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The unexpectedly ecstatic

John Bailey: The Bacchae; YOUARENOWHERE

Carla Tilley in The Bacchae Carla Tilley in The Bacchae
photo Pia Johnson
Melbourne in 2015 might be remembered as a place and time in which art took an unexpected turn towards the ecstatic. There was even an entire festival at our Arts Centre devoted to work that comes under the label. You could trace some genealogy back to trends in live art of recent years as well as durational dance works, the crossover of experimental sound art into more conventional theatre spaces and a shift away from irony and distance towards immersion and presence. But just as important has been the realisation that the hypnotic and trance-inducing needn’t be divorced from intellectual engagement. Stunning the senses doesn’t require the switching off of minds.

Two entries at this year’s Melbourne Festival left audiences truly dazed while also plumbing profound philosophical and political depths. Adena Jacobs’ and Aaron Orzech’s The Bacchae created havoc among audiences’ interpretative registers with its house-of-mirrors approach to voyeurism and the sexualisation of teenage bodies, while Andrew Schneider’s YOUARENOWHERE had many questioning the very reality into which they had somehow been dropped.

The Bacchae

To describe The Bacchae as Jacobs’ and Orzech’s work is a bit of a mistake, though it’s one that explains some of the concerned reactions several reviewers had to the piece. The pair are listed as co-creators (Jacobs directs with Orzech as dramaturg) but crucial to this free adaptation of Euripides’ text is the large ensemble of teenage girls whose responses to the original drama inform almost everything we see on stage.

Euripides’ tale is still here: the work begins with a murky, obtuse prologue in which a prostrate figure gives birth to an animal skull, alluding to the double birth of the god Dionysus. Pervy King Pentheus will make an appearance soon enough, too, and a recounting of the frenzied violence of the women on the mountain is directly drawn from the original tale. But for the most part the source material is dispersed across the bodies of the entire cast and refracted through a confronting teenage perspective.

Post birth-scene, a girl describes the boring rituals of her morning before announcing that she is Dionysus and will punish unbelievers. From here the rest of the work could be seen as a kind of increasingly ecstatic dance, beginning with the affectless stillness of a group sitting around staring at their phones or flipping through books and slowly building to a frenzied intensity of harrowing imagery and exulted obscenity. A hooded man with foam abs and a baseball bat stalks the space menacingly; a giant head with gaping maw inflates to take over most of the stage; a boy slouches listlessly on a sofa, staring dully at the eroticised spectacle unfolding before him.

It’s these erotics that have alarmed a few critics charging Jacobs with exploiting young girls for the audience’s gaze. The objection overlooks the fact that this is unmissably the point. The work’s most striking image occurs when a large portion of the cast appear in formation wearing bikinis and some kind of oil that renders their skin as shiny as plastic. Their heads are each bound in an opaque wrap that leaves them literally faceless. It’s as overt a representation of sexual objectification as one can imagine.

But the gaze here comes from the subjects themselves; or, rather, it is their own exaggeration of the gaze within which they are commonly framed. It’s not exactly news that the adolescent female body is sexualised in popular culture and that young women are treated as objects rather than subjects. It’s deeply unsettling to witness evidence that these same young women are highly aware of this, though. Rather than protesting that objectification, they here produce a nightmarish burlesque that amplifies it to an excruciating point.

It’s a brilliant enough move to ask young women to articulate their own subjugation of agency as they see others doing to them. To allow that othering of the self to escalate to such nightmarish levels is where the work goes one better. By its end, masked figures with giant hairy penises are humping every available surface and individuality has dissolved into a morass of animalistic violence and apathetic surrender. The bone-rattling oscillations of a modular synth crescendo while an onstage band has been beating out a tireless and insistent rhythm. The sustained spectacle of horror seems as if it will never end.

Then it does. The lights come up and it becomes shockingly apparent just how young these performers are. But as senses scramble to readjust to the everyday world, there’s the lingering understanding that the shit these girls are expected to put up with doesn’t end, really. It goes all the way back to Ancient Greece.


YOUARENOWHERE is no less timeless in its reach. US artist Andrew Schneider performs alone, his shirtless torso wired up with various gadgets that allow for the live manipulation of his voice along with various other effects only his technicians probably understand. He delivers a wide-ranging monologue that jumps from autobiography to speculative physics, and by joining the dots it seems as if his ambition is nothing short of traversing the gap between possible universes. He kind of manages it.

The sophistication of the technology here is mindboggling. Schneider has in part been inspired by artists of light and space such as James Turrell. Through improbably precise manipulations of both Schneider is seemingly able to teleport across the stage in an instant or to cause parts of his body to simply vanish. The work’s great coup de théâtre—which nobody should ever, ever spoil—turns out to be less technical in nature and more the result of a sheer willingness to do what others daren’t try. Suffice it to say, it appears Andrew Schneider has achieved the impossible because the more likely scenario would be too hard for an artist to pull off.

Schneider’s discussion of special relativity and quantum dynamics and the possibility of human connection don’t really give any hints toward this final moment of dazzling spectacle, but the work’s conclusion so alters perception that it honestly appears as if physical limits have been broken. It’s hard not to wander off into the night questioning what other impossibilities demand rethinking, too.

Melbourne International Arts Festival: St Martins, Fraught Outfit & Theatre Works, The Bacchae, concept Adena Jacobs, Aaron Orzech, director Jacobs, dramaturg Orzech, performers St Martins Teen ensemble, music Kelly Ryall, design Dayna Morrissey, costumes Chloe Greaves, lighting Danny Pettingill, Theatre Works, Oct 8-24; Arts House, YOUARENOWHERE, created with collaborators by performer Andrew Schneider; North Melbourne Town Hall, Oct 15-19

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2016 pg. 40

© John Bailey; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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