Category Archives: reviews

Dance Massive 02: inside the audience (reviewed: Lee Serle’s P.O.V.)

P.O.V. presented by Arts House & Lee Serle
Kristy Ayre, P.O.V, Lee Serle
photo Ponch Hawkes

P.O.V., IS, FOR THE MOST PART, VERY SATISFYING TO WATCH. SERLE —ONE OF THOSE DANCERS MELBOURNE KNOWS WELL FROM REGULAR APPEARANCES AT NEXT WAVE AND IN THE WORKS OF LUCY GUERIN INC AND CHUNKY MOVE—DEVELOPED P.O.V IN NEW YORK UNDER THE MENTORSHIP OF TRISHA BROWN, AS A PART OF THE ROLEX MENTOR AND PROTEGE ARTS INITIATIVE.

I have a personal liking for New York contemporary: I adore its rigorous, yet unpretentious simplicity. Across the board, it possesses a humility and matter-of-factness that are equally disarming in Europe and in Australia, and it is somehow able to withstand a cynical as well as a philistine eye. By whittling away all ornament, but never getting too bogged down in illustrating esoteric texts (as has happened in Europe), it is as if the American dancers never quite bush-bashed their way through tradition all the way into a settled, comfortable arrogance, but remained suspended in a state of focused, ambitious play. This approach appears in Melbourne dance in visible traces, through echoes of training and influence, in the works of BalletLab and Luke George. Unavoidably, P.O.V. too has arrived back from the US seeped in Trisha Brown’s aesthetic and ethic, clearly as the work of a young artist shaped heavily by a master builder.

P.O.V. presented by Arts House & Lee Serle
James Andrews, P.O.V, Lee Serle
photo Ponch Hawkes

Serle seats (some of) the audience on 36 swivel stools that dot the stage in orderly intervals. Four dancers—Serle, Lily Paskas, Kristy Ayre, James Andrews—travel between them, through the grid of aisles. It becomes immediately clear that where you sit will determine your experience—I felt a none-too-subtle nudge in my semiotic ribs—and, having arrived too late for a coveted stage seat, I perched on top of the seating bank, getting a nice, rounded overview of the piece. (It is to the show’s credit that every reviewer of P.O.V. so far has specified where they sat.)

There are three distinct parts to the choreography. In the first, the four dancers traverse the space between people in an orderly formation, performing a mesmerising score—very Brown—of simple, pendular movements that gently roll their weight up and down the aisles. At times, the choreography looks like tightly stitched-together pieces of athletic sports, with segments of continuous movement blending into one another in surprising ways: the momentum-building squat of a distance runner morphs into the swirl of the discus or javelin thrower, or into the oblique leap of a high jumper. Sequences keep unfolding instead of halting and turning, the dancers’ formation growing in mathematical complexity, while the spectators swivel their chairs to watch. It looks like the patterns of pedestrians in a city; it also looks like a complex collage of film footage from Olympics documentaries and newsreels. It is utterly beautiful in the way of abstract flows.

P.O.V. presented by Arts House & Lee Serle
Lee Serle, Lily Paskas, P.O.V
photo Ponch Hawkes

In the second part, the dancers step out of performer aloofness and approach the audience members, increasingly intrusively. Some are stared at, some get a surprise massage, one is briefly blindfolded, another has her feet washed, one is shown something on a tablet, some are taken offstage, one is given wine and a chat with all of the dancers. Ayre gives a set of headphones to a woman, takes another set, and performs a little private dance (funny, almost like a parody of a lap dance) to the music only they can hear. Serle repeats this with another audience member, but his dance involves a great deal of animal poses. Paskas stretches herself gently over a man. As audience interaction, this is not so much about letting other people into the performance—there is no ceding of control, ever—as it is about multiplying, unweaving the energy lines between the stage and the audience. The main effect is not for a multitude of spectators to have a meaningful individual experience (they do not), but to complicate the audience focus from a straight phalanx of one-way looks to a knot, a jumble of sight lines with different levels of energy, stress, comfort, feeling of inclusion or exclusion, and amusement.

The second part is in some ways the weakest, because it relies on trivial tropes of audience engagement: singing to them, touching them slightly awkwardly, as well as having conversations designed only to look like conversations from far away. It takes part three to demonstrate that something more has been achieved. The dancers return to their dance, their path through the swivel-stool grid now circular, simplified. Their movements have become smaller, gentler, introverted—and also more twee, wristy: more Lucy Guerin than Trisha Brown—but the most noticeable shift is in how our attention has softened. The barriers separating the dancers from the audience have glaringly thinned, the energy in the room is completely different. Like a street after an incident—a burst pipe, a found pet—has made us all talk to each other.

P.O.V. is clearly an apprentice’s graduating piece. The title sums up its exploratory horizons, and it reproduces Brown’s body language without showing how Serle is a creative mind of his own. Where it deviates, it pulls back in the influences and mannerisms of Obarzanek and Guerin, and chooses easy paths, such as humorous tropes. However, for as long as it is able to resist its own striving to busy itself up with features, for as long as it can stay disciplined and clear-headed, P.O.V. is immensely satisfying.

Dance Massive, Arts House: P.O.V. director, choreographer Lee Serle, performers, collaborators James Andrews, Kristy Ayre, Lily Paskas, Lee Serle, lighting Ben Cisterne, composition, sound design Luke Smiles, set design Lee Serle, costumes Lee Serle, Shio Otani in collaboration with the performers; production management Megafun, North Melbourne Town Hall, March 12-16; http://dancemassive.com.au/

First published in RealTime, Dance Massive special edition, Mar 2013. All rights reserved.

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Dance Massive 04: The Creation of an Affective Community (reviewed: Matthew Day’s Intermission)

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Matthew Day, Intermission
photo Rachel Roberts

MATTHEW DAY IS ALMOST CERTAINLY THE BEST OF A NEW GENERATION OF AUSTRALIAN CHOREOGRAPHERS. HE EXPLODED ONTO THE DANCE LANDSCAPE IN 2010, BRINGING AN ORIGINAL AND FULLY DEVELOPED POETICS SEEMINGLY OUT OF NOWHERE. HIS SERIES OF EXTREMELY SIMPLE, BUT CONCEPTUALLY RIGOROUS WORKS HAS CAPTIVATED THE AUDIENCE, AND AUSTRALIAN DANCE IS ALREADY IMMENSELY RICHER FOR IT.

Intermission is the final part of a trilogy that began with Thousands, in 2010, and continued with Cannibal, in 2011. In each part, Day explored the empathetic effect of absolutely basic movement: first stillness, then pulsating repetition. In Intermission, the focus is on undulating, rhythmic sway. The works are colour-coded: Thousands was gold, Cannibal pure white.

Intermission is black. We enter, one by one, a black box. A human figure is barely visible on a darkened stage: the lights are on us. The lights slowly dim, plunging us into a few minutes of pitch black. When the stage lights up, Day stands still, in casual black clothes: jeans, sneakers, gloves, and masking tape where a line of skin might show between the cuffs.

As James Brown’s soundscape of a single droning, thundering sub-bass line sends pulsating tremors through our bodies, a sound more felt than heard, Day begins to almost imperceptibly rock left to right. His micro-shuffle grows, reaching shoulders, elbows, neck, arms, knees, until kinetic waves are flowing through Day’s entire body. This is not exactly choreography: rather, it is controlled movement. The only betrayal of the performer’s skill and training is in the constancy of rhythm and evenness of gesture: while strenuous, the movement never exhausts the body. The point of these pieces is not to explore endurance or produce exhaustion, but to maintain constancy.

Day’s works do not happen so much on stage as in one’s body as one watches. The real spectacle of these pieces is not in observing and admiring the dancing (rather, moving) body, but in observing how being in the shared space with a moving body affects one’s own. The palpable rhythmic waves of kinetic energy emanating from the dancer, dense and tight and unrelenting, gradually build into very strong tension within one’s own body. A fellow spectator confided that during Thousands (an extremely still, slow piece) he felt an irresistible urge to stand up and do something, anything. Day has said elsewhere that he choreographs energetic exchange between performer and spectator: a choreographic situation that cannot exist without an audience. This is a more technical translation of what I try to describe to members of the general public, while queuing for the auditorium, as “it might upset your digestion.” “Should I not have gulped down my dinner?” asks one, half-jokingly. “That’s right,” I answer, very seriously.

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Matthew Day, Intermission
image James Brown

Intermission, however, is comparatively light on one’s body. The pulsating, wave-like physicality that Day employs creates a light, but literal, hypnosis, a wandering focus, not dissimilar to boredom, but with a liberating lining of calmness. Our feeling of time and spatial proportion blurs into a drifting vagueness of perception. Suddenly, Day has shifted through the space, drawing ever-larger circles, one minute rocking a step at a time. I am light-headed, if not quite dizzy. At one point, I wonder if there is a way to test this effect, like in stage show hypnosis: how many of us would quack if asked? Would that make dramaturgical sense? Our bodies are tense, but there is a relief in the repetition: like jogging or disco dancing, this is a relaxing tension.

Meanwhile, Day’s rocking has morphed multiple times: from a sideways push/pull to a figure-eight arms loop, then back to a simple rocking with his head tilted back; shifts that feel both momentous and imperceptible. As usual, the eye perceives reference where there might be none: a preparation for strenuous activity; the rocking of anxiety or stress; repetitive industrial labour; mystical dancing; the liberating and oppressive capacities of a low-frequency repeat cycle. But Day channels no emotion, just blank focus, a mind merged with motion. When the work ends, it feels like any time at all might have passed.

To fully appreciate Matthew Day’s work, it is necessary to understand just how fundamentally it breaks not simply from modern dance, but from the full canon of modernist thought: the imperative of equating being with movement (not simply forward, but all kinetic acts of purposeful movement), a constant shedding of present for the future, the Cartesian individualism that posits the thinking subject as tragically severed from the world, and what Teresa Brennan (Exhausting Modernity, 2000) calls “the uniform denial of the transmission of affect.” In its small way, by slowing down time and expanding space, by creating an affective community, by rejecting spectacle for co-presence, Intermission is a demonstration of another way of being in the world, of empathetic being together.

Dance Massive, Dancehouse: Intermission, choreographer, performer Matthew Day, dramaturgy Martin del Amo, sound designer James Brown, lighting designer Travis Hodgson; Dancehouse, Melbourne, March 17-19; http://dancemassive.com.au

First published in RealTime, Dance Massive special edition, Mar 2013. All rights reserved.

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Dance Massive 01: suggestive formalism (reviewed: Natalie Abbott’s Physical Fractals)

PHYSICAL FRACTALS presented by Arts House & Natalie Abbott
Natalie Abbott, Sarah Aitken, Physical Fractals
photo Ponch Hawkes

EVER SINCE MODERN DANCE BUILT ITS MANIFESTO ON THE REJECTION OF REALISTIC STORYTELLING, CONTEMPORARY DANCE HAS BEEN A BIT OF A HARD SLOG FOR UNACCUSTOMED AUDIENCES. A DEEPLY ABSTRACT ART—AND NATALIE ABBOTT’S PHYSICAL FRACTALS IS RIGHT UP THERE WITH THE MOST ABSTRACT—CONTEMPORARY DANCE OFTEN HINGES ON A CAPACITY FOR SUGGESTIVENESS AND THE DESIRE TO CULTIVATE A RICH INTERIOR LIFE.

The tenuous ‘truth’ of a dance work is so often buried somewhere between movement and mood, that we all, I would say, need the ability to let our minds wander over the physical performance, if we are to get to its core.

Postmodernism has brought narrative, realism and politics back into dance, but not evenly so. In particular, there is a strand of Australian dance that has furiously resisted all figuration, remained staunchly formalist and—I mean this without reprimand—has privileged mood and atmosphere over concept and narrative. Physical Fractals, the first long-form work by young choreographer Natalie Abbott, sits squarely within this tradition. The work examines how a cross-interference of media stimuli—sound, light and movement—can create a meaningful audience experience. It is deeply formalist in intent, and I am somewhat glad I entered the auditorium without knowing this.

Two young female dancers, Abbott herself and Sarah Aitken, dressed in loose, comfortable black, perform repetitious sequences of simple gestures, gradually drawing intersecting lines within the circular stage. Their movements are uncomplicated but heavy, Haka-like—wide stomping backwards, dangling arms, weighted jumping, running, heavy falling of bodies—with strong, pendular shifts of weight. The choreography emphasises the weightiness of these two (quite lithe) bodies, and creates an effect of empathetic physical exhaustion in the audience, particularly as we watch Abbott and Aitken repeatedly crash to the ground, in the final sequence. Meanwhile, their thumps and stomps are looped, magnified and sent swirling back, building into a powerful echo, as if the two women are single-handedly raising a storm. At one point, the dancers swing microphones on their cords, building a symphony of static. The effect is hypnotic but deep: the heaviness of the performance lodges itself deeply in one’s body.

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Sarah Aitken, Natalie Abbott, Physical Fractals
photo Ponch Hawkes

At its best, Physical Fractals makes us feel the sheer force of these simple movements on the dancers’ bodies. Abbott seems to emphasise weight not purely for sonic effect: repetition of falling, faltering and stooping builds a narrative of physical strain and resilience. It could be easily read as a feminist choreography, but equally as a humanist one (female body has limited significance here). Its dancing bodies are grounded, weighted, imperfectly synced, injurable, far from the superhero flying automata that one still sees. I was reminded acutely of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s early work, particularly Rosas Dans Rosas and Bartók, which wove the same strands of repetition, simple gestures and femininity into something formalist, yet humbly political and life affirming. (There was also an echo to her later work, which explores darkness, movement and silence within similar parameters.) But I kept waiting in vain for this work to use its magnificently realised means towards some higher goal.

Physical Fractals continuously operated on the same plane, neither submerging us under its powerful storm into a meditative enlightenment, nor raising us to a bird’s eye realisation of higher purpose. I could not detect a fractal pattern (a fractal is self-similar, presenting the same complexity of build at different scales: think cauliflower or snowflake). I was waiting for a minimum of philosophical framework, something to gently give meaning to the genuine empathy the work was creating, something between awe and care; I was waiting for Abbott to utilise the powerful spell she had cast on us. It never came, and the work is weaker for its unfulfilled potential than it would have been had it ventured a smaller stake.

For the pure affective stamp it leaves, Physical Fractals is a formally successful work, and Abbott a sensitive and intelligent choreographer. Just as de Keersmaeker’s formalist work created political resonances she had not necessarily had in mind, so was I able to enjoy an interior dialogue about strength, resilience, mysticism and the fourth wave of feminism while hypnotised by this fine choreography. This is not, and cannot be wrong: the figurative emptiness at the heart of contemporary dance requires a suggestible viewer. I cannot escape the impression, however, that I enjoyed Physical Fractals for the wrong and unexpected reasons—against the grain of the author’s intent.

Dance Massive: Physical Fractals, choreographer, director, performer Natalie Abbott, collaborator Rebecca Jensen, performer Sarah Aitken, live sound design Daniel Arnot, dramaturg Matthew Day, lighting Govin Ruben; Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall, March 12-16; http://dancemassive.com.au/

First published in RealTime, Dance Massive special edition, Mar 2013. All rights reserved.

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Schaubühne: The Enemy of the People (not quite a review)

Ein Volksfeind. Photo credits: Arno Declair, 2012.

Something more needs to be written about Thomas Ostermeier’s work, if purely because he has been a formative influence on contemporary Australian theatre. Ostermeier is the major influence on Australia’s two most prominent directors of classics: Benedict Andrews (through his work at Berlin’s Schaubühne), whose Australian productions have replicated the Schaubühne aesthetic (possibly to the point of plagiarism, but then, the question of plagiarism in theatre is a fraught one); and Simon Stone (through the influence of Andrews, but not just). However, I don’t quite have the capacity to do that in this text, which will limit itself to a short list of notes on Ostermeier’s new work, a version of Ibsen’s Ein Volksfeind / The Enemy of the People.

1. THE PLAY
I have seen two productions of Ein Volksfeind in Germany this year (the other was by Theater Bonn at Theatertreffen), and neither quite hit the bull’s eye. On the surface, it is a play written for 2012: a study of greedy capital compromising the common good, and the entire society with it. Dr Thomas Stockmann discovers that the spa baths, the motor of development and prosperity of his small town, are contaminated by the waste from the local tannery, and poisoning, rather than curing its visitors. As he tries to mobilise the public, however, he discovers that everybody has an interest to protect. His brother, the town mayor, is more concerned about the effect on the local economy. Hovstad and Billing, his friends journalists, are eager to break the story until the financing of their paper is threatened. The townspeople don’t want to lose business to the neighbouring towns, which are building their own spas. His own family is uncertain.

However, Ibsen’s analysis of the social ills is so of his time and so particular to him, that the play starts to hiccup just when it seems it might deliver some great insight into the global banking crisis. Ibsen, the great liberal of the 19th century, has Stockmann proclaim that the individual is always superior to the multitude, that this society corrupts, that the truth cannot be the truth of the masses, too easily swayed by demagogues. “A minority may be right; a majority is always wrong.” And –

“…the strongest man in the world is the man who stands most alone.”

But Ibsen is also, constantly, a playwright interested in people shaped by their social vices. Stockmann is a vain man, a stubborn man. His brother an astute politician. His friends journalists, Hovstad and Billing, media opportunists. Only Stockmann’s daughter keeps a clean record of idealism, but this is her low social stakes talking. Like all other Ibsen’s plays, so is this one not really about politics, but about people. It has characters looking for an ethical peace of mind, not for social change.

Continue reading “Schaubühne: The Enemy of the People (not quite a review)” »

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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.

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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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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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