Category Archives: 2011

Degrees of risk (Reviewed: Fragment31’s Irony is Not Enough; Jochen Roller & Saar Magal’s Basically I Don’t But Actually I Do)

Leisa Shelton in Irony is Not Enough: Essay on My Life as Catherine Deneuve, Fragment31. Photo: Ponch Hawkes.

THE LAST TWO PERFORMANCES IN THE ARTS HOUSE FUTURE TENSE SEASON, BY MELBOURNE’S FRAGMENT31 AND THE GERMAN-ISRAELI TEAM JOCHEN ROLLER AND SAAR MAGAL, SHARE DOUBLE FOCI: IRONY AND TRAUMA.

Fragment31’s Irony is Not Enough: Essay on My Life as Catherine Deneuve performance is a theatrical rendition of Anne Carson’s poem of the same title, which turns the poet into a third-person Deneuve, and narrates her infatuation with a female student through the doubly ironic prism of cinema and classical references. What would Socrates say, she wonders, her words laced with mature, weary detachment. Deneuve, the cinematic Barbie doll, effortlessly blank, is inserted in the place of a complex self. (In >A href=”http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2006/dec/30/film”>The Guardian, December 30, 2006, Germaine Greer remarked that so devoid of personality have Deneuve’s roles been, that she cannot recall a single line any of her characters ever uttered.)

Fragment31 play with the representation of the fractured desiring self by simulating film. Shelton/Carson/Deneuve walks to the Metro; receives a phone call in her office; waits in a hotel room. Each scene is sculpted in filmic detail, each physically and narratively disconnected from the other, each floating as an island of naturalistic imagery in the mangle of props and wires of the Meat Market stage space. Sound, light, set, actors and musician, and designers, onstage too, come together in fitful fragments—the coalescing of the desiring, decentred self into one sharpened and fuelled by love. Even the narrator, Carson/Deneuve, is played by two actors: Leisa Shelton for body, Luke Mullins for voice. It is an attempt to discipline desire with a muffle of irony, dissimulation. But irony is not enough to stop infatuation; self-knowledge does not mandate control. Desire shows through. The poem crackles; the stage version, murkier and not as focused, less so.

Jochen Roller, Saar Magal, Basically I Don’t But Actually I Do. Photo: Friedemann Simon.

If in the first work irony is employed as the girdle of trauma, to keep the fractured self in one piece, in the next work irony is a safe, fenced pathway to the exploration of trauma. Basically I Don’t But Actually I Do is Israeli choreographer Saar Magal’s answer to a question: whether to make a work about the Holocaust with friend German Jochen Roller or, rather, not about the Holocaust at all, but third generation Israelis and Germans.

It opens with a discussion over the order of epithets—which layer of identity comes first? They agree: German Jew, black Jewish German, even gay German black Jew; but, says Magal, “we’re not going to talk about Palestine.” Magal and Roller change clothes, from the yellow of the Star of David to the brown of the SS uniform, and back. They play Holocaust testimonies on tape. They enact a series of iconic WWII photos: Magal collapsing into Roller’s arms, Roller shooting Magal, vice versa. Magal says, “This man stole a book from a Tel Aviv bookshop!” And Roller recites, “I don’t remember. Everyone was doing it. I was simply there.”

We are asked to take our shoes off, walk, sit and, later, to get up. We don’t understand. “Aufstehen!” shouts Roller. Some of us are randomly marked out, and one person pulled out of the crowd, to dance briefly with Magal, and then sent back. The show creates small moments of terror: we are dislodged from our audience complacency, but nothing bad ever happens, because it’s not that kind of show.

Basically I Don’t But Actually I Do is a catalogue of images enacted, repeated, but only as traces. It assumes a traumatised audience, for which every hint will be a trigger of memory. But, remarkably, it is a work that refuses to create false memories. It tests recognition; it has exactly as much content as the audience brings to it. It is up to each person to see genocide in the stage imagery, hear the Nuremberg Trials in the dialogue. The piece gently probes. How much do we still remember? What does it mean to us? What does it do to us?

In Australia (as opposed to Germany or Israel), the answer is not much. There were some walk-outs, which I cannot imagine happening at a Holocaust tear-jerker (for reasons of decorum). But for those to whom it meant something, Magal and Roller created a tasteful, careful little memorial space, in which a past event was reconnected to the present, and the relationship between the two weighed up.

One could say that the risks in Basically… never felt sufficiently dangerous, the stakes never high enough to justify the pussyfooting (one German critic called it “politically correct”). The love woes of Deneuve/Carson are saturated with much greater danger, despite the ironic title. However, Basically… uses irony differently, as a way of coming closer to something unspeakable, rather than pulling away from it. If traumatic desire is a sore one still wants to pick, the Holocaust is a trauma of a completely other kind, one to tiptoe around carefully, holding hands.

Fragment31, Irony is Not Enough: Essay on My Life as Catherine Deneuve, creators, performers Luke Mullins, Leisa Shelton, music Jethro Woodward, set Anna Cordingly, lighting Jen Hector; Nov 16-20; Basically I Don’t But Actually I Do, creators, performers Jochen Roller, Saar Magal, lighting Marek Lamprecht, soundtrack Paul Ratzel; Arts House, Meat Market, Melbourne, Nov 24-27, 2010

First published in RealTime, issue #101, Feb-March 2011, pg. 38.

Tagged , , , , ,

Dance Massive: The truth of the matter, or not (reviewed: Gideon Obarzanek’s Faker)

Gideon Obarzanek, Faker. Photo: Heidrun Löhr, courtesy Sydney Opera House.

BEFORE WE COMMENCE, A POLITE REMINDER ON THE NATURE OF THE REAL IN THE THEATRE. ALTHOUGH EVERY ART FORM THAT SPEAKS OF THE WORLD IS TO SOME EXTENT MADE OF THE WORLD (THE TIMBER FRAME THAT STRETCHES THE CANVAS, AND SO FORTH), IN THEATRE THE SIGN AND THE THING ARE PARTICULARLY TIGHTLY ENMESHED. WHILE THE TYPED WORD ‘CHAIR’ STANDS FOR AN ACTUAL CHAIR, IT IS PRECISELY NOT A MATERIAL CHAIR. ON STAGE, IN CONTRAST, A THING IS ALWAYS BOTH A SIGN FOR A THING, AND THE THING ITSELF: A CHAIR ON STAGE IS A CHAIR THAT STANDS FOR A CHAIR.

Faker addresses us, the audience, as an autobiographical, even confessional work, but it is impossible to discuss it as such — once it enters stage space and stage time, ‘Gideon Obarzanek’ stands for Gideon Obarzanek, performing a sitting that stands for sitting, at a desk standing for a desk. It would be dramaturgically and critically naive to review ad hominem: this review can only talk about a staged character, ‘Gideon Obarzanek,’ not the person off-stage; and about the stage letter he receives from a theatrical pupil. The question of the percentage of ‘reality’ involved is, in this case, at the very least dumb, and at the very worst unethical.

The dramatic structure has ‘Obarzanek’ alternating between two activities: first, he reads out a letter sent to him by a young dancer, clearly smitten by ‘Obarzanek,’ who initiates a collaboration, hoping that he will “bring out the fabulous” in her, and then finds herself feeling progressively more vulnerable, let down, and growing increasingly more disappointed, hostile. The voice of the letter sounds clear notes of adoration, insecurity, need to be liked and desire to please, and although it is said to belong to a woman, it could easily belong to a young man. Asked to perform something she has not done before (“this task was designed in a way that I could only fail”), her insecurity starts coalescing into a perception of betrayal: “I stood there, humiliated.”

Continue reading “Dance Massive: The truth of the matter, or not (reviewed: Gideon Obarzanek’s Faker)” »

Tagged , , , , , ,

Dance Massive: Let’s dance – and we do (reviewed: bluemouth inc.’s Dance Marathon)

Dance Marathon, Dance Massive. Photo: Ponch Hawkes.

DANCE MARATHON IS ONE OF THE MOST COMPLEX, MOST SOPHISTICATED AND YET MOST DELIRIOUSLY ENJOYABLE PERFORMANCE WORKS I HAVE EXPERIENCED IN A LONG WHILE, AND THE CIRCUMSTANCES IN WHICH THIS REVIEW HAS COME ABOUT WILL ALLOW ONLY THE MOST SUPERFICIAL SCRATCHING OF ITS SURFACE. THE NEED TO PRODUCE A WRITTEN RESPONSE TO A PERFORMANCE WORK BY THE FOLLOWING MORNING BECOMES A GREAT IMPEDIMENT TO ANALYSIS IF SUCH WORK REQUIRES YOU TO DANCE ALMOST NON-STOP FROM 8PM UNTIL MUCH PAST MIDNIGHT. BETWEEN MY RAW EXPERIENCE AND THE REFLECTION ON IT THERE HAS BEEN TIME ONLY FOR SOME VERY DEEP SLEEP.

Dance Marathon, staged by Canadian interdisciplinary theatre collective bluemouth inc, functions on at least two levels, which have not entirely come together in my mind. The first is referential. It is staged as a version of the dance marathons popular in the USA in the 1920s and the 1930s. Starting off as Charleston-era one-person (largely female) showcases, the willingness of young dancers to compete in endurance dancing, seeking quick fame, prompted presenters to organise increasingly more elaborate marathons, weaving variety acts and celebrity appearances through the event, introducing complex rules of elimination, theatricalising personal dramas of the contestants and attracting large audiences. Short breaks were introduced for the dancers, allowing the overall length of the marathon to stretch to days, weeks, months. During the Depression era, dance marathons became the bread and circuses of the time, reflecting the large amounts of free time the unemployed citizens of America now had—but also offering that intriguing combination of promises: faint traces of fame and glory, cash and prizes, on the one hand, and work, food and shelter for a short while, on the other.

We may not know any of this, however, and still experience Dance Marathon as a satisfactory reference to a popular form, because the similarity with contemporary reality television is so stark. We enter; we queue to register; we fill out a form waiving health risks; we get a number; we complete a small dance card with personal trivia that will become crucial for the unfolding of the show; we talk to each other in mass anticipation. Our Mistress of Ceremonies introduces the rules: feet moving at all times, no knees touching the floor. We are randomly coupled and, I may add, this is all very exciting: we do dance, with great abandon, the way I rarely see Melburnians dance. There is no audience, although we are being filmed. Do we notice or care? No. As we have heard from reality TV participants, nobody does.

The evening includes dance lessons, games, elimination rounds, celebrity guests, skills showcases (Bron Batten does a mean tap dance), prizes. The logic of elimination is entirely congruent with both reality TV and the pedagogical rules of making all children feel included in a game: very few eliminations in the first three quarters, then a large cull before the semi-finals (bringing the numbers down from 65 to 6); contestants are eliminated on mainly irrelevant grounds, with great attention to preserving the diversity of faces; and the overall winner is decided in a micro-cart race. It is the most inclusive format that an elimination game could possibly assume. Just like those real people on TV sets, smiling under a cloud of swirling confetti, so are we feeling extremely gratified to be participating in something as lovely as Dance Marathon.

However, as a first-hand immersive experience, Dance Marathon is the complete opposite of its own references: it is rewarding, pleasurable, even empowering. In a town of reluctant dancers, it was quite marvellous to see people with no clear dance skills throw themselves around next to highly trained professionals, the former unselfconscious, the latter unselfconsciously corny. Moments of provided entertainment quickly became something to participate in, rather than just watch — in a way similar to Jerome Bel’s The Show Must Go On, the emphasis on the silly imbued the audience with great freedom to act. A reading of a sad poem prompted waves of expressive dance. Every so often, in the middle of a dance number, a choreographed formation would emerge, and we would move aside to observe better these bluemouth inc dancers whom we thought were here just to play. Overall, Dance Marathon worked like a truly wonderful party, in which the organised entertainment blended in perfectly with the fun we were able to have all by ourselves.

Dance Matathon, bluemouth inc. Photo: Gordon Hawkins.

The question worth posing is, why? This close to the experience, the answer can be only vaguely attempted. Dance Marathon foregrounded the elements of game with rules and challenges that stripped away a whole layer of agency from the participant, paradoxically liberating us from having to make choices, thus making us also safe from ridicule or awkwardness. Freud elaborates on the transition from children’s games to adults’ jokes, the latter being essentially more self-protective and tendentious. A joke protects its own pleasure before the intellect. A game, on the other hand, is pure pleasure codified — the purpose is not to win, but to follow the rules. Once inside the girdle of the rules, we are probably as free as we can ever be. It makes one wonder about the extent to which the emergence of immersive theatre — essentially games for adults — responds to some deep need we have today for simple pleasures.

On the other hand, it was very rewarding to see a huge mix of people — from the dedicated contemporary dance audience to people coming straight from swing classes, to those just having a Saturday night out — utterly enjoying, and understanding, an event that questions the theatrical form to this degree. It reminds one of the fact that dance, of all the ‘highbrow’ art forms, has the strongest connection to the street and to play — a point not made often enough.

As Deleuze said somewhere, we do not have a body, we are a body. In other words, our body is not an object we put into practice, but the entity through which we experience the world. This is why Dance Marathon, however satisfying on the level of reference to bread and circuses, exists primarily as an extraordinary party, allowing us to dance with strangers, be blindfolded and drawn into complex choreographies, and even attempt a mass (unskilled) rendition of the dance sequence in Jean Luc Godard’s Bande à part (1964), as Anna Karina, Claude Brasseur and Sami Frey progressively accelerate on screen—and all with great pleasure.

Bande à Part – Dance Scene from Maria Tavares on Vimeo.

A perfect end to Dance Massive.

Dance Massive: bluemouth Inc, Dance Marathon, performers, creators Clara Adams, Stephen O’Connell, Clayton Dean Smith, Cass Bugge, Lucy Simic, Cameron Davis, musicians Steve Charles, Peter Lubulwa, Eugene Ball, Carlo Barbaro. Arts House, Meat Market, Melbourne, March 26; www.dancemassive.com.au

First published on the RealTime website, as a part of RealTime’s critical coverage of Dance Massive 2011. Reprinted in RealTime issue #102 April-May 2011 pg. 19. The 2011 Dance Massive archive can be accessed here.

This is a dear review of mine, because it was written in an only-half-rational frame of mind. Dance Marathon – which I had enjoyed immensely – ended around 2am, and my deadline for the review was 12pm. I got home, fell asleep (I was exhausted and exhilarated), slept until about 9am, sat down and wrote this. The published article is not far from the first draft.

While I no longer think that Dance Marathon is the masterpiece I proclaim it to be here, many of its qualities are undeniably in the experience itself, not in the semiotic skeleton that remains in our minds afterwards. Theologically, I understand myself to be a secular Catholic; something akin to a secular Jew, with an appreciation of ritual and ceremony in and of themselves, not as a shortcut to an omniscient, omnipotent God. Dance Marathon seems to me to possess many of the best qualities of the religious liturgy, quite beside its own postmodern understanding of what it is. As you can hopefully read between these lines, it is undeniable that I had a rave time.

Tagged ,

Dance Massive: The ambiguities of happiness (reviewed: Shaun Parker’s Happy as Larry)

Shaun Parker: Happy as Larry. Photo courtesy of the artist.

I ENCOUNTERED SHAUN PARKER’S HAPPY AS LARRY WITH A VIVID FEAR OF REPEATING A RECENT EXPERIENCE OF SEEING A PERFORMANCE ON HAPPINESS DEVISED BY SOME THEATRE UNDERGRADUATES. AFTER AN HOUR OF WATCHING THEM FROLIC AND TUMBLE, GIGGLE AND DANCE, I BELIEVE THE ENTIRE AUDIENCE WISHED THEM DEAD. NOTHING CAN BE QUITE SO IRRITATING AS WATCHING A PERSON IN A PROLONGED STATE OF BEING DEEPLY HAPPY. WE DO NOT IDENTIFY, QUITE THE CONTRARY: WE FEEL EXCLUDED, DISRESPECTED, IGNORED. WE MAKE COMPARISONS TO ARYAN PROPAGANDA. WE FEEL ENVY.

Not without reason have the classic theatrical forms focused on showing us great tragedies, or ridiculing deeply flawed characters. That’s something to identify with easily: suffering and smugness. Herein lies the paradox of mimesis: another’s happiness is not transferable by identification, does not become my happiness. Show me a happy person on stage, I am likely to see only a self-satisfied bastard.

Happy as Larry shows us people in prolonged states of happiness for no less than 75 minutes, with no narrative arc or character development to introduce variety, and no recourse to the spoken word. However, within this field of monotony it focuses on the varieties of experience and personality, loudly proclaiming its employment of the Enneagram’s nine personality types to create an interesting range of joyful experiences.

We watch very different people enjoy very different activities: a ballerina delights in perfectly executing a classical figure; two young men copy each other’s movements flawlessly, their happiness being both shared and competitive; three women dance, laughing, lightly and not overly concerned with precision; a roller-skater learns to control his wheels. Adam Gardnir’s elegant set, a rotating blackboard slab, keeps the meter of the show, sweeping dancers upstage and bringing new scenes on. While most activities are representations of a simple, even childlike delight in bodily coordination, synchronised movement or skill, some are complex and intriguing. A narcissistic seducer, compulsively revealing his tattoo, dances despite Dean Cross’s chalked suggestion: “Don’t just do something. Stand there.” Miranda Wheen, on the other hand, appears on the scene only as a mediator of other performers’ journeys: she tries to contain the seducer’s movements, or picks up and steadies the roller-skater. Her satisfaction is palpable, and yet there remains a niggling trace of disappointment as the stage is never hers, her fulfilment never self-generated.

Ghenoa Gela, Happy as Larry, Shaun Parker & Company. Photo: Prudence Upton.

It is this democratisation of what could otherwise easily be a fascist insistence on unity of experience that guides Happy as Larry safely out of dangerous waters or sparking a riot in the audience. The rotation of interacting, interfering characters opens up a space for identification. While Parker spends too long hitting a single emotional note, thus provoking some boredom, he also repeatedly manages to bring us back by creating a fresh image of a kind of joy we have previously not considered—such as Cross’ deep, rich euphoria expressed through forceful sliding across the stage, leaving powerful and inarticulate daubs of chalk on the board, a possible representation of artistic creation. Moments of such recognition are powerful if infrequent, and it does make one wonder about how little time we spend thinking about what makes us happy, and how much worrying about what worries us.

The choreography and the technique are beautiful, and this is to a large extent a dance to enjoy for the variety of dancing bodies and styles. However, the dramaturgy is held together more by the rotating slab and the excellent soundtrack (available on iTunes, no less!) than by any sound sense of purpose. What backbone there is is provided by a recurring attempt to illustrate the fleetingness of happiness—from trying to draw a square around a balletic swirl to the ever-growing ridiculous chalk diagrams of Marnie Palomares’ limbs. Like Luke George’s excellent NOW NOW NOW, Happy as Larry allows the pursuits of the present moment to resolve in absurdity. Now is only ever now, and the detritus of these moments is not happiness itself, any more than the collection of props in a gallery could ever be a decent substitute for Marina Abramovic.

After many false endings, the final scene turns unexpectedly bleak: the choreography resolves into unison repetition of movements one could expect from football hooligans—raised fists, chest banging, machine-gun mime. This is repetition for its own sake, dark and not at all joyful, the very image of the death drive. Is this what happens when we try to retrieve irrecuperable happiness? There is not enough solid dramaturgy to know for sure. One by one the dancers leave the stage, leaving Dean Cross entangled in the balloons, themselves detritus from the beginning of the show which, I forgot to mention, involved a sequence of very simple stage trickery. Light switches drawn on the blackboard ‘operated’ stage lights and a flock of balloons was summoned with a snap of fingers. Happiness seemed a very simple thing at that time.

Dance Massive: Shaun Parker, Happy as Larry, director/choreographer Shaun Parker, dramaturg Veronica Neave, musical director Nick Wales, composers Nick Wales, Bree van Reyk, production design Adam Gardnir, Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall, March 22, 23; www.dancemassive.com.au

First published on the RealTime website, as a part of RealTime’s critical coverage of Dance Massive 2011. Reprinted in RealTime, issue #102, April-May 2011, pg. 18. The 2011 Dance Massive archive can be accessed here.

Tagged ,

Dance Massive: into the dance-scape (reviewed: Narelle Benjamin’s In Glass)

Paul White, In Glass. Photo: Ian Bird, courtesy Sydney Opera House.

PLENITUDE IS A GOOD WORD TO DESCRIBE NARELLE BENJAMIN’S IN GLASS—NOT IN THE SENSE OF ABUNDANCE, PERHAPS NOT, BUT CERTAINLY IN THE SENSE OF AMASSING, OF MULTIPLIED SAMENESS. THE GORGEOUS, PRECISE BODIES OF KRISTINA CHAN AND PAUL WHITE ARE QUITE ABLE TO COMMAND THE STAGE IN SINGULAR, BUT IN GLASS MULTIPLIES THEM THROUGH GENTLY ANGLED MIRRORS, FILM AND INTERPLAY OF LIGHT AND SHADOW—MAKING AS MANY AS SIX OF THE SAME DANCING COUPLE AT ONCE.

They mirror each other, too, sometimes in perfect synchronicity, sometimes with a calculated lag; then they split into duets with a recognisable male-female dynamic. This shifting between synchronicity and sensual dialogue evokes intriguing parallels with psychoanalytical thought, as the two dancers seem to achieve a completion of sorts in paralleling each other’s movements: through learning to imitate and respond to each other they seem to grow conscious of themselves, each other, the world, their relationship. Without going too deeply into Lacanian psychoanalysis, the notion of the mirror stage, in which reflection of one’s self allows self-conscience to emerge, is a notion dear to all performance—recurring in theories of performativity from Judith Butler among others. For a while there, the multitude of reflecting Chans and Whites exists without leader or follower: a perfect tribe of dancers, an image of primordial unity. There is some logic to this interpretation: the mirror stage is but a moment in our lives, and irretrievable—and Chan and White spend the later, larger part of In Glass out of sync, seeking each other. If the mirror starts as a vehicle for happy unison of the many, it soon turns into a visual maze, a passage through a glass, darkly.

Much of the dramaturgical responsibility in In Glass rests on Samuel James’ visual design, which adds a layer of video to the already complex reflecting images. Through the projections, the mirrors shatter, dancers’ limbs multiply into insectoid, almost abstract arabesques and a forest landscape engulfs Chan’s and White’s bodies as they slip behind glass. Chan, a comparatively small woman, repeatedly wanders off into the forest, as bare-footed and lost as that child in McCubbin’s painting. When she reappears on stage, she is prostrate, asleep, as if she had been spirited away without any agency of her own. In these moments In Glass appears to tell a story of star-crossed lovers, or even (to remain psychoanalytical) of that impossible thing we seek in everyone we fall in love with—the faint memory of our pre-conscious unity with the world. The repetition of loss, search and encounter echoes itself in slight inflections, as reclamation of lost ground, which never turns out to be quite the same.

Benjamin’s choreography reaches its apex with the introduction of two smaller, oval mirrors, which allow the dancers to multiply only some of their body parts, and merge into fabulous beasts. Paul White becomes a three-headed Narcissus (or Cerberus), licking and kissing his own reflection. The moment is exquisite: as the light from the mirrors scans through the audience, occasionally blinding us, we are brought into the same space as White, now as sublime as a psychotic monster. Kristina Chan’s transformation into a many-limbed Hindu deity is equally captivating: White stands behind her with the mirrors, multiplying her arms. Both dancers reflect and multiply in the larger mirrors behind them, forming a gigantic pastiche of human matter, not unlike an organic Rorschach blot. In these moments, what has so far been their internal quest grows larger, universal, archetypal. The performers could be gods or animals.

However, such moments of confronting strangeness are too rare. For the most part, In Glass insists on a certain mellow beauty which, however satisfying on a purely aesthetic level, keeps its tone too even, too centred, to build a genuinely satisfactory dramatic arc. The beauty of individual scenes is undeniable; the purpose or intent of the entire endeavour much harder to ascertain—video and choreography become sequential eye candy, creating the pleasant effect of dance wallpaper.

I am reminded of early 20th-century dance, its insistence on harmony and pure expression of the body, and, even more, of Gertrude Stein’s ‘landscape plays.’ All of Stein’s principles—the interest in reaching the unconscious, the continuous dramatic present, the play that one can contemplate as one would a park or a landscape, the seeming homogeneity of content which, actually, goes through subtle variations and loops—are present in In Glass. Stein eliminated the dramatic narrative on purpose, proclaiming that it always made her terribly nervous. In Glass comes with no such manifesto, but it does seem to be trying to create a landscape of its own sort. And it succeeds: even if we are not sure what it was saying, we do believe we have heard it say something.

The greatest part of the experience of any dance work is retrospective, the memory of a body at a constant vanishing point. As such, it is hard in a review that follows so closely after the event to say with certainty what this experience was. Perhaps that three-headed Narcissus will crystallise into an indelible image in a week’s time? It is too early to tell.

In Glass (The Studio – 2010) from Sam James on Vimeo.

2011 Dance Massive: In Glass, choreographer Narelle Benjamin, dancers Kristina Chan, Paul White, composer Huey Benjamin, visual design Samuel James, costumes Tess Schofield, lighting Karen Norris, Beckett Theatre, Malthouse, Melbourne, March 15-20; www.dancemassive.com.au

First published on the RealTime website, as a part of RealTime’s critical coverage of Dance Massive 2011. Reprinted in RealTime issue #102 April-May 2011 pg. 17. The 2011 Dance Massive archive can be accessed here.

Tagged

Dance Massive: Journey of the tribe (reviewed: Helen Herbertson and Ben Cobham’s Sunstruck)

Trevor Patrick, Sunstruck. Photo: Heidrun Löhr.

WHAT A DIFFERENCE CONTEXT MAKES! IN 2008, SUNSTRUCK FELT LIKE A WORK ABOUT THE DROUGHT— THE THICK, ENDLESS, DUSTY THING EVERYWHERE AROUND US ON THIS OLD ROCK OF A COUNTRY. THIS RAINY BUT APOCALYPTIC YEAR, I HEAR SOMEONE ASK IN THE FOYER, PRE-SHOW: “THIS IS NOT ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE, IS IT?” I SENSE FUNDING OPPORTUNITIES FOR AN IMMINENT WAVE OF THEATRE AND DANCE, LEAVING US AWASH WITH DRAWING ROOM DRAMAS IN WHICH THE AID-WORKER DAUGHTER INTRODUCES HER BOYFRIEND, A SURVIVOR FROM A SUBMERGED ATOLL, TO HER CLIMATE SCIENTIST FATHER…BUT SUNSTRUCK IS NONE OF THESE.

One of the great benefits of Dance Massive is that it brings some important dance works that may not have received the attention they deserved to a receptive and curious audience. Having been among the relatively few who saw Sunstruck at the 2008 Melbourne International Arts Festival, it is very rewarding to now see it delight a whole new audience.

Nick Sommerville, Sunstruck. Photo: Heidrun Löhr.

At the time, I compared it with the paintings of Russell Drysdale, to Camus’ protagonist who kills an Arab, blinded by the sun. The simple geometry of these works was concordant with the simple geometry of Sunstruck: the single source of light, the single circle of chairs for the audience, the black of the two male performers’ clothing. The series of gestures, interlocking (yet seemingly independent) movements that the two performers engage in—the youthfully strong, mannish Nick Sommerville and the older, fluid, catlike Trevor Patrick—build to create a universe of silent masculinity, in which one can only self-express whilst blinded by the sun. At the same time, the heat, the absence of rain, as much as it delivers them into ecstatic abandonment, also appears to strike them down. Or is this just a beginning of something new?

Trevor Patrick, Sunstruck. Photo: Heidrun Löhr.

In 2008, I saw a personal journey in Sunstruck, a sort of dictionary or compendium of particularly masculine Australian body language—there was great restraint, silent grief, competitiveness, care and extraordinary liberation of body and emotion which, unsurprisingly, ended in weeping. A great deal of the choreography, indeed, is very close in form to mime—staring at strong light, combing hair, smoking a cigarette. However, this time I saw what Helen Herbertson talks about in her director’s notes—a death, a childbirth, the ecstasy of existence, the heavy load of being alive. It was a journey of a tribe rather than of the individual.

But it is hard to describe Sunstruck, because it is not technically ‘about’ anything—it is an experience, rather than a work of representation. The crucial aspects of the work, though, are also the easiest to overlook: the great dark space, greetings from the artists, receiving a warm drink, sitting in a close circle. The atmosphere it creates—of quiet meditation, but a communal one, not unlike sitting around a campfire—is the container for the experience. If after the show has ended we all remain seated in our chairs, quietly enjoying the tangible community we now are, that would be why. We have seen different things in Sunstruck, but we have all shared a cup of the same tea.

Nick Sommerville and Trevor Patrick, Sunstruck. Photo: Heidrun Löhr.

Dance Massive: Sunstruck, concept collaboration Helen Herbertson, Ben Cobham, devisor, director Herbertson, design, light Cobham, performers Trevor Patrick, Nick Sommerville, Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall, March 14-16; www.dancemassive.com.au

First published on the RealTime website, as a part of RealTime’s critical coverage of Dance Massive 2011. Reprinted in RealTime issue #102 April-May 2011 pg. 12. The 2011 Dance Massive archive can be accessed here.

Tagged

incendiary performance: christoph schlingensief (Interview: Anna Teresa Scheer)

ART WITHOUT BORDERS, EDITED BY TARA FORREST AND ANNA TERESA SCHEER, RECENTLY PUBLISHED BY INTELLECT, IS THE FIRST MONOGRAPH ON CHRISTOPH SCHLINGENSIEF, THE GERMAN THEATRE AND FILM ARTIST WHO DIED IN JULY 2010. IT IS THE FIRST ENGLISH LANGUAGE RESOURCE ON THE MAN CONSIDERED TO BE ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT 20TH CENTURY ARTISTS OF THE GERMAN SPEAKING WORLD, BUT ALSO THE FIRST ACADEMIC STUDY OF A VERY PROVOCATIVE OEUVRE. I SPOKE IN MELBOURNE WITH ANNA TERESA SCHEER ABOUT THE ARTIST AND THE BOOK.

First things first: Schlingensief is almost entirely unknown in Australia.

In 2008, when I returned to Australia, I realised Schlingensief’s work was among that which had really impressed me during my 14 years in Germany—especially when I realised how apolitical Australian art had become in the Howard years. For example, there was no attempt to test the sedition laws. People seemed afraid of losing the support of the funding bodies. Schlingensief, by contrast, had gone out on a limb time after time, in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. He was arrested twice and wasn’t bothered about the consequences.

In Germany, I was used to him being a household name—an unusual position for a theatre artist. It became especially apparent to me that his work needed to be written up when I began my postgraduate studies. He’s not mentioned in any of the ample literature that was coming out on politics and performance. American and British perspectives dominate the field, and still focus on people like Augusto Boal. Even Baz Kershaw, in The Radical in Performance, still talks about The Living Theatre and the Welfare State International from the 1960s.

After nearly 30 years of work, not much has been published on Schlingensief. Of course, there were articles in German papers and magazines, but that’s not the same as a scholarly, referenceable book. His work wasn’t considered serious—which didn’t detract from its power, from it being always sold out at the Volksbuehne in Berlin. The writing that did get published was primarily from his own collaborators. I was interested in how other people thought about the work, how it could be understood. In this book, we move from Adorno to Brecht to Goffman, looking for interpretive context.

We know Schlingensief as a theatre-maker, but his theatre career was an accident. He was an underground filmmaker when Matthias Lilienthal invited him to work in the re-established Volksebuehne in former East Berlin.

An incredibly smart move for Lilienthal, to pick up on a man who says his films were only ever going to be shown in cellar cinemas. Schligensief was invited after making the third film in his German trilogy, Terror 2000: Intensive Station Germany, which lampoons Germany’s memorial culture—politicians laying wreaths at every opportunity, the Gladbecker hostage disaster, the plight of the asylum seekers—piling up a lot of stuff together using very unaesthetic, trashy means. The film was called sexist, racist, every negative epithet you can imagine. And he was invited by Lilienthal to retort to critiques in a stage production.

I am intrigued by Rocky Dutschke ‘68 (1996), an early theatre work in which he tried to confront the Left’s nostalgia for the 60s and uncritical emulation of kinds of protest that are now futile.

It tried to re-create the 60s: Schlingensief in a Dutschke wig inciting people to go into the theatre, then out again for a protest, a love-in in the theatre…It inquired into the leftist mythology of Rudi Dutschke [assassinated leader of the West German student movement in the 1960s], seriously asking: is anything like this still possible, or are we all postmodern super-cynics and resistance no longer imaginable?

He really targeted the Left’s idealism: ‘We’ll still find the working class, who will revolt and take over.’ He wasn’t interested in that sentiment. You could absolutely not describe him as a leftist in those terms. He was an anarchic spirit, whose line was one of inquiry.

In your book cinematographer Sandra Umathum reflects very personally on what it meant to experience Rocky Dutschke ‘68.

The difficulty of writing about Schligensief’s work is that it was different every night. He throws dramaturgy overboard, gets rid of previously made agreements with the actors; he will on the spur of the moment upturn the whole thing. Key sections may remain—or maybe not! Schlingensief’s theatre work was not fuelled by a great love of theatre, of wanting to follow in Brecht or Grotowski’s footsteps. He was experimenting with theatre like a child with plasticine. What can you do with this? He was interested in the way theatre was never finished, but happened anew each night.

Rocky Dutschke ‘68 was the first performance in which Schlingensief used non-professional performers, a practice he continued throughout his career: people with disabilities, the homeless. In Hamlet in 2001 he conscripted a bunch of reformed neo-Nazi youths. He was not interested in the ‘show me your wounds’ approach in which we turn up to be compassionate. The audience is not allowed complacency.

He was not doing it to elevate the status of a minority, but to get to the core of societal problems—and not in a linear or simple, causal way. People forget how turbulent Germany was in the 90s. Moving the capital back to Berlin, the ‘media chancellor’ Gerhard Schroeder, then the bombing of Belgrade, the first time German troops were employed since WWII. Germany was outraged: this happened under a red-green government! Then the ongoing reunification debate: will we become the great nation of fascists again? All these things swirling around, as if in a washing-machine. And that is how these productions looked: like questions, with actors representing contemporary politicians, with references to the Nazi past…but always as this “past that will not pass.”

Was he an heir of Brecht in that sense?

Yes—the audience had to sit there and critically engage with their own society and socio-political problems, because he wasn’t telling them what to think.

PASSION IMPOSSIBLE, 1997

Passion Impossible was an inquiry into the city of Hamburg. Schlingensief was invited to create a work at the Deutsches Schau-spielhaus in Hamburg, Germany’s largest theatre [whose production Pornography was presented at Melbourne Interntional Arts Festival in 2010].

At that time, Hamburg station, which sits opposite the theatre, was literally a camp for the homeless and drug users. To get to the theatre, you had to step over their bodies. Schlingensief was essentially a moralist and found this situation unbearable. He first suggested to the administration they tear down the facade of the theatre and turn around the seats, to face the theatre across the road, the theatre of misery. The theatre rejected the proposal ‘for technical problems.’ Instead, they agreed to sponsor a benefit gala, to raise money for a mission.

The seven-day event Schlingensief staged was a mission in the former police station down the road and a series of mass events in public space. You had him standing outside the theatre in a policeman’s jacket with a megaphone, encouraging the theatre patrons to “come away from this ugly bunker! There’s nothing in here for you!” Like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, he would encourage people, having bought their ticket, to leave the building and come to the mission, which was a real mission—with beds and a soup kitchen. Here they had an open mike, a small stage and people could speak about whatever they wanted. He had an accordion player, the Salvation Army band, people singing songs…All sorts of little moments of what could be called entertainment.

Was this real or just a provocation?

It wasn’t clearly outlined. The theatre had publicised the event. The audience would buy tickets, then walk 200 metres up the road to the mission. You were paying to be involved with the people you would normally completely ignore, would never encounter in your daily life, or could have easily dealt with for free!

Participating in it was a provocation to oneself. Some of the stories of the homeless people were just awful. Early on, at the benefit gala, Schlingensief appeared with a decrepit battery chicken, and asked: “I want to see how much money can be raised to save the neck of this chicken!” People in the audience started protesting but he said, “We eat these chickens every day. What do you care about its life? I want to know how far people will go. We’re all addicted” — addicted to one’s own sense of doing good, of being a good citizen. We responded to the phone call, turned up at the benefit gala, did our little bit, even if otherwise we don’t really care. But now we’re really worried about the chicken!

But the main provocation was to the Lord Mayor by getting the citizens to eventually march up to the Town Hall, asking for the mission to continue. It became permanent.

I found Passion Impossible fascinating because it took it right out onto the streets. It is not dissimilar to Augusto Boal’s invisible theatre. There was a lot of media around. Questions were asked: Is he serious? Is this a charity campaign? Is it performance? Of course, it was all these things. And it evolved into an actual campaign, which he couldn’t have planned in the beginning. The work really asks: can art do something that politics can’t, create impetus for change? It questions our idea that artists can at best be pranksters. This is very different from watching The Chaser boys having a good time.

PLEASE LOVE AUSTRIA, 2000

I remember the reverberations from Please Love Austria (2000) as it made news throughout Europe that summer. There were riots!

2000 was the year when the liberal Austrian government became the only one since WWII to form a coalition with a far-right populist party, FPÖ, led by Jörg Haider. Sanctions were imposed on Austria. All of Europe was aware of Haider’s anti-immigrant campaigns.

Schlingensief was invited to create a work for the Vienna Festival. It was planned that shipping containers would be placed in the centre of town, on the Opera Square. These containers would be the living quarters for 12 asylum seekers for a period of seven days. Inside were webcams streaming to a website and Austrian citizens were encouraged to vote out their least favourite inhabitant, who would be taken to the border and deported. The winner would get 35,000 schillings and the possibility of becoming an Austrian resident by marriage. It followed the Big Brother format, which had just appeared.

It was only when Schlingensief, opening the show, revealed a large banner on the container, which said “Foreigners Out.” that it stopped being a game, or even funny. This is a well-known right-wing slogan: “Germany for Germans, Foreigners Out.” Jaws dropped. It attracted growing attention. People were coming through town for the festival and Schlingensief was there with a megaphone, exhorting tourists to take photos: “This is the future of Europe, this is Austria, send this to your friends at home, dear Japanese, dear Americans!” Austrians were shocked: “Besmirching our country!” Schlingensief kept publicly inviting Jörg Haider to meet with the asylum seekers—involving him in the performance, in absentia. The national boulevard press, the Kronen-Zeitung, were writing every day: “This Schlingensief clown is costing you money, dear readers.” Schlingensief retorted that they were just writing the program notes to his event.

The Left were campaigning against Jörg Haider. They saw the “Foreigners Out” banner simply as a provocation, accusing Schlingensief of misusing asylum seekers for his project. They marched around the container, demanding that he set those inside free, showing mind-boggling naivety — these were real asylum seekers, all with cases pending.

In the end they stormed the container.

Jumped on the roof, destroyed the banner, demanded a meeting. The asylum seekers had to be evacuated. The protesters then realised these were real asylum seekers and had to question their own activities. When they finally left, Schlingensief raised the ante by putting up an SS slogan that had been used by an FPÖ member: “Loyalty is our Honour.”

In that moment, it was as if Schlingensief reminded everyone that we were watching an art performance and that the real issue was only being represented. It questioned the efficacy of removing a symbol as a political action.

The Left-Right binary looked pathetic. The Right couldn’t take down the sign and government officials taking down an artwork would look pretty stupid. On the other hand, leftist protesters, making insane demands, weren’t effective either. Set the asylum seekers free — for what? Where?

The show wasn’t so much about the asylum seekers. Austria was televised around the world—the theatre was the Austrians, watching each other perform. Whatever happened, Schlingensief incorporated it into the work. That was the fun aspect of it. He didn’t have to rise to the bait or argue that this was a serious piece of political art. He would say: “I’m just repeating what Haider has been saying.”

Kerstin Grassmann, "Kandy" Mamounata Guira, Amando Komi in Christoph Schlingensief's award winning 2010 work Via Intolleranza. Photo: Aino Laberenz.

Slavoj Žižek calls this “radical overidentification”— an artistic position where you critique by overstating, by taking a claim to its absolute extreme to reveal its ugly possibilities.

Please Love Austria was a perfect example — the asylum seekers being forced to learn German, do callisthenics… It’s not as if Austria changed when the project left. That didn’t see the end of the coalition. But it showed how art can be directly involved in events of the day, in a very radical way.

In the book you point out the connection between Schlingensief’s work and the neo-avant-garde of the 1950s. You write about “an art practice that emerges from the social sphere—and that develops out of the active, creative participation of the viewer.”

The comparison with happenings is not wrong — everyday life, spontaneity, experiments. Schlingensief didn’t start something with a blueprint of how it should end, but set it in motion like a wind-up toy, to see where it goes. In Germany he is often considered the inheritor of the legacy of Joseph Beuys. Beuys’ discussions, definitions, ideas—of social sculpture, of an expanded form of art — Schligensief co-opted for his own ideas on an expanded form of theatre. Getting rid of the fourth wall, people leaving the theatre for the streets. That became really clear in 1998, when he ran his own political party in the German election.

Christoph Schlingensief (right), Chance 2000—Vote for Yourself (1998). Photo © Aino Laberenz.

CHANCE 2000—VOTE FOR YOURSELF, 1998

It started off with an event at the Volksbuehne. Schlingensief had a circus performance set up in a tent—the “electoral circus.” But at the same time, he started his own media campaign on national television about Chance 2000 – Vote For Yourself (1998). He was encouraging the disabled and the unemployed to run as political candidates. “None of these people in the Bundestag represent you. The idea that you will be represented by someone else your whole life is ridiculous—you have to prove you exist. Get involved in starting your own campaign.”

He toured Germany in a bus, campaigning non-stop. It wasn’t a completely serious attempt to form a political party. He would say, “Unlike all other politicians running in this election, the only promise I am going to make is that everyone will be bitterly disappointed.” Then he decided that the people who joined the party were too boring, left it and set up the Schlingensief Party. He wouldn’t let those he rejected into his new tent, but after two days they reunited. A very clever German reviewer commented that Schlingensief gave us a short run-through of democracy in a week. Parties, factions, reuniting, splitting up, another leader emerging, and all happening with such a turbulent tempo!

Germany was baffled: vote for yourself? Is he lampooning the election? The party got 30,000 votes. But the idea wasn’t that they would take over the Bundestag, but rather “prove you exist.” In this world, where the only voices we hear are those of rich politicians, who are these faceless unemployed people, apparently numbering six million? He was demanding you make yourselves visible in a world that’s trying to erase you.

There was a lovely offshoot action of Chance 2000. Schlingensief announced that the six million unemployed would join him to jump into a lake, Wolfgangsee, where Helmut Kohl’s villa is, to raise the water level, flood Kohl out and give him cold feet. The police were sent to the village, all sorts of preparations were in place. Schlingensief turned out with about 300 people. But Kohl ‘participated,’ against his will, in a performance. It doesn’t really matter if it did or didn’t happen. People saw the clips, it was national news that there hadn’t been 6 million people, only 300.

Schlingensief really understood the sound-byte world we’re living in—he created a mythology around the work, pretending things would go further than they actually could, and were bigger than they actually were.

How did Schlingensief’s work fit into the German theatre context? I remember when Denise Varney [Theatre Studies, University of Melbourne] showed a clip from Please Love Austria in class there was incredible consternation about whether such an action was legal or not. In Germany, Schlingensief reached the status of a star. He directed an opera for the Bayreuth Wagner festival. He was not living in a live art ghetto, the way one would expect here.

Events such as the one he staged in the election campaign of 1998 made him nationally prominent, while internationally it was Please Love Austria. He became the biggest name in art in Germany. After years of people saying it wasn’t real theatre, the fact that he wasn’t going away and was finally invited to direct Parsifal at the shrine of Wagner in Bayreuth, meant that he was finally accepted. On the other hand, he never became an intendant of a theatre — people didn’t trust him on that level. But after he contracted cancer, when he was only 47, he released a book—his cancer diary, titled Heaven Can’t Be More Beautiful Than Here — and it became a bestseller.

SHOCKED PATIENTS

He started a website, Shocked Patients (www.geschockte-patienten.org). The first thing he found out as a cancer patient is that you lose all autonomy. People start shoving tubes into you, no one talks to you, they talk over you. You are again erased. He created a forum for people diagnosed with terminal diseases, cancer and ALS [amyotropic lateral sclerosis] to write about their experiences, to have their own voice.

He had previously created a performance called Art and Vegetables (2004) at the Volksbuehne, in which, centrestage, was a woman with ALS, in bed, able to write messages by blinking at a computer screen. The woman, Angela Jansen, was quoted in the program, saying, “I’ve got everything I need, it’s just that I can’t move.” He used that as a reference to German society of the time. The woman now became the forum moderator.

It’s not as if he avoided scandal, he sought the media, did things knowing they would provoke a reaction—saying unkind things about Lady Di, for example. But there is also his metaphorical language: “Jump into the lake and give Kohl cold feet,” or relating physical sickness to a social sickness and lethargy.

One of the reasons it’s hard to talk about Schlingensief’s work is because he covers so many forms: happening, performance, theatre, film, activism, politics. It’s hard to sum up his work. One motif is, perhaps, visibility, the other is putting himself in his work. And particularly interesting to me, in these times of complete social inertia — I’m thinking Australia now — is his idea of movement, getting out of torpor and lethargy. He often took to the streets with groups of people. “Move! It doesn’t matter where we’re going. I don’t even need a plan.” No need for direction – you just move. “We’ll figure it out as we go.”

Tara Forrest and Anna Teresa Scheer eds, Art Without Borders, Intellect Books, 2010; www.intellectbooks.co.uk

First published in RealTime issue #103 June-July 2011 pg. 24-25.

Note: I am particularly proud of this article, which is, to my knowledge, the first mention of Christoph Schlingensief in the Australian media, arts or otherwise. Schlingensief is without a doubt one of the most important theatre artists of the 20th century, and the publication of Scheer’s book was an important occasion, not just in Australia, but worldwide.

Anna Teresa was a fantastic interlocutor. I cut my questions down to the bare minimum, giving most of the space to her, to describe the importance and social impact of Schlingensief’s work. Even so, the article ran at twice the word-length commissioned.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Revelling in the now (RW: The Little Con, Dancehouse)

Ryuichi Fujimura, Jonathan Sinatra, Alice Cummins. Video still: Ryuichi Fujimura.

MARTHA GRAHAM WROTE, VERY BEAUTIFULLY, “TO UNDERSTAND DANCE FOR WHAT IT IS, IT IS NECESSARY WE KNOW FROM WHENCE IT COMES AND WHERE IT GOES” (MARTHA GRAHAM, PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS, 1966).

Some theorists, such as André Lepecki, make a big deal out of the melancholy of the dance critic, imbuing the experience of writing about movement with a sense of loss (however unintentionally) that I have always found melodramatic. But the question of remembrance is related to culture, to fashion, to fame, to legacy and as such is more interesting to the critic and to the choreographer than to the dancer. To dance is to revel in the now.

Dance improvisation has to be understood as something very different from finished choreography. Choreography is to movement what a play is to stage presence: a set of directions, located outside particular time and space; universal and thus generic. Says William Forsythe: “The purpose of improvisation is to defeat choreography.” All the arguments made in Performance Studies, in favour of presence over representation, apply.

To witness an improvisational dance performance requires the observer to look beyond the movement itself. It cannot be judged as choreography, because it is deeply unrefined, unedited movement: at best serendipitous, often cacophonous. To watch improvisation is to watch a performer shed layers of performance until, if lucky, we are left with a body moving as if for the first time; a raw and vulnerable, unpredictable life; pure presence. As Paul Romano, one of the Little Con organisers, says, “Improvisation is living amplified.” In that sense, improvisation is more thoroughly dance than any other kind.

At The Little Con special, the audience sits in a cross-shaped line of chairs, dividing the performance space into four rectangles, each with a different ‘curator.’ The one closest to the entrance is animated from the start: Fiona Bryant and Lucy Farmer are engaged in frenzied movement anchored in a recognisable social reality, like over-caffeinated secretaries. At five-minute intervals, other rectangles join in. After an hour, they similarly fade out.

Different quadrants expand on different areas: Bryant and Farmer present a poppy, humorous and very accessible exploration of states under pressure. Tony Yap and his two dancers, on the other hand, explore both ritual movement and voice, using the tools of the Malay shamanistic trance dance tradition: singing on the very border of inarticulation accompanies movement. Peter Fraser, whose background is in Bodyweather, and his three dancers, work strongly as a cohesive team of bodies, splattering across the walls, chairs and floor of their quadrant, but always extraordinarily attuned to each other’s presence. In this wealth of movement around me, literally around me, I am only vaguely aware of what is happening in the last rectangle, occupied by Alice Cummins, practitioner of Body-Mind-Centering®, and collaborators.

As they increase, some collisions are very satisfying: Cummins’ presence electrifies the interrelations of Fraser’s quartet. Some are more disruptive of the precarious balances created. There appear at least glimpses of every pitfall of improvised performance: competition for attention, imitation as a means of achieving a semblance of unity, a certain aloofness as a vehicle for comedy. But interaction is sometimes hilariously consonant: as Tony Yap delivers a long, focused shamanistic gargle of sorts, Fiona Bryant, in a red dress, with scissors and shoulder pads, climbs on a chair and starts screaming in response.

The key to it all is the extraordinarily heightened presence of the performers, and the accordingly sharpened concentration of the audience. Since the movement cannot be predicted, there is no arc to any gesture. Except for the final 15 minutes, the absolute absence of structure creates an experience without horizon. Much of the joy comes from watching audience members respond with great focus to interaction that they cannot anticipate the ending of: two boys slowly leaning to one side of their chairs as Farmer appears to be attempting to walk over them. In another moment, Cummins shifts across the floor, but ends up thoroughly immersed in picking through my frilly skirt.

Only once it is over do we notice that the space has assumed the temperature and humidity of a Turkish bath. It has been an exhausting, exhilarating hour. There is simply no melancholy to this experience, no sense of loss. As Martha Graham elaborates, the dance comes from the depths of man’s inner nature, and inhabits the dancer; when it leaves, it lodges itself in our memory. In The Little Con, this trajectory is revealed on stage from slow start to exhausted end. The mystery of the choreography, a finished thing which appears out of nowhere and is gone, is something quite different from movement that rises like a roar from the core of the dancer, levitates suspended and then slowly closes onto itself. These have been some of the most intensely focused minutes I have had as a performance audience, not unlike trance, or meditation. Who would have thought that our concentration span could be so long?

The Little Con is a monthly dance improvisation organized by a dedicated collective since 2005. It is hosted by Cecil Street Studio, the home of Melbourne’s improvisation community, but has also appeared at Deakin University and elsewhere. Sometimes it is free form, but throughout the year there are special, curated events, such as this one from curator Paul Romano.

The Little Con, curator Paul Romano, performers Emma Bathgate, Brendan O’Connor, Tony Yap, Lucy Farmer, Fiona Bryant, Peter Fraser, Kathleen Doyle, Alexandra Harrison, Jonathan Sinatra, Gretel Taylor, Alice Cummins; Dancehouse, Melbourne, Aug 6, www.thelittlecon.net.au.

First published in RealTime, issue #104, Aug-Sept 2011, e-dition.

Tagged

the mysteries of curation (reviewed, Arts House, season 2/2011 – Aphids, Team MESS, post, Gabrielle Nankivell, Joan Baixas)

Thrashing Without Looking, Aphids. Photo Ponch Hawkes.

INCREASINGLY, I WANT EACH ARTS HOUSE SEASON TO COME WITH A CURATORIAL STATEMENT.

Yes, the art world has, for at least a decade, been engaged in a furious debate about whether curatorship has come to supersede the work of art. Curation, in Anton Vidokle’s much-quoted words, now routinely oversteps the line, becoming a

reinforcement of authorial claims that render artists and artworks merely actors and props for illustrating curatorial concepts. Movement in such a direction runs the serious risk of diminishing the space of art by undermining the agency of its producers: artists (e-flux Journal 16, May, 2010)

.
However, as Alison Croggon has put it elsewhere, without critical reflection on the art of the times, without drawing connections, instead of a culture we will merely have ‘a lot of art.’

While offering much to enjoy this year, Melbourne’s Arts House has so far presented us largely with a lot of art. While I concede that it might understand its role as presentational rather than culture-shaping, as serving the artist rather than imposing a zeitgeist, Arts House is nonetheless the premiere venue for live art in Victoria. It makes programming decisions that shape how this city understands an artform. Its lack of explanation does not diminish its curatorial power—it merely renders it opaque.

Finally, I am unsure whether artists benefit from this silence at all if, as this year, the programming presents works of clashing sensibilities; works that, without proper juxtaposition, appear to negate each other’s propositions, ideas and statements.

By way of example: members of Sydney-based Team MESS introduced two intriguing participatory works, both sitting broadly within the British-inflected tradition of live art in which the unpredictable, artless liveness of the performance event is its chief intriguing ingredient, and art-ness obtained almost exclusively from the framing of the encounter. The first, This Is It, is set up as a press conference for a non-existent film that—judging by the promotional material we are offered—merrily merges an infinitude of clichés of Australian cinema: a moody drama about a childless couple, haunted by suburban malaise and a mysterious dark-skinned stalker. The actors are terrific as diplomatic mouthpieces for the film: some with underlying anxieties (Malcolm Whittaker’s hands almost imperceptibly shaking throughout the evening), some unflappable in their pretty muteness (Kate Randall, perhaps a dumb starlet, but perhaps simply settled into her role as conference eye-candy); and finally Frank Mainoo, explaining that his character is simply “darkness,” “the Other” and “really a plot device more than a character.”

This Is It, Team MESS. Photo Ponch Hawkes.


The format opens up for playful interaction as the event opens for questions invited from the floor. Questions start pouring in: about the reason for including zombies, shooting in 3D, possible sequels, Pasolini influences, interlaced with inquiries into Dara Gill’s directing method and racism. It was thrilling to watch the performers respond to this barrage of challenges, rising to incorporate our flights of fancy while remaining true to the characters and the set-up. “Well,” opined critic Paul Harris, the host of the event, “I’d say it might be a racist movie, but it does not endorse racism.”

The second work was Malcolm Whittaker’s A Lover’s Discourse, a love-letter-writing project for perfect strangers. As any performative dimension is completely absent from this collaborative effort, it presented itself through participants’ personal accounts, followed by attempts to find their correspondents live on Omegle (a kind of chat-roulette; roulette-like, random pairing chat room). Although the event soon became tedious, as one’s recommended daily intake of irony was surpassed, it nonetheless ended with a queue to sign up for further letter writing (and me in it).

Both these works create only tenuous artistic frames around a collaborative exchange between participants who are only vaguely aware of the project’s agenda and in no way prevented from hijacking it. Indeed, the wide margin allowed for creative play is the biggest strength of both projects and much of the enjoyment seems to derive from actively testing the elasticity of the artful boundaries.

By contrast, Thrashing Without Looking, a project bringing together a number of prominent Melbourne-based live artists, divided the audience into two groups: one that assembled a karaoke video from a cryptic menu, and the other, strapped into video goggles (thus watching the event from the camera’s point of view), obediently executed their selection. Participation is the wrong word entirely to describe the audience’s role in this work. It is more accurate to think of us as theatre fodder, disoriented bodies reacting to a confusion of sensory inputs, or choosing through such a short list of options that a randomising script could have easily done the same job. However, the main interest of Thrashing Without Looking is in something else entirely: the old-fashioned blurring of mediated and live experience and the emotional and sensory vulnerability it provokes.

Post’s Who’s the Best? sails through similar waters, although the blurring here is, as usual, between the performers’ real and their performed selves. The technology is not only reduced to the bare bones of theatre (curtains and lights), but even those are wonky: the contest to decide which of the three members is the best is constantly undermined by the stage going about its own business, structuring the banter into a Shakespearean dramatic curve largely on light and sound alone (not dissimilar to Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s NO DICE).

Next to it, Talya Rubin’s Of The Causes of Wonderful Things, a one-woman play that involves a town in the American South, missing children, a private detective and many small props, looks like an archival piece. While Rubin’s is an evocative performance—her ability to shift character is instantaneously mesmerising—there is so much style in the work (the 1940s noir, which has come to replace the Gothic as immediate indicator of macabre) and so little evidence of the concerns present in the rest of the season (liveness, mediation of reality, audience experience) that these qualities all but disappear in context.

I left My Shoes on the Warm Concrete and Stood in the Rain, Gabrielle Nankivell. Photo Ponch Hawkes.


The same could be said for Gabrielle Nankivell’s poetic I Left My Shoes on Warm Concrete and Stood in the Rain. It is a dance work weighed down by dense narration closely collaborating with sound and light (Luke Smiles and Benjamin Cisterne) to create a syncretic image of anxieties and fears plaguing a young woman. While technically impeccable and brilliantly performed, formally it is no more than an introspective dance poem, and it is unclear what prompted its inclusion in this ostensibly live art program.

Finally, what to make of the inclusion of Joan Baixas’ Pregnant Earth? An astonishing work, which incorporates live painting, puppetry and spoken narrative, from one of Spain’s great artists, it was both timeless and not of the moment. It revealed a depth of craft and a relatively independent set of concerns that needed to be somehow brought back into relation with the more fumbling, but fresher, set of local performances we had witnessed immediately prior. Without such a context, Baixas’ delicate and violent narrative, which moved from the burnt National Library of Sarajevo to a puppet that did not like to perform, was both weighty and stupefying.

We have come to expect such radical decontextualisation from mainstream festivals, which in Australia function exclusively as showcase. Indeed, Pregnant Earth would have made perfect sense had it been programmed in the Melbourne International Arts Festival. And yet, if even food and film festivals shape their programs with some subheadings and introductions, how is it possible that suggesting the same to an arts festival has become a hallmark of art sabotage?

Arts House: This Is It, created by Team MESS, performers Frank Mainoo, Natalie Randall, Malcolm Whittaker, Meat Market, Aug 5; A Lover’s Discourse, devised by Malcolm Whittaker, Meat Market, Aug 12; Thrashing Without Looking, creators Martyn Coutts, Elizabeth Dunn, Tristan Meecham, Lara Thoms, Willoh S Weiland, North Melbourne Town Hall, Aug 3-7; Who’s the Best?, devised and performed by post: Zoe Coombs Marr, Mish Grigor, Natalie Rose with Eden Falk, Meat Market, Aug 3-6; Of the Causes of Wonderful Things, writer, deviser, performer Talya Rubin, co-deviser, director Nick James, Meat Market, Aug 11-13; I Left My Shoes on Warm Concrete and Stood in the Rain, text, physical content & performance Gabrielle Nankivell, sound Motion Laboratories – Luke Smiles, design Benjamin Cisterne, North Melbourne Town Hall, Aug 11-13; Pregnant Earth, devisor, performer Joan Baixas, Arts House Meat Market, Melbourne Aug 16-17

First published in RealTime Arts, issue #105, Oct-Nov 2011, pg. 36.

Tagged

from the fears of innocents (reviewed: Adam Wheeler’s It Sounds Silly for Chunky Move)

It Sounds Silly, Chunky Move. Photo Jeff Busby.

ADAM WHEELER’S IT SOUNDS SILLY IS THE FOURTH PRODUCTION IN THE NEXT MOVE, A SERIES OF DANCE PERFORMANCES BY YOUNG CHOREOGRAPHERS, COMMISSIONED AND PRODUCED BY CHUNKY MOVE. AFTER BYRON PERRY AND ANTHONY HAMILTON’S I LIKE THIS, MICHELLE HEAVEN’S DISAGREEABLE OBJECT, AND STEPHANIE LAKE’S MIX TAPE, HERE IS ANOTHER SHORT, DRAMATURGICALLY MODEST WORK.

Next Move productions have so far all been different sorts of ‘dance in a box’ products, armed with extraordinary clarity of vision and purpose, as such being useful as mini dance primers. Positioning It Sounds Silly outdoors, on an important pedestrian nexus point adjacent to Melbourne’s Flinders Street Station, not exceedingly past the peak hour, was therefore a constructive intervention. At its primary level, it made It Sounds Silly work as a particularly astute piece of public art, one that presented a resplendent image of Australian youth back to its people. For every dozen spectators rugged up in the ad-hoc auditorium, there clearly to support a son or daughter performing, at least two office workers or urban joggers stopped in their tracks or looked momentarily over their shoulders, entranced. Robin Fox’s large-scale video installation, Benjamin Cisterne’s equally elaborate lighting and the tangible charm of the 28 young dancers constituted a spectacle that combined simplicity, beauty and innocence as well as sense of community and purpose—as if the city had acquired a very well behaved, underage, open-air disco.

Using as its starting point the dancers’ childhoods, It Sounds Silly builds as a series of images of the strange things the performers believed when they were young. It quickly progresses from humorous (“when I was little, I ate a lot of cheese, because I thought it would make my voice more squeaky”) to linger on the frightening. At one memorable point, the dancers line up from the oldest to the youngest, each introducing themselves and one of their fears. The fear line-up changed between performances, reflecting the dancers’ momentary preoccupations, but a clear pattern was nonetheless established: quick descent from fully formed relationship and identity anxieties of the 20-somethings to more inchoate fears of the younger kids—falling, social embarrassment, monsters under the bed, right down to marrying a woman named Helen if one’s surname is Pellin.

The degree of metaphor varies, from mime-like literalisation, via swaying monsters built of clusters of dancers, to complex compositions teetering on formlessness, in which phantasmagorias of childhood are represented as half-image, half-mood. The latter are the most successful: in their labyrinthine, repetitive, playgroundish, unsurveyable synchronicity, they manage to simultaneously evoke the work of two Flemish masters: Brueghel’s ethnographic figuration and Bosch’s conceptual fantasies. Close up, these semi-trained dancers perform with physical elasticity, imprecision and undeniable freshness—they are predominantly interesting as bodies with strong, unschooled presence. However, from further away, it is possible to appreciate the large-scale intelligence of the stage imagery, and the performance reveals that, just like Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, it is much more than a mere jumble of intriguing detail. Wheeler’s choreography, respectful of the disorientation in time and space native to a child’s worldview, adopts composition rules that are thus properly pre-Copernican.

A certain kind of framing is crucial to the enjoyment of this work. While It Sounds Silly is hardly groundbreaking, it is coherently conceived, intelligently plotted and courageously executed. As a work based on the physical and mental qualities of its young performers, it is rigorously truthful to its material.

Chunky Move, Next Move & SIGNAL: It Sounds Silly, director, choreographer Adam Wheeler, multimedia designer Robin Fox, lighting Benjamin Cisterne, sound Alisdair Macindoe, costumes Benjamin Hancock, SIGNAL, Flinders Walk, Melbourne, August 19-20

First published in RealTime Arts, issue #105, Oct-Nov 2011, pg. 16.

Tagged