness.


Monday, March 24, 2008

Mamet, anti-Mamet...

UPDATE: read this superb review of The Winterling.

I've gotta say I'm a little bit perplexed by the protestations over at Larvatus Prodeo that Kim has never heard of David Mamet. (Yeah, sure, she lives in Brisbane -- where Mamet's ironies would be entirely invisible -- but she hails from America!)

Talk about living under a planetary-sized rock! Not larger than the one "Planet Janet" (Albrechtsen) is in the shadow of, true... PJ has been frothing gleefully at the mouth over Mamet's recent conversion to conservatism and his sheepish admission that he has lived his adult life as a "brain-deal liberal." Albrechtsen imagines that Mamet is some great scalp for New World Ordering... which betrays her ignorance of Mamet's insignificance to the left.

Anyway, Kim takes the opp to 'go' Janet over the culture wars thang. But I'm scratching my head as to why.

Back to Mamet... Like Alison, I belong to the "who knew?" category. If Mamet was ever liberal (in the nice, non-capitalised sense of the word) then there was one and only one (rather cryptic) clue in the story so far... the last line of the first act of American Buffalo is: "Fucken business." (And we all file into the theatre foyer grumblin': "Yeah. Fucken business." And bring the system down by buying shitty cask 'whine'. Right on.)

But, Kim, David Mamet provided the vehicle for Madonna's debut on the Great White Way, Speed-the-Plow (sic), 20 years ago! He wrote the screenplay for the remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice too, didn't he? Wot would pop kulcha be without him? Much less potty-mouthed, fer sure.

I believe it was Matt Wolf who described Mamet as a quintessential American playwright -- "absolutely indigenous" I think was the line -- who, nevertheless, managed to be "peculiarly" European in sensibility. (He was writing in the 80s, I guess.) Mamet certainly had plenty of premieres in the UK. Not just at the Royal Court.

I probably wouldn't have bought into this flap had there not been a Jez Butterworth play on in Melbourne. Butterworth's newie Parlour Song was premiered in New York (interestingly enough) by Atlantic Theater Company. It's at the Linda Gross on West 20th until April 6.

Now, perversely, I reckon Jez is "Anti-Mamet". Absolutely indigenous to his place of birth, but peculiarly American.

The main combatants in Red Stitch's production of The Winterling (to April 19) reminded me of Ray Winstone and Ben Kingsley (this is the first time EVER I have remembered Kingsley's name, blurry hell!) in Sexy Beast... the film which popularised my favourite Stranglers song to a new generation. (Instead of "walkin' on the beaches, looking at the peaches" I used to sing: "walkin on the beach-a, readin' Freddy Nietzch-e &c..." I was at uni. Well what a bummer.)

But... Who the hell cares about these deranged, violent, verbose, revolting and unsexy beasts? The Winterling has nothing at all to say. At best, it's a challenge for a theatre company to overcome. (And, I have to say, Red Stitch has done it brilliantly. If this was any less well acted, it would be a dog of an experience in the dark. It's a real "whydoit?") But what a crap reason to mount a play.

I know, I know. It's the third of Jez's (four?) full-length plays that the company has done. And Mojo was a critical and popular success for Red Stitch. Winterling is, in some ways, Mojo's sequel. But, it's one of those plays/production in which nothing is lacking... except a point.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Down to the ground: Akram Khan on Kylie and (other) Sacred Monsters

"For nomads, home is not an address, home is what they carry with them." (John Berger, Hold Everything Dear.)

When the 2008 Adelaide Festival line-up was announced, I had a "wish list" of three potential interviewees. I wanted to speak with -- in alphabetical order -- Cohen, Glass, Khan.

Lennie, well, dream on. Phil I haven't given up on. I've been promised (vaguely) a chat for later in the year. Yeah, I'll believe it when it happens, but I'm cramming already!

Asking for Akram was just as optimistic. He's is a hard man to track down... too busy actually creating to fritter away time talking. But given that he's coming to Australia with superstar ballerina Sylvie Guillem, I guessed (more or less correctly) that the MSM would be frothing at the mouth over her and ignoring the star which is about to go supernova.

It's perfectly clear who the bigger star is, here.

Next year, incidentally, Khan is bringing French film actress Juliette Binoche with him to the Opera House, in February. (Not, though, as Fergus Linehan was boasting earlier this year, part of the 2009 Sydney Festival. The Opera House Trust had the rights wrapped last year.) So it's gonna happen again... the superstar "fluffer" thing, that is.

Khan and Binoche are collaborating on the third part of the trilogy that began with Zero Degrees, another Sydney-only affair, continues with Sacred Monsters (Adelaide, Sydney and Brisbane) and ends with the yet-to-be-named piece with Binoche. ("It will be about angels and humans.") [UPDATE: The collaboration between Akram Khan and Juliette Binoche has the working title Inside I.]

Opportunities to interview Khan are few and far between and, as I discovered, tend not to come with anything so prosaic as advance notice. I was a 'widow' of opportunity on a couple of occasions. A day or two before his most recent piece opened in Beijing, a half-hour gap appeared in his schedule... which I blithely slept through. (C'mon guys, I need some time to plug in my goddamn cassette recorder!!)

I finally caught up with Khan when he arrived back in London, between an encounter with his accountant and one with Binoche in Paris, the first in their creative development. And the conversation was as unexpected as the opportunity.

This gentle and softly-spoken young man (he turns 34 this year) is no stranger to Adelaide, where Sacred Monsters begins its all-too-brief Australian tour tonight. He first visited as a boy. He was a cast member of Peter Brook's Mahabharata. And, well, he's had a crush on Kylie Minogue for as long as he can remember.

"I used to hate Jason Donovan," he confesses. Sheepishly.

Minogue, in fact, sat in on Sacred Monsters in its early development. And Khan, improbably enough, went on to choreograph a twenty minute section of Kylie's Showgirl tour.

The one question at the top of my list -- how does one make highly intimate works for the increasingly vast venues necessitated by his collaborations with superstars -- is the one I don't finally get an answer to. More of a "yeah, good point" expression of regret.

Brisbane -- not one of Khan's favourite places -- is the lucky city this year. In Adelaide and Sydney, Sacred Monsters is being staged in 2000-2500 seat theatres. Brisbane gets it in the cosy Powerhouse. Lucky bastards.

As a Muslim Briton whose parents hail from Bangladesh, Khan is understandably obsessed with identity and origin. Over the course of a choppy half hour, we talked about gangs, grounding and the recent 'duet' trilogy.

But first up, we talk about choreographing for Kylie.

[Akram Khan:] We were speaking a lot about her experience in -- I think she went to the South of India for a holiday, after her operation. She said it was amazing because she was with these children who didn't know who 'Kylie' was -- on the beach -- and they wanted to show her how to do a dance properly. They were dancing for her and wanting her to do it. They were teasing her.

And, for her, it was an incredible experience. She felt so relevant to these children. She was touched by their spirituality first of all. They were children, but had this huge knowledge of this inner spirituality. She could feel it around them.

These people don't even know her and yet they were playing with her, they were... they come from a very different background in terms of lifestyle also. And so when she told me that, I was very touched and I thought it would be lovely to work with her in some way. So we decided to do a twenty minute section in her new world tour.


It was based around temples. It's difficult. It was difficult for me because I think the audience are very different, the market is very different.

In a way, I had to give in to the direction it would go towards. My source material had to be packaged in the right way so that the audience could handle it.

In that respect it was a learning experience because it's not something I would naturally go towards, but working with her was fantastic. That was my greatest joy really.



I think my parents were great. I owe the ground -- the sense of being grounded to them. My mother particularly...
For her an artist is not just about the work but how you conduct yourself in life.
She really tried to instil that into me. I had a really tough time for about two years when I came home [after the Mahabharata tour]. I couldn't adjust to normal life. It was too mediocre or normal for me. But somehow my mother being there, being such a strong anchor, really guided me through that. I learned a lot from her about having to deal with it.


I think so.

I trained from a very young age. And then I did Mahabharata and I lost training. Then I came back and I started training again. That was key to my sense of direction, of me still being in the arts. My mum insisting that I continue with Kathak. That was my saviour if you like. Otherwise I think I would have been part of a gang. My area is a very notorious area.


But I grew up in quite a rough neighbourhood. Now we live in a very nice neighbourhood, but I grew up in a rough neighbourhood.

There was a point when I did join gangs. In the evenings -- it's so bizarre -- I'm telling my gang members that I have to leave early today I have to rehearse for a performance. And they would all laugh. Eventually I got sick of saying to them and I quit with them because I felt like I keep on having to justify and people keep on laughing at my face of me going to dance and they just couldn't comprehend why I would -- they thought dance was such a feminine thing. I got sick and tired of it and I moved towards dance.


Kathak has been an integral part of my work and it still is. In all my work. For me it's old knowledge. That's what it is. And for me in all my work, it's all about...
For me to acquire new knowledge, I have to review the old knowledge. That's what I do consistently in my work. It's about taking tradition to understand tradition and taking it and using it in order to create new knowledge or acquire new knowledge.


No, no. It wasn't. That's very interesting. The new piece which I've just done [a collaboration between the Akram Khan Company and the National Ballet of China] called Bahok is about searching for the origin. And what's incredible is I was working in this piece as a Japanese dancer who is a Kathak dancer.

There's a South African dancer who studied contemporary dance. There's a Korean dancer who's actually a contemporary dancer but studied break dance also. So what is the origin of all these? And most importantly, the National Ballet of China dancers. They're Chinese but they're doing ballet. And ballet is not from China.

And so the piece is about origins, it's about searching for the origin. What is our origin?

My parents are from Bangladesh, but their parents were from Pakistan, and their parents were from India. And their parents may have been from Nepal so, maybe, their parents were from China... So where does it end? Or where does it begin? And so with each generation, the information gets evolved.

So that stamping I was doing... it's very Kathak, but who says it came from India? Maybe they borrowed from Flamenco. Or maybe the flamenco dancers... There's a huge connection between Kathak and Flamenco historically.


There was a trade route from India to Spain. The Flamenco movements and gestures and mathematics and circular movements of the wrists and the arms... it's very Kathak.



No. No, no. It's not about gender identity. It's about identity for sure, but it's about how we are perceived in the classical world and the contemporary world. It's very personal stories of Sylvie and I, little anecdotes of how we shifted from classical into contemporary and how we were perceived. So it's more about personal stories.

Zero was my story from this journey that I did eight, nine years ago. But Sacred Monsters they are also very personal, real stories, but from both Sylvie and I.


It might have happened subconsciously but, for sure, not consciously. We asked Lin Hwai-Min because we were both very curious about him as an artist and his movement language. Sylvie's a huge fan. Also I'd known him a while so I invited him.


I really have a lot of respect for him. And Gauri's a very close friend of mine. She's made a lot of classical solos for me over the years. She's a colleague. A very good friends of mine.

And also I didn't have the schedule time with Sylvie. So I felt, okay, the time I'm not around maybe somebody else could make a solo on you. And the same with Gauri, she could make a solo on me when [Sylvie's] not around. And the actual duet and everthing of putting it together, I will do. So the whole idea of putting it together was mine, but the solos were very kindly given and created by those two artists.


It's very obvious what we're trying to communicate... She's tall. I'm short. You see the struggle.


Well maybe, yes! Exactly. I put them in subconsciously! No, but it could be there. But it's, for sure, our body types. We're both [classically] trained. Mine is very earthy. And hers is about air. Ballet is about air. It goes from the earth to the sky. Mine is going from the earth into the earth. So even though they're both classical, we're shifting from the centre, but she's going up, I'm going down.

So for me it was about exploring these two characters of Sylvie and myself and how the bodies are so difficult in terms of compatibility. But how the struggle becomes our harmony, how we share a language through the struggle of our bodies. of our differences of our bodies.



We'd done it for two years. It usually has a "sell by" date for me. All my pieces. About two years. Sacred will also be another year, now, cos Sacred was made a year later. And Bahok will be [touring for] almost two years.

The cycle seems to be two years, by the end of the second year or middle of the second year you start to feel: okay, I've explored as much as I can in this piece.

And there's two types of journeys. The journey which is about the structure, the responsibility towards the piece, and then there's an inward journey throughout those two years. Where you start to explore deeper inwards, as an artist. And so (in) Zero and Sacred...

Once you feel settled with a piece and the messages and the structure of it, you start to then explore within it and your own character and how much more you can get deeper into it and so I think that's how we keep it fresh. You still continue to find the boundary from within.

Sacred Monsters is at the Festival Theatre, Adelaide, March 11 & 12. Then the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall (March 17-19) and Powerhouse, Brisbane, March 22 & 23.

UPDATE: Khan and Guillem will speak at the Sydney Opera House Opera Theatre at 2 pm on March 16.

The collaboration between Akram Khan and Juliette Binoche (which has the working title Inside I) has an exclusive season at the Opera House Drama Theatre (woo hoo, a playhouse) in February 2009.

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Friday, March 07, 2008

"Hey, the hangman says I have a nice neck!" Or: why people in glass houses probably shouldn't get stoned.

My short, sweet review of Love Song -- John Kolvenbach's short, sweet play -- is in today's Herald Sun. (Page 81!) It's something of a rave review of the MTC's production, which opened on Wednesday night. And a well-earned rave, I reckon.

Now, I'm reluctant to use the expression "writer's block" in relation to reviewing which, at its very very best, is not much more than a creative response to someone else's creativity... and therefore relatively bloody easy... but rave reviews are the hardest to write. For me at least.

Not (just) because we critics fear overpraising more than anything. More because it's harder to be convincing when you're being nice. Accuracy, in praise, is everything.

All up, Love Song is only 90 minutes stage traffic. It's performed, here, in two halves. For once that isn't (necessarily) a mistake. There's a bit of a gear change and the second half starts with such focus and intensity there isn't the usual lag while the Drumsticked-up audience refocusses its attention.

Prolix. Prolix. Nothing a pair of scissors can't fix... as Mister Cave sings on his newie, Dig!!! Lazarus, Dig!!!

On my way home at the ridiculously early hour of ten, I knew I was in for a long night. Not blocked, but knowing that my reviewing Rain Dance couldn't be rushed. Rather like this prolix little post. But nine hours to review ninety minutes? Jeez, Loueeeez!

I took my time. Bought some groceries. Listened to LNL. (Was that the Peter Singer night?) I made myself a meal. Goodie. (I've been having a culinary affair... I improvised a puttanesca sauce a few days ago and I'm at the limerance stage. "Can we see each other two nights in a row? What about three? God, I love you!")

Midnight. Fired up the beast. Wrote the top and tail of the review. Dates, place, names, company.

Bought 'Head and Heart' from iTunes. (I've been reading Martin Amis... Bonus points for anyone who can connect Martin Amis with John Martyn.)

Rescued two cats from my roof pre-dawn. (I had to clamber on the bourge mobile to do it.) (Yes, the one with the CAT plates, appositely.) If they get up there again, I swear to god, I'll hose them! I don't care about the goddamn 3a water restrictions!

It was 5:35 am when I wrote my first usable word. Two and a bit hours later I filed my review... before my self-imposed 8 am deadline.

And it's one of the shortest reviews I've ever written. Ahem! Short, as I say, but sweet. Focussed.

Twenty years ago -- twenty-one years ago to be precise -- when the count of my published reviews was still in single digits [or, er, digit? -- Ed.] (now, I'm very well advanced on the whole fist of digits!) I had to write my first rave review. It was the premiere production, at La Mama, of Phil Motherwell's Fitzroy Crossing which starred Gina Riley, from memory, as a Chrissie Amphlett fantasy grrrl.

I had a very tight deadline. I'd taken home a computer from work -- a boxy first gen Macintosh (does anyone remember acoustic couplers?!) which hummed at me expectantly like an IBM golf-ball typewriter... taunting me to bang something on the keyboard and stop boring it -- and I sat blankly in front of its white screen like a zombie.

I'm actually quite proud of the fact that I've never (what, never?) started a review in the Fiona Scott-Norman "every so often something comes around" style. But, bloody hell, it's tempting.

La Mama wasn't quite 21 years old when Fitzroy Crossing opened there. And my review -- or parts thereof -- scraped into a publication marking and celebrating La Mama's first 21 years. That book, serendipitously, turned out to be the first book I was ever asked to review.

And there I was... quoted in it.

Stop. Right now. If you're thinking this is about self-aggrandisement. The bit they quoted had a grammatical error. Well, at best it was a grammatical 'infelicity'. But, praise is praise, however clumsy and ugly, right? As long as it's accurate.

Yes. Well.

Critics love being quoted. You know... "'An unmitigated disaster' -- A. Croggon." That kind of thing.

While my name is not taken "in vanity", there are two press releases currently doing the rounds that refer to reviews of mine. The first is of Kit Lazaroo's play Asylum, which I reviewed in its first season at Headquarters, last year. The release reads: "At every level, the execution of the play is first rate. Sometimes clever, sometimes truly inspired."

You can guess, I reckon, what the next word is. Go on.


You've got it. It's a "but". A big capital-But as a matter of fact.

No matter. The Press Relief (sic) that really gets up my nose -- and it's something that I get from the Australian Ballet all the time -- is the one that refers to my review of Graeme Murphy's Swan Lake, which is having Yet Another return season in Melbourne this month with Sydney to follow.

I wrote one of my raviest-of-all-time rave reviews of the premiere, in 2002, for the Financial Review. It's a tad over a thousand words of raving in fact.

Here's a snippet:
After a century and a quarter of balletic creationism, this Swan Lake is as revelatory -- and as revolutionary -- as science. Instead of blaming an evil genius (the Baron) for Siegfried's betrayal of Odette, Murphy boils the drama down to something simple but knotty; something that is both banal and infinitely fascinating; something all too familiar but utterly unknowable... a love triangle.

Okay. That's not really a sound bite, is it... But how about this:
The party scene would have to be one of the most dazzlingly and effortlessly sexy scenes in classical ballet.

Still no? This:
Murphy's choreography is as dazzling and clean as Fredrikson's hi-key Lake Geneva set.

Orright, they're not exactly lending themselves to Broadway-style up-in-lights repro are they?

But WHERE THE FUCK (excuse me) do they get this bilge water from?
"Graeme Murphy's brilliant take on Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake has imbued this well-loved classic with freshness and a relevance that make this gem of a production a must-see."

Australian Financial Review, 2002

I would ritually disembowel myself before using several of those words and expressions. I don't believe I have used the word 'gem' since the late 20th century... unless it was between a pair of double quotes and was hyphenated with a "-like", as in burn with a gem-like flame...

The words brilliant, imbued, well-loved, freshness, relevance and must-see do not appear in my review.

I mean, ICK!!!!

As Nicholas Pickard has discovered to his chagrin, anything that's on the page (or on any nearby page) with your review -- even if it's a photo caption written by a sub-aqua-headed work-experience boy suffering an E-over -- is fair game.

What I take exception to, however, is that the above 'quote' (ick, again!) appears in various press releases (here's one) under the heading: WHAT THE CRITIC'S SAID.

I assume, given the catastrophic apostrophe, that this is some kind of exclamation similar to something my nephew was saying when he was three... You know: "What the..." And that "critic's said" is akin to "Holy See" or "What the Philip Ruddock were you thinking?"

There. I'm almost done with my venting.

My most humiliating -- therefore most funny -- quoted review wasn't actually the Fitzroy Crossing one. It was a review of a Handspan show called Banquet.

Now, there were some serious layout problems in that particular edition of The Melbourne Times, and they all centred on (on, not around! LOL!) my review. Again, we're talking late 1980s, so think archaic computer equipment and software. But the three columns of my review were printed in random order. The proofreader? subeditor? intern? dickwad? noticed that there was a problem. The fix? Making sure that the end of the previous column segued relatively cleanly into the start of the next column. It was cosmetic surgery by The Simpsons' favourite quack, Doctor Nick.

I was mortified.

But, bless, Handspan intuited that there was a rave review in it, somewhere, and quoted it often -- and hugely. Banquet, the press adverts screamed, is a feast for the senses. (In my defence, that was much less of a hoary old cliche in the 1980s that it has become today.)

For those of you who have been patient and forbearing enough to read this far... here's the opening par (or so) of my review in today's paper:
They call it "suspension of disbelief." That's when you go to the theatre and have to work harder than the actors pretending you're watching something half-way real.

But occasionally -- all too rarely I have to say -- a crazy story will be presented with such confidence and ease, and belief on the part of the cast and crew, that audiences are powerless to resist. Not only is disbelief suspended, gravity is too.

This production of Love Song is a shining example of theatre that switches off the rules of the universe and takes its audience on a Leunig-like flight of fancy and fantasy. It's a miraculously weightless and romantic piece about a sad, lonely, messed-up, loveless man named Beane who dreams his way out of his life-long depression.

The Melbourne Theatre Company's production of Love Song is at the Fairfax Studio, The Arts Centre, until April 19.

Phil Motherwell has some short plays at Headquarters, La Mama in Carlton, from Wednesday 12th. (Also on March 12, Philip Maxwell Ruddock turns 64... time to get the fuck out of our lives, Pip. You know: Pip, pip... ho!)

Graeme Murphy's Swan Lake is at the State Theatre, Melbourne, from March 14. Then the Sydney Opera House from April 4. (Both seasons will sell out, so book early and often!) Or see it at the Théâtre Du Châtelet in Paris in October! (Or The Lowry, in Manchester, if you're slumming.) (Joke, K?)

Dig!!! Lazarus, Dig!!! is out now. And is, IMHO, one of Nick Cave's most lacklustre releases ever. The first par from my up-coming review:
There's a book's worth of poetry on The Bad Seeds' 15th studio CD but only about 20 minutes worth of okay music. Nick should have started saving up for the next "B-sides and rarities" release. This could have been a kick-arse EP rather than this long-winded and dreary set.

Gosh I'm a bitch.

Prolix, prolix...


Wednesday, March 05, 2008

What goes around... just keeps going around. Adelaide Festival of Arts 2008.

A big-budget arts festival in a small city, every second year, Adelaide's Festival is expected to be the best. The bravest and most serious... with the biggest international acts.

But the Adelaide festival has had more downs than ups since its high water mark in 1996, when Barrie Kosky delivered the festival to beat all festivals. (I still carry around my media card from that festival, twelve years on.) (Yes, yes... it's pathetic, I know.)

There have been budgetary shortfalls, downsizings, the disastrous and short-lived artistic directorship of US opera director Peter Sellars and, most recently, Brett Sheehy's no-brow 2006 festival.

All eyes are trained west again, on Sheehy, in his second Adelaide Festival. His appointment as director of the Melbourne International Arts Festival was announced recently. He takes over from Kristy Edmunds in 2009.

In his first Adelaide Festival, in 2006, Sheehy made the mistake of underestimating the seriousness with which Croweaters take their culture and the arts. He didn't discriminate between diamond and diamante. This year's festival appears to fix that mistake.

Year round, Adelaide is especially well-catered for when it comes to opera, music and modern dance. So it expects to be challenged and impressed at festival time.

But the city was a little underwhelmed by the opening night extravaganza, Ainadamar (Fountain of Tears) the Grammy Award-winning opera from Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov about the Spanish Civil war and the execution of writer Federico Garcia Lorca. Graeme Murphy's brand new multi-media production was too sugary, too glib, too dinky.

Funnily enough, the nowhere near-finished and far far rougher workshop production of an opera about the controversial South Australian anthropologist Ted Strehlow was a big hit with older, hard-core opera fans. They filled up the State Opera of SA's hangar in suburban Netley to capacity, three days running, to see and hear this mix of classical and blackfella music. And we're talking nasty-ass rap, not sticks-and-didj world music! Composer Gordon Kerry -- the man who finished Mozart's Requiem -- collaborates here with David Bridie and aboriginal band Nocturnl.

I can't overstate this.

A most conservative audience was inviting the artists to "bring it on." This is the spirit of Adelaide's mainstream. You'll only be damned if you don't take a punt.

Ingkata has the makings of a great piece of theatre, thanks largely to Ros Horin who is the initiating and driving force behind the production. It's a fascinating story -- in the genetic memory of every South Australian -- of an initiated white man given Aboriginal treasures for safe keeping. Horin preserves the ambivalence, the indignation, the conflict. She doesn't homogenise it all. Nor do the composers.

With well-chosen and exceptionally fine dance and theatre pieces from interstate and overseas -- as well as home-grown contributions from local companies Australian Dance Theatre and the STCSA -- the 2008 festival has opened very strongly. I certainly feel a lot less anxious about Sheehy and what he will bring to Melbourne.

Still, this game of festival director Musical Chairs remains a significant problem. Sheehy was at his very best when directing the Sydney Festival where he had served as deputy to Leo Schofield for several years before graduating to the directorship. (And, indeed, I believe the Sydney Festival folks made a big mistake not appointing Lissa Twomey as Sheehy's successor. I was always immensely impressed by her tastes in the performing arts.)

The success of Shelagh Magadza's debut Perth festival earlier this year might have something to do with the fact that she was appointed by Sean Doran five years ago and worked her way up the ranks.

In recent years, only Adelaide-born Robyn Archer has hit the ground running in Melbourne. ADs imported from Sydney have had a dismal track record. Leo Schofield bailed a year before the end of his contract after a series of glossy but generic and characterless festivals. And Richard Wherrett was given a terribly hard time by the local media for daring to arrive with a vision.

Brett Sheehy will need to do his homework in the next year and a half... and come out schmoozing.

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