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Melbourne Festival

Gutspeak, wordsong

Keith Gallasch: Melbourne Festival

Granular Synthesis, modell 5 Granular Synthesis, modell 5
Voices I heard, even seemed to see, in Robyn Archer’s 2004 Melbourne Festival emanated from deep in the body and the psyche, undivided, whether in the primordial and shamanistic agonies of Men in Tribulation; the pulsing, vibratory sonic-video portraits by Granular Synthesis; or in Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s complex embodiment of a 1963 Joan Baez album. In the all too brief 4 days I experienced of this festival, these works entered me and are there to stay. Other works like William Kentridge’s remarkable version of Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses, the Victoria company’s Ubung and De Keersmaker and Rosas’ Mozart/Arias added to the festival’s resonance if in less transformative ways, while the tiny, intimate A Quarrelling Pair by Aphids was a quiet revelation with its shifting weave of human and puppet, voice and soundscore.


Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker bares body and soul in Once. She confides in us the power of music over her dancer’s body, calling up the embodiment of Joan Baez in Concert, Part 2 (1963) in de Keersmaeker the child—before she knew English—and showing how that music has stayed with her since she first heard it in 1967. Once opens in silence. De Keersmaeker is still, silent and then slips into a set of small moves, gestures tentatively, looks at us and away, spaces the feet, and drops suddenly. Delineated quietly before lowering the needle onto the record, this is the vocabulary for Once, a silent, informal overture for a body we will get to know very well once we have settled into her time, her space, her hearing of the songs she dwells on, flits through, takes over and loses herself in, and will even sing.

There is a sense of the dancer hearing the songs for both the first and the nth time, knowing them only too well, sometimes impatient, sometimes loving, nearly always drawn into them, gleefully rediscovering them. The shift from track to track, the waiting for the right moment to respond (mouthing words or feeling the beat or tempted to rise to Baez’s soaring soprano), hesitations, doubts, singing We shall overcome quietly and creakily on her own as the record is faded out early into the track. With the feel of improvisation, this is a quest to find what remains in de Keersmaeker’s body of that music, what’s still real about it, what of herself she can still give to it, or it to her. There is much openness and vulnerability here, a casting off of shoes, socks, underwear, going naked to the music and to us. The recurrent long gaze into the audience signals the privacy of her act—as if to ask, ‘are you with me?’ The enigmatic smile as she hovers over the front row, leaning into the audience as if about to fall into their arms, also amplifies this sharing as do the little jokes, the visual banter, the adult-as-child hiding in a blanket.

All the while the tracks roll by, old songs in Spanish and English of murder, jealousy, betrayal and joy. De Keersmaeker announces Long Black Veil as a favourite, abandons herself to Queen of Hearts and melds with the analytical Baez of Bob Dylan’s curt Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right. The Battle Hymn of the Republic is followed by Baez’s polished hymning of Dylan’s With God on Our Side which is suddenly usurped by the singer-songwriter’s street-preaching original, doubling its power in the only departure from the Baez album. De Keersmaeker was given the album as a gift to mark the birth of a sister, fell in love with it and later came to admire Baez the non-violent activist. Part of the power of Once is its capacity to place within one frame an intimate physical and emotional response to a voice and the evocation of a political moment, sadly with much in common with our own. De Keersmaeker puts a body, her own, to a voice, Baez’s; and in doing so gives voice to many.

Modell 5

I remember my astonishment when Meg Stuart’s No One Is Watching opened with a lone dancer standing still, his head was turning rapidly side to side in an incredible blur, a living Francis Bacon smear of a face, and so it was in Modell 5 by the Austrian artists Granular Synthesis presented by Novamedia and ACMI at the Melbourne Festival. One face, that of Japanese performer Akemi Takeya, appears in 4 portrait proportioned frames on a large screen in a small room in ACMI where we stretch out on the floor and keep our earplugs ready—we have been supplied and warned. The head’s movements sideways and up and down are incrementally edited into a furiously paced staccato, a near blur in which, for example, the teeth become everything raking across the screen and the performer mutates into an eyeless creature. Or, as the head rolls up and down the open mouth evolves from Bacon to Giger, utterly Alien, and is that the gurgling of saliva I hear in the sound rush? Liquid sounds certainly, but am I hearing things? The soundscore is immaculately matched to the images, not literally, but as a frantic, shuddering pulse that grows in demanding volume but which has its own layered beauty and is never short of acoustic qualities that belie the synthetic construction. It begins with a high, rattling percussion, thickening out, the beat doubling, layered with sounds like cries, ullulations, machine gunnings, whinnyings, a huge gasp. The body in extremis, like an astronaut heading into space, is matched by a score that puts our vibrating, listening bodies in sync with the performer. What is this? Synthetic performance art? Animated portraiture? Modell 5 is curiously painterly. It screams from ACMI to the Munch exhibition down the road at the NGV.

Men in Tribulation

The performance space contains us, audience and performers. It is filled with fog and framed with high scaffolding. Columns of light stream down. At the centre on a platform made from wooden crates, a man in a swivel chair fitted with a microphone, is having his feet washed by a woman while several men play with small objects that click, clack and rattle and later add up to saxophones. Close by someone is taking these noises into the system, mixing and distributing them into the space. This ritual unfolds into the last hour of Antonin Artaud (Phil Minton), high priest of 20th century performance living out his final agonies and humiliations, reliving his days with the Tarahumara Indians, their drugs and visions and their high priest (Viviane de Muynck), and railing against opera and God.

Minton’s anguished Artaud sits for most of the performance, almost as if clinically restrained, but his state of being is projected through an astonishing vocal performance from shrill calls to guttural basso groans, very real sounds, both treated at the sound desk and not, conveying the rack of metaphysical torment and the decline of the body as he challenges a god he doesn’t believe in but who has turned him into “a seer who cannot see.”

The saxophonists inhabit 3 points in the architecture of Men in Tribulation, De Muynck the fourth. Their sounds (notes, breath, voice,) are both raw and cooked, immediately audible but also transformed, both layers conjuring winds, storms, distant cries, crowds, death rattles, drownings. Just as the musicians open up the aural space so does the architect-generated set transform the world around us with shifting lines of fluorescent light.

Erich Sleichim’s production is Artaudian in its sheer enveloping intensity. Jan Fabre’s text is incantatory (though not, unfortunately revelatory). Minton is magnificent as Artaud, an unactorly performer whose sounds transform his body, from consuming, racking rage to beast-like murmurs and bird whispers, to the final shivering and shuddering of death. His shirt is pulled off, momentarily evoking a strait-jacket, but his release comes as he takes a jug of honey and pours it over his head and body and is slowly washed by his attendant performers.

A Quarrelling Pair

These 3 miniature plays about pairs of sisters are performed with small puppets in and around a magically convertible wooden dressing table that becomes a stage, several worlds and from the drawers of which the heads and limbs of the puppeteer-actors can surreally appear, as if they themselves are manipulated by greater forces. The sisters in American writer Jane Bowles’ A Quarrelling Pair (1945/46) are locked into the tensions of their difference, big-hearted versus small-minded, which escalate into physical violence, all the more alarming coming from puppets, as in Punch and Judy. The onset of evening calms them, but you sense the compulsion of ritual.

In Lally Katz’s Mr Peterson’s Milk, it’s 4 years since 2 sisters gave up smoking and they are now venturing out into the world. The pair in Bowles’ play would never do that. But what a world. Q: “Where do you want to go?” A: “Inside Mr Peterson, the Milkman’s Brain.” What they encounter are fragments of the past, “The monuments of our time are already dying”, odd sights and strange sounds: “The voice of the Dalai Lama begins to speak. It mixes with the terrible wind.” Their brief visit to the bank is a wonderful adventure and they wonder where they will go next: “Somewhere with numbers.” “To forget we are trapped.” “Inside the universe.” The playfulness of the sisters’ re-arranging of the physical world of the dresser alleviates a little their claustrophobic circumstances with a sense of light-hearted insanity.

In And When They Were Good, Cynthia Troup’s pair of sisters are used to being apart but even that is timed to visits every 6 weeks or so. As in the Bowles’ work it is the sense of difference which shapes the sisters’ exchanges, but it is difference that makes for inseparability. Who is more like mother than father (“Does likeness ripen? Then seep, through the skin...), who is warm-blooded, who cold? Who is the older? Who staves things off? These and childhood recollections, the paraphenalia of the dresser (a litany of mother’s cosmetics), cutting a sister’s hair, all constellate to keep these women together and just enough apart—as night comes on.

Bowles’ pair of sisters are presented as puppets with just a suggestion that their manipulators have an investment in the unfolding drama. In the Katz play the sisters reinvent the world, in effect puppeteering themselves into it. Troup’s sisters are puppeteers too, but secondarily so for it is the world of objects around them that is animated, partly it would seem of its own accord, something we particularly apprehend from the sound score (Jethro Woodward) in the eerie final moments of the play. Finely written, directed (Margaret Cameron) and performed (Caroline Lee, Sarah Kriegler), A Quarrelling Pair displaces the voice between bodies and puppets as imaginary pasts and futures are conjured, making us mindful of the emotional manipulations we perpetrate on ourselves and others.

Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, Once, Merlyn Theatre, Oct 9-10; Granular Synthesis, Modell 5, ACMI, Oct 7-Nov 6; Muziktheater Transparent, Men in Tribulation, Forum Theatre, Oct 11-13; Aphids, A Quarrelling Pair, La Mama Theatre, Oct 13-17; Melbourne International Arts Festival, Oct 7-23

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 38

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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