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darwin celebrates darwin

jane hampson: origins, darwin, northern territory

Jane Hampson is a Darwin-based writer. She writes on the arts, culture and travel in South East Asia and the Northern Territory. Her film script, The Promised Wife, is in development with the NT Film Office.

Lulu Madill, Origins Lulu Madill, Origins
photo Kara Burns
IT IS PERHAPS FITTING THAT DARWIN, THE CAPITAL OF THE NORTHERN TERRITORY IS NAMED AFTER THE SCIENTIST WHO DEVELOPED THE THEORY OF HUMAN EVOLUTION. THE NOTION OF ‘SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST’ AND THE RUGGED OUTBACK ‘TERRITORY TOUGH’ MYTHOLOGY SIT TOGETHER AS NEATLY AS A GALAPAGOS SEABIRD AND A CRAGGY ROCK.

But what Charles Darwin, naturalist, explorer and author of On the Origin of Species would make of two ‘tween’ boys dressed as spermatozoa whizzing through a park on unicycles to mark his 200th birthday remains as much a matter for conjecture as the thoughts of early Top End settlers whose distinctive elevated houses have been flattened to make way for multi-storey apartment blocks in a building boom that has done more to shape Darwin’s urban environment than any event since Cyclone Tracey.

But let’s set “industrial melanism” (Darwin’s concept relating to phenomena arising from man-made environmental change) aside for now. Despite the encroaching high rise and cranking air-con units, Darwin City’s Civic Park on a balmy Dry Season night remains an ideal location for an event like Origins, a cross-disciplinary collaboration to mark the 200th birthday of Darwin and the publication of his revolutionary thesis. He never visited the Northern Territory. Darwin city was named after him by friends on HMAS Beagle which visited Darwin Harbour in 1839.

Origins was a one-off event that brought together some of Darwin’s key creative organisations: Corrugated Iron Youth Arts, Darwin Symphony Orchestra, Darwin Chorale, Darwin Theatre Company, 24HR Art and Charles Darwin University. It embraced multimedia, symphonic music, performance and installation art, involved myriad young performers, artists and seasoned orchestral musicians and was woven around some of Darwin’s most revolutionary theories. Allopatric speciation anyone? How about adaptive radiation or biogenesis?

So that explains the cycling sperm…and those uplit dresses hanging in the trees. Beguiling monuments to progression or regression, civilisation or barbarity? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Origins also marked two firsts: the premiere of a new orchestral work, Transmutations, by English composer Michael Stimpson, and the unveiling of a public sculpture, Ships Bells, by Victorian artist Anton Hasell. Transmutations was commissioned by the Darwin Symphony Orchestra (DSO) as the fourth part of The Age of Wonders, a series inspired by the life of Charles Darwin. It is a sublime work, imbued with a sense of restless movement and desire for knowledge and adventure. There are clopping horses and bird calls, billowed sails and ships at sea, and the DSO’s interpretation was balanced and polished. For an officially ‘pro-am’ orchestra, the DSO punches well above its weight. Outgoing artistic director Martin Jarvis—who has steered the orchestra for over 20 years— leaves an extraordinary legacy and big shoes to fill.

The rest of the evening was a hotchpotch and, running concurrently with the orchestral performance, proved somewhat of a distraction. There were youth performers and acrobats, multimedia projections, magicians, actors reading from Darwin’s diaries and parading as human species, in all their suburban slobbery, locked up in zoo-like cages.

Each element of Origins, in its own right, was good enough, but overall, the event didn’t really hang together. There was no sense of cohesion, nor of carnival. The feel was more of a community fete than interactive performance event, and it wasn’t helped by huge ‘holes’ in the sound and lighting design. Origins was a great concept, but the execution did not do it justice.

This was Darwin city’s offering to its namesake, a man who was revolutionary, brilliant and brave. As much as Origins showcased all that is good about Darwin and its arts community it also highlighted all that is lacking, in particular the dearth of professional performers and directors in what was once a vibrant theatrical scene. Perhaps the reinvention of Brown’s Mart, under the auspices of Performing Lines, as Darwin’s central theatrical ‘hub’, and the increasingly pro-active role of Darwin Festival’s producers in nurturing local work will redress this situation. Let’s hope so—those Dry Season evenings are too good to waste.


Origins, creative director Alex Ben Mayor, new media artist Tim Parish, visual art facilitator Tim Newth; Civic Park, Darwin, July 1

Jane Hampson is a Darwin-based writer. She writes on the arts, culture and travel in South East Asia and the Northern Territory. Her film script, The Promised Wife, is in development with the NT Film Office.

RealTime issue #93 Oct-Nov 2009 pg. 41

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

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