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Unsafe theatre: La Mama, NYID, Little Asia

John Bailey

John Bailey is a Melbourne-based writer.

Daniel Yeung, Requiem Daniel Yeung, Requiem
As 2004 drew to a close, a producer of The Producers claimed that the show’s success was partly the result of an increasing conservatism in local audiences. Australians, apparently, “want a safe bet...they’re not particularly interested in experimenting and going to new things.” Anyone who attended anything besides The Producers last year (and there are a few) will know that 2004 wasn’t nearly as “safe” as this statement would imply. Audiences were challenged in a variety of ways, and a number of events in the latter half of the year specifically called into question the various relationships possible between audience and performer. Blowback, by not yet it’s difficult, asked viewers to make sense of a dystopian future defined by recognisable media images; the Little Asia touring dance festival Double Happiness brought to light the complex expectations contemporary audiences bring to movement-based performance; and La Mama’s Season of Explorations included works harking back to the “audience reflexive” days of 1970s experimental theatre.

A Season of Explorations

A Season of Explorations is La Mama’s annual mini-festival of works-in-progress, experimental off-cuts or embryonic fragments of future projects. The proceedings kicked off with an audacious happening by director Laurence Strangio, taking the text of Peter Handke’s Kaspar as its launch point. The original drama, the first full-length work from the enfant terrible of 1970s European anti-theatre, is a confounding riff on the power of language—how words speak their speaker. In Strangio’s production, the seating lay scattered across the space, chairs on their side, graffitied in chalk, missing legs, backs, safety. Po-faced actors wearing sunglasses stood vacantly amongst the audience. I thought I’d nabbed a secure vantage point, then turned to discover that the ‘wall’ behind me had risen to showcase a blank-faced Kaspar slowly peeling fruit. If there is no “I” outside of language, there is equally no safe place outside of Kaspar’s performance itself. To view it is to move within it.

The historical Kaspar Hauser appeared in Nürnberg in 1828 equipped with a single sentence (“I want to be a rider like my father.”) In Handke’s text his phrase is the more evocative “I want to be somebody like somebody was once” and for a time this is the only phrase spoken, incessantly. Initially, the effect is that of stumbling into a novice drama class, actors playing with a line for no purpose other than to explore its phonic potential. We are given no frame within which to interpret the utterance.

Amidst the linguistic chaos, Strangio himself darts to and fro scribbling notes for future performances, a surrogate scribe aping each audience member’s own process of interpretation and uneasy participation. Strangio has already proven himself a strong director with works such as Portrait of Dora, Alias Grace and a gripping recent adaptation of Marguerite Duras’ La Douleur. Here we see him in action, and indeed the overall impression provided by Kaspar is of watching the creative process in media res, as it flowers, unpolished and unpredictable.

If Kaspar conjures phantoms of 70s experimental theatre, Penny Machinations summons up more distant shades. La Mama’s theatre, courtyard and carpark are dressed like a faded carnival sideshow, curtained booths hiding different performances. Audiences buy tokens for each booth, choosing their own route for the evening. I sat in on a poker game featuring dialogue cribbed from popular songs, answered a telephone that offered a garbled rant from a tourist in India, and watched a couple fight over dinner (I chose “Dance” from the menu, and so this piece was movement-based). For each performance, the audience consisted of a single person; the confrontation with actors in an unknown setting created a wonderful thrill of fear. Penny Machinations, developed by Telia Nevile and Matt Kelly, turned out to be a fertile and highly entertaining experience. With many versions of each performance available, I found myself returning to Kelly’s Car Tape, performed by Bron Batten and Kate Summer. From the back seat of a car, I watched 2 performers play out a ritualistic gestural pattern of everyday driving, accompanied by the mix-tape I’d chosen. For my second visit, I chose the “Bloopers and Out-takes” reel, and was given a show of mistakes and mishaps ‘deleted’ from the original.

Blowback

Vivienne Walsh, Luciano Martucci, Blowback Vivienne Walsh, Luciano Martucci, Blowback
photo Lyn Pool
In an article in The New York Times, the late Susan Sontag noted that since the advent of the camera, wars have come to be known primarily by iconic images which reduce the complexities of conflict to simple, mediated moments. “Photo-graphs,” she wrote, “have an insuperable power to determine what we recall of events,” and it is this repository of images, the “Western memory museum” which underscores the political potency of the most recent production from the increasingly prolific not yet it’s difficult (NYID).

Like many NYID events, Blowback situates its audience in the middle of things: upon entering the performance space, we are ushered into a live television studio ringed with video cameras, monitors, actors making small talk and a mixing desk/production HQ issuing orders through amped mics and headsets. As cameras are positioned, we find our own faces flashing up on screens, or are repositioned in our seats by PAs according to gaffered marks lining the floor.

Eventually, the ‘show’ begins. We’re here for a live taping of the final episode of TV soap A World of Our Own. The first scene features lead cast members Scott and Charlene (Todd Macdonald and Roslyn Oades) trying to escape the confines of suburban domesticity to strike out and discover a life less ordinary. Then things change. Across the space a prisoner is led, naked but for a makeshift hood. He is beaten, humiliated. More stories emerge, each as jarring. A military officer educates her junior through a cruel exercise in power; a media-starved prisoner submits himself to a sympathetic interrogator; a cheerleader is brutally questioned by a monstrous, nearly silent figure. Slowly, cross-currents appear suggesting that what we are viewing is a future Australia dominated by imperial rule, a world in which identity has become fused with the culture of our oppressors. Our cheerleader thinks she is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and it’s impossible to tell where Scott and Charlene end, and the actors portraying them begin.

Lost in this funhouse, there are repeated attempts by the characters to “break through” into another, less mediated reality. A recurrent motif is that of the body slamming against a white door—several characters launch themselves frontally into these frames with a bone-jarring impact. The visceral, then, would appear to be offered as one form of escape from a disconnected reality, but this is soon problematised as an exercise in masochistic futility. The interrogation victim who is thrown against the white square by her captor and viciously raped is gradually revealed to be her tormentor’s accomplice, re-enacting her own victimisation as part of an education program for the colonised.

But if Blowback is damning of the image’s power, it is not unambiguously so. It comes as a surprise to find the various strands of the narrative converging on a single piece of grainy video footage depicting trees alongside a bush highway. A number of characters are hunting down this image, and it appears to hold a kind of key to the psychic liberation of the people in question. The video was apparently shot via a camera placed within Scott’s eye, and has been coded virus-like in the computer networks of the oppressing regime.

To offer this dreamy, near-silent panoramic piece of footage as the catalyst for some sort of change, however, is a disconcerting twist in the prevailing logic of Blowback. Does it suggest the possibility of a more “authentic” simulation? Is it an ironic folding back of our hopes for a cliched, Truman Show door out of the mediated sphere? Or is it a sudden re-emergence of a Romantic innocence which can once again find meaning purely in what is represented, regardless of its mode of representation?

To add to this complex and troubling conclusion, we are finally left with a short sequence of non-diegetic dumbshow re-enactments of several iconic images from last year in Iraq. As the cast recreated the degraded humanity revealed in the photos from Abu Ghraib, I was left unable to reconcile the horrifying power of this image with the preceding denunciation of that same power. As a postmodern meditation on contemporary war as simulacrum, Blowback produces a commentary quite unlike anything else I’ve seen, suitably composed of incommensurate elements that cannot be reduced to a single statement. Yet from another standpoint, such as that of the post-colonial critic, this could equally be seen as a failure to offer a political position by a work too lost in its own internal complexities. Either way, the richness of NYID’s latest offering is indisputable.

Double Happiness

Double Happiness, this year’s Little Asia Dance Exchange tour, brings together dancers from Taipei, Seoul, Tokyo, Melbourne and Hong Kong. Each participant presents a solo work and collaborates with the others to produce an ensemble piece to accompany the tour.

Requiem, by Hong Kong artist Daniel Yeung, is an elegy of sorts. For much of the piece, the dancer’s body lies prone in darkness while black and white video footage of a prerecorded performance plays out on a massive screen above. The images of Yeung’s naked body hint at death, loss and decay. When the screen darkens, Yeung rises from the floor to repeat many of the same gestures seen before, but the potent physicality of his presence carries a sense of reanimation, of life breathed into the lifeless. Most stunning are his vertical leaps, limbs jackknifing forward with whiplash intensity.

Natalie Cursio, also Blowback’s cheerleader, is the local participant in the exchange, and produces a piece fairly representative of Melbourne’s contemporary dance climate. Cocooned in a doona, haunted by fairytale horrors and suburban banalities alike, Cursio’s ticcy gestures reflect the critical dominance of Chunky Move’s modes of charming defiance. The piece’s refusal to provide a narrative grounding, and its foregrounding of fragmented moments and sudden revelations, echoes the trajectory of Dance Works under Sandra Parker; and the tongue-in-cheek allusions to myth and childhood stories resonate with the recent directions taken by Phillip Adams’ Balletlab.

Interval arrives, and the house lights go up. But we slowly become aware of a figure at the far end of the stage, standing nearly motionless but for a simple, repetitive extension of the arm, hand across the chest and forward into space. A slight step. Jung Young-Doo’s performance—if it can be called that—has begun. The same gesture, repeated again and again. He disappears offstage. He returns, on his back, arching his spine and inching across the space. He leaves. Is this a butoh-style exploration of nothingness or, as a companion remarks, heroin-chic for the dance crowd? Jung’s apparent indifference to the presence of his audience walks the fine line between nonchalance and neglect.

After the interval proper, the various participants in the project present a group-devised piece, Doubling. It’s easy to see that each member has taken the reins at various points, and the particular styles that have been showcased previously are given a new slant through the involvement of other dancers. Cursio’s contribution forms a glorious climax: the archetypal Aussie pub classic Khe Sanh makes an incongruous accompaniment, but it’s presented here without a hint of sarcasm. It challenged my preconceptions of parochial ‘ocker-ness’ and its opposition to dance, and the sense of joy radiating from the performers challenged the somewhat limited emotional palette so often employed in Australian dance today. Doubling was always dynamic, sometimes daggy and utterly delightful.


A Season of Explorations: Kaspar, writer Peter Handke, director Laurence Strangio; November 2-4, 2004; Penny Machinations, creators Telia Nevile, Matt Kelly/Interior Theatre; La Mama Theatre, Melbourne, Nov 2-Dec 5, 2004

not yet it’s difficult, Blowback, writer/director David Pledger; St Kilda Memorial Hall, Melbourne, Nov 25-Dec 4, 2004

Little Asia Dance Exchange, Double Happiness, North Melbourne Town Hall, Nov 11-13, 2004

John Bailey is a Melbourne-based writer.

RealTime issue #65 Feb-March 2005 pg. 35-

© John Bailey; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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