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Nature, sound, memory & mortality

Mike Bodnar: Alice Springs Desert Festival


The Package The Package
photo Steven Pearce
FOR OVER A DECADE NOW THE ALICE SPRINGS DESERT FESTIVAL HAS GATHERED ARTISTS AND PERFORMERS FROM AUSTRALIA AND ABROAD FOR A FIVE-DAY SHOWCASE IN THE RED CENTRE. IT’S A SMALL AND INTIMATE AFFAIR WITH A LOT OF INTERACTION BETWEEN PERFORMERS AND THEIR AUDIENCES. IT IS ALSO A CHANCE FOR NEW AND LOCAL ARTISTS TO PRESENT WORK ALONGSIDE MORE ESTABLISHED ACTS.

As with a lot of art from this part of the world the desert landscape played a role in some of this year’s offerings and one performance in particular explored the human interaction with the dry river that runs through town.

Out Hear in Alice Springs

For thousands of years the Todd River and its underground aquifers have given life to the various people and animals that inhabit Central Australia. For most of the year, however, the Todd is a dry sandy riverbed, devoid of surface water. It is a silent but often neglected reminder of how life in this part of the world is inextricably linked to this precious resource. In a series of performances called Out Hear in Alice, artist-musician Dale Gorfinkel and performer Fina Po used the dry river as both a stage and a medium to create an audio and visual experience that evoked the gurgling and bubbling soundscape of water and of the indifferent human interactions with the river.

Audiences walk along the river on a wordless tour of a series of sound and performance stations. At some of these stations Gorfinkel has assembled a scrappy looking collection of rubber hoses, bits of wire and empty bottles to create a water-themed soundscape. We listen to the bubbling sounds of ping-pong balls bouncing up and down inside discarded plastic bottles with tiny electric motors attached to them. The gentle bubbling and humming mesh beautifully with the melodic pulsing of the birds in the trees above. At another station we find Po walking frantically in a tight circle as she mesmerically recites a series of simple phone conversations. While this mindless melodrama unfolds Gorfinkel uses a simple foot pump to push sound through a kind of pipe organ he has buried in the sand. The rubber hoses capped with tin horns and empty wine bottles at first emit a grating, choking sound but as Gorfinkel adjusts the valves he transforms the cacophony into a deep and resonant pulse that drowns out the actor with the phone.

Walking between stations Gorfinkel keeps up a steady gurgling hum by blowing sound out through a brass horn that he has attached to an extended rubber nozzle. Approaching the penultimate station we watch Po’s character talk herself to death in a shallow grave and Gorfinkel literally burying her with sound by using the end of his horn to cover her body in sand. The Saturday performance of Out Hear ended with a wonderfully unplanned exchange as Gorfinkel’s soft sounds were drowned out by an aggressive white cockatoo who screeched from a tree in his part of the river.

The Package

Part of the Desert Festival’s mission is to showcase local talent. This year audiences were treated to a touching tribute to life and memory with the premiere of The Package. This hybrid of mask work and puppetry is the creation of Alice Springs artist Katlend Griffin, the 2014 recipient of the Arts Incubator Award, a grant designed especially to foster the work of local artists for presentation at the festival.

Through music, dance and puppetry The Package illuminates the final moments and the lifetime of memories of a dying woman. The action starts with the sorrowful sounds of an accordion as a frail elderly woman lifts herself onto a hospital bed at the centre of the stage. After a seemingly grim diagnosis from her doctor a puppet bird arrives and urges the dying woman to open up one of the cardboard boxes that have started to pile up around her bed.

From the first box the woman removes a doll and her demeanour begins to brighten. A red-haired girl puppet appears, plays with the doll and grows older in a series of memory-vignettes staged by two performers alternating roles as actor and puppeteer. At one point the girl emerges from the box with a young man beside her. They are naked and both display ridiculously large genitalia. In the old woman’s mind features like these seem to bear enormous significance; later when the puppet of the pregnant young woman gives birth to a ridiculously large baby we witness a similar effect in the memory’s ability to distort. In the end, the elderly lady lifts an old and nearly lifeless puppet from the boxes—she is holding herself and is ready to say goodbye.

Griffin’s The Package is a both sorrowful and playful musing on life’s transitions and the retention and manipulation of memory. Its positive reception affirms the value of fostering such homegrown productions and sets a standard for similar projects in years to come.


Alice Springs Desert Festival: The Package, creator Katlend Griffin, Red Hot Arts Incubator Program, Totem Theatre, 11 Sept; Out Hear in Alice Springs, artist, musician Dale Gorfinkel, performer Fina Po, Alice Springs, 13, 14 Sept

RealTime issue #124 Dec-Jan 2014 pg. 28

© Mike Bodnar; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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