Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Laura Marling concert (Hamer Hall, Melbourne Festival, October 19)

I reckon Laurie Anderson’s got the right idea. Don’t record and release material before touring it. Tour the material then record it.

If I were Laura Marling’s manager, I’d recall every single copy of Short Movie, book a venue for her and get her to record the thing live. It’d only take fifty minutes. One take. (Yep, she’s that good.) And the live thing would not only be more perfect than the studio recording, it would fizz and shine in a way the studio recording does not.

Take ‘How Can I’. At last night’s concert, this was the brilliant torch-song climax. 2000 people walked out of Hamer Hall filled-to-bursting with it. I reckon a few people will buy Short Movie -- or at least the song -- on the strength of it. But, man, the studio recording is slow, dull and, well, kinda ordinary.

I had to force myself to listen to the new album a second time... as homework! And I’m a fan. (Wot, you doubt me? I booked a flight to Sydney in January 2010 on the day of a sold out show at the Famous Spiegeltent in Hyde Park on the off-chance I could get in!) (I got in!)

If any of you remember Marling at 19, she was a Shy Young Thang. Legend had it, she used to sing to her shoes. At that January 25 concert, she had graduated... she sang to the pole hole in the roof! But she responded well -- warmly, even -- to some gentle heckling.

Nowadays, she’s a powerful and authoritative presence. Her voice is reminiscent of Joni Mitchell -- airier, less saintly -- with an agile, almost yodelling, kick. I could have done with a tiny bit less vibrato, but the voice is remarkably true. Warm and intimate. And that’s what the concert was like.

Set List, October 19, 2015 Hamer Hall

01. Take the Night Off/I Was An Eagle/You Know/Breathe (Once I Was An Eagle, 2013)

02. Short Movie (Short Movie, 2015)

03. Master Hunter (Once I Was An Eagle, 2013)

04. Night After Night (A Creature I Don't Know, 2011)

05. What He Wrote (I Speak Because I Can, 2010)

06. Alpha Shallows (I Speak Because I Can, 2010)

07. Ghosts (Alas I Cannot Swim, 2008)

08. cover of Blues Run the Game (Jackson C. Frank, 1965)

09. Goodbye England (Covered in Snow) (I Speak Because I Can, 2010)

10. cover of Do I Ever Cross Your Mind (Dolly Parton, 1973) (originally recorded as a duet with Chet Atkins in the mid 1970s, released as the B-Side of I Will Always Love You in 1982)

11. I Feel Your Love (Short Movie, 2015)

12. Salinas (A Creature I Don't Know, 2011)

13. Sophia (A Creature I Don't Know, 2011)

14. Once (Once I Was An Eagle, 2013)

15. Rambling Man (I Speak Because I Can, 2010)

16. How Can I (Short Movie, 2015)

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Thursday, April 16, 2015

“Hard as a sidewinder” — Grounded by George Brant (Red Stitch Actors Theatre)

Before its Sydney season, Red Stitch’s terrific production of George Brant’s play Grounded has a very brief return season in St Kilda, at the Alex Theatre. The production is up for five Green Room Awards. (They’re presented on Monday 20th, the day after the Alex Theatre season closes.) 

Here’s a beefed up version of my review of the play, from June 2014.

Aside from the stern declaration “the end must not be played at the beginning,” most of the directions playwright George Brant provides in his script concern the actor who plays the F16 pilot: her age, height, education, body fat (“no more than 32%”) and eyesight. And her ability to perform 50 sit-ups in a minute. It’s hard to imagine he’d be anything less than utterly delighted with Kate Cole in the role.

Kate Cole in the 2014 Red Stitch production of Grounded, photograph by Jodie Hutchinson

Grounded follows an unnamed F16 fighter pilot and adrenaline junkie (Cole) from Air Force to “chair force”, from a cockpit over Iraq to an air-conditioned trailer outside Las Vegas. There, she operates an $11M drone to pick off “military age males” in a war zone 12,000 km away. It’s a gift, she tells herself: “I will see my daughter grow up. I will kiss my husband goodnight every night.” But it’s an uneasy transition for a maverick pilot in love with “the blue.”

This flawless Red Stitch production takes a fairly basic play and turns it into an impressive and memorable evening of theatre. Kirsten von Bibra’s direction and Matthew Adey’s set and lighting designs are subtly self-conscious and semiotically rich. Cole’s performance, likewise, manages to be both entirely natural and utterly jaw-dropping. Anyone who says legit theatre is dead just doesn’t get out enough. Or doesn’t get to Red Stitch enough.

Grounded by George Brant. Red Stitch Actors Theatre. At the Alex Theatre, 135 Fitzroy Street, St Kilda, until Sunday April 19, 2015. Tickets $25-$45. Bookings: Ticketek. 80 minutes, no interval.

Then Reginal Theatre at the Seymour Centre, Cleveland Street Chippendale, May 1 to May 16, 2015. Tickets: $35. Bookings: 02 9351 7940 or on-line.

Here’s a taste of the writing:

So I go to a bar
Pilot bar
I drink with my boys and we tell stories about flying
We try to make it into words
You can get close
But you never can

A guy comes up to me
A guy always comes up
No not always
It takes balls
Hard to casually sidle up to a bunch of drunk Air Force on
Maneuver yourself through all the boys to get to me
That takes some offensive flying of its own

But the guy makes it through
Gets up from a card game and runs the gauntlet to get to me
He’s kinda cute
I tell him straight off who I am what I am
I’ve learned not to wait
Once they find out
They tend to run away
Most guys don’t like what I do
Feel they’re less of a guy around me
I take the guy spot and they don’t know where they belong

But not this one
This one’s eyes light up
This one thinks it’s cool
This one kisses me in the parking lot like I’m the rock
star I am
He’s not afraid to kiss me

He’s Eric
I take him home
We fuck
First time’s okay
Then he asks me to put my suit on
He says please
I tell him just once

Just telling him is enough
He’s hard as a Sidewinder
It’s a good three days
A very good three days

He tells me he can feel the sky in me
I tell him he’s crazy

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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Since I Suppose by one step at a time like this. Presented by Arts House, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Richard Jordan Productions and Melbourne Festival.

In thirty-odd years of theatre going, I’ve been lapdanced, teabagged, tied to a chair, caged, been invited to shine a torch up an inserted speculum, been sung to in bed and, perhaps best of all, had Meow Meow’s legs scissored around my throat. (I needed chiropractic and psychotherapy after her little shoulder ride... actually it was the human equivalent of a stage dive. A Boyd dive then.)

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been dragged (screaming) on stage. The first show I ever reviewed, I ended up on the stage of the (then recently opened) Playhouse. And, in case you’re wondering, it wasn’t an opening night and I wasn’t in house seats. Just lucky, I guess. Again. I was this close to declaiming “Ay me, what act/that roars so loud and thunders in the index?” in front of the footlights. As I was wont to do.

One time, at band camp [sorry], I was in the centre of the back row... as inaccessible a position as it was possible to be in that particular theatre. Nevertheless, I was so sure I’d be jumped, I removed everything from my front pockets... I didn’t want the groin grinder to think I was, um, that pleased to see her. As it happened, she only twerked one thigh.

Today, I’ve gotta add a couple of scenes from Since I Suppose (the latest extravaganza by Suzanne Kersten and one step at a time like this) to my short list of indelible theatrical memories.

What’s really scary about the show is the still-untapped potential of the company style, especially when it’s this well resourced and choreographed. With a few small tweaks and enhancements, and with a more appropriately paranoid narrative, Kersten and Co could... could what? Give us experiences that will compete with remembered things, that will echo in our dreams, that will scorch into our hearts. All of that. Perhaps more.

My review of the show, for the Australian, scheduled to run tomorrow, ends thus:

The executive summary? Just go. The less you know, the better. Don’t read any other reviews in case of spoilers. Wear warm clothing and comfortable shoes. Travel light. But bring spare gold coins. For the photo booth, of course. 

First time I've wanted to end a review with a smiley face...  


Friday, February 14, 2014

Dance Australia's 2013 Critics' Survey

It's that time of the year again, when Dance Australia publishes its Critics' Survey. The survey is something I love doing cos the results are usually published in alphabetical order, so mine are read before fatigue sets in! (Well, hey, it's a labour of love... one of the few things I do for nothin'.)

There's a tease on-line with a couple of the Sydney contributions on the magazine's web site, here. (And I highly recommend you sign up for the magazine's email alerts, full of news and reviews with a quick turn-around, a great complement to the magazine.)

Anyway, FWIW, my contributions... consider it a belated “best of” for the year in dance.

Highlight of 2013

In her first (of two) Melbourne Festival program Push, Sylvie Guillem completely exceeded my expectations. I wouldn't have traded her two brief solos for a glimpse of any other performance, any role, in her long and illustrious career.

Most significant dance event

Josephine Ridge's first Melbourne Festival had precious little locally produced dance, but Ridge endeared herself to the dance community by seeing practically all of the dance on offer during the Fringe Festival in the weeks leading up to her own festival.

Most interesting Australian group or artist

Antony Hamilton, again, this time for Black Project 2. If anything, the sequel eclipsed the multi award-winning original work.

Most interesting overseas group or artist

Ireland's Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre with Michael Keegan-Dolan's Rite of Spring, an ingenious and unselfconsciously theatrical piece with broad appeal.

Most outstanding choreography

With its solos like soliloquys, Alexei Ratmansky's Cinderella (Australian Ballet) is a terrific piece, entertaining and modern. I've almost forgiven Ratmansky for his lazy and deadly dull Scuola di Ballo.

Best new work

Proximity by Garry Stewart, ADT. If anything, the piece has improved since it premiered in Adelaide in 2012.

Conversation Piece by Lucy Guerin, Lucy Guerin Inc & Belvoir, for Dance Massive. Cast changes for the Melbourne season kept this piece sizzling.

Most outstanding dancer

James Pham, especially in Aorta (Chunky Move)

Lauren Langlois, especially in A Small Prometheus (Stephanie Lake) and 247 Days (Chunky Move)

Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev did to the Australian Ballet (in Don Quixote) what the Australian Ballet has been doing to the ballet world for the last 50 years. They showed us that perfection isn't the end point, it's a start point. Learn the rules, know them intimately, then break 'em.

Dancer to watch

Melissa Jones as a dancer and choreographer. Jones's piece Disquiet was a highlight of the Melbourne Fringe Festival, daring, complex and absorbing.

And pretty much anyone associated with the 2ndToe Dance Collective: Frankie Snowdon, Benjamin Hancock, Adam Wheeler, Madeleine Krenek...

Lowlight [We have to give one!]

Hofesh Shechter's Sun. Such extraordinary dancers and dancing, such scintillating choreography. And yet Schechter's finished work was inane, brutally blunt, and theatrically inept. A completely wasted effort.

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Twenty years ago today: Karen Finley, Green Mill, Deborah Jowitt et al.

Twenty years ago today... I had my first review published in the Age. (It was a solo show by Karen Finley. Talk about a baptism of fire!) (Click on the images to see full size.)

What many people don’t know is that I’d had my first photos published in the Age a couple of weeks earlier. And, if anything, I got the reviewing gig cos I’d bailed out new Arts Editor Stephanie Bunbury with my photographs of Village Voice dance critic Deborah Jowitt -- the ‘bignote’ speaker at Green Mill that year -- as well as Stelarc, Dorothea Randall and Gideon Obarzanek. A feature article on the 1994 Green Mill Festival of Choreography and Dance (by Patricia Laughlin) might not have run without them.  

My article on that year’s Green Mill, incidentally, ran in Dance Australia along with a few more of my photographs. (I joked, at the time, that being asked to write for Dance Australia was a bit like Salman Rushdie getting an invitation to write editorial from the Baghdad Post!) (Cheeky boy.)

The Age, Saturday Extra, 29 January 1994, page 8

Gideon Obarzanek at Green Mill, 1994 (photo © Chris Boyd)

The gig at the Age turned out to be short-lived. Just five months. But it was nice while it lasted, and complemented the mainstage reviews I was writing at the time for the Financial Review.

I had a really interesting brief at the Age actually, to cover the ‘fringe’ performing arts. It was a horizontal role, not vertical. (Think clean!) So, I wasn’t the new Peter Weiniger, Len Radic’s deputy, I got to cover opera, dance and music as well as alt.theatre. (I’d been reviewing all of those forms, one way or another, for seven years.) The stuff that, until then, had not been covered or had fallen through the cracks.

More pics after the jump.

Arun Muñoz and Deborah Jowitt (photos © Chris Boyd)

My 2002 interview with Karen Finley (pic NSFW) is here.

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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Sisters Grimm: Summertime in the Garden of Eden (Theatre Works and Griffin Theatre)

Ash Flanders and Declan Greene -- a.k.a. Sisters Grimm -- take the cardinal compass points of sex and sexuality, race and gender identification, and spin them like a roulette wheel.

Every single element of a Sisters Grimm production arrives with a pair of inverted commas hovering close by. Some individual elements, like the beautiful and hirsute Southern belle Daisy May (played by self-proclaimed pirate, mermaid and stripper Agent Cleave), are more inverted than others. Cleave is playing a “woman” rather than a woman. So far, so queer.

Agent Cleave (Check out AC performing with Peaches, here.)

By contrast, the casting of Bessie Holland as the widowed patriarch Big Daddy is more like gender-blind casting. There isn’t an actor this side of Colonel Harland Sanders’ resting place in Louisville Kentucky better suited to playing a civil wartime plantation owner. Holland recycles every hoary old cliché of cinematic melodrama and finds extraordinary authenticity within them. Watching Holland, one is constantly aware that one is watching the impossible: a caricature made flesh. And, thus, one is constantly alert. To detail and to possibilities.

Genevieve Giuffre is another miraculous actor. Her natural facility is to play goofy. But on the strength of her performances this year you wouldn’t hesitate to cast her as Desdemona or Othello. Or, indeed, Iago. Here, Greene has cast her as Mammy, an obedient, spiritual-singing, middle-aged black maid.

More precisely, Giuffre plays a dreaded and bling-wearing modern urban woman pretending to be subservient, though Mammy stops short of Uncle Tom-style self-deprecation. It’s this aspect of the production -- with its use of golliwogs -- that causes the most heart-burn. And provokes the most laughter. Squirming and nervous laughter.

That laughter is a means, however, not an end. Likewise, the sexual intrigue in this savage Garden of Eden is less about the shame of miscegenation than it is about closeted homosexuality and denied desire.

The setting is the deep south at the start of the American Civil War. Big Daddy is making preparations for a party to welcome home his prodigal daughter Honey Sue (Olympia Bukkakis) who fled the fold the night of her 16th birthday, a decade or so earlier.

While family members and Daisy May’s devious fiancé Clive (Peter Paltos) jockey for a share of Big Daddy’s estate, the old order -- slavery included -- is collapsing around them.

Summertime in the Garden of Eden is another mind-blowing outing from an ingenious and increasingly consistent company. But it’s not a play for the faint of heart or the easily offended.

Summertime in the Garden of Eden by Ash Flanders and Declan Greene. Sisters Grimm. Theatre Works, 14 Acland Street St Kilda, until November 16. Then SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross, for Griffin Theatre, November 20 to December 14.

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Thursday, October 24, 2013

Sadler's Wells: Push. Works by Russell Maliphant. With Sylvie Guillem. (Melbourne Festival)

People sitting on either side of me at Her Majesty’s Theatre last night used the line “in her prime” about Sylvie Guillem, both expressed some regret that they hadn’t seen Guillem at the ‘peak’ of her career. I’m hoping after last night’s show that neither has any lingering regrets about not seeing her at the Paris Opera Ballet in the 1980s or the Royal Ballet in the 1990s.

Given the choice between seeing Guillem’s Giselle (or her Odette and Odile) and the two ten minute solos we saw last night... hell, I don’t think I’d trade either of the solos for any of the name roles. Not even to see her starring in Billy Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated in 1987.

It’s difficult to imagine Guillem dancing better than she did last night, in Push, a programme of solos and a duet choreographed by -- and performed with -- Russell Maliphant.

In the solos, in particular, the 48 year-old Guillem was beyond superlatives. By any standards, by any critical criterion or criteria normally applied to balletic dance, her performance was heightened. Her centredness, her musicality, her facility, her control... I hesitate to use the word ‘perfection’, because Guillem -- at this level -- is somehow beyond perfection. In the same way, she is beyond beauty.

Yeah, I know the feeling. Stage door, last night.

Watching Guillem, one understands how the Ancient Greek philosophers were compelled to come up with a theory of forms. All we can do, in the mortal world, is aspire to some ideal -- some ontological concept of perfection -- that is, by definition, unattainable.

To describe Guillem’s performance as beautiful, or perfect, rather misses the point. She’s a wraith-like manifestation of something transcendent. Even that idea falls laughably short of the mark. Guillem’s dancing in the solos, her presence in the solos, was like the imaginings of perfection itself. Like perfection thinking out loud.

What’s that hoary old line, a variation of Karl Barth’s quotation about angels en famille? When angels play for humans, they play Beethoven. When they play for the gods, they play Bach. But when they play for each other, they play Mozart.

Well, last night was angel-to-angel dancing. It was an inestimable privilege to witness it.

The second/final performance of Push is tonight. A second programme, 6000 Miles Away, featuring works by William Forsythe, Jiří Kylián and Mats Ek, is at Her Majesty’s on Saturday at 7:30 and Sunday at 5 o’clock.

Push. Four works by Russell Maliphant with lighting by Michael Hulls. Performed by Sylvie Guillem and Russell Maliphant. Produced by Sadler’s Wells. Melbourne Festival. Her Majesty's Theatre, October 23.

Russell Maliphant (photograph © Chris Boyd)

Sylvie Guillem and Russell Maliphant present a free talk as part of the Artists in Conversation series on Friday 25 October at 1pm at the Festival Hub.

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Saturday, September 21, 2013

Disquiet by Melissa Jones (Melbourne Fringe Festival)

I think any honest response to Melissa Jones’ extraordinary half-hour piece Disquiet requires that the reviewer lie down on the psychiatrist’s couch and “assume the position” as my first chiropractor, Owen, used to jokingly demand of me.

Trouble is, it would be all too easy to turn a review of Disquiet into a doctoral thesis. There’s so much to say about it, so much to respond to. But as much as I’d like to give you the executive summary, here and now, I really have to work through some things... like a mathematician wanting to show the mechanics of the proof rather than just jumping to the conclusion with a “ta da!”

Disquiet - Image by Romeo Viglino

I’ve also gotta say, up-front, that there’s plenty to dislike about Disquiet, but I think those very elements (the coarse lighting, the brutal repetition, the general air of aesthetic violence) are indispensable to the process, the impact and the achievement of the piece.

I read the choreographic repetitions as physical manifestations of circular habits of mind... the habits a troubled (and/or unevolved) mind can fall into. (Eckhart Tolle would advise Melissa to listen to her thoughts, to her thinking!)

Rather more bizarrely, I read the blinding light that shines into the faces of the audience as a manifestation of the light those who have had a near-death experience report seeing. Neuroscientists argue that this is a trick of a dying brain, that it’s more like “would the last person out of the building turn out the light” than god calling us to “come into the light.”

After the event, I wondered if Disquiet was best read like a novella by Helen Garner. As an aside, I have to confess that I read Garner’s The Spare Room as a work of non-fiction. When I got to the end, I was incensed to discover that it was fiction. I felt ripped off -- deceived -- by the style of the book. I also felt, rightly or wrongly, that it was a lesser work as a piece of fiction than it would have been as a memoir.

A danced version of The Spare Room would bypass many of those critical potholes. Dance at its most literal is still ‘dancerly’. I interpreted the heavy breathing and the repeated backhanded fall of Chimene Steele-Prior’s hand from her sternum to the palm of her other hand, at waist level, as the workings of a respirator, and Jones’s presence at her side as the vigil of a family member. (I can’t bring myself to say “of a loved one” since the emotional content of the work is so equivocal. This family member is -- first and foremost -- a burden.)

It intrigued me that Jones delegated the role of the sick person to Steele-Prior. And that she didn’t swap roles at the last minute. It seemed to me that Jones had a really bad cold, or worse, on Friday evening. And had she done the heavy breathing, she could have worked up a genuine death rattle... or passed out trying!

The other overwhelming experience I had while watching Disquiet was... was what? An appreciation that events of a life are manifest in us. Yes.  Not just in our bodies, in our posture, but in our skin. On the surface. It’s as if each major relationship had left visible scars on the dancers, like open heart surgery; that devastating events in their lives resulted in visible scarification.

Steele-Prior, in particular, revealed herself. Instead of tearing off her skin -- the pop metaphor is of being able to see the bone under the skin (like Echo and the Bunnymen singing about John Webster) or seeing what’s underneath (like Suzanne Vega swallowing her lover whole and dissolving all but bones and teeth) -- her secrets were told by her skin. Not through it or in spite of it. But it’s not up to me to write them down. They’re her secrets to share. Or not to share.

At an entirely different dimension -- artistic? moral? performative? all of the above? -- the great achievement of Jones and her collaborators in Disquiet is that ideas of beauty and aestheticism are entirely subverted and bypassed. Yes, by virtually any standard, Jones and Steele-Prior are beautiful. Steele-Prior could probably step into an Aussie soap opera and people would watch it for her, like you might watch Wonderland for Anna Bamford alone.

But apart from the girly costuming and the hair-dancing that begins the piece, which I think are only there to highlight the superficiality and irrelevance of beauty, the performers are... are what? Not selfless. No. It’s as if Jones and Steele-Prior are representations of us. More than that. It’s as if they are us. I’m not taking kinaesthetic empathy here. (Or not just talking kinaesthetic empathy... There was a repeated, upwardly cork-screwing phrase performed by Steele-Prior that had me wanting to tell her “yeah, yeah, I get that.” Not “I’m bored by that,” more “I know what you mean.”) It’s both more abstract and more rare. Disquiet is the physical equivalent of a mind meld.

Disquiet by Melissa Jones. Melbourne Fringe Festival.  Meeting Room, Fringe Hub, North Melbourne Town Hall, Friday. Season ends September 27.

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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Einstein on the Beach (State Theatre, Melbourne, 1992)

Here’s one I prepared earlier... like, 21 years earlier.

Since its premiere at the Avignon Festival and subsequent six-nation tour, Einstein on the Beach has been revived just once, for a brief New York season in 1984. This second tour is billed as the final revival by the original production team, which includes the Philip Glass Ensemble and Lucinda Childs Dance Company. Given the synergy and interdependence of individual parts, it is difficult to imagine the opera without Robert Wilson’s design and direction, or Lucinda Childs’ choreography, though each component is showing definite signs of wear.

Yeah, that’s Phil’s autograph... just call me groupie.

Einstein on the Beach is a landmark work - not just because it marks the high point of "minimalism" and is the product of three of the great avant-garde artists of its time - but because it hangs suspended in the artistic cleft which divides modernism from postmodernism. Einstein on the Beach is audacious, richly ambiguous, and full of wild contradictions. It eschews naturalism and narrative, but still presumes to be an impressionist portrait of its time. It denies meaning but reserves the right to be meaningful. It is formalist, ironic, autistic, reflexive and - above all - uncompromising. The operatic medium is both subject and object. In Einstein on the Beach, the score, dramatic structure and subject matter are inextricably linked. The four-act opera is made up of nine scenes, three for each visual theme: train, trial and field with space machine. This structure coincides with the primary musical theme which combines out-of-phase rhythmic patterns in which a treble phrase is repeated three times for every four repetitions of the bass phrase. The second theme is a sine-waving arithmetic progression in which the bass line inverts and reflects the treble line. In the minimalist tradition, these modal fragments are repeated and varied.

The libretto uses numbers and the solfège syllables: do re mi &c. The first sung line is: "1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4 5 6, 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8." The libretto articulates the rhythm and pitch of the music. In short, the opera is a giant algebraic formula. It is a collision of art and science. Einstein, a man of apparently irreconcilable contradictions, is the mythic figure that draws these threads together: a scientist who used intuition rather than experimental deduction; an intellectual who believed in god; a pacifist enmeshed in the development of nuclear weapons; a man who detested nationalism but sympathised with the Zionist movement.

Einstein is our connection with the work; he is our way in. Einstein sits, playing the violin, midway between the pit and the stage, facing the audience. He is both participant and witness - as are we. Metaphors, of course, are only as rich as those who are prepared to probe them. Einstein’s position may, for example, reflect his exile status; he rescinded his German citizenship at the age of 17. He might also be Nero fiddling while the world burns, though Einstein was never one to deny his responsibility to the world.

Einstein questioned our basic notions of time. In a 270-minute, continuous work, time can’t help but be a theme. Wilson’s direction makes repeated references to its passage. Conspicuously, twelve of the performers wear wristwatches. A huge, hand-less clock, with fish-hook markings, towers over the trial scenes. Sheryl Sutton, in a solo dance, waves her arms around like the hands of a clock. Two stenographers stand to scratch their numb behinds. In the same "trial" scene, the cast pointedly take a lunch break, facing the audience. The delirious irony is that they are imprisoned, not us.

While much of the work is genuinely mesmerising, there are moments of staggering banality in both music and stage direction. Invariably, these are compensated for by other aspects of the work. So, for example, when the music is brutal and stodgy in Act II Scene i, the choreography is glorious. When the direction is feeble, as in Act II Scene ii, the music is inspirational.

Whatever one makes of the work itself, there can be no faulting its performers. All demonstrate endurance, precision, generosity, and great technical virtuosity. My own choice of highlights would include Susan Blankensop’s controlled walk and stunning perpendicular dance in the first scene.

While I am inclined to believe that Einstein on the Beach is an artistic cul de sac, and best approached as a wormhole to the New York avant-garde of the 1970s, it does manage to capture something of the spirit of Albert Einstein. In his own words, the greatest experience we can have is the mysterious.

Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass (music, lyrics) and Robert Wilson (design, direction). Choreography by Lucinda Childs. Spoken text by Christopher Knowles, Samuel M Johnson and Lucinda Childs. Lighting design by Beverly Emmons and Robert Wilson. Music direction by Michael Riesman. Sound design by Kurt Munkacsi.

With Lucinda Childs, Sheryl Sutton, the Philip Glass Ensemble and Lucinda Childs Dance Company.

State Theatre, Melbourne, September 17-20, 1992. Presented by the Melbourne International Festival of the Arts in association with IPA Presents, Inc.  Also Spain, Japan, USA and France.

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Thursday, June 27, 2013

Flashes forward and back: Under the Dome (Ten Network)

What’s to stop Channel Ten’s Under the Dome from turning into another FlashForward, the “high concept” sci-fi series axed after just the one 22-episode series... at a critical point in the story?

Will Under the Dome sink, er, like a bus as well?

The Under the Dome pilot was watched by 13.53 million in the US. That’s only a million more than the 12.47 who watched the FlashForward premiere in September 2009.

I don’t wanna be left having to read 1000-plus pages of Stephen King to discover, say, that the Hadron Collider dunnit. :D

Having said that, I’m kinda glad the pilot diverges from what I’ve read of King’s novel. (We’ve been spared a particularly nasty scene already.) FlashForward, I’m told, follows Robert J Sawyer’s novel pretty closely. (The initial flash forward being the main exception, calculated -- one imagines -- to coincide with the actual length of the first season.)

Interestingly, Under the Dome was rated 72/100 on metacritic (or “generally favourable” reviews) which is exactly the same score that FlashForward got. Okay, I've made myself anxious now.

Joseph Fiennes does anxious.

Still, I’ve gotta say how impressed I am with Ten’s “anti-piracy” strategy. Under the Dome was on air faster than it was on-line. Just like the old days, waiting for the new episode of Twin Peaks... Anyone else remember leaving the phone off the hook -- what a concept! -- while watching live-to-air TV?! (Yes, I had a video... I just liked to edit out the ad breaks. But at least I watched them!)

Credits, too, to the ABC who led the pack on this by screening the latest series of Doctor Who, free-to-air, just a few hours after each episode aired in the UK.

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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Dance Massive: random rants #1

Thirteen shows in eight days. My favourites so far...

Black Project 2. Rampant, scintillating, precise, alien. You know, just Antony Hamilton at his awesome best. I would have very happily shelled out to see it again. Had I world enough and time.

Byron Perry, Stephanie Lake and Alisdair Macindoe

Conversation Piece. An insanely likable bit of theatre with equally likable dance. Half of this particular cast is new to the piece, and the ‘outs’ include Alison Bell and Harriet Richie... who are about as close to irreplaceable as you’re gonna get in any show. So kudos to Lucy Guerin for lining up the wonderfully versatile Katherine Tonkin and Stephanie Lake as their replacements.

Byron Perry is the other ‘in’, for Rennie McDougall, so there’s a heap of on-stage charisma to go round. (And I feel sick not devoting a few hundred words to Megan Holloway’s hair, Matthew Whittet’s pure and applied geekiness and Alisdair Macindoe’s conversation with himself!)

Southern Exposure, another miraculous instalment of Russell Dumas’s dance for the time being. One steps into a Dumas work, like a river. It feels like a vast loop. Not repeated, exactly, more curved. Like space and time. If one travels far enough in one direction, the starting point will be reached again. It’s a loop in the same way that an eco system is looped. Water flowing, evaporating, raining down again, flowing again.

This time around, I noticed the restfulness (if that’s the word) of the movement. The exertion is almost completely hidden. Minimised, certainly. It’s stealthy. This style of dance is as different to everything else that passes as contemporary as a fretless instrument is to a fretted one. It has the accuracy of ‘digital’ and the artistry of ‘analogue’. It’s performed with freshly scrubbed feet on freshly polished floorboards in a naturally-lit space. The only external sound comes from the dull roar of overhead fans. The audience silence is entirely unselfconscious.

Tonight (that’s Tuesday night, when I saw both Conversation Piece and Southern Exposure) perfection is on my mind, thanks to Ivan Vasiliev and Natalia Osipova, guest leads in the Australian Ballet’s Don Quixote on Monday evening. Not because they were perfect, no. But because a couple of reviews called them perfect which seems, rather, to be missing the point.

Natalia Osipova as Kitri in Don Quixote (Photograph: Jeff Busby)

They did to the Australian Ballet what the Australian Ballet has been doing to the rest of the world for a great proportion of the last fifty years. Vasiliev and Osipova shamed us with their passion and daring. They’re remarkable because of their willingness to break line and lose centre in pursuit of something more valuable than plastic perfection. (And on this occasion I use ‘plastic’ in its modern synthetic sense rather than its original pliable/malleable sense.)

I’m hoping that David McAllister’s choice of guests for the company’s signature ballet (this is the one Nureyev created on the national company and which has been performed 420-odd times) is intended to show the young dancers of the company that technical perfection is not an end point but, rather, a starting point.

Which brings me back to Russell Dumas. The ‘perfection’ in his work has a certain joyfulness, I think. It’s hard won -- there’s no doubt about that -- and comes from grueling repetition which turns an analogue movement into something exactly repeatable. But it would be as wrong to call it ‘painstaking’ as it would be to call a religious practice painstaking. It is, rather, a kind of worship.

Though I’m impressed by it -- awed by it -- I don’t really see the point of hiding the exertion. It’s reminiscent of the footbinding excesses of classical ballet. (Sorry, Russell, if I’ve just given you apoplexy!) I live for the day that I see some feat on the ballet stage, some impossible lift or leap, and hear the grunt of exertion like a noisy tennis player. Yeah, yeah, it’ll be the beginning of the end. But it’ll make me smile inside.

Coming up:

Don’t miss the return season of Jo Lloyd’s Future Perfect. I saw this at “Tirade’s Hall” the year before last and rated it the highlight of the year in Dance Australia’s 2011 Critics’ Survey. It opens tonight at the Meat Market.

dance for the time being (Southern Exposure) by Russell Dumas. Performed by Linda Sastradipradja, Jonathan Sinatra, Nicole Jenvey, Rachel Doust, David Huggins, Sarah Cartwright, Eric Fon and Molly McMenamin. Presented by Dance Exchange. At Dancehouse, North Carlton, March 19-21. Around fifty minutes.

Conversation Piece. Choreographed and directed by Lucy Guerin. Set and costume design by Robert Cousins. Lighting design by Damien Cooper. Sound design and composition by Robin Fox. Performed by Megan Holloway, Stephanie Lake, Alisdair Macindoe, Byron Perry, Katherine Tonkin and Matthew Whittet. Presented by Arts House, Belvoir and Lucy Guerin Inc. At Arts House, Meat Market, March 19-24. Seventy minutes.

Black Project 2 by Antony Hamilton. Set construction and production management by Matthew Scott, Megafun. Costume design by Paula Levis. Sound design by Alisdair Macindoe. Video design by Kit Webster. Performed by James Batchelor, Jake Kuzma, Talitha Maslin, Jessie Oshodi, Marnie Palomares and Jess Wong. Presented by Arts House and Antony Hamilton Projects. At Arts House, Meat Market, March 12-16.

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Friday, March 15, 2013

Generations: Zero Zero and The Recording

Thanks to Zero Zero, the most recent and arguably the finest collaboration between Tony Yap and Yumi Umiumare to date, generations have been on my mind. Umiumare first came to Melbourne with Butoh company Dai Rakuda Kan in 1991 -- I still can’t get the dead goldfish in the clear heels of their shoes out of my head -- and moved here not long after. So we’ve been watching her for more than 20 years. Ditto Tony Yap, though he first came to prominence in Renato Cuocolo’s theatre company IRAA. I vividly remember his androgynous long-haired Medea in Cuocolo’s ‘Vision of the Void’ adaptation. I reckon that was also 1991. (Yap had been in some short dance works by Lynne Santos in 1989 and 1990 as well.)

Ignoring this history -- this physical ballast -- is difficult. And, perhaps, pointless. These collaborations between Yap and Umiumare utilise time. The history of the bodies involved in the performance is integral to the performance. I’m not sure if that’s a cultural thing, if it’s just specific to these particular bodies, or if it’s just these individual projects.

The paradox is that these bodies -- bodies that I’ve been watching for literally decades -- seem to have defied time. They haven’t thickened or visibly aged whatsoever. They’re amazingly lithe, more muscular and toned than ever. In the unairconditioned lower space at fortyfivedownstairs on a hot February Sunday afternoon, sweat ran down Tony Yap’s back in silvery rivulets. The trails caught the light like glycerine tears on an actor’s face.

Watching Sandra Parker’s The Recording at Dancehouse, yesterday evening, it suddenly became clear that Fiona Cameron has swapped generations since last I saw her perform. She’s not quite ‘elder statesman’ or anything like that. Nor is she on the back nine, in golfing terms. But she has a new found gravity, if that’s the word. Her fingers and hands are as captivating as her dark expressions.

As an aside... it’s easy enough to invest complete stillness with weight. Likewise, it’s easy to make a dramatic thrust or a big gesture look weighty. But tiny moves, thrumming fingertips or delicate lines are far harder. The opening moments of The Recording are a fine (and rare) example of investing small moves with weight.

Perhaps even more shockingly, to me, Phoebe Robinson is also at one of those generational gear change moments. Weirdly enough, in writing about one of Robinson’s shows Only Leone five years ago, I mused that Robinson might benefit from some mentoring by Sandy Parker. It won’t be long before Robinson is doing the mentoring. (Lucky youngies.)

Speaking of generations, the other performer in The Recording is Trevor Patrick who made his pro debut a couple of years before I started reviewing. So, for me, he has always been there. Like an older brother. There’s a remarkable moment in this show in which Patrick face-syncs his performance with a pre-recorded video, shot in tight close-up. Now, the camera is supposed to add ten pounds, but not with the lean and hungry Patrick. Weirdly, it seems to add ten years to his face. The screen image is slightly overexposed and exaggerates the lines in his face. The video is time-stamped 1982, I think. It’s as if Patrick is playing his father.

For me, with all of the accreted knowledge of these performers (Sandra Parker and her collaborators Rhian Hinkley and Jennifer Hector included) ideas fired through my head from go to whoa. But I can’t imagine what it meant, if anything, to the young audience members around me. I can’t imagine how they would read it or, indeed, if they would find anything to read in it at all.

Zero Zero. Created and performed by Tony Yap and Yumi Umiumare. Media, sound and lighting by co-creator Matthew Gingold. Additional design and production realisation by Paula van Beek. At fortyfivedownstairs, February 24.

The Recording. Directed and choreographed by Sandra Parker. Projections by Rhian Hinkley. Music by Steven Heather. Lighting by Jennifer Hector. Performed by Fiona Cameron, Trevor Patrick and Phoebe Robinson. Part of Dance Massive. At Dancehouse, North Carlton, March 13-16. About an hour.

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Thursday, March 14, 2013

Dance Massive: Physical Fractals by Natalie Abbott

I’m always torn when it comes to seasons like Pieces for Small Spaces and, more recently, the First Run program -- both Lucy Guerin initiatives -- after which comments and feedback are invited. Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing works in development. I first saw Natalie Abbott’s Physical Fractals in zygote form (to use an Ani diFranco expression) at Pieces for Small Spaces the year before last. And I’m very glad I did.

Sarah Aiken and creator Natalie Abbott

But I don’t like ‘interfering’ in the creative ecology. I’d hate to reduce the scope of the invention.

At Pieces for Small Spaces in 2011, Abbott’s piece was an elegant and most impressive one-woman show called Circles for Squares. And a tiny piece it most certainly was. Tiny in the detail sense. It drew us into the micro world so quickly, and so effectively, we were convinced that the downturned eyes -- the very movement of Abbott’s eyelashes -- were an integral part of the choreography.

Since then, I’ve seen the macro piece, now called Physical Fractals, twice. Different seasons. Different co-stars. Different venues. And I reckon I’m further away, now, from fathoming the piece than I was in 2011. That’s an observation, not a criticism by the way.

Watching Abbott and Sarah Aiken at the North Melbourne Town Hall this week, I was reminded of something Chris Kohn (I think) said about directing theatre. If he understands the work he’s directing, what’s the point of directing it? It has to be a challenge. An exploration. It has to involve navigating. Trial and error.

I think -- repeat think -- that Physical Fractals needs to be approached like a piece of percussive music. Minimal music. In its contemporary sense. There are atoms of movement, really simple gestures and phrases, from which the whole is assembled: the backstroke, the hair sweep, the palm thrusts, the barefoot stomping.

Think Philip Glass with his repetitions and variations and recapitulations. Some people (some critics even) have called his music brutal. But is a Glass opus so different from a Handel opera? In both -- and in Physical Fractals -- one must reboot the body’s clock. We’re in a different time zone. And the clocks tick differently here. One must sync with the dancers just as one has to enter Handel time to cope with the conventions of opera seria, the da capo aria, the ornamentation, the ‘dry’ recitative and so on.

One must breathe with the dancers. The sound of the piece, ambient noise processed through floor mounted microphones, is breathy. It reminded me of the rhythm and rasp of an artificial respirator. But the miracle is in the counting. How on earth a replacement performer could be brought up to speed without a click track is totally beyond me.

I loved the spectral figures, wraith-like in the gloom, but I thought the initial lighting state should have been lower or the decline into gloom slower. It might have been easier on our pupils after a bright day.

Physical Fractals. Choreographed by Natalie Abbott. Rebecca Jensen, collaborator. Performed by Natalie Abbott and Sarah Aiken. Live sound by Daniel Arnott. Dramaturgy by Matthew Day. Lighting design by Goven Ruben. Arts House, North Melbourne, March 12 to 16. Fifty minutes.

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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Dance Massive: P.O.V. by Lee Serle

Tis the era of the coda, the recapitulation, of book-ending. It was kinda cool when the era began. But now, you know, it’s become all too predictable. So, when you see a show that has a trajectory, a vector, an arc -- and it’s all one way -- it’s exciting. Not knowing what’s coming. If you haven’t seen Lee Serle’s P.O.V. before, you’re in for a surprise. Guaranteed.

Weirdly though, it ends with a bloom of dance. Not an explosion, a bloom. A blossom. And it’s so exquisite, so unexpected, so wonderfully delicate and beautiful... I couldn’t help but wish Serle had opened the show with this five minute (or less) section. Cos one viewing was nowhere near enough.

It reminded me, for a second, of Lucinda Childs, all detachment and cool style, then morphed into some dance that David Byrne could have made up. Think the wrist chopping in the video for the Talking Heads song ‘Once In A Lifetime’.

The angular forearms and hands were one part Vogue, one part Frances D’Ath. But I might’ve been thinking of D’Ath cos of the Paskas connection. Bonnie in the earlier show, Lily in this one.

Anyway, Serle shows such easy invention in that closing section of P.O.V. it deserves to be cut, like a plant, and propagated. Turned into a striking, beautiful, fragrant piece in its own right.

Lee Serle and Lily Paskas intruding on Tony Yap’s personal space

P.O.V. choreographed, directed and performed by Lee Serle with James Andrews, Kristy Ayre and Lily Paskas. Lighting by Ben Cisterne. Composition and sound design by Luke Smiles. Set design by Lee Serle. Costume design by Lee Serle and Shio Otani in collaboration with the performers. At Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall, March 12 to March 16. 50 minutes.

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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Malthouse Theatre: Hate by Stephen Sewell

“Although the dialogue of this play may appear in some respects naturalistic, the production should never make the mistake of setting it naturalistally.”

So writes Stephen Sewell in the Currency Press edition of Hate, published to coincide with the premiere production in 1988.

I guess the most important point made in my review of Marion Potts’ new production -- an edited version of which is published in today’s Australian -- is that this is not a play about a family, it’s a play about a nation. What Sewell did in Hate was show us what a family would look like if it behaved like a fanatical, dry, right-wing political party led by an ambitious and amoral bully.

John for PM, William Zappa in Hate (Photograph: Jeff Busby)

So, there’s no point criticising the writer for creating ciphers, or glove puppets. Cos, derr, that’s what they’re supposed to be. But it might have been better if Potts had cranked up the camp dial a bit, made William Zappa’s character a bit more like Richard III. Or at least Francis Urquhart. And, well, as much as I disliked Ben Geurens as Michael Gleason, I could at least see the point of his character, cue ‘The End’ by The Doors.

Anyway, here’s the director’s cut of my review.

While most political playwrights are content to examine society’s entrails and tell us what went wrong, and who to blame, Stephen Sewell has an unerring knack of forecasting the ugliest of futures. And he’s right more often than the Bureau of Meteorology. Actually, he’s right more often than Barry O Jones.

He’s predicted recessions to within a year (The Blind Giant is Dancing), the suspension of habeas corpus in the West post-9/11 (Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America) and the death of ‘wet’ politics (pretty much from his first play The Father We Loved on a Beach by the Sea on). To date, the most serious complaint that can be levelled at Sewell is that his prophecies haven’t actually helped avert any of those imagined outcomes.

After the great early “personal is political” plays -- Traitors (1979) through to Dreams In An Empty City (1986) -- Hate is an oddity. A transitional play at the very least. Co-commissioned by the Australian Bicentennial Authority, and premiered at the end of 1988, Hate is a discordant chamber piece in which the political gets very personal indeed.

Not only does Sewell imagine a political climate in which “hate is the only constructive emotion,” he conjures up a gruesome nuclear family driven by the same imperative. The patriarch, John Gleason (William Zappa), is a businessman and four decade politician hell-bent on splitting his conservative coalition -- currently in opposition -- to have a tilt at the Prime Ministership. But his greatest obstacle might prove to be his own family.

The play is grand guignol; superheated, lithe and blackly funny. Or, at least, it can be. Marion Potts’ new production is overly reverent and seals the story in time. It plays out as an inexorable (and sporadically leaden) Joh-for-PM period piece. There’s little of the mercurial lightness and zing that Neil Armfield brought to the debut Belvoir/Playbox production.

As Raymond, the middle child who fancies himself the obvious successor, Grant Piro plays the stock-broking dandy, big on threats but small on menace. Ben Geurens looks like he’s modelled his performance as younger son Michael on Jim Morrison, wrapped up in himself and his own limbs.

Ben Geurens and Sara Wiseman in Hate (Photograph: Jeff Busby)

Celia, Brünnhilde to her father’s Wotan, is the most complex and intriguing character in the play, and Sara Wiseman’s high-torque performance is far and away the best of the ensemble. There’s a nuance in her acting that’s lacking from the rest of the production.

Hate by Stephen Sewell. Directed by Marion Potts. Set and costume design by Dayna Morrissey. Lighting design by Paul Jackson. Sound design by Russell Goldsmith. A Malthouse Theatre production. Merlyn Theatre until March 8, 2013.

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Friday, February 22, 2013

You always remember the first time...

I used to bemoan the fact that the people we critics write for, i.e. you, think about what we have written for about as long as it takes to read it. Perhaps you’re wondering if a show is worth 99 bucks and a few hours of your time. Or perhaps you’re checking to see if I liked something you hated... and if I can be relied upon to give advice that’s useful to you.

But, hey, reviewing’s part of journalism. Utterly disposable. I get that. I don’t mind that. (I’m kinda glad, incidentally, that my first 400-odd reviews were for the Melbourne Times. I don’t think they’ll be on Google reader anytime soon!)

A great majority of the people who do remember you want to knee-cap you. Mostly because they can’t read... and think you called their mum trailer trash. [D’oh!] But there’s a very special group of people who will remember you for the rest of their sentient lives. Prima ballerinas in London and Leningrad who can quote 25 year-old reviews verbatim cos you were the first... when they were in the back row of the corps de ballet or debuting or whatever. And you wrote that they deserved a big shiny star on their dressing room door. (Rachael Beck quoted that line back to me recently from a 1987 review! Bless.)

After last night’s performance of Love Me Tender (Mutation Theatre, Theatre Works) Sarah Ogden told me I’d reviewed her pro debut, in The Secret Garden, when she was 11. Actually, she had me worried. She said the review looked like I wasn’t sure if it was actually her I was praising. (Three tweens were alternating in the key juvie role and PR folks rarely tell you who’s ‘on’ in a show that night. Grr!) But I looked up what I’d written. It looks mercifully unambiguous. I wrote:

But the real find is Sarah Ogden, who alternates in the role of Mary with Samantha and Jaclyn Fiddes. In addition to being a very passable actor, Ogden handles the huge range of her singing part with skill and ease. She fairly belts out her end of ‘Wick’, a duet with Dickon.
Sarah’s comment prompted Kirsten von Bibra to tell me that I’d reviewed one of her very first shows as director. The Wood Box she said. Now, given the vagaries of memory, it’s often easier for me to remember twenty years ago than twenty minutes ago. Primacy and recency and all that jazz. And The Wood Box was December 1989, when I’d only written 200-odd reviews. (I’ve written 20 times that number now.)

But it’s an easy one for me for other reasons. One of the debutantes in that play was a promising 20 year-old uni student by the name of Cate Blanchett. (Verdict: not bad. “Great vocal control” and “a fine voice” apparently! I do remember liking Caroline Lee better though. Heh!)

I had some words of praise for Kirsten’s direction in there as well. (Turns out it was just one. Specifically: ‘beautifully’.) (And that reminds me of a night I was shirt-fronted by a bloke whose show I had dismissed in two words. I’m wincing as I type this. They were “Pretty naff.” Yowza!)

So, yes, von Bibra had fond memories of that review, almost half a lifetime ago. Fond, but maybe not all that vivid. I was sure that my Wood Box review was the one in which I wrote about my mother’s menopause. And in the spirit of over-sharing I paraphrased the story, mostly for Sarah’s benefit. But Kirsten had no recollection of that bit. And I wondered if, after all these years, it was a false memory of mine.

Into the archives, Batman.

I found my TMT reviews from 1989. (Back in the day, I used to do ‘clippings’ as well as keeping a copy of what I’d written -- on a Hewlett Packard mainframe -- and faxed in.)

Here are the first two paragraphs of my review of The Wood Box, as printed.

When her first-born son made his journey to Europe, her soul went with him. Her thoughts were drawn to him like oceans drawn to a distant moon. She was distracted; her life suspended. My brother and I looked on, helpless.

Even the tides of her fertility ceased. “At last,” she thought, “menopause.” She was wrong. When her son returned, so too did the ebb and flow she had endured for 40 years, her heart came out of hibernation.
Then I mention the play! Ahem! (In my defence, my little story was really quite relevant to the content and style of the play.)

I don’t know about you, but I can’t seem to recall the last time I read a review in which the menstrual cycle of the critic’s mother was mentioned...

The only consolation is that neither can Kirsten von Bibra... proving that you do always remember the first time. But not always that well.

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Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Robin Grove

I learned yesterday afternoon of the death of Robin Grove, a much loved teacher and scholar. He was also a dancer, in his day, and something of a composer. Years before I met the man and his equally generous and warm family, I followed his reviews of dance -- mostly ballet -- in the Australian. At a time (in the mid 1980s) when dance reviews were either apologetic and sycophantic (ballet) or just plain vicious (anything vaguely experimental), Robin’s reviews were a revelation. He looked at ballet with cool, analytical appreciation. He saw this established art form through structuralist eyes. He never actually came out and said “pointe work is footbinding” but the idea hovered.

Robin Marshall Grove (2/2/1941-25/12/2012)

Whether he knew it or not, Robin’s writing prompted me to give reviewing a crack. (I looked at the dance reviews in my local paper and thought: I can do better! The editor, apparently, agreed.)

I believe it was 1991 when I met Robin and Lee Christofis, another great voice in dance criticism. ‘Criticism’ in its most creative and positive sense. But I didn’t really get to know the depths of Robin’s CV until I had to introduce him at a Green Mill forum at the Melbourne Town Hall in January 1994. (The other panelists were the equally eminent Michelle Potter, Jill Sykes and Graeme Murphy.)

In later years, I came to know Robin and his wife Elisabeth socially, and spent many evenings in their Williamstown home when the Melbourne Dance Critics Circle (as we half-jokingly styled ourselves) gathered for regular debriefs. Shirley McKechnie, Vicki Fairfax and Blazenka Brysha were also regulars.

Many know Robin as an academic (a “lovely man” writes Cameron Woodhead; Cam “clung to his Shakespeare courses like a limpet” to get him “through Dark Times at the Melbourne University English department in the 90s”) and supervisor (Jordan Beth Vincent’s PhD, for one).

Robin was the most gentle, tactful and thoughtful man I have encountered in my adult life. No doubt his family -- Lis and the children -- are feeling his loss keenly. Robin died on Christmas day. He was 71.

His funeral is at 2pm Thursday January 3 at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Nelson Place Williamstown.


Friday, October 19, 2012

The Artisan Collective: If it bleeds by Brendan McCallum

It’s worth trying to conjure up the scenario in your mind. A morning TV show on a local channel in a small coastal town in Florida. The show, Suncoast Digest, is devoted to local news. Not trivia exactly, but it is unashamedly parochial in focus. On a Monday morning in summer, not quite two weeks after the fourth of July in 1974, the revamped WXLT-TV show begins with a brief news bulletin from the news desk instead of the host’s usual armchair.

A report doesn’t quite go to plan -- video doesn’t begin on cue -- and the camera stays on the 29 year-old “attractive dark-haired anchorwoman” -- as she was described in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune the following day. According to the news report, Christine Chubbuck looked down the barrel of the lens and said: “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts and in living color, you are going to see another first -- an attempted suicide.”

And there, fully two years before Peter Finch threatened to blow his brains out in the film Network, Chubbuck shot herself in the head. Live to air. Living colour indeed.

Playwright Brendan McCallum and the estimable Artisan Collective tackle the story in McCallum’s economical and superbly crafted play which opened at Gasworks on Wednesday. My short but sweet review is in today’s Australian. (It’s not on-line, so no link.) The play takes its name from the newsroom maxim: if it bleeds, it leads.

McCallum’s play is almost Ibsen-like in its swift and efficient introduction of key characters. This particular slice of time gives us an insight into what has gone on prior to the opening scene.

Indeed, the play is notable for what it leaves out. Chubbuck, for example, scripted the news item about her own suicide attempt. She guessed, correctly, that she would be in a critical condition on her arrival at hospital. (She died before midnight that same day.)

Even more intriguing is the fact that -- at Chubbuck’s insistence -- the suicide attempt was recorded onto 2” video tape. One has to assume that Chubbuck intended the footage to be widely seen. (Domestic VCRs were not widely available until the latter half of the 1970s in the USA.) Thanks to a successful injunction, the tape has never been aired. According to Wikipedia, the tape was eventually handed over to the Chubbuck family.

So, the short version... if you have time to kill between Festival shows -- or you’re looking for something tight, professional and slightly less experimental than typical Festival fare -- you could do a helluva lot worse than this.

If It Bleeds rates as conservative next to previous Artisan Collective productions but it is, in its way, every bit as exciting.

If It Bleeds by Brendan McCallum. The Artisan Collective. Directed and designed (set, sound and AV design) by Ben Pfeiffer. At Gasworks, Studio Theatre, October 17. Tickets: $28. Bookings: 03 9660 9666. Season ends October 27.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Orlando by The Rabble (Melbourne Festival)

If you want the executive summary of what I thought about Orlando, it’s shoe-horned into 400 words on-line, here. (The review was printed in yesterday’s edition of The Australian.) Below, surprise surprise, I digress a bit.

As many of you will know, and be bored to death hearing about, I’ve been re-reading À la recherche du temps perdu. Again. On finishing it, the urge to begin again is overwhelming. In a sense one is always re-reading Proust. I was half way through the set first time around when I started re-reading Swann’s Way. I’ve read about Marcel and Albertine while reading about Swann and Odette a generation earlier, about Saint-Loup and Rachel and Charlus and Morel... This time I decided I needed some literary methadone to break the addiction. Wisely I chose Orlando. It’s an upper. Definitely. The first chapters in particular are delicious. Dry and ingenious. Like Proust, Woolf is quite the scientist. And, most definitely, a philosopher.

Reading Orlando is also practical. An Orlando addiction is an addiction one can recover from. You realise, one morning, you can break the reading habit. (The Swiftean middle chapters get a bit dull... apart from the bit where a black cat is thrown on the fire cos it looks like coal in dingy old England.) Anyway...

Immediately after Saturday’s performance of Orlando by THE RABBLE (and, yes, they trade in shouty small caps, which I think I’ll abandon immediately... for HTML coding reasons) I was asked if Virginia would have approved. I waved the question off with an “it doesn’t matter” when I was really thinking: “shit no!!” She hated indecency with a passion.

In fact, while watching The Rabble’s staging I recalled the verdict Woolf passed on James Joyce in the mid 1920s. “Mr Joyce’s indecency in Ulysses,” she wrote, “seems to me the conscious and calculated indecency of a desperate man who feels that in order to breathe he must break the windows. At moments, when the window is broken, he is magnificent. But what a waste of energy!” Also in that essay (‘Character in Fiction’, published in the summer of 1925) Woolf chides Tom Eliot for his ‘obscurity’.

I thought I knew that article -- and the May 1924 lecture on which it was based -- pretty well. But when I came to check the quotation, I found that Woolf went on: “And, after all, how dull indecency is, when it is not the overflowing of a superabundant energy or savagery, but the determined and public spirited act of a man who needs fresh air!”

There. Could you find a better description of what The Rabble do than “the overflowing of a superabundant energy or savagery”? I’d be hard pressed to come up with a better zinger than that.

Though it follows the plot line of Woolf’s novel fairly diligently, at least to begin with, and quotes it verbatim here and there, The Rabble’s version diverges pretty radically when Orlando wakes up a woman.

In the Woolf, Orlando wakes up from a very big night (an Ambassadorial party he threw) married to some woman of low birth or other... and missing key bits of his anatomy. And finding perky new bits. But he -- or rather she -- is entirely unphased. Almost unsurprised. Orlando may have lost his family jewels, but she takes up the ducal jewels, rustles up a few horses and flees an insurrection to hide out with the gypsies.

In The Rabble’s version -- and you might choose to skip the rest of this paragraph and all of the next for its violation of good taste and, um, cos it contains spoilers. Okay? Still with me? Anyway, Orlando frisks her new bride -- though she might be Sasha, the treacherous ‘ex’ -- finds an anatomically correct zucchini and rapes her (orally) with it. The lighting is so tenebrous, so well judged, that it looks like Orlando has drawn a short sword from the girl’s drawers.

Clearly The Rabble hasn’t just veered away from the narrative of Woolf’s Orlando, it has used it as a springboard and done a triple somersault with pike. In the novel, Orlando catches his beloved Sasha sitting on the knee of a Russian sailor. In the stage play, Sasha blows the sailors’ milk bottle. And doesn’t swallow. So, yeah, I’m fairly confident Woolf would withhold her tick of approval.

Another point of difference is that Orlando is her own man, as it were, in the novel. (Woolf, as Orlando’s ‘biographer’, always refers to her role with a masculine pronoun. You know: “the biographer must always use his discretion...” rah rah rah.) Orlando is in control of her fate, if not her sex. But the Orlando that Dana Miltins plays is not. She is a wide-eyed victim of events. Woolf’s protagonist is entirely comfortable with the sex change. The Rabble’s protagonist is freaked out, to the max.

But these points of difference are observations, not criticisms. What The Rabble does is absolutely bloody remarkable. It’s like watching an old Saturn V rocket dumping the section that has got it off the ground before blasting off, one more time, towards the stratosphere. And then doing it again.

What follows the transition is a David Lynch fantasia in white. Instead of the shrieking of trumpets, we have the looped and ear-splitting screaming of Mary Helen Sassman and some much less ear-splitting death metal.

In my printed review, I talk about the production breaking the theatrical equivalent of the sound barrier. What happens then is magnificent. It’s an aesthetic and theatrical -- perhaps even sexual -- plateau.

Rather brilliantly, Orlando is rescued from victimhood -- and Miltins rescued from objectification -- in a single scene. She’s clothed and given a gentle kiss on the cheek by Sassman and the wonderful Syd Brisbane. Miltins lights up a fag and uses the rose water bowl the young Orlando once offered to Queen Elizabeth I as an ashtray. Perfect. It’s a humanising moment.

An upright piano fires up, gently, and the show concludes with a lovely speech (one of Rhoda’s) from The Waves. It reminded me of something Patti Smith might do.

I learned from one of the cast members after the show that Smith had indeed ‘done’ The Waves. (I found a clip of it on YouTube. It’s not so much a performance of The Waves as an original sung-poem to ‘Virginia’ using some of Woolf’s own writing. Smith does to Woolf what she did to Van Morrison in ‘Gloria’, say, or to Sprinsteen in ‘Because the Night’.)

After a couple of days, I still don’t know what I think about this new Orlando. I won’t be forgetting it in a hurry, if ever. But I still can’t answer the question “is it any good” with much conviction. It’s gorgeous. (Really stunning to look at.) High impact. Spectacular. But it needs work. The opening scene (in which the young Orlando has his hair tousled by the Queen, who fancies him) is so jarringly off, it almost derails the production.

Happily the next scene, a brilliant cartoon-encapsulation of Orlando’s affair with the Russian Princess Marousha Stanilovska Dagmar Natasha Iliana Romanovitch -- Sasha for short -- is a miracle of economy. It’s dumbed down a lot -- like a petty and immature infatuation rather than an earth shattering love affair -- but it’s still scintillating.

The closest the adaptation gets to Woolf, temperamentally, is an invention of The Rabble’s. In it, Orlando, newly female, experiences the joys of saying yes after having said no. (In the novel, it’s over a tiny piece of fat cut from some corned beef by a ship’s captain, I think.) In the play it’s a close encounter of the romantic kind. “Go,” she tells a man. Then: “Stay. Go. Stay.”

I confess, I haven’t yet fathomed the point of the project... beyond the smashing of windows that is, and the breathing in of magnificent, hallowed air. If that’s not enough for you...

And, bloody hell, you’d have to be an idiot not to see a show -- any show -- with Dana Miltins in it. The Australian’s not a big fan of intensifiers. So when it is published that Miltins performs with assurance and grace you should read “utter assurance and exceptional grace.” Cos that’s what I was thinkin’.

Postscript. (Or should I call it peroration?)

Apart from a (positive) mention of James Joyce in a letter to Quentin Bell, Woolf didn’t again write about Joyce until she learned of his death, and learned that he was a fortnight younger than her. The following quotation is from her diary entry for January 15, 1941:

“I remember Miss Weaver, in wool gloves, bringing Ulysses in typescript to our tea table at Hogarth House. Roger [Fry] I think sent her. Would we devote our lives to printing it? The indecent pages looked so incongruous: she was spinsterly, buttoned up. And the pages reeled with indecency. I put it in the drawer of the inlaid cabinet. One day Katherine Mansfield came, & I had it out. She began to read, ridiculing: then suddenly said, But there’s something in this: a scene that should figure I suppose in the history of literature. He was about the place, but I never saw him. Then I remember Tom [Eliot] in Ottoline’s room at Garsington saying -- it was published then -- how could anyone write again after achieving the immense prodigy of the last chapter? He was for the first time in my knowledge, rapt, enthusiastic. I bought the blue paper book, & read it here one summer I think with spasms of wonder, of discovery, & then again with long lapses of immense boredom.” [my emphasis]

From Woolf’s 125 essay Character in Fiction:

Thus, if you read Mr. Joyce and Mr. Eliot you will be struck by the indecency of the one, and the obscurity of the other. Mr Joyce’s indecency in Ulysses seems to me the conscious and calculated indecency of a desperate man who feels that in order to breathe he must break the windows. At moments, when the window is broken, he is magnificent. But what a waste of energy! And, after all, how dull indecency is, when it is not the overflowing of a superabundant energy or savagery, but the determined and public spirited act of a man who needs fresh air! Again, with the obscurity of Mr. Eliot. I think that Mr. Eliot has written some of the loveliest lines in modern poetry. But how intolerant he is of the old usages and politenesses of society - respect for the weak, consideration for the dull! I sun myself upon the intense and ravishing beauty of one of his lines, and reflect that I must make a dizzy and dangerous leap to the next, and so on from line to line, like an acrobat flying precariously from bar to bar, I cry out, I confess, for the old decorums, and envy the indolence of my ancestors who, instead of spinning madly through mid-air, dreamt quietly in the shade with a book.

Rhoda’s speech, from The Waves:

“If I look back over that bald head, I can see silence already closing and the shadows of clouds chasing each other over the empty moor; silence closes over our transient passage. This I say is the present moment; this is the first day of the summer holidays. This is part of the emerging monster to whom we are attached.”

Orlando by THE RABBLE after Virginia Woolf. Co-created by Kate Davis and Emma Valente. Directed by Emma Valente. Set and costume design by Kate Davis. Lighting, sound design and composition by Kate Davis. Presented by THE RABBLE and Malthouse Theatre in association with Melbourne Festival. Tower Theatre, October 13. Season ends October 27.

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Saturday, October 13, 2012

‘Swanlights’ concert, review and set list (Antony and the Johnsons with the Melbourne Symphony and Boy George)

Guess who -- or rather what -- isn’t credited in the Swanlights program? A sound engineer. Funny that. I only looked to see who to ‘credit’.

In the first handful of songs, Antony’s voice and the orchestra were eviscerated. Correction. Only the viscera was left behind. There was little top end and no bottom end at all. Just mushy, strident, overamplified mid-range. It sounded less impressive -- less spacious, less dynamic, less defined -- than this year’s live CD, Cut the World, made by Antony and the Danish National Chamber Orchestra.

Singing behind an opaque scrim, Antony was in excellent voice, fresh and strong. As comfortable and confident as we’ve seen and heard him, live. He didn’t take as many risks, vocally, as usual, until the final song in the main set (Her Eyes Are Underneath The Ground), but he was so gloriously ‘on’ from the first words (“Eyes are falling...”) that it didn’t actually matter. It’s as if the new arrangements allowed him to encounter the songs anew.

Whoever was on the mixing desk pulled things together towards the end of the second song, Cripple and the Starfish -- there was a bit of a sound image perceptible at last -- but the sound was nothing to write letters to Australia about. The orchestral midrange was still claggy (“shit claggy” according to my scrawled notes).

After the dullness of the opening laser-green projections, Another World lived up to its lyrics. Exceeded them. The lasers, shone from the circle level, made the air glitter. They made webby galaxies, not merely worlds. Then, while Antony playfully sang Beyonce’s Crazy in Love, a wide shaft of laser light swept a slow and menacing line back and forward in front of him. The strings generated a sonic aurora to match.

Time after time, the lyrics were pre-empted by the lighting effects. Antony sang “I cry glitter” and “cut me in quadrants” (from ‘Epilepsy is Dancing’) then “It’s a golden thing” (‘Swanlights’) as if he’d pulled the ideas from the aether... or the clarinets. In Ghost, he sang upwards, to the prompt side, bathed in lemony light.

I was a bit surprised to read in the program notes, just now, that Swanlights is “set in the dark heart of a crystal mountain.” I took the (hollow) crystal shards above the stage as box kites, which makes sense when you notice the backdrop between Antony and the mostly hidden orchestra is parachute fabric. This concert was all about air, sky, light and the vaulted heavens, not about being holed up in a dank and icy crystal palace. Even in the wondrous, enigmatic ‘Crying Light’, the orchestra turned tears into bird song and feathery down.

Antony -- through his extraordinary, evocative, changeling, transgender songs -- looks like he might be the Rosetta Stone, our means to decode Brett Sheehy’s fourth and final Melbourne Festival. How strange to have Antony singing “today I am a boy” while The Rabble’s take on Orlando opens a few blocks down St Kilda Road at the Malthouse.

I’ve already quoted ‘Hope There’s Someone’ in my review of Michel van der Aa’s After Life... I could well have quoted ‘You Are My Sister’ in the same review: “So many memories, but there’s nothing to gain from remembering.”

The heart-stopping moment of the concert -- which silenced the audiences for what felt like an age... half a minute, more, close to a whole minute -- came in ‘I Fell In Love With a Dead Boy’ when this secular preacher in his robes, this holy man with no agenda, with no aching need for disciples, raised his arms and raised the backdrop of the airy temple.

It was as remarkable a moment as the one in his very first visit to Melbourne when he divided his Hamer Hall audience into groups and asked us to hum, something he didn’t attempt in his earlier Sydney concerts. It was church, man. Church.

Er, church in a good way!

That particular moment was trumped by the second song in the encore when Antony, without ceremony, introduced Boy George. His contribution to ‘You Are My Sister’ was luscious. Unforgettable.

When the house lights came up and the orchestra broke up, the audience was still standing, cheering, clapping. Not hungry for more, but hungry to show its appreciation some more. A rare experience at any concert.

For all my fellow trainspotters, here’s a list of the songs Antony sang with the Melbourne Symphony last night. The second (and final) concert is tonight.

Main set:

01. Rapture (from Antony and the Johnsons, 2000)
02. Cripple and the Starfish (Antony and the Johnsons)
03. For Today I Am a Boy (I am a bird now, 2005)
04. Another World (Another World EP, 2008)
05. Crazy In Love (Aeon/Crazy In Love double A-side single, 2009)
06. Epilepsy Is Dancing (The Crying Light, 2009)
07. Swanlights (Swanlights, 2010)
08. Ghost (Swanlights)
09. I Fell In Love With a Dead Boy (I Fell In Love With a Dead Boy EP, 2001)
10. Dust and Water (The Crying Light)
11. Cut the World (Cut the World, 2012)
12. The Crying Light (The Crying Light)
13. Her Eyes Are Underneath The Ground (The Crying Light)


14. Salt Silver Oxygen (Swanlights)
15. You Are My Sister with Boy George (I am a bird now)

Swanlights. Antony and the Johnsons with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Anthony Weeden, conductor. Gael Rakotondrabe, piano. Lighting by Chris Levine. Set by Carl Robertshaw. Hamer Hall, Melbourne, October 12. Also tonight.

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Friday, October 12, 2012

Michel van der Aa’s After Life: Hell is (for) other people

It’s time to name (sorta) and shame.

Regent Theatre, Thursday October 11.

Stalls Row C, Seat 31. This bloke used his iPhone for upwards of fifty minutes during the premiere performance of After Life. The opera runs for ninety minutes. He was bangin’ away for well over half that time.

Stalls Row D, Seat 29. Man with an ancient Nokia. (I won one in a raffle in 2005 or early 2006, so we’re talkin’ 2G here. Tops.) Set to silent at least. No annoying vibrations. But... there were at least six sent and/or received messages during the show. And he took or initiated at least one call during the performance. (I think he was clearing a voice mail message.)

The barbarians aren’t at the gate, dear reader. They’re pissing on it.

I’m all for draconian (and possibly unenforceable) laws that impose strict penalties on those who leave their communication devices on, let alone use them, in theatres and cinemas. But surely there are alternatives. It can’t be all that hard -- or prohibitively expensive -- for venues to install short range 3G/4G/5G signal jammers can it?

Either that or it’s stop-and-search powers on entry to a theatre or cinema. Just like press previews of Hollywood blockbusters.

At Hamer Hall recently, I saw a woman hold up a massive tablet device to record some video of the performer.

I know, it’s such a 21st century cliché, but we’re not there unless there’s proof. But the live event -- the live act -- is, by definition, unmediated. Live it, people. Participate in it. Dare to just let it live in your memory. Until it fades... Which brings me to After Life.

The short version: After Life is like an operatic version of David Eagleman’s slim-but-fabulous book Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives. It’s nowhere near as precise as any of Eagleman’s tiny visions of heaven, hell and purgatory -- Michel van der Aa’s vision of what Antony calls “the middle place between life and nowhere” is woolly to say the least -- but the concept will have you mulling over the critical and most memorable times of your life.

In van der Aa’s vision, there is a week-long period between the moment of death and the actual ‘afterlife’... which is why van der Aa’s After Life is two words not one. In that week, one must choose a single memory -- forsaking all others -- to take with you for eternity.

So far so good. The shimmering, unresolved, pantonal music -- reminiscent of Britten, Webern and the late string quartets of Beethoven -- is perfect for purgatory. (And, no, I am not being snide!) Perfect for a recapitulation of an entire life. Entire lives.

And the score is magnificently played. The low brass is exceptionally well rendered. The singing in English is clear and one rarely searches for surtitles. (Lucky, cos this production doesn’t come with any.)

But the basic conceptual problem in van der Aa’s opera is that the take-out memories are 16mm filmed reconstructions. The team of assistants -- the angelic bureaucrats who crack the proverbial whips and impose the deadlines -- also re-stage and film your chosen memory. So -- God, how horrible -- instead of the actual, eidetic, intense memory, you get to keep a stagey film version of it. (I’d want Ken Russell or David Lynch to direct mine, thank-you very much!)

Call me old fashioned, but memory -- to me -- never involves picturing myself. I’m viewer, not viewed. I’m seer, not seen. So, to take away images of your (old) self, mooning over travesties of an earlier time seems like a pretty good vision of hell to me!

I enjoyed the staging, very much, particularly the use of video and filmed interviews. I enjoyed it musically, too. The wonderfully coiled vocal lines sometimes catch the turbulence, the swell and crash of the music, like a dumped surfer tumbled in a wave.

I’d cut the piece a little. A lame attempt at imposing some kind of drama, a catastrophe, is a dismal and distracting failure. But that is a forgivably short scene. I have to say that my positive response to the work was not shared my many -- perhaps not any -- of the people I spoke to after the show. I reckon the Barbarians weren’t having an especially memorable time either. Life... it’s happening elsewhere. Damn them all to some kind of Sartrean telco hell! Other people. Bah! 

After Life by Michel van der Aa. Libretto by Michel van der Aa, after Hirokazu Kore-eda. Technical Production Development Frank van der Weij. Costume Design by Robby Duiveman. Conductor Wouter Padberg. Melbourne Festival, Regent Theatre, October 11. Season ends Saturday.

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Thursday, October 11, 2012

Inkblots anyone? The Forsythe Company’s I Don’t Believe In Outer Space.

Name a work of art that’s changed the world. A poem or a painting. Guernica? Blue Poles? Philip Larkin’s ‘This Be The Verse’? They’re not like manifestos hammered on the door of the church are they? Not at the coalface of our intellectual culture are they?

How about a choreographer or a work of dance. Harder that one. It’s more likely to be by Mats Ek than Matthew Bourne you reckon. Or not. Who’s to say that Bourne’s Swan Lake isn’t more life altering than Ek’s travesty of Giselle? That Bourne’s beefy swans weren’t every bit as profound -- as alien and mystical and shockingly new -- as the very first swans in tutus?

If, like me, you’re starting to rebel at the idiocy of these questions -- questions I’m only posing because of William Forsythe’s I Don’t Believe In Outer Space, which had its Australian premiere last night -- you’ve probably got a short list happening already.

Off the top of my head, I’d fire off the following names: Raimund Hoghe, that gorgeous freak of a man. Bill T Jones circa Still/Here. Meg Stuart and the scintillating works she and Damaged Goods produced in the mid 1990s. Anything by Lloyd Newson. Perhaps all good art makes micro-changes in the world. God. Of course it does.

But even totally abstract works -- works without an obvious agenda -- are impactful. Valuable. In its premiere season -- in its premiere week! -- I saw Wayne McGregor’s Dyad 1929 four or five times. I reckon I could sit through it every day for a year without tiring of it.

But spare a thought for poor Billy Forsythe. He wants to be Sontag. Wants to be Hitchens. Wants to be Dworkin. He wants to be a player. If he can’t rule the world, he wants to be a thorn in the side of those who do. Pity him. He is a genius agitator stuck inside the body of a choreographer. But it’s even worse than that.

I’m sure, on this blog, I’ve mentioned philosopher and academic Arran Gare who argues most persuasively that postmodernism is responsible for the increase in the suicide rate. After long meditation on this I believe he is only partly correct. Postmodernism only kills academics and artists. To the rest of us, PoMo is the bar Moe Szyslak opens in The Simpsons, where Moe helpfully defines postmodernism as “weird for the sake of weird.”

To Billy Forsythe, it would appear, postmodernism guts art. It makes ‘meaningful’ art a futile and barren pursuit. It makes the gesture -- or any other attempt to create or communicate -- futile. In PoMo Land, beauty’s pretty suspect too.

Imagine that... having 17 of the world’s most accomplished and most insanely talented dancers and having nothing to bang on about except the pointlessness of banging on! Well, that’s what I Don’t Believe In Outer Space is like. It’s a treatise on entropy. It’s atomised and atomised again. Instead of having an arc, a trajectory, or even 17 individual trajectories, it has 17 times 17. Life is happening off-stage, somewhere beyond the O.P. flats.

It’s not even a Girl Talk mash-up. It’s a scrappy mess. Not so much a kaleidoscope as the smashed up bits of coloured glass from the kaleidoscope... without the tube.  Or mirrors.  Or lens.

I’m tempted to say that Forsythe uses songs like blue poles, as a half-arsed attempt to tie up the twigs into a bundle, but that would be to insult Jack-the-Dripper. One can find patterns: is that Jack Nicholson-style voice meant to be Screaming Jay Hawkins? (‘I Put a Spell On You’ is one of the polar songs.) Or is Jack Nicholson really Clint Eastwood, Walt from Gran Torino, as the good neighbour? But, hey, one can find patterns in anything if you stare at them long enough and hard enough and gullibly enough.

“Welcome to what you think you see” -- indeed.

I Don’t Believe In Outer Space will test your powers of observation, concentration and discrimination to the very limit... and won’t reward them in the least bit.

For a recent example of Forsythe nailing it, check out my review of the silent-but-deadly Three Atmospheric Studies.

I Don’t Believe In Outer Space. A work by William Forsythe with music composed and performed by Thom Willems. Staging William Forsythe. Sound design by Niels Lanz. Graphics by Dietrich Krüger. Costumes by Dorothee Merg. Lighting by Tanja Rühl and Ulf Naumann. Dramaturgical assistance by Dr. Freya Vass-Rhee. 

The Forsythe Company. Melbourne Festival. At the Playhouse, the Arts Centre, October 10. Season ends October 16. Then Kampnagel, Hamburg (November/December 2012) and Haus der Berliner Festspiele, Berlin (July 2013).

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