Category Archives: essays

‘How to tell the difference between a good play and a poor one’ in seven easy scenes

I just found something extremely merry-making.

Looking through my old, unsorted writing archives for a text I couldn’t find, I instead came across a gem of a project, something I had totally forgotten about.

In 2010, Aden Rolfe asked me to write something on playwrighting for the Emerging Writers Festival Reader, vol.2, which he was editing that year. Aden wanted something experimental and visually interesting. I thought it was a great idea.

So I wrote a sort of… I wrote something-like-a-play, about something-like-playwrighting – but stay with me here – except that during this time I was neighbours with Black Lung, and was regularly having dinner on their roof and discussing the physical limits of playwrighting with Thomas Henning. And so the article/play came out as a fairly demented piece.

I have no idea what the poor Emerging Writers, who bought the Reader, thought about it: whether they understood any of it, whether it even made sense to them. But Aden was happy, and I was extremely pleased with myself. At the time, I was a) too busy with finishing my Honours Thesis to really self-promote, and b) thought of it as tasteless and boorish. Consequently, I don’t think anyone knows about this piece! Even I had forgotten! That is, until I accidentally found it on my computer today, and spent the 2 minutes it takes to read in a fit of giggles.

For historical record, here it is. It is an embedded PDF, because the formating, you will soon notice, is important.

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It has arrived: a review in pictures (The Lifted Brow)

The postman brought it on Saturday.

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It is colourful.

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It has beautiful design.

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And me inside!

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It’s printed on paper (paper!).

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It folds in the middle (folds!).

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It’s a column.

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A regular column.

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On theatre.

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And life.

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On theatre and life. And love, and sex, and friendship, and everything around theatre.

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I am so proud.

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The Conversation: Sex, rape and role models – how women in comedy perform

Adrienne Truscott (MICF)

Adrienne Truscott (MICF)

Two performance artists in this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF) – the UK’s Bryony Kimmings and American Adrienne Truscott – have a certain flavour of humour: it’s the knowing, self-deprecating humour of the culturally dispossessed, of survivors and victims. And yes, they’re both women.

Asking For It: A One-Lady Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy and Little Else! is Adrienne Truscott’s stand-up show about rape. In it, Truscott counters the stated prerogative of male comedians to tell rape jokes with a confronting routine in which she relentlessly does the same.

Her wit spares neither them, nor hip-hop artists rapping about date rape, nor Republican politicians expounding on “legitimate rape”, nor men in the audience.

Truscott also gets to explain why animal analogies are inadequate through progeny-eating gerbils. It is a bracing, uncomfortable, rewarding show. Is it funny, though? That depends on how you look at it.

The topic of “women in comedy” is endlessly controversial. Where are the women? Are there enough of them? Are women even funny?

The latter is apparently such a valid question that it has been regularly asked, with a straight face, by The Guardian, Huffington Post, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and possibly every other major media publication.

British-American author Christopher Hitchens famously stated in Vanity Fair in 2007: they are not. Those that were funny, he conceded, were mostly “hefty or dykey or Jewish,” therefore practically men themselves.

Coming to this question from a performance studies viewpoint – as opposed to being an expert in stand-up comedy like Hitchens – the question seems almost otherworldly. Let me explain.

Origins of performance art

In the second half of the 20th century, artists’ interest in real time, real space, real human bodies, real human presence and real human experience resulted in the development of what we call “performance art”: art inextricably linked to the artist physically producing it.

Marina Abramović, The Artist Is Present, 2010. (Andrew Russeth)

Marina Abramović, The Artist Is Present, 2010. (Andrew Russeth)

The practice originated in the visual arts scene of 1950s and 1960s America. In Europe, slightly later, it became known simply as “performance”, while in the UK, once it reached theatre artists in the 1980s and 1990s, it became known as “live art” (from art historian RoseLee Goldberg’s seminal history of performance art).

Performance art encompasses a wide range of practices but the two people that defined the term, almost to the point of cliche, are Japanese artist Yoko Ono and Serbian-born artist Marina Abramović. In the 1960s and 1970s, they let the presence of their own body make the artistic statement: Ono letting the spectators cut up her clothing in Cut Piece (1965); Ono and Lennon protesting the Vietnam War in a bed-in (1969); Abramović letting gallery visitors use various sharp objects, knives and a gun on her body in Rhythm 0 (1974); or leaning into a bow and arrow in Rest Energy (1980).

Performance art allowed feminist female artists to effectively challenge that standard object of representation in art – the female body. A living, breathing, talking, reacting woman could subvert, challenge, deconstruct the idealised notion of women as passive objects of beauty and desire. She could challenge the audience with her realness, and raise such taboo issues as menstruation, ageing, or sexual identity. The history of female art and the history of performance art are inextricably intertwined.

The vocabulary of performance developed by female artists emphasised solo performance, a strong element of autobiography or personal experience, veiled social critique, and interaction with the audience. Sort of like comedy, you see, apart from not being funny.

Except that it often is. It is no wonder that many women in this year’s MICF are performance artists, not career comediennes – the impulse behind these two forms is similar, and so is their flavour of humour. As Bryony Kimmings said last year in the London Evening Standard:

Women are funnier because we suffer more.

Consider Marina Abramović’s video work, in which she manically brushes her hair for 50 minutes, repeating the titular phrase, “Art must be beautiful. Artist must be beautiful”. If you don’t hear the sarcasm, you’re missing the point of the work. It is the same flavour of barbed sarcasm that Adrienne Truscott uses when she opens her comedy show with a bona fide rape joke, and stands in front of us naked from the waist down.

The vulnerability of their bodies is an angry statement, but this angry vulnerability is almost defining of women’s life. It does not preclude humour.

Bryony Kimmings

This strategy of escalating the sexualisation of the female body until it is funny also appears in Bryony Kimmings’ Sex Idiot at MICF where she performs a long interpretive dance sequence that mimics sexual intercourse.

Bryonny Kimmings in Sex Idiot. (MICF)

Bryonny Kimmings in Sex Idiot. (MICF)

Sex Idiot is an autobiographical journey through Kimmings’ relationship history while she is trying to inform previous partners of her positive STI test. It has that familiar emotional tone of self-deprecation, melancholy and wise acceptance – again, tone less akin to a mating call than to cotton-picking songs of American slaves.

It is also funny, outrageously so. But it is an emotionally complex humour: as Kimmings creates ever more hilarious performance artworks to honour each one of her previous relationships, we laugh at her disappointments, her poor choices, her wasted opportunities, her misapplied bravado. It is a journey that ends rewardingly, in rich introspection.

 

But the most extraordinary feminist performance currently showing in Melbourne is Credible Likeable Superstar Rolemodel, also created by Kimmings. Not officially a part of the Comedy Festival, but showing at Theatre Works as part of Festival of Live Art (FOLA).

It is a joint endeavour between Kimmings and her 11-year-old niece Taylor, in which they try to develop an appropriate role-model for tween girls. The show is emotionally hard-hitting in unexpected ways. It juxtaposes Taylor’s innocent preteen imagination with Kimmings’ adult protectiveness and cynicism, and it is sometimes very funny, and sometimes heart-wrenching.

Nothing like a dry treatise in sexualisation of children, it left everyone in the audience sobbing quite unashamedly. It is a powerful example of how the emotional nuance of feminist performance can deliver a deeply felt social analysis.

Australian academic Germaine Greer famously accused female artists of exhibitionism and narcissism. This is not so different from accusing women comics of only talking about vaginas and men. Vanity Fair may be right to say that, until very recently, all female comedy could be divided into two camps: self-deprecating or men-hating. But, to some extent, this should be a self-resolving problem.

As Gloria Steinem pointed out, feminism is inextricably related to telling stories women can recognise as being about themselves.

When talking about rape, promiscuous women and the sexualisation of children stops being a rebellious act, feminist performance will naturally move on.

 

Bryony Kimmings Sex Idiot runs until April 5.

Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model runs until April 6.

Adrienne Truscott’s Asking for It: A One-Lady Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy and Little Else! runs until April 20.

This article was first published in The Conversation on 3 April 2014, and is here reproduced under the Creative Commons Licence, more for my own archival purposes than anything else.

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Adelaide Festival (somewhat overdue)

Dear reader,

At the beginning of March, I went to Adelaide Festival as a member of the Guardian Australia team, and I spent six or seven intense days writing, interviewing, podcasting, and occasionally eating and sleeping. It was a wonderful, and very worthwhile experience. During these few days, I produced a miraculous amount of writing.

I reviewed Adelaide Festival shows:
- Sadeh 21, by Batsheva Dance Company, one of the best performance works I’ve since in my entire life. Like all best dance, it was both indescribable and sublime.
- The Seagull, by State Theatre Company, which was unfortunately very poorly made. I felt cornered by this production, which I could not rate very highly, and I wondered why it was included in the Festival program – it couldn’t compete with the high calibre of international work. The Seagull is such an important play for the history of acting: not just because Chekhov is famous for extremely nuanced naturalism, but also because Stanislavsky practically developed his famed ‘method’ (you know, like ‘method’ acting?) while directing the first serious premiere of The Seagull. To this day, Moscow Art Theatre has a seagull in its emblem to mark the importance of this play to its artistic project. So, you cannot stage this play with imprecise acting, with a lack of nuance. There are playwrights and plays in which very careful naturalistic acting is not that important: Brecht, for example; expressionists; Moliere; even Beckett. But Chekhov dies on stage if the acting is not fine. If you take nuance out of Chekhov, there is nothing left to talk about.
- Blackout, by Stone/Castro Project. I love physical theatre, but it requires extremely well-rounded performers, trained both in movement and acting. This work was more ambitious, I felt, than many of the performers in its big cast could do. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it, and it was worth our while, because a highly ambitious work that doesn’t quite fulfill its promise is almost always more interesting than a successful work of modest ambition.
- Continuum, by Australian String Quartet. This was a really great experience, because 1) both the program and ASQ were amazing, 2) I probably appreciated it beyond the average because I just very rarely get to attend classical music recitals these days, 3) I never ever review classical music, and 4) I realised I do actually know a thing or two about it.

At Adelaide Fringe, I saw:
- Glory Box, by Finucane & Smith. I find Moira Finucane and Jackie Smith’s bizarre burlesque a bit hit-and-miss. They are such an unavoidable presence in Melbourne, so definitive of alternative burlesque here, that one by necessity sees a lot of their work, and it’s uneven both in concept and in execution. But this one worked perfectly for me. Perhaps because I had just returned from Western Europe, and was a bit fatigued by the world in which women with armpit hair are inconceivable, it just felt great to experience a terrifying striptease in which milk and cornflakes became horror props, a diva in a dress with a sequined vagina pattern, and similar over-the-top feminine self-expression. It was genuinely cathartic. (As I get older, and I put less and less effort in not looking like a boy – because I naturally look like a boy – the more I genuinely enjoy silly femininity. Perhaps because I feel less oppressed by it? Who knows.)
- Run Girl Run, by Grit Theatre, which I thought was simple, but clever, but simple. In Australia, live art and performance basically happen in Sydney, which has a rich living performance culture centred around the university programs and Performance Space. Melbourne has never had that. As a result, ‘live art’ and ‘performance’ in Melbourne tends to be made by artists basically trained in theatre, not specifically in performance. The works often seem a bit naive, a bit unaware of the history of the form, their own artistic context. This was definitely one such work. Nonetheless, it was good. But simple.

I interviewed:
- Ohad Naharin of Batsheva Dance Company. I thought Naharin would be a stern and scary person, because I’ve found his choreographies cerebral and abstract – but he was genuinely one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. I was so taken by his description of his work. Dancers who get to train with Batsheva Dance Company are very, very lucky people (I think).
- Alexander Devriendt of Ontroerend Goed. The interview overran by 2 hours, I bummed cigarettes off Alexander, we were talking about how to make a theatre show about love, I told him how abused I feel about O.G.’s show ‘Internal’… It was a slightly insane process, but I was very glad to have a chance to chat with one of my biggest idols of contemporary theatre. I am a huge fan of Ontroerend Goed, and it was amazing to be able to quiz Devriendt on his process, motivations, and ideas.
- Robert Lepage, of himself. I had such a good time talking to Lepage, who has such an interesting mind – I mean, we were talking about the birth of existentialism, the origin of theatre in communion, about urban sprawl… – that I really wanted to revisit his work, which I had often found maximalist, spread rather thinly. I am now looking forward to seeing his works with a better insight into the man that he is.

On the podcast, you can hear me:
- on episode foud, discussing Batsheva’s Sadeh21, and
- on episode five, interviewing Sharon Draper from the Australian String Quartet, and summarising my experience of the whole festival.

And I also did a video interview with Paolo Castro, with Bill Code, but you can’t see or hear me, I am just there.

Durational Blogging

In a very unusual turn of events, almost exactly 5 hours from now, I will be one of the bloggers that will come together, united by the forces of Exeunt Magazine and Forced Entertainment, to critically and bloggingly respond to the live streaming (on the internet) of Forced Entertainment’s 6-hour performance And on the thousandth night….

Which means: Forced Ent will be performing, in Lisbon, for six hours. Six of us will be blogging, in Melbourne, London and Berlin, for six hours. The result (what result?, the process!) can be followed here, here and here.

But first I will try to catch a few hours’ sleep. Good night!

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Theatre criticism in Australia: what is actually going on?, with some stats

After my last post, on the closing of Theatre Notes and on Australian theatre criticism more generally, I have been thinking more, rather than less, about theatre criticism in Australia.

What I hoped would be a productive discussion with Alison Croggon and Cameron Woodhead turned into an extremely unproductive discussion about who the alpha-critic in town is, and I remembered (from the far, faraway Berlin) that it has been like that for a long time. Cameron attacking Alison. Alison replying back. I don’t know what happens in other cities, but this is the major story in Melbourne, as far as criticism goes. Meanwhile, the entire job definition (not a profession – it’s not a profession) of theatre criticism is slowly disappearing in Australia, attacked by shrinking word counts, diminishing pay-per-word, folding newspapers, amalgamating arts desks, the proliferation of websites that pay little to nothing, and the total collapse of quality on a general level, across artforms, making it very hard for a lot of young people to even know what good criticism should look like. And the senior figures in the profession – or rather, the senior figure in the profession, since Alison is no longer a critic, and there is only one local newspaper – appears to be majorly concerned only about furthering a professional stoush, mistaking it for something personal. There is something both scary and absurd about it, like sweatshop seamstresses fighting for the preferences of the boss, instead of organising into a union. Meanwhile, there is a new generation of young people coming up, wanting to be proper, good critics, people like Jane Howard, to whom we have a certain responsibility: to at least detect the problems within criticism, and inform people, if not exactly to solve them.

I was also starting to wonder if I was right in my assessment of how criticism seems to currently work, since Cameron Woodhead called me ‘dangerously wrong’, but nothing more specific. So I spent the better part of my evening on an impromptu spreadsheet spree, compiling – in a completely unscientific manner – as much data on as many critics in Australia as I could think of and research. (It is entirely unscientific, I repeat, but I didn’t get a research grant for this, I spent a few hours googling people and inquiring.)

And I realise I should have been more specific in my classification of critics as ‘falling between the cracks of disciplines’ and ‘having no relevant training’ in theatre. Both is true to some extent, but not simultaneously. Two groups exist, but don’t actually seem to overlap very much. Of the 48 critics I managed to look up (mostly Melbourne and Sydney, with a whole batch from Adelaide because Jane answered a few questions I asked), there were 16 with confirmed relevant training (in performance, theatre, or drama – I excluded degrees in film, philosophy, geography, and similar), and 20 with relevant practical experience (as playwrights, actors, dramaturgs, directors, or scholars). There was a very high degree of overlap between these two, but only half (10/22) also wrote for mainstream media. And of the 38 who wrote for the mainstream media, almost all were employed as arts journalists, not simply critics – meaning they were doing all kinds of odd journalistic jobs (but not meaning they were working full-time, nor that they had job security – this I simply don’t know). AND, of the 33 employed as arts journalists, only 7 had a relevant degree, and a partially-overlapping 11 a relevant artistic practice.

I hope you understand that these are SUPER-unreliable numbers, but there is currently no data on the Australian critics. There is no representative body, no union, no club, no professional organisation, no transparency, and no real insight into what work conditions are normal or not. I was making ad hoc decisions on what to consider what. But still, it seems reasonable to take from this that there is, indeed, a total lack of overlap between two kinds of critics: those with theatre training, who have either a scholarly or an artistic practice, and review on the side (they do indeed exist); and those who review for the mainstream media, and who are employed as arts journalists. The troubling bit is this: all arts journalists in this country are currently facing pretty bleak job prospects; and the critics with theatre training are largely reviewing for non-mainstream media, and I suspect (based on what I know of that landscape) that they’re not getting paid much, or at all, for their critical work.

In fact, the more I was tweaking my spreadsheet, the more clear it appeared that NOBODY in the country was earning their keep exclusively from theatre criticism; that only a few were living solely from writing (usually a combination of criticism, arts journalism, and editorial work); and that the vast, vast majority seemed to have many very oddly combined jobs. In fact, the rising question seemed to be: does anyone earn anything from criticism, and, if so, what share of their total income? And then, while shooting off questions to people, I spoke to two young critics, who both expressed hope to become more ‘senior’ and more full-time in the coming year. And I suddenly realised that they don’t know. Nobody has told them. Just like I didn’t know, because nobody had told me. *

*EDIT/CORRECTION: When I say ‘nobody’, I mean ‘two’. Following an email exchange with Chris Boyd, I realise I need to correct myself on one thing: there are critics who work only as critics. Chris Boyd is one, and has been one for a very long time. Cameron Woodhead is another. They both write the occasional feature, but otherwise write only criticism. (The complication here is that Cameron reviews books as well. I am thinking that perhaps shouldn’t count…) Unfortunately, only these two critics, out of my pool of 48, had anything approaching this ratio of theatre criticism to other work. It seemed like a very low number, so I went all glib and said ‘NOBODY’. It was technically incorrect. Apologies, Chris and Cameron, and apologies, dear reader.

The best overview of what is happening to the profession of criticism in Australia has been coming from other disciplines – because every kind of criticism in Australia has the same problems; indeed, Australian criticism is one big problem in itself. Andrew Ramadge, in an insightful article about the music street press in Australia (the most common kind of criticism that any young Australian will encounter), writes: “The facts are street press pays like shit, discourages creativity and walks a fine line between editorial and advertorial. Quality journalism or criticism that appears in its pages owes more to the uphill battle constantly fought by staff than to the model itself.” Gideon Heigh, in a piece published 2 years ago, blames the “sheer dullness and inexpertise” of the Australian book reviewing on the familiar set of problems: capsule reviews, no pay, getting staff journalists to review books. Lucinda Strahan found that 97-98% of arts journalism in a sample of Melbourne newspapers carried public relations activity. While Strahan didn’t find too much of a problem with that – in her words, arts journalism is different from normal journalism in that it’s partisan and supportive – that is sort of a problem of its own kind: an arts journalist isn’t really a journalist. Ben Eltham, probably the best journalist for both arts and policy in Australia, summarised the economic reality of art criticism really neatly:

For most arts writers, a gig at a daily newspaper is an unachievable dream. The struggling freelancers, which is most of us, have to make do with street press coverage for $40 a pop, or internet copy, which might not pay much better. Several years back I wrote about contemporary music for the worthy-but-impoverished Mess + Noise. Most articles received a remuneration of $10. There are quality critics such as Mel Campbell out there who still write a lot of their copy for peanuts. If you can pay the rent as an arts writer or critic in this country, you’re among a lucky handful. Small wonder, then, that the people who end up writing about arts and culture do it for the love. They’d be pretty stupid if they did if for the money.

I think it would be really useful to find out, first, what actually goes on in criticism in Australia: in terms of pay, workload, work conditions, the kind of people attracted to the job, how long they last, what makes them stay or quit, etc. We know this kind of information for artists, because Australia Council actually researches artists. But nobody has bothered with arts journalists or critics yet. And how are we supposed to make proposals, if we don’t know what is going on right now…?

In this situation, it is simply absurd to fight for power among us. The question of who reviews for The Age or The Australian is becoming slightly ludicrous, because those positions are rapidly losing their prestige. First, the reviews they get to write are increasingly insulting to a critic: short, tiny, simple, and ever more often of musicals. Second, there is less and less certainty that those positions won’t simply vanish in the next few years.

And then it really won’t matter, who the last person on top was.

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An obituary to Theatre Notes, and perhaps to criticism

I was enormously sad when Alison Croggon announced the closure of Theatre Notes, her theatre review blog. I have, in fact, gone through all the stages of grieving (denial, negotiation, etc), but I never thought I would feel like writing something special about Theatre Notes here. I have sent my messages privately, it has affected me personally, I didn’t feel this to be a public occasion. Not until it turned out that, just perhaps, the only obituary to come in print, in Australia, might be in The Age. This I thought an unusually mean-spirited salute. Or, rather, the point is not so much that Cameron Woodhead, the theatre critic for The Age, presented a critical overview of Alison Croggon’s, but that, enumerating his points of disagreement with her style and taste, Cameroon took up the precious space that could have better been spent on more (I say ‘more’ because there is some) impassionate critical analysis of what problem Theatre Notes had temporarily solved, and why it was so important.

The impact that TN has had on the Australian theatre sector has been unoverstatably enormous: a personal blog, run for passion and not profit, covering local theatre in the Melbourne area, by a poet and writer (and former journalist and newspaper critic) gradually became the single most important theatre publication in Australia. This is why Malthouse Theatre threw Alison a party. This is why condolences and goodbyes have been pouring in on TN. This is why Barrie Kosky, an Australian theatre director and now the intendant of Die Komische Oper in Berlin, sent a personal note all the way from Germany. The closure of TN leaves an absence in the Australian theatre sector that her readers from overseas may not immediately presuppose. And it is worth considering how and why this has happened.

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On breaking no law – Berlin by bicycle

I have been writing about flash mobs, Erna Omarsdottir, and swingers’ clubs all of this weekend. It has been a particularly nice application of my knowledge of how cities work on the subject matter of theatre, may I say.

But then the publication of this article came through, for Assemble Papers, the first in a series planned about Berlin. Here you can see me employ my purely urbanist pen, and write about this wonderful city purely from the perspective of design, circulation, livability, human rights, and such mundane things.

The whole article is also available after the break, but I suggest you follow the link instead, because Assemble Papers pairs my text with some exquisite photographs by Henrik Kuerschner – and also is a treasure trove of good writing on cities, full stop.

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At home in travel – Dancehouse Diary

Corto Maltese by Norwood, a very talented artist whose work you can admire here.

A short message from a Berlin dancer reminded me that I wrote an essay for Dancehouse Diary, a publication for Dancehouse, independent dance’s home in Melbourne, earlier this year. It was one of the very last bits of work I did before leaving, it got published just after I left, and, in the general confusion of intercontinental travel, I never saw it in print, and completely forgot about it.

But here it is now, reprinted under the break. It’s about travel, a topic very close both to my heart and to my scholarship. Reading my own writing from the past, articles I have completely forgotten about, always feels like reading someone else’s writing, and this one, read from a distance of 6 months, touched me in a strange way. I hope you will also enjoy it.

Continue reading “At home in travel – Dancehouse Diary” »

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At home in travel – Dancehouse Diary

Corto Maltese by Norwood, a very talented artist whose work you can admire here.

A short message from Martin Hansen reminded me that I wrote an essay for Dancehouse Diary, a publication for Dancehouse, independent dance’s home in Melbourne, earlier this year. It was one of the very last bits of work I did before leaving, it got published just after I left, and, in the general confusion of intercontinental travel, I never saw it in print, and completely forgot about it.

But here it is now, reprinted under the break. It’s about travel, a topic very close both to my heart and to my scholarship. Reading my own writing from the past, articles I have completely forgotten about, always feels like reading someone else’s writing, and this one, read from a distance of 6 months, touched me in a strange way. I hope you will also enjoy it.

Continue reading “At home in travel – Dancehouse Diary” »

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