Category Archives: RealTime

theatre at the limits (reviewed: Theatertreffen 2012, namely: John Gabriel Borkman)

John Gabriel Borkman, Vegard Vinge, Ida Müller and Trond Reinholdtsen.
© photo William Minke.

THEATERTREFFEN (THEATRE MEETING) IS NO ORDINARY THEATRE FESTIVAL. EVERY YEAR, A JURY OF CRITICS SELECTS 10 BEST PRODUCTIONS IN THE GERMAN LANGUAGE (FROM AROUND 400 NEW PRODUCTIONS FROM GERMANY, AUSTRIA AND SWITZERLAND). IT IS THE OLYMPIC EVENT OF GERMAN-SPEAKING THEATRE.

Since German theatre culture is perhaps the most robust in the world, attending Theatertreffen is a special treat. However, it was an unexpectedly ambiguous experience: high in standard, but surprisingly unsurprising.

Theatertreffen showcases an engaged, innovative, provocative theatre culture’s mainstream—large city theatres with ensembles, repertoires, bureaucracies—not performance art, live art or anything truly wacky. It is director-driven, conceptually sound, courageous, but still ‘theatre theatre.’ To the outside eye, the Theatertreffen experience is perched funnily somewhere between Kunstenfestivaldesarts and whatever a festival of Australian state theatre companies would look like: simultaneously bold, lavish and predictable. After watching the 10 plays repeat each other’s affectations, the experience started to look increasingly like a long joke on director’s theatre.

The Theatertreffen blog number-crunched the tropes and found: 9/10 plays addressed the audience directly; 7/10 involved shouting where it was not logically needed; 6/10 used film, and 7/10 microphones; 5/10 featured some form of nudity; 4/10 real children; 3/10 puppets or animal costumes; 3/10 running water; 3/10 had actors attack the set with paint; 3/10 were extravagantly long (www.theatertreffen-blog.de/tt12/allgemeines/theatric-o-meter/).

A sense of a transgressive folklore transpired, one in which nudity, multimedia, breaking of the fourth wall and self-reflection have long become convention—but also one with unexpected blind spots. I did not anticipate that Theater Bonn’s Ein Volksfiend (Ibsen’s Enemy of the People) would generate so much buzz just for casting a Middle-Eastern actor in the main role. Similarly puzzling was the excitement over Münchner Kammerspiele casting a woman in the role of Macbeth. The way Volksbühne’s Die [s]panische Fliege was singled out simply for being a comedy was alarming, to say the least. Additionally, there was a tendency among both the public and the press to term many works as ‘installations,’ merely, it appeared, because of the absence of set changes. The folklore, progressive or not, seemed to be in a rut.

There was much quality, but not much surprise. Münchner Kammerspiele’s Cleansed/Crave/4.48 Psychosis was a delicate and clean work, revealing the progression of Sarah Kane’s writing from narrative excess to introspective monologue, but also her constant return to a small set of obsessions: torture, desire, love. Thalia Theatre’s Faust I+II was a self-reflexive but good-spirited, storm through every gimmick of post-dramatic theatre, complete with a theoretical lecture on the significance of it all (a woman in gala dress announced: “Good evening. My name is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. This work of mine, Faust, is a pinnacle of German literature. We know that today.”) International Institute of Political Murder re-staged an hour of Rwanda’s genocide-proselytising, shock-jock radio program in Hate Radio, an effective work in the classical tradition of political theatre.

john gabriel borkman

John Gabriel Borkman, Vegard Vinge, Ida Müller and Trond Reinholdtsen.
© photo William Minke.

However, the one work that towered above the rest was the 12-hour production of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman by Vegard Vinge, Ida Müller and Trond Reinholdtsen, a work of such admirable excess and courage that this review will now devote itself to it entirely. All of Berlin tried to get a ticket for what Twitter termed “9/11 of theatre—there is no way back.” Borkman was unlike anything I expect to see again soon, and its singularity more than made up for the homogeneity of the rest of Theatertreffen.

It was, unsurprisingly, a bloody, gory, fanciful Ibsen text reduced to a few key phrases, guilty of almost every cliché listed above. An unrushed, postmodernist improvisation around a few key themes of Ibsen’s text (sexual repression, Oedipal complex, inter-generational violence, middle-class shame). Alienation was employed to the extreme: the set, a two-storey bourgeois house, was fully furnished with two-dimensional, cardboard furniture. All sounds were pre-recorded and amplified to cartoon-like effect. Performers in full grotesque costume and masks moved like large wooden dolls, miming imprecisely to dialogue wired through the speakers (mouthed live by the director in the back of the auditorium, as it gradually became clear).

This was Ibsen as Artaud-meets-South-Park. Where Ibsen’s Gunhild and Ella Borkman have an understated verbal tussle for the affections of young Erhart Borkman, Vinge’s sisters instead engage in a prolonged, puppet-limbed physical fight, throwing cardboard armchairs and grandfather clocks at each other to exaggerated sound effects.

But infantile it ultimately wasn’t. Borkman relied on the expectation of a theatre situation, as opposed to the more flexible durational performance, to discipline audience behaviour and thus focus our attention. We sat, dear reader, in orderly theatre rows, for 12 hours, leaving only for food, water and toilet, and rushing back in to see where the performance had gone. And it went everywhere. The initial anti-realistic excess had both ample time and drive to grow whichever way it found space, with the unpredictable, fluid energy of extended improvisation.

Despite the frequent promises to the contrary, I have never seen true chaos in the theatre, not until Borkman. Twitter buzzed with accounts of what new events had happened on each night. Stage fights turned into prop fights with the audience. The fourth wall was bricked up (taking 40 minutes to complete). An interminable “casting for Münchner Kammerspiele” turned into an army of actor-zombies being led by the director to storm the auditorium. (Afterwards, while washing stage blood off ourselves in the toilets, we witnessed an annoyed critic loudly demanding to have her expensive skirt cleaned by the theatre company.) Referencing the number-counting scene from Kane’s Cleansed, Vinge counted for hours, to many thousands, with occasional interludes into decimals. The set was repeatedly damaged. Some audience members were kidnapped. The Volksbühne security was on patrol, sounding alarms more than once. Amid the chaos, however, were moments of technical and narrative beauty: Erhart playing a computer game made entirely of moving cardboard sticks; a lifesize, flying 2-D helicopter; the drawing room which came off the house and sailed away like a raft.

German audiences are customarily prepared to engage, but Borkman built an exceptionally free rapport with its audience. We threw pieces of the set back at the performers. We freely snapped photos with our smartphones. We brought in beer and energy drinks. We walked around, peering into back spaces, moved seats, organised drinks and food delivery. Dozens of people outside waited for hours for seats to be resold. Around the 11th hour, Vinge threw packets of crisps at us, which we shared in a brotherly fashion, having by now become a settled community. After so many hours together, sitting among plastic cups, in sweaty heat, this was less a theatre than a party situation. What I had until now only read about—theatre as communion—came to life, surprisingly, serendipitously, as Borkman used every technique of durational performance, but barred the audience from the usual cool, detached comforts of such performances: the right to stand, walk around, leave.

Twelve hours in, after all the technicians had gone home, and only a video screen and Vinge were left on stage (groaning: “This is not over! I will not leave!”), the bleary-eyed audience finally stood up and applauded—until the very fact of applause became the end in itself, allowing us to tear ourselves from our seats and go home. It was 4am, and we were elated, exhausted and smelly. It was like leaving a techno party: an arts event we co-made, not simply witnessed, an arts event that had physically exhausted us. It revealed that the modes of engagement of classical theatre survive nowadays perhaps more in music events than in contemporary theatre.

Borkman was certainly the most tweeted, discussed and written about of all the Theatertreffen performances. While a distinct heir to German Regietheater, its pure excess made it slip out of grasp of analysis—apart from underlining the ecstatic, collective nature of the experience, critics have all resorted to simple, albeit incredulous, summaries. Whether it represents the future of theatre is still hard to say, if only because 12 hours can only be an exceptional investment of time. But, as Declan Greene, my guest at Theatertreffen, said months later, having finished his tour of the European theatre festivals, Borkman is by far the most exciting theatre work of the year.

Theatertreffen 2012: Münchner Kammerspiele, Gesäubert/Gier/4.48 Psychose, director Johan Simons, Haus der Berliner Festspiele, May 4-5; Thalia Theater, Faust I+II, director Nicolas Stemann, Haus der Berliner Festspiele, May 12-13; International Institute of Political Murder, Hate Radio, script, direction Milo Rau, Hebbel am Ufer HAU 2, May 16-18; John Gabriel Borkman, directors Vegard Vinge, Ida Müller, Trond Reinholdtsen, Völksbühne im Prater, May 5-19; Theatertreffen, Berlin, Msy 4-21, www.berlinerfestspiele.de

First published in RealTime issue #110 Aug-Sept 2012 pg. 17. All rights reserved.

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filmic, theatrical polyphony (reviewed: Katie Mitchell’s Fräulein Julie for the Schaubühne, Berlin)

KATIE MITCHELL’S ELEGANT TREATMENT OF STRINDBERG’S MISS JULIE INTERVENES IN THE TEXT IN ONLY TWO, EASILY SUMMARISABLE WAYS: IT PUTS KRISTIN, THE SERVANT WIFE, TO THE CENTRE OF THE NARRATIVE, AND IT REDUCES THE STAGE TO MATERIAL FOR A FILM.

Tilman Strauss, Jule Böwe, Fräulein Julie. Photo Stephen Cummiskey.

We theatre audiences have by now seen hundreds of cameras on stage, following actors, projecting detail onto large screens, adding fleshy detail to the clean, distant clockwork of well-rehearsed theatre. If theatre is so often employed as metaphor, it is because the well-oiled automatism of stage business so naturally projects a deathly, telescopic inevitability. The reason the camera is there—was there, before it became a cliché—was perhaps to simultaneously remind us of the mortality of everyone and everything on stage, and aestheticise it further, beyond touch. The intimacy of zoom and the alienation of the screen. If theatre is a metaphor for society, then video certainly stands for exploitation.

Jule Böwe. Photo Stephen Cummiskey

Katie Mitchell’s video-heavy Fräulein Julie revolves around all these meanings, but to a nobler purpose. In a perfect copy of a 19th century house, dressed in era-appropriate costumes, followed by five cameras and an army of technicians, the actors perform not so much theatre as a live film, in meticulously recorded fragments, which only come together into a meaningful whole on the large central screen. Sound is recorded on stage, but separately: a cellist for the music, a table crammed with quotidian objects is a simple sound desk for incidental sounds, recording booths side-stage for voice. A simple meat-preparing scene splices live footage of two actors performing simultaneously in different corners of the set: one for the face, another for the hands; the clattering of pots comes from the sound desk—and so it continues for 85 minutes. The stage is an unrelenting symphony of small gestures, a dizzying machine.

The film, contrastingly, is slow, atmospheric with diffuse lighting and mellow music. It could easily be Bergman, or Sally Potter—or a BBC costume drama. Only a few lines of Strindberg’s original dialogue remain, in the corners of our attention. We overhear Jean and Julie’s aggressive flirtation together with Kristin, as she walks in and out of the kitchen, doing her chores, helping Jean, becoming aware, then slowly overcome by anxiety.

Tilman Strauss. Photo Stephen Cummiskey.

The weakest in the erotic triangle, economically and socially disadvantaged, mute and inexpressive, Kristin remains a silent observer throughout the play—but Mitchell generously makes room for her subjectivity. Kristin’s interior monologue—fragments of Inger Christensen’s incantatory poetry—drowns out Strindberg’s battle of the sexes. Kristin’s inner world is brittle but wild, un-intellectual but given to great poetic beauty. Without resorting to excess (hysteria, violence, death), Mitchell sympathetically portrays the powerlessness of a servant woman within patriarchy. The combination of on-stage fret and on-screen disquietude, of relentless physical work and mute anxiety, builds into an immensely compelling portrait of a human being crushed by societal forces. Kristin is oppressed through her work, her marriage, her sex, her lack of education, her inability to react or even critically analyse the events. The tension is not just between theatre and cinema as forms—but between the social and the psychological landscape of the work.

Mitchell’s interpretation is almost too easily analysable: faithful to Strindberg’s attention to socio-economic detail, offering a feminist-Marxist critique via the tried-and-tested assortment of distanciating tools. But the predictability of a thoroughly coherent dramaturgy is countered by the mesmerising, sensuous polyphony of a work unfolding, like a madrigal, on two planes simultaneously: one social realist, another experimental. The overall effect is delicate and masterful, political and poetic, formalist but passionate. A treat.

Fräulein Julie, after August Strindberg, adaptation Katie Mitchell, direction Katie Mitchell, Leo Warner, translation, performers Jule Böwe, Luise Wolfram, Tilman Strauß, dramaturgy Maja Zade; Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, Berlin, in repertoire.

First published in RealTime issue #110 Aug-Sept 2012, web e-dition .

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Cultural policy and the arts

Save Live Music in Melbourne - a petition with 22,000 signatures calling for the the delinking of live music and “high risk” licencing conditions, delivered to the Victorian Government, April 7. Photo: www.carbiewarbie.com, with thanks.

IT IS A COMFORTING THOUGHT THAT AUSTRALIANS ARE GREAT AT ENTREPRENEURSHIP AND SMALL-SCALE INNOVATION, BUT LET ME SUGGEST ONE THING WE DO EXTREMELY BADLY: LONG-TERM AND LARGE-SCALE STRATEGIC PLANNING.

IF SUSPICION OF GOVERNMENT INTERVENTION IS RIFE, IT MUST BE BECAUSE WE HAVE VIRTUALLY NO EXAMPLES OF A WELL-THOUGHT-THROUGH, AMBITIOUS AND SUCCESSFUL STRATEGIC INTERVENTION. FOR EVERY INNOVATIVE ECO-BUILDING AND LANEWAY FESTIVAL, WE HAVE A FAILING PUBLIC TRANSPORT NETWORK OR A FORGOTTEN CARBON EMISSIONS SCHEME.

One-person innovation has traditionally been the domain of artists — this is the thinking behind many a ‘creative industries’ policy. The corollary is that artists are perceived as situated outside large systems (ministries, policy frameworks) as subcultural rebels, creating on the geographical, economic and social margins, needing no infrastructural support for their ephemeral creations.

Yet, looking at Australian arts in urban terms, another picture emerges. My research finds almost every arts venue in Melbourne since 1991 clustering in loose clouds around public transport, state art centres and educational facilities, and moving around to avoid the worst of the real estate boom—in music, design and performing arts alike. It is tempting to attribute artistic success solely to individual genius, but there is in fact cultural infrastructure in place, which includes schools, low rents and central locations, on which every artist relies, and this infrastructure is what cultural policy can begin to protect.

the importance of breeding places


It is common in artspeak to talk about defunding artistically irrelevant institutions, as Gavin Findlay does, but it is actually the uncertain funding of institutions that emerges as a bigger problem. For small- and medium-sized companies, flagship buildings to perform in and independent programming venues are a vital link to peers, critics and audiences. Convinced of art’s ephemerality, we forget the importance of ‘breeding places’: spaces and events that yield exposure, attract audiences, house archives, provide education and build social centres for the fleeting world of the arts. They serve their role best when their location and program times are unchanging and predictable—because then they can become meeting points, exchange points, networking points.

When we speak of the ‘independent’ artist, we sometimes forget how much artists depend on each other. Our few remaining theatre archives, the only memory-keepers we have, are tied to institutions with longevity (STC, Dancehouse, arts centres, state libraries); while VCA, Dancehouse or La Mama in Victoria, or Performance Space and TINA in NSW, are actual incubators of ‘scenes’ (social capital, an aesthetic, training), ensuring continuity to the arts. We can myopically boast a long list of important places and events that have ceased operating, from Pram Factory to the Green Mill Dance Project. Our lack of regard for ‘breeding places’ is best exemplified by the treatment of Performance Space, possibly the most important space for contemporary arts in Australia. A living incubator of innovation since the 1980s, having nurtured dozens of our most important performers, it has still not been recognised as a cultural flagship, let alone endowed with a permanent space of its own or operational autonomy within CarriageWorks.

The arts can and do punch back — but only if the issue can be sold in more than artistic terms. As I’m writing this, Victoria’s liquor licensing laws are being tweaked to save The Tote, a ramshackle music venue, from closure. Politicians were more worried about the voting preferences of the 200,000 protesters than the cultural significance of The Tote, granted; but the 200,000 saw The Tote as an indispensable part of Melbourne’s culture, not a den for a handful on society’s margins.

This hasn’t come out of nowhere: at least since Espy, the iconic music pub in St Kilda, was threatened with closure in 1997, live music has been promoted as a key part of Melbourne’s ‘cultural’ specificity. However, there must be a better way to protect cultural incubators than with rallies.

culture as a given

For many arts practitioners, the debate on the national cultural policy may look suspiciously like yet another thing to complicate already-fuzzy KPIs — but it would be unwise to limit the discussion to arts funding, because it is about more than that. To admit to a ‘culture’ is to say that there are things that we do that are important and worth protecting, because they make us who we are, regardless of their economic, health or social outcomes. In a sense it is irrelevant whether ‘culture’ includes media (as in Germany), is defined as “anything that stimulates closeness” (as in Croatia) or is left undefined (as in many European countries that nonetheless have robust cultural policies). It is primarily a principle of protection.

Artists should understand the power of words. At the moment, ‘economy’ is one of the powerful ones. Being good or bad for the economy, vaguely defined, is argument enough to defend or shelve a policy. Agreeing that we have a ‘culture’ would allow a whole new string of arguments to be made and, with due respect to David Throsby, defend the arts not on the grounds of its goodness for the economy, community or health, but simply as important for our culture.

Of course, arts policy in Australia already assumes ‘culture’: our funding of opera is otherwise inexplicable. But let me give you a sense of what else ‘culture’ might protect: in the 1990s Amsterdam initiated Broedplaats (“Breeding Places”), a squat protection policy, recognising them as incubators of creativity. “No Culture Without Subculture” was the mayor’s rallying cry. Formation of ‘alternative cultural centres’ is common throughout Europe, with a kind of light heritage overlay protecting use, rather than the form, of a building. Palach, in Croatia, has been an alternative music venue/gallery/café/performance space since 1968. It has had its dull phases, of course, but a new generation of bright young things inevitably emerged, taking over the same central location and benefiting from access to facilities, a ready-made audience and previous generations of artists. Similarly, the Save the Espy campaign in Melbourne could not rely on existing state laws to protect the beloved music pub: it didn’t qualify in terms of architectural, community or social heritage. After a prolonged fight, Espy was ultimately saved in 2003 because the local council managed to install sufficient protection on the grounds of local ‘cultural’ significance.

Save Live Music in Melbourne (SLAM) poster.

cutting across policy areas

Another intervention that only national cultural policy can achieve is the nurturing of systems, interventions that cut across policy areas and require departmental collaboration on the federal level. Many have been picked up in the submissions to Peter Garrett’s cultural policy discussion website: simplification of artist work visas, greater support for regional and overseas touring (having no national culture, Australia has no sustained cultural diplomacy either). To this I would add improvements to arts education, understanding the importance of subcultures and integration of arts institutions into the urban fabric—giving them centrality, advertising, public transport. What was the point of investing millions in CarriageWorks, if it is still sitting next to an underdeveloped train station, in a dark street, untouched by a single useful bus line? A comparatively cheap intervention into public transport would have quadrupled the returns on the enormous investment. Instead, one of Sydney’s most central performance venues manages to remain hidden to most of its population.

But what I would like to see most is some meaningful form of social security for artists. In most countries with ‘culture’, artists benefit from tax exemptions and reductions, access to free health insurance and pension funds, and different forms of income support that usually don’t require active job seeking. It is a measure that gives artists some modest existential certainties, but it’s also an intervention that the Australia Council for the Arts cannot initiate on its own.

art without culture…?

Judging from the way we mangle our strategic policies across the board, there is no reason to assume Garrett’s national cultural policy will get everything right. But defining ‘culture’ as an intangible, but protectable and nurturable good is the first step towards building systems, structures and strategies that ensure longevity for what we’ve got. We need culture if we want to remember, and be remembered ourselves; if we want our art to matter. Without ‘culture’, we’d have no culture wars, true, but also no values, meaning, sense. Without culture, nothing differentiates the arts from any other unprofitable industry. And without culture, there is literally no subculture.

Jana Perkovic is working at the University of Melbourne on an ARC-funded research project titled “Planning the Creative City”, studying the geographical clustering of independent arts in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, and the relationship between arts policy, demographics and urban planning. She writes for RealTime on contemporary dance and performance in Melbourne and Europe.

First published in RealTime, issue #97, June-July 2010, pg. 10.

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minus signs (reviewed: Artshouse season 01/2010: works by Rotozaza; Mem Morrison Company; Helen Cole; Acrobat; Scattered Tacks)

Silvertree & Gellman, Scattered Tacks. Photo: Alicia Ardern.

THE NEXT DECADE IN THEATRE AND CONTEMPORARY PERFORMANCE WILL BE A DECADE OF PHENOMENA, NOT OF SIGNS, OF EXPERIENCING RATHER THAN READING PERFORMANCE. THE FIRST ‘SEMESTER’ OF THE ARTS HOUSE 2010 PROGRAM COULD BE NEATLY DIVIDED IN TWO PARTS: AUSTRALIAN CONTEMPORARY CIRCUS AND UK-BASED RELATIONAL PERFORMANCE.

The latter (where the audience become performers and co-creators) is a backlash against 20 years of over-mediatised postmodern theatre. These new works are theatre minus stage, performance minus performers and spectacle minus the spectacular. The audience experience is the event itself: tactile, immediate, immersive, anti-ironic. The semiotic component is minimal, sometimes altogether absent, as the performance exists mainly in the mind of the spectator. It appears, perhaps, as our era abandons questions of meaning and engages with amplified possibilities of doing. It’s almost like a direct answer to Deleuze’s dream of the new non-representational theatre, in which “we experience pure forces, dynamic lines in space which act without intermediary upon the spirit.” And although tested by performance-makers both here (bettybooke, Panther) and elsewhere (Rimini Protokoll), the UK, building on its rich variety of live art, is something of a leader.

This form is too young to have encountered much meaningful criticism in Australia, but every form quickly accumulates knowledge. While I don’t think everything we have seen at Arts House could be called successful, the failures are just as interesting, like the results of an experiment.

Take Rotozaza. Their two shows, Etiquette and Wondermart, promised a new form of expression, ‘autoteatro,’ but delivered a half-hearted combination of pomo referentiality and demanding, mediatised interactivity. Both are no more than voices inside a headset, giving instructions to a single audience member. Wondermart is a walk through a(ny) supermarket. Etiquette is 30 minutes in a café, in which you and another audience member perform an encounter, a conversation from Jean Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie, the final scene from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and much else—sometimes by talking to each other, sometimes moving figurines on the chess board in front of you.

Wondermart, Rotozaza. Photo: Ant Hampton.

While very engaging in those few moments when the narration matches what’s happening in space (such as when theories of shopper behaviour are confirmed by innocent bystanders in the supermarket), most of both shows consisted of a series of mundane and tiring little tasks. Despite the interactive pretences, they were not so much an experience for one audience member as a performance by one audience member, with the concomitant stage anxiety—even if nobody was watching. The problem was not just that many aspects of the situation cannot be sufficiently controlled by the audience-performer (my noisy supermarket trolley forbade me from following shoppers as instructed; or the concentration required to both quickly deliver lines and hear your partner-in-dialogue). Rotozaza underestimate our anxiety not to let the performance down: a compulsive need to please the dictatorial voice inside the headphones by performing everything right.

.Mem Morrison, Ringside. Photo: National Museum of Singapore/Chris P.

If Rotozaza forgot how unpleasant structured events can be, Mem Morrison went all the way and staged the worst aspects of a wedding ceremony in Ringside. Its entire conceptual spine is the sense of alienation, monotony, meaninglessness and loneliness one feels at a collective ritual. The performance starts before it starts — audience groups are arranged into family photos, well-dressed and carnation-studded as per instructions—and seated around one long table. An infinite number of black-clad women, both attendants, family and brides-to-be, deliver food and crockery. Amidst the flurry Morrison is the only male, unhappy, confused, 12 years old, jokingly told it’s his turn next, sometimes playing with a Superman toy and sometimes MC-ing with his shoe instead of a microphone.

Ringside’s aspirations are sky-high, but the performance never manages to reveal much of its topical menagerie: ethnicity, gender, tradition, multiculturalism are signposted rather than explored or experienced. Morrison’s entire text is delivered through headphones, creating a mediatised distance that in 2010, after 20 years of screens onstage, is as déjà-vu as it is genuinely disengaging. There is a paradox within Ringside: it purports to bring forth an aspect of Turkish culture, but the distanciation intrinsic to the method condemns it as facile. The experience is ultimately of witnessing a whining 12-year-old, loudly airing his discontent at being dragged to a family event.

Helen Cole’s Collecting Fireworks, on the other hand, a performance archive and an archive-performance, is as simple as it is brilliant. A genuine one-on-one performance (a dark room, a single armchair, recorded voices describing their favourite performance works, followed by recording one’s own contribution), it exemplifies the opening possibilities of this new form: no stage, no performers, but a deeply meaningful experience. I suspect the end result will be a genuinely valuable archive of performance projects, as we are encouraged to remember not only the details of these works, but also the effect they had on us.

The reasons the two local circus performances were on the whole much more successful are complex: Australia’s long tradition of contemporary circus and Melbourne’s close acquaintance with both the form and the artists are not the least important. If with relational performance, imported from an emerging artistic ecology overseas, we occasionally felt both short-changed and ignorant, with circus we could comfortably feel at the world’s cutting edge.

Propaganda, Acrobat. Photo: Ponch Hawkes.

Acrobat’s long-awaited new work, Propaganda, points to the long tradition of circus used as Soviet agitprop, educational art dreamt up by Lenin in 1919 as “the true art of the people.” The company’s take is both ironic and deeply earnest, and it takes weeks of confusion before concluding that, yes, their open endorsement of cycling, eating veggies and gardening nude was serious. The tongue is in cheek, yes, when spouses Jo Lancaster and Simon Yates heroically kiss in the grand finale, centrally framed to the tune of Advance Australia Fair like the ideal Man and Woman in social-realist art. But it is a very slight joke indeed.

The specificity of circus could be defined as the pendular motion between crude and dangerous reality and the illusion of spectacle: relying on physical strength more than on representational techniques (it is impossible to just ‘act’ a trapeze trick), it can never completely remove the real from the stage. Acrobat’s previous (and better) work — titled smaller, poorer, cheaper — created tension by opening up the spectacle to reveal the hidden extent of the real: social stereotypes and obligations, physical strain, illness. Propaganda foregrounds circus as this family’s life: from the two children pottering around to the unmistakable tenderness between Lancaster and Yates and the heart-on-sleeve honesty of the beliefs they propagate. The dramaturgical incongruence between the ironic self-consciousness of the Soviet theme, with its inevitably negative undercurrent, and the performers’ trademark lack of pretence, remained the least fortunate aspect of the work. From the message to the magnificent skills on display, everything else was flawless.

Scattered Tacks, by Skye and Aelx Gellman and Terri Cat Silvertree, stripped away spectacle to reveal the essence of circus: awe. Circus is a naturally postdramatic form: its narrative arc fragmented, aware of its own performativity (what Muller called “the potentially dying body onstage”) and constantly anxious about the irruption of reality on stage. Scattered Tacks is raw circus, naked: at times it felt like an austere essay in thrill. It revealed that the rhythm of audience suspense and relief hinges less on the grand drama of leaps and tricks and more on visceral awareness of the subtle dangers and pain involved. Eating an onion, climbing barefoot on rough-edged metal cylinders, overworking an already fatigued body—these were the acts that left the audience breathless. Yet they also achieve poignant beauty. The Gellmans and Silvertree bring Australian circus, traditionally rough and bawdy, closer to its conceptual and elegant French sibling, but in a way that is absolutely authentic.

Australia offers a good vantage point from which to observe the human being. Visiting Europe recently, it struck me how dense the semantics of the European theatre are in comparison. Performing bodies there are acculturated and heavy under the many layers of interpretation, history, meaning. The body here, on the other hand, easily overpowers the thin semiotics of Australian culture, emerging strong, bold and without adjectives, without intermediary. Body as phenomenon, not as signifier. It will be interesting to observe how the emerging interest in theatre as presence, rather than representation of meaning, unravels—and how much this country will participate in this trend. In this season it’s circus, one of the oldest forms of performance, that emerges as the more successful. The relational performance works only rarely overcame the trap of referentiality.

Arts House: Rotozaza, Etiquette, Wondermart, co-directors Silvia Mercuriali and Ant Hampton, Arts House and around Melbourne; Mar 16–April 3; Mem Morrison Company, Ringside, writer, director, concept, performance Mem Morrison, sound & music composition Andy Pink, design Stefi Orazi, North Melbourne Town Hall, March 17-21; Helen Cole, Collecting Fireworks, director Helen Cole, technical consultant Alex Bradley, North Melbourne Town Hall, March 17-19; Acrobat, Propaganda, conceived and performed by Simon Yates and Jo Lancaster, also featuring Grover or Fidel Lancaster-Cole, Meat Market, March 27-April 3; Silvertree and Gellman, Scattered Tacks, created and performed by Terri Cat Silvertree, Alex Gellmann, Skye Gellmann, Arts House, Meat Market, Melbourne, March 16-21.

First published in RealTime, issue #97, June-July 2010, pg. 33.

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The pre-cognitive alternative (reviewed: Les Ballets C de la B’s Out of Context – For Pina; Needcompany’s The Ballad of Ricky and Ronny)

Out of Context—For Pina, Les Ballets C de la B. Photo: Chris Van der Burght.

IT IS PERHAPS IRONIC, AND PERHAPS TRAGIC, 20 YEARS INTO A POST-IDEOLOGICAL ERA, IN WHICH CHOICE-LED CONSUMERISM HAS REMAINED THE SOLE SURVIVING ETHOS, THAT ART IS INCREASINGLY PREOCCUPIED WITH THE QUESTION OF THE STANDARDISATION OF HUMAN EXPERIENCE. WHAT SHOULD HAVE DISAPPEARED WITH THE SOVIET UNION SEEMS, ON THE CONTRARY, ALL-PERVASIVE.

From architect Rem Koolhaas’ notion of the “generic city” to theorist Fredric Jameson’s understanding of how postmodernity empties time of causal progression, analysis across disciplines returns to the idea that all this variation of screen sizes and skirt lengths is just a buzzing distraction from the standardisation of life on all levels, from feelings to social interaction, psychology to geography, to which There Is No Alternative.

Nothing exemplifies this buzzing vacuum better than the flying circus of internationally touring theatre, in which winning formulae and fashionable styles are often tediously replicated across languages and bodies, and all apparent cultural diversity collapses into trendy homogeneity. One such flying circus, Needcompany, is currently touring Europe with a production that interrogates precisely what happens to the human soul in this generic society.

The Ballad of Ricky and Ronny, a collaboration with Anna Sophia Bonnema and Hans Petter Dahl, is the first in a planned trilogy of pop-operas about a disaffected middle-class couple. It is sung entirely in international English, the thin, bland second language of most of the contemporary world, combining the tinniness of Nico and the verbal rhythms of Patti Smith with the drowsy beats of Flaming Lips. Ricky and Ronny once experienced love, idealism, the 1960s. Now, they cannot put a finger on the cause of their despair, as they lack any serious grievance. Instead, they milk their bloodless English, collected from Hollywood movies and pop music, for tired invectives and sentimental clichés. They try to muster stage provocation with bondage-wear and sexual experimentation. And yet they linger on stage in impeccable Euro-clothes, studiously avoiding physical contact, while their unnameable despair coalesces into a phantasm child, an hallucination made out of pink snow and yellow sperm, and they eventually commit a meaningless suicide. To underline just how little pathos The Ballad intends to create, an immaculate French maid sits upstage right throughout the performance, leisurely fiddling with the tech.

The opera is a structural, Zizekian tragedy: Ricky and Ronny are defeated by monster consumerism which satisfies desires before they can even fully form, leaving them in a state of voiceless agitation, or what cultural commentator Mark Fisher would call ‘depressive hedonia.’ Thematically, the work sits in the conventional territory of dramatising cocooning middle-class despair without a cause. Its memory of love that used to redeem draws unlikely associations with Sarah Kane, whose despair is also moored in the deepest belief in love. However, Ricky and Ronny’s anxiety has no shelter throughout the performance, as the work refuses to believe in the metaphorical monsters its protagonists build to outsource their existential angst, much less defeat them in order to bring about any happy ending.

The Ballad of Ricky and Ronny, Needcompany. Photo: Maarten Vanden Abeele.

The problems are threefold: eliminating the poetic aspects in the figuration of the bourgeois ennui does not, by itself, reveal its socio-political structure; The Ballad is no more penetrating a social critique than a conventional zombie flick. Secondly, made entirely out of generic elements, it is one of the most tedious performances I have ever seen, so commonplace through and through that it tends towards invisibility. Finally, there is an annoying solipsism at the heart of a performance that so deeply represents and replicates the very condition it denounces: it appears to have frustrated every Eastern European audience it has encountered, including the one that saw it with me at Eurokaz festival in Croatia. While it must be said that the immaculate staging and the direction of movement build the formal perfection of the piece, I have rarely been so pleased to see an audience rebel against understanding an artwork. For it means that tragic standardisation is not a universal condition, despite all the global English employed to construct the argument.

A new work by another Belgian company, Les Ballets C de la B’s Out of Context — For Pina, approaches the matter from a radically different angle. Alain Platel’s company is among Europe’s most respected, and the new work was showing at Sadler’s Wells for only two nights before rushing back to the festival circuit (it was scheduled at Avignon later in the season). The UK critics were rather sceptical towards a company that meshes vernacular movement with high aspirations (‘fun’ and ‘skill,’ two terms dear to British dance, are quietly sidelined in Platel’s vocabulary), but Out of Context has, in other places, been hailed as their best work yet.

The movement, woven out of the unconscious tics, spasms, hysterical and involuntary gestures that Platel has encountered in his prior work as an orthopedagogue includes pouting, scratching, over-the-top disco dancing, parodic mime and is consciously poor in style, making almost no references to any ‘serious’ dance tradition. Platel has refused to call himself a choreographer; Out of Context is an exquisite choreography nonetheless. Unlike his previous works, it is played on an empty stage, to no programmatic score. Bookmarked by nine dancers entering from the stalls, undressing to their underwear, then dressing and leaving again at the end of the show, it has three clear phases: initial rituals of mating and acquainting with animal sounds in the background evolves into the second phase, in which lines of pop music are thrown around together with exuberant dancing until, in the elegiac third part, the dancers retreat into singularity again. The piece defies description by virtue of sheer over-accumulation: 90 minutes of startlingly original movement with virtually no repetition, on nine different physiques that, even when amassed into synchronicity, preserve individual differences. (The piece is dedicated to Pina Bausch, in recognition of the foundational importance of her psychologically driven strategies for European dance.) Not having any narrative frame allows the audience to experience this decontextualised mass of movement on the level of affect, not cognition, free-associating stage images to deep memories. The result is emotionally penetrating and deliriously enjoyable.

Whereas The Ballad of Ricky and Ronny is a work so deeply illustrative of the nihilistic element within consumer capitalism that it irons itself into a completely inexpressive pancake, Out of Context locks itself within the last bastion of human expression that has escaped the Fordism of soul: the pre-cognitive, the involuntary, the spastic. We could see an eternal, unwinnable race at work, in which ever-shrinking chunks of life are accessed, broken down, conquered and reproduced—perhaps Platel is simply mapping previously inaccessible sides of the human experience. But it is also good, in some fundamental way, to experience a performance that leaves the audience elated rather than crushed.

Needcompany/MaisonDahlBonnema, The Ballad of Ricky and Ronny, authors, performers Anna Sophia Bonnema, Hans Petter Dahl, libretto Bonnema, music Dahl, costume, lighting MaisonDahlBonnema; Eurokaz Festival, Zagreb, June 23-24; Out of Context—For Pina, Les Ballets C de la B, concept, direction Alain Platel, dramaturgy Hildegard De Vuyst, danced & created by Elie Tass, Emile Josse, Hyo Seung Ye, Kaori Ito, Mathieu Desseigne Pavel, Melanie Lomoff, Romeu Runa, Rosalba Torres Guerrero, Ross McCormack; Sadler’s Wells, London, June 17,18

First published in RealTime, issue #98, Aug-Sept 2010, pg. 25.

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shopping for experience (reviewed: a whole bunch of relational/immersive/participatory theatre, including London’s LIFT and BAC’s One-on-One Festival; Rimini Protokoll, Dries Verhoeven)

Life Streaming, Dries Verhoeven. Photo: Maarten van Haaff.

IMMERSIVE, RELATIONAL, PARTICIPATORY, SITE-SPECIFIC… WHATEVER TERM YOU PREFER (AND I PREFER ‘RELATIONAL’, AS THIS IS PRIMARILY A THEATRE OF SOCIAL AND SPATIAL RELATIONS), THIS FORM DOMINATED THE LONDON SUMMER OF 2010. BATTERSEA ARTS CENTRE (BAC) PRESENTED AN ENTIRE FESTIVAL OF ONE-ON-ONE WORKS, WITH OVER THIRTY ONE-MAN-(OR WOMAN)-SHOWS CRAMMED INTO THE OLD BATTERSEA TOWN HALL IN SOUTH LONDON. THE MORE CENTRALLY LOCATED LIFT (LONDON INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF THEATRE) DEDICATED THE LION’S SHARE OF ITS PROGRAM TO EVENTS THAT COULD JUST AS EASILY HAVE BEEN TERMED MASS GAMING, COLLECTIVE SKYPING OR SCAVENGER HUNTS.

At the Barbican, during the same period, You Me Bum Bum Train entered history as their fastest-selling show ever: part theatre, part Thank God You’re Here, it turned each audience member into the protagonist, made to improvise their way through a series of dramatic situations in front of the supporting cast of 200. With so much emphasis on you, the spectator, forgive me if the rest of this article privileges the second-person singular.

one-on-one festival


An immersive event in its own right, One-On-One Festival was possibly its own greatest achievement. The least one could sign up for was a marvellously organised afternoon of mingling through a building crammed with secret one-man wonders, appointment card in hand. The atmosphere was surprisingly welcoming, even festive: performers and spectators crossing paths in the same courtyard and café, recommendations exchanged, friendships commenced, queues spontaneously forming outside the rooms with hidden gems on the strength of on-the-spot word of mouth. Repeatedly diving into a 2-or-3-minute intensely collaborative performance, being in turns swung and shaken, kissed and sung to, frightened or intellectually challenged, by the end of the day one had no personal boundaries left to speak of.

Despite being cumulatively great, One-On-One also demonstrated how quickly an emergent genre can settle on a limited range of solutions. One kind seemed tailored to break through fears of intimacy: Abigail Conway’s On Dancefloors invites you to dance; Emma Benson sings a song with you in Me You Now. Most radically, Adrian Howells gives you a bath in The Pleasure of Being: Washing, Feeding, Holding, while Ansuman Biswas’s more open-ended 2 FREE offers the possibility of engaging with a naked, blindfolded man. However trivial they may sound conceptually, these were some of the most powerful performances in the festival, spoken about in hushed, almost spiritual tones. You found yourself entering these rooms with the same mixture of compulsion and terror with which you might climb into a roller-coaster (and they certainly act as a kind of psycho-social one, including the lag with which you process the experience afterwards). But if theatre is ever genuinely life-changing, it is in the strangely liberating afterglow that follows consensual nudity.

Another, quieter type of performance centred on material reality, and the tactile dimension of the experience generated, not so much inter-personal intimacy as greater understanding of how the world works. Barnaby Stone’s A Little Bit of a Beautiful Thing is a story of a wooden beam, a finely polished slice of which you will receive at the end. In Ray Lee’s Electric, your body becomes a conductor. Another focused on creating a first-person narrative, employing cascades of clever sensory illusions: for the 10 minutes of Just For a Moment, by Three Blind Mice, you have a drink at a pub, lie on the beach, dance Macarena in the world’s most terrible discotheque, witness a fight and have to be walked out of the pub at the end of the night, despite being blindfolded in a single room. Stan’s Café use mirrors, projection, costumes and clever framing to generate a 240-second film noir before your very eyes, with you as the chief villain, in It’s Your Film. While these works were longer, more carefully shaped and satisfied some of that need for dramatic spectacle that drives people into theatres on perfectly lovely summer days, their beauty again seemed to derive chiefly from the promise of intimacy, of being made-to-measure and the soporific pleasures of being touched, rather than from well-executed tricks.

The most accomplished works brought together the cerebral and the felt, offering an encounter while questioning its limitations. Sarah Johns’ Below plays with your perceptions: dragged into a dark room, her performance catches you before you can make sense of where you are. Facing a mirror and a singing girl, your focus shifts abruptly from one detail to another, resulting in a series of mesmerising, well-defined impressions, as if in a film. And of course, towering above the rest, is Ontroerend Goed’s trilogy of brief, but flawless works that boldly question the gullibility of the audience.

As Peggy Phelan writes, theatre has always been a meeting place, always offering the promise of a communion, an exchange—even across the proscenium arch. The relationship between audience and performer is, in her words, “the always already unequal encounter [that] nonetheless summons the hope of reciprocity and equality” (Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, Routledge, 1993). Relational performance is the inevitable end-product of this quest. Yet in it, intimacy emerges not only as a tool and a goal, but as a major concern: can we have it, how, by what means and why do we desire it in the first place? A number of works at BAC traded on the false promise of quick intimacy, and most fell short: after all, the obvious difficulties of building a rapport with the actor in five tightly scripted minutes cannot be overcome just by holding hands. Ontroerend Goed’s Smile Off Your Face, Internal and A Game of You capitalise on this disingenuousness. Internal, in particular, set up as a speed-dating session followed by a sweetly cruel group debrief, builds the illusion of a budding attraction only to break your heart (comparing notes with other viewers is soul-crushing). Yet, for all its oversharing, Internal provides a dose of needed realism in a universe made of caresses. It stands as a reminder that there is no such thing as conveyor-belt romance, no intimacy on a mass scale, and that audiences often give their hearts away too easily.

Best Before, Rimini Protokoll. Photo courtesy: the artists.

lift 2010

The polar opposite of the high-concept One-On-One, LIFT 2010 was a festival with an identity crisis. Rubbing shoulders were weekend events for kids, formalist community theatre and the occasional think piece. Yet here, too, the most interesting works were from the relational family.

Rimini Protokoll’s Best Before is a computer game for the whole audience. Represented by a globular multi-coloured blip, for two hours you live as a proud citizen of Bestland, making personal choices (tertiary education? children? buy a house? own a gun? try heroin?) and participating in collective decision-making (legalise drugs or guns? form an army? welcome immigrants? equal capabilities or a diverse population?). As the game progresses, you reap the fruits of some decisions and suffer the limitations of others, while your range of choices progressively narrows as you age. It is a game of consequences, but also of chance—some blips are randomly wiped out by epidemics and war while, ultimately, the whole population dies of old age. I found the end unexpectedly poignant, realising that there was no final payoff for all my prudent life choices (I had grown old with a big family and plenty of real estate). I suspect the experience varies according to your age and life experience, but also audience demographics.

Bookmarking the game is Rimini Protokoll’s trademark presence of non-performers, or rather ‘reality experts’—in this case, the game designer, a game tester, a lobbyist and a traffic flagger whom the other three would have passed by on their way to work. Their guidance and stories serve both to contextualise gaming in the real world, to relate Bestland to the political choices that Vancouver has faced, and to reconnect our personal choices to non-virtual consequences. The tension between the two aspects of Best Before, which never quite connect, is a productive one, even though I found the four Canadians’ lives infinitely more intriguing than my avatar’s cyber-shenanigans.

The real treat of the festival was Dries Verhoeven’s Life Streaming. The concept is minimal: in a makeshift internet café, each audience member conducts their own video chat with a young person in Sri Lanka. In the interstices of the poetic, but tightly orchestrated structure, filled with pre-prepared text and film and guiding us through such topics as the tsunami, loss and grief, my interlocutor and I manage to insert a real conversation about life, healthcare, the scent of the sea and lying in bed with total strangers. The work keeps the question of its own intent open, incorporating sensorial stimuli to create an exuberant experience not unlike a perfect holiday in South-East Asia, while at the same time allowing for an unusual degree of self-propelling interaction. Consequently, you come away with a real connection to a human being—if you so wish. Like Ontroerend Goed’s trilogy, Life Streaming raises big questions about art, reality and intimacy, but lets you choose your own answers.

to shop or not?


Elinor Fuchs argues that relational theatre is the last step in theatre’s commodification: after the ice-cream in the interval, now we can get ice-cream during the performance. Indeed she terms it “shopping theatre” (The Death of Character: Perspectives on Theater After Modernism, Indiana University Press, 1996) as it can so closely resemble a walk through a department store. It allows us to buy a reproduction of an experience that could not be bought otherwise. The physical set up, finally, is remarkably similar to a brothel—the room, the queue, the illusion of unique relationship.

However, I am not sure I entirely agree. At its worst, relational theatre combines the direst aspects of amusement parks and popular psychology, perhaps. But at its best, it incorporates the most conceptually interesting aspects of drama therapy, while allowing us to see our own experience through a critical prism. It highlights the qualities of everyday life, in all its mundane materiality, without distortion, in ways naturalistic theatre has consistently failed to achieve. Finally, the illusion of intimacy, of giving, which has existed for as long as theatre, can now be scrutinised in genuinely interesting ways. Relational theatre allows the exploration of the encounter between the artist and the spectator, an encounter that may be obviously staged, but is also more frank about its limitations. Once there are really only the two of you, the artifice becomes first disappointing, then bearable and finally, perhaps, genuinely empowering.

One-On-One Festival, Battersea Arts Centre (BAC), July 6-18, London; LIFT 2010: Rimini Protokoll, Best Before, created by Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi, dramaturg Tim Carlson, game design Brady Marks, video design Candelario Andrade, set design Andreas Kahre, sound design Stegan Smulovitz, with Duff Armour, Brady Marks, Ellen Schultz, Bob Williams/Arjan Dhupia, June 30-July 3, Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA); Life Streaming, director Dries Verhoeven, dramaturg Nienke Scholts, technical production Joffrey Kranen, Silk BV, National Theatre, June 23-July 4, LIFT Festival, London, June 23-July 13

First published in RealTime, issue #99, Oct-Nov 2010, pg. 10.

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unheroic love (reviewed: Stephanie Lake’s Mix Tape)

Rennie McDougall, Jorijn Vriesendorp, Mix Tape. Photo: Heidrun Löhr.

AFTER BYRON PERRY, ANTONY HAMILTON AND MICHELLE HEAVEN, STEPHANIE LAKE IS THE FOURTH YOUNG DANCER TO PRESENT A FULL-LENGTH CHOREOGRAPHY UNDER THE AUSPICES OF CHUNKY MOVE IN THEIR NEXT MOVE SERIES. A SPECTACULAR DANCER, LAKE TOO IS AN ARTIST WHO HAS CLOSELY COLLABORATED WITH GIDEON OBARZANEK AND LUCY GUERIN, HAVING OVER THE YEARS CONTRIBUTED TO MANY OF THEIR MOST ACCLAIMED WORKS.

Lake’s previous short works have been charming and soulful miniatures exploring banality: displays of physical affection, emotional reverberations of pop music, everyday language — all important ingredients of Mix Tape, which purports to be a study of love. This is unheroic, unremarkable love, built out of banal language and humdrum gestures (such as, indeed, making a mix tape). Lake builds the work out of three distinct elements: audio recordings of interviews about love, pop songs (spanning Bob Dylan and Joanna Newsom, Caribou and Fleetwood Mac), and the bodies of four dancers (invariably young, slim and petite). The stage is domestic, but minimal: a bookshelf filled with tapes and music players, including an old reel-to-reel, and suitcases full of clothes. The effect is resolutely homey, verging on agoraphobic. It is not merely the setting that is domestic: the performers linger on stage, lying down and changing costume, inhabiting it as their private space.

The movement energetically illustrates some of the conflicting emotions brought up in the accompanying recorded interviews and songs: two couples interlock in intimate embraces, planting small kisses in hidden spots, while at other times bodies are helplessly flung about or confront each other in violent fights. Lake shows great ability to create beauty out of everyday motifs (in particular, she uses the vocabulary of domestic affection to great effect), but the choreography is greatly indebted to Guerin: from tiny but swift hand and facial gestures, through loose and less articulate movements of the torso, down to strong reliance on domestic gadgets as catalysts of choreography, mirroring duets and the predominance of 45-degree spatial relationships. The semi-documentary nature of the work displays the influence of Obarzanek’s methodology, but without his editing discipline.

Most troubling, however, I found the choice of performers. Is it possible to illustrate the possibilities of physical affection on such a narrow range of bodies? The voices in songs and interviews were greatly more varied. I longed to see the complex emotions they expressed developed by wiser, older bodies whose lived experience would allow them to express some of the subtle complexity of long-haul love. The second problem is numerical. Two couples can represent neither the universal exceptionality of a single couple, nor the diversity of a multitude—at best, they seem to represent a parochial range of, say, ‘me and my friends’.

The merely illustrative nature of the choreography rarely pulls the interviews and the songs into focus: as a result, spoken word seems to hold more meaning than it necessarily ought. The individual introspective revelations are skimmed through, and yet the work never builds into a sociological study either. It rambles, rather, remaining charming but fragmentary, its shape never rising above a sort of list of different things we might say about love. It is difficult subject matter, on which everything has been said many times over—including within dance. The dangers of falling into glibness and pure cliché are enormous, and Mix Tape only occasionally avoids these. While Lake’s approach, equally open to sentimentality and to sociology, is intriguing, it requires greater structure and critical distance to succeed.

Chunky Move, Next Move: Mix Tape, direction, choreography Stephanie Lake, performers Sara Black, Rennie McDougall, Timothy Ohl, Jorijn Vriesendorp, lighting design Benjamin Cisterne, Blubottle, sound design Luke Smiles–motion laboratories, costume design Harriet Oxley; Chunky Move Studios, Sept 2-11

First published in RealTime, issue #99, Oct-Nov 2010, pg. 31.

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On the dyingness of things (reviewed: MIAF 2010: Stifters Dinge; David Chesworth’s Richter/Meinhof-Opera; Hotel Pro Forma’s Tomorrow, in a Year)

Stifters Dinge. Photo: Mario Del Curto.

WHAT IS A ROSE BEFORE IT HAS A NAME? WHAT IF OUR ABILITY TO INTERPRET AND INTERVENE, OUR AGENCY TO DECIDE WHAT THINGS ARE, RECEDED AND WE COULD SEE THE WORLD WITHOUT ADJECTIVES, UNMEDIATED BY INTENTION? TO WHAT EXTENT ARE WE MADE IN TURN BY THE WORLD WE THUS CREATE? AND WHAT IS THE AGENCY OF THINGS?

BETWEEN CARNIVAL OF MYSTERIES, HOTEL PRO FORMA, HEINER GOEBBELS’ STIFTERS DINGE, DAVID CHESWORTH’S RICHTER/MEINHOF-OPERA, SOME VAST GROUND ON THE TOPICS OF SYMBOLISATION AND REPRESENTATION WAS COVERED. IT SOUNDS PREPOSTEROUS; BUT THIS IS HOW.

richter/meinhof-opera

David Chesworth’s Richter/Meinhof-Opera was a highly anticipated take on the Red Army Faction’s Ulrike Meinhof. Announced as a 45-minute, pocket performance artwork (opera it wasn’t), it was an even shorter, quieter beast than expected. Tackling a potentially inexhaustible subject with an absolute minimalism of input and effect, it treads that usual fine line between the open-ended and the non-committal. It barely skims the complex story of Meinhof, respected journalist who joined a terrorist organisation, and whose simultaneous canonisation as left-wing martyr and demonization as Communist murderer still divides Germany. The only trace of the other members of the RAF is a record player, playing an Eric Clapton track, exactly as it did when Baader committed suicide in his prison cell. This is a rare instance in which the music goes beyond atmospheric soundscape; the other is a string duet, which mellifluously contrasts with the rest of the work, enhancing its thinness somehow. A few of Meinhof’s best-known quotations are projected onto ACCA’s shard-like walls, while centre-stage stands Gerhard Richter (Hugo Race), who famously painted RAF members’ death portraits in 1988, and was accused of mythologising terrorism.

The intended core of this work is the enormous disjuncture between direct action, advocated by Meinhof (often paraphrasing Brecht), and the indirectness and detachment of representational art, which often gives life to such ideas. The inability of our own cynical, ideologically unconvinced contemporary era to present the full spectrum of Meinhof’s time is another big theme. However, to say that Richter/Meinhof-Opera ‘explores’ them would be to give it excessive credit. Between Richter’s moody, detached canvases, the monochrome photos of the stylish Faction (which overwhelmingly comprised young women) and the occasional discursive duet (the libretto is a slim pastiche of quotations), the myth of RAF is presented as a matter of aestheticising or not; and the issue of direct action as a matter of professional ethics (to identify or not with one’s subject matter). Cold War politics lie forgotten, and ideas are not so much revealed as hinted at.

Even Richter, whose engagement with RAF is the focal interest of the opera, remains shorthand for the generic Artist. Evading all the big questions on this big topic, Richter/Meinhof-Opera feels and looks as if in development, like a sketch for a bigger work.

stifters dinge

Those who work with things (sculptors, architects, furniture makers) are often perplexed by the readiness with which more idealist disciplines (theatre, poetry) turn this material into signs and ideas. The result is frequently naive mystification, or embellishing fetishism: we have all seen signed urinals, soup cans, as well as their less rounded children—from derelict buildings employed as metaphors to artsy tapestries. What makes Heiner Goebbels’ Stifters Dinge so remarkable is that it does none of this, and has its audience enraptured. Its form is sui generis: a peopleless performance, or perhaps just a giant moving contraption. And yet, its workings are magical, for idealists and materialists alike.

The dramaturgy of Stifters Dinge is all in a sequence of apparently unrelated mechanical events: light changes, mechanical actions, sound clips and video projections. These are organised around a host of motifs: principally, the writings of Adalbert Stifter, a 19th century Austrian novelist whose prose is notoriously thickly furnished, upholstered, landscaped. (Literary lore has it that modernisation was already making advances into the order of things, and that 19th century naturalism was a kind of urgent stock taking.) Other motifs are the Renaissance dicovery of geometric perspective (chiefly Paolo Uccello’s paintings), utilitarian traditional music (Greek, Papuan, Colombian), voice recordings of Malcolm X. With technical perfection, the sequence of mechanical events coalesces into a world, all whilst remaining first and foremost mobile matter, without metaphors or superimposed meaning. The work builds into a deeply satisfying and meaningful totality by making us aware precisely of the bottomless materiality of its devices. When dry ice bubbles up in the three shallow water pools, seeing the trick does not stop the entire audience from holding their breath in awe. Stifters Dinge purges the stage of illusion and interpretation, but the ‘things’ that remain are neither threatening nor banal. Rather, they assume almost sacral fullness.

carnival of mysteries

Carnival of Mysteries, conversely, is an image of a carnival world. It has it all: tents, noise, nudity, candy floss, its own (inflated) currency and many short acts of varying skill and engagement. It is as entertaining and uneven as any carnival. It is also no more dramaturgically cohesive, nor exploratory: neither does it try to bring a superior level of artistry to the content, nor interrogate the form (in the vein of One-on-One Festival; RT99, p10). With many times more mini-shows than can be experienced in the allotted two hours, it is a somewhat frenzied experience, lacking the relaxed atmosphere of a fair. But the intensity does not translate into superb artistry, at least not in the fraction of the shows I witnessed. Should we be deconstructing it critically, suspending critical judgement, or witnessing it referentially? If Carnival is the answer, what is the artistic question? Is it a lowbrow event for a highbrow audience, with highbrow performers? Is it a replacement for Spiegeltent, which used to be the place at MIAF for circus, burlesque and other kinds of friendly lowbrow? A ‘carnival but of another kind,’ it is both too close, and once removed.

tomorrow, in a year

Tomorrow, In A Year, Hotel Pro Forma. Photo: Claudi Thyrrestrup.

Hotel Pro Forma’s Tomorrow, In a Year, an ‘electro opera’ about the life and work of Charles Darwin, was the most controversial show of this year’s MIAF (its response coming close to the outrage caused by Liza Lim’s The Navigator in 2008; opera is clearly fraught cultural ground in Melbourne). It is a conceptual work, with no plot to retell. It explores the thematic links between four moments in Darwin’s life—including the death of his daughter (potentially linked to his marriage to a first cousin)—and the implications of his theory . The endless mutability of the natural world, whose laws form us despite our pretended detachment, and whose laws we can never break, is the terrible heart of this work. It opens with potentially bewildering, undifferentiated stage sludge, an image of the original primordial soup of life; it ends as accelerating hydroponic chaos, or perhaps complex order?

The stage imagery is poor: only two planes of horizontal movement, no interaction between the performers, green laser beams and much dry ice. Using botanical drawings and video footage of water, Hiroaki Umeda’s algae-like choreography and the occasional verse about geological time and entombed carcasses, it explores a complete intangible: the fact that the material world is bigger than a human being, that we do not become through it, but are crushed by it.

But unlike Chesworth’s non-committal opera, it is fully exploratory. A note of the Romantic sublime runs through the work, unnoticed by those who bemoan its coldness. It unearths a potential Western counterpoint to the Japanese concept of ‘mono no aware’: the awareness of the dyingness of things, of the essential inability of matter to last. Just as cherry blossoms are less pretty than tragically transient, so is Tomorrow, In a Year not so much beautiful to watch as it is a despairing attempt to grasp cosmic complexity.

In the absence of meaningful stage action, enjoyment of this opera is strongly predicated on appreciating the music, by the Swedish electronic duo The Knife, which forms its narrative, emotional and intellectual core. It is a complex composition of natural and electronic noises, bel canto, house beats, borrowings from Purcell, early polyphony. And yet this collage of pop and found remains staunchly anti-metaphorical, a postmodernist pile of stuff asking to be understood literally: when Kristina Wahlin sings that “epochs collected here,” she is relating a geological fact, not a poetic truth.

While the work has been hailed as showing the future of the operatic form, it seems to succeed largely in musical terms. Visually, it attempts an abstract variation on a nature documentary, with results too reminiscent of late 1990s raves to be genuinely eligible for the label ‘innovation.’ Knowing that cyborgs, virtual reality and Dolly the Sheep were all the rage circa 1998 provides some dramaturgical solace, but does not compensate for Tomorrow, In A Year falling short of its promise.

2010 Melbourne International Arts Festival: Richter/Meinhof-Opera, direction, music, sound design David Chesworth, text David Chesworth (after Tony MacGregor), performers Kate Kendall, Hugo Race, lighting Travis Hodgson; ACCA, Oct 14-16; Stifters Dinge, concept, music, direction Heiner Goebbels; Malthouse, Oct 8-11; Carnival of Mysteries, creators, directors Moira Finucane, Jackie Smith, production design The Sisters Hayes; fortyfivedownstairs, Oct 6-30; Hotel Pro Forma, Tomorrow, In A Day, directors Kirsten Dehlholm, Ralf Richardt Strobech, music The Knife; Arts Centre, Melbourne, Oct 20-23

First published in RealTime, issue #100, Dec-Jan 2010, pg. 10.

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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.

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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.”

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