News & Commentary, Stage

Postcard from Adelaide Festival #1: music and movement

| |

In his first postcard from the Adelaide Festival, Humphrey Bower looks at:

  • Paul Kelly, James Ledger, Seraphim Trio, Alice Keith, 13 Ways to Look at Birds;
  • Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Mozart/Schubert/Bruckner; Robyn Archer, Picaresque;
  • Meryl Tankard, Two Feet;
  • Johan Inger/Semperoper Ballett Dresden, Carmen;
  • Luciano Rosso/Alfonso Barón, Un Poyo Rojo;
  • Gravity and Other Myths, Out of Chaos;
  • Meryl Tankard/Restless Dance Theatre, Zizanie;
  • Compagnie Non Nova, Foehn;
  • Hofesh Shechter, Grand Finale.

 

Coming to Adelaide directly from Perth Festival, certain themes emerged for me more starkly at AF than they did at PF: masculinity, tribalism and oppression; displacement and exile; trauma and healing.

Perhaps this is a reflection of the zeitgeist both in contemporary performance and in my own consciousness. #MeToo and other revelations of sexual abuse, the resurgence of nationalism, the slow creep of authoritarianism, and the global refugee crisis, all seem to be dominant topics in the news cycle. Toxic masculinity and tribalism in particular were reinforced on the last weekend with the news of the massacre in Christchurch, which made for a horrifying end to the festivities.

THIRTEEN WAYS TO LOOK AT BIRDS

220d0a5f-13_ways_to_look_at_birds_credit-shane-reid-1

None of these themes, it has to be said, were particularly prominent in the music events I saw.

Thirteen Ways to Look at Birds is a co-commission by AF and PF of a new work by singer-songwriter Paul Kelly with co-composer James Ledger, the Seraphim Trio and multi-instrumentalist and singer Alice Keath. It’s a setting of thirteen bird-poems by English, Australian and North American poets, from Keats, Hardy, Yeats and Hopkins to Judith Wright, Gwen Harwood and A.D. Hope.

The title of course refers to Wallace Stephens’s ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’, which in the event wasn’t included (possibly because an Australian setting by Peggy Glanville-Hicks already exists). This is a shame, as the terseness and ambiguity of Stephens’s haiku-inspired poem would have made for a more suitable song lyric than the more elaborate language of many of the poems featured.

Kelly is a singer-songwriter and folk-rock-star icon in the Dylan/Cohen tradition with a musical style and stage presence all his own. He has a vocal timbre you either love or loathe, depending on taste, repertoire and possibly dosage. There’s no doubt he commanded the stage and most of the audience, and was supported by refined and sensitive playing from Anna Goldsworthy (piano), Helen Ayres (violin) and Tim Nankervis (cello). Alice Keith provided extra vocals as well as augmenting the folk aspects of the sound world on banjo, autoharp, glockenspiel, bass-drum and synthesizer, and Ledger gave added support on electric guitar and synth.

Ledger deftly bridges the gap between classical and popular music by letting Kelly take the lead in the more folk-pop-style settings; in others, the score speaks in a more jazzy language, or evokes the late-romantic nationalist impressionism of English, North American and Anglo-Celtic Australian nature-inspired art-music from Delius to Copland or Sculthorpe. Keith provides another bridge, with her soaring vocals and the addition of folk-instrumental textures; as does Ledger with his (mostly fairly demure) excursions on electric guitar; and the Seraphim Trio shifts idioms effortlessly.

However I felt that the fit between folk-pop, jazz and classical genres, and between Kelly and the more classically trained musicians, wasn’t an entirely comfortable one. More seriously, Kelly has a limited range as singer and an actor, and hearing him tackle Keats or Hopkins was simply a bridge too far. A surprisingly large amount of text was spoken (with musical backing) rather than sung. Kelly seemed out of his depth reciting ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ or ‘The Windhover’ (as well as being difficult to understand against the music, especially in the resonant but slightly muddy acoustic of the Adelaide Town Hall). Monumental poems like these – or for that matter Yeats’s ‘Leda and the Swan’, Hardy’s ‘Darkling Thrush’, Judith Wright’s ‘Black Cockatoos’ or A.D. Hope’s ‘Death of a Bird’ – have a density and music of their own that clashes with all but the most sophisticated settings. The great German Lieder, French mélodies or English-language art-song cycles of Britten have highly flexible vocal lines that are woven into the fabric of the accompaniment, and are of course meant to be sung by highly trained actor-singers, the texture of whose voices is consistent with that of the instrumentation.

I felt that the fit between folk-pop, jazz and classical genres, and between Kelly and the more classically trained musicians, wasn’t an entirely comfortable one.

The most successful song for me was Emily Dickinson’s ‘Hope is the Thing with Feathers’, because the regularity of form, simplicity of language and ambiguity of meaning (like the best lyrics of Dylan or Cohen) fitted surprisingly well with Kelly’s almost anthem-like setting and delivery. Ballads like Gwen Harwood’s ‘Barn Owl’ or Denis Glover’s ‘The Magpies’ also fared better, because they were closer in content to Kelly’s natural folk-idiom; while the post-Rimbaud free verse of Robert Adamson’s ‘Eurydice and the Tawny Frogmouth’ (given as an encore) also suited Kelly’s style and persona.

These songs achieved a kind of coherence, but in general I felt that forces and material were mismatched. Mixed-genre works may look good on paper and sell tickets, especially with a celebrity at the helm; but when Kelly Met Keats, neither emerged from the collision intact.

THE MAHLER CHAMBER ORCHESTRA

None of these reservations applied to my experience of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra conducted by Daniel Harding in the same venue the following weekend. The orchestra is a floating ensemble of virtuoso musicians from orchestras around the world, and specialises in the core classical and romantic repertoire. The two concerts I saw featured the last three symphonies of Mozart in a single concert, and a second program of Schubert’s 3rd and Bruckner’s 4th. The warm acoustics and gilded faux-marble décor of the Town Hall’s classic 19th century shoe-box auditorium (reminiscent of the Vienna Musikverein) were ideally suited to the occasion.

Mahler Chamber Orchestra

The orchestra was founded by the players, and has its roots in the democratic principles of Claudio Abbado, who famously used few words in rehearsals but instructed his players to ‘listen’ to each other. Daniel Harding has been with conductor-laureate with the orchestra for 20 years, and his sense of rapport and control with them is evident. As an organisation in which democracy goes hand-in-hand with expertise and leadership, the orchestra is a model for performance ensembles generally.

The autonomy and skill of the players (who are effectively soloists in their own right) means that they have impeccable intonation, a laser-like focus, and are highly responsive to the conductor (as well as each other); unlike many permanent orchestras, there are no time-servers in any of the seats. In other words, they are a chamber orchestra not only in size, but also in the sense of being an ensemble of equals like a string quartet; and as with the best chamber groups one has the feeling that they are playing as much for themselves as for an audience.

A great orchestra like the Berlin Philharmonic is distinguished above all by a particular sound (for example in the strings or the brass), which has been cultivated over generations of permanent players. Here what is distinctive is not so much sonic colour (though the individual players have this in spades) but dynamic and rhythmic agility. This makes them especially suited to the classical and early romantic repertoire, where clarity and contrast is all.

Here what is distinctive is not so much sonic colour (though the individual players have this in spades) but dynamic and rhythmic agility.

Harding configured the orchestra with the violins split antiphonally between the left and right hand edges of the stage, and the double basses, cellos and violas spread left to right in the centre. This heightened the conversational quality of the writing for the upper strings in the Mozart symphonies especially, and placed the lower strings in the heart and guts of the orchestra, as it were, which was particularly effective in the Bruckner.

I saw the concerts in reverse order, as I particularly wanted to hear the Bruckner and Schubert symphonies (which are less frequently played), but was so blown away that I bought a ticket to the Mozart marathon, which was repeated the following day. I’m glad I did, because on the Sunday afternoon they played the E-flat major and G minor Symphonies without a break before a single interval, which apparently was not the case on the Friday night. They also played all the repeats, which made for an epic experience, especially during the slow movements. As a colleague remarked afterwards, you got to hear your favourite bits all over again. For me it also introduced an element of surprise and unpredictability, as I was more familiar with performances that typically ignore the repeats, so that paradoxically I heard the music as if for the first time. Along with some distinctive interpretations by the conductor (especially in rhythm and dynamics), and the heightened listening and responsiveness of the players, the contingency of the transitions gave the performance and the work a feeling of spontaneity, almost as if it were being composed in front of me.

As appropriate with these symphonies, this was big, bold, ballsy Mozart, full of drama and anguish (especially in the G minor symphony), with especially plangent playing from the woodwinds. The repertoire may be familiar, but the performance was powerful reminder of why these works are such masterpieces.

These qualities were even more in evidence in the Schubert and Bruckner symphonies I heard the night before. The Schubert is a relatively minor work, but has some unexpected modulations and portents of tragedy in the slow introduction, which like the Mozart symphonies were invested with extra drama. This was followed by some beefy Beethovenian heroics and more typically gentle Schubertian lyricism, including some folk-dance-like themes given delicious Viennese accents by the woodwinds.

The Bruckner however was (and is) of another order entirely, despite the lyricism and landscape-like qualities that the composer shares with Schubert. Bruckner’s symphonies are often perceived as long, repetitive and ‘strange’, at least in comparison with previous composers (though Beethoven’s 9th is an obvious precursor in terms of length and ‘strangeness’). He was notoriously misunderstood in his lifetime, and revised his works continually; even after his revival in the 20th century, performances are often marred either by undue caution or excessive bombast, or else unnecessarily cosmeticised, instead of allowing the works to be themselves.

Here the relatively reduced forces and the precision of the playing meant that the symphony was uncompromisingly revealed in all its glory, terror and beauty. Programmatic analogies are risky, but the sense of inevitability on the journey reminded me of hiking in Bruckner’s homeland of Upper Austria, when verdant valleys are succeeded by arid ridges and then more valleys in a progression that never seems to end, and one has to patiently surrender to the rigours of the terrain.

The emotional substance of Bruckner can sometimes seem melodramatic or sentimental, especially if overwrought by a large orchestra or special pleading from the conductor. In contrast, Harding and the MCO brought out Bruckner’s almost obsessive preoccupation with architectural form – and especially with repetition by inversion, augmentation and diminution. These reflect the composer’s career as a church organist (and famously gifted improviser) and hark back to Bach and early music, as well as forward to the meditative and even hypnotic or trance-like techniques employed by 20th century minimalism.

The organ-like quality of Bruckner’s orchestration was also brought out in the long monologues by the semi-autonomous orchestral sections – including Bruckner’s famous ‘choral’ brass passages, and some thrilling horn solos. This was Bruckner played as chamber music – and a fitting climax to this traversal of core Viennese (or perhaps more broadly Austrian) classical and romantic repertoire.

ROBYN ARCHER

The third music show I saw at AF was Robyn Archer’s Picaresque. It was staged in the grandly titled but humbly equipped and somewhat featureless Banquet Room of the Adelaide Festival Centre.

In form and content it’s essentially a travelling show, and the performance was graced by the occasional sounds of catering staff at work through the thin partition walls, which lent the show an appropriately provisional air of being on tour ­– or perhaps on a cruise ship.

Robyn Archer Picaresque

Robyn is a veteran of Australian cabaret as well as being one of our leading cultural elders. Here she traversed a lifetime on the road, singing mostly well-known English, Italian, German, French and American songs from her repertoire. She was accompanied by her friend and longstanding performance partner George Butrumlis on the piano accordion (George also sang one Greek song accompanying himself on the bazouki).

The songs were interspersed with some jovial patter about the music and the places she’s visited. These were also represented by a charming landscape of cardboard maquettes of city landmarks Robyn has collected over the years and assembled especially for the show (designed and beautifully lit by Geoff Cobham). There was also an exhibition (designed by Wendy Todd) featuring a huge collection of travel memorabilia, from train tickets and boarding passes to hotel towels, bathrobes and slippers.

I found this show a captivating trip down memory lane. Robyn has a long and deeply personal relationship with this repertoire – from English music-hall to American protest songs, by way of Italian communist anthems, French chansons by Piaf and Brel, and especially the bitter-sweet social-realist and Marxist songs of Brecht/Weil and Brecht/Eisler – and she still delivers them in a clear, ringing voice, with a dryness that’s both appropriate to the material and uniquely Australian.

In particular there was a telling juxtaposition of Brecht/Eisler’s ‘Children’s Song’ (written after WW2 in an attempt to reclaim German patriotism from the legacy of fascism) with Caroline Carleton’s ‘Song of Australia’, which Robyn wryly remarked she sang at school in Adelaide. Neither became the national anthem, perhaps because of their egalitarian values. Both however spoke of the need to affirm a love of country without invoking the darker perils of nationalism.

My favourite number of the night however was a stirring (but not shaken) reclamation of the Nancy Sinatra/John Barry theme-song to You Only Live Twice, which perfectly summed up the spirit of the show.

Two feet

Two Feet

Turning now from music to dance – and leaving aside the major opera of the Festival, Barrie Kosky’s The Magic Flute (reviewed in a previous Postcard from Perth Festival) – I found the revival of Meryl Tankard’s Two Feet at the Dunstan Playhouse on the opening weekend a difficult experience.

The show was originally created and danced by Tankard herself in 1988 as a solo dance-theatre work that focused on the life, career and mental breakdown of legendary early 20th-century Russian ballerina Olga Spessivtzeva, juxtaposed with the experiences of a fictional young Australian dancer called Mepsi (based on Tankard’s own experiences of training as a dancer).

Spessivtzeva was particularly famous for her interpretation of ballet’s most famous ‘mad scene’ as Giselle. While on tour to Australia in 1934 she was found wandering along a road outside Sydney; and she spent her final years in a mental hospital in the United States. Tankard’s own career took a very different route, from the Australian Ballet to Pina Bausch’s Wuppertaler Tanztheater, after which she returned to Australia and created her own style of dance theatre, first with the Meryl lTankard Company in Canberra, and then as Artistic Director of the Australian Dance Theatre in Adelaide (as well as many other projects in dance, opera and film).

Two Feet is thus a deeply personal work, as well as a critique of ballet itself. Footage on Youtube confirms that Tankard’s own performance was central to the original production. Her lanky body, expressive face and unique qualities not only as a dancer but also as an actor, clown and dance-theatre artist made her an ideal performer with Pina Bausch; and in Two Feet she clearly invested her heart and soul in what must have once been a provocative and confronting work.

None of this is evident in the revival, which casts contemporary Russian ballerina Natalia Osipova (who is billed as ‘the greatest contemporary Giselle’) in the dual roles of Olga and a revised version of Mepsi called ‘Natasha’ (based on Osipova’s own childhood and training). Spessivtzeva may be a fine ballerina, but she has none of the Tankard’s gifts as an actor, clown or dance-theatre artist. Consequently the show comes across as a celebration rather than a subversion of ballet – a confusion evident at the performance I attended, when the audience clapped (with diminishing enthusiasm) at the end of each scene.

The show takes the form of a series of vignettes focussing either on Olga or Mepsi/Natasha, and includes excerpts from ballets (including Giselle and The Rite of Spring), more skittish or hallucinatory episodes, and projections of archival photos, film footage and video landscapes by visual designer Regis Lansac onto a vast upstage scrim. Once again, YouTube footage reveals an emotional and generic range to the vignettes which was totally lacking in the revival. The comic sketches fell resoundingly flat; the ballet-class sequences felt effortless rather than agonising; Tankard’s more stylised choreography was robbed of its strangeness; and the tragic scenes of breakdown and madness felt mimed rather than inhabited.

Moreover, the relentlessness of the rhythm – 19 scenes of similar length spread across two Acts for two hours, with each scene ending in an awkward exit and/or a blackout, followed by a lumbering pause – might have worked in the more subversive dance-theatre context of the original production, but here it quickly became its own kind of deadly torture. The sequence culminates in a spectacular flooding of the stage, with Lansac’s projected ‘haunted forest’ reflected in the water, where Olga/Natasha as a ragged Giselle-spirit dances and finally collapses; but the execution was technically creaky, and as a coup de théâtre it was a long time coming.

CARmen

As a critique of the treatment of women in ballet (both as ballerinas and female characters), Two Feet can arguably be seen as a work of second-wave feminism, insofar as the latter tended to focus on the construction and deconstruction of femininity, in comparison with third-wave feminism, which has more squarely targeted masculinity, especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

This brings me to Carmen, a new contemporary ballet version of Bizet’s opera created by Swedish choreographer Johan Inger and originally commissioned by the Compana Nacional de Danza in Madrid, which I saw at the Festival Theatre the following weekend in a production by Semperoper Ballett Dresden.

Inger was a dancer with the Netherlands Dance Theatre under Jiri Kylian for ten years. Carmen shows the influence of Kylian as a work of contemporary ballet in that broadly speaking it tells a story (although at times this departs from the original or literal narrative and becomes more allusive or symbolic) and employs classical ballet techniques, while augmenting and disrupting these with other forms of movement. As such it’s more accessible and inclusive work than, say, a work of contemporary or postmodern dance by Cunningham or Forsythe, or even the Tanzteater of Pina Bausch (though it has arguably has more in common with the ‘dance theatre’ of Meryl Tankard).

Inger uses the Carmen Suite by Russian composer Rodion Schedrin, a condensed version of Bizet’s original score in a hard-edged and cool-textured rearrangement for strings and percussion, which was originally composed for a one-act Carmen ballet by Cuban choreographer Alberto Alonso in 1967. This is interspersed (particularly in the more dreamlike sequences) with original minimalist techno music by Marc Álvarez, which gives the work a more contemporary feel.

It’s more accessible and inclusive work than, say, a work of contemporary or postmodern dance by Cunningham or Forsythe, or even the Tanzteater of Pina Bausch (though it has arguably has more in common with the ‘dance theatre’ of Meryl Tankard).

Inger retains the outline of the original plot, but sets it in a contemporary, globalised and semi-abstract world. Carmen still wears her red dress (with a zip down the front), but is (I think not accidentally) played by an East Asian dancer (Duosi Zhu on the performance I saw); she and her fellow cigarerras are more or less explicitly prostitutes hanging around a featureless industrial or corporate site. Don José (Francesco Pio Ricci) and his boss Zuniga (Joseph Hernandez) are security guards; Escamillo (Joseph Gray) becomes simply the ‘Toreador’, a nameless celebrity and narcissistic club-dance-floor sensation in a glittering disco costume; all the other roles in the opera are eliminated.

A key addition is the role of the Little Boy (played by a female dancer Nastazia Philippou), who observes the action throughout, as if fascinated by both Don José and Carmen and learning from them how to be a subject (and object) of gender and desire. She/he also occasionally joins in the dream-sequences, most touchingly in a fantasy trio with Don José and Carmen as a kind of imaginary nuclear family, during which s/he holds a small Carmen-like doll in a red dress (which s/he destroys at the end of the opera).

A female and male ensemble of fourteen play the other cigarreras and guards, as well as (in Inger’s other significant addition) a black-clad and masked team of ‘Smelling Dogs’ who collectively represent Death, Fate and (in this production) the deadly fate of toxic masculinity (one of them offers the Little Boy a basketball at the start of Act One – an offer he/she decisively rejects when it is repeated at the start of Act Two).

The set (designed by Curt Allen Wilmer) consists of a bare stage with a series of towering mobile ‘walls’ which can be moved around by the ensemble, and which each have three faces: one solid with a kind of changing-room door, one containing a light-box covered by Venetian-style slatted blinds, and one with a huge mirror. The effect is of a nightmarish labyrinth which shifts from the exterior to the interior of the factory and then the nightclub, as well as other more abstract exterior (or psychically interior) locations. Dramatic lighting by Tom Visser (who also lit Hofesh Schechter’s Grand Finale – see below) adds to the expressionist film-noir atmosphere of menace, especially in Act Two with the increasing use of the blinds and vertical wires which descend across one half of the stage like prison-cell bars.

Despite a riveting performance from Duosi Zhu as Carmen – with provocatively sexual choreography featuring a lot of semi-undressing, physical contact, floor-work and wide-open legs – the focus of the work is on Don José, a sympathetically small-framed but simmering and finally explosive figure, whose choreography is deliberately stiff and contained, except when he is left alone onstage – when his movements becomes more jerky and anguished – or in the fantasy duets with Carmen, when they become more fluid (just as hers become more tender and loving). Here the chemistry between Zhu and Ricci was touching, and it was a welcome relief (and perhaps a political choice) to see them kiss and hug each other in the curtain call after the work’s violent dénouement. The characters of Zuniga and the Toreador were less complex and cruder; but Philippou gave a convincing three-dimensionality and ambivalence to the figure of the Little Boy. Finally the ensemble lent a degree of individuality to their roles as cigarreras and guards, as well as a necessary air of ambiguity and menace as the Smelling Dogs.

un poyo rojo

On a more intimate scale, Un Poyo Rojo is a wordless two-hander from Argentina that also deconstructs and mocks masculinity – this time in the context of a competitive locker-room relationship between two alpha males.

un-poyo-rojo_-photo-by-paolo-evelina

The show began as a sketch created by dancer-choreographers Luciano Rosso and Nicolás Poggi in Buenos Aires, and then expanded into a full-length work directed by Hermes Guaido. The current version is performed by Rosso (who is also a lip-synch star on YouTube) with Alfonso Barón, an actor-dancer-physical performer who is also a former sports star. The skills and celebrity of the performers (including Baron’s sporting and acting credentials) – as well as their traditionally macho Latin heritage – lend added heft to the critique of masculinity (and in particular male sexuality) that the show delivers with such lightness yet to such devastating effect.

They wear tiny shorts, singlets, knee-pads and trainers; the set consists of two adjacent metal sports lockers and a wooden bench; and the major props comprise a portable radio (which is tuned and retuned by the performers to live local radio – with some hilarious results – and provides most of the soundtrack), a packet of cigarettes (which are variously inserted but never lit) and two water bottles.

The show is extremely funny, physically relentless, and incorporates dance, physical theatre, acrobatics, wrestling and (most importantly) clowning. Clocking in at just under an hour, possibly it goes on a tad too long and remains pretty much at the same manic pace and in the same hysterical register; but then again, much the same can be said of toxic masculinity itself.

I particularly enjoyed watching these two men watch each other with inscrutable faces that spoke volumes, as well as seeing them get up close and sweaty in paroxysms of conflict (inscrutable faces in equally inscrutable crotches); and the closing kiss (immediately disclaimed in the curtain-call) was a delicious final image.

out of chaos

Local Adelaide contemporary circus troupe Gravity and Other Myths have received ongoing support from the Adelaide Festival, who co-commissioned their previous show Backbone, and now their latest work Out of Chaos.

Gravity-and-Other-Myths-in-development-Cropped-800x567

The eight young acrobats have an exhilarating sense of ensemble offset by a rough-hewn individuality and raw honesty – all of which (along with the lo-fi production design) are immensely refreshing in an era of somewhat mass-produced, hi-end ‘new circus’.

Geoff Cobham has created a remarkable minimalist visual design mostly involving hand-held lighting such as torches or single lamps that are carried around the stage or fixed into dangling overhead cables (sometimes as part of the acrobatics). In general, the show uses darkness in a way I’ve never seen before in circus, though there’s plenty of inner lightness from the performers. This adds to the sense of cosmic and artistic creation evoked by the title.

Even more remarkable is the minimalist score. This is also hand-held and largely generated and mixed onstage by Sydney-based Turkish-Australian composer-performer Ekrem Phoenix, who roams the stage like an elfin demiurge armed with an iPad, triggering the lighting changes and creating loops using his own voice – which ranges from whispered and muttered words to haunting wordless falsetto melodies overlaid in modal harmonies reminiscent of Turkish, Persian and Arabic music – as well as hand-held instruments like the melodica (a small keyboard reed harmonium with a flexible mouth-tube though which the player blows air) and occasional electronic sounds and beats. He also samples and loops the voices of the acrobats themselves in random snatches of self-talk – most notably when they are preparing or performing death-defying feats of acrobatics. Most spectacular of all is the climax of the show, when Phoenix himself becomes one of the acrobats while continuing to sing and mix the score, until he finally topples backward from the top of a three-person stack (still singing) and plunges into a blackout.

Personally I found it a relief to see a work of physical theatre that allowed its performers to play to their strengths and be themselves rather than trying to act; that used language honestly and revealingly; that didn’t attempt to create a fictional world or tell a story (apart from that of its own creation – and perhaps Creation itself); and that used such simple means to such spectacular ends. To be sure, it didn’t preach any moral or political sermons; but it certainly practised gender equity, empowered its performers and demonstrated (as the best acrobatics can) than – in art as in democracy – collaboration, trust and being there for others is all.

zizanie

Zizanie is a new work created by Meryl Tankard for Restless Dance Theatre, an Adelaide company also working with young people with (and without) disabilities.

Zizanie

I found this work very beautiful visually but increasingly problematic in content and tone. It began with a hallucinatory opening sequence involving the performers (who for some reason were not named in the program, but who mostly seemed to have Down Syndrome) entering from the wings wearing animal masks and teetering sideways to and fro across the otherwise empty stage (set and costume design by Jonathon Oxlade) while making small nervous hand and head movements against a vast brightly coloured video projection of flowers flickering and wavering in a luminous field (videography once again by Tankard’s regular collaborator Regis Lansac).

Unfortunately the animal masks and personas then disappeared (as inexplicably as they had been introduced) and a formulaic narrative (and more sentimental aesthetic) took over. This was a story based on a children’s book called The Fun Funnel by Robbie Cameron, which more or less follows the outlines of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Selfish Giant’ (but without the latter’s tragic ending). Apparently Cameron’s book is intended for children aged three to seven, and has also been enjoyed by children with special needs. However I felt deeply uncomfortable about watching young (but not very young) disabled performers playing children – especially in demeaning storybook costumes vaguely reminiscent of Tenniel’s illustrations for Alice in Wonderland – while the only adult (and villain) in the piece appeared to be played by the only non-disabled performer.

I found this work very beautiful visually but increasingly problematic in content and tone.

Things became even more kitsch with a prolonged routine set to the saccharine 50s classic ‘If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d’ve Baked A Cake’, which the audience sang along with karaoke-style, while the performers endlessly entered and exited cheekily from the wings and a video was projected of them forming human pyramids on the floor. There were lots of cute ooh’s and ah’s from the audience, and the cast seemed to be enjoying themselves, but I felt like I was watching something that’s been banned from circuses and sideshows for decades.

I’ve seen a lot of highly sophisticated physical and text-based theatre in recent years involving disabled and particularly Down Syndrome performers, including Melbourne’s Rawcus, Back to Back in Geelong, Black Swan’s You Know We Belong Together and Jerome Bel’s more confrontational work Disabled Theatre (the last three all previously reviewed here). In comparison, I found Zizanie simplistic and fundamentally disempowering.

foehn

The other ‘family’ show I saw in the Festival – French Compagnie Non Nova’s Foehn – had me enchanted, amazed, delighted and (in a final twist) surprisingly disturbed.

The German title refers to a warm wind in the lee of a mountain range – and is also a German word for a hairdryer. In this case, the wind is generated by a circle of domestic fans. The performance takes place inside the circle, and involves a single performer/puppeteer (Silvano Nogueira), a collection of plastic shopping bags, and a soundtrack which consists largely of extracts from Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Nocturnes and La Mer.

Foehn

Foehn is a work of puppetry/object/visual theatre, but it’s also a dance work. In fact my young companion described it afterward as ‘a ballet for plastic bags’. Essentially the Debussy functions as a ballet score (as it did for Njinsky); the bags become dancers, with bodies and souls, thanks to the air from the fans and minimal manipulation from the puppeteer. The latter begins the work by making a small, simple human figure out of three plastic bags using a pair of scissors and some sticky tape. He then crumples the figure on the floor, turns on the fans, and leaves the space; and magic ensues.

Pierre Boulez described the opening flute solo of Debussy’s Prelude as bringing ‘new breath to the art of music’. Here the wind from the fans becomes the breath that brings the plastic bag to life. Once animated, it performs autonomously: unfolding, taking shape, standing, turning, spinning, leaping, flying, dancing in mid-air and landing again; all while remaining within the circle of fans, and largely without intervention. The puppeteer returns, with more plastic bags; and soon the stage becomes a teeming world.

The illusion of life, consciousness and free will is astonishing, and had me reflecting on the nature of all three, as well as the concepts of air, wind and breath in religious, metaphysical and scientific thought. Like the composer-performer in Out of Chaos, here the puppeteer-performer becomes a kind of demiurge. At one point the bag-puppets flock to him and shelter under the wing of his cloak, an image recalling that of the Virgin of Mercy in Christian art.

I was also struck by how little it takes for us to see characters or create a story. This became even more apparent in the second half of the show, when a new and slightly more elaborate but still largely featureless puppet is introduced, in the form of a folded concertina of golden paper, which unfolds in the wind like a serpent or dragon before rising, taking off and spiralling into the air. A kind of ‘battle’ then ensued between one of the bag-people and the dragon, which had me reflecting once again on the archetypal nature of this and other primordial stories.

The show ended with a cascade of more basic and slightly larger black plastic bags, which invaded the stage from a funnel upstage and finally overwhelmed the remaining pink plastic-bag person and the puppeteer-demiurge. I found this quite a bleak ending; and once again, found myself irresistibly finding meaning and telling stories: cosmic entropy, environmental catastrophe, and even (to my horror and shame) certain paranoid fascist political fantasies. I don’t think my young companion had the same associations; at least, I hope not.

Grand finale

This leads me to the final dance work I saw on the closing weekend of the Festival: Grand Finale, directed and choreographed by London-based Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter and his eponymous company.

Grand Finale

The ten dancers (who come from all over the world) are all remarkable, but to some extent Shechter’s choreography deliberately strips them of individuality. Most of the movement is as an ensemble (even if individual dancers invest it with different degrees of intensity), occasionally splitting into smaller groups or duos. Much of it occurs in looped repetition, sometimes over long periods; shoulders and hips are loose; mouths repeatedly open in silent screams; and there is a lot of falling, rolling, crawling and collapsing. A repeated motif involves dancers being dragged around the stage like corpses, or lifted and shaken like rag-dolls.

Like Carmen, the show has a dramatic and architectural lighting design by Tom Vissler, involving sudden blackouts and reveals, spatial fragmentation and thick shafts of light visible through the permanent haze. The set design (by Tom Scutt) also resembles Carmen in that it involves a collection of movable walls, though these are even more abstract and featureless; they reminded me of towers or chimneys, or perhaps even the concrete slabs or ‘stellae’ of Peter Eisenman’s Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. Costumes (also by Scutt) are contemporary and minimal, consisting of street-clothes comprising various tops, pants and socks (indiscriminately worn by both genders).

The music consists of an electronic and heavily percussive score by Shechter (who composes most of the music for his shows), but also (as with Out of Chaos) involves the presence of live musicians: in this case, a quintet in evening-wear playing fragments of Tchaikovsky, Lehar and other folk-derived music. Shechter writes in the program that he wanted to invoke a sense of disaster and even apocalypse; the musicians in evening wear obviously recall the Titanic; and there is a general ambience of a last waltz or danse macabre.

Violence and beauty, despair and hope, nihilism and sentimentality go hand in hand in a manner that at times becomes almost obscene. At the end of Act One, in an image of pure schmaltz, soap-bubbles descend from above, sparkling in the light, and burst on the floor, while the love-waltz from The Merry Widow plays; then the curtain comes down, leaving a dancer alone on the forestage slumped in a chair like a corpse, with a handwritten sign around his neck saying: ‘Interval.’ When we come back for Act Two, the same sign reads: ‘Karma’; the musicians return and cajole us into clapping and whistling along with them while they play folk tunes; then the curtain goes up again, and the dance-party resumes, gradually becoming a frenzied rave, and finally subsiding into a series of brief motionless frescoes featuring individual dancers facing away from us and pressed against the walls.

I found this work riveting and devastating, even if at times I felt as if I (and the dancers) were being treated in an almost totalitarian way.

Next week Humph reviews the text-based theatre works at the Adelaide Festival.

Image credits:

Un Poyo Rojo: Paolo Erelina

Thirteen ways to look at birds: Shane Reid

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *