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brisbane festival 2010


questions of culture

douglas leonard: brisbane international arts festival


Sutra, Brisbane Festival 2010 Sutra, Brisbane Festival 2010
photo Andree Lanthier
THE BOXES WHICH FIGURED AS MAJOR MOTIFS IN TWO OF THE DANCE WORKS IN THE 2010 BRISBANE FESTIVAL ALSO SIGNIFIED THE PACKAGING IN WHICH A PROPORTION OF THE FESTIVAL CAME WRAPPED—AN INVITATION TO EXAMINE THE DIFFERENT INFLECTIONS GIVEN TO WORKS DEEMED TO BE THE PRODUCT OF INTERCULTURAL COLLABORATION, AND HOW THEY ARE POSITIONED IN THE GLOBAL ART HYPERMART. ANDREW ROSS, ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF THE BRISBANE POWERHOUSE, VOICED TO ME HIS MISGIVINGS ABOUT THE AESTHETIC AND IDEOLOGICAL TRENDS PROMULGATED BY INTERNATIONAL FESTIVALS, PARTICULARLY AT THE EXPENSE OF INTRA-CULTURAL WORKS THAT SEEK TO REASSESS THE SOURCES OF A PARTICULAR NATIONAL OR REGIONAL STYLE OF PERFORMANCE IN ORDER TO SITUATE IT BETTER IN RELATION TO OUTSIDE INFLUENCES.

These issues were tangentially raised during one of the Festival Conversations between the London and Sydney-based Spanish choreographer and director of the Sydney Dance Company, Rafael Bonachela, and the Algerian-born director, choreographer and performer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui who lives in Belgium. The two share a common cosmopolitanism, but diverged markedly in their approaches to intercultural collaboration, particularly regarding their sensitivities to the inner contradictions of two nominally Communist, but culturally different, societies. Bonachela rather naively came across as a liberator, describing Cuba as a prison but failing to mention the US-led embargo which has kept Cuba isolated from the rest of the world and ruined its economy. Unfortunately I missed out on Danza Contemporanea de Cuba and its “gifted, gorgeous Cubans...[who were] a very welcome ray of sunshine” (Daily Telegraph), hardly Bonachela’s grey prisoners. Whether intended or not, Bonachela seemed to be endorsing a neo-colonialist, post-cultural stance that deceptively positions itself, as Patrice Pavis has written, “outside the social, outside class conflicts and economic interests, outside political and historic relationships.”

sidi larbi cherkaoui, sutra

Cherkaoui was more circumspect, more willing to credit aspects of Chinese society which reflect badly on us in the West, and more subtle in delineating criticisms. The set design for his festival work, Sutra, comprising 21 rectangular-shaped boxes by Turner-prize winning artist Antony Gormley, was inspired by the living conditions of factory girls Gormley saw in China. A directorial coup had the Shaolin monks with whom Cherkaoui collaborated perform a martial arts routine dressed as modern office workers, then lying down in boxes which had been stacked like skyscrapers in a complex image which functioned both as an allusion to the factory workers and as a wry comment on what has been both lost and gained in China’s rush to urbanisation.

Cherkaoui has received criticism for indiscriminately engaging with the cultural Other (Flamenco, Kathakali), but Sutra was an exquisitely parsed model of cultural exchange, depicting the intimate inner journey of a uniquely placed European sensibility attempting to come to terms with the message of Buddhism. A Zen Buddhist parable about the appearance of phenomena describes a still lake from which a fish suddenly leaps and as quickly disappears back into the depths. This was recapitulated by the actions of the monks who were choreographed to mysteriously appear and disappear and, with their invisible manipulation of Gormley’s boxes on the bare stage to create vast vistas, cave temples, the monumental walls and walkways of ancient China, culminating in the towering motif of a lotus flower with a child, also a monk, at its heart.

The child performer who mimicked Cherkaoui and enthusiastically performed cartwheels across the stage during a quietly triumphant finale portrayed the artist’s own inner child let loose, in contrast to the rather clownish adult seeker of enlightenment which Cherkaoui so elegantly and unobtrusively manifested when as a dance performer he got amongst the action. Western self-reflexivity and dual mind were also represented by Cherkaoui periodically returning downstage to disconnectedly operate the changes by rearranging a small replica of the stage set. (See also Martin del Amo’s review p27)

Di Dalam/Di Luar (In/Out), Hartati, Brisbane Festival 2010 Di Dalam/Di Luar (In/Out), Hartati, Brisbane Festival 2010
photo Eva Tobing
tarian baru dari indonesia

Tarian Baru Dari Indonesia (New Dance from Indonesia) spoke first to its own culture, not to any universal construct. Nevertheless, while reworking tradition, these works also employed contemporary languages of the body. If other cultures can appear exotic, assuaging our deep ennui with our own culture, Hartati’s Di Dalam/Di Luar (In/Out) turns the tables on what Rustom Barucha calls “the euphoria of pluralism” whereby we are free to choose amongst cultures. Three women are trapped in glass boxes. They struggle to free themselves, only to become entrapped, individually, in a succession of other boxes, each containing a promising but ultimately limited experience of exploration and choice. When the women themselves become the means whereby the boxes are lifted from the stage it is the beginning of a celebratory dance passage where contemporary and traditional culture are harmonised before the final stage picture. A woman crouches down, meditating on a pair of red shoes placed before her on the floor; precariously balancing on one high heel, a second woman seems to interrogate the matching red shoe dangling from her hand; the last woman, immaculately turned out in her red shoes, gazes out at the audience for a long moment before breaking eye contact and confidently exiting the stage box.

If Hartati knowingly dissects the seductions of contemporary global culture for Indonesian women, Ery Mefri contemplated the figure of Eve’s centrality to the creation myth of all three monotheistic religions originating in the Middle East and imported to Sumatra as an Islamic cultural influence in the 14th century. Layered over the indigenous, matrilineal Minangkabau culture where property passes from mother to daughter, it seems both modernity and the resurgence of militant Islam constitute a two-pronged attack on the deep roots of Minangkabau society. Mefri’s Sanghawa (Eve) enacts the story of a son asking his mother’s permission to embark on a rantau, an Odyssey traditionally undertaken by young men from Sumatra for economic reasons. Reversing the myth, Mefri has Eve lamenting the forces tempting the young man away. This work was spare, tender, fraught and oddly sensual.

The mother’s centrality to the integrity of Sumatran family life was further explored in Rantau Berbisik (Whisperings of Exile) as a family running a food outlet in the capital descends into petty feuding in her absence. The folkloric Plate Dance and exciting, rhythmic percussion on glass and china vividly recreated the atmosphere of a working kitchen. The superb control of the dancers was hypnotic to watch, and Mefri’s intense vision induced powerful emotions of lost connectedness.

conor lovett, beckett’s first love

Beckett once wrote loftily that “[vaudeville] at least inaugurates the comedy of an exhaustive enumeration.” The phrase “comedy of an exhaustive enumeration” flies like a dove out of Beckett’s own mouth to describe First Love, a 75-minute rendition of an early novella, delivered brilliantly by Conor Lovett who was alert, and alerted us, to Beckett’s every word and nuanced silences. I can’t resist quoting: “But what kind of love was this, exactly? Love-passion? Somehow I think not. That’s the priapic one, is it not?...Perhaps I loved her with a platonic love? But somehow I think not. Would I have been tracing her name in old cow shit if my love had been pure and disinterested?” You can hear the voice of a stand-up comic, can’t you? The misogyny and the misanthropy? And the Irish accent? Always the Irish accent explicating Beckett—correcting early impressions when you had read him without the lilt; thrusting you into the mud of existence. This was the treat of the festival, and all the better for sharing the pleasure with an appreciative audience.

Jesse Scott, Emma Serjeant, Wunderkammer, Circa, Brisbane Festival 2010
Jesse Scott, Emma Serjeant, Wunderkammer, Circa, Brisbane Festival 2010

photo Justin Nicholas, Atmosphere Photography
circa, wunderkammer

I thought I was over circus spectacles, but Wunderkammer, Circa’s world premiere at the new Powerhouse outdoor venue, has converted me. Simply, this was the best circus I’ve ever seen. Consistently inventive, moving along at a turbo-charged rate, provocatively sexy and displaying a full complement of skills across the ensemble, it left you gobsmacked. While it had touches of artistic director Yaron Lifschitz’s trademark S&M aesthetic with dark asides and nods to neo-burlesque, this was his homage to the body in its extreme flights, taking you to another realm. The industrial wall of the Powerhouse as backdrop suited this aim, as did the intimacy of the Spiegeltent for Strut and Fret’s circus cabaret which offered more theatrically devised satisfactions, recreating a louche, 1920s Parisian bar. The skills were just as evident (I haven’t seen a contortionist to equal Henna Kaikula, and what Mozes did with a neckerchief was hilariously risque), and it was a more corporeal experience. The radiant Charleston routine performed by the ensemble tied all the elements together.


Brisbane Festival 2010: Sutra, director, choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, design Antony Gormley, music Szyom Brzoska, performers Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, the Shaolin Monks, Playhouse-QPAC, Sep 8-11; Tarian Baru Dari Indonesia (New Dance from Indonesia): Di Dalam/Di Luar (In/Out), choreographer Hartati, Powerhouse Theatre, Sep 7-9; Nan Jombang Dance Company, Sanghawa (Eve) and Rantau Berbisik (Whispering of Exile), choreographer Ery Mefri, Powerhouse Theatre, Sep 10-12; Gare St Lazare Players, First Love, director Judy Hegarty Lovett, performer Conor Lovett, Visy Theatre, Brisbane Powerhouse, Sep 21-25; Circa: Wunderkammer, artistic director Yaron Lifschitz, Plaza, Brisbane Powerhouse, Sep 14-18; Strut and Fret Production House, Cantina, performers Mozes, Chelsea McGuffin, David Carberry, Daniel Catlow, Henna Kaikula, Spiegeltent, King George Square, Brisbane, Sep 5-25

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 2

© Douglas Leonard; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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