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Sydney Festival

The darkness that yields light

Keith Gallasch

Damaged Goods, ALIBI, Damaged Goods, ALIBI,
photo Doris Fanconi, Chris van der Burght
Responding ineptly and naively to the 2004 Sydney Festival, The Sydney Morning Herald editorial of January 26 (“A city in search of a festival”) worried that “So much of what was offered seemed bleak. So many events were about darkness, death or despair. In short, it was a festival strangely unfestive...Art’s short answer—that its role is to challenge and confront—will usually suffice. It is also true, however, that even if dark realism is in artistic terms a good thing, a festival can still have too much of it.” Two pages on, arts reviewer Bryce Hallett enthused over the critical and popular success of the festival program, finding its suburban expansion westward “was heartening and put store in the notion that the people of Sydney do own the festival.” The fact is the 2004 program featured numerous works that entertained and amused, but it also presented a quotient of major works that were collectively more provocative than in any previous Sydney Festival. That their darkness yielded light, that their craft exhilarated, that they responded acutely to the historical moment escaped the attention of the SMH editor. What can an arts festival do first of all but celebrate art and the best of it? In Sydney there is a ceaseless, massive outpouring of happy entertainments and conventional art that doesn’t stop for the festival. Brett Sheehy’s 2004 festival offered some rich alternatives, exemplars of the new extremes of art that resonate with the world of the early 21st century.


Meg Stuart, Damaged Goods
Town Hall, Jan 19-22

In a vast concrete-walled bunker fitted with video monitors, a basketball net, a viewing room, loudspeakers, desks, chairs and a mattress, 7 actors and dancers perpetrate casual acts of violence on each other and sometimes themselves. The precise nature of the space is elusive—a schoolyard, a prison, a psychiatric hospital exercise room, a big city public playspace...? There’s more than a passing resemblance to the shifting meanings offered by the respective terminus and rooftop settings of Les Ballet C de la B’s La Tristeza and lets Op Bach. These works and Alibi share violence, ritualistic behaviour and moments of compassion and redemption, though the latter are fleeting indeed in the Stuart vision, much darker than in her 1996 Adelaide Festival showings, No Longer Readymade and No One is Watching. There is a kind of empathy in the Alibi community, but it is of bodies apart sharing a wracking cold turkey shivering or a viral neck jolt that spreads from one man to all the others as they watch him from the viewing room.

Alibi is a meticulously staged, engrossing 2-hour performance created by choreographer Meg Stuart and her Switzerland-based Damaged Goods company. Apparently random behaviour soon reveals itself to be tautly patterned, but because it is so determinedly un-dancerly it remains suspensefully unpredictable. Sustained episodes of physical interaction (bodies tripped and dragged, pulled 2 or 3 ways at once, flung, trapped in headlocks) are interpolated with solo passages. A man accompanies a film of himself (glowing out of the concrete wall) with a reverie of anonymity (“It’s not me, it just looks like it”); a woman repeatedly and meaninglessy signals to the audience; a man delivers a litany of banal confessions; a woman abjectly offers anything for love (“If you don’t want children I can get my uterus removed”); and a young man goes looking for a fight, prowling, provoking, spitting. But, in the end, no one will play. Instead, isolated bodies shake in collective waves for a small eternity...into the dark that ends the performance.

It’s the physical reality of Alibi that grips. The texts sit poorly amidst the action and for the most part suffer from an actorly delivery at odds with the super-realism of the movement. The notable exception is the aggro young man whose barely audible utterances emerge from the very state of almost animal being we are witnessing.

The power of Alibi resides not only in its viscerality and the grim empathy of feeling the body of suffering, but in grasping the world of these people. The action is invaded by cameras that peer at those in withdrawal. Voiceovers direct actions and deliver intimidating queries: “Why are you a winner?” they ask a man who can only walk, totter and fall. But you soon notice that this is a self-contained world: the participants themselves take turns at wielding the microphones, cameras and instructions as if playing at power and surveillance. There is no sense of an external, manipulative force. Only the film images that emerge on the walls and monitors seem to have their own authority: unwatched pictures of war and prejudice or, more dominant, recurrent shots of a vibrating corridor. But even these suggest the subjective state of the players. Their lives are a tedium of assault, struggle and self-abnegation, but these people are not victims in any simple sense. They are perpetrators, observers and documentors of their own brutal condition. We recognise ourselves in them, or not.

What is striking, and what surely worried those of the audience who walked out, is the extremity of Stuart’s vision, first experienced in the sheer violence of its action and apparent pointlessnesss. The world of Alibi is one of play—dangerous play. No one is wounded or killed and after a while you can see the pattern of the play and the exhaustion of it in the aggro young man. But it still looks risky and unbearably hostile. The deeply textured soundtrack amplifies this uneasiness with a machinic hum and electrical surges bordering on the explosive: something to vibrate to, if relieved here and there by melancholic strings. Paul Lemp’s score suggests a sadness rarely shown on stage.

Dance, like so many other forms of play, has recently taken to extremes, as with extreme sports, extreme circus (Acrobat, The Jim Rose Circus, The Happy Sideshow) and the outer limits of reality TV. Choreographer Garry Stewart comments in this edition (interview p30): “My works aim at a kind of poetics of extremity arranged through a formal structure. For the viewer, I think there is a vicarious thrill in witnessing extreme athletic dance, giving relief to our subconscious desires for flight. I guess some people see my work as a form of organised violence toward (and with) the body.” The body for Meg Stuart is even more basic, far from athletic, consuming its owner in uncontrollable spasms, quick to violence, resting only in exhaustion. What game can these people possibly be playing? Tim Etchells, artistic director of Forced Entertainment, a guest of the 2004 Adelaide Festival (p14) and advisor on Alibi, has spoken of the versions of ourselves we construct in order to survive structures and games “as a way to survive in this world, or that world.” In Alibi this is a world short of rules, full of failures to construct selves but in which the most basic of games are being played: surviving violence, meeting violence with violence, living with a body off the leash.

Tulp, the Body Public

Elision Ensemble
Art Gallery of NSW, Jan 15-17

Tulp is another work of extremes, again about the body and our ambivalent relationship to it, but the dynamic between pain and release, despair and hope is this time delicately balanced. In its most accessible work to date, the Elision new music ensemble has created a wonderful hybrid, fusing documentary, new music and digital art into a vibrant new form of music theatre. Composer John Rogers and interdisciplinary artist Justine Cooper come together to realise a sustained reverie on the body, from birth to death, with many remarkable tales told by volunteers.

On its first outing, Tulp occasionally suffered a superfluity of images, vagueness in the deployment of the soprano performer early on, insufficient camera or projection power to make good use of images of the audience (the soprano has a tiny camera bandaged to a hand) and some imbalance between the onscreen voices and the music. These challenges will doubtless be addressed as the work develops.

The musical frame oscillates between beautiful early Baroque admonitions against vanity with reminders of mortality and a pervasive electronic score (Anthony Burr, Michael Hewes) with the live saxophones of Timothy O’Dwyer providing darker textures as well as orchestra-power hellish groans and blasts. In the course of the performance, Deborah Kayser’s elegant soprano and the Baroque instruments (conductor Simon Hewett) supporting her dramatically merge with these subterranean sonic forces. Tulp is driven by this kind of dialectic: live performer/filmed subjects; live music/electronics; Baroque imagery/technological body imaging, and, within its screen narratives an unresolvable tension between the body as material and the body as spirit and the strange interplay between art and science.

Kayser, in a fine latex gown is a deathly figure, at first laid out on a gurney, her magnified eye flickering hugely on a screen above. Screens either side of her scroll the lyrics she sings, in Italian on one and English on the other. These soon reveal anatomical drawings of the period and later dynamic animated, tormented figures suspended upside down like spectres from Dante’s Inferno. The outer screens are latex, bodies and instruments push against them from behind like eruptions of the skin. One slices open to reveal the soprano, attached with a glowing umbilical cord bowed by a musician.

Shot in tight close-up, in what appears to be black and white with the faintest touches of radiant colour, the interviewees, American and Australian, tell fascinating tales and offer surprising opinions about the body. A doctor opines, “Nobody is fascinating when sick. The disease is fascinating.” A girl confides, “My puberty was clinically induced.” A woman in her 50s becomes the surrogate body for the birth of her granddaughter. Another woman recounts the mediaeval conditions of her treatment for scoliosis, hanging in a hospital basement. The faces from Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicholas Tulp look on from the side screens. A man cheerfully recounts a home operation on his anus with gear borrowed from a vet and a doctor who runs out of anaesthetic. The pair agree to forge ahead, the pain is horrific, much whisky is consumed. The man tells us that the pain was not as bad as severe depression. A woman talks about her transformation from male to female: she enjoyed being a man for 30 years and saw the transition not as change but “more like evolution.” The complexities of the operations sound truly daunting, especially when she experienced it alone: “Nobody knew about it.” In the final stages of Tulp the focus is on the body in decay, of patients whose bodies are there, but whose minds no longer function or whose personalities have departed. The most affecting tale is told by a nurse who sees her craft as spiritual training. The eyes of an elderly man whose frail body can no longer support him meet hers and she knows that he is still someone special with whom she will briefly bond: “Death is to do with the body.”

In this post-Cartesian era where we claim to ‘be’ bodies rather than to ‘have’ them, Tulp is a reminder that the body-psyche relationship is in fact a dialectical one—the body can elevate or abandon us, just as we can nourish or neglect it; we are at one with it, apart from it. It is also tells us how much and how little has changed since the Renaissance went looking for the body with a scientific eye and a scalpel. Attitudes and operations can still be ‘mediaeval’; imaging, endoscopy and microsurgery ‘miraculous.’ Tulp ends with a mother’s lullaby to her baby, the words dancing, folding into each other on the screens, an expression of affection and hope after a gruelling foray into the complexities of what it means to be a body.
Hashirigaki Hashirigaki
photo Klaus Grüberg

Conception, music, direction Heiner Goebbels
Parade Theatre, NIDA, Jan 9-12

Hashirigaki is a work of gentle extremes, a magical undoing of language a la Gertrude Stein, so that we learn to listen to ourselves anew. The Stein recitations—droll litanies of anxieties of being and identity—mesh with wonderland imagery and the music of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds as presented by 3 engaging singer-dancer-musicians on samisen, theremin and organ (Yumiko Tanaka, Charlotte Engelkes, Marie Goyette). The outcome is a lyrical, pop-existentialism where our heroines build a cardboard city, play bells descended from the heavens and transform into turntable statuettes, a dancing ball of light, an over-the-top Kabuki musician and an elegant pop trio. Goebbels’ arrangements of songs from Pet Sounds are both true to themselves and to the originals, creeping up on you sometimes like the ghosts of forgotten melodies, at other times awaited and yearned for. The all too brief sell-out season of Hashirigaki left its audiences dazzled and happy, bemused by the work’s reminders of the spiralling relativities of the self—if you dare attend to them—and the peculiar pleasures of art that is never literal, never real. [“‘Hashirigaki’ is Japanese for ‘rushing’, ‘writing’, ‘running’ and refers both to a flowing script and to the idea of talking while walking.” Program note.]
Chamber Made, Phobia Chamber Made, Phobia
photo Jeff Busby

Chamber Made Opera
Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, Jan 15-17

Another fascinating new music theatre experience was Gerard Brophy’s Phobia for Chamber Made Opera, in which there was a lot of music but no singing. A bit extreme, some would think, but in fact utterly magical. The ‘theatre’ bit comes from the way the music is created. The set is nothing more than a finely lit, dense assemblage of instruments for making music, noise and special effects, as you would for a film or a radio play. The 6 sound artists and musicians on stage create a soundtrack for an unseen version of Hitchcock’s Vertigo with frantic vigour and precision. It’s a bit non-plussing if you don’t know the film or at least its plot, but pleasure is still to be had moment by moment in the sheer inventiveness and multi-skilled talents of the performers. Structurally the tension dips away too towards the end, nothing that a bit of reworking couldn’t solve. Brophy’s score has a fluidity that can percussively yield both tension and release as well as, more lyrically, an apt period feel, all amplified by the performers’ investment in their art. Phobia is a unique creation opening up possibilities for Australian music theatre.

The Transmigration of Souls

Sydney Symphony Orchestra
Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, Jan 22-23

American composer John Adams’ memorial for the New York dead of September 11, 2001 is an elegantly constructed musical palindrome, beginning quietly with a litany of the names of the dead and ending with the same, but rising in the middle to huge enveloping, elegaic passion. The structure is unexpected but rewarding. So is the sound design. Street noises of New York wrap around the audience in the Opera House’s huge Concert Hall. Lone voices of the bereaved speak from behind you, to your right, from somewhere beyond the orchestra. Visually, this is one of a handful of occasions in the festival when projections worked effectively rather than becoming mere ‘background media.’ Australian photographer Greg Barrett’s images were projected onto a screen suspended over the orchestra. Their power resided in Barrett’s restraint. His black and white shots of New York gutters, pavements, grilles and walls all evoke the act of looking down while walking. And in most of the images there is a human shadow, symbolic of those people lost but also resonant of the radioactive shadow traces of the victims of Hiroshima. The exception is a mid-piece, slow long shot of a corridor, the camera moving towards a curtain gently wafting in the breeze, eerily reminiscent of a similar shot in Meg Stuart’s Alibi in a very different scenario.

While not on first hearing the most memorable of the Adams’ repertoire, the synthesis of orchestra and image worked unusually well and conductor Antonino Fogliani kept the pulse and the sheer scale of the work’s power in discrete check. The projections in the same concert accompanying Ross Edwards’ Symphony no 4 (a choral work peculiarly lacking the composer’s facility for memorable motifs) were in surplus and poorly integrated with the composition, while the video works supporting Maya Beiser’s multi-track cello concert at Angel Place (Jan 21, 23) were very ordinary. The huge images of water, nature and moonlight added little to David Lang’s impassioned, reiterative response to September 11, World to Come.

Tense Dave

Chunky Move
Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, Jan 20-24

Gideon Obarzanek was the choreographer who introduced Australian audiences to hard-edged, fast, pop culture-inspired dance with his Chunky Move company. The company has long since diversified, though the inspirations of popular culture are still in evidence. Tense Dave, however, represents a great leap forward for Chunky Move in working the dance theatre terrain with an expert ensemble, great design and powerfully consistent inventiveness.

Obarzanek invited fellow choreographer Lucy Guerin, innovative theatre director Michael Kantor, dramaturg Tom Wright and designer Jodie Fried to work with him on realising his vision and it’s paid off. The non-stop stage revolve as theatrical device transforms from mere conceit to metaphor to total embodiment: the performers are seemlessly integrated with its world of endless mutations. Dave (played with great aplomb by Brian Lucas) wanders into the lives and fantasies of his neighbors and the walls come down (literally). He is subject to their desires—romantic, sexual, murderous and paranoid—to the point of near extermination. But Dave gets up and struggles on, a rather trite conclusion after the magic of the preceding hour but not diminishing too much the power of a very singular work. Once again, violence is the modus vivendi and the relentlessness of the revolve evokes a kind of helplessness beneath the work’s comic veneer.


The packed-out series of showings of Through the Wire (writer-director Ros Horin; Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, Jan 22-24), a verbatim theatre work-in-progress account of the lives of asylum seekers and their relationships with people visiting them at detention centres, revealed the extremes of cruelty that we as a nation have perpetrated against fellow human beings, but also a great need for audiences to be told the story. The appearance of Shahin Shafaei, one of the refugees playing himself (and as the least theatrical of the performers, the most effective), and the presence of the other subjects of the story onstage for the curtain call added power to a simply told but crucial tale.

Def Poetry Jam from New York featured American performance poets from Afro-American, Hispanic and Arabic backgrounds in a celebratory, often comic, sometimes bitterly angry account of their lives in a slick, quick-fire show that lacked the incisiveness and anger of some of their pop contemporaries. Young audiences, especially in Parramatta, were totally and loudly engaged.

The Glass Garden (GoD BE IN MY MouTH productions, Jan 14-17) was staged in a secret location which turned out to be the old armoury on the edge of Olympic Park, an evocative choice of site. However, once we were in the hall the connections quickly slipped away in the conventional end-on staging of this pop-opera of a young man’s decline into madness, murder and a subterranean Planet of the Apes ruled by a Fu Manchu figure. The trigger for this descent in the Glass Garden is the young man’s discovery that he has breast cancer. He encounters various female figures on his journey, including the raunchy dancing apes (who emerge from a huge toilet bowl), but resolved love or redemption are not in sight and electrocution is. Brennan’s quiet, nervy characterisation of the young man and Brian Lipson’s over-the-top baddies made for an odd dynamic. The writing is excellent at first but subsequently uneven and the overall structure unwieldy, none of which seemed to bother the young audience enjoying the extravagance of Brennan’s narcissistic vision. I confess I couldn’t get any perspective on this work—I felt time-warped back into the 1970s—a Jungian trip demanding Freudian attention.

Sydney multimedia whizzes, The Brothers Gruchy, turned on a very different dream. For their Museum of Dreams they built The Pod, a kind of mini-Imax wide-screen kiosk for 3 or 4 viewers with movies of dream-tellers accompanied by excellent sound. From one part of the screen, someone tells you a dream as they’re superimposed over its visual approximation. It’s a logical step on from Playback theatre where performers act out the audience’s dreams. But the aim here is more magical and archival than therapeutic and is not concerned with literal interpretation. These brief works are beautifully filmed with framing that evokes dreams—as an older woman speaks, the screen is dominated to the right by a close up of a child bicyclist’s hair in the wind. We can’t see her face, but the pleasure of movement is palpable. The Pod was busy when I visited it (Riverside Theatres, Parramatta), so my glimpses of other’s dreams were few, but their impact was strong. The pod also has a facility for recording your own dreams, addressed to a camera in the booth and later collected by the Brothers Gruchy for their archive. Let’s hope this idiosyncratic museum soon finds a permanent home.

Last word

The 2004 Sydney Festival yielded dreams, visions and extremes true to the uncertain and exploratory nature of the times. The dialogue with our bodies intensifies and our awareness of and responsibility towards others are writ large.

A report on the Breaking the Cycle music theatre event at the Parramatta Riverside Theatres will appear in RT 60.

2004 Sydney Festival, Jan 8-26

RealTime issue #59 Feb-March 2004 pg. 5-6

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

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