Tag Archives: VCA

RW: Two Classical Comedies

Molière’s legacy encompassed more than his plays. He left behind an acting style developed with his company over many years. Based at least in part on their observations of the Italian actors who shared their theatres, this style was far more realistic, more modern, that the orotund declamation and practiced posturing of the tragedians at the Hotel de Bourgogne. Because the Italians improvised their dialogue and action, at least while they were developing a new play, they acted with what we now call “concentration,” that is, they were alert to each other and to whatever was happening on the stage. They played together in the scene and in the moment. The classical tragic style, that Molière burlesqued in the Impromptu de Versailles, was rather more like that of opera as it was performed until relatively recently. Actors, for the most part, delivered arias while other actors waited their turns.

– Virginia Scott: Molière

We forget details like these. Sure, Molière the satirist. Oh, things can be so biting 200 years later! The problem, as usual, is practical: how do you make a play that was current, deliciously mean, hilarious and a popular blockbuster 200 years ago into a performance that’s current, deliciously mean, hilarious and a popular blockbuster now, and remain faithful to the text? What would a successful contemporary reworking of a Molière play look like? There would be as many answers as there are Molière-readers out there, I imagine, not least because a dramatic classic always seems to mean anything to anyone. Unlike literary classics, you see, dramatic texts are rarely pinned down into canonical meanings. Canonical interpretations, yes, but here we have 200 years thereof… and it’s not even in English.

For example, there was Tartuffe, in 2008. Evidence for examination: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Alison thought it feisty, and “rude, crude and vulgar” in the good sense of the word: “it doesn’t make a lot of sense so much as a lot of pointed nonsense.” In the comments to TimT, someone was outraged at the production resorting to cheap laughs “or sexual innuendo which really isn’t very clever at all.” Chris thought that Molière’s razor-edge satire was completely blurred and called the production a garden without the snake. ArtsHub “more slapstick than witty farce”. Martin Ball, in The Age: “the effect is comedic and parodic – burlesque, even – rather than satirical or subversive.” Notice how, in most of these reviews, Molière is promoted (or demoted) into a satirist, whereas there is an equally, if not more widespread judgement that he wrote farces. While TimT bravely examined what a perfect contemporary Molière would look like – arriving at no plausible answer, but several wildly entertaining ones – the general opinion seemed to be that it should be a sort of Wilde for the naughties. Well, messieurs. As of slapstick, I can only really say, cough ahem, commedia dell’arte.

Then came The Hypocrite. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Some distinguished company here, hiding behind the numbers, from our comrades at The Quadrant to Mr Craven at The Age. This one was easier, because apparently it wasn’t funny (Kevin Johnson liked it, but he professed not to like Molière much.) Again, crudity was a bit of a problem, but more than one reviewer praised it as a “fine show”, which signals to me that the Molière of Molière was failed by this production. The satire, clearly, was created, in the work of a man who made a play that ridiculed the critics of his last play ( La Critique de “l’École des Femmes”, following L’École des Femmes and brutally criticising every critique made thereof). Since when has that been a sign of good taste? Peter Craven, strangely enough, gives the most satisfying account, probably because his isn’t a review (he mentions a very successful Kosky production, which he apparently hated). But the most respectable trait of Mr Craven’s is his ability to praise a theatre production without apparently liking it at all. Always a sign of a good journalist, and I do mean it in the best of ways.

Now, without having settled the satire/farce dilemma, we have to turn to the VCA, which is double-billing The Bourgeois Gentleman with The Learned Ladies, as their mid-year Classical Comedies for the acting class 2009 *. Keeping in mind our opening paragraph, one must say: what a great choice. What a vehicle to show the theatrical range of these young actors right when they need it the most. And do they succeed? Partially.

I confess: Molière-for-kids was among my favourite children’s book, and generally every effort was made to bring his work down to me, not make me reverentially labour through it as an untouchable classic. As a result, perhaps, just pronouncing his name gives me an immediate uplift. To my mind, the beauty of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin is the beauty of musicals, of pop songs: smooth and round-cornered and candy-coloured and somehow irreducible to intellect. There is a physical, spontaneous vigour in this theatre, a jouissance, an excess. The same elementary force that one can find in the Decameron, and completely aligned with that great expanse of bourgeois theatre that developed in the Edo-era Japan (the sewamono, with its own spectrum of stock plots and characters, from merchant bonvivants to good whores).

To be terribly Marxist about the entire thing, let’s point out that these plays appear at a time when a new class of uncouth, moneyed bourgeoisie is rising through the ranks, challenging the values of the aristocracy while, in the lack of its own Weltanschauung, it is still half-arsedly attempting to emulate its ways, creating plentiful opportunity for laughs all round. It is only once they have completely supplanted the old money that the situation can turn poignant, and we get misplaced Hedda Gablers and the revision of the samurai code. In other words, when Kath and Kim becomes a pitiful tragedy for the few, we will know that the bogans have won. It will also, I imagine, eventually result in the promotion of Kath and Kim into a witty, biting social satire of sorts, and a classic to be reverently re-made. (However, judging from the recent developments on the GFC front, it looks like the presently-moneyed are fighting well, and that won’t happen just yet.)

In any case: to try to pick out a deep-meaning theme out of these paper-thin plots and wafery characters is like looking for the Nietzche references in a Destiny’s Child album (God knows some do). These plays still have little literary value – I know them only because I was going to be a Japanologist, back when I was a serious young person. Instead, what they possess in abundance is an unbridled, manic, irreverent excess of energy, for the sheer sake of energy consumption. The biting social critique that Molière’s theatre offered to its time still has a lateral function, an explanation of sorts, a hinge to hang on to and nod, because it offers an analytical way in, but perhaps it is the performance itself, a slippery thing made entirely out of “concentration”, that we should be looking at. Perhaps, like stand-up comedy, like Olympic sports, the meaning of the action is entirely secondary to the execution.

Thomas Conroy, Annie Last and Emmeli Johansson in The Learned Ladies. Photo Jeff Busby.

And is it executed wonderfully? Partially! The two comedies are not so much directed, as staged; and without a strong directorial statement, in the present situation in which the meaning of Molière is anything but clear, this is a veritable minefield. Paul Weingott’s The Learned Ladies veers uncertainly between the usual poles: wanting to be hilarious, and wanting to be a biting satire. The latter fails for all the reasons implied above: when we laugh at the semi-learned ladies, who are we laughing at? The newly impoverished poor? The mythical bogan? The satire satirises nothing. The former, though, doesn’t quite occur either: there is a lot going on in this version of The Learned Ladies, but nothing quite adds up. There is music, there is dancing, there is acting, there is a love story. In the most unfortunate choice of them all, there is also semi-gloom, decay and ominous roaring, which may be signifying the end of the world (see GFC), but it’s a finger not quite pointing in any direction. Left to their own devices, the young actors do their best.

If The Bourgeois Gentleman succeeds, it is precisely because the play is only a pretext for the actors to go nuts. Without looking at creating relevance, Gary Down allows it to be a two-act piss-take, and the result is not biting, not a popular blockbuster, not necessarily deliciously mean either, but certainly hilarious. The performers seem more settled in their respective roles, probably because the aims of this production are better delineated, allowing them to explore the performative extremes of the types they are playing. From the mirrored romantic comedy of the bourgeois/servant couples, the greedy flattery of the exasperated teachers, the aristocratic antics, the merchant common sense of Mme Jourdain, and the role-playing Turks, every gesture is amplified beyond obvious references, creating interactions and situations so utterly over-the-top as to resemble the most absurd of the Monty Python moments. However, Mike Steele owns the show as Mr Jourdain, the taker of lessons in all arts plus philosophy, the ultimate aspirational. Barely absent from stage, his persona is both broadly effeminate and resolutely crass, a sort of all-encompassing caricature that stand-up comedians sometimes develop, an image both recognizable and exquisitely original. It is worth seeing for his performance alone.

Michael Steele and Kyle Baxter in The Bourgeois Gentleman. Photo Jeff Busby.

To return to our first reference point, Molière can be a fantastic vehicle for young actors: it demands an out-there-ness that an actor can play with in most flooring ways. It demands big-ego, big-ball performances. It attracts attention – hopefully. But until we figure out whether we want our Molière poignant or hysterical, it seems slippery territory for directors. The relative success of these two comedies shows precisely the problems with treating Jean-Baptiste as an ideas man. Although both offer material that could be re-relevantized into contemporary issues, they work the best when they completely sideline that thought, and play with the upper limits of the form. Paradoxically, it is when they forget all that boring stuff about contemporary references, and instead sink into the excess, the near-absurd caricature, the farce, that the comedies genuinely engage their audiences.

EDIT: I had previously made a claim that the Classical Comedies were the Class 2009’s final productions. This is wrong, since we’re mid-year, and a result of a very strange confusion in my mind, to do with the Northern Hemisphere and my own sense of lagging behind. Apologies.

The Bourgeois Gentleman. By Molière. Directed by Gary Down.

The Learned Ladies By Molière. Directed by Paul Weingott.

Acting Company 2009 with Production Students. Both showing at VCA, Performing Arts Building, 28 Dodds Street Southbank, until Saturday 6 June, 2009.

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RW: Peer Gynt

Somewhere between the eager, calculated ambition of Julien Sorel, and the holy mania of Hamsun’s narrator in Hunger, there was Peer Gynt, a provincial boy who wanted to be king. Writing in Italy, between the shaky fervour of his early fame, and the secure wisdom of his mature psychological dramas, recently expatriated Ibsen was waxing uncomfortably personal. The first half, an act of plotting bien fait, realism-however-fanciful, is his past; the second, a phantasmagoric circular nightmare, his imagined future. For five acts, Ibsen makes Peer hop from whim to whim, day-dreaming himself into glorious roles and escaping every moment of existential discomfort, confusing this wild gratification of impulsive desires and learnt ambition with truthfulness to oneself.

In Dante’s Inferno, the antechamber to Hell is reserved for those who drifted through life without ever getting behind a cause of belief. Having gambled morals, principles and relationships away for a life lived fully, Peer is revealed to be merely a self-centred little man, not different from a common small-town butcher. He spends his last dramatic moments chased by the Button Moulder with a big ladle, confronted with the very destiny he fears the most: insignificance; oblivion. Categorically denied the last honour of being a great sinner (“merely average”, quips the Button Moulder), unworthy of Devil’s time, he will be moulded into a button.

A sprawling dramatic poem, Peer Gynt careens freely between social verisimilitude and outrageous flights of fancy. In its psychological externalization, each troll is a momentarily irresistible girl, each nightmare a folktale monster. It was not intended for performance, and Ibsen exuberantly did away with reasonable staging demands: spanning 50 years, two continents, an obscene number of characters, changes of tone, pace and fabular focus, it is as unstageable as a play gets. But it was Heiner Muller who said that only dramatic writing that cannot be realised on stage is of any use for the theatre.

Daniel Schlusser takes the text as the starting point to explore the questions and answers Ibsen posed himself. His Peer Gynt eludes, disappoints, dissonates, amazes, stretches and contracts, and meanwhile disagrees with most of what we see on Australian stages these days: despite occasionally looking it, it is not lyrical, not pretty, not atmospheric, not sentimental, and not unknotting itself with silly humour or cute explanations. lt unravels its threads of inquiry with slow thoroughness of a Hans van den Broeck (not among the C de la B for no reason), and yet the complex performance requires no long-winded explanations before it can be fully felt. Its intellectual rigour is solid enough to allow itself wild playfulness. It is gorgeous, masterful theatre.

It is entirely possible to read this Peer as a satire on conventional naturalism. The establishing scene, that two-minute cliché of actor milling around the stage, unaware of the fourth-wall crowd, is here stretched into an unrelenting, 30-or-so-minute setting up of the performance/wedding stage. A fridge is hauled in, a pool filled with balloons, the actors walk on and off stage wrapped in a visible, but gauze-thin layer of heightened stage presence: bringing the drinks, the beach towels, talking into their phones, conducting barely audible conversations, whispered gossip. The endless wedding implosion that builds up is an opaque enactment of a complex social situation, breaking into mini-conflicts, small seductions, power negotiations in far corners. All a sort of long pout at the audience that wants staged life.

However, it is when the performance breaks into the song and dance of serving-the-play, and the performers build up heightened actorliness, that strangeness sets in. In a wonderful inversion, the text is not a source of truth, but an exclamatory deceit. Once literary faithfulness start showing, it looks incongruous to whatever stage reality has been created. The performers recite Ibsen’s extravagant language and emotions sounding more and more like delusional lunatics. Gynt fornicates in the forest, becomes a troll, abandons lovers, grows old, and the closer the performance follows the plotline, the more it seems to descend into plotless chaos. Aase dies when appropriate, then resumes her stage life the hungover morning after. Supporting characters loiter on stage, or drift off into small games. Off-handedly providing the dramatic arc, the production ends in medias res of psychological carnage, leaving us confused, hovering without catharsis (save for a small burst of soap bubbles).

Katie-Jean Harding, Annie Last, Rebecca Bower, Kyle Baxter and Nikki Shiels inPeer Gynt. Photo by Jeff Busby.

Arbitrating the guilt for this life less lived, Schlusser avoids the easy parallel with our media-fed crave for the semiotics of success rather than success itself (remember teenage Grace in Sally Potter’s YES who, when asked what she wants to be, torpidly sighs: “Famous…”?). In Kyle Baxter’s performance, Peer is not a megalomaniac boy whose unstructured, but violent ambition ruins women, and then himself. He is an extraordinarily passive character instead, prancing on the outskirts of the stage playing with props, being laughed at by the cashed-up bogans and mellowly accepting their ridicule as a sign of belonging. If he is a man-boy, it is because the entire group has a vested interest in keeping him on their own level of existential blindness, and it is his overdeveloped imagination that keeps him losing whatever path he may have, not selfish hunger. Ibsen’s Gynt confuses the symbol for the meaning, hunting solid objects that stand for power: money, ruthlessness, detachment, crowns or roles (he wants to be an emperor, an explorer, a philosopher). Schlusser’s Gynt, a bubble-wrapped boy living on the cusp of the most profligate moment in history, in a wealthy, First-World metropolis, doesn’t ask, but is constantly offered. Rather than spreading his ambition too thinly, he loses himself by not being able to refuse. Aase, the mother who lives through her adored child (beautifully calibrated Edwina Wren), forms an alliance with Solveig, obsessively exchanging stories of their dear boy. And Solveig, the silver-prayer-book docile image of all the 19th-century girl cliches, is in Karen Sibbing’s manically delicate performance shown to be a wilful child, a mind as unformed as Peer’s. If she grows old waiting for her childhood crush to return, it is not God-condoned devotion that keeps her in their hut, but infantile refusal to burst her own bubble of romantic fantasy.

In the setting up, it soon becomes clear that men and women live separate fantasies: while women strut on high heels, drink champagne and throw tantrums over their wedding dreams, men set up their beer and Fußball den at the other end of the stage. Unable to break the chalk circle of the masculine group, Gynt becomes a toy boy for the women, with all the confused disrespect that this powerless subordination breeds. In the interplay of outpours of egocentric affection, everyone uses everyone, and everyone feels a winner, yet everyone also feels virtuous, affectionate, generous. When, in the last minutes of the play, Peer Gynt begs Solveig to tell him who he is, where he is, she glows with giggly joy as she announces: “You live in my head, in my song, in my dreams”. Nobody comes off clean: just like Torvald is himself trapped in the dollhouse he has built for Nora, so are these Gen Y child-women shown to be complicit in the infantilisation of the men that hurt and abandon them. In a particularly morbid observation, Solveig jumps into a noise-making, ridiculing frenzy, trying to get Peer’s attention away from his dying mother. (Whether I share this boy-friendly thesis is not the point: it is rare to see a theatre production intellectually both brave and sound enough to freely disagree with.)

However, this psychological triangle is refracted through so many distancing prisms that one could not know the text and still leave with a headful of thoughts. Ibsen’s poem already opens up conflicting levels of narrative. Is it a socially verosimile fable, or hallucinatory psychological realism? It is a story of a story-teller, a man-onion who lies because he couldn’t find his way out of his own mind. It is, finally, half-autobiography and half-anxiety. Schlusser’s production piles the layers even higher. On the boards, it builds storeys of vertiginous conflicting realities: the play slowly establishes itself as a party cum wedding; the wedding is a rehearsal; the rehearsal collapses under the disagreeing perceptions of the participants’ roles; Gynt’s entire life, fantastic as it is, probably no more than an overnight trip that ensues as the rehearsal descends into drunken shenanigans, and then further into an orgiastic ritual of sacrifice. Georgie Read, a woman in 1920s attire, walks through the set untouched by the bogan mayhem. And yet constantly, as a man with a panama hat runs to fetch the characters that drift out into the courtyard through the door at the back of the stage, there is a subtle feeling that we may be looking at a bunch of asylum crazies biding their time. (The crucial moment in Act IV, in which Peer is crowned the emperor of a mental hospital, is not so much missing as dispersed, both subtly pointed at and self-evident.) All apart from the simple fact that, since the characters make demands on the sound technicians and call the stage manager in to wipe the party mess, we all clearly admit to being in the theatre.

Kevin Fa’asitua Hofbauer and Kyle Baxter. Photo by Jeff Busby.

Indeed, one of the main concerns of this Peer Gynt is the multiplicity of make-believe , and the disorder that ensues in leakage. While Ibsen remains unclear about how much of a dream the entire story is, Schlusser keeps us wondering whose dream it is. Layering theatricality and anti-theatricality, virtually all stage action is apportioned into multiple collective illusions with varying numbers of participants, and each one looks equally dubious: from the footballer-wife paradise of cheap positional goods, to Peer and Solveig’s romantic idyll. Turning the wedding into a rehearsal, thus, is not just a stylistic device, but a gesture of utmost importance. There is no logic to rehearsing a performative act, except as an anxiety attenuator; yet it absorbs and breathes that same anxiety because it becomes a fragile battleground of dream and reality – just like the theatre turns into the battleground of ideas not because it is a safe space, but because it isn’t; just like one’s fantasies need to be corrected before they result in actions, and why play-acting is not for sissies. As these self-declared bubbles of comfort build up, Schlusser examines the burning violence they create outside. Wars, gangs, social groups, fashion trends and riots are all no more than collective fantasies in action, indoor safety upkept with violence radiating outwards. Thus the boganville, grown heavy and momentuous with alcohol, turns into a gang mutilation of Anitra (Sarah Armanious), the wedding dress-maker and sacrificial wog. Georgie Read, who follows individuals around wide-eyed and curious, mimicking their bacchanalia with utmost seriousness (from stripper dances to senseless violence), as if trying to prevent the friction between the conflicting frenzies by upholding them all, is not merely an ambulant comic relief, but a body that turns every quotidian affectation, every social convention, into deadpan absurdity.

And yet this same theatre never becomes a collective fantasy of its own. With heavily dramatic wasted on nothing truthful nor meaningful, and savagely grotesque endpoints of mundane behaviour played with glassy, anti-spectacular neutrality, the presentation is jarringly anti-empathetic. It betrays expectations with such cold consistency that we walk out feeling anything but lulled. Giddy, rather, and hiccuppy and confused, while the kick is slowly making its way to the gut. Despite its tone, looking all things wrong (lyrical, cute, naive, sentimental, funny), the final portrait is bleak, damning. Peer Gynt is no longer the sad story of one lost boy. Tonight, the tragedy is collective.

Peer Gynt. Based on Henrik Ibsen, directed by Daniel Schlusser. Set and Costume design Anna Cordingley. Lighting design Kimberly Kwa. Sound designers/composers Nick van Cuylenburg and Martin Kay. Stage manager Jo Trevathan. Performed by Kyle Baxter, Edwina Wren, Karen Sibbing, Heloise Jackson, Justin Arnold, Nikki Shiels, Rebecca Bower, Annie Last, Maj Thomsen, Nick Jamieson, Katie-Jean Harding, Georgie Read, Josh Price, Sarah Armanious, Alexander England, Mike Steele, Kevin Fa’asitua Hofbauer, Kade Greenland. VCA, 26 March – 1 April.

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This week / reporting from the trenches

I sometimes forget that this is a blog; that I could indeed post photos of my feet were I so inclined. In the last weeks, GS has come to seem more like a monster-chore, up there with Film Production, Graphic Design, Liaising, Dinner Parties, Dance Writing. For these have sapped all energy out of me, exactly the way I had promised myself not to allow happen.

What has been going on? Dance Massive, an exercise in condensing the rather maverick diversity of movers and shakers in the city (and somewhat beyond) into two weeks. Just the right size, I say, and a report is on its way.

Arts House has returned to its rather excellent programming: after a season in Sydney, down come Hoipolloi with their fantastic show Floating. Its brilliance lies not quite in its deconstructive tendencies (that refusal to play by the rules), nor in its interest in stand-up comedy (a la Fondue Set), but rather in its playful approach to time and semiotics. I am a humourless grump prone to outbursts of rash whenever marriages of formal deconstruction and induced laughter are attempted in front of me – no soft spot whatsoever – but I loved Floating like I rarely love a performance. On until this Sunday.

Opening on Wednesday, same Arts House, same high expectations, My Darling Patricia return from Sydney with Night Garden. If you remember their excellent Politely Savage in Fringetime ’06, you are, like me, expecting a lyrical, moody, formally inventive inquiry into the Australian social mythology. Great word of mouth is preceding them.

Down at the VCA, Paul Monaghan will be opening some Strindberg (A Dream Play), and Daniel Schlusser rebuilding Peer Gynt from scratch in a little over a week. Both are opening on Thursday 26, details here.

I cannot quite put in words how exhausted I am. My brain is fried from all the writing I have been doing, a tangle of knots the only thing keeping my head up. In the act of final betrayal, my mind decided, amidst reports, print formatting, and evocative descriptions of dance (all today), to boycott the fine sieve I was trying to push it through, and switch to fiction. No extra points for creativity.

Finally, a small announcement. In 2009, I will be making a special effort to see as much hybrid art and performance as this city can muster, and my time give in to. Apart from the fact that not-quite is my favourite kind of perfomance (the mind is a melange, just like these unpinpointable brainstorms of dance, music, dialogue, image), I am also sitting on the Green Room Alternative & Hybrid Theatre Panel. So please keep me informed of all those site-specific, upside-down, one-audience-member-at-a-time, multimedia, weird-arse, and other such shows happening around. Just in case. I spend up to 10 nights a week in the theatre, but lovely events still fall through the cracks, behind the desk, together with the lost pens and forgotten dirty laundry.

On that note, I retreat back to the trenches with a salut from C. de la B:

Marina Comparato performing Voi che sapete (Mozart), in Wolf, dir. Alain Platel.

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Review: some dance shorts

Your guerrilla semiotician has recently been treated to a series of short choreographic works on all sides: Australian Ballet's Interplay, a program of total art, Ballets Russes-style collaborations of musicians, choreographers and designers, closely preceded by Australian Institute of Classical Dance's showcase of young choreographers, Dance Creation 2008. On the other side of popular taste, VCA has presented Transmutation, a two-part panorama of student dance, with choreographies signed by names such as Phillip Adams, Neil Adams, and Stephanie Lake.

Dance Creation 2008, while unexpected and underattended, was very appreciated. Apart from the disappointing Reed Luplau and Sydney Dance Company, the range and breadth of the choreographies was quite stunning. Beautiful, in particular, was Wakako Asano's collaboration with koto musician Satsuki Odamura, performed by four very, very young girls (not older than twelve, I would guess).

Interplay; The Possibility Space. Photo by Jeff Busby.

Australian Ballet's Interplay, in comparison, was a lukewarm affair, not living up to the grand promises. While executed with almost robotic formal brilliance, and featuring a range of fantastic music, Stephen Baynes's Night Path and Matjash Mrozewski's Semele sacrifised the possibilities of movement to stream-lined narration, in a way that seemed awkwardly anachronistic. Nicolo Fonte's The Possibility Space, rejecting, perhaps, the expectation of palatable ballet as Disneylike fantasy, was a much more interesting dance. Eschewing narrative, it is emotionally sophisticated and formally surprising, a thingof aqua costumes, bare feet, and set halfway between Logan's Run and a pacific island. Coming at the end of the interminable performance, however, my partner and I were already too exasperated to care. Interplay was loudly hailed as an experiment in innovation and brilliance, and perhaps it was our mistake to take the tag line to the letter.

Interplay; Night Path. Photo by Jeff Busby.

It seems, perhaps unjustifiably, that classical dance in Australia has a culture of its own. The beautiful undernourished girls, the bejewelled gracious women, the nymphs and the pas de troix (with all the sexual politics conveniently forgotten). All one strange form museum. All a sort of glorified gymnastics, imbued with the aura of art by a whim of history.

I don't consider myself an enemy of ballet. I admire the skill, the precision, I am respectful of the transformation that classical ballet inflicts on the human body, turning it into a symbol, a non-living thing. I think Nedelands Dans Theater is magic. I am in love with what McGregor did to the Royal Ballet. I even spend long hours watching non-revolutionary works, such as Sleeping Beauty, for nothing but the music box effect. I left a rose on Diaghilev's grave! However, there was something strangely antiquated about Interplay, a sense of observing an archival piece, that I hadn't seen in the theatre in a very long time. It seemed a mere recombination of elements that had solidified in form a long time ago. Ballet can be beautiful. Interplay was just a little creative warm-up.


Along with two original choreographies, Transmutation 2: Graduation Season re-staged Phillip Adams's Bocage, a 2007 commission for VCA, and Neil Adams's Stormstill, from 2001. Considering that Graduation Season is usually one of the highlights of the year, it is a little surprising that in 2008 it was not as successful as Season 1, featuring 1st and 2nd year VCA cubs. While Season 1 was pure delight, both in terms of choreographic quality, execution and programming, building up audience reaction with controlling intelligence, Season 2 was just a bit dull.

Transmutation 1; Attraction to Light. Photo by Geordie Barker.

Stormstill is an energetic, physically demanding choreography. Frankly balletoid, it is a clean fantasia of abstracted insects going mad in a sort of summer storm. While accomplished, and Neil Adams does have a way with synchronised bodies in large numbers, it lacks the subtle brilliance of his Season 1 work, Traverse, which is choreographically more interesting, and more carefully aligned with Jon Adams's music (now what is it with all the Adamses?). Traverse was, at points, an engagement with music of such clear-thinking complexity that Keersmaker wouldn't have been bored watching.

Natalie Cursio's Nature Strip starts trés promising, with dancers in pastel costumes evoking the brilliance of Australian fauna, launching into a series of physical attacks on one another. Half the ensemble come on stage with take-away coffees, and first take pleasure in observing the other dancers (“He's so cute!”, one exclaims), but then start throwing cups at them. So far so good. Before long, however, the dancers have undressed, names of endangered species are written on their backs, and the entire show drops a couple of notches in intelligence, turning from a sardonic fight for survival into a lesson in environmentalism.

Stephanie Lake's All Together Now, on the other hand, is another example of the Chunky/Guerin school. Alison Croggon has suggested that their choreographies resemble poetry, and I am willing to agree. There is something in the rambling, fragmentary nature of Lake's choreography that reminds me of Ginsberg, for example, a long trawl of free association, of ideas not quite adding to a whole, but going from A to B to the rest of the alphabet without ever coming back, or paying great attention to the starting point. However, while such work will stand on the merits of the choreography alone, fiercely unintellectual as it is, it may also dissipate into circus tricks, which is what All Together Now unfortunately does. The opening sequence, all legs stomping in the dark, is delightfully silly, and the audience shrieks in laughter when some of the girls mop the corps de ballet off the stage. It has nowhere to go from there, sadly. There are another few moments in the piece that are quite lovely. A long row of kissing, rhythmic, lips, shoulders, knees, elbows. A group choreography is broken down by a girl crying, helped by a boy crying, which disperses the dance into another moment of empty time, dancers teasing one another off the stage. The rest, however, is a long ramble of disconnected quirks, of easy jokes, a string of simple ideas. I can see how this type of dance can be wildly popular, but, choreographically, it equals a diet of fairy bread and cupcakes.

Phillip Adams, however

Phillip Adams's Bocage, on the other hand, is a tremendous work. Viewing it in tandem with his Season 1 show, Oliver Pink in Amsterdam, is a rewarding experience, as the two dances are totally different in style, yet profoundly similar in sensibility.

Frances D'Ath, the most articulate Australian dancer living (overseas, of course), has written some very smart praise about Phillip Adams in the past, but that's about as far as intelligent domestic assessment of his work gets. Yet he may be the most interesting performance-maker in this country right now, and the contrast between the sheer quality of his two dance pieces, and the underwhelming disengagement of Barrie Kosky's The Women of Troy, playing simultaneously on the same tram line, could not be more graphic. Kosky and Adams are both iconoclasts, both disproving images, but whereas The Women of Troy was a mechanical juxtaposition of conflicting images, showing no concern for the audience as the active angle in the performance triangle, Adams has made his two dances so articulate in their conflicting, overabundant imagery, in total control of the intellectual storm raised on stage, that the detail and the structure never infringe one on another.

Bocage is fin-de-siecle, decadence and melancholia. Girls around the piano, calmly observing the piano player, then falling underneath and sliding over, like tragic birds unable to live from all the Weltschmerz. The quadruple duets breaking down, the male dance interrupted by a story of losing a bird on a train in Italian, while two girls recite the train time-table in French. The birds will appear again, framed in pictures the dancers hold up on their chest, a cabaret-looking singer will sing wistfully, and the dying swan will be a semi-naked man. Oliver Pink, on the other hand, best described as a primal parody, is a loud, over-the-top, impolite little dance full of crying, screaming, megaphones, and nudity. Some memorable moments include a weeping girl being rolled from one side of the stage to another, and back, chanting dancers collapsing, a chorus line in red socks and golden clogs, and the incredible final image of three naked dancers, two boys and one girl, still wearing clogs, perform a ritualistic choreography of circular self-punishment, stomping on the wall, curling up on the floor, and rising. For the final applause, they will come out wrapped in towels, all youth and exuberance.

Both are fantastic choreographies. What Adams makes, in terms of movement, is ultimately very simple, but it's the simplicity of someone who thinks complex. He will not complicate things unnecessarily either for the viewer or for the dancer – indeed, his student pieces are remarkably executable – because it's the total feast that seems to matter, not the decoration on the cake – and equally, he will use clean, simple images that hit the mark from such unexpected angles that one honestly, honestly thinks while ogling the beauty. Bocage parodies decadence, for example, by having pretty vaudeville dancers, all in black and lace, hit their heads in unison against the piano, and by bringing up birds in all shapes and forms, from head feathers to little framed paintings the dancers will hold in front of them. That birds have always been considered particularly erotic animals (and that peacocks are the symbol of decadence par excellence, birds unable to fly, crippled by their own beauty) is not unknown, just a thought we don't entertain too often, and such clicks of recognition abound in both dances.

It is hard to put the finger down on what is in these works that keeps them together, that makes them feel so coherent in the way they awake our mind, and Adams's program notes, while always useful, never spell it out. For Bocage, he writes: Bocage is a fantasia of Victorian transitional worlds. For Oliver Pink in Amsterdam, slightly less opaquely (but with equal charm): I have devised a triumphant onslaught of choreographic hysteria ascending to heaven. This fascination with the epiphany and universal phenomena is performed against repetitive mantra, phrase and hymn-like voices. What has transpired is an examination of false hopes and religious stereotypes that promise a new beginning.

Transmutation 2; Oliver Pink in Amsterdam. Photo by Geordie Barker.

Both works, above all, are full of appreciation for the beauty and the pathos and the absurd of a particular side of humanity, in a way that never feels exploitative. Oliver Pink, through images of public abandon to mass hysteria, pokes at organized religion, cults, subcultures, society, political movements, but more than anything at the human need for collective experiences. Bocage, on the other hand, with its costumed prettiness, seems to trace our very affection to decadence, to the nexus of beauty and death, and the melancholia that follows (call it 'nothing', like Louis Quatorze court ladies, or 'mono no aware', like Kyoto court ladies). However, there is courage and freedom of representation and meaning-making in Adams's work that is quite unprecedented in Australian dance, even theatre. The reason why he can do it so successfully, I think, is in the very quality of his empathy. Adams understands how ideas, ideals, needs and aspirations live and mutate through images, through simplification, and he uses images to trace them, subverts images to startle us out of easy complicity, creating a rich emotional experience for the viewer. If he can do that, though, it is because his are works made from the inside, by someone who knows how these images feel, and is aware of the effect they will have on the audience. Adams performs a forensics, but felt forensics, and does it as a humourous, empathetic exploration that is usually reserved for traits of national character, anthropology of social classes, and similar micro observations of behaviour.

Oliver Pink in Amsterdam and Bocage are not dissimilar from The Castle or Absolutely Fabulous, caressing and teasing and exposing at once, but parody of universal human traits is not a usual ingredient of any art, let alone Australian theatre, all caught up in telling national stories, all Kath and Kim for the self-presumed highbrow palate.


The phenomenon of the VCA is worth another paragraph. Chris Boyd, the most articulate dance appreciator in the state, has qualms about reviewing student shows, but treats VCA dance as professional, for its sheer quality (and cannot quite explain why it is as good as it is). On Daniel Schlusser's blog, about a year ago, there was a small discussion regarding the reviewability of VCA productions, and the crude fact that professional directors (and choreographers) are flocking to work with the students, while the audiences treat it as a performance season to look forward to.

What does it mean, in Australia today, when the most exciting dance is danced in a school, and the national ballet company makes neo-museum exhibits? Whose point of view does a critic try to inform? What point of view does she try to align with, in terms of general audience? Who does the general audience become?

Dance Creation 2008. Presented by Australian Institute of Classical Dance. Choreographic works by Wakako Asano, Tim Harbour, Reed Luplau, Kim McCarthy, and Tim O’Donnell. Melbourne, 31 October – 1 November, National Theatre.

Interplay. The Australian Ballet. Choreographic works by Stephen Baynes, Nicolo Fonte and Matjash Mrozewski. Sydney, 6 – 25 November, Sydney Opera House, with Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra.

Transmutation, Program 1. Victorian College of the Arts. Choreographic works by Neil Adams, Phillip Adams, Brett Daffy, Anna Smith. Melbourne, 12 – 15 November, Gasworks Arts Park.

Transmutation, Program 2. Victorian College of the Arts. Choreographic works by Neil Adams, Phillip Adams, Natalie Cursio, Stephanie Lake. Melbourne, 19 – 22 November, Gasworks Arts Park.

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The Masque of the Red Death

Not entirely successful, The Masque of the Red Death stands unsure between presentation and representation, self-awareness and not, always doing things a tad bit too literally. Its starting and ending point is Edgar Allan Poe's short story of one continuous party, closed off from the society ravaged by plague. This is a powerful trope, used since Boccaccio, at the bottom of it our unease about antisocial activities of all kinds, a desire to punish the autonomous outcasts, the death wish behind certain forms of transgressive hedonism; and then the tantalising image of total social breakdown. It is so simple, so resonant, that anything could have been made out of it. Instead, this production doesn't move further than square two. The program notes give it all away: “Daniel Schlusser […] told me about a task he had once set a group of actors: create the last piece of theatre allowed by a government before theatre is entirely banned in the land.” From here to pre-plague hedonism, and from Poe to the free-rolling funfair of a performance, are two very small steps.

The other problem is that Masque swings between describing the last party, and being the party, backing-and-forthing in its interaction with the audience in a way that ultimately isn't very thought-through. The dramatic structure is upheld by the narrative frame of the story, used to insert a range of Poe's writing, most of it in a purely declamatory fashion. The representational middle, a series of one- or two-person acts, draws on the vaudeville more than it tries to explore this imaginary aristocratic party, which in itself would not be a sin had the visual and spiritual clichés of vaudeville not been endlessly over-exploited on every kind of Melbourne stage already. Although the performer-spectator relationship is explored in all sorts of ways: performers sitting in the stalls, the audience sitting on stage, both dispersing into small groups and withdrawing into little rooms; it never feels like there is any higher purpose to these explorations of form than to try another trick. In the end, the two parts are collated quite safely, and our palates should be predictably satisfied: mindless amusement boxed into a safe experience, book-ended by some sense of purpose, explanation.

In certain moments, I had real hope that the performance was leading somewhere other than to the anticipated punishment of privileged antisociability. There appeared to be a slow build-up of acts, performed apparently for us, of greater and more intense transgression: from the bizarre, complexly disturbing image of a girl squatting on a skateboard, to the deliciously trash version of Raven as smut, to the full frontal nudity of a cross-dressing madame Butterfly. And yet, despite these upswings of visual creativity, most of the imagery was intellectually shallow, not doing much more than presenting commonplaces: violence on semi-naked women, glittery cross-dressing, unneeded accents. It was also visually misconceived: with gypsy fortune tellers, clowns and dancers, it was more of a romanticized village fair than the last supper of the medieval condemned. Which, again, would not be a sin had it not been the thousandth time this decade that a faux-Slavic accent was donned by a gypsy fortune teller on Melbourne stage.

The performances are passionate across the board, with each performer given a moment of one-act glory, and this ultimately makes The Masque of the Red Death a rather enjoyable experience. Much more enjoyable to witness, I may add, than think about later. However, perhaps due to the looseness of the direction, one never forgets that one is watching a student production, in serious discrepancy with last year's VCA shows, one of which, YES, could later easily get re-staged at fortyfivedownstairs.

I like tropes, I like clichés, I like common places. I believe in the power of fairy tales, of myths, of rituals. There is intrigue in the commonality of the simple ideas that order human existence across time and space. I would like to see them explored in ways more intelligent that simple declamation of poetry masquerading as provocation.

The Masque of the Red Death. Based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe. Directed by John Bolton. Music: Jo Laing. Set design: Jeminah Reidy. Costumes: Jane Noonan. Lighting design: Kimberly Kwa. Sound design: Timothy Bright. Victorian College of the Arts Company 2008 Graduating Performance. Space 28, Dodds St, Southbank, 29 Oct – 7 Nov.

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