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The Pipe Manager,  Lisa O’Neill The Pipe Manager, Lisa O’Neill
LISA O’NEILL IS UBIQUITOUS, BUT ALWAYS SUI GENERIS. ALTHOUGH SHE APPEARS IN A VARIETY OF FIELDS (NEW MEDIA WITH TRANSMUTE COLLECTIVE, PHYSICAL THEATRE WITH SUZUKI-BASED FRANK COMPANY AND THE POP-CULTURISH BRIDE OF FRANK, OR IN SOLO DANCE WORKS), HER MANY PERFORMANCE MASKS AND VARIED PERFORMANCE STYLES ARE ALWAYS IRRADIATED FROM THE SAME INNER CORE. HER STALKING-ANIMAL ATTENTION, HER GROUNDEDNESS, AND THE EXPLOSIVENESS OF A PUGILIST ARE UNMISTAKEABLE. SHE HAS A QUALITY OF SPIRIT THAT, WHILE SEEMINGLY BOTH PROFOUND AND REMOTE, IS ALSO IMMENSELY AND IMMEDIATELY SEDUCTIVE.

As the participant in a total creative process reaching beyond the aesthetic, O’Neill seems to espouse a ‘transaesthetic’ of dance, sometimes incorporating an essentially private mythopoeic vision as in her signature dance piece, Sweet Yeti. O’Neill comments on this, a work that seems to touch on the animist/shamanic origins of dance: “I’m not quite sure what it is people see, but it goes to show that if you are in a transcendental space, a state that I seem always to find in Sweet Yeti, then the audience will go with you and feel and see things that you probably weren’t deliberately intending.”
Lisa O’Neill, Sweet Yeti, Lisa O’Neill, Sweet Yeti,
photo Phil Hargreaves
Originally created in 1995, Sweet Yeti has evolved over time as O’Neill continues to remount it, most recently in November 2006. She goes on to say, “Every time I perform this work I feel like I’m home, it’s a really interesting, enlightening and shared experience that stands out for me against my other performance works. I first created and performed the work when I was 22, I am now 34 and, when I performed it last year, it was as though I was outside myself, watching myself dance from another viewpoint. I feel as though my whole life is tucked away in that piece, 12 years of it. This really interests me as a performer. I would love to perform Sweet Yeti for as long as my body can cope. The piece was never about anything in particular, but to this day it seems to be the piece that moves people the most.”

“You are the summation of what you’ve done. Who you are is incidental”, says Frank Theatre’s Jacqui Carroll, which seems apropos. If O’Neill is a product of her sources, then Carroll has been a major influence. Through their long association (since O’Neill was 14), one can place O’Neill in direct lineage both to Martha Graham and Tadashi Suzuki, both hard task-masters. However, rather than dance or actor training, O’Neill talks about the direct transmission of “deep energy fields”, a forceful encounter she likens to being slammed into the back of a car. There is a strong focus on “intentionality” which she, in turn, feels the need to hand on. For the past seven years, along with playwright and theatre scholar Norman Price, she has been developing the Advanced Diploma of Arts (Acting) course at Southbank Institute of Technology. This creative partnership engendered the Pineapple Queen Merde project based on an earlier Price play and, for O’Neill, “highlighted the need for intensely long creative development periods if a work and its performers are to truly reach full potential.”

Since knee operations in 2003 prompted a shift towards acting, O’Neill confesses that “dance as an art form rarely inspires me any more; it is as though I have been shifted into another space through my diverse experiences as a performer and performance maker, my work in the theatre. I find it very hard to watch bodies and limbs moving in space unless the dancer is completely involved with what they are doing, that something more substantial and deeply internal is working behind the motion.” Her interrogation of dance reveals an obdurate passion, even while she wryly concedes that she may be perceived as “this black sheep that appears and disappears. Or maybe this is how I see myself?” The American artist William Baily said that the key was to stay with something and keep making it better, cleaner, more resonant, more intense. O’Neill thoroughly concurs. “In terms of my own arts practice, I have dedicated most of my adult life to a couple of specific training systems for that very reason, applying this philosophy to my rehearsals, performance and art making. I have always concerned myself with the ability to continue growing and developing along the one trajectory, to delve deeper into that space.”

Musing on the career of undoubtedly one of the most hardworking artists in Brisbane helps to make sense of the dramatic new turn she has taken in her latest creative development showing at the Judith Wright Centre: The Pipe Manager (a carefully prosaic title). It is a “stand out project” for O’Neill because it is the first time she has invited other artists to collaborate with her on a solo dance work. They include an illustrator, writer, sound artist, new media artist, video editor, dramaturg and costume designer. It is also the first time (considering her history with the new media group Transmute Collective) that she has resorted to visual media in her own work. Thus the story will be ultimately conveyed through movement, illustration and sound, with minimal subtitles, cartoon captions and a voice over narration.

It is also the first time O’Neill, as dancer, has resorted to story, albeit a bleak and somewhat apocalyptic tale leavened by her propensity for clowning and whimsy. The narrative follows the journey of a woman who, after applying for the job as pipe manager, is asked to innovate and reinvent the archetypal pipe (as in plumbing). At work the woman is under the vigilant eyes of the dictatorial Board of Directors who are hidden away high up in the walls of the office behind glass. When previous managers ran out of inventions they were literally terminated on the spot. So the desperate need to reinvent the pipe becomes a life or death situation. She stumbles across old business files and discovers that previous managers would eventually deconstruct their inventions in order to create new ones. But is deconstructing an invention a viable way to invent anew? And does this necessarily equate to functional, high quality and sustainable possibilities? Alice-like, she falls down a large pipe and finds herself in Yetiland, an alternative reality where she comes face to face with those figures from her workplace who now look surprisingly like, yes, yetis.

O’Neill recalls attending an Arts Queensland meeting where every second word was ‘innovation.’ The Pipe Manager seems to be saying that when ends become subservient to the means of production, frustration constrains the producer to either abstain or go mad. In Hades, compulsory maddening behaviour was considered the ultimate punishment reserved for blasphemy. Sisyphus was forced to keep rolling a stone uphill, only to see it roll back down. But artists and clowns, the ultimate blasphemers, have always risen up against the oppression of creative thought by dogma. They expose literal-mindedness with metaphor. If our most sensitive artists are the antennae of our culture, we must be in deep trouble. Even Brian Lucas, that most intimate of story-tellers, recently produced an uncharacteristic, darkly eruptive parable in revolt against the corruption of language.

The Pipe Manager is a multi-layered, complex and developing piece of work which is endeavoring to come to terms with large issues. It takes on no less than the capitalist imaginary of the unlimited expansion of production and consumption and at the same time, to give O’Neill the final word, reflects on a contemporary reluctance to work along with the forces of nature rather than ride them like a bull. Lisa O’Neill, of all people, has sufficient cred to tackle such themes. There are many of us on the sidelines cheering her on.


The Pipe Manager, devisor, performer Lisa O’Neill, writer Peter Berkahn, illustrator XTN, dramaturg Kathryn Kelly, video production Jaxzyn, soundtrack editor Ramsay Hatfield, costume designer Glen Brown, new media consultant Keith Armstrong; Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, June 8-9

RealTime issue #81 Oct-Nov 2007 pg. 16

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

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