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Taking it to the limit

Keith Gallasch, 2015 Sydney Festival

Tamara Saulwick, Paddy Mann, Endings Tamara Saulwick, Paddy Mann, Endings
photo Prudence Upton
Time spent with the magnificent Buddha (artist Zhang Huan, China) built of 20 tonnes of incense ash in the Carriageworks foyer provided the serenity with which to reflect on a handful of bracing, sometimes over-produced Sydney Festival shows, each boldly coalescing creative forces in intriguing ways, testing meaning and expanding theatricality in an era of pervasive hybridity.

Tamara Saulwick, Endings

As in Pin Drop (RT111), so in Endings Tamara Saulwick intensively theatricalises sonic experience with the same meticulous attention to lighting and simple movement. If Pin Drop is a nightmarish account of a woman’s fear of home invasion in which every sound is significant and light reduced to shadow, Endings is another journey into darkness—with the voices of grievers for the dead and dying and that of the artist’s father just prior to his death. For one critic, who must have missed out on 30 years of ‘confessional’ performance, it was all too personal. Others in the audience were moved, recalling their own dealings with the deaths of parents. Some of us thought the recordings too much in the same warm groove. Also, the work’s potential for focusing on the power of the vox momento was underplayed in favour of the grievers and a superfluity of visual (superbly orchestrated by bluebottle) and musical material (finely sung—if lyrically limited—by Paddy Mann) along with intense sound design (Peter Knight) and some melodramatic bombast in the treatment of the father’s voice. Saulwick and Mann’s turntabling and play with aged reel-to-reel recorders and looping were more moving in a work with undeniable potential.

Mauricio Carrasco, The Experiment Mauricio Carrasco, The Experiment
photo Jamie Williams
The Experiment

Mark Ravenhill and David Chisholm’s The Experiment focuses on responsibility for death—allowing a child to die in order to find a cure for the many who are ill. It’s not played out in the corporate sector (if alluded to) where the worst sins against children and animals are enacted, but in a couple, with one partner (the onstage narrator Mauricio Carrasco) consumed with guilt and denial (projecting the scenario onto his neighbours) about what the couple as scientists perpetrated with great cruelty on their own child. Presumably playwright Mark Ravenhill wanted to bring the issue as close to the personal as possible; the result seemed rather eccentric and apolitical. Carrasco’s anguish is conveyed in word (softly delivered without quite enough emphasis to always make sense of the script), two guitar solos (the first, sad and softly flamenco-ish by Fernando Gamero; the second scraping and raging on an electric guitar aptly mounted in a metal medical cabinet) and, finally, the triggering of ‘Siamese twin’ electric guitars which madly play themselves into entropy—a long, fading, stable chord closing a performance otherwise without easy resolution. The narrator’s inner life is also represented in striking visuals (Emmanuel Bernardoux, Matthew Gingold) that frame and fill the stage with a timber bush home, aberrant cell life and a multitude of faces. As in Endings, a superfluity of devices and the awkward merger of performance and concert, along with the complexity of Ravenhill’s script and Chisholm’s demanding score, make for an overly complex experience. The 20th century’s theatre of simultaneity and disjunctive linearity is still strongly with us, but it requires of artists restraint and focused vision. The Experiment was fascinating moment by moment, but its totality was elusive—and not in a radical way.

Darkness and Light

French organist Bernard Foccroulle and Australian media artist Lynette Wallworth came together in Sydney Town Hall to create Darkness and Light, a program of organ works from the 17th, 18th and 20th centuries that displayed, in no uncertain terms, the boldness and brilliance of their composers, and were played at the keyboard beneath large screen projections by Wallworth, with further imagery provided by NASA and other sources. The music was nothing less than complex, not least for some in the audience unfamiliar with the range, power and exacting subtlety of the organ in concert. The busier Wallworth and Pete Bundle’s editing, the harder it was to connect sound and image and consistently gauge thematic continuity. At its best, at concert’s end, Wallworth returned to the opening morning image of a long road, seen from human perspective, stretching into nowhere beneath the Moon. This time it was from twilight to night, and here Wallworth simply held on to the image as Buxtehude’s beautiful Passacaglia in D minor played out. Elsewhere connections were sometimes literal—birds on fences and in flight for Messaien—or lateral: scenes of a lake, rushes and water droplets in close-up for Foccroulle’s delicate “Coloured Flutes.” Lagoons and other landscape features were given the Rorschach treatment, industrial sites fumed and sparked furiously in tune with Gubaidalina’s “Light and Darkness,” and the cosmos hung deep above. I revelled in Foccroulle’s playing and admired Wallworth’s image making and its sense of the Australian landscape as sacred as a cathedral, but I was not rhythmically at home with its conjunction of competing manifestations of transcendence. Such melding can work, but the video has to make more space for us to accommodate the complexity of the music.

Nothing to Lose Nothing to Lose
photo Prudence Upton
Nothing to Lose

Force Majeure’s Nothing to Lose puts the corpulent body on display, testing our prejudices. Bodies are spread about the stage. A deep, rumbling score with subterranean pings accompanies the performers as they move about on all fours and then fold comfortingly into one another. This initial aura of inertia associated with the fat body will be dispelled over and over in Nothing to Lose, the performers revealing persistence, dexterity and, as their defiant gaze confirms, pride. More than that they celebrate their bodies, the casually brazen lifting and dropping of bellies, revelling in their voluptuousness as they stand on plinths—soft statues that slow-wave to us, shimmy and gently sway, dipping slightly at the knee, slapping an upper arm: a simple dance: elegant and eloquent. Later there will be more elaborate and exacting movement, but instead of evolution there are interruptions.

Earlier, the cast deliver a litany of all the imaginable clichés and abuse directed at fat people, as if we didn’t know, and now audience members are invited onstage to feel the performers’ bodies: the heart, the armpits, “inhale the scent,” “lay your head on the stomach.” There’s a little embarrassment but the scene says nothing more. Shortly, another litany: queries including, “How much do you eat?” and “How do you have sex?” Fortunately, Nothing to Lose gets stranger and less didactic. A performer brutally backflips—a scary, unexplained moment. Words become more convincing when a woman in red (Ally Garrett), reciting the nonsense aimed at her as she grew up, shape-changes by manipulating the dress’s stretch fabric until she is herself and can remove and then use it to amusingly mimic Japanese Kinbaku (“tight binding”) bondage.

Nothing to Lose goes on to reveal more about the aesthetic and psycho-sexual inclinations of these seven large-bodied, confident performers. These are not novices; they have trained and practised widely and a number of them come from the established underground scene. At the end they are joined by 13 volunteers trained to perform a very grounded, compulsively rhythmic finale, cleverly choreographed by Torres Strait Islander Ghenoa Gela to delightfully fractured dance music by Stereogamous. Nothing to Lose is a fascinating work in which we get to know unfamiliar bodies that flow when they dance and shine when they articulate their own art. It’s finely directed by Kate Champion, working with Artistic Associate Kelli Jean Drinkwater, and lit by designer Geoff Cobham who evokes gallery, catwalk, club and the inner spaces of safe display.


Puncture, by Legs on the wall, FORM Dance Projects and Vox-Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, focuses on social dancing, principally male body to female in a thinly delineated dance hall romance triangle. Ballroom, tango, folk, jitterbug and smoochy casual all make appearances while rave is bizarrely depicted as a drugged, angry and violent swirling mass. The performers, dancers, the design, the singing and playing (piano Luke Byrne, percussion Bree Van Reyk, composer Stefan Gregory) were excellent. Choreographer (Kathryn Puie) and director (Patrick Nolan) inventively marshalled the large forces involved, longeurs and plodding scene changeovers aside. But Puncture does nothing to rupture our notion of what social dancing is, beyond that it has all too well-known meaning for individuals, pairs and the mass. In an era of rapidly changing sexual boundaries and new waves of migrant social dancing not glimpsed here, Puncture seemed very strange; indeed elderly.

See also my response to Vicki Van Hout’s Long Grass.

2015 Sydney Festival, Endings, Carriageworks, 8-11 Jan;The Experiment, Carriageworks, 15-17 Jan; Darkness and Light, Sydney Town Hall, 9-10 Jan; Nothing to Lose, Carriageworks, 21-25 Jan; Puncture, Riverside Theatre, 21-25 Jan

RealTime issue #125 Feb-March 2015 pg. 15

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

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