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under the radar

walking in the dark, voices in harmony

kathryn kelly: under the radar, brisbane festival 2012

After All This, Elbow Room, Under the Radar After All This, Elbow Room, Under the Radar
photo Richard Kendall

As Virginia Baxter noted (RT110 online), the differences between the two festivals are now harder to discern as Under the Radar delivers a diverse and sophisticated program of local talent, ‘hit’ shows from the national Fringe circuit and a smattering of international work.

berlin nevada: still night

My Under the Radar voyage began with European duo Berlin Nevada and their new work: Still Night. This adaptation of Italo Calvino’s iconic Invisible Cities was performed in a ubiquitous inner-city apartment/hotel. Ushered into a curtained convention room, we were greeted by Silvia Mercuriali delivering a lecture in a fantastical nonsense language. Her topic, a fabulist Brisbane, Huoz, where maps of the city were woven into an enchanted tale about her quest to go ‘down’ through the cracks of the pavement into an imagined, underground Brisbane. This intoxicating premise echoed Calvino’s Scheherazade plot, where Kubla Khan was entranced by improbable tales of imagined cities.

Then we were given headphones and listened to a velvet-voiced man reading excerpts from Calvino’s novel and instructing us to breathe, open our eyes and close them again as we watched the two women re-create the cities onstage for our delectation. Alas, the sound cut out and without the voice-over the delicate, child-like pact of the performance dissolved. Technical glitches aside, the reliance on the headphones shifted the work from an imaginative translation of Calvino into literal quotation. Despite the reaching and sensual intellect in the piece, it was a lesson in the limits of selecting such a counter-theatrical performance form.

isthisyours?, best we forget

Fascinatingly, the next show was also a lecture, this time delivered by three appealing young women about the psychological, personal and cultural aspects of memory. Developed by Adelaide-based theatre company isthisyours?, Best We Forget was an inventive and discursive lecture but as a performance suffered from the same inherent limitations as Still Night. When the performers reached across the lecture format and transformed it for us, when they made us believe the convention desk was a karaoke stage, when the two presenters became characters in their own action movies, the work exploded into life. These moments demonstrated the intellect, flair and pop culture chops of the creators, but somehow did not add up to a cogent performance experience for the audience. The novelty of the idea, the co-option of the lecture, couldn’t replace the resonant depths of a fully interrogated theatrical world.

elbow room, after all this

Indeed, the standout show for the 2012 Under the Radar took the meme about the borders between presentation/performance and information/story and injected it with a fully fleshed theatricality. After All This by Melbourne-based Elbow Room was an exploration of the nature of belief, the afterlife and grief. The piece was divided into three installations, with the audience walking between each. The first was a short, almost naturalistic scene, where two bewildered siblings reconciled themselves to a newly acquired stepfather who was a Creationist.

The second installation was, again, a lecture, which eventually morphed into a short performance piece that recreated the life of American mathematician George Price (1922-75). After developing a theorem for morality and natural selection, he abruptly converted to evangelical Christianity before finally committing suicide. The third installation, and the most successful, corralled the audience into the last moments of the American Heaven’s Gate cult. We watched them die in their matching tracksuits, then rise up and lead us, singing, through the tunnels and byways of the Brisbane Powerhouse. We emerged, blinking, many of us crying. The cynical distance with which we approached the discussion of religion, the convictions of science and the experience of spectatorship had been disarmed by the eloquent barrage of words, the surprising and tangential changes in form and most powerfully, the simple experience of walking in the dark surrounded by voices in harmony.

other adventures

There were many more adventures to be had from the remaining Under the Radar program including the naked, white-boy ennui of MC Matt O’Neil’s hip-hop set Envoyé ://: Fragmenté, about erectile disfunction, global aid and love. There was the reptilian, witty, anti-capitalist contemporary dance from Slovenia, Capital, which saw each audience member provided with a bound book of junk mail to sit on as we watched the performers ape the excesses of consumption and demand money to finish their performance at the 27 minute mark. There was the delicate, subtle choreography of Leisel Zink’s dance piece Fifteen set amidst the commuter traffic of the Queen Street Mall; and the charming but naïve play about grief, The Things I’d Say to You by the newly minted local collective, Fixate.

hermione merry & henriette kassay-schuster, heaven :: himmell

The final work, though, that had real substance and power was the screen-based installation Heaven :: Himmell. This intriguing collaboration between Australian Hermoine Merry and German Henriette Kassay Schuster was deeply evocative and elusive. You stepped into a half-lit space, surrounded with screens of lush greenery, text and mirrors. In the centre of the room was an installation featuring a car with rear view mirrors. Out of the corner of your eye you could see a girl in a blue frock. Like Alice Through the Looking Glass you followed her around a corner where she made a series of hand gestures with detached but child-like intensity. It was like walking into your own half-forgotten memories of riding home at night as a child while your parents talk and you fight sleep; or playing spotlight, I found you, I know where you are, on a hot night while adults drink.

While I confess to some nostalgia for the intensity of earlier years, when we crammed into Metro Arts, the Brisbane Festival should be applauded for growing Under the Radar into a large-scale event that has become a credible part of the national and international touring landscape.

Under the Radar, Brisbane Festival, Brisbane, Sept 8-29;

RealTime issue #112 Dec-Jan 2012 pg. 16

© Kathryn Kelly; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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