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NEXT WAVE


Next Wave Festival 2016: the thrill of emergence

Jane Howard, opening weekend performances


Ecosexual Bathhouse Ecosexual Bathhouse
photo Sarah Walker, courtesy Next Wave

Coming around once every two years, Melbourne’s Next Wave Festival positions itself at the forefront of where the arts in Australia are going, programming works by the the artists who will take us there. Extending across the city, in theatres, galleries and streets, artistic director Georgie Meagher’s first festival can be read as an inquiry into diversity, continuing the festival’s focus of challenging emerging artists to create their most ambitious work to date.

Ecosexual Bathhouse

“Now remember,” our concierge says to us as we are about to enter the Ecosexual Bathhouse, “no glove, no … ?” “Love?” someone tentatively offers. “No glove, no love.”

Onto our “touching finger” we roll down a single white glove finger. With it, we’re invited to stimulate the stamens of the delicate white orchids, flushing ever so slightly with pink. We are instructed to move to another flower: some concentrate on the one plant; others are more adventurous, moving from plant to plant, cross-pollinating as they begin their no-judgment ecosexual journey.

Most embarking on this Next Wave adventure will be the eco-curious, rather than those fully embedded in the eco-lifestyle. But Pony Express (Perth playwright and performance maker Ian Sinclair and Loren Kronemyer, an interdisciplinary artist from Los Angeles) has created a welcoming environment for all types, postulating that we are all at least a little experienced in the practice: flowers have been smelt deeply; shoes have been discarded to walk barefoot in the grass; bodies have been plunged into lakes and oceans.

Consent and comfort run through the heart of the work. Ecosexual Bathhouse is simply a safe-space—complete with a safe word—to explore this lifestyle further. Company members move though the bathhouse: some inviting you on side journeys, some simply appearing, like you, to be exploring ecosexual pleasures. This normalises the world created and is an easy headspace to slip into.

The real achievement of this installation piece, set in a building on the outskirts of Melbourne’s Royal Botanical Gardens, is how utterly ordinary and joyous this whole subversion seems. As you flip through some of the eco-erotic literature, as you are doused in the scent of dirt or grass, as you lie down in a bed and lightly caress leaves, it all, somehow, makes sense.

On opening night, slight tech issues mean not everyone is able to experience all of the components of the work. Still, when I leave, I have flowers in my hair, dirt under my fingernails and the whiff of bushfire on my wrists. As I step out under the night sky I feel just a little more connected to the park around me and a little more reluctant to re-enter the city beyond.

Janie Gibson, The Voices of Joan of Arc Janie Gibson, The Voices of Joan of Arc
photo Sarah Walker, courtesy Next Wave

The Voices of Joan of Arc

In bringing old stories to our stages—be they adaptations of classic plays or retellings of global history—their connection to the time we occupy now is the key to letting these stories resonate. They can exist on our stages today because humanity shares the same echoes through time. If we don’t learn from our past, we are doomed to repeat it.

In The Voices of Joan of Arc, lead artist, Janie Gibson (an Australian actor and author who has been working with companies in Poland and the USA) brushes over the connections between Joan’s life and ours with the lightest of hands. She touches on questions of the place of outspoken women in society; on the notion of occupied lands; on the relationship between religion and country; on how we talk about terrorism—and who is prescribed the label of terrorist. But they are only ever the lightest of touches: notations that swim around the edges, rather than a philosophy that skewers the core.

A two-hander theatre piece, this telling of Joan pits her against a member of the clergy (Daniel Han) after she was captured by the English. She is adamant she acts on the word of God; he believes she is lying. As for the audience, we are left unclear as to where we are supposed to stand. On the side of Joan, certainly; but Gibson never reveals enough to let us know if this Joan is hearing God, or if she is a teenage girl suffering delusions in a world that cannot help nor understand her.

On stage, The Voices of Joan of Arc lacks urgency and a sense of intellectual rigor. In a world where women are increasingly able to claim space and raise their voices—and where women consistently face punishment for doing so—Gibson’s Joan doesn’t raise her voice enough. This production may tell us something about Joan of Arc. Unfortunately, it fails to tell us anything about ourselves.

Under My Skin, The Delta Project, Next Wave Under My Skin, The Delta Project, Next Wave
photo Pippa Samaya

Under My Skin

There may be four bodies, but we can’t really tell. Limbs and torsos move over and around each other, passing a body towards the front of the group before it is threaded back and another body takes its place. Over this writhing mass more bodies are projected: faces made of light swimming over stomachs made of flesh; projected and physical limbs wind around and meld into each other. The faces of the physical dancers look flattened, misconstrued. Eventually, we realise they are covered in masking tape.

Under My Skin is at its most intriguing when it sits in spaces of discomfort: bodies in half-light encased in a latex sheet; the physical struggle of tape being prised off faces; a scream through sign language—uninterrupted and, physically, painfully clear. These components, however, don’t extend their reach throughout the full 60-minute work, creating a production of many interesting elements but no cohesive whole.

Jo Dunbar and Lina Limosani often play with the unique physical vocabulary of The Delta Project’s deaf/hearing Melbourne-based dance theatre ensemble: signed words extending out of limbs and integrated as dance are a natural fit for such a physically potent medium, while also drawing on a particular skill of these dancers.

Too often, though, the choreography has a tendency to expose the weaknesses of the dancers, rather than support their strengths. Leg extensions are elevated at radically different heights; feet are often not uniformly stretched. One dancer lacks the lower body strength the choreographers demand of him. Much of Under My Skin however evokes a beautiful disquiet.

As bass notes throb through our bodies, it is interesting to consider how few people will have access to all of the elements of this work: the precise text of the Auslan components as well as the deeply layered soundscape of Russell Goldsmith’s composition and sound design. This speaks loudly to the central theme of Under My Skin: a look at the means by which we experience the world. If only this work could rest in those moments more often.

Annaliese Constable, Mummy Dearest Annaliese Constable, Mummy Dearest
photo Sarah Walker courtesy Next Wave

Mummy Dearest

Annaliese Constable, a writer, performer and queer-rights activist from Sydney, was raised by her alcoholic mother. There is no pussyfooting around it, and in Mummy Dearest she lays it all out on the table. It’s a look back at the pain of being a child forced to find her own two feet too soon; the heartache of watching someone you love hurt themselves; and the humour with which you can look back on a life as you keep soldiering on.

Downstairs at Arts House has been transformed into a bizarre bar. Horse racing airs on the big screen; footy scarves drape over the backs of chairs; inflated goon sacks decorate the ceiling. On each table sits a teddy bear—in case things get a little bit too much.

Mummy Dearest is clearly a story Constable felt compelled to tell, and she often finds a connection to her audience through it. There’s personal heartbreak, certainly, but also moments of real pride and love. And yet in its premiere season, it feels like Constable hasn’t quite found the words—or perhaps the right genre—with which to truly share this piece of her life with a room full of strangers. The work shifts between theatre, stand-up and storytelling, but rather than becoming a rigorous collaboration between these elements, the genres are weakened. Jokes are lost to hesitation; narrative cohesion has yet to be found.

It’s a big ask for any artist to put their life on stage so rawly: especially when it’s not just their life, but their family’s too. The strands of a show that could be exciting—devastating and hilarious—occasionally shine through. Hopefully after a week in front of an audience Constable will find the way to to knit them together.

Rachel Perks, GROUND CONTROL Rachel Perks, GROUND CONTROL
photo Sarah Walker courtesy Next Wave

GROUND CONTROL

The interstellar traveller is alone on her spacecraft, on a solo mission to reach a new planet for the human species. Communication with Earth has been lost. All that is left to talk with is the disembodied voice of the operating system.

We all know this story.

And yet, we don’t. Not the way it is told here.

Created and performed by Rachel Perks, and directed by Bridget Balodis (both are Melbourne artists), GROUND CONTROL is a violent, feminist telling of the end of the world. Chris is tasked with finding Earth 2.0. She is alone except for her plant, Terry, and her operating system, Tina. That is, until she is not.

Are we watching a woman losing her mind or an uprising of sentient robots? Or, Perks and Balodis ask, are we watching a play? If we, the audience, exist, and this is just a play, is nothing real? Or is everything? These splinterings between constructed story and the construct of theatre are gently threaded throughout the work, constantly destabilising our understanding of the world of Chris and the world of us.

Chris is desperately alone: millions of miles away from Earth; communications system down; girlfriend…where? Possibly dead. The statistics aren’t worth considering. Yet, once she was unexpectedly chosen, Chris knew she had to take this job. Even if a woman getting the job was an “administrative error,” she was told. She believes. Perhaps.

It’s these very real fears many women hold today that wallop through the work like a heart on anxious overdrive: the fear of being alone in the wrong place at the wrong time; the fear of hurting someone and the fear of being the one who is hurt; the pressure to be the best, to prove things not only for yourself but for your gender; to survive in the face of being told you only got that job because of quotas—or because of administrative errors. The fear things won’t get better. And still, as in life, Perks and Balodis build in jokes and levity. We laugh through the pain.

The details of Perks and Balodis’ future and destroyed Earth remain hazy, only one thing is shatteringly true: the women will suffer at the hands of the men. And it will be terrifying.

GROUND CONTROL is a taut and devastating, yet often frankly funny and beautiful, look at the future of our world—and an exhilarating look at the future of our theatre.

Angkot Alien, Next Wave Angkot Alien, Next Wave
photo Zan Wimberley

Angkot Alien

Our hosts wear silver ponchos that billow out and take up as much space as they please. We wear eyes of confusion and maniacal smiles as we sit on gold benches installed in a white van, slightly decorated on the outside, but it’s the inside where it really comes to life. A string of green neon light above our heads, walls covered in sketches, words, a musical score. A map to where we’re going that no-body can read. Karaoke.

A collaboration between Melbourne artist Rafaella McDonald and Indonesian artist Natasha Gabriella Tontey, Angkot Alien is a small shot of live art joy. In a journey across a city (Jakarta) and between cultures (between McDonald and Tontey), the Indonesian Angkot van becomes an interstellar spacecraft: destination unknown. The audience is small and there is no escaping participation. For this economy of means to work, everyone is going to have to play their part.

It’s ramshackle and it’s confusing and you never quite know where you are, or how you got there, or where you’re going. At just 35 minutes it’s over all too soon. Angkot Alien is a glorious mess of ideas that finds truth in the sentiment it’s not about the destination; it’s about the journey.

microLandscapes
microLandscapes

photo Sarah Walker courtesy Next Wave

microLandscapes

The title of Emma Fishwick’s microLandscapes is all we need for the gentle nudge to contextualise her dancers’ bodies as representing fragments of the natural world. In the centre of the main hall at Northcote Town Hall, Ella-Rose Trew and Niharika Senapati are dressed purely in white: soft white wide-legged pants that refuse to stop flowing when they do.

Their movement captures a tree’s branches creaking, rocks tumbling down cliff-faces, the gentle brush of wind over a field of wheat, the incessant power of a snowstorm. Their bodies move in constant communication with each other and the space, but perfect unison begins to fracture and they splinter apart: the land, the environment, the weather are always spinning off onto new paths. Kynan Tan projects CGI landscapes on screens on the edge of the performance space—the world codified into the artificial; his filmed streetscapes glitching out until all we have are lines and colours—the world reduced to pixels.

It is physically demanding on the dancers. As it crescendos the intensity of the demand is passed onto the audience and, under flickering lights and reverberating sound, several audience members are compelled to leave the space.

microLandscapes is an audacious full-length debut for West Australian choreographer Fishwick, and an exciting response to Next Wave’s challenge to emerging artists to create their most ambitious work to date. She creates not only compelling and emotional images via her dancers’ bodies, but also expands her ambition to explore this in an installation work that surrounds and relies on her audience.

Occasionally, the dancers move beyond the boundaries of their white dance floor. This fracturing of the divide between performance space and audience space forces us to confront our own bodies and the way we have chosen to position ourselves within the landscape of the sculptural installation. Among small white rocky outcrops—mountains growing from the wooden floor—we stand or lean or sit on stools or, mostly, sit on the floor. The option is to move around the hall, but mostly we stay still, not wanting to disturb the energies of the performers and of the space.

Sedih // Sunno, Rani Pramesti, Sedih Sunnoh
Sedih // Sunno, Rani Pramesti, Sedih Sunnoh

photo Sarah Walker courtesy Next Wave

Sedih // Sunno

Among the performance work in Next Wave’s opening weekend, Sedih // Sunno stands out as a quieter state of affairs. It’s an intimate setting: shoes removed, we sit in a tight circle on wooden stools. Rani Pramesti welcomes us to the space, and asks us to take a look around at the batik—traditional Indonesian dye-patterned cloth—that drapes the walls. With this batik, Pramesti introduces us to Indonesia, to her family, and to her mother—the woman whose story we’ve come to hear.

A quietly devastating story of childhood sexual abuse, Sedih // Sunno (‘sedih,’ ‘sadness’ in Bahasa Indonesian, ‘sunno’ ‘to listen’ in Fijian Hindi) delicately explores its trauma and on-going repercussions, and the way sadness permeates a life.

Created collaboratively by artists who live in Australia—Rani Pramesti Indonesian/Chinese/Javanese), Ria Soemarjdo (Indonesian/Javanese/Australian), Shivanjani Lal (Fijian/Indian) and Kei Murakami (Japanese, raised in Germany)—the work carries a strong sense of responsibility, the artists taking great care with their audience. We are told before we enter we can leave and move into a safe-space at any time; the offer of tissues is gently extended to a crying audience member. There are moments of lightness as, childlike, we play with the artists, covertly wrapping ourselves in Fijian Hindi saris, playing illicitly with pearls from a mother’s jewellery box. It’s only after we leave these moments of joy we realise the weight of revisiting childlike wonder while in a story of childhood pain.

Ultimately, through sadness, Sedih // Sunno becomes a story of connection and care between mother and daughter, about passing on cultural histories and heritage down generations and through to audiences, and about the way we look back on our lives: dropped stitches, mistakes and all.

Adding up

The performance works presented over the opening weekend revealed artists who want to question who they are and the art they make, responding to the challenge to push themselves and their practice beyond their previous limits, and beyond traditional artform boundaries.

Most excitingly, when viewed as a totality, is the way Next Wave acts directly to tear down the hierarchy of voices that have traditionally been elevated in the arts in Australia. Female creatives dominated the performance program of the opening weekend, with works from disabled, queer, feminist and Asian Australian artists. As the festival continues, the festival’s focus on Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander artists, already evident in the visual arts program, will come to the fore of the performance curation.

The quality of work is mixed: some pieces arrived as startling and exciting achievements, while others haven’t yet found their feet in their first seasons. But, in the spirit of Next Wave, you feel these young artists will do nothing but keep pushing themselves—and their forms and practices—forward.


Next Wave Festival 2016: Pony Express, Ian Sinclair, Loren Kronemyer, Ecosexual Bathhouse, Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne, 6–14 May; Janie Gibson, The Voices of Joan of Arc, Northcote Town Hall, 3–14 May; The Delta Project, Under My Skin, Arts House, North Melbourne, 5–8 May; Annaliese Constable, Mummy Dearest, Arts House, North Melbourne, 5–21 May; Rachel Perks & Bridget Balodis, GROUND CONTROL, Northcote Town Hall, 4–14 May; Rafaella McDonald & Natasha Gabriella Tontey, Angkot Alien, secret CBD Location, Melbourne, 7–22 May; Emma Fishwick, microLandscapes, Northcote Town Hall, 4 – 8 May; Rani P Collaborations, Sedih // Sunno, Arts House, North Melbourne, 5–15 May

RealTime issue #132 April-May 2016 pg.

© Jane Howard; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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