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Perth International Arts Festival

Something in the air

Sarah Miller

Perth International Arts Festival Director Sean Doran showed an alarming prescience when establishing elemental themes for his 4 festivals. The 2000 festival was themed ‘water’ and sure enough, it began with an unseasonable deluge that drowned out the Philip Glass opening night concert. The 2001 ‘earth’ Festival was-given the financial excesses of the previous year-much more down to earth! This year’s ‘air’ festival, despite a couple of nervous moments at Sticky—the opening performance spectacular in the far northern suburb of Joondalup—appeared to have escaped the literal elemental connection. Sticky relied on thousands of feet of sticky tape for its effects, so the mildest zephyr could be perilous. But this surprisingly beautiful spectacle moved without incident to its ambient and pyrotechnic conclusion.

360° in the shade

At the festival’s closing event, a freezing southerly buster made the experience of Amoros et Augustin’s 360° in the shade acutely unnerving. The show involved the installation of a huge projection screen, stage and rig on Cottesloe Beach (on possibly the windiest coast on the planet). The appalling weather made it hard to concentrate on anything but the risk to performers’ life and limb. This was a pity because there were fascinating moments in this performance which evoked a history through familiar and resonant images, from the cave paintings at Lascaux to the shower scene from Psycho; from sand paintings in the Navajo Desert to the photographic experiments of Thomas Muybridge and the paintings of Aboriginal desert people. To create these images the performers used a mix of live video feed, shadow theatre, action and sand paintings, mirror writing, live vocals and percussive beats: both astounding and ingenious.

While there were no instruments, the stage was constructed like a huge percussive instrument using a network of microphones, cells and sound sensors, distributed over the performers’ bodies, the screens, the floor and stage structure. The tightly scored composition was not to my taste and some of the images verged on the generic and overly romantic-often the case when European artists address Indigenous cultural traditions-but nevertheless it was a fascinating and committed performance by an extraordinary group of artists. My anxiety regarding the appalling weather was borne out on the second, equally windy night, when one of the performers slashed his hand and was dashed to hospital. The theme for the 2003 Festival is fire-I might just have to leave town!

Marnem Marnem Dililb Benuwarrenji, 
Fire, Fire, burning bright Marnem Marnem Dililb Benuwarrenji,
Fire, Fire, burning bright
Fire, Fire, burning bright

Some performances are highly polished, seamless theatrical events, constructed and informed by modern and postmodern tenets of capital ‘A’ art and the European and North American cultural tradition. Other work, while cognisant of those traditions, is recast in the vernacular of local influences and histories. Other performances are a gift-an opportunity to see, hear and witness the very different performance traditions-no matter how uncomfortable. This was certainly the case with the extraordinarily confronting Fire, Fire, burning bright (Marnem Marnem Dililb Benuwarrenji), written by Andrish St Clare and based on the traditional dances and songs of the Gija people and a true story told by Paddy Bedford and the late Timmy Tims.

Presented outdoors on a sandy stage at Belvoir Quarry, surrounded by trees, Fire, Fire tells the previously “hidden” story of the massacre of a group of Gija and Worla people murdered by white station workers and owners for killing and eating a bullock during a break from station work. The performance is a contemporary rendition of a traditional east Kimberley joonba (or corroboree) created for the stage. As such, this joonba, named and endorsed as a new style by the traditional owners, adheres closely to oral histories and incorporates the traditional songs and dance of the original sequence. St Clair explains, “the traditional performative culture of Australian Indigenous people is not primarily narrative. All the people in the community from Elders down to children usually already know the story, or at least the outside version which is open to all members of the community, so the need for narrative is absent, or coded very loosely...” (program notes). This means that the original joonba does not tell the story directly, but instead concentrates on what in western terms would seem to be peripheral details-in this case-the journey of the murdered men’s spirits.

From the shocking opening image of a corpse crackling on a fire, to the appearance of Gija people in ‘white face’ performing the roles of station owners, workers and police, this extended performance presents us with many extremely confronting images from our shared history. Despite considering myself reasonably informed about the atrocities committed in the name of colonisation, I was surprised at how disturbing it was to witness the Gija people telling this story. It was profoundly shocking to watch the whited up Gija men depicting the abusive language (“ya black cunt”, “bloody nigger” etc) and murderous actions of their white bosses.

The “hidden story” occurs earlier in the production. According to Peggy Patrick, (Company and Creative Director, singer, performer and Law) it was hidden because “people who were still working on stations were scared that if white people saw this joonba or realised what it was about they might all be shot themselves.” The latter part of the story presents the original joonba, the spirits’ journey, and contains audiovisual projections of country and traditional songs and dances with voiceover to explain the journey. Ironically, it was this part of the production, furthest from the concept of western theatre, that many of the non-Aboriginal audience were most uncomfortable with, finding it extraneous to the narrative drive.

The act of colonisation was ugly and brutal. Healing can only occur through a significant striving and an ability to bear witness to the violence enacted against Indigenous people in Australia. The listening can be painful and the truth uncomfortable. As Patrick says, “We want people to look at the show, to enjoy the song and dance and to learn what happened to our people in the past. Before, Aboriginal people were really frightened of white people. Now we hope we can all be friends together”.

One Day in ‘67

Yirra Yaakin Noongar Theatre’s production, One Day in ‘67, written by Mitch Torres, tells yet another story about Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal history, this time focussing on a tough but close knit relationship between a mother (Ningali Lawford) and her two daughters (Irma Woods and Ali Torres). One Day in ‘67 refers of course to the historic referendum in which white Australians voted overwhelmingly for Aborigines to be included in the national census, effectively giving them-somewhat belatedly-citizenship rights. The referendum forms a schematic backdrop for what is primarily a domestic drama-a heightened piece of kitchen sink naturalism. I thoroughly enjoyed this lucid and often funny production, which included outstanding performances by Lawford and Woods in particular, and Humphrey Bowers making the most of his role as the radio man playing the ABC’s signature tune on a ukulele.

The dramatic tension revolves around the relationship between the mother, Ruby, and her two daughters, one of whom is heavily pregnant. The first half ambles along in what feels like real time. The second half erupts into an enormous brawl between the two sisters. One sister has grown up with her mother in the mission, while the other was ‘stolen’ because of her lighter skin and given the ‘advantages’ of a white upbringing in the city. Torres adeptly negotiates the relationship between the 3 women to explore not only generational but cultural differences. Ivy (Woods) is determined to take up the cause for civil rights and shames her mission bred sister, Maudie (Ali Torres). Maudie sees her sisters’ adoption of a more confrontational mode as an implicit rejection and diminution of her own more traditional upbringing. There are some unbearably poignant moments in this play, offset by the sheer energy and cheeky humour of Lawford and Woods.


PICA hosted three solo performances on behalf of the Festival, including William Yang’s memorable and moving, Shadows. I became quite accustomed to arriving at work and finding yet another PICA staff member in tears following the show. Whilst much of it was extremely poignant, there were also moments of hilarity, from the opening images of garden parties at Government House for the 1980 and ‘82 Adelaide Festival of the Arts, to an ostensibly artless statement on censorship, delivered deadpan, while a large flaccid penis is projected on screen. Yang’s work always appear artless, when of course, it’s highly constructed, drawing many apparently disparate threads into a tightly woven whole that comments acutely on our humanity, or lack thereof.

Plastic Woman

Plastic Woman Plastic Woman
A particularly interesting performance Plastic Woman, presented by Thai Community Theatre Group, Maya, told in an endearing mix of Thai and English (and surtitles) the story of a “plastic woman” constructed by scientists to be the perfect sex machine. With the bare minimum of lights and props, the only set was a table to which was clamped a cheap and nasty plastic mannequin’s head wearing a truly dreadful wig. The script, originally written as a solo performance for a woman, is performed by a man, putting a very different spin on the performance. Thai TV star Asadawut Luangsuntorn’s compelling physical and occasionally sexually explicit performance conveyed the hypocrisy of a society that projects its own sexual fears and pornographic fantasies onto the figure of the desired woman. At the very end of the show, when the appalling statistics about the sex tourism industry (particularly with minors) start to scroll down the screen, we understand that this Brechtian style parable has an Australian audience well in its sights. The majority of the 5.4 million sex tourists who arrive in Thailand each year are Australian and German men. Something else to be proud of.

Failing Kansas

Not everything in this festival was to do with challenging content. At the high modernist end of the spectrum were two very different works—Mikel Rouse’s solo opera, Failing Kansas and the performance installation for fifteen voices, An Alphabet, by John Cage. The former was an hour long “tragic” opera very loosely based on Truman Capote’s renowned In Cold Blood, which explores the events surrounding the murder of the Clutter family in Holcombe, Kansas. The connection escaped me completely. I do not mind opacity, but having established the formal parameters of the work ten minutes would have sufficed. As it was a late night show, I took the opportunity to catch up on a bit of sleep.

An Alphabet

However, I loved An Alphabet, adapted from John Cage’s radio play of 1982. For me, Cage is a seminal 20th century figure and his ideas have informed much of my thinking about art and performance. Presented as an almost sculptural installation, the play assembles the luminaries of the avant-garde modernist tradition: James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Rose Sélavy, Henry David Thoreau and Erik Satie as well as Robert Rauschenberg, Buckminster Fuller, Merce Cunningham and a 9 year old Mao Tse Tung. Their conversation comprised quotations from theories, lectures, manifestos, novels, freely adapted historical material and lines Cage simply made up. The dialogue is both live and pre-recorded and juxtaposed with fragments of musical and pedestrian sound. Cunningham gives a brilliantly understated and charming performance, playing not himself but Erik Satie. Mikel Rouse is James Joyce, and an utterly virtuosic John Kelly is the narrator. The performance also included local “celebrities” such as State Gallery Director, Alan Dodge as Rauschenberg, Alistair Bryant, Director General of the Department of the Culture and the Arts as Buckminster Fuller, and Channel 7 newsreader, Peter Holland. Though adapted for the stage after Cage’s death, this performance truly inhabited the world of Cagean aesthetics. Set on a stair-step structure, the cast, with the exception of the narrator, remains relatively static. The performers shift only at precisely choreographed moments, striking intermittent poses in a slowly evolving tableau.

Sticky, Improbable Theatre, Joondalup, Feb 2, 3; 360° in the Shade, Amoros et Augustin, writer Marie Jones, director Ian McElhinney, Indiana Tea House, Cottesloe Beach, Feb 15-17; Fire, Fire Burning Bright, The Quarry Amphitheatre, Feb 6-10; One Day in 67, Yirra Yaakin Noongar Theatre, director David Milroy, Subiaco Theatre Centre, Jan 28-Feb 16; Plastic Woman, Maya-The Arts and Cultural Institute for Development, director Santi Chitrachinda, PICA, Feb 5-8; An Alphabet, director Laura Kuhn, Playhouse Theatre, Feb 14-16; Perth International Arts Festival.

RealTime issue #48 April-May 2002 pg. 24-

© Sarah Miller; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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