Perth Festival: Out Of Context - For Pina, Martha Wainwright ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Perth Festival: Out Of Context - For Pina, Martha Wainwright

On Sunday afternoon, I saw les ballets C de la B's performance of Out Of Context - For Pina at the stunning new Heath Ledger Theatre, a venue that combines the virtues of modern theatre architecture with the embracing intimacy of an old-fashioned theatre. I had planned to stay for the artist talk that was scheduled afterwards, but when the show finished, I realised that the last thing I wanted was the immediate imprisonment of what I had just seen and felt in a lot of words. I walked out into the warm Perth evening and let the dance's penumbra work its chemistry, like the slow developing of a black and white photograph.

This was a work that had a considerable emotional impact on me, at levels of wordlessness that are difficult to translate. One of the great challenges - and, it must be said, pleasures - of writing about contemporary performance is how absolutely the attempt demonstrates the limits of words. Many choreographers press against spoken or written language, hovering on the threshold of speech: at its most successful, as in some works of Lucy Guerin's, this preoccupation reveals language to be as opaque and textured as the body itself.

This reflects a deep concern in a lot of contemporary dance: the problem of communication. So much of it reaches towards an almost utopian idea of unmediated contact: clearly an impossible ideal which can, all the same, attain a fragile reality in the fluid space of performance. Maybe this explains the uninhibited audiences dance can generate, as it did during les ballets C de la B's performance. When they weren't being as quiet as mice during the silences (no outbreaks of anxious coughing, which means they were paying close attention) the audience at the State Theatre Centre was laughing and whooping, even applauding individual performers during the dance. The last time I saw an audience respond so spontaneously to contemporary dance was at a performance of Jérôme Bel's The Show Must Go On at the Victorian Arts Centre.

There is certainly a connection between Out of Context and The Show Must Go On, although Platel's multiple layerings of sound and complex choreographies differ wildly from Bel's almost indescribably bare aesthetic. Bel and Platel both comprehend the whole auditorium in their idea of the stage, offering an invitation to a mutual adventure which the audience feels surprisingly free to accept. In both cases, this turns on what it might mean to be a human being, a social animal imprisoned in an opaque body: their dancers are individuals, rather than generic bodies exploring abstract form. And both use popular culture as artists once used religious iconography, as a touch point of emotional recognition.

Out Of Context begins with a simple conceit. The lights lift to reveal a bare stage. At the back is a pile of orange blankets, the same colour as the saffron robes of monks or, more disturbingly, the uniforms of prisoners. Otherwise there are only two microphones. We stare for a while, and then a man (Emile Josse) walks up on stage from the auditorium and begins to undress to his underpants, unhurriedly folding his clothes. He picks up one of the blankets and drapes it about his shoulders. About half way through his undressing, I saw a woman stand up in front of me and work her way through the row: until she began to walk towards the stage, I thought, with surprise, that she must be a disaffected audience member, leaving already. She too begins to undress. And gradually, all nine dancers gather on stage, emerging out of the audience. This is the first trick, and it is very effective: any barrier between stage and audience is immediately removed.

The recorded sound track here is mostly silent, aside from the occasional moo of a cow and percussive sounds from knocking the microphone against the floor or the dancers' bodies. Dancers mill about like herd animals or a flock of birds; they encounter each other in pairs and, in choreography reminiscent of illustrations from a Konrad Lorenz textbook, make ritualistic movements of greeting and curiosity. Through the first forty five minutes, the choreography expands and intensifies from animal-based behaviour to Platel's signature interest in spasmodic, involuntary movement: these are constrasted with classical representations of the body, especially from ancient Greek statuary - one image almost casually formed back stage briefly showed us three muses, one classically posed Venus, half naked and armless, the other two headless torsoes. There are others drawn from classical representations of wrestling or battle.

An insistent techno beat starts up, and the next section is a parody of contemporary mating rituals, with the dancers sardonically speaking various pop lyrics into the mic: here the choreography is drawn from dance clubs and pornography. A male dancer even steps out into the audience, stepping from seat to seat to writhe above a patron who was very determinedly staring straight ahead. Here are all the codes of mating, all the triggers of contemporary representations of sexuality, but the cliches are riven by the interventions of the body, its insistent presence, its involuntary, unaestheticised life.

We then return to a reprise of the first section, but here the body is more nakedly exposed, and, for all its expressed desire, more nakedly alone. This is where Out Of Context began to bite for me: I'm not sure that I've seen the erotic body, in all its absurdity and longing, expressed so frankly and delicately on a stage.

Its final gesture is almost histrionic: dancer Romeo Runa, who has been a kind of master of ceremonies, asks everyone in the theatre to raise their right hand. They do. "Who wants to dance with me?" he asks, and the forest of hands magically vanishes. The barrier between stage and auditorium hasn't been erased to that extent... until a man shyly appears out of the audience and they dance, to Jimmy Scott's version of Prince's Nothing Compares To You. Shamelessly manipulative, yes; but something else as well, more humble, more difficult. This seems to me to be a work that's sophisticated enough to be naive. And then the dancers simply put their clothes back on and return to their seats among the audience.

None of this emotional power would be possible without the virtuosity of these dancers: the movements are sometimes impossibly demanding and their control is astounding. The trust between them is palpable. You can't see everything that's happening on stage: it is always active all the time, with all nine dancers constantly making and remaking images, but Platel's rhythmic control is such that this seems a thickening of texture, rather than a means of frustration. What's important is that we are watching nine individuals, whose identities become more clear through the dance until the audience feels they know them, which is I think the real point of Platel's contact to Pina Bausch, to whom this work is dedicated. A beautiful work, which touches that fragile transparency which makes live performance truly memorable.

The following night I went to see Martha Wainwright perform at Beck's Music Box on The Esplanade. It was stiflingly hot, with a brilliant gibbous moon hanging in the luminous sky, and the city lights had that phosphorescent halo they seem to attain on hot evenings. I was glad to find that this is an outdoor venue, most civilisedly set up so no matter where you sit, you are never far from the stage.

Wainwright's performance was another exercise in destroying barriers between audience and stage, but in an entirely different way: while the conventions that separate performer and audience were carefully observed, Wainwright offered herself on a slab for two hours of powerful performance in which stunning virtuosity is cut with raw feeling. It's clear that for Wainwright, who of course hails from a famous musical dynasty, there is no division between her music and her life.

The show opened and closed with spine-tingling performances of a selection of songs made famous by Edith Piaf, another chanteuse who sang on pure nerve. Wainwright gave us a good selection of Piaf's stirringly theatrical ballads, songs such as Marie Trottoir, Le Brun et le Blond or Les Grognards (from which she took the title for her Piaf album, Sans Fusils, Ni Souliers, à Paris) which, in the greatest tribute that one artist can make to another, she took and made her own.

In between Wainwright sang her own songs, including a couple of scorching new works and, in a moving tribute, several by her mother, legendary singer/songwriter Kate McGarrigle, who died early last year. "Last year was tough," Wainwright tells us. "I lost my mother, my son was born five weeks early... it was hard." And then she sings her anguish, striking her guitar as if it is a percussive instrument, and that voice goes right through you. Of course it is a performance, but the feelings are real. And as with all great singers, the grief and anger and longing and ordinary ecstasy touches us and and becomes our own.

Pictures: Out of Context - For Pina. Photos: Chris Van der Burght

* Alison Croggon flew to Perth as a guest of the Perth International Arts Festival

Out Of Context - For Pina, directed and choreographed by Alain Platel. Danced and created by Ellie Tass, Emile Josse, Hyo Seung Ye, Kaori Ito, Mathieu Desseigne Ravel, Melanie Lomoff, Romeu Runa, Rosalba Torres Guerrero and Ross McCormack. les ballets C de la b, Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre, Perth. Closes tonight.

Martha Wainwright, Beck's Music Box, Perth. Closes tonight.


Anonymous said...

Nerd note - the incredible version of Nothing Compares 2 U was by Jimmy Scott. The song was written by Prince and later covered by Sinead.

Alison Croggon said...

Oh wow. Many thanks, nerdy anon. I'll immediately correct.

Alison Croggon said...

...and it truly is an incredible cover. I want it.

Hannah said...

Looking forward to see Out of Context - for Pina when they arrive in Brisbane as part of Brisbane Festival :)


Lynden James said...

This sounds absolutely enthralling !!