Melbourne Festival: The WrapMIAF diary #8: Seven Songs, Tomorrow, in a Year, An Anthology of OptimismMIAF Diary #7: Opening NightMIAF Diary #6: Vertical RoadMIAF Diary #5: Jack Charles v. The Crown, Adapting for Distortion / HapticMIAF Diary #4: The Beckett TrilogyMIAF Diary #3: Carnival of Mysteries, Come, Been and Gone, Thomas Adès and the Calder QuartetMIAF Diary #2: Intimacy, The Blue DragonMIAF Diary #1: Stifters Dinge, The Raft ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Melbourne Festival: The Wrap

After several thousand words and a couple of days ruminating, what else is there to say about MIAF 2010? There it was. Here we are. We've had, as some commentators have put it, "solid festival fare": when you look at what was offered, there was little low-quality work, but equally, not a lot that set the mind on fire. The stand-outs - and for once, everyone agrees - were Stifter's Dinge, Heiner Goebbel's beautiful and mysterious automaton, and Bill Viola's installations. The Raft (which remains at ACMI until February) is a stunningly powerful work on human fragility, while Tristan's Ascension and Fire Woman, displayed at a little church in Parkville, were visceral imaginings of transcendence, first created in 2005 for Peter Sellars's production of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. I'm so glad I saw them.

I feel like I'm playing catch-up, because I was being a poet in October last year and so missed Brett Sheehy's first festival. I've been looking back through the blog, checking out my reports on previous festivals, and I rather feel my comments on MIAF 2008, Kristy Edmunds' last, bear a revisit:

The Melbourne Festival this year had a surreal edge. As capitalism crashed about our ears amid headlines of financial doom, it had the air of a dance at the edge of the abyss. I kept feeling that we were standing in the etched light of an oncoming storm, with long shadows streaming behind us. A little voice kept saying to me, This won’t happen again.

As we all know, it’s the last of Kristy Edmunds’ festivals, and boy, has she given us a party for the past four years. From 2005, her first festival and still one of the best this city has seen, she’s changed the main stage aspirations of this city. People started going to events with intense curiosity and emerging to have fierce arguments (I still remember the couple having a stand-up fight over asylum seekers after Ariane Mnouchkine’s Le Dernier Caravansérail). They were festivals of passion, excitement, artistic depth and, often, controversy. Her programming attracted some of the most vicious and sustained media attacks I’ve seen on an artistic director - first for being too “elitist” and then – when it was clear people were going – for being too “populist”.

Despite the attacks, she steadily continued to follow her nose, attracting a younger demographic with programming that reached into both popular culture and high art, and which unobstrusively demonstrated the humane and complex politics of art. Most importantly of all, she brought us great work, from Peter Brook to Jérôme Bel, from Romeo Castellucci to Diamanda Galas. This year has been no different: looking over what I’ve seen, the quality has been just as high. Possibly higher: festivals can be cut in an infinity of ways, but I’ve had a brilliant time. As in previous years, there have been some disappointments. But what would a festival be without something to argue about?

I also noted that in 2008, I saw 21 events. Naturally, I focus on dance and theatre, and 2010 was slanted towards visual art and music: but this year, even including the Viola installations as performance, I only saw 15 events. Of those, two thirds clocked in as "good" on the Croggon-meter, one third as excellent and maybe one fifth as mind-blowing. That's hardly a dreadful festival from my point of view, but there's no arguing that the bit that interests stage-dwellers was significantly reduced this year. In a city with such a rich dance culture as Melbourne, it seemed particularly bizarre to have only three dance works - and none of them local - in the program.

It's more a question of ignition. While individual events might have been interesting in themselves, their context lacked the sense of invitation and discovery that has animated the best arts festivals of the past - John Truscott's and Robyn Archer's as well as Edmunds. The slogan for MIAF 2006 was "Be Curious": for 2010, it might have been "Consume". We were offered art to consume, and we consumed it. Some of it was good, even very good; but there was little in the context around it that mitigated the problem of its merely becoming a commodity. And, as always when all one has done is consume, the result is that one feels a little ill. Hence the relief in week three, the most substantial of the program, when there began to be some sense of engagement, some sense of argument, some sense of communal commitment. This, the least measurable aspect of a festival, is actually the most crucial: a successful festival is about much more than selling tickets. Even if selling tickets is a side effect of this non-measurable feeling of cultural engagement.

There's no denying that any festival is, in essence, a huge marketing exercise, and that, given our institutional structures, we're limited to more or less interesting engagements with a central necessity of commodification. That's contemporary arts for you, a dilemma which is leading to all sorts of interesting subversions in unexpected places, including a rebirth of art as political radicalism. Here in Australia, sadly, we're nowhere near such a rebirth, and our cultural commentaries for the most part are teeth-achingly conservative. But all the same, over tables in every sort of room and in every sort of bar and cafe, Melbourne offers a possible site of resistance to the emptiness of consumption. It's the invitation that exceeds the commodifiable, this intangible sense of common weal.

Under the imaginative creative production of Emily Sexton, this year's record-breaking Melbourne Fringe generated that common weal much more successfully than MIAF. This difference is symbolised in the Malthouse Theatre's offerings for both festivals: the Fringe threw up (quite literally) one of the shows of the year, Hayloft's coruscating Thyestes, while for the Melbourne Festival, we had the mildly charming Intimacy. In a real sense, and perhaps rightly, the Fringe is picking up the vitality that MIAF created in this city through the noughties: a sense of cultural transformation at work.

Picture: Tristan's Ascension, Bill Viola.

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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.

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Saturday, October 23, 2010

MIAF Diary #7: Opening Night

Finally, in its last week, the Melbourne Festival has warmed up. Quite literally - there's no doubt that a couple of balmy nights help light up the body electric. But more importantly - at least for an arts festival - there has been a sense of event. This week has been full of shows that made you want to go out and talk afterwards. The major place is to be is Seventh Heaven, the pink fluoro tent outside the tarted-up Curve Bar at the Arts Centre. It's like an incoherent vision of an '80s gay nightclub, complete with Ikea fittings and a mystifying neon installation, apparently a kind of magic portal, that seems to be pointing to the art gallery. Nothing looks more disconsolate than its angel kitsch abandoned in the rain. But even Seventh Heaven was jumping this week.

Even so, there have been complaints. The constituency that comments on TN has been complaining about a a feeling of corporate blandness in some of the work, and more crucially, about a lack of a sense of community. A festival is, after all, much more than a series of events: it also generates what binds these events together, the glue that we call culture. Meanwhile, Robin Usher, a reliable litmus of the conservative commentariat, is complaining in today's Age about the lack of a glittery festival event, like Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre, the centrepiece of this year's Adelaide Festival (my review of that opera here).

I think Usher's comments are a tad mean-minded - there's been no lack of spectacle, after all - although he might have a point about Sheehy's programming attempting to please everyone (though what's wrong with that, in a public festival?) And seriously, Usher can't complain about the lack of work that seeks to transform an artform on the one hand, while on the other condemning Tomorrow, In A Year, which certainly has change on its agenda, and provided the kind of controversy a festival needs. And, contrary to Usher's report, I've heard a bit of "wow": notably around Stifter's Dinge, which has been unanimously praised by those fortunate enough to see it, and Bill Viola's video installations.

Certainly, this is the first time I've seen Usher calling for work that "breaks new ground" or is "designed to change people's ideas about what an art form can achieve" - as I remember, during Kristy Edmunds' residency he was implacably opposed to anything that even smelled of formal experiment. But, after years of reading Usher's articles, I think he must be anchored to his principles - when the weather shifts, he hauls up his anchor and moves elsewhere.

More on all this when I wrap up next week, but thank god people are arguing. Now to my reports, which will be trickling out over the next few days, as I catch up. You'll have to excuse my slowness; I'm a little tired, but plan to discuss everything I saw, if not always at length.

A brief summary of my week: on Wednesday and Thursday I saw, respectively, Ivo van Hove's Opening Night and Hotel Pro Forma's Tomorrow, In A Year, both of which are consummate festival shows, and both of which have produced a lot of comment, disagreement and, in the case of Hotel Pro Forma, outraged tweeting. The anger Hotel Pro Forma has engendered is frankly amazing - I confess I don't quite understand it. Me, I was engrossed...but more of this tomorrow.

I took time out on Thursday afternoon to see one of the VCA grad shows, Daniel Schlusser's The Hollow, a riff on Agatha Christie and Cluedo which I recommend to anyone looking for some genuine experimentation. And last night, I dropped into An Anthology of Optimism, which was the sorbet on the week's various fare. Today I'm heading to Epi-Thet, a sound installation at North Melbourne, before I see the closing night extravaganza, Seven Songs to Leave Behind. But now to Wednesday night's show.

I suspect I might have enjoyed Ivo van Hove’s intriguing production of Opening Night a lot more if I hadn’t seen John Cassavetes's film. Van Hove claims not to have seen the film, working, as with a traditional play, directly from the text. This begs a few questions about the genesis of the show, which for me were not answered by the production. Although I saw the film quite recently, my memory of the script is far from photographic: all the same, it's clear that van Hove has by no means stuck to the original script. He has changed major characters and scenes, sometimes in the interest of theatricality, sometimes for reasons that are less easy to divine.

The film itself – a brilliant backstage study of the process of creation – is often given surprisingly short shrift in the Cassavetes canon, although it shows Gena Rowlands, one of the great divas of the cinema, in one of her great roles. Rowlands's performance was what I couldn't forget, no matter how hard I tried - and believe me, I did try - as I watched the play: it is the heart of the film, and the expression of its meaning. Take away her pain and complexity, and you're effectively left with an avant garde version of an Alan Ayckbourn backstage comedy.

Opening Night follows the leading actress Myrtle (Gena Rowlands in the film, the excellent Elsie van Brauw in the play) during the process of producing a play - in the film it's during an out-of-town tryout before a Broadway opening; in the play, they're rehearsing. Myrtle, a woman “of a certain age”, is struggling to animate a role about a woman attempting to come to terms with getting older. She can't make the writing live (one suspects that it is because this naturalistic play about an alcoholic, aging woman with a trail of ex-lovers and husbands behind her is actually not that interesting). But she is also afraid that if she succeeds, she will be typecast as an older woman.

One night after a performance, a young fan, the unstable 17 year-old Nancy, is killed in a car accident. Myrtle begins to be haunted by Nancy’s presence, permitting Cassavetes to create an an increasingly spooky and beautifully ambiguous portrayal of artistic possession. As Myrtle says, after one genuinely frightening scene in which Nancy beats her up in her apartment, she has herself summoned Nancy, because this is what actresses do. In an excruciating scene, she visits Nancy's family to offer her condolences, a childless, glamorous woman hovering over the mute pain of Nancy's family.

As Myrtle flirts with the edges of insanity, it becomes clear that Nancy represents not only her younger self, but the daughter she never had in her single-minded pursuit of her career. Most importantly, she is the anarchic self, the unknown Other, that all artists summon in the act of creation.

Gena Rowlands’s compelling and fascinatingly complex performance of Myrtle’s destructive act of creation sails so close to the wind it’s traumatic to watch. Elsie De Brauw, who plays Myrtle in this production, is clearly an accomplished actress, but she doesn’t get close to Rowlands’s fragile, razor-sharp edges. And while it quickly becomes evident that van Hove’s adaptation isn’t about exploring the traumatic heart of Cassavetes’s film, it's hard to see what it offers in its place. He gives us a surprisingly crude, pop-psychology adaptation of the story. Without having read the text, I can't help wondering if it's because Cassavetes is a better film-maker than scriptwriter.

I was especially troubled by the interpretation of the women. Van Hove has made the playwright Sarah (Chris Nietvelt) a figure of fun, a fussy middle-aged woman in too-high-heels, and significantly, the same age as as Myrtle (in the film, she is 20 years older). It means that Myrtle's panic becomes mere petulance: ridiculously, she won't even admit her age, in the face of being challenged to do so by a woman who looks younger than she is. In the film, she is denying something more difficult - the old age that is not far ahead in her future, and her inevitable death.

Most concerning is how van Hove reduced the delicate and troubled Nancy into a porn avatar of teen sexuality (what was with the nipple-pinching?) Meanwhile, Myrtle is presented to us as a post-sexual woman: the men keep assuring her that they love her, ad nauseam, but - again, in sharp contrast to the film, where they are genuinely bewitched - they are just attending to the fragile ego of a woman whose sexual attraction has faded, manipulating her and jollying her along for their own purposes. It seemed to me that what in the film is a network of ambiguous and fascinating and, above all, self-sufficient relationships between the various women, is transformed in the play into a series of portrayals of femininity as functions of male desire. A whole layer of subtlety and ambiguity was missing for me.

On the plus side, Van Hove’s adaptation is theatrically spectacular and beautifully performed by a first class ensemble. It gives us some familiar tropes of contemporary post-dramatic meta-theatre: the on-stage cameras with feeds to live action projected (with surtitles) onto screens around the stage, glass doors that transform into mirrors, live video of the foyer, and so on. From the auditorium, we get a side-on look to a huge backstage area, complete with costumes, stage crew, and make-up tables, that bleeds into a stage area. A bank of spectators is actually on stage, performing as the audience.

A lot of the meta-theatrics are, oddly enough, somehow flattened out by staging rather than filming them. Cassavetes masterfully exploits the ambiguity of film, so sometimes we aren't sure whether Myrtle is performing a role in the play or is just behaving weirdly. Somehow, in the act of watching theatre, this ambiguity is almost completely lost. While the naturalism of film can make it possible to forget the artifice of performance entirely, in theatre not forgetting that we are watching performance is at the basis of its poetic, its exhilarating suspension of disbelief.

This makes Myrtle's wicked intrusion of some aspect of her real life into her public performance - as when, for example, she calls one of her fellow actors by his real name on stage - much more interesting in the film than it is on the stage, where it becomes just another layer of performance. Even the mediation of the cameras - supposedly a documentary crew - does little to create the filmic dissonance. You wonder what it might have been like, for instance, if the actors had used their real names and played themselves, instead of fictional characters. But that would have been a different - and maybe more profound - exploration of theatre.

Where this show works brilliantly is in its comic ironies: the final scenes, when a dead-drunk Myrtle acts the final scenes of Sarah's play with her anarchic interpolations finally absorbed into her performance, are exquisitely performed, and very funny. When van Hove approaches the serious questions in Cassavetes’s script, he takes refuge in jokey melodrama. He is clearly no mean theatre-maker; but in this show, his virtuosity has a hollow core.

A version of this review appeared in Friday's Australian.

Photo: Elsie de Brauw and Fred Goessens in Opening Night. Photo: Jan Versweyveld

Opening Night by John Cassavetes, directed by Ivo van Hove. Set and lighting by Jan Versweyveld, costumes by An d'Huys, video design by Marc Meulemans. With Elsie van Brauw, Jacob Derwig, Daan van Dijsseldonk, Lien de Graeve, Hans Kesling, Lien Wildemeersch, Fred Goessens, Eelco Smits, Serve Hermans, Chris Nietvelt and Hadewych Minis. Melbourne International Arts Festival, Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, until tonight.

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

MIAF Diary #6: Vertical Road

Death cultivates visibility...

The image does not reflect reality, but rather, the spectacular end of all reality.

To see, means to die; to watch, dying.

Wind and sand revel in worsting the eye, making it cry.

Yellowed with age, the image yields only nostalgia: image of a lost image.

The Line of the Horizon, Edmond Jabès

Contemporary life, says choreographer Akram Khan in a note in the program, is pulled along by horizontal forces: we sacrifice depth and height for breadth. And this is precisely my dilemma with Khan's extraordinary dance work, Vertical Road: I would like to spend a few days thinking about it, but simply don't have the time it deserves. This, for all its physical excitement, is a deeply contemplative work: a rich hour of dance that explores the other axis, the still point of the turning world where height and depth become manifest.

The design is absolutely simple, and consists of a series of revelations. When we enter the theatre, the stage is hidden by a black curtain that slowly draws back to reveal a bare space. A flexible transluscent membrane divides the space, with perhaps a third of the stage hidden behind it. A group of figures is folded in a semicircle near the screen, unmoving: they are dressed in white unisex costumes, a tunic over trousers, recalling the linens of the dead, perhaps, or the robes of a Sufi devotee.

There is a dim figure behind the screen, limned by a golden light, but we cannot see him clearly: he reaches forward and touches the screen, and his hand is suddenly clearly outlined, although the rest of his body remains blurred. We watch his hand as it dips and weaves, inscribing something on the screen: we can see the pressure of his finger, but the text is invisible. "The moving finger writes; and having writ, moves on," as Edward Fitzgerald says in his sumptuous translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The lights black out: and when they rise again, the membrane is opaque: we are in the material world, cut off from the divine.

The rest of Vertical Road is a series of approaches to the divine, a struggle between the earthy weight of the human body and its desire for flight. Khan's seven dancers enact possession, desire, fear, power: most of all, a sense of possession, as if an angel inhabits the body, violent and desirous, and just as suddenly leaves, the dancer standing puzzled and alone, his hands empty. The movement whirls out of a catatonic stillness (the dancers can be picked up and put down like pieces of furniture) into ectastic states. spinning like - but not exactly like - Sufi dervishes. The axis of the spin wobbles: the dancers might cartwheel in strange, insect-like formations diagonally across the stage, or dislodge into a sudden, disconcerting disharmony.

Sufism, the most poetic of all religions, is a continuous echo through this dance: the immanence explored here is mystic, the promise of a personal understanding of the divine. There is a constant dialogue of the text in tension with the body: the word - represented by seven tablets, just as there are seven dancers - is placed in ascetic contrast with the body. At one point, two lovers writhe across the stage, tumbling over and over, while a solitary dancer sits still with the tablets, posed in contemplation.

This apparent dichotomy is not straightforward: one of the great paradoxes in mystic writings is their erotic nature, how the most religious experiences, which struggle at the very limits of the possibilities of human expression, emerge as love poems and in metaphors of sensual desire: the poetry St John of the Cross or Rumi, or the visions of Hildegard von Bingen or the love mysticism of St Bernard of Clarivaux. The more ecstatic the body, the more presently it insists: a contradiction Khan's choreography perfectly expresses.

The movement is thrilling. It expresses the impulse to flight - the bodies of the dancers sometimes seem to lift of their own accord, rising out of their material limitations. In one final, beautiful scene, the dancer left alone on the stage wriggles and turns as if his shoulders are itching, as if he is sprouting wings from his shoulder blades, and for a moment, as his writhing becomes more violent, it is almost as if the wings are there. Equally, the movement makes us aware of the weight of bodies, of their material density, as they fall, smack, on the stage, or crawl haltingly towards a moment of death.

The dance is driven by an incredible score by Nitin Sawhney. It opens with the sound of wind: then there begins an insistent, throbbing pulse, a drumbeat that gets into the blood like fever, which itself moves the dancers, so all seven seem to be pulsing as one body. This retreats into a play of soaring voices backed by a menacing electronic groan, that rise up out of silences in which we can only hear the dancers gasping for air. The score is at once beautiful and terrifying, like the angelic intelligences it invokes.

This is the sort of work which invites the audience to make its own narratives. I am not religious, and certainly do not believe in life after death; yet I find these invocations of the divine deeply powerful. It's a function, maybe, of their stern beauty, which exists in their hesitations and doubts and refusals, as much as in the beautiful completion of particular gestures. I guess such works - written or performed - summon within me an involuntary faith in the immanent, rather than the transcendent: in the possibility held within each consciousness, that is its own sacredness, and which reflects or reveals the sacredness of both the animate and inanimate world.

In its realisation of the sacred, Vertical Road reminded me strongly of Bangarra's Of Earth and Sky, which I saw a couple of weeks ago. And also, in the beautiful tact of its expressing what cannot be expressed, of Bill Viola's Fire Woman and Tristran's Ascension, which I saw the night before, arriving at a little church in Parkville on a wet Monday night to find other devotees clustering in the porch, as if we were all members of a secret cult. The only proper response to any of these works is, in fact, a poem: but for the moment, these words will have to do.

Pictures: Vertical Road by Akram Khan. Photos: Carla Gottgens

Vertical Road, directed and choreographed by Akram Khan, composed by Nitin Sawhney. Lighting Design by Jesper Kongshaug, costumes by Kimie Nakano, set conceived by Akram Khan, Jesper Kongshaug and Kimie Nakano. Material devised & performed by Eulalia Ayguade Farro, Konstadina Efthymiadou, Salah El Brogy, Ahmed Khemis,Young Jin Kim, Yen-Ching Lin, Andrej Petrovic and Paul Zivkovich. Akram Khan Company, Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, until October 23.

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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

MIAF Diary #5: Jack Charles v. The Crown, Adapting for Distortion / Haptic

Now I'm facing Melbourne Festival Week #3: and I confess that my feathers are a little bedraggled, my tail and whiskers a little less than perky. Since the beginning of September, when I attended the 68th World Science Fiction Convention, life has been as tightly packed as a spiral erbium-doped waveguide amplifier; and believe me, that's tightly packed. If all the words I've written in the past six weeks had been devoted to a novel, I'd have written at least Death In Venice or The Leopard by now. (This is why I have these recurring nightmares of finding myself on my death bed with a list of all the great books I never wrote scrolling across the inside of my eyelids - but that's another plaint.)

Week #2 began benignly last Tuesday with Jack Charles V. The Crown, a genuinely feel-good show in which Indigneous performer Jack Charles tells his own story. In 2008, Charles was the subject of an award-winning documentary, Bastardy, which frankly examined his drug addiction and thievery. On the evidence of Jack Charles v The Crown, which functions as a kind of theatrical sequel, Bastardy changed Charles’s life, by giving him a chance to see objectively what it was, and opening him to a new public. Charles's frankly expressed sense of his own mortality and his plain desire to redeem his life - he has been clean now for six years - is one of the most moving moments of this show.

The show is essentially Charles’s plea to have his criminal record expunged. The second half is a theatricalisation of an address to the High Court, with the first providing biographical context. Strung together with songs, some nifty audio-visuals and a tight band, it makes a well-crafted piece of theatrical cabaret. It opens with a long voice-over, during which we watch Charles skilfully throwing a clay pot on a wheel, which generates all the absorption of watching a craftsman at work. At the centre of this show is the potent metaphor of clay - as an image of the malleability of the human soul, its ability to be turned towards good or ill, and especially to demonstrate the sensuous - even erotic - thrill of making.

Co-written by Charles and John Romeril and directed by Rachael Maza Long, this show literally embodies a significant slice of theatrical and social history. John Romeril - author of the Australian classic play The Floating World - has worked in Australian theatre for more than four decades, and was a founding member and leading light of the Australian Performing Group, which revolutionised Australian theatre through the 1970s. Rachael Maza Long is the daughter of playwright and actor Bob Maza, who was a driving force behind Indigenous theatre in the 1970s, and was also a prominent activist. Maza Long has had a distinguished career as actor and performer, and is the artistic director of Ilbijerri Theatre Company, the longest running indigenous company in Australia and the only one in Victoria.

And Jack Charles? He's social and theatrical history in person. Born during World War 2, he was taken from his mother at six months and raised in boys' homes in the suburbs of Melbourne, before embarking on a life of drug addiction and petty crime that saw him spend nearly half his life behind bars. Early in the show, Charles shows some photographs of himself, aged perhaps nine: a sweet-faced, luminous boy, notably the only dark-skinned child in the picture. The show is in part a simply biography, showing without self-pity how the mechanisms of racism and institutionalism (like many others, he was abused in the boys' homes) shaped this young boy's life.

Charles's story is the classic story of Aboriginal deracination: he was brought up in total ignorance of his own culture and family, and didn't even know that he had 12 siblings until he was an adult. When he first met his relatives, who lived in inner-city Fitzroy, he was dreadfully punished by his foster family, who were obviously terrified he might return to his black roots and shame them all. The psychic effects of his treatment are left to our imagination: we don't need to join many dots to see how poverty, addiction and petty crime emerge from a cultural vacuum that amounts to an erasure of oneself. It's a story that's been told again and again, and not only in the Stolen Generation narratives: the stories of Native Americans, for example, are horrifically similar.

Yet shot through this is another parallel story, that of the performer and maker: the Elder who founded the first Aboriginal theatre company, Nindethana, and who has worked major Australian stages and acted in some iconic films. For all the weight of the story, this is a light-hearted, even joyous, show, sharply directed by Maza Long. Nigel Maclean's musical direction drives the rhythms under the monologues, keeping things moving and tight. Even opening night uncertainties and the odd bit of prompting didn’t dampen the charm of this show, which is an open-hearted crowd-pleaser.

Adapting for Distortion & Haptic are two dances by Japanese dancer and choreographer Hiroaki Umeda that combine some electronic wizardry with a bit of stylised hiphop derived dance. It is almost at the opposite end of the theatrical spectrum to Jack Charles v. The Crown, a show where presence and heart is everything. Here, the body is an absence in the world of electronic signals, a shadow that interrupts the white noise of technology.

It certainly has its moments: Umeda vanishing altogether into shadows in Haptic as colours pulse on the stage; startling images of an absent body that paradoxically is stubbornly, even subversively there in Adapting for Distortion. Yet I couldn't help feeling that I had seen all this before, even if I haven't; I know that others have been talking about Chunky Move's Mortal Engine, which similarly (and more interestingly) puts the human body in uneasy dialogue with technology, but I'd rather think of Chunky Move's exquisitely satisfying solo piece Glow. which has rather more in common with Umeda's ambitions. Umeda's choreographic and visual vocabulary seems limited in comparison: I found myself feeling that the dance was merely repeating its tropes, rather than deepening their meanings. And so, despite their shortness, felt myself becoming a little bored.

Pictures: Top: Jack Charles. Photo: Steven Rhall; bottom, Hiraoki Umeda in Adapting for Distortion. Photo: Shin Yamagata

Jack Charles V. The Crown, by Jack Charles and John Romeril, directed by Rachael Maza Long. Design by Emily Barrie, lighting by Danny ettingill, music direction Nigel MacLean. Performed by Jack Charles, with music performed by Nigel MacLean, Phil Collings and Mal Beveridge. Ilbijerri Theatre Company @ Fairfax Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre (closed). Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, March 30 to April 17.

Adapting for Distortion/Haptic, created and performed by Hiroaki Umeda. Sound by S20, images by S20 and Betrand Baudry. Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse. Closed.

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Monday, October 18, 2010

MIAF Diary #4: The Beckett Trilogy

This inertia of things is enough to drive one literally insane.
Molloy, Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett is famously one of the most recondite of writers, especially in speaking about his own work. Yet, in the one of paradoxes of modern literature, his work has spawned millions of words of scholarly exegesis. I’d swap much of this commentary for this performance by Conor Lovett: his bitterly lucid performance of extracts from Beckett’s trilogy of novels – Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable – tells you everything you need to know about Beckett, that isn’t said by Beckett himself.

Lovett’s performance reveals Beckett’s humility, that ironic compassion and obdurate, sly humour. There isn’t a trace of vanity in these cruelly comic narratives, built precariously before our eyes “to pass the time”. Lovett and his director, Judy Hegarty Lovett, wisely don’t attempt to summarise all the novels into what is already a marathon (three and a half hour) performance. Instead, they select a few passages from each work and structure the evening as a fragmentary progression. For those unfamiliar with the trilogy, it's an excellent introduction; for those who have already read them, it's a joyous exploration of a work that remains as freshly challenging as when it was written.

Beckett's characters enact powerlessness. Most obviously, it's at the hands of mysteriously intentioned others: the bafflingly charitable, who insist their charity on the benighted whether they desire it or not; or those who insist some kind of claim of obligation, perhaps the accidental death of a dog; or the policeman who embodies an irrational social order. Just as often, they are at the mercy of things: bicycles, trousers, trees, their own bodies. Yet, with a very human irrationality, if Beckett's characters have power of their own, they will exert it on others, and their actions are as cruel and absurd as those they suffer (less evident perhaps in this performance, than in the novels).

For Molloy and Malone, these encounters are merely symptoms of a brutal interior impotence, in which the self is in an unavailing struggle with itself. They are fictions who know they are fictions: and the hand that structures the writing, the author himself, despairingly sees himself in their inadequate mirrors, a thing of language at the mercy of the imperative of living, a drive for survival that is no more than a primitive instinct for continuation. It's in the clarity of this vision - as disinterested as a natural historian's - that Beckett's compassion is most evident.

Most of all, these characters are alone, in a wasteland bounded by the limits of their skulls. Through the three books the fictions narrow and focus, until the nameless protagonist of The Unnameable begins to grapple with the act of speech itself, tormentedly unsure whether he is saying the words or whether the language is saying him, his consciousness nothing but a series of predestined patterns in which individual choice is nothing but a fragile illusion. "Hearing nothing, I am nonetheless a prey to communication. And I speak of voices! After all, why not, as long as one knows it's untrue..."

The chief virtue of Lovett’s performance is how he embodies the struggles of Beckett’s absurd and tragic characters, in their struggle to exist and to remember; most of all, in their struggle out of silence, towards speaking. Dressed in dark clothes that change subtly for each recitation, he emerges from the audience for both Molloy and Malone Dies, as if to emphasise that these stories do not concern themselves with those who live in the limelight, but with more ordinary, anonymous lives. Speaking in a soft Cork accent, Lovett’s white face and fluttering hands articulate the cruel intelligence and surprisingly gentle ironies that animate the writing. Perhaps the performance is most powerful in its silences, which are impeccably timed, permitting the implications of what has been heard to flower vividly in the mind.

The staging is pleasingly bare. For the first two, a white circle of light snaps open on a huge, naked stage. We contemplate the light for some moments, until Lovett emerges from the audience and onto the stage. The Unnamable is staged in a narrowly angled blade of light that throws a monstrous shadow on the wall behind Lovett, and is more sober, more painful, than the preceding two. I find it hard to judge this last one: a migraine of titanic proportions clamped down on my skull, making being present at this performance a real struggle. Despite this, Lovett kept my attention, and somehow the physical pain seemed strangely appropriate for witnessing this anguished conflict with language and consciousness. Perhaps it was Beckett playing a final, mordant joke.

A shorter version of this review is in today's Australian.

Picture: Conor Lovett as Malone. Picture: Dylan Vaughan

The Beckett Trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable, by Samuel Beckett, writings selected by Colin Lovett and Judy Hegarty Lovett, directed by Judy Hegarty Lovett, performed by Conor Lovett. Gare St Lazare Players Ireland. Playhouse Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre. October 15.

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Thursday, October 14, 2010

MIAF Diary #3: Carnival of Mysteries, Come, Been and Gone, Thomas Adès and the Calder Quartet

Ms TN is still standing: but I was grateful for a couple of nights home early this week. I'm not complaining - don't get me wrong - but I'm not really built for mass cultural consumption: I can only absorb so much and write so many hundreds of words before the cerebellum begins to feel like sticky porridge. I'm a one-on-one, contemplative kind of gal. Still, I love festival time.

After the first week, I'm getting a feel of MIAF 2010, my first experience of Brett Sheehy's festival direction. It's difficult not to look nostalgically back to Kristy Edmunds's four years, which really put some electricity into this city: so far I'm having a pleasant but not a delirious festival experience. Most of all, I'm missing the palpable sense of furious conversation, of excited debate and stimulating difference. It feels decentred: perhaps because we lack the democratically open-to-everyone artist's bar, which provided a conversational hub and meeting place that didn't cost an arm and a leg. And also, maybe, the Spiegeltent, which seemed like an instant tradition (although tent fans will be glad to know that it's coming back in February). As for my Fab Tally: half way through, it's working at around 50 per cent. I'm hoping that percentage will lift by the end of the week.

Before I move on to brief discussions on the last of the shows I saw in last week's avalanche, a couple of diary notes. I saw Jack Charles V. The Crown on Tuesday night, and will report further on this next week, after the Australian publishes my review: suffice to say, it is a crowd-pleaser. Tonight is the premiere of Daniel Keene's Life Without Me at the MTC, which I will be attending as Mrs Keene, relieved (and how nice that is) of the responsibility to write anything. Tomorrow I'm off to see The Beckett Trilogy, and Saturday it's dance again with Adapting for Distortion and Haptic. And then we whirl into Week Number Three.

But back to some final notes on Week #1. One of my festival highlights is the wild and wicked Carnival of Mysteries at Fortyfive Downstairs. It's the most extravagant so far of Moira Finucane and Jackie Smith's explorations of burlesque, which are providing increasingly immersive experiences that they call "intimate spectacle". I last saw them taking over La Mama with the sensory overload of their Triple Bill of Wild Delight: and what a blast that was. Those who saw that show will have an approximate idea of what to expect in Carnival of Mysteries: extravagantly staged passion, perverse and liberating sensual delight, sly comedy, nudity, and excess, excess and more excess. And dancing.

That's what happens at Fortyfive Downstairs, only more so. When you arrive, you are given $30,000 in carnival money and a program, and then you are simply taken down stairs and let loose in the space. It's set up as as a fairground, with miscellaneous tents painted in circus colours and sumptuously undressed performers spruiking their shows. There's a central area with a bar and cabaret tables, where you can take some time out with a wicked cocktail and play noughts and crosses; otherwise, you pays your money and you takes your chances. It's a show where you make your own narrative, so everyone's experience will be different.

I heard there were altogether about 30 acts. We saw around ten, I guess, in the almost two hours we spent there. They ranged from the Garcon Gigolo (the incomparable Brian Lucas), who got nude and personal, to Carolyn Connors's performance of Erik Satie in the Shrine, to Moira Finucane's idiosyncratic portrayal of a Librarian (needless to say, not like any Librarian I've ever seen, although it's a welcome reminder of the perverse eroticism of literary endeavour). Every now and then the crowd would gather in the general area for a "free" act: Finucane again in huge metallic wings, declaiming that "revenge is a dish best eaten... frequently", or Azaria Universe shoving fairyfloss in her bra, and eating it, or a jaw-dropping performance of Billie Holiday songs by the wondrous Lois Olney, in which "everyone and I stopped breathing".

It's basically a glorious party. Funny, beautiful, unexpectedly touching and enormously enjoyable. Go with someone you love.

Carnival of Mysteries held all the perilous desire that was lacking in come, been and gone, the Michael Clark Company's opening night offering at the State Theatre. The evening begins with Swamp, a 20-year-old piece to music by Bruce Gilbert & Wire that was recently revived by the Rambert Dance Company. The costumes have a comic book feel - blue skintight lycra, with black eye masks - that is accentuated by the simple lighting, a bar of light slowly moving across the back of the stage.

In its angular purity, Swamp recalls the classical lines of Merce Cunningham; indeed, for much of the dance, I was contemplating the chilly discipline of the dancers and wondering if that - compelling in itself - was truly enough. Yet towards the end of the dance, the slow steely spring of the choreography suddenly lets go in an exhilarating finale, a sudden and surprising release of energy that generates a rush of feeling. Although the choreography feels dated, it was so exactly and confidently itself that this ended up being my favourite piece of the night.

After that, it was all downhill for me. There followed a series of dances set to music by The Velvet Underground, the most successful of which was probably Venus in Furs, which gave us some startling stage imagery - a dancer crouched midair, totally still, suspended by wires that drew him across the stage, Venus herself exposed as her furs fly up into the air. Heroin featured probably the naffest costume of the night, a skin-coloured body suit out of which were sticking a couple of dozen syringes (wtf?) And speaking of naff, there was a half-hearted 10-second flash of projected Pop Art (big bright fonts screaming ANAL! BANAL!) which hardly seemed worth the effort.

The third part of the evening, come and come again, was mainly choreographed to David Bowie: and here it became clear that rock and roll just doesn't do en point. I preferred by far the Kraftwerk piece, Hall of Mirrors, for here the music has sufficient abstraction to support the dance without it looking fey. For the most part, the Bowie choreography seemed all about taking the sex out of rock and roll: lots of surface style and bright cossies, and a serious lack of grunt.

Dancers running onto stage on tippy toes just got more and more absurd the rockier the music became: glam rock might be camp, but that doesn't mean it's prissy. The most puzzling - because the most exposing - decision of the night was to project the video clip of Bowie singing Heroes hugely behind the dancers. It reminded me that as a 15 year old fangirl, I was absolutely correct: Bowie was a god. It was impossible to watch anything except him, let alone take any notice of the dancers. Who were, it must be said, absolutely superb in their precision and discipline: but by the end of the night, I had answered my own question. It really isn't enough.

A little virtuosity never goes astray, however, as Thomas Adès demonstrated in his concert with the Calder Quartet at the Melbourne Recital Centre. The beautifully balanced program was an excellent introduction to this composer, who was unfamiliar to me. It presented a range of work, opening with the lushly romantic strings of Arcadiana, played by the quartet, and then continuing to two piano solos played by Adès - Darkness Visible, an intricate and delicately felt work written when he was a student, and Three Mazurkas, composed last year. Both skin tingling performances.

Adès's work was contextualised by three piano works by Stravinsky, including the bizarrely fun Piano-Rag-Music which is, as Adès said, "cubist rag", and the highly technical Three Canons for URSULA by the American composer Conlon Nancarrow, a composer who mainly wrote for pianolas, and which maybe appeals more to those musically literate people who can follow the argument of the music, which - despite Adès's lucid introductions to each work - I could not. For the finale, the quartet returned and performed with Adès, playing his exhilarating Piano Quintet.

Adès is a riveting, even charismatic performer: it is as if, from the moment he begins to play, his entire being, body, mind and soul, is possessed by the music. You can't stop looking at his continuously expressive hands. He is also a particularly charming host. Given that I am hardly deeply literate in music, an enthusiastic rather than an informed listener, I wish that every concert I went to could be introduced with the diffident and courteous friendliness with which he explained the formal principles behind the works he played. A wholly enjoyable evening.

Pictures: Top: Carnival of Mysteries crew. Photo: Jodie Hutchinson. Middle: Come, been and gone. Photo: Clair Thomas. Bottom: Thomas Adès. Photo: Maurice Foxall

Carnival of Mysteries, created and directed by Moira Finucane and Jackie Smith. Designed by The Sisters Hayes, costume design by Doyle Barrow, sound design by Adam Hunt, lighting design by Lin Tobias. With various artists. Fortyfive Downstairs until October 30.

come, been and gone, choreographed by Michael Clark. Compsers: David Bowie, Brian Eno, Bruce Gilbert & Wire, Kraftwerk, Lour Reed. Lighting design by Charles Atlas, costumes by Stevie Stewart, Richard Torry and Michael Clark. Danced by Harry Alexander, Kate Coyne, Melissa Hetherington, Brooke Smiley, Benjamin Warbis and Simon Williams. State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre. Closed.

Thomas Adès & Calder Quartet. Piano, Thomas Adès; violin Andrew Bulbrook and Benjamin Jacobson; viola Jonathnan Maerschel and cello Eric Byers. Melbourne Recital Centre, October 11.

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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

MIAF Diary #2: Intimacy, The Blue Dragon

In 2007, Raimondo and Adriano Cortese's company Ranters had an independent hit with their production Holiday, which saw a return season at the Malthouse the following year. Featuring Ranters regulars Paul Lum and Patrick Moffatt, Holiday was an apparently artless construction of inconsequential conversations between strangers at a resort, punctuated by some beautiful baroque singing. Absurd and gently comic, it opened up the vulnerabilities and innocence of its characters, leaving you with a mysterious buoyancy and joy.

Since then, Ranters have further explored the idea of the inconsequential through different scenarios. Importing Beth Buchanan into their ensemble, they produced Affection at the Arts Centre's Black Box, which followed the conversations of friends in a lounge room. I thought this show exposed the perils of this kind of theatre, which walks a fiendishly narrow line between an artful transparency and the merely banal. Is it enough to frame the apparently "ordinary" to make it art?

Their much-anticipated show Intimacy, Malthouse Theatre's festival offering, explores the same conceit again, but does little to deepen the inquiry. Here the narrator (Lum) approaches strangers in St Kilda (Buchanan and Moffatt) and asks if they would like to talk. "A surprising number," he reports, "said yes." What follows is a kind of documentary relation of these conversations, presented as theatre.

Anna Tregloan's set is a consciously theatrical, abstract space: the stage is naked except for several large rocks, like those you might find on a foreshore, its walls surrounded by plain blue curtains. St Kilda itself is evoked by an introductory video and a burst of ambient sound. Then there's a close-up of Moffatt's face, labelled "Russell, 62", and the first conversation, with a man who is a roller-coaster geek, gets under way. The conversations are punctuated by longish silences, and the odd spot at a karaoke bar, where one or other of the performers shows how badly they can sing. (Though anyone who has seen Holiday won't believe it). And there are a couple of deliberately amateurish dance routines.

There's no doubt Intimacy makes affable and often funny theatre, but it seldom reaches beyond what has become a comfortable convention. It's coyly self-conscious: the silences are mannered pauses, rather than spaces in which unspoken desires and longings anxiously reveal themselves, and the conversations are too often consciously shaped to reflect back on the work itself. This isn't, in itself, a problem: but I did have a quote from Endgame echoing in my ears through the play: "We're not beginning to... to... mean something?"

I was too aware of a hand at work directing its meanings, which mitigates the airiness that made Holiday such a beautiful piece. David Franzke's maddening sound design, which seems to be at once everywhere and nowhere, flooding all available space while somehow flattening out its texture, contributes to this sense of dilution. But it might also be the premise of the show, which depends on an interlocutory framework. What do people actually reveal about themselves in interviews with strangers? The "intimacy" of its title describes the consequenceless trust between people who will probably not meet again, and the play itself seems to be about people who are unable, for whatever reason, to form close relationships. Which is to say, it's not about intimacy at all, but its avoidance.

There is a point to exploring what people might be, if released from the prisons of the selves that others project onto them: but I seldom felt that I was watching more than the construction of another self, the artful construction of performance. What's lacking is difficult to articulate. This piece evades the nagging loneliness that seems to exist in its centre, and at the same time fails to achieve the delicate tact of Holiday. I suspect that on both counts, this is because it gives its audience little space in which their understanding might bloom: paradoxically, it's too controlled, too theatrical, to maintain its own anti-theatrical conceit. A comparison might be with an artist of the ordinary like Jérôme Bel, who balances with superb restraint the contradictions of apparently spontaneous performance.

Perhaps this emotional avoidance is the point. As I said, it's affable theatre, generating a lot of laughs: but I don't think that's enough. The tightrope of risk seems to me to be carefully chalked on the ground here, rather than airily stretching over our heads. Painless, but disappointing: and who wants theatre to be painless?


Robert Lepage’s The Blue Dragon, a continuation of his mid-1980s work The Dragon Trilogy, is also naggingly disappointing. As a piece of visual theatre, there's no doubt that it’s an achievement: with the help of a huge crew (who came out for some deserved applause at the end), Lepage and his set designer Michel Gauthier create a kind of theatrical film, complete with credits.

The design works in a two-dimensional plane: there is no perspective of depth, a sense that is highlighted by the clever interactive projections. Like the cartoon frames in a graphic novel, the set is divided horizontally and vertically into eight frames, which can unite into a single image or be isolated into different cells, as in a series of images towards the end. This generates some completely gorgeous moments: snow falling on a black screen; tiny Miyazake-style trains crawling along the stage before a dark industrial cityscape; an airport departure lounge; a train station: most frequently, the hero's double-storey apartment in the old quarters of Shanghai.

For all its graphic influences, this show generates a naturalism that is more usually associated with film. The play itself, co-written by Lepage and Marie Michaud, seems like a romcom movie: take away the technical wizardry, and what's left is pure soap opera. The story revisits Pierre LaMontagne (Henri Chasse), the protagonist of The Dragon Trilogy. Now 50 years old, he has abandoned his own art in favour of running a gallery in Shanghai. He is sleeping with one of his protegees, Xiao Ling (Tai Wei Foo), a young artist he discovered in Hong Kong when she gave him the blue dragon tattoo of the title, and who specialises in self-portraits taken on her mobile phone, a supposedly revolutionary aesthetic of individualism.

The story begins when his ex-wife Claire Forêt (Marie Michaud) turns up. A late-40s alcoholic advertising executive, she is visiting China to adopt a baby. Pierre attempts, unsuccessfully at first, to rekindle their relationship: he is at a loss, belonging neither in Quebec nor in China, and hopes that Claire will solve his problems for him. Claire returns from the adoption agency without the child, and develops a relationship with Xiao Ling, not knowing that she is Pierre's lover. And then Xiao Ling falls pregnant... so will Claire adopt this baby instead?

And so it goes on, narrating a story that is bafflingly trite. Xiao Ling - the desirable, sexual young woman - begins to represent China itself, even though the two western characters do not, in anything like the same schematic fashion, represent the West. This is partly because her character is so secondary to the others, but it is also a sense reinforced by Lepage himself. In his director's note in the program, he suggests that The Blue Dragon is about "our contradictory feelings about China today", our fears that it is a "gigantic whale about to swallow us whole", a "golem that will crush us all". It's hard to relate these statements to the work itself, which is really about a love triangle with exotic furnishings and with a baby thrown in to make things interesting: but it does highlight a surprising Orientalism.

The Blue Dragon in fact tells us very little about China, which figures mostly as exotic backdrop to the relationship between the two aging and lonely French Canadians, who are attempting to deal with their lost idealism and interior emptiness. The few moments of real feeling are between these two. Despite a vivid performance by Tai Wei Foo, Xiao Ling is little more than a catalyst for their relationship, a sense that becomes increasingly clear when you begin to wonder about the gaping holes in the narrative around Xaio Ling - why does she keep the baby, when she clearly doesn't want it, and abortion is so easy to arrange? If she does want it, why does she so easily give it away? And so on.

In short, The Blue Dragon seems like a nicer, updated version of Madame Butterfly, which ends with everyone smiling: this time, the West gets to keep the baby. Unambiguously gorgeous to look at, but in the end, troublingly empty.

A version of this review was published in yesterday's Australian.

Pictures: Top: Beth Buchanan and Paul Lum in Intimacy, Malthouse. Photo: Jeff Busby. Bottom: Tai Wei Foo in The Blue Dragon. Photo: Louise Leblanc.

Intimacy, devised and directed by Adriano Cortese, text by Raimondo Cortese. Set and costumes by Anna Tregloan, lighting by Niklas Pajanti, sound design by David Franzke. With Beth Buchanan, Paul Lum and Patrick Moffatt. Malthouse Theatre, @ the Beckett, until October 23.

The Blue Dragon, by Robert Lepage and Marie Michaud, translated by Michael Mackenzie, directed by Robert Lepage. Set design Michel Gauthier, sound design by Jean-Sebastien Cote, choreographer Tai Wei Foo. With Henri Chasse, Marie Michaud and Tai Wei Foo. Ex Machina. Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, until October 12.

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Monday, October 11, 2010

MIAF Diary #1: Stifters Dinge, The Raft

Born in 1952, Heiner Goebbels is a difficult artist to categorise, although it's probably most accurate to call him a composer. He has written music for film, theatre and dance, as well as for various contemporary ensembles, including Ensemble Modern and Ensemble Intercontemporain. But he most often composes in three dimensions, and since the mid-1980s, when he made audio plays based on texts by Heiner Müller, has worked consistently in the theatre. Since 1999, he has been a professor at the Institute for Applied Theatre Studies of the Justus Liebig University in Giessen: an institution that focuses on scientific and artistic research, and searches for the links between them.

Which is to say, Goebbels is a most interesting mind. His 2007 piece Stifters Dinge (Stifter's Things) is a little like entering that mind: it's a kind of dream about technology, culture and nature, a strangely celebratory lament for the natural world. Although the audience sits watching it from the auditorium in the conventional way, the experience is surprisingly immersive, gathering a meditative intensity as it evolves. A dynamic collage of sound and objects, text and music, it packs a considerable emotional punch.

Like many people in the English-speaking world, I hadn't heard of Adalbert Stifter, let alone read him (I am remedying this deficit at once). In Germany he is considered a major early 19th century Romantic novelist. He was admired by Thomas Mann and W.G. Sebald, and seems a clear precursor to writers such as Peter Handke. On the evidence of the extract in the show, the sensual precision of his prose seems to have much in common with the American essayist and observer of nature, Henry David Thoreau.

Here Stifter's careful attention to the natural world is placed next to a selection of other texts: a poem by William Burroughs; a speech by Malcolm X that predicts the end of Eurocentricism and the rise of Africa and Asia; indigenous songs from New Guinea and America; an interview with Claude Levi-Strauss, in which he confesses that he would prefer the company of his cat to Mozart. The whole piece seems saturated with Stifter's vision of the human being alone and isolated in the midst of the deadly beauty of the natural world, which itself recalls Caspar David Friedrich's vision of the sublime. And indeed, this show seems deeply Romantic: but it is a contemporary Romanticism in which the self has vanished, and which is fraught with a very contemporary anxiety, a very contemporary nostalgia.

The paintings Paolo Ucello's Night Hunt, and Jacob Isaacksz van Ruisdael's Swamp are also part of this theatrical collage. Ruisdale's Swamp transforms into a hallucinogenic, toxic landscape, while Night Hunt is revealed in details. The effect of this detritus of European culture - its music, its writing, its visual splendour - is an increasingly powerful sense of melancholy, of "fragments / shored against my ruin". Stifter's Dinge is an elegy, not only for the natural world, but for the beautiful things we made while we were destroying it.

Strictly speaking, it is automaton theatre, theatre made by machines without any sign of performers. This is hardly a new thing: Heron of Alexandria invented an ingenious device in the first century AD, in which a series of ropes and pulleys operated a ten minute play, complete with artificial thunder. Goebbel's machine has something of the same ingenious charm, but is vastly more complex. When we enter the theatre, it looks like the interior of some insane factory: forestage is dominated by three empty rectangular flatbeds, that look like distillation pools. Alongside these run sets of rails, and next to those are vaguely sinister rows of speakers on high stands, that stare at us like electronic eyes. To the right are three illuminated tanks, with large pipes leading to the flatbeds.

The two technicians appear to be finishing off the set, laying down railings on each side of the beds. Gradually the attention of the audience shifts, although people are still, quite comfortably, talking: it seems that this is the beginning of the show. The technicians then methodically sift what appears to be salt onto the three flatbeds. The lighting shifts, throwing sharp shadows, and quite suddenly we are looking at what appear to be aerial maps of an industrialised landscape, bisected with roads and covered with snow. Then, one by one, they turn the taps on the tanks, and black water slowly floods the landscapes. By now the audience's attention is riveted to the stage.

Screens begin to descend gradually from the flies, punctuated by a blindingly bright light from the back of the stage that turns on and off, like a miniature sun. The ripples of shadow and light from the water dazzle on the screens, which fall and rise in a slow, beautiful ballet of light and shadow, and it begins to feel like we are watching the rhythms of days and nights, a simulacra of the whole planet. Then, at last a voice speaks - Bill Paterson reading a passage from Stifter's novel, My Great Grandfather's Portfolio, a vivid (and disturbing) description of a snowscape which focuses, in particular, on its sounds.

At the back of the stage is a construction of mysterious objects that gradually reveals itself to be five pianos and several naked trees. The pianos are operated by some complex electronics as well as robotic arms. They are beautiful, ingenious, strange; I found myself watching them with the kind of fearful awe that can only be generated by human creations that seem to have their own lives, going beyond us.

At one point, in an image that was like a direct realisation of a scene from a Tarkovsky film, and which possessed the same astonishing beauty, the pianos poured out Bach's Italian Concerto in F Major while raindrops pattered onto the pools of water. In another, the whole backstage construction started moving imperceptibly towards us on silent rails. The pianos seemed to be played by ghosts, the keys depressing faster than human fingers could possibly manage, as they slowly came closer and closer. It was at once absurd, beautiful and unaccountably menacing.

Then the pianos paused, rattling their teeth, and began to retreat. Their retreat revealed the pools beneath them, which once again became aerial landscapes. This time we were placed high in the stratosphere, looking down on swirling cloudscapes of dry ice. By then, such was the meditative power of this work, I was content to observe the entire chemical reaction of dry ice transforming into gas, creating a complex and beautiful brownian motion both like and unlike mist or fog.

At the end of the show, after the applause, we are somehow invited to come and look at the stage. (Which is to say, I don't remember the actual invitation being given, but everyone took it). The beds of the pools, where the remaining chunks of dry ice are still giving off tiny puffs of smoke, are covered with what looks like handwriting. You can't see this unless you walk up close and look: it plays no part in the actual work. I think they are facsimiles of pages from the notebooks of Adalbert Stifter.

So many texts, meanings under meanings. As Stifter says in the show: "I had never seen a thing like this before". It's been haunting me for days.


I find Bill Viola's video art shattering: it is as if he slices open, precisely and mercilessly as a surgeon, the most protected, most painful part of my pysche. Even so, I was totally unprepared for The Raft, a video work of apparently transparent simplicity which somehow expresses all human sorrow. How does he do it?

The Raft is a direct reference to Théodore Géricault's famous Romantic painting, The Raft of the Medusa, which records a horrifying 1816 shipwreck, when the French naval frigate Méduse foundered off the coast of Mauritania. 147 people were set adrift on a raft, but after a fortnight of starvation, thirst, cannibalism and madness, only 15 survived. Géricault's painting is of the crucial moment of rescue: he paints the survivors at the nadir of catastrophe. Some are dead, partially eaten; others are dying. Some are waving to an unseen ship, shining with hope.

Using slow-motion video, Viola recreates this narrative of atrocity with devastating simplicity. Twenty people - different ages, different races, different classes - gather together in some indeterminate public space. It might be a railway station or a bus stop: in any case, it's a place where people wait for something to occur. They are all strangers, all differently dressed. Once they are gathered, and without warning, a giant jet of water hits them from the left. They reel: some fall, some brace themselves against it. Shortly afterwards, another comes from the right.

Their forms are obscured in a violent mist, flailing helplessly. You almost feel the shock when the water impacts on these bodies, its horrific weight and turbulence, the fragility and helplessness of human flesh. They can do nothing but endure the water: it has no thought for them. All difference is erased as they are all hurled into a horrible equality of crisis. Then, gradually, the water stops. Bit by bit, they pick themselves up. Some turn to others, try to help them. Two women embrace, holding each other as if to let go will cause them to fall into some abyss. In the centre an old woman lies on the floor where she has been thrown, and only slowly begins to move as hands touch her in inquiry.

I can't really explain why this work affects me so deeply. There is much art here - the flailing bodies in Viola's slow-motion are as graceful as the classical nudes in Géricault's painting, but here translated into a heightened sense of the ordinary that also makes them immediately familiar. Just as immediately, it recalls news images of catastrophe - the stunned survivors of the London Underground bombings, the floods of New Orleans. The score is complex and strange: there is the punishing rush of water, the elongated sounds of slowed down speech, but also a dog barking. Perhaps what is most moving is how it frames the artless - the tiniest involuntary gestures, here magnified and made epic. Maybe it is simply that The Raft is so nakedly exposing, both as a work of art and as an observation of people.

But there is also something excessive in it, something of Rilke's terrible angel: a sense of being violently seized by the inhuman:

For beauty is nothing
but this terrifying beginning, which astonishingly we endure,
and we admire it so because it calmly disdains
to destroy us.

All this, and then a gesture as everyday and heart-shaking as the touch of a hand. Seldom is simplicity this profound.

Pictures: Top and middle, Stifters Dinge. Photo: Mario del Curto. Bottom: Still from The Raft, Bill Viola.

Stifter's Dinge (Stifter's Things), concept, music and direction by Heiner Goebbels. Set design, lighting and video by Klaus Grunberg, music collaboration and programming by Hubert Machnik, sound design by Willi Bop. Merlyn Theatre @ Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne International Arts Festival. Until October 12.

The Raft, by Bill Viola. Executive producer, Kira Perov. Performers: Sheryl Arenson, Robin Bonaccorsi, Rocky Capella, Cathy Chang, Liisa Cohen, Tad Coughenour, Tom Ficke, James Ford, Michael Irby, Simon Karimian, John Kim, Tanya Little, Mike Martinez, Petro Martirosian, Jeff Mosley, Gladys Peters, Maria Victoria, Kaye Wade, Kim Weild, Ellis Williams. ACMI 2, until February 20, 2011.

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