Tag Archives: multiculturalism

Why we’re not done talking about diversity.

We’re not a multicultural society. We’re a mono-cultured multi-racial society. There’s a big difference.

Ming-Zhu Hii, in Why we’re not done talking about diversity..

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Degrees of risk (Reviewed: Fragment31’s Irony is Not Enough; Jochen Roller & Saar Magal’s Basically I Don’t But Actually I Do)

Leisa Shelton in Irony is Not Enough: Essay on My Life as Catherine Deneuve, Fragment31. Photo: Ponch Hawkes.

THE LAST TWO PERFORMANCES IN THE ARTS HOUSE FUTURE TENSE SEASON, BY MELBOURNE’S FRAGMENT31 AND THE GERMAN-ISRAELI TEAM JOCHEN ROLLER AND SAAR MAGAL, SHARE DOUBLE FOCI: IRONY AND TRAUMA.

Fragment31’s Irony is Not Enough: Essay on My Life as Catherine Deneuve performance is a theatrical rendition of Anne Carson’s poem of the same title, which turns the poet into a third-person Deneuve, and narrates her infatuation with a female student through the doubly ironic prism of cinema and classical references. What would Socrates say, she wonders, her words laced with mature, weary detachment. Deneuve, the cinematic Barbie doll, effortlessly blank, is inserted in the place of a complex self. (In >A href=”http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2006/dec/30/film”>The Guardian, December 30, 2006, Germaine Greer remarked that so devoid of personality have Deneuve’s roles been, that she cannot recall a single line any of her characters ever uttered.)

Fragment31 play with the representation of the fractured desiring self by simulating film. Shelton/Carson/Deneuve walks to the Metro; receives a phone call in her office; waits in a hotel room. Each scene is sculpted in filmic detail, each physically and narratively disconnected from the other, each floating as an island of naturalistic imagery in the mangle of props and wires of the Meat Market stage space. Sound, light, set, actors and musician, and designers, onstage too, come together in fitful fragments—the coalescing of the desiring, decentred self into one sharpened and fuelled by love. Even the narrator, Carson/Deneuve, is played by two actors: Leisa Shelton for body, Luke Mullins for voice. It is an attempt to discipline desire with a muffle of irony, dissimulation. But irony is not enough to stop infatuation; self-knowledge does not mandate control. Desire shows through. The poem crackles; the stage version, murkier and not as focused, less so.

Jochen Roller, Saar Magal, Basically I Don’t But Actually I Do. Photo: Friedemann Simon.

If in the first work irony is employed as the girdle of trauma, to keep the fractured self in one piece, in the next work irony is a safe, fenced pathway to the exploration of trauma. Basically I Don’t But Actually I Do is Israeli choreographer Saar Magal’s answer to a question: whether to make a work about the Holocaust with friend German Jochen Roller or, rather, not about the Holocaust at all, but third generation Israelis and Germans.

It opens with a discussion over the order of epithets—which layer of identity comes first? They agree: German Jew, black Jewish German, even gay German black Jew; but, says Magal, “we’re not going to talk about Palestine.” Magal and Roller change clothes, from the yellow of the Star of David to the brown of the SS uniform, and back. They play Holocaust testimonies on tape. They enact a series of iconic WWII photos: Magal collapsing into Roller’s arms, Roller shooting Magal, vice versa. Magal says, “This man stole a book from a Tel Aviv bookshop!” And Roller recites, “I don’t remember. Everyone was doing it. I was simply there.”

We are asked to take our shoes off, walk, sit and, later, to get up. We don’t understand. “Aufstehen!” shouts Roller. Some of us are randomly marked out, and one person pulled out of the crowd, to dance briefly with Magal, and then sent back. The show creates small moments of terror: we are dislodged from our audience complacency, but nothing bad ever happens, because it’s not that kind of show.

Basically I Don’t But Actually I Do is a catalogue of images enacted, repeated, but only as traces. It assumes a traumatised audience, for which every hint will be a trigger of memory. But, remarkably, it is a work that refuses to create false memories. It tests recognition; it has exactly as much content as the audience brings to it. It is up to each person to see genocide in the stage imagery, hear the Nuremberg Trials in the dialogue. The piece gently probes. How much do we still remember? What does it mean to us? What does it do to us?

In Australia (as opposed to Germany or Israel), the answer is not much. There were some walk-outs, which I cannot imagine happening at a Holocaust tear-jerker (for reasons of decorum). But for those to whom it meant something, Magal and Roller created a tasteful, careful little memorial space, in which a past event was reconnected to the present, and the relationship between the two weighed up.

One could say that the risks in Basically… never felt sufficiently dangerous, the stakes never high enough to justify the pussyfooting (one German critic called it “politically correct”). The love woes of Deneuve/Carson are saturated with much greater danger, despite the ironic title. However, Basically… uses irony differently, as a way of coming closer to something unspeakable, rather than pulling away from it. If traumatic desire is a sore one still wants to pick, the Holocaust is a trauma of a completely other kind, one to tiptoe around carefully, holding hands.

Fragment31, Irony is Not Enough: Essay on My Life as Catherine Deneuve, creators, performers Luke Mullins, Leisa Shelton, music Jethro Woodward, set Anna Cordingly, lighting Jen Hector; Nov 16-20; Basically I Don’t But Actually I Do, creators, performers Jochen Roller, Saar Magal, lighting Marek Lamprecht, soundtrack Paul Ratzel; Arts House, Meat Market, Melbourne, Nov 24-27, 2010

First published in RealTime, issue #101, Feb-March 2011, pg. 38.

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incendiary performance: christoph schlingensief (Interview: Anna Teresa Scheer)

ART WITHOUT BORDERS, EDITED BY TARA FORREST AND ANNA TERESA SCHEER, RECENTLY PUBLISHED BY INTELLECT, IS THE FIRST MONOGRAPH ON CHRISTOPH SCHLINGENSIEF, THE GERMAN THEATRE AND FILM ARTIST WHO DIED IN JULY 2010. IT IS THE FIRST ENGLISH LANGUAGE RESOURCE ON THE MAN CONSIDERED TO BE ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT 20TH CENTURY ARTISTS OF THE GERMAN SPEAKING WORLD, BUT ALSO THE FIRST ACADEMIC STUDY OF A VERY PROVOCATIVE OEUVRE. I SPOKE IN MELBOURNE WITH ANNA TERESA SCHEER ABOUT THE ARTIST AND THE BOOK.

First things first: Schlingensief is almost entirely unknown in Australia.

In 2008, when I returned to Australia, I realised Schlingensief’s work was among that which had really impressed me during my 14 years in Germany—especially when I realised how apolitical Australian art had become in the Howard years. For example, there was no attempt to test the sedition laws. People seemed afraid of losing the support of the funding bodies. Schlingensief, by contrast, had gone out on a limb time after time, in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. He was arrested twice and wasn’t bothered about the consequences.

In Germany, I was used to him being a household name—an unusual position for a theatre artist. It became especially apparent to me that his work needed to be written up when I began my postgraduate studies. He’s not mentioned in any of the ample literature that was coming out on politics and performance. American and British perspectives dominate the field, and still focus on people like Augusto Boal. Even Baz Kershaw, in The Radical in Performance, still talks about The Living Theatre and the Welfare State International from the 1960s.

After nearly 30 years of work, not much has been published on Schlingensief. Of course, there were articles in German papers and magazines, but that’s not the same as a scholarly, referenceable book. His work wasn’t considered serious—which didn’t detract from its power, from it being always sold out at the Volksbuehne in Berlin. The writing that did get published was primarily from his own collaborators. I was interested in how other people thought about the work, how it could be understood. In this book, we move from Adorno to Brecht to Goffman, looking for interpretive context.

We know Schlingensief as a theatre-maker, but his theatre career was an accident. He was an underground filmmaker when Matthias Lilienthal invited him to work in the re-established Volksebuehne in former East Berlin.

An incredibly smart move for Lilienthal, to pick up on a man who says his films were only ever going to be shown in cellar cinemas. Schligensief was invited after making the third film in his German trilogy, Terror 2000: Intensive Station Germany, which lampoons Germany’s memorial culture—politicians laying wreaths at every opportunity, the Gladbecker hostage disaster, the plight of the asylum seekers—piling up a lot of stuff together using very unaesthetic, trashy means. The film was called sexist, racist, every negative epithet you can imagine. And he was invited by Lilienthal to retort to critiques in a stage production.

I am intrigued by Rocky Dutschke ‘68 (1996), an early theatre work in which he tried to confront the Left’s nostalgia for the 60s and uncritical emulation of kinds of protest that are now futile.

It tried to re-create the 60s: Schlingensief in a Dutschke wig inciting people to go into the theatre, then out again for a protest, a love-in in the theatre…It inquired into the leftist mythology of Rudi Dutschke [assassinated leader of the West German student movement in the 1960s], seriously asking: is anything like this still possible, or are we all postmodern super-cynics and resistance no longer imaginable?

He really targeted the Left’s idealism: ‘We’ll still find the working class, who will revolt and take over.’ He wasn’t interested in that sentiment. You could absolutely not describe him as a leftist in those terms. He was an anarchic spirit, whose line was one of inquiry.

In your book cinematographer Sandra Umathum reflects very personally on what it meant to experience Rocky Dutschke ‘68.

The difficulty of writing about Schligensief’s work is that it was different every night. He throws dramaturgy overboard, gets rid of previously made agreements with the actors; he will on the spur of the moment upturn the whole thing. Key sections may remain—or maybe not! Schlingensief’s theatre work was not fuelled by a great love of theatre, of wanting to follow in Brecht or Grotowski’s footsteps. He was experimenting with theatre like a child with plasticine. What can you do with this? He was interested in the way theatre was never finished, but happened anew each night.

Rocky Dutschke ‘68 was the first performance in which Schlingensief used non-professional performers, a practice he continued throughout his career: people with disabilities, the homeless. In Hamlet in 2001 he conscripted a bunch of reformed neo-Nazi youths. He was not interested in the ‘show me your wounds’ approach in which we turn up to be compassionate. The audience is not allowed complacency.

He was not doing it to elevate the status of a minority, but to get to the core of societal problems—and not in a linear or simple, causal way. People forget how turbulent Germany was in the 90s. Moving the capital back to Berlin, the ‘media chancellor’ Gerhard Schroeder, then the bombing of Belgrade, the first time German troops were employed since WWII. Germany was outraged: this happened under a red-green government! Then the ongoing reunification debate: will we become the great nation of fascists again? All these things swirling around, as if in a washing-machine. And that is how these productions looked: like questions, with actors representing contemporary politicians, with references to the Nazi past…but always as this “past that will not pass.”

Was he an heir of Brecht in that sense?

Yes—the audience had to sit there and critically engage with their own society and socio-political problems, because he wasn’t telling them what to think.

PASSION IMPOSSIBLE, 1997

Passion Impossible was an inquiry into the city of Hamburg. Schlingensief was invited to create a work at the Deutsches Schau-spielhaus in Hamburg, Germany’s largest theatre [whose production Pornography was presented at Melbourne Interntional Arts Festival in 2010].

At that time, Hamburg station, which sits opposite the theatre, was literally a camp for the homeless and drug users. To get to the theatre, you had to step over their bodies. Schlingensief was essentially a moralist and found this situation unbearable. He first suggested to the administration they tear down the facade of the theatre and turn around the seats, to face the theatre across the road, the theatre of misery. The theatre rejected the proposal ‘for technical problems.’ Instead, they agreed to sponsor a benefit gala, to raise money for a mission.

The seven-day event Schlingensief staged was a mission in the former police station down the road and a series of mass events in public space. You had him standing outside the theatre in a policeman’s jacket with a megaphone, encouraging the theatre patrons to “come away from this ugly bunker! There’s nothing in here for you!” Like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, he would encourage people, having bought their ticket, to leave the building and come to the mission, which was a real mission—with beds and a soup kitchen. Here they had an open mike, a small stage and people could speak about whatever they wanted. He had an accordion player, the Salvation Army band, people singing songs…All sorts of little moments of what could be called entertainment.

Was this real or just a provocation?

It wasn’t clearly outlined. The theatre had publicised the event. The audience would buy tickets, then walk 200 metres up the road to the mission. You were paying to be involved with the people you would normally completely ignore, would never encounter in your daily life, or could have easily dealt with for free!

Participating in it was a provocation to oneself. Some of the stories of the homeless people were just awful. Early on, at the benefit gala, Schlingensief appeared with a decrepit battery chicken, and asked: “I want to see how much money can be raised to save the neck of this chicken!” People in the audience started protesting but he said, “We eat these chickens every day. What do you care about its life? I want to know how far people will go. We’re all addicted” — addicted to one’s own sense of doing good, of being a good citizen. We responded to the phone call, turned up at the benefit gala, did our little bit, even if otherwise we don’t really care. But now we’re really worried about the chicken!

But the main provocation was to the Lord Mayor by getting the citizens to eventually march up to the Town Hall, asking for the mission to continue. It became permanent.

I found Passion Impossible fascinating because it took it right out onto the streets. It is not dissimilar to Augusto Boal’s invisible theatre. There was a lot of media around. Questions were asked: Is he serious? Is this a charity campaign? Is it performance? Of course, it was all these things. And it evolved into an actual campaign, which he couldn’t have planned in the beginning. The work really asks: can art do something that politics can’t, create impetus for change? It questions our idea that artists can at best be pranksters. This is very different from watching The Chaser boys having a good time.

PLEASE LOVE AUSTRIA, 2000

I remember the reverberations from Please Love Austria (2000) as it made news throughout Europe that summer. There were riots!

2000 was the year when the liberal Austrian government became the only one since WWII to form a coalition with a far-right populist party, FPÖ, led by Jörg Haider. Sanctions were imposed on Austria. All of Europe was aware of Haider’s anti-immigrant campaigns.

Schlingensief was invited to create a work for the Vienna Festival. It was planned that shipping containers would be placed in the centre of town, on the Opera Square. These containers would be the living quarters for 12 asylum seekers for a period of seven days. Inside were webcams streaming to a website and Austrian citizens were encouraged to vote out their least favourite inhabitant, who would be taken to the border and deported. The winner would get 35,000 schillings and the possibility of becoming an Austrian resident by marriage. It followed the Big Brother format, which had just appeared.

It was only when Schlingensief, opening the show, revealed a large banner on the container, which said “Foreigners Out.” that it stopped being a game, or even funny. This is a well-known right-wing slogan: “Germany for Germans, Foreigners Out.” Jaws dropped. It attracted growing attention. People were coming through town for the festival and Schlingensief was there with a megaphone, exhorting tourists to take photos: “This is the future of Europe, this is Austria, send this to your friends at home, dear Japanese, dear Americans!” Austrians were shocked: “Besmirching our country!” Schlingensief kept publicly inviting Jörg Haider to meet with the asylum seekers—involving him in the performance, in absentia. The national boulevard press, the Kronen-Zeitung, were writing every day: “This Schlingensief clown is costing you money, dear readers.” Schlingensief retorted that they were just writing the program notes to his event.

The Left were campaigning against Jörg Haider. They saw the “Foreigners Out” banner simply as a provocation, accusing Schlingensief of misusing asylum seekers for his project. They marched around the container, demanding that he set those inside free, showing mind-boggling naivety — these were real asylum seekers, all with cases pending.

In the end they stormed the container.

Jumped on the roof, destroyed the banner, demanded a meeting. The asylum seekers had to be evacuated. The protesters then realised these were real asylum seekers and had to question their own activities. When they finally left, Schlingensief raised the ante by putting up an SS slogan that had been used by an FPÖ member: “Loyalty is our Honour.”

In that moment, it was as if Schlingensief reminded everyone that we were watching an art performance and that the real issue was only being represented. It questioned the efficacy of removing a symbol as a political action.

The Left-Right binary looked pathetic. The Right couldn’t take down the sign and government officials taking down an artwork would look pretty stupid. On the other hand, leftist protesters, making insane demands, weren’t effective either. Set the asylum seekers free — for what? Where?

The show wasn’t so much about the asylum seekers. Austria was televised around the world—the theatre was the Austrians, watching each other perform. Whatever happened, Schlingensief incorporated it into the work. That was the fun aspect of it. He didn’t have to rise to the bait or argue that this was a serious piece of political art. He would say: “I’m just repeating what Haider has been saying.”

Kerstin Grassmann, "Kandy" Mamounata Guira, Amando Komi in Christoph Schlingensief's award winning 2010 work Via Intolleranza. Photo: Aino Laberenz.

Slavoj Žižek calls this “radical overidentification”— an artistic position where you critique by overstating, by taking a claim to its absolute extreme to reveal its ugly possibilities.

Please Love Austria was a perfect example — the asylum seekers being forced to learn German, do callisthenics… It’s not as if Austria changed when the project left. That didn’t see the end of the coalition. But it showed how art can be directly involved in events of the day, in a very radical way.

In the book you point out the connection between Schlingensief’s work and the neo-avant-garde of the 1950s. You write about “an art practice that emerges from the social sphere—and that develops out of the active, creative participation of the viewer.”

The comparison with happenings is not wrong — everyday life, spontaneity, experiments. Schlingensief didn’t start something with a blueprint of how it should end, but set it in motion like a wind-up toy, to see where it goes. In Germany he is often considered the inheritor of the legacy of Joseph Beuys. Beuys’ discussions, definitions, ideas—of social sculpture, of an expanded form of art — Schligensief co-opted for his own ideas on an expanded form of theatre. Getting rid of the fourth wall, people leaving the theatre for the streets. That became really clear in 1998, when he ran his own political party in the German election.

Christoph Schlingensief (right), Chance 2000—Vote for Yourself (1998). Photo © Aino Laberenz.

CHANCE 2000—VOTE FOR YOURSELF, 1998

It started off with an event at the Volksbuehne. Schlingensief had a circus performance set up in a tent—the “electoral circus.” But at the same time, he started his own media campaign on national television about Chance 2000 – Vote For Yourself (1998). He was encouraging the disabled and the unemployed to run as political candidates. “None of these people in the Bundestag represent you. The idea that you will be represented by someone else your whole life is ridiculous—you have to prove you exist. Get involved in starting your own campaign.”

He toured Germany in a bus, campaigning non-stop. It wasn’t a completely serious attempt to form a political party. He would say, “Unlike all other politicians running in this election, the only promise I am going to make is that everyone will be bitterly disappointed.” Then he decided that the people who joined the party were too boring, left it and set up the Schlingensief Party. He wouldn’t let those he rejected into his new tent, but after two days they reunited. A very clever German reviewer commented that Schlingensief gave us a short run-through of democracy in a week. Parties, factions, reuniting, splitting up, another leader emerging, and all happening with such a turbulent tempo!

Germany was baffled: vote for yourself? Is he lampooning the election? The party got 30,000 votes. But the idea wasn’t that they would take over the Bundestag, but rather “prove you exist.” In this world, where the only voices we hear are those of rich politicians, who are these faceless unemployed people, apparently numbering six million? He was demanding you make yourselves visible in a world that’s trying to erase you.

There was a lovely offshoot action of Chance 2000. Schlingensief announced that the six million unemployed would join him to jump into a lake, Wolfgangsee, where Helmut Kohl’s villa is, to raise the water level, flood Kohl out and give him cold feet. The police were sent to the village, all sorts of preparations were in place. Schlingensief turned out with about 300 people. But Kohl ‘participated,’ against his will, in a performance. It doesn’t really matter if it did or didn’t happen. People saw the clips, it was national news that there hadn’t been 6 million people, only 300.

Schlingensief really understood the sound-byte world we’re living in—he created a mythology around the work, pretending things would go further than they actually could, and were bigger than they actually were.

How did Schlingensief’s work fit into the German theatre context? I remember when Denise Varney [Theatre Studies, University of Melbourne] showed a clip from Please Love Austria in class there was incredible consternation about whether such an action was legal or not. In Germany, Schlingensief reached the status of a star. He directed an opera for the Bayreuth Wagner festival. He was not living in a live art ghetto, the way one would expect here.

Events such as the one he staged in the election campaign of 1998 made him nationally prominent, while internationally it was Please Love Austria. He became the biggest name in art in Germany. After years of people saying it wasn’t real theatre, the fact that he wasn’t going away and was finally invited to direct Parsifal at the shrine of Wagner in Bayreuth, meant that he was finally accepted. On the other hand, he never became an intendant of a theatre — people didn’t trust him on that level. But after he contracted cancer, when he was only 47, he released a book—his cancer diary, titled Heaven Can’t Be More Beautiful Than Here — and it became a bestseller.

SHOCKED PATIENTS

He started a website, Shocked Patients (www.geschockte-patienten.org). The first thing he found out as a cancer patient is that you lose all autonomy. People start shoving tubes into you, no one talks to you, they talk over you. You are again erased. He created a forum for people diagnosed with terminal diseases, cancer and ALS [amyotropic lateral sclerosis] to write about their experiences, to have their own voice.

He had previously created a performance called Art and Vegetables (2004) at the Volksbuehne, in which, centrestage, was a woman with ALS, in bed, able to write messages by blinking at a computer screen. The woman, Angela Jansen, was quoted in the program, saying, “I’ve got everything I need, it’s just that I can’t move.” He used that as a reference to German society of the time. The woman now became the forum moderator.

It’s not as if he avoided scandal, he sought the media, did things knowing they would provoke a reaction—saying unkind things about Lady Di, for example. But there is also his metaphorical language: “Jump into the lake and give Kohl cold feet,” or relating physical sickness to a social sickness and lethargy.

One of the reasons it’s hard to talk about Schlingensief’s work is because he covers so many forms: happening, performance, theatre, film, activism, politics. It’s hard to sum up his work. One motif is, perhaps, visibility, the other is putting himself in his work. And particularly interesting to me, in these times of complete social inertia — I’m thinking Australia now — is his idea of movement, getting out of torpor and lethargy. He often took to the streets with groups of people. “Move! It doesn’t matter where we’re going. I don’t even need a plan.” No need for direction – you just move. “We’ll figure it out as we go.”

Tara Forrest and Anna Teresa Scheer eds, Art Without Borders, Intellect Books, 2010; www.intellectbooks.co.uk

First published in RealTime issue #103 June-July 2011 pg. 24-25.

Note: I am particularly proud of this article, which is, to my knowledge, the first mention of Christoph Schlingensief in the Australian media, arts or otherwise. Schlingensief is without a doubt one of the most important theatre artists of the 20th century, and the publication of Scheer’s book was an important occasion, not just in Australia, but worldwide.

Anna Teresa was a fantastic interlocutor. I cut my questions down to the bare minimum, giving most of the space to her, to describe the importance and social impact of Schlingensief’s work. Even so, the article ran at twice the word-length commissioned.

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The delicately delineated ecology of the Queen Victoria Market

Ah, the great institution that is the Queen Victoria Market, Melbourne’s central and biggest marketplace! The unsung landmark of this town, the bastion of wog values, the shrine to everything we stand for. How unappreciated for the microcosm of Victorian society that you are! How underanalysed, and critically unassessed you remain!

We are now going to make a dent in this tragic cultural omission, by looking at the human fauna of this delicate ecosystem – listing them in order, from the rarest and most in need of conservation, via the common and the abundant, to the most weedily persistent.

The Tourist

Self-explanatory. Tourist may be an American or Swedish backpacker, a high-minded photographer documenting the life among the ethnics, a flurry of pastel-wearing Queensladers, or timid Melburnians from the outer suburbs, tasting the rough inner city – it is not their outfit or their hometown that defines them as a tourist, but, in the eyes of the other QV Market goers, their tendency to walk slowly, turn awkwardly and unexpectedly, block important circulation routes with their backpacks and fanny packs and parasols and whatnots, take photographs of bread or toilets, and generally make themselves an odious human obstacle on purpose. Tourists tend to keep in uncircumventable packs, and are often overheard making comments of highly embarrassing kind to everyone except them. (E.g., a snippet of dialogue un-self-consciously performed by a group of American backpackers in front of the Iranian nut-and-sweets stall circa May 2011: “‘Turkish Delight’?! What’s that?!” “You don’t wanna know!”)

The Wandering Hipster

Nobody knows what these creatures are attempting to get out of the experience. While The Tourist is deeply inhaling the atmosphere of anxiety-free food consumption and vibrancy such as only people of colour possess, The Wandering Hipster resembles one of those children dragged to very exclusive cocktail parties by their Gen-X parents, and withdrawn to a corner to sulk in a significant fashion. They often sit in inopportune locations attempting to merely hang out in a casual manner, as if the market were a highly desirable social setting, out of which they cannot escape, such is the strength of the finger they hold on the pulse of town. The do not buy anything, possibly because fresh food is exotic and intimidating. Once they overcome such fears, they graduate to become The Confident Hipster.
Continue reading “The delicately delineated ecology of the Queen Victoria Market” »

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Simon Stephens: Theatertreffen keynote speech

Only a few nights ago, Simon Stephens gave a keynote speech at Theatertreffen, the most prestigious place in Germany to have your work shown. The keynote is now available at the Theatertreffen blog, and is worth reading in full. It questions a whole host of the usual Anglophone assumptions about what ‘proper theatre’ is. As a non-Anglophone, I cannot make such claims, or at least cannot make them with the same effect. It comes across as nasty criticism. And, to some extent, it is none of my business (or it wouldn’t be, if I wasn’t living in Melbourne). But for those reasons it’s a text I hope many, many will read.

For copyright purposes (although I suspect Germans may not care about this too much), I am reporting only (my personal) highlight:

There is an assumption that I continue to confront when I talk about my work in Germany to other English theatre makers. It is the same assumption they have always had. They talk about it in the way people used to talk about food in England in the seventies and football in the eighties. It wasn’t proper food. It wasn’t proper football. It’s not proper theatre.

It sits under that artistic process of assimilation that happens on the rare occasions that British theatres programme work from abroad. We anglicise its presentation. We make actors act naturalistically and sets evoke the same naturalism. We chose the plays that most accord to our assumptions of what a play should be.

It infuriates me. Because the experience of seeing my plays produced in other countries has been such a constant provocation. Travel, in particular but not exclusively in my working relationship with Sebastian has allowed me to see the assumptions sitting under our methods of working in the UK, our deference to the author, our hunger for success, our need to interpret meaning through language and our distrust of the non-naturalistic as being culturally specific, not innate and also, at worst as being limited or small-minded. The polite arrogant assumptions of a small-minded nation.

I couldn’t have known that if I hadn’t have travelled. The closest I came to knowing that was in those experiences of reading plays written outside my theatre culture or better, seeing them produced. My assumptions were interrogated, my techniques exposed. This allowed me to take control of them. It empowered me. It exhilarated me. And it frightened me too. Sometimes when watching a play in a foreign culture you don’t know what to expect. Sometimes when planning a theatrical initiative or a conversation you don’t know expect. It’s like you’re eyes are closed. It’s like you’re blindfolded. Sometimes you step out into the rehearsal room or the theatre, the auditorium or the lecture hall and it’s terrifying and you fall. And not knowing that possibility exaggerates the fear. And sometimes, perhaps occasionally, you fly a bit. And when you do, I think it can be extraordinary.

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Swimming pools, Muslims, and the burqini in Dandenong

Very interesting opinion piece by Julie Szego in the weekend’s The Age on a women-only Ramadan event at the Dandenong pool, at which all women aged 10 or up must be covered from knees to neck if they are to attend. The comments are a predictable mix of people saying “Try and ask for a similar concession in a Muslim country”, “THIS IS A WAR”, “Why aren’t they assimilating?”, “Islam is the only religion that wants to take over the world” on the one hand, and “it’s an issue of equity”, “some of these women are isolated” and “so, according to your argument, I should be able to turn up to my daughter’s wedding in the nude” on the other. The article, however, does try to analyse the issues: women’s rights, the requirements of public pools to serve whatever community they have living around them, issues of equity, and tolerance. It’s up online, for anyone to read.

It is, however, interesting to read the discussion if, like me, you come from a slightly different angle: I have spent years trying to find a proper sauna and swimming pool in Melbourne, ie one that doesn’t require a neck-to-thigh cover for women. All the therapeutic benefits of sauna are cancelled out by sports swimwear, especially of the full-torso female type, and it is not just beyond unpleasant to sit in 90 degrees covered in lycra, it is also stressful on the body, and potentially dangerous. I could frame it as a discrimination problem: if men can get away with tiny speedos, why aren’t women allowed in topless? But I think it is more probably a prudishness problem (see, for example, the case of a Brisbane sauna-as-art). It all gets much worse when I raise the question of mixed-sex sauna: the immediate, automatic answer this seems to provoke is ‘EWW’, or ‘why would you want people other than your boyfriend to see you naked’?

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Compare and contrast.

Now, two things. First, it must be clear by now that I really cannot see Australia as the land of freedom to show one’s body as one likes. The whole argument of Western secular liberalism which celebrates the body, or even of some Aussie tradition of baring flesh, is simply not correct. There is a reasonable amount of Puritan disavowal of the body going on, or of sexualising all nudity at all times. As the Finnish artists themselves remarked, “there are cultural differences” between Finland and Australia. And, you know, it would be impossible to argue that this prudishness is not in any way connected to religion. The subject of nudity in the Australian society is so touchy that it’s ridiculously hard to even raise it in polite conversation without everyone getting red in the face and starting to crack jokes about paedophiles. (Which is, frankly, ridiculous. As is the oft-made remark about not exposing children to adult nudity. Children, especially toddlers and very young kids, could not care less.) Compare Australia to Scandinavian countries, to Germany, even France or Italy or Croatia, all places in which such scandalous behaviour as topless sunbathing (and swimming) and mixed-sex nude saunas, happens without much drama.

Second, I am always struck by the disingenuousness of packing together “liberal Western values”, “Enlightenment principles”, “feminism” and “women’s dress rules”. Call me bitter, but it is the same as coupling Capitalism with the struggle for workers’ rights; or, not very correct. Sure, there is a geo-historical link, but to say that one of the essentially Western (as opposed to Eastern, Muslim, or less-developed) projects has been equality of sexes is a gross overstatement, conveniently forgetting the fact that the universal suffrage, equal rights, and women’s lib were fights. As Tony Myers writes in the book I’m currently reading:

The [Enlightenment principle of] cogito [ergo sum] is the basis of the centred subject, or, as it is more commonly known, the ‘individual’. The consequences for this model of subjectivity are compelling. For example, until recently, it was generally accepted (by men at least) that only men were masters of themselves. Women, on the other hand, were supposed to be subject to passions and feelings which they could not properly control. That is to say, women were not centred subjects but decentred subjects. They were, therefore, not ‘proper’ individuals and were treated accordingly as second-class citizens, subject to the rule of the masterful men. In fact, the mastery of women formed part of the larger project to dominate the natural world itself (of which women were held to be a part). The results of this project, which is sometimes referred to as the Enlightenment Project, can be witnessed in the devastation wreaked upon the environment. If it seems a little harsh to rebuke a philosophical model with the destruction of the planet, it is perhaps worth remembering that only a subjectivity which thinks it answers exclusively to itself would risk the destruction of nature and not expect to be held accountable for it.

Or, as a great man of Enlightenment said:

Since dependance is a state natural to women, girls feel themselves made to obey; they have, or should have, little freedom… Destined to obey a being as imperfect as man, a woman should learn to suffer – even to suffer injustice – at an early age, and to bear the wrongs of her husband without complaint. You will never reduce boys to the same point; their inner sense of justice rises up and rebels against such injustice, which nature never intended them to tolerate.

(Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, IV: 710-11)

But, the point to make here is that Enlightenment did mark the beginning of a quest for knowledge in which nothing was sacred, nothing was beyond questioning. In particular, tradition. If there is any way in which feminism was Rousseau’s baby, it was in the call to question everything. This is why the ultimate paradox of defending the bikini because of our “recognised tradition of secular freedom” is deeply absurd: if there is anything contrary to the spirit of secular inquiry, it is upholding or banning practices based on how well they fit in with our “tradition”.

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I am a little dispirited by the argumentation of both sides in this debate.

On the one hand, I don’t think there is anything particularly logical or reasonable in demanding that women cover from neck to knee in a swimming pool, just like I don’t think there is anything reasonable in having to wear clothes to a sauna. I agree with Szego, it seems to me important to remember that there is a principle at stake here, a principle of the female body not being automatically sexual, not being automatically shameful, and not being required to cover (or bare). Muslim misogyny is misogyny alright. David Gilmore writes, in a sweeping comparative analysis:

Muslim misogyny is really not so much an attack on women as it is a flight from woman “as the source of uncontrollable desires in the male self”. Islamic misogyny, like all others, is a flight from inner conflict over women; misogyny is the psychic consequence to male ambivalance and turmoil. The reification of this struggle that occurs in Islam is similar perhaps to what occurs in Christianity, Hinduim, and Buddhism, except perhaps for the added biographical ingredient of the Prophet’s apotheosis of sexual anxiety into lithurgy. One may say that St Paul and St Augustine played similar roles in forming Christian theology.

(David D. Gilmore, Misogyny: the Male Malady, p.217)

But this treatment of women does correspond to the same sentiments, fears and neuroses in the Australian culture, however secular it may be on paper. There is a corresponding prudishness on the Australian side, that all the talk about “Western liberal values” and “secular principles” cannot hide. In fact, what complicates the debate to such a large degree is precisely the way in which Australian commentators seem themselves unsure of whether there is or isn’t a principle at stake, or whether we are simply debating degrees of exhibitionism. Szego:

The Brimbank spokeswoman explained that [the swimming pools required that the] ”participants should be dressed appropriately, as is expected of a centre used by children and families”.

It seems to me that, until someone remembers what that principle may be, commentators can go hoarse talking about how the burqini “run[s] counter to the West’s more than 500-year struggle for individual freedom” (Szego). In practice, we are bound to get all confused about who is allowed to see how much skin on whom before we all have to blush and go “ooh”.

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Scott Pilgrim; musings on misogyny

After enthusiastic recommendations of the film by at least three men very dear to me, I’ve finally given in and seen Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.

Having a mountain of work to catch up on, I don’t think I have time nor energy for an in-depth analysis, but the film did leave me with one very pointed question mark hanging above my head, and it is the question ethics and pop culture.

Abigail Nussbaum completely seconds my opinion when she writes, on her blog, that Scott Pilgrim is both a fun movie, and an indisputably misogynist movie. Giving herself more time and space to analyse how and why, and also to wrestle with a number of Pilgrim fans who loudly disagree in the comments’ section, Nussbaum gives a very rounded overview of the film, equally critical and generous: it is both a fun piece of cinematic fluff, and one more brick in the general misogyny of the American (Canadian-American?) pop culture.

To both the fans and the critics of the film, this bias may be even more tragic when considering that, by all accounts, the original graphic novel works hard to unwind precisely the cliches that the film perpetuates. What appears to have been a subtle(r) and (more) nuanced critique of a certain kind of narcissistic, young slacker male, has here turned into a largely positive portrait in which, in the end, all faults are forgiven, some personal growth detected, and the loser gets the patient, mature and beautiful girl. There is a passage, it seems, between the subculture and the pop culture that flattens nuance, as registered in the fact that the Bechdel test would pass the comic, but fail the film.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Left: the flawed but lowable protagonist. Right: the romantic lead with a bit of personality, but no character.

(What is the Bechdel test? First divulged to me by one of those same men who invited me to see this film, Bechdel test is named after Alison Bechdel, an American graphic novelist. It both demonstrates the comparative progressiveness of the American graphic novels when compared to the movies, and is a one-size-fits-all detector of misogyny in any narrative. To pass the Bechdel test, a movie:

1. has to have at least two women in it,
2. Who talk to each other,
3. About something besides a man.
Whether this detects merely misogyny, or the complete inability of our popular art to portray women as human beings is a pertinent question, but let’s leave it aside. Let’s also leave aside the fact that many, many other films, TV shows, and comics fail this test together with Scott Pilgrim, including such beacons of feminism as Sex and the City, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or Frida. The point is, Scott Pilgrim fails.)

It’s interesting, however, that a few web-commentators have remarked on the misogyny, but no one to my knowledge has mentioned racism *. Yet Scott Pilgrim is also an undeniably racist film. From the first moment the only Asian character faints, clearly too anime to do anything better, I wondered how the portrayal of gay characters has managed to shoot up from caricature to respect, leaving behind such comparatively more frequent behaviour as being of non-Anglo-Saxon ethnicity.

Yes, it is possible to give a hundred reasons for why Knives Chau behaves the way she does: she is only 17, meant to be a boy-fantasy girlfriend, the most immature character, etc. But I watched the film thinking of all the young Chinese Australians I know, all wonderfully rounded and complex people, and wondered how annoying it must be for them to never see faces like their own in any more central, more complex, more rounded role than the screaming sidekick caricature. Yes, the immature 17-year-old girlfriend swoons and says OMG. But why is only the 17-year-old girlfriend a Chinese-Canadian? Why not the romantic interest, the lead, the mature best friend?

At the same time, I’ve always found it annoying that this question is treated with such seriousness by feminists, post-colonialists, and Left-leaning liberal people in general. How serious can this issue really be? Is it really on par with slavery and Hiroshima? I don’t think so.

But today, I’m wondering if we could compare this pop-cultural treatment of women and races with smoking – not least because I’m reading That Book That Makes People Quit Smoking.

Namely: every smoker tells herself and her friends the same story. It goes like this: “I am not addicted. I just enjoy it. I could stop any time. If I’m not stopping, it’s because I like smoking/it relaxes me/it helps my concentration/I only smoke socially.” But what happens when someone asked the smoker, given the absence of serious addiction, to stop smoking for a week to demonstrate that she could quit any time? Ah, now it’s impossible. The smoker realises she is unable to, but will come up with a host of reasons for why now is not the right time to try this: “it’s a stressful period/it’s a period of socialising/I am still enjoying it too much/I’ll quit next week.” Because each cigarette is perceived as only one cigarette, not one in a long chain, not one small perpetuation of an unhealthy addiction, it is very hard to make the smoker acknowledge that the addiction is there. But, just like the cat doesn’t need to know where the hot-water pipes lie under the floor, to know that sitting in certain places is nice and warm, so the smoker doesn’t need to understand the mechanics of the nicotine addiction to enjoy the familiar relaxation of satisfying it.

The low-level, low-intensity racism and sexism of pop culture is, I think, very similar to the low-intensity nicotine addiction. It provides so little palpable pleasure that neither is perceived as a conscious act of satisfying a deep desire, either for nicotine, or to humiliate women/other races. Each act of misogyny and racism, just like a cigarette, is perceived as a single act of satisfying something else (humour, narrative cliché, shorthand, simplifying for greater clarity). But when you ask a question that would reasonably follows from such disawoval, such as: why not have a Chinese girl as the romantic interest?, or why not have multiple developed female characters who talk to each other about music, politics or cars? (the equivalent of quitting smoking for a week), it becomes obvious that these disparate actions, however unintentional and unperceived, form a long chain of habit, in this case a habit of portraying other races as inferior, or women as nothing but love interests.

Taken separately, each instance of a female character with barely a trace of interior life (like Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim is a perfectly excusable artistic error – just like, taken separately, each cigarette is just one tiny little mistake in a very long life. But, cumulatively, one kills you and the other one builds a world in which all Chinese girls say OMG and swoon whenever they’re supposed to make a rational decision.

* This is actually incorrect, as I’ve discovered now. Prof. Susurro, a cinema/cultural studies academic, discusses precisely the racism of Scott Pilgrim on her extraordinary blog Like a Whisper **.
** This leads to another question: what would the Bechdel test for racism look like? Clearly, two people of colour talking to each other, but about what..?

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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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Vertical multiculturalism

You have to be the most humourless disco sceptic not to like this Turkish gem:

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Clã – Competência Para Amar:

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Against horizontal multiculturalism – by which we intend a socio-cultural activity oriented towards minorities, or a decorative employment of mainly non-European expressive cultures (Brook, Barba, Mnouchkine), a moussaka which tries to convince us, with a bit of Indian make-up, majestic Japanese costumes and roars of two to three dark-skinned actors, that it is engaging with the rest of the world. But the methods of composition and employment of these piled up sensations/sensationalisms are still intact in their Westernness. In contrast to this – let’s say it calmly – colonial approach, artists of the so-called vertical multiculturalism, working on the transects of different cultures, struggling to break through the simultaneity of different cultural identities with a sort of schizoanalytical approach, are building a unique, innovative art. Such an actor manages to hold, within his mental habitus, multiple different archaic combinations and ways of being while his body emanates the gestic essence of modern theatre, which gives a vertiginous dimension to the internal, ritual element. The same can be said for the above-described directorial interventions.

–Gordana Vnuk, Pogled iznutra

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RW: En Trance

Yumi Umiumare.

It is very rare that I go out of my way to write a reflection on a theatre piece I didn’t enjoy. Particularly considering that this was one evening I had spent in the theatre purely for pleasure, not for work in any way, that I was a paying customer in civilian clothes, and that what I am going to do can fairly be called a deliberate act of meanness. The only answer I can offer is that it was dance, that dance cannot speak for itself, that if we do not speak out for good dance against bad dance than there will be no one, no one at all. Bad theatre can cannibalise itself, you can let it sit in the corner until it collapses into a pile of hollow words and badly crafted phrases, I am happy to let it compost into the fodder for better theatre. No problems there. But bad dance still looks fairly mimetic, still kicking and contagious, an untamed disease.

So I went to see Yumi Umiumare’s En Trance, excited because I had never seen Umiumare’s solo work, because I still possess a half-baked interest in Japan, because I love butoh, because I love cabaret, because it’s been a year of skinny cows in dance in Melbourne. The excitement lasted – En Trance is not bad enough to be immediately outraging – but it was dishearteningly quick that I began to unpick its flaws, composing sentence after sentence of annoyed self-righteousness while still in the audience.

Umiumare, to give credit where credit’s due, is a fantastic performer, not merely a crafty dancing body but a soloist with that unmistakable stage presence of a cabaret performer, able to pull you in and keep you there, genuinely interested in what she may say or do next. Umiumare employs her skill frequently, and some of the most mesmerising moments of En Trance are also the simplest: Umiumare painting her body white, singing a J-pop song to karaoke, or explaining different Japanese onomatopoeias for crying. Good stage presence, it occurs to me, shares something ineffable with the skills of a good creche child-minder: the ability to keep an eye on a large number of other human beings while doing your own work. (Do observe kindergarten employees some time, you will see.) However, the dramaturgy and the choreography, two fundamental building blocks of dance, are so horrifyingly underdeveloped, that it did not even feel like a draft most of the time. It felt like a brainstorming session, like flicking through someone’s scrapbook, like the disconnected and half-baked notes in travel notebooks in which one may have written ‘boy – jeans’ back when it meant something amazingly profound, but unfortunately now it doesn’t anymore; now one reads ‘boy’, then ‘jeans’, and tries to find a bit of meaning, anything really, to restore one’s faith in one’s own brain.

In a succession of steps downwards, like descending down a ladder, Umiumare sheds layers of civilisation and descends into death, madness and animal-ness; that is, becomes less human. So far, so good. After her cat runs away, she undergoes through a series of transmutations, so to speak, her body subjected first to the de-humanising city (please hear the irony in my voice here), then the violence of pain, and so forth. The first problem is that each scene is monotonously overlong: each had an interesting premise and could have been cut by half. Nothing was gained by duration, except that each dance had a moment of the audience waking out of the spectatorial trance, and drifting away. The second problem, much graver, is that Umiumare makes ample use of her local folklore: from the Japanese cityscapes, through the samurai physical vocabulary, to J-pop, to different oni (most signpostedly shiroi hebi); all her costumes have vague shapes of kimono, there is tea-drinking, there is a white parasol, and visually the entire thing looks like the transcultural theatre of the 1980s, a naïve and ridiculous, if not offensive and essentialist, fusion of gestures and motifs. There were parts, notably the cityscape dance, when I entertained the notion of En Trance being poor man’s dumb type, but even that seemed excessively generous, and I eventually settled for something approximating Mats Ek’s orientalist Sacre du Printemps in intent, and similarly failing in execution. Why? To re-interpret Stravinsky’s dance of madness, the horrific and erotic sacrifice of a young virgin, by pushing it through the sieve of bushido and love suicides is somehow so logical that it loses all sense. The beauty of Sacre, if you want, is demonic and repulsive and close; the moment this is outsourced to the Far East, it has to become elegant not to be insulting (because Ek is Swedish, and probably knew fuck-all about bushido), but then what was supposed to be just a system of signage overweighs and engulfs the entire work, turning it into a hollow, nice-looking facade. Whereas Stravinsky’s and Nijinsky’s ballet was a punch in the gut, Ek’s was just a bit… camp?

I wonder if Umiumare is aware of the two hundred and sixteen problems associated with performing a descent away from being human through her Japanese-ness in Melbourne, the distance her audience already has towards this culturally specific material, the way she herself reinforces the exoticity by merely explaining it to us (the didactic moments were interesting, but one felt instructed thus made into a better person, a little like at worst political theatre), the creepy spectacle of a re-orientalised body willingly turning into an animal; as if it was 1986, and all people of colour who spoke LOTE could embrace their inner savage and find answers to all their riddles. To speak of other cultures is only a problem, I would argue, if we parcel the world into ‘cultures’, if we choose to see the globe as a patchwork, rather than a teeming mass of people all slightly different from another, our codes only surface ripples on a deep sea of shared humanity. When Kundera talks about Stravinsky, Kafka, Carlos Fuentes and Majakovski, you are convinced that these people are important to you, to your life, that their lives, thoughts and actions say something important and meaningful about your life, my life, everyone’s life. That life is lived in particulars, not in generalities, does not contradict this point: ‘culture’ is a generalization in itself, while nothing is more universal than a detail. (This is why types of crying in Japanese onomatopoeia were a fantastic motif that, instead of looking at crying, dissolved into a sterile catalogue of exotic difference.) After all, there is a motif in Slavic fairy tales akin to that of the white snake: a man marries a woman, but she is actually a snake, and the evil thoughts in her mind leave a mark on her body in the form of a snake tongue. Like all good stories, so is this one universal. The truth is not to be discovered in Japan alone, not on its surface at least. Like Ek’s Sacre, so is this snake in drag a bit camp; a bit ‘look at my national costume’; and a bit dated as well.

Stranded between cultures, I do wonder what an artist can do. Like Kundera, he can retreat into greater and greater abstraction, comparative abstraction in his specific case. Like Nabokov, he can employ all his gifts to beat the natives at their game. Like Shaun Tan, perhaps, he can make his own world, a private place that could be anywhere at all; or he can simply be so brilliant at his work that his locus does not matter the slightest. But can he also hold onto his old culture and remain a specialist translator? Is there not something cloying, something dishonest, something fermenting and oxidising about this movement into self-replenishing, privately-grown culture? Kusturica’s ever more outrageous claims on what his people are comes to mind. To make a catalogue of your private world, like some sort of overgrown shrine to ancestors, and try to explain it all to your audience, yet always leaving them out because communication is a fine median between codes, not some fluency in a set language, strikes me almost as wilful retreat into the island of cultural self. Like the proverbial expat ordering Vegemite online.

En Trance. By Yumi Umiumare. Dramaturg and collaborator Moira Finacune, media art by Bambang Nurcahyadi, installtion artist Naomi Ota, costumes design by David Anderson, lighting design by Kerry Ireland. With Yumi Umiumare. Malthouse Theatre, until September 13.

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