MIAF: Green / Small Metal Objects / Weyreap's Battle ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

MIAF: Green / Small Metal Objects / Weyreap's Battle

Alison's Festival Diary #1

It's feeding frenzy time for Melbourne culture vultures: yes, Theatre Notes has been donning her gladrags and mixing it with the bold and beautiful this past week. I'm seeing as much as is consistent with sane living, which is not as much as I would like, given the depth and interest of Artistic Director Kristy Edmunds' program. But for your envious delectation, here are Little Alison's reports on what she's been doing.

Green, choreographed, designed and lit by Saburo Teshigawara, in collaboration with Kei Miyata; live music by Sand. KARAS, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre.

The festival's opening show was Saburo Teshigawara's spectacular dance work, Green, which features live farm animals on stage. This is more surprising than you might expect. I am country-raised, so cows are not foreign creatures to me; I've been trodden on by more than a few in my time. But seeing two spot-lit Friesian cows tethered to a pole in the State Theatre was comically surreal: they looked so, well, cowish. They chewed their cud and stared out into the auditorium with what Rilke described as the "beast's huge glance", utterly present in their lack of self-consciousness:

...for the beast its being is
unending, unprepared, and without insight
of its belonging, pure, like its outward glance...

Green is a meditation on the contrasts between human - or even post-human - technological existence - and this simple being of animals. It begins as a full-on rock concert by the Scottish punk/jazz/techno band Sand, and ends in a pastoral idyll, a remarkably beautiful solo dance to (I think) a Mozart quintet.

The final integration is all the more surprising, given the hard-edged aggression of its first half, which is driven by the band. Clearly many of the patrons at the State Theatre aren't used to rock music; there were audible gasps of relief when the band finished their first set, and a few empty seats when we returned after the interval. I'm not sure that the dozen or so white rabbits that populated the forestage area liked the music much either; they crouched against the edges of the fence that kept them in the forestage, their ears drooping rather abjectly.

The dance here was dominated by repetitious movements drawn from martial arts, which would build up with the throbbing electronic beat until it burst into a wild flailing of limbs. There were images of childhood murdered and childhood regained, a sense of human beings post-nature, alienated from a natural world. Although, of course, the natural world represented here is that of domesticated animals: in this sense, this work is almost entirely "post-nature". It certainly questions what is "natural": in a real sense, the dancers are just as natural - and unnatural - as the rabbits.

The curtain rises after interval to the cows, super-real against the artificial green that marks the whole stage, as well as three goats (and some happier rabbits, who began gossiping and running races from one end of the forestage to the other). And here Teshigawara exploits the contrast between human and animal as comedy: a guitarist plays a solo to one cow, while a male dancer attempts a pas de deux with another. A trombone player escorts a phalanx of indignantly quacking ducks across the stage, a sumo wrestler sings a German aria while the baby goat baas in the background, and a man falls off a bicycle in front of a cow in a Tati-esque comic routine. Teshigawara is very conscious of the theatre of dance; he both designs and lights as well as choreographs his shows, and the effect is wholly engrossing.

With the final dance, Green ends with an optimistic hope of integration. In one of those transformations that can sometimes happen in performance, the dancer becomes some kind of spirit of the music, an image of the muse herself. It was surprising and somehow heartening to see such a work of such unabashed beauty evolve from the alienated aggression of its opening.

Small Metal Objects devised by the cast, directed by Bruce Gladwin, with Sonia Teuben/Alan V Watt, Simon Laherty, Genevieve Picot and Jim Russell. Back to Back Theatre @ Flinders St Station Concourse.

The following night I saw Back to Back Theatre's Small Metal Objects. It couldn't have been a more complete contrast to Green; here the artifice of theatre is imposed on a public space. The stage is the entire concourse of Flinders Street Station, and the audience is seated at one end, fitted with headphones.

The effect of this brilliantly simple idea is startling. I'm an inveterate crowd watcher, but here the slight alienation of the headphones and the strange position of sitting on a rostrum in a railway station changed my perceptions radically. All sorts of reversals happened - the watchers were suddenly being watched, the performers were anyone who was present.

The pretext of the production is a play that has been devised by the cast members, a simple story of a drug deal that doesn't eventuate. I did consider how much more powerful the show would have been if it had employed a writer who could pull together a really strong text from the material offered by the Back to Back performers; but the script they have serves their purpose perfectly adequately.

The action is introduced by a pre-recorded monologue between two of the actors. We can hear what they're saying, but it is up to us to identify who are the actors and who are the unwitting extras in this show. The 7 o'clock Friday night crowds stream through the station, some casting curious glances at the audience, a few not noticing them at all. For some people, the audience themselves become the performance - without the aid of headphones, the actors are not especially noticeable among the crowds of others. At one point a man came up and stood with his arms folded, unselfconsciously staring at us: perhaps he was waiting for something to happen. We watched him, and he watched us. I was actually quite certain that he was part of the show, until he got bored and wandered away.

What counts in this production is the unique experience of theatre that is offered here, the sudden beauty of the mundane, the highlighting of what is usually edited out of social perception as unimportant - not only the disabled members of the Back to Back Theatre Company, but the ordinary activities of everyone in that concourse at that time. It is a curiously joyous experience that stays with you long afterwards.

Weyreap's Battle directed by Mao Keng, choreographed by Pok Saram and Pun Bun Chanrath. National Theatre of Cambodia, Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre.

Weyreap's Battle is traditional Cambodian dance, given a contemporary update with some modern (if sometimes rather disarmingly naive) stage effects and lighting. It made me realise why Antonin Artaud got so excited about Balinese theatre; the extreme stylisation of gesture and costume in traditional Asian theatre gives it a beautiful clarity of dramatic action.

Artaud was also attracted by the marriage of the sacred and profane in the Balinese performances. Likewise, the story of Weyreap's Battle narrates a story from the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, which arrived in Cambodia in around the 6th century and is here reinterpreted as both a Hindu and Buddhist narrative. It has many aspects of religious ritual - the performance is in fact preceded by a Buddhist invocation of blessing - interspersed with profane comedy.

It is an example of Lakhaon Kaol, one of Cambodia's oldest classical dance forms: a masked dance which dates from the 10th century and is performed exclusively by men. It is accompanied by a pin peat ensemble, a traditional orchestra of drums, reed and string instruments, and the dance is mixed with chanted narrative and dialogue in Khmer. This dance, which was patronised by King Sihanouk, was almost completely destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, who killed 90 per cent of the dancers; which is why, no doubt, the company members call themselves Cambodians and not Kampucheans.

I took my ten year old son, and he was transfixed and enchanted. Before the dance began, I read him the story of Weyreap (Penh Chumnit) and his conflict with the good king Preah Ream (Thong Kim Ly), and he became completely confused by its complexities. But he had absolutely no trouble following the action as its unfolded on stage.

The choreography was an intriguing mixture of stylised dance movements - especially the hand gestures, which are clearly very important and hold particular meaning and significance - and closely observed naturalistic movement (the gestures of the monkey army, scratching and all, might have come from a David Attenborough documentary - well, not quite, but they were striking in their accuracy).

It culminated in a spectacular pas de deux between Weyreap and Hunaman (Soeur Tharavak/Khiev Sovannarith), the general of the Monkey Army, in which good, naturally, triumphed. I was especially entranced by the arias or monologues of some of the characters, in particular, Preah Ream's lament for his absent wife Seda, which had a universal passion and piquancy.


Born Dancin' said...

Hi Alison,
Long time reader, first time &c...

Very nice posts on the Festival; I've been trying to do the same but since my aim this year is to catch everything humanly fittable-into an earthly calendar, it's difficult. I felt differently about Green, though I'd really hoped to enjoy it and did find a certain amount of beauty in the experience. Small Metal Objects was an absolute highlight and you've raised some interesting ways of describing the piece's effectiveness that I hadn't managed to articulate.

If you've still to see them (and can score a ticket), IRAA's Private Eye is a must, and Le Dernier Caravanserail is quite a spectacle - still processing my response at the moment.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, Born Dancin' - I heard about Private Eye yesterday, it does sound fascinating and rather confronting. But I won't see that one, alas. This week has been not so good as last week for me, but I am seeing Theatre de Soleil tomorrow - the whole shebang in one day - and am very excited by the prospect.