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Melbourne International Arts Festival

Chance, dance, animals & the unconscious

Philipa Rothfield

Théâtre du Soleil, Le Dernier Caravansérail (Odyssées) Théâtre du Soleil, Le Dernier Caravansérail (Odyssées)
photo Carla Gottgens
It’s always exciting to experience a festival curated by a new artistic director. The hope is that the works will speak to each other, like a group art show. But time attenuates, and each work is redolent with its own mix of references, sources, and aesthetics. So, what’s the common thread? Well, each show began with an announcement regarding the emergency exits. Terrorism anticipated—we can hardly wait.

Le Dernier Caravansérail

While John Howard was scribbling new ‘anti-terror’ laws on the back of a search warrant, Ariane Mnouchkine’s Théâtre du Soleil presented Le Dernier Caravansérail (Odyssées), stories from the Other side. Here we all are, perched in the Royal Exhibition Building—a 19th century colonial avatar—watching a French theatre company portray 20th century outrage. The show, in 2 parts, was constructed by Mnouchkine and her company from life stories gathered in Europe, Indonesia, New Zealand and our own Villawood Detention Centre. Text in the production appears as calligraphy on a screen, ghost writing at the back of a cavernous, grey space. A letter from Mnouchkine to one of her informants, familiar and chatty, begins the show, marking a year since their meeting in which tales were told. Moving from micro- to macrocosm, the entire stage is consumed by a storm: grey silk waves threatened to engulf impossibly small vessels purporting to carry human cargo, whether across a swollen river or in waters deemed Australian. Life is reduced to chance.

Finally the waters clear and we watch these lives hung out to dry in a series of vignettes located across Europe, in Asia, Iran, Afghanistan, and Australia. The stage is bare. Props and people are rolled in on wheels by other cast members. This device portrays the limited agency experienced by these figures. The contrast between the huge stage and its human sized tableaux only emphasises the claustrophobia of each situation. What to do in the shadow of the Taliban where every pleasure is under threat? A ‘love story’ is portrayed, ending with a beautiful woman being hung. A man showing a film is shot; a woman is flogged for demonstrating in Iran; young women are kidnapped into sexual slavery in Serbia. Not nice. Nor is their reception in humanitarian way stations such as the French Red Cross camp in Sangatte, now dismantled. Repeated scenes next to train tracks in the Eurotunnel display the bribing of Mafia criminals for a chance to catch a hurtling train. Repeated scenes at the port of Calais. A call to home pretending things are okay. Well they’re not. Whilst this was not Peter Brook, there was something epic that reminded me of his work. I think Le Dernier Caravansérail grew in importance by our knowing that its references were real. Other works might quickly fade, whereas this was and still is particularly vivid. So it’s somewhere between—between artifice and the world, stage and life—that this work achieves genuine import.


Meanwhile, everyone knew about the goat. It was plastered on billboards all round Melbourne. Saburo Teshigawara’s Green offered a refreshing difference in terms of aesthetic choices, not just through his inclusion of farmyard animals. His lighting was interesting—a square was marked out on the stage but not occupied as such. There were moments when lights went on and off. Heterogeneous elements refused to cohere. Although the actual dancing was clearly derived from the one body, Green comprised a range of performers and tempos. One scene looked like it was lifted from a comic strip—a motley row of performers involved in some kind of repeated altercation. A man dressed in Sumo pants sang Mozart. All of this contrasted with the in-itself, the pure opacity of bunnies, goats and cows tethered or roaming. The bunnies begin the piece, wandering along the front of the stage, slowly overwhelmed by the heavy metal music of UK band, SAND. A small woman swoops and picks up the bunnies. She in turn is swooped off her feet. There are several differentials of size, large men dancing, small men, smaller women. It felt like the big men were giants from Greek mythology. Perhaps this fantasy was provoked by the use of humans and animals, a difference between types. Whatever the meaning of the animals, and one could speculate indefinitely, Green allowed the viewer to enter an alternative aesthetic of space and time that was pleasurable in its unfamiliarity.


Red is emblematic of so many things depending on context and culture but, in Fagaala, it means death. In addressing through dance the genocide that occurred in Rwanda, Senegalese choreographer Germaine Acogny and Japanese collaborator, Kota Yamazaki, drew upon a mixture of affect, emotion and energy. Acogny did not re-present what happened but tackled her subject from a variety of directions, shifting from one mode to another. The piece represented not a narrative whole but a multiplicity of approaches. Dancers were not given parts, rather a rolling series of dances, spatial arrangements, rhythms and progressions. Body parts were covered or immobilised, people were lifted and rolled, bodies confronted and menaced each other. At times, the 7 dancers formed a kind of Greek chorus, witnesses to atrocity, but they were also always bearers of their own sexual and rhythmic energies. Sometimes ghosts of the dead but also living dancers with particularities of style and execution. A man covers his head whilst repeatedly thrusting his pelvis in a suggested rape. Another enters covered in a cloud of white chalk that slowly permeates the space. Red string bleeds from another man’s mouth.

In the middle of Fagaala, the lights came up, the music stopped and concrete walls were exposed in a moment utterly without artifice. Although Adorno wrote that, after Auschwitz, poetry is a form of barbarism, there is nothing about Fagaala that belittles its topic. The radical silence generated in this rupture was a response to Adorno’s quandary: that whilst the attempt to astheticise genocide is obscene, suffering has every right to expression. Germaine Acogny managed to evoke the genocide in Rwanda without reducing it to the abject.

Shen Wei

In an altogether different citation of red, Chinese born Shen Wei created a painterly space within which abstracted bodies swirled along pathways suggestive of brushstrokes on canvas. The back wall of the theatre looked like a Chinese watercolour with a large backdrop suggesting handmade paper with small figures of inky paint, moments of black and red which were repeated in the dancers’ long skirts. Accompanied by Tibetan chanting, Folding encouraged contemplative enjoyment, a relief after Shen Wei’s frenetic but underwhelming interpretation of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The thunderous applause which greeted the latter was an interesting contrast to my boredom. For my part, Shen Wei’s close reading of Stravinsky was illustrative and kinaesthetically banal. Perhaps a greater understanding of the music would have transported me to the other planet that everyone else was on. One of the nice side effects of artistic conflagration is the clash of critical opinion. Sometimes you are led to reevaluate the person standing before you in light of their ridiculous opinions but, occasionally, you have to reassess your own experience.

The Gotham Suite

Expectation has a lot to do with it, for example Stephen Petronio’s The Gotham Suite. Billed as the “essence” of New York City, it was bound to both titillate and disappoint. The fashionable excitement in the audience was palpably libidinous. Personally, once I got over the fact that the choreography was not a lot more than classical ballet, I actually enjoyed its unashamed adherence to the lexicon. It’s not just the speed, it’s the assertion in Petronio’s choreography. The dancers ate space at full tilt, throwing limbs and undulating spines in a thoroughly contemporary cultural mise en scene: girls in cutesy outfits, boys in their PJs, backdrops silhouetting New York’s iconic fire escapes. I particularly liked Willem Defoe’s rendition of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven in The Island of Misfit Toys. Petronio also has a company of incredible dancers.

I Want to Dance Better at Parties

Kristy Edmunds chose two local dance works, Chunky Move’s I Want to Dance Better at Parties and Shelley Lasica’s Play in a Room, to feature as part of the festival’s program. I Want to Dance... opens up a space for the everyman. Interview material, reproduced through the spoken word and images, lends a documentary flavour to the depiction of ordinary men on the social dance floor. This contrasts with the trained bodies which form a third term to the sounds and images. Obarzanek makes no attempt to reproduce the ordinary lived bodies intimated through visual and aural means, though there are some cameos which appear to illustrate their subject matter. The work is a weaving of threads, incorporating video projection, photography, sound and movement. Personal narratives are introduced in relation to single performers who mediate our visualisations but group interactions are also used to create atmospheres or contexts for the spoken word. There is a whimsical, poetic feeling to I Want to Dance..., which makes it appealing in its depiction of, and connection with ordinary people.

Play in a Room

Play in a Room is an example of Shelley Lasica’s recent focus on reworking and restaging movement material. This is a work of counterpoint, asymmetry, attenuated connection, and drama. It is dialogical or, rather, polyvalent. Dancers observe, respond, and interact. Viewers also construct scenarios in response to a complex of activities. There are repetitions, familiarities, recent and long-term, but their context keeps changing. Even though several of the dancers are veterans of this work, the dancing enables each to maintain their own manner of movement. The sheer number of performers, along with its sustained elaboration, made way for a societal, rather than, say, molecular, sense of interaction. Not the society of the corps de ballet but one of steadfast singularities. François Tétaz’s remix of an earlier composition was a fantastic addition to the tantalising drama of the work. A string of 5 dancers form and deform into couplets, triplets. They provide a degree of gravitas not simply because, like Proust’s ‘little phrase’, they reappear, remembered and familiar, but because Lasica’s work resides in their bodies and has done so for some time. Play in a Room was successful, satisfying and strangely moving.

Bergasse 19

Finally, Bergasse 19, The Apartments of Sigmund Freud. Having recently travelled to these apartments, now serving as Vienna’s Freud Museum, I was eager to see Brian Lipson portray the legendary meister of the unconscious. I ought to have known better though. But we don’t know, do we? That’s the point. If there is one. Although there are allusions to Freud throughout Bergasse 19, Lipson and Pamela Rabe play a series of cross-dressed characters, identities, family, servants and animals associated with Freud and his zeitgeist. Lipson evokes Freud through a domestic staging of his psychoanalytic ideas, replete with condensation, displacement, oral, anal and genital forms of gratification. He chooses surreal clutter as his preferred topography, along with a tight rollcall of Feydeau style entrances and exits. Double entendres litter the script, enhanced by some interesting exhibitions of toilet humour. I particularly admired the construction of a subterranean underworld in order to show the fate of Freud’s long awaited crap, making its way across stage into the collective unconscious of Vienna’s sewage system. Haunted by the Holocaust, the performance also plays with temporality. Whilst the clock ostentatiously progresses through the famed 50 minute session, we are taken backwards and forwards in time, through several of Freud’s publications, with only a shrinking and growing plant to mark time. I found Bergasse 19 thoroughly entertaining, unruly, seething with contradiction, a worthy enactment of the unconscious as conceived by Sigmund Freud.

Melbourne International Arts Festival: Théâtre du Soleil, Le Dernier Caravansérail (Odyssées), director Ariane Mnouchkine, Royal Exhibition Building, Oct 11-16; Saburo Teshigawara/Karas, Green, State Theatre, Arts Centre, Oct 6-8; Jant-Bi,Fagaala, choreographers Germaine Acogny, Kota Yamazaki , Playhouse, Arts Centre, Oct 13-15; Shen Wei Dance Arts, Rite of Spring/Folding, choreographer Shen Wei, State Theatre, Arts Centre, Oct 13-14; Stephen Petronio Company, The Gotham Suite, choreographer Stephen Petronio, Playhouse, Arts Centre, Oct, 19-22; Chunky Move, I Want to Dance Better at Parties, choreograper, director, Gideon Obarzanek, video projection, Michaela French, Chunky Move Studio 1, Oct 9-15; Shelley Lasica, Play in a Room, choreographer, director, Shelley Lasica, Rehearsal Room, Arts Centre, Oct 16; Bergasse 19, The Apartments of Sigmund Freud, writer, designer Brian Lipson, director, Susie Dee, Grant St Theatre, Oct 14-23; MIAF Oct 6-22

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 6,

© Philipa Rothfield; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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