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Les Ballets C de la B, Iets op Bach Les Ballets C de la B, Iets op Bach
photo Mark Rogers
By all accounts, instead of a bunny some dusty roadkill was let out of the hat in the discussion of community art at the Festival Forum thanks to Scott Rankin (Big hArt works) and Malcolm McKinnon (Essential Truths Readily to Hand) taking a few blind punches at “arts wankers”. This brought on the depressingly tired argument about “elite” art versus the “art of the people.” A paragraph from an essay on Bill Seaman’s work was thrown to the crowd and duly savaged. To his credit, chair Michael Cathcart gave right of reply to Seaman who with customary courtesy made a simple plea for plurality. Harley Stumm from Urban Theatre Projects in Western Sydney urged more vehemently for community artists to embrace the new or lose touch altogether with their communities. Rumour has it that this speech earned Harley a post-forum hug from shockheaded Peter Sellars.

I’ve seen no more affecting depiction of community than in the new work by Les Ballet C de la B, Iets Op Bach. On behalf of the artists Robyn Archer dedicated the opening night performance to the late Dame Roma Mitchell who had expressed a strong desire to see this work. This is the company who rattled and seduced us at the last festival with La Tristeza Complice. In Iets Op Bach we observe a community in all its poignancy and resilience. The work mixes contemporary dance, performance and circus tricks and by juxtaposition returns the music of Bach to “the people”. The classical music is ignored, silently contemplated and occasionally blissfuly danced to. It comforts and stirs. This work about people living on the edge of heaven and hell, is in turn created from the observations and experiences of a close community of performers working with director Alain Platel. To discern the matter of this work we watch the body in its full stretch, length, see its capacity for endurance, balance, watchfulness, its peripheral consciousness. We observe edginess alongside indolence, madness and serenity, an adolescent observer watches an adult exhibitionist. A small child wanders the stage and at one time or another is calmly attended to by all the cast.

Unlike the transient population of La Tristeza, in Iets Op Bach people who live in one place gather in communal space, the roof of their apartment block. Throughout this work we hear the burble of human talk, the little girl cries, women shout slogans, musicians chat between sets. An air-conditioning duct interrupts the action and the glorious renditions of Bach by musicians and singers. There are arguments, outbursts, groups synch into choreography, some mimic moves for a time, then abandon them. What slowly unfolds is the coherence that emerges despite difference and just as often because of it. There’s no resolution and more catharsis than a fireworks night. In one sequence a girl dressed in white takes confidently to the stage and then discovers there’s blood all over her dress. At first she’s embarrassed then defiant, then she wildly flaunts her condition. The others ignore her, a couple try to hide her, to help her remove the soiled clothes eventually torn from her while a man shouts “Dirty bitch.” Like many other sequences in the work this one extends long past our sense of predictable stage time. It never really finishes; there’s no line between that and the next when something equally captivating happens. This a sublime hybrid performance. “It was worth being alive to see it,” said a friend.

As I watch La Ribot performing her Mas Distinguidas, I’m thinking about the 25 Years of Performance Art Conference at Sydney’s Performance Space in 1995, in which Noel Sheridan and Mike Parr had hissy fits about the incursion into the pure form of performance art by people with more theatrical intentions. I suspect Maria Ribot would turn their ears pink. I’ve heard her referred to as (finally!) a performance artist with a sense of humour (yeh, yeh). But it’s not that simple. Though she clearly knows her way around a port de bras (high art/classical dance) her pieces eschew expertise (postmodern performance) or obvious displays of artfulness (performance art). Performing naked with only a little dye for comfort (performance art) she sometimes looks like Buster Keaton (pop culture/high art) but without the virtuosity (performance art); one minute she’s in an intimate relationship with the audience, timing us as we successfully achieve one minute of reflection, contemplation, meditation and silence in real time (contemporary performance). “Very well done” she says. Next she is a demonstration model attempting a set of difficult instructions in her see-through suit or a grunge angel with foam rubber wings running on the spot (theatre). La Ribot also casts aside purist notions of ephemerality. In a nifty model of artistic enterprise she has hit upon the idea of selling her distinguished performances (commercial artist). Peter Sellars says money is like sausage, you shouldn’t spend too much time thinking about where it comes from, but for La Ribot her distinguished proprietors propel the work and are free to attend any performance anywhere in the world. In the end it’s the brave presence of this artist shifting across a minefield of definitions that holds my attention during her performance. She reminds me of an exotic bird caught inside the confines of the Space looking for a way to get out.

Another day, another forum on community and Robyn Archer deflects a poison dart from Michael Cathcart about artists as people in black who only talk to each other and refer to French theory. She believes in finding ways to take difficult or challenging work to the community. However, for her it is just as important for artists to talk to one another—it makes for more and maybe better art. The Adelaide Festival is, after all, a major meeting place for a community of artists. After the forum I talk to a performer/writer/community arts worker who tells me about the man who came up to her after a performance and told her he had a polaroid of her vagina on his notice board. She did vagina pieces for a while she said. He wanted her to autograph it: “To Eddie”. This festival, she’s signed up for a workshop at the Playwrights Conference. Next week she’ll be talking about working with kids at risk in her community project in Western Sydney.

Art is about “not knowing,” says Howard Barker; about “living the new life,” says Sue Thomas, who runs an online community writing project (trAce) at Nottingham University (Verve Forum). Bill Seaman “encourages us to think beyond what we know.” For photographer Bronwyn Wright, (Essential Truths Readily to Hand) “Each mark is layed over by others. My marks cross bird tracks, marks made by water, the incised paw marks of my dogs and the bare footprints of Maningrida women who walk beyond the lines of mangroves in search of crabs. Their marks will cross mine.”

In the spirit of recombination I offer my own little contribution to community improvement. What say we re-program all the poker machines along the lines of Bill Seaman’s world generator. Oranges and lemons will be replaced by small fragments from Mallarmé and Gregory Ulmer and cryptic DVD clips from Les Ballets C de la B. With all the time in the world punters become posers (pokie users) who set about mapping the patterns of human thought. Each machine will be linked to every other one in the room and jackpots will go to La Ribot to create even more distinguished pieces.

Festival Forums: Politics and Art—inspirer, inhibitor or accelerator, March 9; Cutting Edge—where community art is taking us, March 10; Essential Truths Readily to Hand, Festival Foyer; Verve: the other writing, Ngapartji Multimedia Centre, March 9; Iets Op Bach, Les Ballets C de la B, Festival Theatre, March 10; Mas Distinguidas, La Ribot, The Space, March 8; Adelaide Festival 2000

RealTime issue #36 April-May 2000 pg. 21

© Virginia Baxter; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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