Postcard from Perth: Questions of Relevance (Midsummer, SDS1)

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Recently I had a conversation with a fellow Perth theatre artist about the relationship between art and the world. Coincidentally we both have kids, and we speculated as to whether this experience had de-centred our previously self-centred (or at least work-centred) perspective on things (I’m not sure if it has in my case).
She told me about an experience she’d recently had on her local primary school parent committee when she’d proposed allocating some unspent funds to decorating the school-buildings with street-art instead of getting iPads for the kids. The experience led her to wonder if she couldn’t practice her art as a stage designer more effectively in the field of education, for example, rather than theatre. This led to another story about a theatre project involving an Aboriginal artist and a traumatic trip to the northwest that led her to question what she was doing there. In fact, her presence had potentially saved a life, but the trip had shaken her sense of purpose as an artist. Her story reminded me of the questions posed by Shaun Tan in his story about the Stick Figures: “Who are you? Why are you here? What do you want?” Fuelled by her story those questions seemed more burning than ever.
Midsummer-webI went to Black Swan’s production Midsummer in the Heath Ledger Theatre at the State Theatre Centre last week. The play had charm, the creative team did a fine job, the performances were engaging, and one sequence involving a talking cock-puppet stood out in more ways than one, but I wondered why I was there. I think I wouldn’t have wondered if I’d seen it in a small venue at the Edinburgh Fringe (in fact it was a light-comic love-letter to that city) or even Perth Fringe, either performed by a Scottish cast or in a local adaptation set in Northbridge. As it was, I saw a team of artists struggling: with accents; with a modular set that was clever but unwieldy for two actors to manipulate on such a large stage; with indifferent songs well-sung by the cast and well-played by a fine local band who looked a bit uncomfortably well-lit at the front of the stage. I should add that the audience seemed to enjoy themselves; so perhaps the problem lies with me. This isn’t meant to be a criticism of the artists, or the audience, or comedy, or imported Scottish plays, but I found myself questioning the company’s programming. Who are you? Why are you here? What do you want?
SDS1-webAhilan Ratnamoham is an artist and athlete. He was born in Australia but his parents migrated here from Sri Lanka. After finishing a film degree in Sydney he went to Europe to purse a career in professional football. On his return to Australia he decided to make performances inspired by sport. The Football Diaries, with Urban Theatre Projects, was based on this body of skills and experience. His next work, Michael Eissen: I Want to Play Like You was based on the transient community of Africans who migrate to Europe to play football. Ahil trained with a group of these players in a park in Antwerp and made a show with them. His blog documenting this experience is at
Ahil now lives in Antwerp, but he’s just finished a residency at Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts where he’s been developing a new ensemble work called Drill with stuntman Connor van Buuren and Perth dancer Imanuel Dado. SDS1 is not that work, but a new solo which Ahil performed in the Performance Space at PICA for three nights at the end of his residency. I like the fact that he didn’t feel pressured to perform or show excerpts from the other work in development, and I applaud PICA for investing in Ahil and being open about the outcome.
I saw SDS1 on Friday night, along with about fifteen other people. Outside PICA I ran into a friend wearing red high-heeled shoes. This turned out to be an omen.
In the foyer one of the audience-members came up to me and asked if I was here to see the soccer show. I said yes, and she told me she only played soccer “socially”. I said my knowledge of the game was pretty much limited to watching my daughter play with the local East Fremantle Soccer Club on Saturday mornings when she was younger. Then she asked me if knew much about dance. I said not much more than I knew about soccer. She asked me what brought me here, and I said I thought it sounded interesting.
Inside the PICA performance space we sat in a single circle. The stage was bare and Ahil was warming up. He wore a t-shirt, tracksuit pants and a pair of luminous orange soccer shoes. They matched the orange soccer ball he produced from his sports-bag. He hitched up one leg of his pants, hit the first soundtrack on his laptop and killed the houselights. The rest of the show was lit by single lamps: a blue, an amber, and finally the powerful yellow sodium arc-lamp that normally illuminates the PICA rooftop but here turned the performance space into a kind of black-box stadium. Lit by these single lamps in the round, Ahil was always sculpted in profile, his face obscure. He became pure body.
Half the sequences in the show involved this ball as a dancing partner in a demonic pas-de-deux. During these sequences his eyes never left the ball. Then he would toss it to an audience-member and do a solo, a phantom ball dancing between his feet or away across the floor, his eyes always on the audience. Like the red shoes in Andersen’s story, the soccer cleats turned out to have a life of their own, possessing their owner in a furious dance of death. They were dainty and strangely feminine, with hard toes that tapped and squeaked their way across the painted black floor. The intentional object was always us, or the ball. He also occasionally addressed us with unscripted requests: Can some of you sit down this end? Can you hold this reel of tape while I wrap it around my wrist/my foot/my torso? Can I give you my shirt? Will you promise not to wash it when you get home but keep it stained with my sweat? Can I crowd-surf across you? Can you boo me? We did. And at the end we clapped and cheered.
Otherwise there were no words, no narrative, indeed no game, just pure play; but the physical and emotional content of that “play” (in both senses of the word) was tremendous. The sheer physical stamina and technique displayed by this fusion of dance and football was thrilling, and animated by seemingly unfeigned hope, fear, joy, pain, delight and rage, as Ahil spun and danced towards and away from us, sometimes gasping for breath or emitting high-pitched simian coughs and cries. I have said that there was no narrative, but there was certainly content. One does not have to know much about sport, professional or “social”, to know about racism, sexism, homophobia and class, how sport promises and fails to transcend them. This was the symbolic drama embodied and enacted by Ahil in SDS1, even though he didn’t “tell” us anything, or “play’” anyone other than himself. If anything we were the ones who took on roles, not him. At times we were team-mates; at others, opponents; or again, a crowd of spectators. As such, we were also participants. As in James Berlyn’s Crash Course, we were immersed. We became a transient community.
This is not to sentimentalize football or sport in general, which like the rest of culture and society is riven by contradictions and conflict. I’m not suggesting that sport is more relevant than art, or that we can make art more relevant simply by hybridizing it with sport; but perhaps one can illuminate the other. “There is a crack in everything,” as Leonard Cohen growled at Perth Arena last week. “That’s how the light gets in.” Perhaps through this mutual illumination of art and sport, Ahil can even emancipate football from the constraints of the game itself. This would be a logical extension of the emancipatory potential of all art.

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