Review: Next Wave: Bromance, The Folding Wife ~ theatre notes

Friday, June 04, 2010

Review: Next Wave: Bromance, The Folding Wife

For various reasons, I ended up seeing only three shows in Next Wave - the marvellous Hole in the Wall and the two I briefly discuss below. I missed what several people have told me was the highlight of the festival, And Then Something Fell On My Head, which John Bailey describes in a wrap-up on Capital Idea. Meanwhile on Crikey, Jana Perkovic from Guerilla Semiotics has created something of a storm by questioning the curating claims of the Next Wave Festival as risk-taking art, saying the majority of work she saw consisted of half-baked and under-developed ideas.

Risk means risk, I guess. Most people who saw more than one or two shows freely admit that not all of the work was of the first water. The questions raised are whether Next Wave is about new artists or new forms (or both); whether the good works justify a festival which largely consists of emerging artists, and whether early public exposure is counter-productive. If some, or even most, art fails of its promise, is that a problem, or part of the festival's remit? Should young artists just be kept in boxes until they know how to make a grown up work of art?

I saw none of the shows that have caused such doubts. Instead, I am wondering about the "right to fail", that phrase famously coined by the Royal Court's George Devine. The right to fail doesn't include the right not to try, which is perhaps the definition of cynicism in the arts. To seriously attempt and to fail demands respect, whatever the outcome. For my part, I think that works that trim their sails and chart courses into shallow waters to pander to the lower expectations of a perceived audience are those which fail most spectacularly, whatever superficial success they might achieve.

I've often wondered whether one of the reasons we have such a problematic culture is our unforgiving attitude towards failure. There seems an inability to perceive individual works as more than cultural products designed merely to be consumed. Artworks are, as well as individual pieces, part of a continuum, an on-going process of individual and collective development, that might in its entirety be called a culture. Understanding this is not about glossing failure, however it's defined and perceived: I don't believe in the kind of "supportive" criticism that consists of dishonest praise, in the mistaken belief that this is good for artists. But it is about seeing failure as a necessary part of growth. Not a moral flaw, perhaps, so much as a moral necessity. Fail again. Fail better.

Whatever the verdict on the wider festival, the works I saw in Next Wave were their own justification. Alisdair Macindoe's Bromance, a dance piece on brotherly relationships between young men, was commissioned and mentored by Lucy Guerin, and shows her influence in how it explores and extends the vocabulary of quotidian gesture into the pure abstractions of dance. I was very taken by this work: perhaps what most appealed to me was its legibility, which never became merely simplistic.

The dance, which took full advantage of the wide space of the Meat Market, is divided into several parts, each separated by a moment of darkness. It begins with two dancers mirroring each other's gestures, a symmetric stylising of masculine physicalisations which are all wholly recognisable, and often comic. A short blackout, and suddenly there are four dancers, thickening the physical language, developing it into more abstract patterns. The lighting was the cue for a dialogue between interior and exterior representations: through half a dozen sequences, the dance moved between highly codified social gestures performed in exposing light, and a subterranean darkness, which explored the violence, love, desire, pain, nostalgia and delicacies which underlie these social surfaces.

What's most moving is how lucidly Bromance dramatises the inarticulate love of young men for each other, which is truncated and diverted into cramped expression by the social restrictions of homophobia. It explored how young heterosexual men fear expressing their love, in case it is misunderstood: affection can only be deeply coded, with the performance of masculinity always the overt message; passion can only be expressed through mutual violence, barracking at the football, brawling while drinking, or, as in one delightfully funny sequence, the secret mate's handshake.

It made an interesting diptych with The Folding Wife, which I saw on the same evening. In comparison to the disciplined movement of Bromance, this could seem a naive work: here we had the actor performing, literally dressing up to play her roles. The Folding Wife examines the cultural displacement of immigration through three generations of Filipino women, all played by Valerie Berry, who performs on a bare stage crowded with baskets of props. Its theatre is literally created before us.

Berry is presented to us in the beginning as a passive brown body, a tabula rasa on which is written all sorts of narratives: she is the obedient wife, the exotic beauty, the whore, the terrorist, in a dizzying array of Orientalist projections that are at once comic and horrible. The multimedia artists Datu Arellano and Teta Tulay dress and pose Berry in her various roles, and she obediently takes the shapes she is given: she grips the flower between her teeth, grabs the gun, or thrust her pelvis seductively forward.

Then Berry moves out of silence and tells her various stories. The poetic text, by Paschal Daantos Berry, is divided into several chapters which move between the middle class matriarch Clara, bitterly resenting the revolutions and occupations of 20th century Phillipines that have cost her family social status and wealth, to Dolores, a single mother looking to improve her life by marrying a rich Australian, to Grace, the migrant child who exists between two worlds, not quite at home in each of them. The text and performance are complemented and enriched by ingenious multimedia that uses sand drawings, fluid projections and shadow play with ordinary objects like glassware or lace.

The Folding Wife is a playful celebration of complexity: its charm is in its many textures, how speech, visual imagery and performance weave together to create a portrait of several lives. I liked especially how it refrains from judgment, and how it never seeks easy empathy: the women are simply presented, in all their contradictions. In other words, for all the humility of its materials and presentation, this was a sophisticated piece of work.

Picture: Bromance. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Bromance, directed Alisdair Macindoe, choregraphed by Alisdair Macindoe and Adam Synnott. Performed by Alisdair Macindoe, Lee Serle, Jay Robinson and Adam Synnott. Next Wave Festival @ Arts House Meat Market (closed); Performance Space, Carriageworks, Sydney, until June 5.

The Folding Wife, by Paschal Daantos Berry, directed by Deborah Pollard. Multimedia by Datu Arellano and Teta Tulat (Anino Shadowplay Collective); lighting design by Neil Simpson. Performed by Valeri Berry. Arts House North Melbourne Town Hall. Closed.

1 comment:

mik frawley said...

"...To seriously attempt and to fail demands respect, whatever the outcome. For my part, I think that works that trim their sails and chart courses into shallow waters to pander to the lower expectations of a perceived audience are those which fail most spectacularly, whatever superficial success they might achieve..."

Thank you Alison, for possessing the ability to express so brilliantly what I could not in my drivellous post on Jana's maelstrom. I shall expound no further at risk of derailing your excellent reviews, except to agree with your invitation to "Fail again. Fail better."

I saw The Folding Wife in an earlier form a while ago, and I was impressed with the unassuming ease of this production. It was complex, gentle and moved simply yet effectively through time and place.

Bromance was one of the shows I was sadly unable to catch during the Festival - thanks for the review, I will certainly be keeping an eye out for any future remount.