MIAF diary #8: Seven Songs, Tomorrow, in a Year, An Anthology of Optimism ~ theatre notes

Sunday, October 24, 2010

MIAF diary #8: Seven Songs, Tomorrow, in a Year, An Anthology of Optimism

So, that was MIAF 2010, signing off last night with a huge star-studded Black Armband extravaganza in the Myer Music Bowl. The weather gods of Melbourne decree that anyone with the hubris to stage a large outdoor event in October will be punished, and so it came to pass that Seven Songs To Leave Behind hurtled in on the icy wings of a wind from the bleak southern seas of Bass Strait. But it was some concert, well worth the brass monkey stuff.

There were plenty of highlights. The strongest acts of the evening for me were the chamber pieces, rather than the big symphonic numbers: Gurrumul Yunipingu's Bapa (in fact, all of his songs: I have absolutely no defence against that pure, soaring voice) a case in point. Ricki Lee Jones gave maybe the best set of the night: clad in an Orchestra Victoria beanie, she belted out a brilliant version of Gansta Paradise (reminiscent, as my partner commented, of Renee Geyer in Sleeping Beauty bringing out the wicked in Eminem's Go To Sleep) and a heartbreaking A Place for You, in duet with a recording of the voice of Archie Roach, who is presently recovering in hospital from a stroke. Sinead O'Connor's version of Shitlist and her skin-tingling renditions of Psalm 33 and Bob Dylan's Serve Somebody were frankly fantastic.

The women didn't have it all their way: John Cale opened his selection with a machine version of Heartbreak Hotel, and followed up with songs about Magritte and Picasso, and a viciously angry anthem about the war in Afghanistan, proving this is a man who has stayed awake. John Cale must be the coolest human being on the planet. When he came on stage - dark grey pants and jacket, white collar turned up so its points stroked his sideburns, white, stylishly ruffled hair, white ziff - he looked like some kind of overlord from a steampunk universe. I mean, pink highlights? No one his age should be able to get away with it.

Yes, far from a shabby end to what has been an interesting few weeks. And now to the hot topic of the day: Hotel Pro Forma's opera on evolution, Tomorrow, In A Year, which I saw last Thursday. I'm not sure that an opera has been greeted with such hostility from the arterati since Madama Butterfly was blown off stage by the Italian equivalents of raspberries and vuvuzelas. Melbourne audiences don't riot in the aisles (although, as on the night I went, they might boo). These days, they tweet their outrage. I'm intrigued by the anger it's engendered: the opera was described as an "atrocity", "painful, pretentious, passionless", a "disgrace". And I keep hearing again and again how it demonstrates a waste of taxpayer's money. Robin Usher summed up most of the objections doing the rounds in yesterday's Age: "Tomorrow, In a Year was so solemn it was boring - electronic music, inane libretto, old-fashioned set and dreary choreography".

Now, as you all know, I'm all for a bit of critical cut and thrust: and every festival needs an act like this, which brings everything to life by galvanising debate. Me, I wasn't one of the revilers: I found myself engrossed from the beginning of Tomorrow, In A Year. I have had some fascinating conversations with some very smart theatre watchers and makers who loathed it, and I can see their points. Still, without feeling it was the best thing I've seen, I liked it: I found it absorbing, strange, and alienatingly beautiful. Here I'll briefly attempt to dig back through the commentary to what I actually experienced while I was watching it.

As a side note, I don't know how much my openness to this opera might have to do with the fact that, for the past three weeks or so, I've spent my few moments of spare time obsessively watching BBC natural history documentaries narrated by David Attenborough. (I am currently halfway through Planet Earth.) As soon as I realised, in the opening scene, that I was watching an opera that spoke about fossil deposits in river beds and the origins of limestone cliffs, I was hooked.

The real jewel is The Knife's sumptuous electropop score. It's a gloriously complex mix of many different elements: pop and operatic voices, eight-bit sound and electronic and acoustic instruments, looped acoustic beats, field recordings, apparently structured from Richard Dawkins's gene trees. And I was delighted to see a new opera libretto using techniques of contemporary innovative poetry - notably, collage and found texts - something much rarer than it ought to be. The text draws intelligently from the writings of Charles Darwin, exploiting complex, anti-lyrical rhythms in rich antithetical repetitions. The final two songs, apparently from Darwin's writings on his dead daughter, veered perilously close to a disappointing sentimentality, but retrieved just enough obliqueness to avoid simplifying everything in a fake sense of uplift.

I'm hard to put to make much sense of the staging, but found it bizarrely hypnotic in its alienations, which I took to be an analogue of contemporary human alienation from the natural world. The dancing - a pretty ballerina en pointe, a man who seemed to be a piece of seaweed, another bald man dressed in a puffy white hoodie suit who did almost nothing for most of the show, until at the end he danced wildly in the Nightclub At The End Of The Universe - gave no sense of uplift or airiness, but all the same generated a weirdly static formal beauty. Everything was glued to the ground, bound by gravity.

The design featured lots of toxic lime-green, a colour that seldom occurs in nature: laser lights or projected text that scribbled phrases of Darwin's on the screens, or drew simple outlines over complex representations of nature - naturalist's drawings of different pigeon species, or a photograph of a cliff. When the lime-green wall that dominated the early part of the show was pushed back, it revealed something that looked like a hydroponic farm, artificial cultivations that begin to generate an alternative nature, just as we do in our cities. Cities as terrariums? Maybe not so odd. I found it all strangely compelling, like trying to read a text that's not only in a foreign language, but in an unknown script, and which is somehow also opaquely comprehensible.

Frankly, sometimes it's quite pleasurable to be a little mystified. Even if I didn't understand precisely what the directors were attempting, and sometimes felt that the various artists involved might be on different planets (what was with the surfboard, really?), I never at any point felt I was being gipped. I was, rather, fascinated by the centrifugal force driving all these different elements in differing directions on stage. It felt liberating to see theatre that was at once so crazily ambitious and unabashedly oblique, and which built its idiosyncratic realities on such tenuous connections. Bad? Good? They seemed irrelevant judgments. I don't think it's the future of opera, but I did think it was worth the trip. Which is why I'm a bit puzzled by the outrage. Isn't this kind of experience what festivals are for?

An Anthology of Optimism, Pieter de Buysser and Jacob Wren's theatrical lecture on the possibilities of what they call "critical optimism", made an interesting counterpoint the following night. This is totally disarming anti-theatre, which, if it were not so intelligent, might be too cute for words. The theatrical conceit is that one performer (Belgian writer, philosopher and theatre maker De Buysser) is an optimist, while the other (Canadian writer and performer Wren) is a pessimist. This crude polarity not precisely true, as they hasten to explain: but it's enough to drive the theatrical dialectic of the show.

The anthology of the title is a collection of things - writings, objects, quotations, photographs, paintings - donated by a variety of people who were contacted by the pair for this project. A selection of businessmen, artists, politicians, scientists and so on from around the world were asked to submit something that for them represented "critical optimism": optimism, that is, that is not blind, that pays attention to the facts (the facts being that "the world is going badly"), that is about "focusing on the next small experimental step instead of the big utopian dream", that is resistant. Embedded in this question is, what happened to the progressives? Is it still possible to hope that the world might be a little better?

Pessimism is, as De Buyssers claims, systemic and embedded in capitalistic ideology as a mode of disempowerment. All the same, so systemic are the challenges we face in making any difference to this world that is "going badly", that often pessimism seems like the only rational response to our situation. Yet doing nothing out of despair only serves to confirm our pessimism and so shore up the status quo. What to do?

Well, we could do worse than exploit De Buyssers' machine for optimism, the crucial mechanism in which is a "leap of faith". He's right, too. This blog is precisely an act of critical optimism, in the strictest definitions set out by the two in the course of their show: an act of resistance, an act of realism, a small step rather than hubristic idealism (well, look where that utopianism took us in the 20th century). An act of belief that is not, all the same, naive and blind. An act of belief that is, as Buysser says, a belief in...nothing: no god, no overarching ideology. Just a belief in the act itself. You have to begin somewhere.

Pictures: top and middle, Tomorrow, In A Year. Photos: Photo: Claudi Thyrrestrup. Bottom: An Anthology of Optimism. Photo: Phile Deprez

Seven Songs To Leave Behind
, directed by Steven Richardson. Musical direction by Eugene Ball, Iain Grandage, Orchestra Victoria conducted by Benjamin Northey, sound Design by John O'Donnell, lighting Designer by Phil Lethlean, designed by Adam Gardnir. With Sinead O’Connor, John Cale, Meshell Ndegeocello, Rickie Lee Jones, Gurrumul Yunupingu, The Black Arm Band: Leah Flanagan, Shellie Morris, Dan Sultan and Ursula Yovich. Myer Music Bowl, October 23.

Tomorrow, In A Year
, music by The Knife, directed by Ralf Richardt Strobech, Kirsten Dehlholm. Musical collaborators Mt Sims, Planningtorock, text by The Knife, Mt Sims, Charles Darwin. Concept and set design by Ralf Richardt Strobech, lighting design by Jesper Kongshaug, sound design by Anders Jorgensen, choreographic consultant Hiroaki Umeda, costumes by Maja Ravn. Performed by: mezzo-soprano Kristina Wahlin, singer/actor Larke Winther, singer Jonathan Johansson, dancers Lisbeth Sonne Andersen, Agnete Beierholm, Alexandre Bourdat, Bo Madvig, Jacob Stage, Jan Strobech. Hotel Pro Forma, State Theatre.

An Anthology of Optimism
, by Pieter De Buysser and Jacob Wren. Campo. Fairfax Studio.


Cameron Woodhead said...

Hokay. As promised, I'll weigh in here on Tomorrow, In A Year.

I don't agree that "Bad. Good. They seemed irrelevant judgments." They're, as always, a starting point. Let's get to the why.

You can tell where Usher is coming from, culturally. Just look at his adjectives and spot the odd one out:

"Tomorrow, In a Year was so solemn it was boring - electronic music, inane libretto, old-fashioned set and dreary choreography."

Obviously, if you count "electronic music" as a negative, you're going to hate the show. The music is its strongest suit.

We agree on that, Alison, and the libretto, come to that. We differ in that you liked the mise-en-scene and the movement, where I felt ambivalent about the former and loathed the latter.

Generational difference might play a role, here. So much of what "mystified" or "alienated" you seemed so banal and obvious to me.

The "lime-green wall", for instance, is coming straight out of 90s rave subculture. A lot of other elements are too. And to anyone who's seen plant cells under a microscope (secondary science education is compulsory, so that's a lot of people), the wall's "bricks" are also really unsubtle in context. Plant cells usually have a rectangular wall of cellulose. They're usually arranged in rows. Yawn.

As for the movement, if you've ever been to a rave or even just a nightclub that plays electronic music all night (or if you're feeling really exotic, a dayclub), you'll instantly recognise it. Come-down dancing. Sorry, but it's true. Yes, sure, it also embodies the small, random genetic mutations that make evolution possible - but that's not really enough of an engagement with Darwin's thought and its implications, is it?

[to be continued...]

Cameron Woodhead said...


I agree Tomorrow, In A Year is wonderfully ambitious and scattered elements intrigued me. Go the surfboard, and yay to the knitted costumes.

But scattered is the word.

Hotel Pro Forma's vision is such a miasma of electronic subculture and every kind of Z-grade sci-fi that the accusation of kitsch is inevitable.

It's not that I have anything against obtuse or chaotic theatre. Stifter's Dinge was amazing, and I loved Born in a Taxi's improvised physical theatre The Waiting Room @ The Fringe. But both those pieces drew beauty from the stochastic processes that underlie matter, energy and life by understanding the patterns they create. Stifter's proceeded from a profound understanding of meteorology (among other things). It created a microclimate of the imagination. The Waiting Room came out of a deep knowledge of neuroscience, social psychology and probability (among other things). It was a living incarnation of fractal art.

However murky, fleeting and hard to describe those performances were, the thinking behind their aesthetic decisions were crystal clear. To me, the Knife's music and lyrics had this quality. Hotel Pro Forma's spectacle didn't (and there were a few risible flaws in execution, besides).

Gawd, if you're going to put a dodgily organised doof onstage and call it art, at least give the audience a dancefloor. Now that would have been avant-garde.

AlexandraPearl said...

Wasn't Seven Songs to Leave Behind Wonderful! I was left unimpressed by Sinead O'Conner to be quite honest, but John Cale! oh John Cale. He was brilliant, so interesting, so rock, so dirty, so not 68. I also loved Meshell Ndegeocello, she was a huge star too. She and John Cale complimented each other so well when they played together (and their drummer was incredible).

I was so indignant when the woman sitting in front of me, at the end of Hallelujah said (of John Cale), "Well at least he has redeemed himself." Obviously his dirty rock and rendition of Heartbreak Hotel disgusted her :)



Cameron Woodhead said...

Pfft ... "the thinking behind their decisions were crystal clear" ... unlike my grammar.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Alexandra and Cameron - yes: in fact, John Cale's whole band was brilliant. And I should have mentioned Meshell Ndegeocello, except I didn't want to run through the whole songlistand wanted to get onto the theatre. Sinead O'Connor had changed quite a bit since last I looked, some time in the 90s. She seemed to me to show classic symptoms of mental illness (or at least the drugs used to treat it) and perhaps some kind of chilhood abuse. A bit of googling confirmed that she has bipolar disorder and was at Magdalene laundry as a teenager, which explains some of that anger. I think she's a very brave woman.

Hi Cameron - I'm totally with you in placing Stifter's Dinge in another order of theatre. But, as I said, I was prepared to go with Hotel Pro Forma. "Success, failure, they're secondary," as Giacometti said. I'm not so concerned with "bad" and "good" in some circumstances: the circumstances being if a work does something that I find interesting. Nor does kitsch especially worry me. As I said, I've spoken to many people whose opinions I respect who had trenchant and legitimate criticisms. My point is simply that however legitimate they are, they don't account for why I found it an intriguing experience.

Alison Croggon said...

Just a by the bye here, Cameron, since despite my advanced age I did recognise the rave stuff in the nightclub at the end of the universe: while I recognised the elements, I didn't really see what they were supposed to be doing. What was your take on that? (Especially the surfboard, which I see you liked?) And by "alienated", I mean all these elements - dance, singing, etc - were alienated from each other, as much as being alienating in themselves.

AlexandraPearl said...

Ah, very interesting about her mental illness, thanks for the info!

Cameron Woodhead said...

"I've spoken to many people whose opinions I respect who had trenchant and legitimate criticisms. My point is simply that however legitimate they are, they don't account for why I found it an intriguing experience."

Good, bad aside: it's this "account" I'm trying to explore. From what I can tell, the fact that you were "hard put to make much sense of the staging" was part of its charm for you. A brief selection of the adjectives you used corroborate that point:

"strange", "bizarre", "opaque" "foreign", "idiosyncratic", "tenuous" ...

To me, at least some of the mystique and sense of the exotic you describe is coming from the same place as Robin Usher's dismissal of "electronic music". To use a strong metaphor, Usher's response is a form of aesthetic racism, yours a species of aesthetic orientalism.

I went to Tomorrow, In A Year the same night as an old friend who's a new media artist and electronic musician. We both loved the score but giggled at the staging. There wasn't much mystique in it if you'd been a raver in the 90s, even if it remains "an analogue of contemporary human alientaion from the natural world".

In the same way, a bald, static representation of plant cells isn't exotic if you've seen them for yourself as a teenager.

It's a cultural difference, I guess.

Alison Croggon said...

Adjectives torn out of context don't mean much. But you can take it as "aesthetic orientalism" if you like. As I said above, it's not the elements themselves that were mystifying - they were quite recognisable - as what the directors were attempting to do with them, in relation to the music, dance, libretto and general idea of the opera, ie, evolution. Even if these aesthetic intentions are so clear to you that you don't deign to explain what they are, I'd be interested to know how you see them meaning. I don't believe that the directors were simply staging a dance party, although that was clearly part of it. So...?

Alison Croggon said...

...Actually, on second thoughts, I will take issue with the "aesthetic orientalism", because it's not only inaccurate, but vaguely insulting. Those adjectives are attempts to describe a sense of strange-making, ostranie, which is more about the familiar being made strange than the exoticising of the unfamiliar. Unless you think, say, Emily Dickinson, Viktor Shklovsky and Bertolt Brecht were all also "aesthetic orientalists"?

Alison Croggon said...

Oops, my turn for errata. That should be "ostranenie".

Cameron Woodhead said...

Oh I'd be offended by the "aesthetic orientalism" remark too. Still, if you're allowed to call me "only a young critic" when I'm 34 and have been at it for 15 years, you can't really complain when I imply that you're mutton dressed as lamb.

I'm having a hard time imagining you at a rave, much less identifying with the subculture, although stranger things have happened. That surfboard for one. I couldn't decide whether it was a cartoon rocket or an alien egg. Maybe it was a broken lava lamp. Who knows? I liked the ambiguity.

Reading your review, it seems you had that same response to elements I thought were gauche. The generation gap is playing into that, course it is. How could it not be? Probably not as much as I'm making out, but teasing you is fun.

Re: The Nightclub At The End Of The Universe. I thought of Douglas Adams too, and especially the terribad TV series. Looks like Robin Usher thought the libretto was some kind of Crogon ... I mean Vogon ... poetry! Maybe he put his Babelfish in at the wrong moment.

Alison Croggon said...

Teasing you can be fun too, Cameron. If only it led to interesting conversation! But you sure have a much longer memory for insults than I do. Maybe you take them more seriously than I do, or maybe mine stick more deeply, because they're not merely ad hominem bitchery.

Cameron Woodhead said...

Actually my memory for insults sucks. I've been researching yours for a piece I'm writing. But this is going nowhere. Peace.

Alison Croggon said...

I look forward to a well-balanced, informed and fair-minded article, then.

genevieve said...

Yes, good luck with that, Mr W.

Anonymous said...

Yes, good luck with that, Mr W.

Anonymous said...

Errr don't mind me, but I thought the surf board was a cuttle fish. The joy of reading different things at the same show.


Alison Croggon said...

Hi Lucy - the cuttlefish possibility actually crossed my mind, too. But that would have been some mighty fish. And why winch it up? For a giant budgie?

neandellus said...

I'm pretty sure the surfboard was a seed. The bit where it comes out of the waves is (I guess) a reference to Darwin's hypothesis that land bridges weren't needed for plants to migrate and that they could be carried by, or surf, the waves. When it flipped, it germinated and (I guess) ascended.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, Neandellus: that sounds like a plausible possible. Even a poetic plausible possible. I missed the germination metaphor, perhaps because I've been watching so many time lapses of actual germinations recently, and so was stuck with the surfboard and Bells Beach and the possibility that the next step in the evol-chain is homo fluctus...

Anonymous said...

Alison, Cameron, you do know this now reads like flirting, right?

Has anyone else said "Get a room" yet? :-)

Andrew Haydon

Alison Croggon said...

You've totally depressed me, Andrew. You bastard.

Alison Croggon said...

*Hastily* Meant, of course, in the nicest possible sense...

Troubador said...

I once tried to gross Alison out by suggesting that Andrew Bolt had a crush on her. I believe I succeeded.

Cameron Woodhead said...

Hahaha! Love your work, Andrew H. It IS a bit like flirting isn't it? Of course, we're both taken and I bat for the other team. Then there's the small matter of incest, both coming from the same little world.

Maybe it's a Hamlet/Gertrude type of flirting ... like in climactic scene in Zeffirelli's Hamlet, where Mad Mel lies sweating on top of Glenn Close, as she jerks suggestively in her death throes.


Laurence Strangio said...

OMG - this conversation has declined...

Re. Tomorrow, in a Year, the sad indictment of it for me was that it just made me feel soporific whereas i spent the entirety of Einstein on the Beach glued to the stage.

I know others have made comparison between these two works and maybe it is an unfair one drawing on obvious similarities (major scientific thought, comparable performance elements) but I just wish that the latter work had a fragment of the overall spark of the former.

As for my soprificity (is that a word?) i had made it happily through 3 and a half hours of Beckett and 2 and a half of Opening Night.

Anyway, just my account...


Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, Laurence. I thought I made it clear that TIAY wasn't in my top category of work - so yes, didn't get close to Einstein or, more recently, Stifter's Dinge. But I still found it more interesting than the generally unanimous responses might have indicated. I suspected there some Nordic stage language going on that didn't quite translate: but of course, not being very familiar with Nordic stage language beyond John Fosse, was only guessing.

Cameron Woodhead said...

And as I tried to make you understand, Alison, one of the languages you didn't quite translate was one of youth subculture.

Laurence, there was a similar comment on my blog. Einstein On The Beach seems to me more a comparison invited by the show's marketing than by the artists themselves, and so an unfair one. Sopor is the word you're looking for, I think, and a lot of people felt the same way.

Alison Croggon said...

In your anxiety to demonstrate my agedness to a startled world, I think you fail to understand my point. Although I do think it pretty funny that you think raves are "youth" culture... I'm not going to repeat myself, or play this game you keep shoving in front of me. This is the kind of "cultural conversation" I have no interest in, because the last thing it seems to be about is art.

BG said...

For what it's worth, here's my review of "Tomorrow, in a Year." For a rather less specialist audience, mind -- and in the "music" section of the website to boot.


Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Ben (here's a live link). That's a cracking, thoughtful review. It's also a total pleasure to read a piece that so elegantly fills in the contours of my responses for me.

Cameron Woodhead said...

Yes my last few comments played into your hands.

I'm not really interested in demonstrating your agedness, Alison. On that score, the red streak in your hair is rather its own admission of defeat.

Problem is, you don't see it that way, and its the same self-deception that's playing into your response to the mise en scene in Tomorrow, In A Year. You can't claim ostranenie, or defamiliarisation, as a defence if the elements themselves aren't familiar to you.

Despite being "engrossed from the start" you claim the piece was "like trying to read a text that's not only in a foreign language, but in an unknown script, and which is somehow also opaquely comprehensible." Hmm.

This doesn't sound like ostranenie at work.

Ostranenie, properly considered, is used to enhance the perception of things so familiar that they are "taken for granted". You misuse the concept in a pretentious, distorted rearguard action after I accused you of "aesthetic orientalism".

You say the elements "were quite recognisable" to you. Even if that's true, and I proffered examples where I believe it wasn't true for you (which you did not convincingly deny) ... I say recognition and familiarity are not the same thing at all. I recognise Arabic when I see it, for instance, but can't read it for toffee (though give it to me in English and I'll tell you the difference between a sura and a hadith).

You're not familiar with the elements of this production in a way that would allow you to take them for granted. The charge of "aesthetic orientalism" against your response stands. If I say any more, I'll just be repeating myself.

PS. Persuasive, well-argued review Ben.

BG said...

Thanks for the positive comments, Cameron and Alison. I'm finding your exchange here fruitful and interesting for thinking some more about the opera.

Admittedly, I did read your review, Alison, before starting on my own. Revisiting yours now, I think I see the trace of it in my piece. So apologies to you for unacknowledged inspiration. But it wouldn't have been an inspiration if my thoughts hadn't more or less coincided.

Paulo Royale said...

Whoa Cameron – personal attacks are just plain nasty!
I’ve been following your aggressive threads throughout this blog and it sure justifies the reasons I steer clear of the elitist and out of touch crap that you guys peddle at The Age.
You read as one very troubled individual – so if these posts are making you upset – stop loging in every 5 minutes for an attack.
You might find it good for your health. By the way Cameron – when’s your theatre show coming out?

genevieve said...

What Paulo said. Take it easy, Cameron. Save it for the paper.

rosie said...

I've had it with Cameron Woodhead's nasty, snide personal attacks. Inappropriate and distracting. Methinks CW has a lot of growing up to do.