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Life at the limits

Ben Brooker: Betroffenheit; Intimate Space; Wot? No Fish!!

Betroffenheit, Kid Pivot, Adelaide Festival of Arts 2017 Betroffenheit, Kid Pivot, Adelaide Festival of Arts 2017
photo Wendy D Photography

Crystal Pite & Jonathan Young, Betroffenheit

About two years ago I underwent a course of cognitive behavioural therapy following a traumatic experience. My therapist told me my patterns of thought—negative and obsessive, relentlessly circling back to the same two or three ideas—were literally wearing ruts in my brain, like a cutting machine etching a groove into a record. In Betroffenheit, a dance-theatre work devised by Canadians Jonathan Young (performer and playwright) and Crystal Pite (choreographer), Young’s real life experience of trauma—the tragic loss of his teenaged daughter in an accident—is transposed into a kind of iterative psychodrama, Young’s fictional alter ego inching towards closure through a compulsively repeated series of thoughts and actions.

The work begins with a memorably uncanny image: thick black electrical cables snake like alien tendrils across the floor of Jay Gower Taylor’s industrial, engine room-like set, at the centre of which stands an imposing pillar. The cables slither up the walls, appearing to spark a disconcerting sentience in other objects too: a fuse box, an intercom and a ghetto blaster-like box out of which, synchronised to a pair of flashing lights, emerges a voice that evokes 2001’s HAL 9000.

The voice, as with most of those we hear during the work, often vocally and bodily synched by the other performers, is a recording of Young’s own. Like everything else we witness in this purgatory-like room, the voices—substantially forming the work’s soundscape—are emanations from his alter ego’s disturbed consciousness. Psychotherapeutic phrases repeat to the point of semantic satiation, drained of meaning, as Young’s competing interior monologues converse and overlap, hectoring and lulling. In a process called “chronic re-entry," he keeps mentally returning to “the room” from where he seems to think the victims of an unspecified accident can be rescued. But it is too late. “It happened,” Young keeps telling himself, as if to sequester the memory in time, to thwart his mind’s endless stretching out of the moment of catastrophe.

Betroffenheit, Kid Pivot, Adelaide Festival of Arts 2017 Betroffenheit, Kid Pivot, Adelaide Festival of Arts 2017
photo Shane Reid

"Betroffenheit" translates literally from German as "consternation." More fully, it describes a kind of stopping dead, an immobilising perplexity in the face of some event. Here, it finds its choreographic analogue in the shape of a repeated gesture, a tic-like rocking back and forth on the spot, like misfiring neurons passing the same signal back and forth between two barely separated points. Vaudevillian figures—the impressive performers of Pite’s company Kidd Pivot—lurk on the periphery, appearing to offer Young’s alter ego a way out via “epiphany," a word that resounds with hope but here seems to represent something akin to an addict’s fix, an impression reinforced by the sinister, Droog-like appearance of some of the dancers. A sort of meta-narrative emerges as Young, as lithe and athletic as any of the ensemble, is persuaded to take to the stage again, as though it, and not the therapist’s consulting room or the drugs he is sometimes urged to take, were the true source of potential catharsis.

Young’s Electric Company Theatre, a co-producer of the work, has long held a fascination with nostalgic genres of entertainment—vaudeville, Hollywood musicals and the like—and it is given full rein here in accomplished tap and music hall routines. After the interval, however, all of this is stripped away. The cabaret-style costumes are replaced with the drab, loose-fitting uniforms of contemporary dance, and the set is radically pared back. Only the central pillar remains, a black megalith thrown into sharp relief and conferred a totemic, rather than functional, quality by Tom Visser’s chiaroscuro lighting. The gearshift is substantial, and discombobulating.

If, in the first half, the traumatised mind is conceived as Lynchian dreamscape, in the second it is presented as existentialist void (Electric Theatre Company produced Sartre’s No Exit in 2008). It seems thin after what has come before, even if the sparse group choreography, with its rhythmic knotting and unknotting of limbs and bodies, feels closer in spirit to the tentative, drawn-out work of recovering from trauma.

Intimate Space, Restless Dance Theatre, Adelaide Festival of Arts 2017 Intimate Space, Restless Dance Theatre, Adelaide Festival of Arts 2017
photo Shane Reid

Restless Dance Theatre, Intimate Space

Hotels are some of the last places left that are neither wholly public nor private. They exist, instead, on the borderland between the two. Any member of the public, theoretically, is able to make use of their areas designated public—their bars, lobbies and restaurants—even as paying guests and staff members pass through to private rooms and the back of house spaces that are off-limits to all but a few. In Intimate Space, Restless Dance Theatre’s first Adelaide Festival offering, distinctions between the two are readily broken down in a promenading, site-specific work that situates the company’s performers with disability in various quarters of the Hilton Hotel in Adelaide’s CBD.

The work is, in part, a response to the dismay of director Michelle Ryan—who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair—of seeing so few disabled bodies in the public areas of a hotel near her home. But, she confesses in her program note, she is also a voyeur: “I can’t help but look at people and I’m aware that people look at me too—because I’m different to them…The show is an invitation: to look…or look away.” This double-bind is at the core of the work: largely absent from public view, people with disabilities are nevertheless subject to the often dehumanising gaze of passersby or a sort of looking-through that, in its own way, refuses the subjectivity of its nominal target.

The audience, led through the hotel in groups of eight, is greeted in the lobby by a concierge (able-bodied performer Ashton Malcolm) dressed in retro cap and tunic like the bellhop from Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel. We are offered mints, and given baggage check cards and a classification of our own choosing: I’m a "sentimental fool," others "hopeless romantics" or "open-minded" (curiously, though, these never end up informing the audience’s journey). Another concierge (Kym Mackenzie) teases us with glimpses of aphoristic text sewn into the lining of his tunic, before a third whisks us up in the lift to the 27th floor. In a corridor, a seemingly abandoned suitcase unzips from the inside and disgorges a performer, Darcy Carpenter. Ryan’s interest in destabilising the subject/object relationship—the observer and the thing observed—is signalled from the get-go.

Intimate Space, Restless Dance Theatre, Adelaide Festival of Arts 2017 Intimate Space, Restless Dance Theatre, Adelaide Festival of Arts 2017
photo Shane Reid

After this, the work mostly unfolds as a series of intimate duets. In one of the hotel’s suites, a young couple (Kathryn Evans and Michael Hodyl) performs possibly post-coital play, challenging the taboo around sex and disability. In the laundry, accessed via an industrial lift and decked out like a rave in ultraviolet light (designer Geoff Cobham), Chris Dyke and Lorcan Hopper, dressed in white boiler suits, perform a muscular, high-energy routine to Jason Sweeney’s techno score, assailing each other’s bodies with unwashed linen. A final duet—tense and faltering, a relationship in crisis—between the formally dressed Alice Langsford and Jesse Rochow, takes place on the hotel’s “function level” with its glossy, corporate sheen.

Finally, the audience is given headphones and led to the edge of the space where, clutching the brass handrail, we gaze down onto the ground floor bar. Hard to tell apart, performers and patrons mingle alone and in pairs and groups as voices whisper in our ears, the private thoughts of public bodies for a moment revealed. Ryan is there in her wheelchair. “Should they be doing this?” one of the voices repeatedly asks, and I locate the couple under scrutiny: a young man and woman on the staircase that connects the two levels. In their finery and intimacy they look like wedding guests who have slipped away from the throng to surreptitiously adore each other. The woman, I think, has a disability; the man, I think, does not.

But we are all subject to the gaze here, to a Lacanian anxiety that comes from looking, and being looked at. It is in this “play of light and opacity” that Intimate Space revels, and most rewardingly during this last scene. I have my quibbles about the work—given that it’s site-specific, the relationship between bodies and space feels underdeveloped and, in addition to the odd loose thread like the baggage check cards, I think the overall structure might have been fruitfully reversed, moving the audience from the public space of the bar to the private space of the suite; down the rabbit hole as it were. Nevertheless, the ensemble performs with skill and charm and, in the process, emphasises the significance of both locating bodies with disability in spaces that they are all too often absent from, and the powerful effect of the return of the gaze to its subject. After all, what are we doing there, in those parts of the hotel that, by rights, are not ours to occupy?

Wot? No Fish!!, Adelaide Festival of Arts 2017 Wot? No Fish!!, Adelaide Festival of Arts 2017
photo Tony Lewis

Wot? No Fish!!

In British theatre-maker Danny Braverman’s unassuming solo show Wot? No Fish!!, a series of projected illustrations is used to tell the history of Braverman’s family as it was recorded by his great uncle Ab Solomons, a Jewish shoemaker from London’s East End. The illustrations—irreverently drawn and wittily captioned, and not without skill for an amateur—were made on the backs of Solomon's wage packets between 1926 and 1982, gathering in shoeboxes which eventually ended up in Braverman’s hands.

He brings one onstage at the beginning of the performance—only later we realise there are many more—as well as a Tupperware box. To one side of the stage is a desk and a tabletop projector, but Braverman wants to talk first, wants to know if we’ve tried fish balls before, whether we can tell him what the traditional accompaniment called "chrain" is made of (horseradish and beetroot). These “delicacies” are passed around the room in their box for us to try as the relative merits of cooking techniques (fried or boiled) are discussed. Braverman is personable and disarming, his mode of address conversational but controlled. Tall and tousle-haired, and dressed in a rumpled, oversized suit, he is, in the Yiddish word he will later use to describe Ab, a "schlump."

The work, as Braverman explains, is the "story of a story." It is simply told, in that the performer merely projects one image after another chronologically and then comments on each, sketching out their context and cast of characters—Ab’s wife Celie (always drawn with a clown-like nose because, possibly, she had a cold on their wedding day), her overbearing sister, and Ab and Celie’s children Larry and Geoff—and making imaginative leaps where necessary. And yet the pictures, beginning with a basic line drawing of a saucepan and broom and later complexifying with Ab’s introduction of vivid paint, accumulate an emotional heft as Braverman patiently draws out their significance. Many are funny, reminiscent of the satirical cartoons Ab would have been familiar with from publications like Punch, or are inflected with the lewd humour of the British seaside postcard tradition. They are “love letters,” explains Braverman, fuelled by a sort of compulsion—Ab “has to draw," he says.

Wot? No Fish!!, Adelaide Festival of Arts 2017 Wot? No Fish!!, Adelaide Festival of Arts 2017
photo Tony Lewis

But there are also pictures that depict Larry’s undiagnosed autism, and his eventual committal to an asylum. We watch him age there, Ab melancholically recording his visits with Celie. “You can go home now,” Larry tells them every time, and it is heartbreaking. Ab and Celie’s marriage seems, at times, close to disintegration. In one image he draws her outside the divorce court, thinking about going in but apparently deterred by the intimidating bustle of lawyers. In another, a brick wall separates the couple in old age, Ab turned away from the viewer, Celie, red-nosed as always, reading a book, her expression downcast. And then there is the war, lightheartedly rendered at first—Hitler is lampooned, and the annexation of territory turned into a bawdy joke—but there is also an abstract, chilling image of Ab’s family gathered at the bottom of a staircase. Each step represents a year in the future. The family looks optimistic, but the final step is 1939.

These are, lest we forget, Jewish working class people. Ab’s pictures form a record of struggle and aspiration, of a search for both heavenly and earthly Promised Lands. More than anything, like many East End Jews, the Solomons want to move to the upmarket Golders Green. They make it, but it’s here that Ab draws the wall that separates himself and Celie. The Promised Land is a disappointment. Eventually, Larry dies in his home. Celie follows, and then Ab himself. But there is happiness too. Braverman describes his surprise and delight at finding himself depicted, as a baby, in one of the drawings. “It’s like I’d stepped into the story,” he says.

Near the end, Braverman cups his white-gloved hand over the head of the projector. The final slide is up—Ab and Celie in old age, out for a stroll—and I wait for it to be consumed by darkness. Instead, the image springs into animated life. Ab and Celie walk on. In an Adelaide Festival thick with the high-concept, it is a joy to be returned to (seemingly) unaffected storytelling. And perhaps, if it’s not too grand a claim for such a modest work, Braverman’s quietly masterful performance will only grow in importance as the US experiences an upswing in anti-Semitic attacks, and our own moment in history increasingly resembles the 1930s—that staircase of Ab’s climbing into the unknown. For now, Danny Braverman lends us his great uncle’s hope.

Adelaide Festival 2017: Electric Company Theatre and Kidd Pivot, Betroffenheit, creators Crystal Pite, Jonathan Young, writer Jonathan Young, choreography, direction Crystal Pite, set design Jay Gower Taylor, lighting design Tom Visser; Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre, 3-4 March; Restless Dance Theatre, Intimate Space, director Michelle Ryan, assistant director Josephine Were, composer Jason Sweeney, lighting design Geoff Cobham, design Meg Wilson; Adelaide Hilton, 3-19 March; bread&circuses, Wot? No Fish!!, creators Danny Braverman, Nick Philippou, writer, performer Danny Braverman, original director Nick Philippou; AC Arts Main Theatre, Adelaide, 4-8 March

RealTime issue #137 Feb-March 2017 pg.

© Ben Brooker; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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