Wednesday, March 25, 2009



Bad news and good news...

Incomprehensibly, the Pan Macmillan edition (left) of Gail's excellent debut novel Black Mirror is now out of print.

The good news is that it will be back on the streets on June 1 thanks to Random House Australia. It will be a Vintage Books imprint, cover image above. More here.

listening to...

The newie from the lush and likable School of Seven Bells. It's called Alpinisms. For a limited time you can (freely and legally) download 'Half Asleep'. The song, which reminds me a bit of The Other Two circa Super Highways, has been getting a beating, rather belatedly, on Rage.

If right-clicking (or alt-clicking for you Garden of Edeners) (or should that be Gardeners of Eden?) (nah) on this link doesn't work, go to Triple J's newfreemusic and scroll down the list and DIY. It's a site worth bookmarking. The updates are sporadic, but the music is varied and often bloody brilliant.


Back to the heart-stopping days of Series 5 here. In case it isn't legible, that's "[MI5 are back]" on the cover, not MIB... though you could be forgiven...

And, last but not least, I'm...


The experiment begins.

Just as this blog is about as unbloggy as it's possible to get -- this post and my very occasional mogblogging excepted! -- my twittering will be news/reviews/recommendations rather than "I'm on the bog"... more ticker-tape than parade. [As you can see, I'm a natural at pithy little aphorisms!]

It's pitched at Melbourne readers, for now. You'll find me at: MelbourneArts.


Thursday, March 19, 2009

Fear, favour and fervor. Graeme Murphy's Firebird.

Three of this country's best dance critics of the last 20-odd years have all worked for The Australian. Alan Brissenden in Adelaide, Robin Grove and then Lee Christofis in Melbourne. Grove went to The Age, but lost his mojo. (Editing, no doubt.) Christofis recently replaced Michelle Potter as curator of dance at the National Library in Canberra. Their gain, our loss. (The New York Public Library's gain, too. Michelle is now heading the Dance Division there.)

Of the three, the one I most admire -- I guess -- is Grove. His ballet reviews in the late 80s and early 90s were a revelation to me. I'm sure they frustrated the living crap out of the Australian Ballet. With scrupulous care and tact, he would pen these mini masterpieces of post-structural criticism.

He was never so coarse as to liken pointe work to foot binding... but you could just tell he was thinking it.

Grove was a part of the English Department (now Culture and Communication?) at the University of Melbourne, but his background is in music, as a composer.

I thought of Robin -- and how he might review Graeme Murphy's new take on Firebird -- while I was watching it on Friday night. (Firebird had its premiere in Adelaide, last month, so I'm hoping that Alan's review will be on-line. Haven't looked yet. I always finish my own before thinking about checking out anyone else's opinion.) [UPDATE: It's here.]

Some dance, of course, is easier to review than others. Ballet, theatre dance, story ballets. "Hammering out porridge" says Alison, bravely tackling the harder stuff in the repertoire.

As a general rule, reviewing dance is a bit like using a computer to translate English to Russian and back. Remember the ancient jokes? Input: "the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak" and you get back "the vodka is good but the meat is rotten." (Puzzlingly, this [doubtless apocryphal] story was always used as proof that machines were stupid, not that programmers were! Or that translation was, on the whole, a pretty bloody futile exercise!)

Sometimes, though, the effort of translating what you see on stage -- or hear in the concert hall -- into words, cracks the code. Betrays the origins. I say this a lot, privately. It's very easy to look smart as a critic. The very effort of moving something from one lobe to another, from the parts of the cortex devoted to sensing to the bits devoted to conceptualising and expressing in words, helps you learn about the thing you've been passively watching. [Well, it helps me at least. Other people need to do, to learn. Me, I just need to write.]

Graeme Murphy has a knack of reworking classics in a way that gives young dancers a way into the story. He gives them an emotional scaffolding. He turned Swan Lake from a musty piece about doppelgangers and an evil genius who 'forces' the Prince to hook up with the 'ho' into a realistic story of betrayal. A love triangle.

In my Herald Sun review, published Tuesday, I claimed that Murphy had turned the Firebird story into one of coercion and date rape rather than mere capture.

Lana Jones and Kevin Jackson in Graeme Murphy's Firebird
(production photographs ⓒ Alex Makayev, used with permission)

In the first cast, Lana Jones takes the title role; it's a career-defining performance. Jones is not an obvious choice for this role. And, indeed, her body -- her training -- resists the jerky choreography. Her flighty behaviour, her mad pecking, is betrayed by the flow and grace of her extending leg. And Murphy, I feel certain, capitalises on the tension created by putting his spiky choreography on her Balanchine body and her refined classical technique.

Semiotically, and narratively, this is dead wrong. Misleading at the very least. The firebird is captive, yes, but she's not trapped in a different form, unlike "the enslaved" souls around her. (Interestingly, Murphy and his collaborators Janet Vernon and Leon Krasenstein have made this ballet's evil genius Kostchei a reptile, a kind of lizard with a rattesnake tail. Egg shells are a recurrent design motif in this and many other productions of Firebird. This Kostchei is just another kind of hatchling.) Having said that, Jones's performance liminally establishes the changeling theme of the ballet. And, in that sense, it is highly effective.

The other part of Friday's performance that fascinated me -- made me wish Robin was still writing, or that I was better at this game -- was Kevin Jackson's performance as Ivan Tsarevich, the dude who captures the bird, falls for a trapped girl and frees the enslaved... with a little help from the bird, his Ariel.

Jackson's/Tsarevich's treatment of the firebird -- on Friday night -- was shocking. He swaggered on with the assurance of ruler, of a hunter, of a man. I daresay that Peter Singer would add to that list "of a human." Jackson's/Tsarevich's abuse of the firebird was, simultaneously, speciesist, sexist and classist. The firebird was his for the taking. For the plucking.

Now, you might very well wonder if I'm overreading here. (Or overreaching!) But, two things... Firstly, when Jackson/Tsarevich meets seven of the enslaved, immediately after he has manhandled the quivering bird, he's suddenly all boyish smiles... like a shearer in a Big Brother household. Cock of the proverbial walk. Yeah, sure, they flirt their frocks off, competing for his attention/attentions, but -- rather suddenly -- he's no longer the Royal hunter.

Secondly, I saw this cast again, last night, and Jackson's performance has been pulled right back. Maybe it was considered a wee bit too shocking. Shame, really. It was one of those rare moments in which ballet deconstructed itself. This Firebird brought its own butterball basting.

That's enough for one posting I reckon. Except to say that Petrouchka, on the same billing, is a mighty piece of theatre, it will be appreciated and adored by young and old, balletomane and first-timer, any kind of theatre- or concert-goer.

Leanne Stojmenov, Luke Ingham and Marc Cassidy
Petrouchka (click on the image to see full size)

The Australian Ballet hasn't done a Petrouchka since the 1970s. They've borrowed the sets and costumes from Birmingham Royal Ballet for this season. It's a knock-out performance, dazzling at every level. Marc Cassidy (in cast 1) and Daniel Gaudiello (cast 3) are bloody remarkable in the title role. As is Amber Scott as The Ballerina in the third cast. Scott, by the way, turned in a superb performance in the first cast (of five!) in Les Sylphides.

Australian Ballet's Firebird and other legends triple bill (Les Sylphides, Petrouchka and Firebird) is at the State Theatre, the Arts Centre, Melbourne, until March 24 with Orchestra Victoria. Then Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House, from April 2-22 with the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra.

Firebird. Concept and choreography by Graeme Murphy. Creative associate: Janet Vernon. Set and costume design by Leon Krasenstein. Lighting design by Damien Cooper. [Firebird uses the 1945 version of Stravinsky's The Firebird Suite.]

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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Write-only memory

You all know about random-access memory (RAM) and read-only memory (ROM)... well it's time to talk about WOM: write-only memory. That's what I've got. It all goes in. Nothin' comes out. Well, nothing legible.

Dancers, especially, like to talk about body memory. Let me rephrase that. They don't like to talk about it. They just refer to it. You either get it, and nod sagely, or you don't.

It's like getting on a bike, right? Mmmm, sorta. It's more like picking up a guitar -- which I used to do -- and bangin' out the opening riff of 'Over the Hills and Far Away' as proof.

Or, nowadays, typing in a computer password I've used on and off for about 30 years. I swear, I couldn't spell it out to you. It's gibberish. But my fingers can bang it out scarily/blurily quickly.

I suspect that body memory is the purest -- by that I mean least corruptible -- kind of memory. The least susceptible to falsification. The most anchored.

In the Boyd family, I'm the scribe. The one who documents. Who remembers. My brother Martin used to diss me for having a crap memory. He now concedes that I just remember stuff that he doesn't. But head memories become detached from the whole. They lose certain details. So, I can remember a line from an opera I saw once, a decade and a half ago, sing it to you confident that I've got the key and note right, but... I can't remember if it was sung by a mezzo or a bass baritone. I know the note, just can't remember the octave. Bummer, hey?

I saw the STC production of Julius Caesar at the Wharf a couple of years ago, maybe four but I haven't checked. Paula Arundell played Portia. (Pretty certain it was her, not so certain about the 'll' in her surname but determined not to check!) Benedict Andrews directed it. So... it was unconscionably long and slow, but memorable! Especially JC's epileptic fits! Anyway, one of Paula/Portia's speeches was absurdly and disconcertingly familiar to me. It felt like I had played the role. (I haven't!) It felt... like running into an ex and not being able to remember her name. (I haven't!)

I'm sure actors will know this feeling well: a period of intense concentration on a text that is hermetically sealed in the days/weeks/months they worked on it. Especially if that role has never been revisited.

Another example. The day I moved to Korweinguboora (still, mercifully, up-wind of the fires) was the day I got From the Choirgirl Hotel by Tori Amos. May 1998. It's absolutely anchored in time and place. Dark. Cold. Late at night. Maximum volume. (The house is 1.4 km from the letterbox... it's not as inconsiderate as it might look!)

Smell is just as evocative, but fuzzier. Like throwing open the door and sniffing the plump summer air.

So, why the hell am I bangin' on about memory? Er... I forget.

I think I was mulling over these ideas for a week or so before seeing Sandra Parker's outstanding new work, Out of Light, which opened last Thursday at the Gasworks -- so why the bloody hell was I at the State Theatre seeing Complexions... a company I can't wait to forget -- and runs through to March 7. (Tuesday to Saturday, 8 pm.)

The piece is about performance: the magic of theatre and the experience of performing on stage. It's also, apparently, about body memory. Now, it's unlikely to teach you anything about body memory or even to make the concept more solid. But, in harnessing the body memory of three experienced, brilliant and utterly unique dancers, Parker (ironically?) makes a piece that is remarkable and -- dare I say it -- unforgettable.

A scene from Sandra Parker's Out of Light

It's about to be swamped by (the excellent, unexpected and comprehensive) Dance Massive, but for godsake don't miss it. It's one of those rare creations that works as a piece of pure dance yet still speaks to a theatre or visual arts audience. Its craft is so sure, so deeply rooted, that it can risk being entirely organic.

It's also a piece that demands to be reviewed -- not just acknowledged or praised -- but defies words. Neutralises words. Nullifies them. Help me out here? It denies their currency. It takes you to a place where words are of no use whatsoever. They're not legal tender here.

Welcome to the realm of the body.

Watch Carlee Mellow flick her foot with vocab-denying grace. The movement isn't liquid so much as airy. Watch her, Clair Peters and Mia Hollingworth make flesh the idea that light is both particle and wave. Both and neither.

Marvel at the skilled use of lighting and projection. It's one thing for a scrim/screen to be made opaque, it's quite another to make it a solid entity... but that's what Parker's collaborators Rhian Hinkley (projection design) and Jenny Hector (lighting design) do.

But the real success of the show is the way it took me from a distant onlooker -- even in the front row I felt detached and oh-so-far-away from the action -- to an engrossed witness and then to a selfless participant in some magical, alchemical, transubstantial manifestation of the power of the mute body in space. In space, yet out of time. Simultaneously "in body" and "out of body".

Eternity in an hour.

Out of Light directed and choreographed by Sandra Parker. Designed by Rhian Hinkley (projections), Jenny Hector (lighting) and Zohie Castellano (costumes). Music by Steven Heather. Performed by Mia Hollingworth, Carlee Mellow and Clair Peters. Gasworks Theatre, Albert Park, until March 7.

UPDATE: See also Stephanie Glickman's review, here.

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