Review: Dwelling Structure, Animal, Inside a Mime's Compact ~ theatre notes

Friday, June 03, 2011

Review: Dwelling Structure, Animal, Inside a Mime's Compact

A home is much more than a building. "Originally," says John Berger in his almost unbearably beautiful book And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, "home meant the centre of the world - not in a geographical, but in an ontological sense. Mircea Eliade has demonstrated how home was the place from which the world could be founded. A home was established, as he said, 'at the heart of the real'."

The loss of this ancient sense of home, says Berger, is at the centre of much of the modern experience of displacement. And the word "home" itself has been hijacked: it's become a metaphor for domestic morality, a propriety that safeguards property (including women and children); "homeland" is the patriotic article of faith that persuades people to kill and die in foreign countries. Yet that ancient desire for a place in which to ground one's own reality stubbornly persists. People make homes, however temporary they might be, out of habits, of memories, out of cardboard: without some place, however humble, in which our souls might be housed, we feel lost.

As librettist Cynthia Troup points out, the Australian Bureau of Statistics uses the term "dwelling structure" to cover the buildings in which people find shelter. There is a code which classifies the various structures, from "1. Separate house" to "6. Improvised home, tent, campers out" to "9. Other." Government agencies analyse the idea of home for economic modelling, to trace populations, abstracting complex space to make it orderly. But these terms cannot speak to the inner human idea of what a home is, what it might be.

The tension between these two ideas informs Chamber Made Opera's Dwelling Structure, which is perhaps the most beautifully judged site-specific work I have seen. Here the meanings behind that phrase "dwelling structure" are opened out, to create a moving evocation of how memories and things are inextricably bound together in our notions of home, and of how much is lost when we only measure our lives by economic value. It's one of a series of "living room operas" that Chamber Made Opera has recently introduced, but in this case the work occurs in the home of the two artists, Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey, who composed it.

The opera is, first of all, a social gathering - a bunch of around 20 strangers is invited into a home, welcomed with wine, and look about curiously (as one does). It's an unusual home, formerly a Rechabite Hall, with a small hall at the front that now functions as a studio. And there is much to look at - a "visual assemblage" by Neil Thomas, surrounded by QR codes which can be scanned by iPad-like screens to bring up fragments of the libretto and score.

The opera itself is structured in eight "time-use episodes", another term taken from governmental language, where it is used as a means of calculating monetary value. Troup's libretto is notable for remaining mostly unspoken. It's largely a poetic list of sound cues - "Feet on carpet. Cushions plumped and patted. Wind through trees and under eaves. A rattle of windows." These are interspersed with fragmentary texts - scraps of Rechabite songs, newspaper clippings, radio announcements - from the building's history.

The first episode occurs in the kitchen. Flynn and Humphrey make coffee and tea, weaving between each other as intimates do. The score is an almost Cageian collage of noises - windows opening, gas clicking on - slightly exaggerated to become percussive, with an electronic wind rising behind these domestic rhythms. Then we are led to the living room, where we are seated for the next seven.

The score is constantly surprising, inflected by wit and careful precision. The text is projected onto the wall, and sometimes its instructions are literally followed ("from a great distance ... a party group singing Auld Lang Syne"), or the score lifts to some unexpected musical expression. We hear the sound of a distant vacuum cleaner, beachballs bouncing down the stairs followed by the tumbling steps of a child who runs through the living room, birdsong, wonky organ music. Live and recorded sounds are woven together, and microphones are ingeniously placed so that listening becomes an experience of contantly shifting aural space and of increasing complexity.

It draws you in and makes you listen, quite involuntarily. And gradually it is as if the history of this building - its ghosts, its past - is awakening around you, and you have a strange feeling of past and present folding together into some infinitely complex texture of simultaneous time. By the end, I felt exactly the kind of effect that Octavio Paz claims for poetry - that it takes you from silence to silence, but by the end the silence has changed. It is mysteriously joyous, and profoundly beautiful.


A couple of brief notes on two other recent outings (both also closed). Jack Productions, formed last year, brings the language of classical ballet into the purview of contemporary dance. Their new work Animal - a meditation on the deep connections between animal and human behaviour - features some notable retired ballerinas: Kirsty Martin, Lisa Pavane, Alida Chase, Christine Howard and Shane Carroll.

Claude Marcos's design is typically striking. The dance occurs on a highly polished black stage, which reflects the dancers as if in a dark pool and by the end is smeared with footprints and the marks of human sweat. When the dancers enter, they open tiles in the floor and bring out ingenious fold-out chairs of pale wood that become the single props of the dance. Lucas Jervis's choreography, set to a percussive score by Eugene Unghetti, lyrically explores the dynamics of group behaviour: exclusion, inclusion, acceptance, individual rebellion and expression.

There are - perhaps because of the chairs - echoes of Lucy Guerin's work here, less intricate and more conventionally lyrical. Perhaps this is because the focus is always, for all its metaphorical exploration of animal gesture, on the literal bodies of the performers. And what I enjoyed most about this was watching these dancers perform. Their bodies might be less supple than when they danced as prima ballerinas, but now they give us another aspect of performance - an assurance of presence, a certain quality of beauty - that can only come with age. I'd like to see more older dancers on stage.

Lastly (and how belated am I - this has been a long silence): two weeks ago I found myself one cold night hovering next to a phone box in Russell St. From the streets of the naked city I was led to a bedsit temporarily transformed into a theatre, where I was offered popcorn and witnessed Inside a Mime's Compact, a work made and performed by two young theatre makers, Camilla Buckthorpe and Lily Beaux-Lyons. This is definitely a young work, unfocused and undeveloped in its thought, but it nevertheless had an energy which charmed me.

It's a kind of fairytale about three sisters, the youngest sister represented by a chicken - a raw, dead chicken - to which some terrible things are done. Buckthorpe and Beaux-Lyons explore, in a short fragmented performance, the sibling savagery and self-alienations that underlie the notion of femininity. It generated a promisingly absurd sense of disgust underlaid by a not-quite articulate anger; aside from exploring their ideas, I thought they needed to explore that darkness further. Perhaps Buckthorpe and Beaux-Lyons could read some Kathy Acker. Noted for future reference.

Dwelling Structure: An Opera in 8 Time-Use Episodes, created by Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey, libretto by Cynthia Troup. Visual assemblage by Neil Thomas and neighbourly interruptions by Suitcase Royale. A living room in Northcote. Chamber Made Opera.

Animal, choreographed by Lucas Jervis, music by Eugene Ughetti. Designed by Claude Marcos, lighting by Robert Cuddon. With Alida Chase, Shane Carroll, Christine Howard, Kirsty Martin and Lisa Pavane. Jack Productions at the Beckett Theatre, Malthouse.

Inside a Mime's Compact, devised and performed by Camilla Buckthorpe and Lily Beaux-Lyons. Smootz and Hovering Ponies Take Umbrage at a city apartment.

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