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Review: Here: Where We’ve Always Been

This is a show starting with such clear limitations: it's community theatre; even more, circus. It features a large, non-professional cast. And it is highly issue-driven, all based around, I presume, celebrating the centenary of women's suffrage in Victoria. All these lines drawn on the ground, setting up a fabulous failure.

Women's Circus, to elaborate, was established in 1991, and has developed a reputation for engaging women who survived sexual abuse, assisting them to reclaim their bodies and to build self-esteem in a safe and non-competitive environment. Are you shrieking in terror yet? I am community-minded alright, but the path to bad art is paved with good intentions, self-esteem building, and non-competitive environments.

Instead not: it succeeds. And it does so wonderfully, perhaps, because the lines are so clear, so stubbornly clear right from the beginning. If there is magic in the theatre, it is almost always in a clear limitation transgressed, in something made to disappear, and something else made out of this nothing.

Here: Where We've Always Been is atmospheric theatre, on the one hand, that usual, pan-Australian combination of music, pretty lights, bodies being beautiful. And yet it's thoughtful. It is also political theatre, on the other, the usual combination of everyman's feelings and rights of single individual affirmed and upheld. And yet it's sensual. It is, finally, circus, physical and mute, a triumph of agile bodies, except that, being a large, amateur group of women, with varying degrees of skill, it is not quite a triumph, and not quite a showcase of tricks. In other words, every possible limitation in this show somehow overturns, cancels another limitation, another flaw, making something quite unusual as a result.

Here opens with gentle music rolling over the wooden floorboards, five women cocooned in white hammocks. Trapeze. Some very simple props are employed: crinoline frames, all white. Hand lights. The performance builds into a spectacular group scene, with all of the performers (the program lists 67) engaged in different forms of physical labour, tumbling, partner acrobatics, small hand gestures, a teeming mass of bodies, small groups in unison. Among them, a woman in a while crinoline climbing a little rope ladder, escaping upwards. Singularly effective, light is the most important building block of the theatre of this circus: one switch, and the infernal furnace becomes a cold, dark factory floor. Women get dressed in progressively more complicated costumes, more complicated wire frame dresses, and still climb out of them, passing the skirts on down the rope. A mother is buried, a funeral rite. This intimate world of women, all private pain and small public victories, is drawn visually, on a big red tent with shadows and diffused warm light, in complex adagios and balances, but also in the meta-content: constantly offered help, collaboration, a strong sense of support, friendliness, between the women. Every change of scene is slow, leisurely, it takes its time. Stage hands and performers will wrap up the trapeze, the ropes, the silks, bring out the mats, take them away, and 19th-century laundries and towns and domestic labour all come alive in this group coordination of objects. When, at the end, the chorus of 67 voices sings imprecisely but with a glowing sense of accomplishment, it is closer to the presence of a popular movement than any professional ensemble could ever hope to render.

If the show is so successful, it is because words are used sparingly, and with acute precision: at my mother's funeral, black pebbles spill out of my mouth. They colour all the enormous motion, choreography of circus, which is narrative and emotion, cause and explanation. There is no need to explain circus. There is no need to spell out why we are in awe of a person rolling out of silk knots and stopping before hitting the ground. There is no need to imbue it with tragedy to make us gasp, just like there is no need to give names to characters and characters to plotlines to suggest the meaning of two women rolling in a hamster wheel, keeping each other in gentle control. Balances of two, three, four, six, nine people, human cathedrals of collaboration, do not need it either. All the struggle, grief and joy of human life is present on the circus stage, and this show knows it, and doesn't try to insert drama where drama is unnecessary. Instead, it brings in language as a separate building block, one of memory, hope and anger, and a few historical facts (if there is a hammy-handed moment in the production, it is towards the end, when the issue of suffrage is brought up just a little bit more crudely than necessary).

Instead, all the pain is physically present on stage, in the struggle of bodily knots, the sheer physical effort of climbing, coming down, of balance, of trapeze, of contortions. A story, told in this context, resonates through the body tangles: my mother gave birth to me on the laundry floor. And these bodies, of different age, shape, level of training, are not showing off their sculpted perfection. The circus acts are often imprecisely executed. They are the physical realism of women, of working women.

Nadja Kostich's direction manages to turn every moment of danger into a small triumph, with subtle intelligence. There being no professional circus performers, individual acts of brilliance would be hard to pull off. Instead, Kostich makes full use of the numbers she has at her disposal: almost every act is a coordinated group act, often with rhythmic repetition, making a trembling landscape of circus instead, a different kind of beauty. Collective scenes turning the stage into a factory, into a train station, into a protest, into a city, are breath-taking achievements of choreography. Without professional actors, the delivery of the lines, often muffled by accents and speech impediments, is straight-forward and has that unaffected, shimmering, captivating freshness that only non-actors can have on stage. The total presence in time and space (actors with disabilities, particularly intellectual disabilities, are wonderful bodies to observe on stage for the very same reason). Of all the elements of this show, words are the ones completely freed from the responsibility to deliver emotions. Words, here, are Brechtian almost. I was born here, but my parents came on a boat.

Here is atmosphere with thought, and politics with emotion, physical theatre with humanity, and community theatre with sophistication. All these lines drawn on the ground, and all crossed safely. For what it attempts to do, Here is a remarkable success.

Here: Where We've Always Been. Women's Circus. Directed by Nadja Kostich. Musical director Irine Vela, assistant director/circus choreographer Sara Pheasant, production manager/lighting designer Emma Valente, set and costume designer Marg Horwell, video design Zoe Scoglio, animator Isobel Knowles. Cast and band Women's Circus. Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall, 24-30 November.



This review has appeared on Spark Online.

Dancenorth’s Underground, presented at the Arts House at this strange gap at the tail end of the year, when much of the theatre on offer is perfunctory and much is splendid, itself sits in this gap,being in turns yay and nay.

It opens in an underground station, looking dangerously like Shaun Parker’s This Show is About the People,and proceeds to exercise some very similar muscles. (I haven’t seen Parker’s show, I am basing this on hearsay. The production photos,however, were stunningly alike.) Both Parker and Gavin Webber, the director and choreographer of Underground, had worked with Australian Dance Theatre under Meryl Tankard, and the influence shows. Undergroundis worldly, emotionally mature, and cool. The music is pumpin’; there is gum stuck under the seats, so to speak. This is a dance tribe quite separate from Melbourne’s own Chunky/Guerin clique; there is no space in its manic rhythm for finding one’s inner Isadora. It transpires with Europe, with Pina, with sex and physical violence, everyday clothes and places, everyday emotions. And it’s filled with everyday Australian characters (a business-sleaze, a clueless Asian tourist, a semi-chroming dirtbag, a private-minded book reader), and an everyday,domestic sort of unthreatening torpor.<

The mix grates at times. There are two types of conflicting progression in Underground.First, there is the playful lateral movement from quotidian to magic realism, with a sparkle of stand-alone ideas. The underground station,thus, will be the place where territorial skirmishes slowly escalate into full-blown wars, and looking for a lighter grows into station seats spinning on their axes, a text-messaging girl hanging off them and sliding down. An instance of slasher-film sounds while the Asian girl is revealed to be a martial-arts champion.This is a brainstorming quality present in much local dance, circus and may-I-suggest comedy. Tense Dave,in 2006, was one such inconsequential brainstorm. Yet there is also a detached hipster short-film feel to it. Filling the stage wall-to-fourth-wall with music and motion, varying the tempo to a great simulation of a film switching between slow and fast forward, it is the epitome of the Cool of one Vandekeybus, or the Vice magazine.

On the other hand, though, there are meanderings of humourless Germanic moodiness, a deliberate push for the heavy themes, with the grotesque and the confronting used with some nonchalance. The shift is mirrored in the use of space, which opens up from the tight, rigidly structured underground platform into a loosely defined, dreamy space of trauma, fear, anger and revenge. Interspersing the mundane with grotesque images of a business man dripping sleaze all over the Asian girl, the softly comical magic realism will suddenly shift into MTV-powered battle scenes taken verbatim out of Ultima Vez, with whom Webber has trained. While theirs is certainly an interesting technique,all violence of the sexes, bodies spinning, flying through the air,grating against one another, bouncing off, it is never certain if the acrobatics weren’t imported wholesale just for the looks, with little meaning surviving the voyage. At the risk of making it sound hugely derivative, it looked like Akram Khan’s recent Bahok without the dramaturgical girdle: whereas Khan’s was insipid stage action rendered absolutely bullet-proof by hard dramaturgical logic, Undergroundwanders in and out of themes with much less precision. Once introduced,the darkness is never fully banished, and alienation of proximity, and individual action in the disperse responsibility of the crowd, are mercilessly explored. Yet the progression is, in the last moment,undoubtedly circular, returning the Teutonic inquiry into the safe territory of the never-changing Australian eventlessness.

Moments of semantic void are usually not the moments of stillness:the intellectual flattening is created by empty movement, rather than the empty stage. The strongest moments of the performance are precisely in the pauses, many of these U-turns of stage activity that throw the viewer completely off balance, our expectations completely confounded.Thus the assumed ordinary reality will suddenly shift into a hint of a disaster outside (nuclear error?, environmental catastrophe? gas attack?), leaving the single bookish Kate Harman trying to make sense of a darkened station. Re-emerging out of semi-slapstick and mundane gadgetry, standing on the seats, she stretches out on the tips of her toes, trying to reach the neon lights, and this moment of endless inscrutability makes up for much of the needless running that happens before and after. At 75 minutes, however, it also assumes an epic quality (another nod to Vandekeybus), which justifies some of the variability, hinting at the rich family of sagas, operas, and all those endless theatrical rambles that accumulate significance and weight just from refusing to finish.

Overall, despite the logic of a hipster film, despite looking like a collage, Undergroundis a rewarding experience. However, it is a production strongest at the joints. All the influences, nods and loans, remain distinctively separate and, while the epic accumulation certainly works, do not add up to the most brilliant dance theatre in the country. The in-between moments, the contrasts, are moments when Underground overcomes itself, and makes strange.

Undeground. Dancenorth. Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall.
Season: Wed 12 – Sun 16 Nov.
Tickets: $25-18.
Bookings: artshouse.com.au or 03 9639 0096.

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On Lucy Guerin; generally, and Corridor; specifically

Lucy Guerin, who, together with husband Gideon Obarzanek of Chunky Move, makes up Melbourne's choreographing royalty, sometimes seems to define dance in this city. So little of what the mainstage sees is radically different from their work, that having to disagree with what they have to say sometimes feels like a heresy.

And yet.

Guerin is a choreographer who will use a theme, an issue or an idea in order to explore movement, rather than using movement in order to explore a theme, an issue or an idea. In other words, while Guerin may create beautiful dance informed by the nature of love, one is unlikely to come to new conclusions on the nature of love from watching the piece. Guerin's pieces are always a solipsism, closed off from their point of departure in a strange way, self-sufficient and happy – which is not a flaw by definition. However, Guerin's choreography also appears increasingly simple, clear and semantically fixed like an open book or, less benevolently, a children's crayon drawing. (For this reason, I think, Guerin's dance is also an excellent introduction to contemporary dance in general, as it is squarely dance, yet very legible. Just like Jérôme Bel's work, by the same virtue of simple, glass-like clarity of intention and effect, is an excellent introduction to conceptual dance.) There is never an esoteric point of departure, never one too far away from the quotidian (structure and sadness, love, communication or, in the case of Corridor, over-saturation with commands), and the resulting performance never strays too much from being a dancing illustration. This occurs with such consistence that one ought not to read the program notes if one truly wants to think in front of the eye candy. Guerin's program notes are the most unsatisfying program notes in the world, spelling points and references out until the performance becomes an open structure, legible like an architectonic sketch.

As a result, cleansed of conceptual enigmas or radical opinions, Guerin's pieces rise or fall on the strength of choreography. Hers is often lovely movement, with nice balance between filigree and broad, between strong and soft, sharp and round, between abstract and figurative. Aether, for example, was Guerin at her aesthetically most satisfying. But, when the movement is mostly trite, a piece like Corridor starts to look grossly unexciting.

Harriet Ritchie and Lee Serle. Photo: Jeff Busby.

Corridor, Guerin's new piece commissioned for MIAF '08, gives one plenty of time to ruminate on what doesn't work, and why. The program notes, with characteristic subtlety, inform you immediately that the over-abundance of information, instructions on how to live, are at the bottom of the work. If one experiments in ignoring the notes, it will take no more than the first quarter of the show to glean the theme, still deserting the remaining three quarters to terrifying boredom, as the running motif of orders, orders, orders, fails to develop in either depth or breadth. Guerin commits another major crime of spelling out the methodology – dance improvisation on instructions delivered in real time, via phone, mp3 players, written text, imitation and verbally. Leaving the notes unread, though, one is left in the cold, with no insulation from fully noticing how uninventive, ham-handed the movement is. With dancers spontaneously responding to a whole array of orders, from roll on the floor to fall madly in love, figuration completely overruns abstraction, and a sea of details any broader structure, spoiling the usually solid balance of Guerin's work. It is all the more tragic that Corridor's cast lists all of the most promising young dancers in Melbourne, from Sara Black and Kirstie McCracken (somewhat less razor-sharp than usual), to the exquisite Harriet Ritchie, my new favourite Melbourne body.

Language is employed in the way that cannot be called more than tokenistic: here again, like in Two Faced Bastard, is Anthony Hamilton saying nothing in particular; and there is the writing on mirrors, inept descriptions of audience members. As if someone's idea of incorporating language (in itself not ground-breaking in dance), was merely tested, and still awaits evaluation. To use words, one of the most powerful elements of performance, in such a cavalier way, is shockingly slack. To decorate dance with some language is no more honourable than decorating verbal theatre with some dancing, as happens these days.

Because of Guerin's strong focus on effect of meaning on movement, rather than the other way around, a lot of it would work better if it were incorporated in theatre, with the dance motifs expanded and drawn out by a more discplined format, restricted by the need to pay attention to characters, dramaturgy, narrative line. The phalanx of order-reciting dancers, sweeping the narrow corridor in rotating formation, exempli gratia, is a beautifully realised image, but one the strength of which disperses in the dramaturgically vague sequence of scenes that follows. The duet of ailing between Kirsty McCracken and Harriet Ritchie is graceful, humourous and accessible, but, likewise, comes out of nowhere and proceeds into nothing. The structure of Corridor, ultimately, is one long, stop-start list of possible responses to one same question (© Carl), with no progressive development, coming across very much like a workshop in conceptual something or other.

Melbourne International Arts Festival. Corridor. Lucy Guerin Inc. Choreography: Lucy Guerin. Dancers: Sara Black, Anthony Hamilton, Kirstie McCracken, Byron Perry, Harriet Ritchie, Lee Serle. Sound design: Haco. Set Design: Donand Holt. Lighting design: Keith Tucker. Costume Design: Paula Levis. Producer: Michaela Coventry. Arts House, Meat Market, Oct 16-25.

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Two Faced Review

I'm not sure about you, but I went to Two Faced Bastard expecting something very similar to what I got: something fun and by no means unwatchable, but simplistic, shallow and pseudo-cerebral, not really committed to exploring in depth the ideas (or rather idea, for there is only one) it professed to be exploring.

I only expected courage. I expected an idea taken to its logical conclusion. To me, Two Faced Bastard was an indecisive smear on a big white canvas left mostly untouched. On the dance side, I would say, my side got the full picture in the first part of the show. So much that I wondered if it hadn't been designed, misdesigned, from there. Strangely, the faint panel discussion voicing over Stephanie Lake's dancing never felt like it could stand alone as anything other than muffled background to movement. It sounded distracted, casual, glib in a swampy way, as if the panelists too were more focused on watching Stephanie: meandering in and out of listening, I never felt I was missing on much.

But there was a lot to look at on my side too, a dance of another, subtler kind. Brian Lipson is a genius when it comes to the niceties of body language, and plays himself brilliantly. He also plays extemporaneousness brilliantly, a certain this-is-happening-for-the-first-time-ness.

There was not more than a hint of extemporaneousness to the Brian Lipson I saw, although I allow I may have only seen patches of him, coming and going as he was. There was a tightly choreographed affectation of chaos, interrupting a line of tightly choreographed movement which, by not pretending to be spontaneous and free, seemed more genuine. What I enjoyed instead was the overlap of movement and non-movement, performance and not, particularly because, unlike virtually everything in Bastard, it had an effortless, surprising grace: the transition between Stephanie doing warm-ups (Stephanie the unstructured body) and performing (body as concentrated machine); and each time another performer would walk into the dance from the panel discussion – I wondered what it looked like from the panel side. This was virtually the only moment I was curious about the other side..

Alison has described the side I was on as the side of language, which I think is a little disingenuous. Sure, the cast spoke more on my side, but they also threw their bodies around a lot. Ours was the side of physical comedy. (I was reminded almost constantly of Donald O'Connor and the 'Make 'Em Laugh' sequence of Singin' in the Rain, surely the secret root of much contemporary dance, or least that strand of it which involves flopping around violently on the floor.) Maybe this is why I have been told by others who sat on your side that the laughter coming from ours made them jealous in the same way that your applause made us jealous of you. I was content on my side until then. I didn't feel like I was missing out on too much until your side applauded at the end of the first dance.

Take into account, however, that my side was silent, and yours almost perpetually noisy. Our side may have been all elusive mystique, but you were the tedious noisy neighbour. To us, it was the side of language. Certainly of noise.

The point is this: we weren't missing out for being on the so-called wrong side of the curtain. To wit: one of the most jarring moments in the first half of the production, before everyone starts changing sides, comes when two of the dancers turn Brian's long and stumbling spiel from the beginning of the piece, the one about introducing chaos into the performance, into a perfectly synchronised duet, transforming even his ums and ahs, his stutters and seemingly ad-libbed asides, into movement. And you're retrospectively thrown by how perfectly Lipson played the monologue earlier, not to mention by the precision of the duet itself.

What displeased me, though, was the clear affectation of these supposed breaks in the performance, at least on my side: dancers did not say anything meaningful, and didn't really introduce chaos into choreography either. Lipson running around and interrupting the show was a symbol of rupture, not a real one; and so was the panel discussion, and so was the call to the audience to choose sides, and so was the war that followed. It was almost a parody of theatrical deconstruction, going through the empty motion.

But while its intellectual games were simplistic – and we agree on that much at least – the production's effect on the audience was nonetheless genuine: it frustrated them. It was a show designed to frustrate, and to this extent was entirely successful. The show's title was not a title, but rather an accurate description: it was a two-faced bastard, this show, an adulterer, a backstabber. For all its unwillingness to probe its operations too deeply, it did generate a certain jealous longing for off-stage space, for the greener grass of the other side. And it did so very effectively.

I wish I had been frustrated the same way. Frustration is a beautifully genuine feeling to get in the theatre. On my side, it was all too pretty, too choreographic. Cute and totally predictable scenes on a string don't add up to a show. More often than not, the logic of the sequences was skin-deep: when Vince suddenly bursts onto our side of the curtain to long for Stephanie, it merely signals an escape from a narrative slump. When, later, Michelle dances and lip-syncs all wrapped in white paper – you wouldn't have been able to see this – Vince and Stephanie are suddenly annoyed at her presence, which is frankly inconsequential and doesn't relate to any other interaction these three characters have had – at least on my side.

But in feeling there was a certain inconsequentiality to Vince and Stephanie's annoyance, that it didn't relate to anything else you had seen, you did in fact feel some frustration in not knowing what had happened on the other side of the curtain. Frankly, I can't believe you were looking for narrative logic, and what's more don't really believe that you were.

I wasn’t looking for narrative logic; I was looking for dramaturgical logic: if you’re constantly adapting your terms of reference to the clichés of the scene, it expands neither the scene nor the whole. And the whole, on my side, the value-for-money side, so to speak, often looked like a confused blockbuster of the most extreme kind: eye candy and tokenistic humour with not much tying them together.

My side was like hanging out with the production runners on the set of a blockbuster: it was kind of fun. I had no idea there was a love story running through the piece until you told me. The only hint we got of it in the first half was when Lipson, wearing that ridiculous jacket, interrogated Vince about it. This, coincidentally, was the only section of the piece I really didn't like, this blatant incursion of narrative into the proceedings. Obviously, as we have both noted, the whole show was in its way a fiction – a symbolic or affected chaos as opposed to the real thing, a superficial exploration of bigger, harder questions – this was the only moment on my side of the curtain where narrative fiction stuck its nose in where it wasn't wanted. Maybe this is something you saw more of – you were, after all, the one who followed the love story from one side of the curtain to the other, while I followed the before-and-after-the-deluge-ness of the narrative-free backstage space. This space was fictitious too, of course – it's hardly as though the nonchalant wandering around of the performers wasn't equally as choreographed as what was happening on your side – but it wasn't a narrative fiction, and I appreciated that.

What I’m noticing is that there were obviously two very different sides to this show, but not the way we originally assumed. There was the back and the front, the honest frustration of the hungry and the more insidious frustration of gluttony.

I really wasn't that hungry backstage: there was plenty of termitic detail to fill me up. (Chris Boyd, however, appeared to be starving.) Meanwhile, it seems increasingly to me that what you were after was a happening, not a show. Is this a fair assessment? It's a similar complaint to those being made by most critics of an oak tree, who have claimed that the guests invited to take part have not been willing or able to transcend performativity. (Tim Crouch should get members of the audience to do it. Members of the audience who aren't actors.)

Funny you bring up Tim Crouch, since an oak tree had exactly the same problems that Two Faced Bastard does. Unsolicited, unneeded humour, and total transparency of method, both employed in order to make the experiment as safe as humanly possible while keeping the semblance of courage and of crossing boundaries. But, remember, Two Faced Bastard invited the audience on stage, and yet controlled the effect with an iron fist. An oak tree featured the same participation as tokenism, in which the supposed wild element cannot significantly alter any conclusion the performance strives to make – the same thing we regularly witness in your average political process.

I don't think Two Faced Bastard controlled the process. We controlled the process. You or me or anyone could have sat down in the middle of the stage – on one of the chairs even – and refused to move. That moment was about giving us a choice and none of us really chose to take it. In other words, Vince won the argument: we could have induced chaos but didn't. We have internalised the rules, not only of Two Faced Bastard, but of theatre-going etiquette more generally: the show is the boss.

I dare you to sit down in the middle of the stage next time you're invited to audience participation, and test the political permeability of the situation.

You're on.

I think every show in this country is chiefly concerned with providing closure in regards to value of the money spent. There is no brutality, no violence, in Australian theatre, lest we get another opinion piece bemoaning the extravagance with which the decadent artists spend the taxpayer’s dollars. I think it hurts everyone if we are tickled, yet treat it as a slap. It makes for a weak audience, and weak artists. It makes us sheltered, self-satisfied, and whiny. Of course people don’t know in which direction to faint first when they see a Kosky show: nobody is used to a real slap anymore. What Bastard does brilliantly, perhaps without meaning to, is lay bare this desire to get the value of our ticket price back. My side, with Lucy’s pretty dancing bodies, I would say, is where our money's worth was meant to be. Even when we changed sides, we were still hoping the money’s worth would follow us.

I'm not too surprised by all this. We're talking about Lucy and Gideon here, for whom the answer to the question of chaos is invariably to provide only an illusion or illustration of it. It is on this point, I think, that we both agree, but also where we ultimately part company. We agree that the show could have gone further, introducing a genuine level of risk for all parties concerned. I did not expect it to do so, due in large part to the team behind it, and so was not too disappointed when it didn't. I was able to take something away from it, the Farberian minutiae, the little things. You, while not seeming gutted exactly, nonetheless seem somewhat angrier.

That's because I can imagine the damage this will do to the local theatre for another twenty-four months at least, with any brave exploration flagellated, even self-flagellated, because, hey, if Chunky could do it and be so fun and accessible, why does any tall poppy need to get all aggro with the audience? This, to me, was deadly experiment, an equivalent of Brook’s deadly theatre, more insidious for pretending to be brave when, in fact, it was deadening:

The problem of the Deadly Theatre is like the problem of the deadly bore. Every deadly bore has head, heart, arms, legs: usually, he has family and friends: he even has his admirers. Yet we sigh when we come across him – and in this sigh we are regretting that somehow he is at the bottom instead of the top of his possibilities. When we say deadly, we never mean dead: we mean something depressingly active, but for this very reason incapable of change. . .

When good actors play in bad comedies or second-rate musicals, when audiences applaud indifferent classics because they enjoy just the costumes or just the way the sets change, or just the prettiness of the leading actress there is nothing wrong. But none the less, have they noticed what is underneath the toy they are dragging on a string? It's a wheel.

But is that what we settle for? Is that what we've come to expect? Do we not, ever, demand more?

Two Faced Review. Dialogue by Matthew Clayfield (Esoteric Rabbit) and Jana Perkovic (Mono no Aware).

Melbourne International Arts Festival. Two Faced Bastard. Direction & choreography: Gideon Obarzanek and Lucy Guerin. Set design: Ralph Myers. Lighting design: Philip Lethlean. Costume design: Paula Levis. Composer: Darrin Verhagen. Performers: Vincent Crowley, Anthony Hamilton, Michelle Heaven, Stephanie Lake, Brian Lipson, Byron Petty & Lee Serle. Arts House, Meat Market. 8-12 Oct.

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27.ix.2007. Arts House: Sara Juli’s The Money Conversations

It's been two years since I've last seen my family and most of my friends. I haven't been able to save the money necessary to go back to visit.

It's the beginning of the night, only a few people in the audience, and Sara Juli comes on stage in low key, wearing jeans and a blazer, takes her shoes off, her socks off, takes a pile of cash out of her left shoe and counts it. It's US$1500, in $20 notes. She gives some to select audience members with the words: “This is 20 dollars and I want you to have it.” Some of them have to work for it: she puts money in her cleavage, in her pockets, or performs little intrusive routines in gibberish: mumbling, complaining, touching their bodies or faces, poking at them. One lady gets so uncomfortable she gets up and moves to another seat, then runs around the auditorium. Sara Juli is very intrusive for a person allegedly watched.

Then she returns back on stage and asks: “What is $20?” Silence. She offers: “A ticket for Sara Juli at the Meat Market.” What is $40? Someone says: “A dinner at a good restaurant.” “A massage.” What is $80? “Rent.” “If you live in a shoe box?”, she asks. What is $100? “A formal dress.” “A dentist check-up.” “A ticket to Queensland.” We're opening up now.

A few rounds of this. Juli reveals secret hiding places on her body for bigger slabs of cash, counts another $1500, then $2000, in bigger and bigger notes. Dances around, gives money away. Some refuse to put her hands down Juli's underwear to get money. Some do it without qualms. I am given $50. What is $150? “A public transport fine.” What is $200? “IPod Nano.” What is $250? A lady in front of me says: “A daily wage for a nurse (if she works overtime).” Someone on my left: “The hourly rate my accountant charges.” Someone behind me: “The price of a cup of coffee with a lawyer. Or at least what one recently asked for a consultation.” Someone casual:”A pair of G-Star jeans.”

I got lost, I must admit, after $150. After $150 (a decent pair of shoes) I cannot think of recreational purchases. There is the price of my coat ($400), my monthly rent ($700) and the cost of a visa to move to Australia ($2000 if you have to do a complete health check and an HIV test, like Croats do), but none of this is real money. The cost of these things, I realise while sitting there, is measured for me as the effort needed to save up the precise sum (time, work). Juli asks about $850, about $1000 and about $300. Answers come up. An expensive dress. Two nights in a good hotel. One night in the emergency ward. A ticket for the AFL Grand Finals, says the man next to me about the price of my coat. I'm getting lost in this whirlpool of little desires. $500, Juli says, is the price of a ticket for a Madonna concert. $500, for someone else, is a gym membership, and $2000 is a new clutch on their Swedish car. What happens if you truly desire these things? An iPod Nano, an experience of Madonna, a Swedish car? Does your horizon of wants stretch with your salary? Or your friends' salaries? Sara Juli does her little interpretative dance, credit, debt, investment, to have money. I am holding a $50 note in my hand; it has by now become a complicated thing, a repository of possibilities. I've heard someone recently say that money has become our collective symbol of reality. The more money you possess, the more real you become in terms of participation in life, this life, this life based on consumption. Perhaps Juli wants to create in us the same sense of confusion she felt during the money conversation with her partner. Perhaps this is why I initiate money conversations, because I don't think of it as anything other than work and time. I feel suffocated by the number of things we've named tonight. Particularly iPod Nano.

The conversation, that went somewhat quiet around $1000, gets lively again with $2000. It's obvious that I'm not the only one that thinks only in everyday-small and exceptionally big sums. Juli suddenly raises her hand and asks for 5 cents. People rummage through their pockets, wallets, bags. Juli makes a round and gets her cents, then asks. “Who has 5 cents? Who needs 5 cents? Who doesn't give a cent? Who has never earned a cent in his life?” I feel bad (I have no cents, only tip dollars). She correctly returns the cents to each person, collects the remaining cash scattered on the floor, gets a pen and paper, adds up, returns the pen and paper, and turns to me: “This is $3680 and I want you to have it.” She gives me the slab of cash. Lights go off.

People applaud, I applaud, lights go on, Sara Juli leaves the stage, people start leaving, a 'Donation Box' is placed by the door. The man next to me, whose AFL ticket is worth the price of my coat, gloats over the money in my lap, and congratulates me on my tough decision.

I count the money over and over (the result is different each time; I'm too confused). I came to the show intent on keeping anything I get. Money is money is money and I need it. Perhaps I would have kept that $50, you see. But I would not, cannot, keep $3680. I don't want this big pile of cash. It's dirty, it smells, it's a theatre prop, not something I need in my life. I would have kept $50, but it's equally clear to me that if I'm not going to keep the slab, I cannot keep a couple of notes. The situation is oppressive. I feel like I'm trapped in a game show. I walk to the 'donation box', where Juli's partner stands, and asks what will happen if I keep the money. “The show will have to be cancelled.”, he replies dryly. Has it happened yet? “Once, almost. One man took a large amount, but it was returned the next day.”

His current job, and her current job, are centred around the cash in my hands. Her entire life savings in my hands. I saved more than that in the past year, although it all went on my university fees. Her entire life savings. I start throwing the money in the box, note by note. By the time I'm sick of it, there's still a hefty pile left in my hands. I want to tell him I haven't seen my family in two years because I cannot pay the ticket back home, but he's not interested in me, he's looking elsewhere. I throw the last notes in and tell him I've decided to keep the last $20, for record. He's not interested (he's still looking elsewhere). As I walk out, I start to cry.

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