Friday, October 19, 2012

The Artisan Collective: If it bleeds by Brendan McCallum

It’s worth trying to conjure up the scenario in your mind. A morning TV show on a local channel in a small coastal town in Florida. The show, Suncoast Digest, is devoted to local news. Not trivia exactly, but it is unashamedly parochial in focus. On a Monday morning in summer, not quite two weeks after the fourth of July in 1974, the revamped WXLT-TV show begins with a brief news bulletin from the news desk instead of the host’s usual armchair.

A report doesn’t quite go to plan -- video doesn’t begin on cue -- and the camera stays on the 29 year-old “attractive dark-haired anchorwoman” -- as she was described in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune the following day. According to the news report, Christine Chubbuck looked down the barrel of the lens and said: “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts and in living color, you are going to see another first -- an attempted suicide.”

And there, fully two years before Peter Finch threatened to blow his brains out in the film Network, Chubbuck shot herself in the head. Live to air. Living colour indeed.

Playwright Brendan McCallum and the estimable Artisan Collective tackle the story in McCallum’s economical and superbly crafted play which opened at Gasworks on Wednesday. My short but sweet review is in today’s Australian. (It’s not on-line, so no link.) The play takes its name from the newsroom maxim: if it bleeds, it leads.

McCallum’s play is almost Ibsen-like in its swift and efficient introduction of key characters. This particular slice of time gives us an insight into what has gone on prior to the opening scene.

Indeed, the play is notable for what it leaves out. Chubbuck, for example, scripted the news item about her own suicide attempt. She guessed, correctly, that she would be in a critical condition on her arrival at hospital. (She died before midnight that same day.)

Even more intriguing is the fact that -- at Chubbuck’s insistence -- the suicide attempt was recorded onto 2” video tape. One has to assume that Chubbuck intended the footage to be widely seen. (Domestic VCRs were not widely available until the latter half of the 1970s in the USA.) Thanks to a successful injunction, the tape has never been aired. According to Wikipedia, the tape was eventually handed over to the Chubbuck family.

So, the short version... if you have time to kill between Festival shows -- or you’re looking for something tight, professional and slightly less experimental than typical Festival fare -- you could do a helluva lot worse than this.

If It Bleeds rates as conservative next to previous Artisan Collective productions but it is, in its way, every bit as exciting.

If It Bleeds by Brendan McCallum. The Artisan Collective. Directed and designed (set, sound and AV design) by Ben Pfeiffer. At Gasworks, Studio Theatre, October 17. Tickets: $28. Bookings: 03 9660 9666. Season ends October 27.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Orlando by The Rabble (Melbourne Festival)

If you want the executive summary of what I thought about Orlando, it’s shoe-horned into 400 words on-line, here. (The review was printed in yesterday’s edition of The Australian.) Below, surprise surprise, I digress a bit.

As many of you will know, and be bored to death hearing about, I’ve been re-reading À la recherche du temps perdu. Again. On finishing it, the urge to begin again is overwhelming. In a sense one is always re-reading Proust. I was half way through the set first time around when I started re-reading Swann’s Way. I’ve read about Marcel and Albertine while reading about Swann and Odette a generation earlier, about Saint-Loup and Rachel and Charlus and Morel... This time I decided I needed some literary methadone to break the addiction. Wisely I chose Orlando. It’s an upper. Definitely. The first chapters in particular are delicious. Dry and ingenious. Like Proust, Woolf is quite the scientist. And, most definitely, a philosopher.

Reading Orlando is also practical. An Orlando addiction is an addiction one can recover from. You realise, one morning, you can break the reading habit. (The Swiftean middle chapters get a bit dull... apart from the bit where a black cat is thrown on the fire cos it looks like coal in dingy old England.) Anyway...

Immediately after Saturday’s performance of Orlando by THE RABBLE (and, yes, they trade in shouty small caps, which I think I’ll abandon immediately... for HTML coding reasons) I was asked if Virginia would have approved. I waved the question off with an “it doesn’t matter” when I was really thinking: “shit no!!” She hated indecency with a passion.

In fact, while watching The Rabble’s staging I recalled the verdict Woolf passed on James Joyce in the mid 1920s. “Mr Joyce’s indecency in Ulysses,” she wrote, “seems to me the conscious and calculated indecency of a desperate man who feels that in order to breathe he must break the windows. At moments, when the window is broken, he is magnificent. But what a waste of energy!” Also in that essay (‘Character in Fiction’, published in the summer of 1925) Woolf chides Tom Eliot for his ‘obscurity’.

I thought I knew that article -- and the May 1924 lecture on which it was based -- pretty well. But when I came to check the quotation, I found that Woolf went on: “And, after all, how dull indecency is, when it is not the overflowing of a superabundant energy or savagery, but the determined and public spirited act of a man who needs fresh air!”

There. Could you find a better description of what The Rabble do than “the overflowing of a superabundant energy or savagery”? I’d be hard pressed to come up with a better zinger than that.

Though it follows the plot line of Woolf’s novel fairly diligently, at least to begin with, and quotes it verbatim here and there, The Rabble’s version diverges pretty radically when Orlando wakes up a woman.

In the Woolf, Orlando wakes up from a very big night (an Ambassadorial party he threw) married to some woman of low birth or other... and missing key bits of his anatomy. And finding perky new bits. But he -- or rather she -- is entirely unphased. Almost unsurprised. Orlando may have lost his family jewels, but she takes up the ducal jewels, rustles up a few horses and flees an insurrection to hide out with the gypsies.

In The Rabble’s version -- and you might choose to skip the rest of this paragraph and all of the next for its violation of good taste and, um, cos it contains spoilers. Okay? Still with me? Anyway, Orlando frisks her new bride -- though she might be Sasha, the treacherous ‘ex’ -- finds an anatomically correct zucchini and rapes her (orally) with it. The lighting is so tenebrous, so well judged, that it looks like Orlando has drawn a short sword from the girl’s drawers.

Clearly The Rabble hasn’t just veered away from the narrative of Woolf’s Orlando, it has used it as a springboard and done a triple somersault with pike. In the novel, Orlando catches his beloved Sasha sitting on the knee of a Russian sailor. In the stage play, Sasha blows the sailors’ milk bottle. And doesn’t swallow. So, yeah, I’m fairly confident Woolf would withhold her tick of approval.

Another point of difference is that Orlando is her own man, as it were, in the novel. (Woolf, as Orlando’s ‘biographer’, always refers to her role with a masculine pronoun. You know: “the biographer must always use his discretion...” rah rah rah.) Orlando is in control of her fate, if not her sex. But the Orlando that Dana Miltins plays is not. She is a wide-eyed victim of events. Woolf’s protagonist is entirely comfortable with the sex change. The Rabble’s protagonist is freaked out, to the max.

But these points of difference are observations, not criticisms. What The Rabble does is absolutely bloody remarkable. It’s like watching an old Saturn V rocket dumping the section that has got it off the ground before blasting off, one more time, towards the stratosphere. And then doing it again.

What follows the transition is a David Lynch fantasia in white. Instead of the shrieking of trumpets, we have the looped and ear-splitting screaming of Mary Helen Sassman and some much less ear-splitting death metal.

In my printed review, I talk about the production breaking the theatrical equivalent of the sound barrier. What happens then is magnificent. It’s an aesthetic and theatrical -- perhaps even sexual -- plateau.

Rather brilliantly, Orlando is rescued from victimhood -- and Miltins rescued from objectification -- in a single scene. She’s clothed and given a gentle kiss on the cheek by Sassman and the wonderful Syd Brisbane. Miltins lights up a fag and uses the rose water bowl the young Orlando once offered to Queen Elizabeth I as an ashtray. Perfect. It’s a humanising moment.

An upright piano fires up, gently, and the show concludes with a lovely speech (one of Rhoda’s) from The Waves. It reminded me of something Patti Smith might do.

I learned from one of the cast members after the show that Smith had indeed ‘done’ The Waves. (I found a clip of it on YouTube. It’s not so much a performance of The Waves as an original sung-poem to ‘Virginia’ using some of Woolf’s own writing. Smith does to Woolf what she did to Van Morrison in ‘Gloria’, say, or to Sprinsteen in ‘Because the Night’.)

After a couple of days, I still don’t know what I think about this new Orlando. I won’t be forgetting it in a hurry, if ever. But I still can’t answer the question “is it any good” with much conviction. It’s gorgeous. (Really stunning to look at.) High impact. Spectacular. But it needs work. The opening scene (in which the young Orlando has his hair tousled by the Queen, who fancies him) is so jarringly off, it almost derails the production.

Happily the next scene, a brilliant cartoon-encapsulation of Orlando’s affair with the Russian Princess Marousha Stanilovska Dagmar Natasha Iliana Romanovitch -- Sasha for short -- is a miracle of economy. It’s dumbed down a lot -- like a petty and immature infatuation rather than an earth shattering love affair -- but it’s still scintillating.

The closest the adaptation gets to Woolf, temperamentally, is an invention of The Rabble’s. In it, Orlando, newly female, experiences the joys of saying yes after having said no. (In the novel, it’s over a tiny piece of fat cut from some corned beef by a ship’s captain, I think.) In the play it’s a close encounter of the romantic kind. “Go,” she tells a man. Then: “Stay. Go. Stay.”

I confess, I haven’t yet fathomed the point of the project... beyond the smashing of windows that is, and the breathing in of magnificent, hallowed air. If that’s not enough for you...

And, bloody hell, you’d have to be an idiot not to see a show -- any show -- with Dana Miltins in it. The Australian’s not a big fan of intensifiers. So when it is published that Miltins performs with assurance and grace you should read “utter assurance and exceptional grace.” Cos that’s what I was thinkin’.

Postscript. (Or should I call it peroration?)

Apart from a (positive) mention of James Joyce in a letter to Quentin Bell, Woolf didn’t again write about Joyce until she learned of his death, and learned that he was a fortnight younger than her. The following quotation is from her diary entry for January 15, 1941:

“I remember Miss Weaver, in wool gloves, bringing Ulysses in typescript to our tea table at Hogarth House. Roger [Fry] I think sent her. Would we devote our lives to printing it? The indecent pages looked so incongruous: she was spinsterly, buttoned up. And the pages reeled with indecency. I put it in the drawer of the inlaid cabinet. One day Katherine Mansfield came, & I had it out. She began to read, ridiculing: then suddenly said, But there’s something in this: a scene that should figure I suppose in the history of literature. He was about the place, but I never saw him. Then I remember Tom [Eliot] in Ottoline’s room at Garsington saying -- it was published then -- how could anyone write again after achieving the immense prodigy of the last chapter? He was for the first time in my knowledge, rapt, enthusiastic. I bought the blue paper book, & read it here one summer I think with spasms of wonder, of discovery, & then again with long lapses of immense boredom.” [my emphasis]

From Woolf’s 125 essay Character in Fiction:

Thus, if you read Mr. Joyce and Mr. Eliot you will be struck by the indecency of the one, and the obscurity of the other. Mr Joyce’s indecency in Ulysses seems to me the conscious and calculated indecency of a desperate man who feels that in order to breathe he must break the windows. At moments, when the window is broken, he is magnificent. But what a waste of energy! And, after all, how dull indecency is, when it is not the overflowing of a superabundant energy or savagery, but the determined and public spirited act of a man who needs fresh air! Again, with the obscurity of Mr. Eliot. I think that Mr. Eliot has written some of the loveliest lines in modern poetry. But how intolerant he is of the old usages and politenesses of society - respect for the weak, consideration for the dull! I sun myself upon the intense and ravishing beauty of one of his lines, and reflect that I must make a dizzy and dangerous leap to the next, and so on from line to line, like an acrobat flying precariously from bar to bar, I cry out, I confess, for the old decorums, and envy the indolence of my ancestors who, instead of spinning madly through mid-air, dreamt quietly in the shade with a book.

Rhoda’s speech, from The Waves:

“If I look back over that bald head, I can see silence already closing and the shadows of clouds chasing each other over the empty moor; silence closes over our transient passage. This I say is the present moment; this is the first day of the summer holidays. This is part of the emerging monster to whom we are attached.”

Orlando by THE RABBLE after Virginia Woolf. Co-created by Kate Davis and Emma Valente. Directed by Emma Valente. Set and costume design by Kate Davis. Lighting, sound design and composition by Kate Davis. Presented by THE RABBLE and Malthouse Theatre in association with Melbourne Festival. Tower Theatre, October 13. Season ends October 27.

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Saturday, October 13, 2012

‘Swanlights’ concert, review and set list (Antony and the Johnsons with the Melbourne Symphony and Boy George)

Guess who -- or rather what -- isn’t credited in the Swanlights program? A sound engineer. Funny that. I only looked to see who to ‘credit’.

In the first handful of songs, Antony’s voice and the orchestra were eviscerated. Correction. Only the viscera was left behind. There was little top end and no bottom end at all. Just mushy, strident, overamplified mid-range. It sounded less impressive -- less spacious, less dynamic, less defined -- than this year’s live CD, Cut the World, made by Antony and the Danish National Chamber Orchestra.

Singing behind an opaque scrim, Antony was in excellent voice, fresh and strong. As comfortable and confident as we’ve seen and heard him, live. He didn’t take as many risks, vocally, as usual, until the final song in the main set (Her Eyes Are Underneath The Ground), but he was so gloriously ‘on’ from the first words (“Eyes are falling...”) that it didn’t actually matter. It’s as if the new arrangements allowed him to encounter the songs anew.

Whoever was on the mixing desk pulled things together towards the end of the second song, Cripple and the Starfish -- there was a bit of a sound image perceptible at last -- but the sound was nothing to write letters to Australia about. The orchestral midrange was still claggy (“shit claggy” according to my scrawled notes).

After the dullness of the opening laser-green projections, Another World lived up to its lyrics. Exceeded them. The lasers, shone from the circle level, made the air glitter. They made webby galaxies, not merely worlds. Then, while Antony playfully sang Beyonce’s Crazy in Love, a wide shaft of laser light swept a slow and menacing line back and forward in front of him. The strings generated a sonic aurora to match.

Time after time, the lyrics were pre-empted by the lighting effects. Antony sang “I cry glitter” and “cut me in quadrants” (from ‘Epilepsy is Dancing’) then “It’s a golden thing” (‘Swanlights’) as if he’d pulled the ideas from the aether... or the clarinets. In Ghost, he sang upwards, to the prompt side, bathed in lemony light.

I was a bit surprised to read in the program notes, just now, that Swanlights is “set in the dark heart of a crystal mountain.” I took the (hollow) crystal shards above the stage as box kites, which makes sense when you notice the backdrop between Antony and the mostly hidden orchestra is parachute fabric. This concert was all about air, sky, light and the vaulted heavens, not about being holed up in a dank and icy crystal palace. Even in the wondrous, enigmatic ‘Crying Light’, the orchestra turned tears into bird song and feathery down.

Antony -- through his extraordinary, evocative, changeling, transgender songs -- looks like he might be the Rosetta Stone, our means to decode Brett Sheehy’s fourth and final Melbourne Festival. How strange to have Antony singing “today I am a boy” while The Rabble’s take on Orlando opens a few blocks down St Kilda Road at the Malthouse.

I’ve already quoted ‘Hope There’s Someone’ in my review of Michel van der Aa’s After Life... I could well have quoted ‘You Are My Sister’ in the same review: “So many memories, but there’s nothing to gain from remembering.”

The heart-stopping moment of the concert -- which silenced the audiences for what felt like an age... half a minute, more, close to a whole minute -- came in ‘I Fell In Love With a Dead Boy’ when this secular preacher in his robes, this holy man with no agenda, with no aching need for disciples, raised his arms and raised the backdrop of the airy temple.

It was as remarkable a moment as the one in his very first visit to Melbourne when he divided his Hamer Hall audience into groups and asked us to hum, something he didn’t attempt in his earlier Sydney concerts. It was church, man. Church.

Er, church in a good way!

That particular moment was trumped by the second song in the encore when Antony, without ceremony, introduced Boy George. His contribution to ‘You Are My Sister’ was luscious. Unforgettable.

When the house lights came up and the orchestra broke up, the audience was still standing, cheering, clapping. Not hungry for more, but hungry to show its appreciation some more. A rare experience at any concert.

For all my fellow trainspotters, here’s a list of the songs Antony sang with the Melbourne Symphony last night. The second (and final) concert is tonight.

Main set:

01. Rapture (from Antony and the Johnsons, 2000)
02. Cripple and the Starfish (Antony and the Johnsons)
03. For Today I Am a Boy (I am a bird now, 2005)
04. Another World (Another World EP, 2008)
05. Crazy In Love (Aeon/Crazy In Love double A-side single, 2009)
06. Epilepsy Is Dancing (The Crying Light, 2009)
07. Swanlights (Swanlights, 2010)
08. Ghost (Swanlights)
09. I Fell In Love With a Dead Boy (I Fell In Love With a Dead Boy EP, 2001)
10. Dust and Water (The Crying Light)
11. Cut the World (Cut the World, 2012)
12. The Crying Light (The Crying Light)
13. Her Eyes Are Underneath The Ground (The Crying Light)


14. Salt Silver Oxygen (Swanlights)
15. You Are My Sister with Boy George (I am a bird now)

Swanlights. Antony and the Johnsons with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Anthony Weeden, conductor. Gael Rakotondrabe, piano. Lighting by Chris Levine. Set by Carl Robertshaw. Hamer Hall, Melbourne, October 12. Also tonight.

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Friday, October 12, 2012

Michel van der Aa’s After Life: Hell is (for) other people

It’s time to name (sorta) and shame.

Regent Theatre, Thursday October 11.

Stalls Row C, Seat 31. This bloke used his iPhone for upwards of fifty minutes during the premiere performance of After Life. The opera runs for ninety minutes. He was bangin’ away for well over half that time.

Stalls Row D, Seat 29. Man with an ancient Nokia. (I won one in a raffle in 2005 or early 2006, so we’re talkin’ 2G here. Tops.) Set to silent at least. No annoying vibrations. But... there were at least six sent and/or received messages during the show. And he took or initiated at least one call during the performance. (I think he was clearing a voice mail message.)

The barbarians aren’t at the gate, dear reader. They’re pissing on it.

I’m all for draconian (and possibly unenforceable) laws that impose strict penalties on those who leave their communication devices on, let alone use them, in theatres and cinemas. But surely there are alternatives. It can’t be all that hard -- or prohibitively expensive -- for venues to install short range 3G/4G/5G signal jammers can it?

Either that or it’s stop-and-search powers on entry to a theatre or cinema. Just like press previews of Hollywood blockbusters.

At Hamer Hall recently, I saw a woman hold up a massive tablet device to record some video of the performer.

I know, it’s such a 21st century cliché, but we’re not there unless there’s proof. But the live event -- the live act -- is, by definition, unmediated. Live it, people. Participate in it. Dare to just let it live in your memory. Until it fades... Which brings me to After Life.

The short version: After Life is like an operatic version of David Eagleman’s slim-but-fabulous book Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives. It’s nowhere near as precise as any of Eagleman’s tiny visions of heaven, hell and purgatory -- Michel van der Aa’s vision of what Antony calls “the middle place between life and nowhere” is woolly to say the least -- but the concept will have you mulling over the critical and most memorable times of your life.

In van der Aa’s vision, there is a week-long period between the moment of death and the actual ‘afterlife’... which is why van der Aa’s After Life is two words not one. In that week, one must choose a single memory -- forsaking all others -- to take with you for eternity.

So far so good. The shimmering, unresolved, pantonal music -- reminiscent of Britten, Webern and the late string quartets of Beethoven -- is perfect for purgatory. (And, no, I am not being snide!) Perfect for a recapitulation of an entire life. Entire lives.

And the score is magnificently played. The low brass is exceptionally well rendered. The singing in English is clear and one rarely searches for surtitles. (Lucky, cos this production doesn’t come with any.)

But the basic conceptual problem in van der Aa’s opera is that the take-out memories are 16mm filmed reconstructions. The team of assistants -- the angelic bureaucrats who crack the proverbial whips and impose the deadlines -- also re-stage and film your chosen memory. So -- God, how horrible -- instead of the actual, eidetic, intense memory, you get to keep a stagey film version of it. (I’d want Ken Russell or David Lynch to direct mine, thank-you very much!)

Call me old fashioned, but memory -- to me -- never involves picturing myself. I’m viewer, not viewed. I’m seer, not seen. So, to take away images of your (old) self, mooning over travesties of an earlier time seems like a pretty good vision of hell to me!

I enjoyed the staging, very much, particularly the use of video and filmed interviews. I enjoyed it musically, too. The wonderfully coiled vocal lines sometimes catch the turbulence, the swell and crash of the music, like a dumped surfer tumbled in a wave.

I’d cut the piece a little. A lame attempt at imposing some kind of drama, a catastrophe, is a dismal and distracting failure. But that is a forgivably short scene. I have to say that my positive response to the work was not shared my many -- perhaps not any -- of the people I spoke to after the show. I reckon the Barbarians weren’t having an especially memorable time either. Life... it’s happening elsewhere. Damn them all to some kind of Sartrean telco hell! Other people. Bah! 

After Life by Michel van der Aa. Libretto by Michel van der Aa, after Hirokazu Kore-eda. Technical Production Development Frank van der Weij. Costume Design by Robby Duiveman. Conductor Wouter Padberg. Melbourne Festival, Regent Theatre, October 11. Season ends Saturday.

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Thursday, October 11, 2012

Inkblots anyone? The Forsythe Company’s I Don’t Believe In Outer Space.

Name a work of art that’s changed the world. A poem or a painting. Guernica? Blue Poles? Philip Larkin’s ‘This Be The Verse’? They’re not like manifestos hammered on the door of the church are they? Not at the coalface of our intellectual culture are they?

How about a choreographer or a work of dance. Harder that one. It’s more likely to be by Mats Ek than Matthew Bourne you reckon. Or not. Who’s to say that Bourne’s Swan Lake isn’t more life altering than Ek’s travesty of Giselle? That Bourne’s beefy swans weren’t every bit as profound -- as alien and mystical and shockingly new -- as the very first swans in tutus?

If, like me, you’re starting to rebel at the idiocy of these questions -- questions I’m only posing because of William Forsythe’s I Don’t Believe In Outer Space, which had its Australian premiere last night -- you’ve probably got a short list happening already.

Off the top of my head, I’d fire off the following names: Raimund Hoghe, that gorgeous freak of a man. Bill T Jones circa Still/Here. Meg Stuart and the scintillating works she and Damaged Goods produced in the mid 1990s. Anything by Lloyd Newson. Perhaps all good art makes micro-changes in the world. God. Of course it does.

But even totally abstract works -- works without an obvious agenda -- are impactful. Valuable. In its premiere season -- in its premiere week! -- I saw Wayne McGregor’s Dyad 1929 four or five times. I reckon I could sit through it every day for a year without tiring of it.

But spare a thought for poor Billy Forsythe. He wants to be Sontag. Wants to be Hitchens. Wants to be Dworkin. He wants to be a player. If he can’t rule the world, he wants to be a thorn in the side of those who do. Pity him. He is a genius agitator stuck inside the body of a choreographer. But it’s even worse than that.

I’m sure, on this blog, I’ve mentioned philosopher and academic Arran Gare who argues most persuasively that postmodernism is responsible for the increase in the suicide rate. After long meditation on this I believe he is only partly correct. Postmodernism only kills academics and artists. To the rest of us, PoMo is the bar Moe Szyslak opens in The Simpsons, where Moe helpfully defines postmodernism as “weird for the sake of weird.”

To Billy Forsythe, it would appear, postmodernism guts art. It makes ‘meaningful’ art a futile and barren pursuit. It makes the gesture -- or any other attempt to create or communicate -- futile. In PoMo Land, beauty’s pretty suspect too.

Imagine that... having 17 of the world’s most accomplished and most insanely talented dancers and having nothing to bang on about except the pointlessness of banging on! Well, that’s what I Don’t Believe In Outer Space is like. It’s a treatise on entropy. It’s atomised and atomised again. Instead of having an arc, a trajectory, or even 17 individual trajectories, it has 17 times 17. Life is happening off-stage, somewhere beyond the O.P. flats.

It’s not even a Girl Talk mash-up. It’s a scrappy mess. Not so much a kaleidoscope as the smashed up bits of coloured glass from the kaleidoscope... without the tube.  Or mirrors.  Or lens.

I’m tempted to say that Forsythe uses songs like blue poles, as a half-arsed attempt to tie up the twigs into a bundle, but that would be to insult Jack-the-Dripper. One can find patterns: is that Jack Nicholson-style voice meant to be Screaming Jay Hawkins? (‘I Put a Spell On You’ is one of the polar songs.) Or is Jack Nicholson really Clint Eastwood, Walt from Gran Torino, as the good neighbour? But, hey, one can find patterns in anything if you stare at them long enough and hard enough and gullibly enough.

“Welcome to what you think you see” -- indeed.

I Don’t Believe In Outer Space will test your powers of observation, concentration and discrimination to the very limit... and won’t reward them in the least bit.

For a recent example of Forsythe nailing it, check out my review of the silent-but-deadly Three Atmospheric Studies.

I Don’t Believe In Outer Space. A work by William Forsythe with music composed and performed by Thom Willems. Staging William Forsythe. Sound design by Niels Lanz. Graphics by Dietrich Krüger. Costumes by Dorothee Merg. Lighting by Tanja Rühl and Ulf Naumann. Dramaturgical assistance by Dr. Freya Vass-Rhee. 

The Forsythe Company. Melbourne Festival. At the Playhouse, the Arts Centre, October 10. Season ends October 16. Then Kampnagel, Hamburg (November/December 2012) and Haus der Berliner Festspiele, Berlin (July 2013).

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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

2012 Melbourne Festival: Prelude or Overture? Force Majeure’s Never Did Me Any Harm

A couple of weeks ago on Facebook, Brian Lucas posed a challenge:

I’d love responses to the following statement.......

“The most interesting/engaging/exciting ‘dance’ being made at the moment is happening within the ‘theatre’ sphere, and the most interesting/engaging/exciting ‘theatre’ is happening within the ‘dance’ sphere.....

My favourite response came from Amanda McErlean: Sorry, my head just exploded.

I know the feeling. I reckon I see as much dance and theatre as just about anyone. More than any sane person would. But I’d be very reluctant to generalise. It’s easier to focus on individual works that work -- or not -- and ask why.

My hunch is that theatre has more to gain from dance than dance has to gain from theatre. Mainstage theatre, I reckon, has largely forgotten the essential force of the body in space, to its detriment. I can’t overstate that. That force is sine qua non. Without it, theatre is baggy TV.

By contrast -- and paradoxically -- dance has more to lose from theatrical pretensions. Let’s be blunt. It’s easier for a trained actor to dance competently than it is for a trained dancer to act adequately. But what I’m describing here -- dancers speaking -- is probably not what Lucas had in mind. And good theatre, of course, is so much more than the spoken word.

Lucas himself would have made a scintillating actor in the silent era. Such a freakishly expressive face and physique. Lucas has been in some of the very best and the very worst examples of that weird and temporary emulsion we call dance theatre: the sinister miniature Disagreeable Object (with Michelle Heaven) rates as one of the best, KAGE’s Appetite rates as one of the less best. (I can’t bring myself to knife it one more time. Go here and follow the links to the less-kind-than-mine reviews.)

The 2012 Melbourne Festival got away to a premature start last night with one of the most polished and accessible examples of mainstage dance theatre as you are likely to see. It’s the apotheosis of Kate Champion’s long, long quest to achieve a stable fusion of dance and theatre. Shrewdly, it’s being staged in the MTC’s Southbank Theatre and should find an appreciative audience there.

It won’t disappoint a dance audience either. Sarah Jayne Howard’s in it. (Enough said!)

Never Did Me Any Harm is an open-ended response to The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. It’s about parenting and conflict over parenting; about the nanny state mentality which rewards all children equally and prevents them from climbing trees; it’s about parents treating their children like puppies, wanting them to be friends rather than disciplining them. It’s also about choosing to be childless. (Tracy Mann’s monologue about that is a blinder.)

The balance between words and gestures is finely tuned and close to perfect. One rarely detracts, or distracts, from the other. Opening voice-overs are illustrated by the gestural dance. It’s as if we are watching a speech simultaneously translated into the most elegant sign language by Sarah Jayne Howard and the equally remarkable Josh Mu.

Champion’s casting is excellent: dancers at one end and actors the other, with a few cross-over artists. Actor Alan Fowler is a natural mime and comic -- watching him play a chimp and a nose-picking toddler is a joy -- dancer Vincent Crowley has a strong dramatic presence and a good voice.

Marlo Benjamin is such an expressive dancer, I left believing I had seen her act. (Her lipsync’d speech was quite perfect.) She plays the insistent, exuberant, narcissistic, demanding, aggravating child. She reveals the scalpel edge dividing play from tantrum. Catherine McClements does much the same, a moment later, as an annoying, teasing, tickling girlfriend... a slayer of solitude.

The overall polish extends to the lighting and excellent sound design. Geoff Cobham’s lighting, however, is way too literal. It’s too intrusive, hell-bent on declaring and manifesting the tortured inner feelings of the protagonists: an agitated, epileptic grid one minute, words crawling down a tree trunk the next.

I also thought the dramaturgy was a little too slick. It’s not glib exactly, nor is it reductive, but it felt overworked. Perhaps that was part of the deal/arrangement with the Sydney Theatre Company, with whom Force Majeure has collaborated on this production.

Still, this is a thought-provoking, engrossing, entertaining and impressive production. A very satisfying hour and ten minutes in the dark. There are six more performances. See it if you can. It might not be the future of dance, but it’s most definitely a future for theatre.

 Never Did Me Any Harm. Devised by Force Majeure. Presented by Melbourne Festival, Sydney Festival, Adelaide Festival and Sydney Theatre Company. Choreographed by the company. Directed by Kate Champion. Dramaturgy by Andrew Upton. Set and lighting design by Geoff Cobham. AV design by Chris Petridis. Composition and sound design by Max Lyandvert with an additional song by Jason Sweeney. Sumner Theatre, Melbourne, October 9. Season ends Saturday.

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