Tag Archives: Chunky Move

Dance Massive 03: The Body Un-Mirrored (reviewed: Chunky Move’s 247 Days)

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Lauren Langlois, 247 days, Chunky Move
photo Jeff Busby

SOME DISCLAIMERS ARE IN ORDER. I UNINTENTIONALLY SAW 247 DAYS AS A PREVIEW PERFORMANCE. I SAT NEXT TO THE CHOREOGRAPHER AS SHE SCRIBBLED NOTES INTO HER SMALL NOTEPAD, AND FELT AN ENORMOUS PRESSURE TO READ THE POTENTIAL OF THE WORK GENEROUSLY. TO MAKE MATTERS SLIGHTLY MORE COMPLICATED, IT WAS MY FIRST ENCOUNTER WITH THE CHOREOGRAPHER’S WORK.

Anouk van Dijk, the new artistic director of Chunky Move, has called this her first ‘real’ Australian choreography. Among the very few clarificatory program notes, van Dijk writes “247 days is the time it takes for a choreographic work to gestate.” 247 is also the number of days she has spent in Australia. It is, thus, a choreography made entirely out of Australia, its effect on van Dijk’s body, psyche, heart. (There is a kernel of an old idea here, something I first heard said in Agnes Varda’s film The Gleaners and I (2000): our body constantly regenerates all its cells, and so, every so often, we become new people, even to ourselves.)

I had not seen any of Anouk van Dijk’s choreographies—neither in Australia, nor in Europe —and consequently had no ability to tell the Australian cells apart from the European ones. All I knew was that van Dijk’s Chunky Move debut, An Act of Now [RT112] explored human connection, and that there was a Tanztheater collaboration with Falk Richter in Schaubühne’s repertoire titled TRUST [RT95]. It felt like a letdown, therefore, to watch a choreography unfold thematically into quite literally the only thing I expected: trust and human connection.

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Tara Soh, James Pham, Lauren Langlois, Leif Helland, Niharika Senapati, Alya Manzart, 247 Days, Chunky Move
photo Jeff Busby

Six 20-something multiracial dancers—a welcome departure from the pervasive all-whiteness of the Chunky Move ensemble I had come to expect—delve deeply into their bodies to articulate the physicality of four distinct relationships between the individual and their social surroundings: freedom, loneliness, constraint, connection. The set is a semi-circular full-height mirror, broken into segments so that, curiously, not only is the audience not reflected back to itself, but the dancers often have no reflection either. If ever there was an accurate articulation of finding oneself in a foreign place, unable to establish a relationship with one’s surroundings that would provide legible feedback on identity, here it was. There is no easy mirroring back, when one is a stranger: an epistemological aloneness develops. Within the set’s twisting, opening, folding into screens or dressing-room cubicles, the dancers veer between obsessive self-analysis and chasing their own, fleeting image.

The work is peppered with voice: from inarticulate cursing to a soundscape-forming cacophony, to first-person confessionals. The entire tradition of Tanztheater forces me to understand this as self-expression, not performance, and I was frustrated by the banality of so many utterances (“When I feel lonely, I…”), while the more potentially interesting ones were so often drowned to illegibility in polyphony. A number of points are progressively woven together: belonging (what happens when your family leaves Australia, and you stay?), coming out (and the negotiation of individual, familial and social self), and glimpses of questions that made sense to me, but not necessarily to the work. Are we attracted to people who look like us, because we want to be them, not stricto sensu love them? The naivete was grating, yet fitting: the more one tries to approach a foreign environment—be it a new country, or a new erotic community—with openness, the more one is willing to be infected with influence, the more one reverts to the somewhat idiotic ontological uncertainty of adolescence.

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James Pham, Leif Helland, Lauren Langlois, Niharika Senapati, Niharika Senapati, Alya Manzart, 247 Days, Chunky Move
photo Jeff Busby

Much of the movement is contactless, shifting from shielding invisible constraints to self-propelled freedom, to narcissistic attempts to please the mirror. Van Dijk’s own philosophy of counter-technique, a training of the body to lose its upright axis and open itself to imbalance, subjects these unheld, uncaught, unembraced bodies to so much vulnerability. The choreography, however, comes together most satisfyingly in duets and trios, in which Van Dijk’s emphasis on bodies’ openness to external force is at its most articulate. One phenomenal male duet pairs a strong, controlling body (Leif Helland) with a rolling, soft one (James Pham). As Helland embraces and drops, folds and envelops Pham, moving purposefully outside his own centre of gravity, something deep and fundamental about our need to be held, supported and empowered through care shines through. (One wonders, additionally, given the times we live in, where are the same-sex duets in contemporary dance?)

247 Days ends on a weak note. Given the strength with which many works in Dance Massive have turned stage sound into sound design, I hoped for a more careful integration of voice into the work. At times 247 Days left me cold, but when it worked, it was powerful and, after all, I was watching a preview.

Dance Massive, Malthouse: Chunky Move, 247 Days, concept, choreography Anouk van Dijk, performers Leif Helland, Lauren Langlois, Alya Manzart, James Pham, Niharika Senapati, Tara Soh, composition, sound designer Marcel Wierck, set design Michael Hankin, lighting Niklas Pajanti, costumes Shio Otani; The Malthouse Theatre, March 15–23; http://dancemassive.com.au

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It Sounds Silly, Chunky Move. Photo Jeff Busby.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Changing the Face of Australian Theatre

Changing The Face Of Australian Theatre

By Jana Perkovic

Mainstream theatre companies aren’t working hard enough to engage with the diversity of contemporary Australia, writes Jana Perkovic

If any one issue has troubled Australian theatre of late, it has been that of diversity.

In a country that prides itself on egalitarian inclusivity, why do we see so few non-white faces on stage and behind the scenes? Why are there so few women directors? Why is our theatre by and about white, Anglo-Celtic men?

These questions routinely meet a series of standard answers. Indigenous theatre is thriving. Our arts centres bring in the Chinese Ballet and Greek rebetika. There are women aplenty in community theatre.

But by and large, these are exceptions to the rule.

The Sydney Theatre Company’s 2010 program promises to bring over entire productions from the US and the UK — but does not stage a single contemporary text of non-English origin. What does this imply about the state of our cultural diversity? A self-proclaimed “Australian Shakespeare” company, Bell Shakespeare, casts almost exclusively white actors. What does this say about what Australians should look like? To be fair, Bell Shakespeare’s 2010 season will feature Leah Purcell in King Lear — but here again is the danger of accepting the exception to the rule as a proof of revolution.

Mainstream theatre is nation-defining territory, and Australia’s mainstream theatres have been very good at excluding — together with any home-grown, “experimental” performance — any face, voice or attitude that strays from a very narrow understanding of what Australia is. If art provides a way to collectively imagine our world by telling stories about who we are, how we came to be this way and where we are heading, then onstage, “our” stories are still stories of mateship in the bush and middle-class white suburbia, the range of “our” characters reduced to the semi-articulate Aussie bloke (with the occasional girlfriend or wog neighbour thrown in). Think of the sugarcane cutters in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, Don in Don’s Party and the Removalists, and the emotionally constipated Anglo families of Tom Holloway.

This tendency leaves a lot of people out of work. The scandal of the year arose over the lack of women directing main stage theatre and culminated with Melbourne University demanding that the Melbourne Theatre Company employ an equal opportunity officer.

Yet theatres aren’t your average workplaces and equal opportunity in art can be difficult to defend. Neil Armfield’s defence of the all-male directing season at Belvoir St Theatre? Predictable: they were chosen on merit only. Few self-respecting artists would attempt to argue that the arts ought not be a meritocracy, and talent, alas, has always been very unfairly distributed. What if our best directors really are all men?

The problem is more complex, aesthetically and historically. The worst thing we have inherited from British theatre is an extremely narrow view of what theatre should be — amplified, without a doubt, by a colonial fear of not getting it right. British and American theatre traditions, visually fairly dumb, have been clinging to naturalism — a 19th century style characterised by literal representation of realistic events on stage — and for many critics this remains the only right way to “do” theatre, even though the best contemporary Australian performance has outgrown this aesthetic.

In 2007, Lee Lewis opened the can of worms that is the lack of racial diversity in Australian theatre, advocating cross-racial casting of classics. If we assume that the actor transforms on stage, she asked, why do we only allow this power to the white actor? If blackface is a theatrical cliché, why should there be a problem with a black actor playing Hamlet?

In the uproar that followed, many missed the subtler side of her argument: diverse casting has fared much better in those forms of theatre that embrace metaphor more openly. In this she counted opera and ballet but also contemporary non-Anglo theatre. The directors who have most consistently challenged whiteness on Australian main stages have been Benedict Andrews and Barrie Kosky (who cast Deborah Mailman as Cordelia in his King Lear for Bell Shakespeare) both of whose work betrays a suspiciously “continental” aesthetic. Their takes on Brechtian non-naturalism has consistently troubled our critics.

The best performances of 2009, in my opinion, were Cate Blanchett and Pamela Rabe as Richard II and III in Andrews’s vast, extraordinary The War of the Roses. The production shone a brilliant new light on a well-known text and revealed the interpretive range of these familiar actresses. The two women did not play men — not for a second were these drag performances — but embodied privilege and greed for power respectively. It was the boldest, finest, interpretation of Shakespeare Australia had seen in a long time.

As British critic Andrew Haydon has argued, the issue is not just about casting non-white, non-thin or non-male protagonists. Theatre creates meaning as much from the non-verbal signs it puts on stage as it does from the script. It does not need to be set around the block last Tuesday in order to be relevant to our lives.

On the theatre margins, companies like Back to Back, Rawcus and Restless — which work with people with physical and intellectual disabilities — play an important political role. Seeing these performers on stage, we become aware of the incredible beauty of bodies we normally consider unsightly. Such performances challenge our perception of who Australians may be, and what stories they may have to tell.

Yet aesthetically, their work is equally important. Back to Back is considered to be one of the finest theatre groups in this country — and this is doubtlessly a result of their innovative work methods. Their Food Court — an almost-wordless performance about bullying set to the music of The Necks — was among the most acclaimed theatre shows of 2008.

Because big theatres and big critics shun such experiments, they effectively nurture audiences who cannot read stage metaphor. Yet metaphor is not some avant-garde pretence but the basic building block of theatre.

Unlike film and television, which capture the world as it appears, theatre imaginatively creates its own reality. In this world, dying heroines find breath for entire arias, girls in white tutus play snowflakes and swans, and one woman’s existential despair is communicated by her burial waist-deep in earth. If we insist on theatre that amounts to live television in a classy setting, we betray our ignorance of the artform itself. Cordelia, after all, would have premiered as a man in a corset.

As long as we see the problem as one of loud minorities demanding political correctness, we fail to see that most of us, in fact, are excluded. After all, even though “arts arts” are patronised mainly by the white and the wealthy, it is the women, city dwellers and Australians of non-English-speaking background that research has identified as most appreciative of the arts. The same study shows that the elusive protagonist of Australian drama — country male, Australian-born of Australian-born parents — is the least likely demographic to think of arts as important in his life.

Lally Katz, who came to Australia from New Jersey with her parents when she was eight, writes plays immersed in whimsical surrealism. That she is not considered to be one of the most important Australian playwrights is a disgrace and it may be due to her gender, but it is certainly also related to her aesthetic. Yes, her Ern Malley mourns the fact that he doesn’t really exist, and her Canberra becomes an island with a volcano. Are these plays less Australian for their deviation from the suburban script?

As long as we keep thinking of Australian theatre as a narrow stream of tales about mateship and the outback, we restrict its capacity to help us imagine a shared present, let alone articulate an alternative future. For whatever reason, we are afraid to play.

Affirmative action is a good thing in principle, but the goal should not be simply to hire new hands to do old work. What we want, ultimately, is a greater range of perspectives and styles. We want new, imaginative universes in our stories so that we can understand better what this country is all about. We need diversity because we want innovation and excellence, not despite of it. We do our theatre no great service by protecting it from the best artists we have. Armed with an outdated and unimaginative idea of what theatre may represent, Australia, our main stage, remains as dull as dish water.

Originally published on 8 January 2010, on NewMatilda.com.

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Show Ponies for a Young Nation

Show Ponies For A Young Nation

By Jana Perkovic

There’s a thriving, internationally recognised performance scene in Australia — but it’s barely reflected in the programming of major arts companies, writes Jana Perkovic

Beneath the surface of Australian cities bubbles an undercurrent of performance. Artists — both young and old, trained and untrained — are creating small interventions of chaos and beauty, much of which draws on specific local traditions of vernacular theatre: travelling circus, pub music, guerrilla performance, mixed-media cabaret.

It’s easy to dismiss these forms as niche pursuits; and they are, indeed, an ecosystem of small communities. When this year’s Melbourne Writers’ Festival organised a perplexingly dull launch for McSweeney’s, one of the world’s most innovative young literary journals, it was the Suitcase Royale, a local performance collective, who saved the event with an electrifying gig/stand-up/performance.

If our literature has forgotten joie de vivre, and our cinema is proclaimed “recovered” on the basis of seven good films a year, then theatre certainly ought to be recognised as one thing Australia consistently does well.

Overseas, reviewers rave about Acrobat, Back to Back, Panther and Chunky Move: circus, physical theatre, interactive performance companies producing cutting-edge work in their select fields. They don’t pay so much attention to the companies that swallow the lion’s share of our arts funding: our state theatres.

With the honourable exception of Melbourne’s Malthouse, our major performing arts companies have persistently avoided this undercurrent, opting for programming that lacks flair. Even allowing that 2009 was a panicky year for the mainstream — the Global Financial Crisis bit into both ticket sales and corporate sponsorship — the year’s programs were altogether business-as-usual. Fifty years after Merce Cunningham choreographed to chance music and Beckett put nothingness itself on stage, our theatres still offer a bewilderingly old-fashioned mix of European classics, last year’s Broadway and West End successes, and a smattering of local plays with music (the latter to be distinguished from musical theatre by virtue of being unfunny).

Scavenging through Australia’s main stage offerings in 2003, German journalist Anke Schaefer noted that “every expectation of a German audience of 100 years ago would have been well served by these productions.” The problem is not just that our mainstream theatre is overwhelmingly male-dominated and almost completely white. And it’s not that staging a play written in 1960 is still considered adventurous — it is the abyss between what the bulk of “performing artists” in this country are doing and the work showcased on the well-funded stages.

To be fair, there have been some improvements over the past few years. The Lawler Studio is a not-yet-properly-funded baby stage for the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) with a small, but promising season, and the Sydney Theatre Company’s maturing Next Stage program brought in Perth wunderkind Matthew Lutton — and will present the abovementioned Suitcase Royale in 2010. But for every innovation that reaches a big audience, there is a scathing critical attack from the likes of Peter Craven that we need better-made plays, not avant-garde tinkering.

Craven typifies the deep conservative current in our theatre commentariat. While aficionados have organised themselves in the blogosphere, forming a reliable network of guerrilla arts reportage, the mainstream patron is limited to the opinions of the mainstream press, which consistently criticises any departure from pleasant digestive after-dinner theatrical fare.

The understanding that permeates theatre criticism, funding policies, festival curatorship, even the design of performing arts venues, is that theatre is an expensive toy to show off to our international visitors. It helps prove that here, at the arse end of the world, we have a functioning high culture. Arguably, we build “world-class” arts centres, fund show-pony opera and invest in international arts festivals because we fear being mistaken for a subcultural backwater. A national ballet ensemble — like a broadcasting network, a flag, an army and a giant ferris wheel — is a sign of a serious nation.

Hence the currency of theatre as an impossibly highbrow endeavour, something that excludes large swathes of the population who claim not to attend for the pricey “elitism” of arts events. Yet, when we leave the realm of the ethereal and the literary, of The Nutcracker and King Lear, it is often hard to distinguish performing arts from fairgrounds and other dubious entertainments.

Our mainstream arts funding reflects this confusion. Theatre is sometimes a flagship investment, and sometimes a failing commercial sector in need of subsidy. If we give it money, it better demonstrates its market relevance. Most of our state festivals were set up as tourism initiatives, providing world-class this and gold star that — but they are also judged on the extent to which they animate the city.

State companies are thus in a double bind: they ought to stage excellent interpretations of classics, but they also need to keep their subscriber base with populist programming. The media and the funding bodies do not question populism. Here the Peter Cravens, Andrew Bolts and Paul Keatings of the nation join voices to demand in unison that we fund some quality orchestras before sponsoring avant-garde wank.

So, while Opera Australia can cross-fund its season with My Fair Lady without reprimand, Kristy Edmunds’s edgy curatorship of Melbourne Festival was viciously attacked as — you guessed it — “elitist”: insular, pretentious, niche. But young audiences responded and artists found her choices inspiring.

This year, under Brett Sheehy’s artistic direction, the Melbourne International Arts Festival (MIAF) broke box office records — mainly due to the sell-out performances by the London Philharmonic Orchestra — and gleaned glowing praise for restoring mainstream common sense to the program. Yet the local theatre community has criticised it as too white, too European, too predictable, focusing on big-ticket events at the expense of smaller, braver shows, and — yes — “elitist”. In this equation, elites, like hell, are always other people.

It is a scavenger hunt for audiences. Where the audience preferences lie is not so clear. The MTC may have the largest subscriber base in the country but it is rapidly aging. Programming for the middle-class, middle-suburb punter may rely on unwise mathematics: audiences are not developed through insistence on a 19th-century understanding of highbrow. For all its success at the box office, often I felt off attending MIAF 09 performances surrounded by an audience thrice my age.

Melbourne Fringe featured no Philharmonic and managed to break its box office record in 2009 — despite the GFC — showing how robust specialised audience loyalty can be. TINA and Imperial Panda, independent arts festivals in NSW, have also done well, as has the inaugural Dance Massive, dedicated exclusively to contemporary dance. Perhaps mainstream programming should acknowledge these “passionate communities” and “creative laboratories” that make up the solid core of the arts audience: they, after all, nurture its most vibrant new developments. Even fans of well-made plays, we should recognise, are increasingly becoming a niche.

Rather than trying to stretch nation-making dinosaurs over an increasingly diverse nation, we should focus on nurturing smaller, specialised festivals, and recognise that our cultural excellence may lie not in opera but in grungy circus. Our current funding model is completely unsuitable for this task. Audiences will not develop through programming that blends the safest aspects of all our arts into a soup that, in attempting to please everyone, pleases no one. What we should do, instead, is encourage the continuing exploration of the many vibrant art forms thriving under the radar: they count as culture. And statehood? Aren’t we too old to worry about that?

Originally published on 31 December 2009, on NewMatilda.com

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Malthouse season 2

Michael Kantor’s last season (just announced) looks strangely like a Best Of Malthouse 2005-2010 (subtitle: The Kantor Years), or a Tribute To… CD (Melbourne indie theatre does Malthouse OR Malthouse does Melbourne indie… you choose). And not just that, but a Christmas edition with two bonus tracks (Great International Name + the understudy makes an appearance).

All the people that Kantor’s Malthouse has been supporting are gathered again: here are the local darlings Hayloft, again working with Black Lung on Thyestes; there is Ranters with Intimacy (a sequel to Affection?), there is Lucy Guerin’s new pop-cultural dance (with set design by Gideon Obarzanek of Chunky Move, another friend of the Malthouse); there is 1927, again after Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea; Barrie Kosky’s most restrained and elegant The Tell-tale Heart returns after a sold-out season back in 2007; and Meredith Penman, a recent VCA graduate, frequently seen in Hayloft projects, and an absolutely exquisite actress (see her in Richard III currently playing at the MTC) brings her 2009 Sydney show, A Woman in Berlin, back to Melbourne. Is almost makes you feel outraged that she would have been allowed to open it there, and not here.

Then there is the new bright boy, Matthew Lutton, casting the new bright star Ewen Leslie in another dramatization of Kafka: The Trial, both for the Malthouse and the STC. Boy heroes make me yawn, but I am as curious to see Mr Lutton’s famed direction as anyone else, so good on the Malthouse for bringing him over. Meg Stuart is being brought over in the first international guest performance really worth its salt: Maybe Forever is only 3 years old, Meg Stuart is acclaimed, but has not quite finished saying what she has to say, and I am quite marvelled that the Malthouse would be so ambitious as to invite her over. It is also the only performance of the season I will miss (by being in Croatia), alas. The final bonus track is the pre-introduction of Marion Potts with Sappho… in 9 fragments (as ‘stager’, not director), before she takes on the artistic direction of the Malthouse in 2011.

I’d also point out that Things on Sunday, Malthouse’s talk program, looks particularly good this year, with a performance/interview with Heiner Mueller, rest in peace, and the Rex Cramphorn Memorial Lecture delivered by said Marion Potts on the turnover in artistic directors that is sweeping the country. And why not?

All in all, it’s a bit of a last ball, where we want to see all our friends perform something little. And it’s good like that. One characteristic of Kantor’s Malthouse has been a strong sense of community: there was a house way of doing things, there were friends of the Malthouse, a number of people got a lot of space to do work. It has bred some bitterness around town, by those who felt left out of the inner circle, but it has been not altogether unsuccessful. At the end of the Kantor era, Malthouse is not a lukewarm and/or beige place claiming to represent everyone while being nondescript and of no interest to anyone in particular. It is a distinct theatre, full of character, with a programming tradition that has an audience, a palette, strengths and weaknesses. And vision, which is very unusual for an institution its size in this country.

I am looking forward to a change of direction with Marion Potts, but I suspect the second half of the 2010 season will be very successful as a nostalgia-inducer. We will sit around the pit and reminisce about Paul Capsis, gollywog puppets, and the missed opportunity to turn the Gallipoli story into a musical.

All the details of the Malthouse season 2 can be gleaned here.

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Dance Massive

While I’m catching up on sleep whenever I can find a spare hour – which makes my days wildly unpredictable for everyone else – you can find my reviews of Dance Massive performances accumulating, with painful regularity, on the RealTime website, some other website, as well as distributed around the Dancehouse, Arts House, and Malthouse (how’s that for a trio of hice?) in paper form.

In an unusual doubling-up, Alison muses on the very same shows.

Hopefully you’re all enjoying the dance invasion. I’m very happy to note that the audience numbers look more than great, with a large percentage of delighted small children filling the seats. At The Fondue Set last night, they were responding to post-modernism with shrieking exhilaration. How very wonderful. Here are the future dance connoisseurs in the making.

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This week / exhaustion

The quiet of the last few weeks, on GS, was just the backstage of the roaring thunder of Ms Gorilla managing no less than 6 jobs and one full-time university degree, adding up to something approximating 100 hours a week. If you think that this is bordering on literary figure and/or surrealism, well: there’s your answer to my absence from writing lite thoughts about current affairs and my feet.

In the last few weeks I have done such an extraordinary amount of work that it’s a wonder I haven’t dropped dead. (As our beautiful days incorporate morning thunderstorms and painfully hot nights, I am reminded that I have truly adapted to Melbourne. When I first moved here, I spent the entire 2006 limping from flu to flu, my body in utter confusion about the 5-minute turnaround of seasons.) I have co-authored a paper, produced a short film, and held a research project together around these activities. I have been designing three websites, finished one, and prepared a book for print. I have interviewed, written, read, edited, commissioned, liaised, responded. Meanwhile, just to spice things up, I’ve had to somehow resolve a housemate crisis, lease crisis, Centrelink crisis, general home-economics crisis (huge), enrolment crisis, multiple-technology-breaking down crisis, and a personal crisis, each one bigger than the other. I have learned to read Social Security Law, which is more than the average person does in order to get social security. I also have a couch guest at the moment, but Fanny is a lovely, calming presence in this apartment that sometimes resembles an erratically steered raft in the Bermuda triangle.

However, in this chaos of duties, responsibilities and transferable skills, I’ve discovered the blessing that people with stable moods are. How vastly overrated psychological instability is!, how inappropriately deemed a sign of creative genius! These weeks have been made bearable, if not somehow enjoyable, by the continuous presence of many wonderful people in my life (you know who you are), people whose general emotional maturity I could count on. Good lesson. Important.

Onto the news:

by now everyone knows that Dance Massive has started, a two-week dance fest that will certainly keep those of us who tire of language happy. There will be in-depth coverage, here on GS, on Spark Online, and elsewhere. I would enthusiastically recommend Inert, were it not sold out. Other things of interest include Morphia Series, by Helen Herbertson and Ben Cobham (see my review of Sunstruck) Chunky Move’s high-tech Mortal Engine, and Sydney’s Fondue Set with No Success Like Failure, on which David Williams wrote beautifully here. Splintergroup, an offshoot of Ultimavezesque Dancenorth, are down from Queensland, with lawn and the charmingly titled roadkill. The website claims the latter was developed with Sasha Waltz and Guests, which alone is a recommendation enough.

At Gasworks, Sandra Parker’s extraordinary Out of Light is going until 7 March: you have three nights left to catch it. At La Mama there are two nightfuls of Wretch left, with the inimitable Angus Cerini and Susie Dee. If you’re into another kind of unrealism, National Theatre in St Kilda is showing Don Giovanni by Victorian Opera, directed by the man-legend Jean-Pierre Mignon, and it’s absolutely fabulous. Samuel Dundas, whose debut as a principal singer this role I believe is, is an extraordinary Don G, cocky and damned equally, making it all infinitely more credible than MTC’s scandalous Don Juan in Soho (although the latter added drugs, urban squalor and yuppidom in search of verisimilitude).

Arts House, my favourite venue in town, will soon have My Darling Patricia down from Sydney, with Night Garden, and Hoi Polloi far-down from the UK with Floating. Both look delicious, but I am biased towards hybrid performance. More information on the Arts House website.

On the more text-heavy side, Malthouse is soon opening Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd, a highly anticipated return of Lally Katz & Chris Kohn to the city. Combining Julia Zemiro with the historical research into vaudeville, this should prove very popular with the general audience. I am hoping to see it some time later, as my rarefied interest in non-dancing dance and silent performance, and body and memory, and so on, keeps me occupied. But oh you should all go.

Yet the most exciting news, to the urbanist me, has been the launch of Creative Spaces (a week ago, but, hey, 6 jobs). More than a very pretty website, it has been conceived by the City of Melbourne as a sort of match-making service, trying to connect every vacant space in metropolitan Melbourne with an artist looking for a studio, performance space, or a storage corner. You can advertise a space, or a need for space.

While this is a hugely practical, useful set-up, it also marks a commitment by the city government to take care of its creative communities. The project was fancily launched in Boyd School Studios, former JH Boyd Girls High School at 207-221 City Road Southbank. Local government has bought the object from the State gov, and refurbished it into studio spaces. This is likely to be a temporary settlement, while the future of the site is negotiated into either another housing condominium, or, as the local residents are pushing, a community centre (don’t get me started). Even such, it’s a very positive, if small, step towards making life on a shoestring easier in this city.

This is all from me for a while. It has been suggested to me to start a calendar of events on this website, keep tracks of openings and such. To add that to my weekly schedule, though, I would seriously need to employ an intern, or a subcontractor.

But we will finish, as usual, with a pop song you are unlikely to have ever encountered: Alina Orlova, from Lithuania.

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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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