[2013081] Laurie Anderson & Kronos Quartet

[2013081] Laurie Anderson & Kronos Quartet

Laurie Anderson & Kronos Quartet @ Festival Theatre

8:00pm, Sat 2 Mar 2013

So… Kronos Quartet. Ever since a sample from Black Angels was used on Faith No More’s stunning Angel Dust, I’ve been giving Kronos more and more attention when we’ve crossed paths… and yet, the only work of theirs that I own is Howl, USA (Ginsberg’s Howl set to music). So when their name was mentioned at the Festival Launch, I was sold: it was time to give them their due, and tickets to both their shows were quickly snaffled.

As for Laurie Anderson… well, it’s fair to say that I knew of her, rather than about her… but, having dragged myself out of bed to see Anderson perform Duets on Ice on Friday morning (and having chatted with some long-time aficionados in the crowd at that event), I felt like I had a better handle on this multimedia performance artist’s work. And, quite frankly, the very idea of this collaboration had me quite excited.

But if there’s one thing that Landfall – this piece written by Anderson for Kronos – is not, it’s “exciting”. For the most part, it’s quiet: long sustained notes sitting down the low end of the frequency range, over which Anderson would contribute through voice (spoken, either natural or digitally distorted to a disturbing depth), iPad-triggered samples, or occasional electric violin. There’s precious few flourishes in the composition, with only rare moments for the Quartet to shine.

Behind the performers, a screen spanned the Festival Theatre stage; soft colours washed across it, but a few pieces featured Anderson’s text punctuating the screen, seemingly triggered by the Quartet’s instruments (or the product of impeccable timing). Like the music, however, the imagery isn’t impactful: it’s thoughtful, contemplative, almost meditative.

It’s ironic that, during a work inspired by the loss of Anderson’s possessions, my mind kept wandering away from the performance to my own possessions – I spent parts of the performance imagining where to work furniture in my home, or trying to figure out where my lost box of CDs was, or plotting the assault on my List of outstanding video games that needed my attention post-March. Only occasionally – usually triggered by Anderson’s percussion, or a harshly bowed cello or viola note – did I get dragged back into the moment, back to the reason I was sitting there in the first place.

Maybe that was just sleep deprivation having its wicked way with my attention span; maybe that was a genuine lack of connection. Whilst the fact that my eyelids grew heavy throughout the performance indicates the former, a sense of engagement usually helps overcome such issues… and that leaves me thinking that Landfall just didn’t work for me. And that’s a massive shame, because I was so looking forward to the performance…

[2013078] Itsoseng

[2013078] Itsoseng

Omphile Molusi @ Space Theatre

2:00pm, Sat 2 Mar 2013

As I’ve written many times before, matinées are like gold-dust at Festival time; this afternoon performance of Itsoseng was doubly attractive, given the short Q&A session with writer/performer Omphile Molusi beforehand. And despite the autobiographical nature of the performance, Molusi presents himself very differently to his character portrayal – quietly spoken and contemplative, he was always ready to delve into detail about his upbringing and career… but when he was asked the inspiration for Itsoseng – his now deceased friend that lives on in the play as Dolly – he became very, very guarded. I don’t know whether it was still an (understandably) emotional maelstrom, or whether he was protecting the patrons who would see the play later that day, but the clamming shut was very obvious.

We leave the Space after the Q&A session and return less than an hour later to find the stage dusted with sand and littered with trash, several pathways evident through the debris. We start late due to two older patrons who thought it’d be a great idea to nip outside to the bar for a drink just as the first-call buzzer was sounding; the germ of grumpiness that formed as a result was almost immediately dispelled when I discovered that there would be an Auslan interpreter during the performance (I love me some Auslan action).

Molusi enters the stage, and there’s hints of frustration in his actions; he is Mawilla, a young South African man returning to his home township of Itsoseng, only to find it in ruin and despair; the passing of the apartheid era has not had a positive impact on the community. He’s back to see his family, and the woman he adores; but societal changes have not been kind to any of his familiars, and his beloved Dolly’s path through life – a desperate, ruinous path – is more tragic than most.

Itsoseng‘s rhythms are odd: Molusi focusses on minutia, delicately painting vivid pictures through his dialogue, before skipping comparatively quickly over the human interactions that provide the backbone of the performance. And it is a lovely, touching tale… Mawilla’s love for Dolly is tangible, and the frustration he feels as a result of his inability to help her is raw. But the script is punctuated by almost orthogonal fractures where Molusi openly criticises the slow-moving and corrupt nature of South African politics; pertinent points, yes, but not at the expense of character development.

But the core story is still solid, and Molusi’s performance is headstrong and proud… though his accent threw me more than once, and I could’ve sworn Dolly was named Doo-lee. And I’m pretty certain he dropped into one of the other native languages of South Africa at several points… but I was too busy trying to discern the dialogue for myself to look at how the Auslan interpreter was coping. But the feeling of fragmentation and distraction within the script is hard to shake; I can’t help but think that cutting ten minutes of repeated political grandstanding would make this a much stronger piece.

[2013074] 6000 Miles Away

[2013074] 6000 Miles Away

Sylvie Guillem @ Festival Theatre

7:00pm, Fri 1 Mar 2013

Prior to the 2013 Festival kick-off, a friend had asked me for recommendations; I had immediately raved about Sylvie, and pointed her to my previous encounter with Guillem. My friend read my post, and returned unconvinced: “You say she’s an amazing dancer, but that her solos were boring?” Surprised by the comment, I re-read my recollections, and the memories came flooding back: yes, indeed, Sylvie’s solos in Sacred Monsters had felt… well, slow. A supreme demonstration of bodily control, to be sure, but…

From my near-optimal position, the Festival Theatre stage was a yawning chasm, and the opening piece of 6000 Miles Away (and the only piece to not feature Guillem) feels quite empty as a result. 27’52” sees dancers Václav Kuneš and Nataša Novotná cover the space with distinctly balletic movements and structures, with stark lighting creating curious cohorts in shadows. But the precision of their performance lacks a human element; it’s dry to watch, and even the use of shadow (and an occasional bared breast) doesn’t really entice me.

Sylvie Guillem performed alongside Massimo Murru in Rearray, a far more attractive piece that again exudes the precision of ballet. But, in comparison to 27’52”, it’s a much more approachable affair; there’s a bit more fragility on show, and I was actually engaged by their interactions.

But the highlight of the program was Guillem’s solo piece, Bye. Performed amidst a series of screens carrying various projections, the timing required to carry out the movements was just amazing: Guillem would fly across the space to fling an arm behind one of the screens, only for a different arm to be projected in her absence. And whilst the technological aspect of the piece was certainly impressive, it took nothing away from Sylvie’s performance; once again, her sense of control was nigh-on unbelievable… and the definition of her lower legs was amazing.

And yet, despite the strong finish in Bye, I don’t mind admitting that I left Festival Theatre feeling a little disappointed. Make no mistake, there was a technical mastery of the human machine (by all the dancers) that was almost beyond compare… but the lack of an emotional connection to the work left me flat. Once again, I can trot out my familiar “I don’t know anything about dance” line, but all I can say is this: Skeleton had me leaping to my feet in delight. 6000 Miles Away didn’t.

[2013071] Doku Rai

[2013071] Doku Rai

Black Lung Theatre @ Queen’s Theatre

8:30pm, Thu 28 Feb 2013

I was utterly thrilled to see Black Lung lauded in the launch for the 2013 Festival; their presence in the 2007 Fringe was massive, with both awards and audience plaudits richly deserved. More of the same with a Festival budget? Oh, yes please, I thought to myself.

After seeing The Smile Off Your Face earlier in the day, and having just been amazed by Skeleton, I was positively giddy walking into Queen’s Theatre; a drink from the bar, ten minutes exalting the previous performance’s virtues to some friends, and I felt on top of the world. The promise of a Black Lung head-fuck almost felt like too much goodness for one day.

Wandering into the performance space, I suffered an odd flashback to 2000’s Ur/Faust – there was smoke a-plenty, with a large temporary seating area that was springy underfoot. Comfy cushions were offset by a lack of backrests, but we’re buffeted by a band (Galaxy) rocking away at the back of the set (which is a murky collection of drapes and plantlife and canoes and not-much-light).

The house fills, the band stops playing, and there’s an awkward moment as they clear offstage and make room for the first act. It’s delivered in a mix of English and (presumably) a language native to East Timor (Tetun? it sure didn’t sound like Portuguese), with surtitles occasionally visible through the smoke, projected onto various pieces of the set. The inconsistent nature of the surtitles (and the muffled sound from the performers themselves) made following Doku Rai a bit of a chore; the eye would have to peer through the haze to try and locate translations somewhere new (and on several occasions I searched in vain for the text, only to realise that my lugs had mislead me, and that the muted speech had been English the whole time).

But it’s an engaging tale… in the beginning. One young man is bullied and harangued by his older brother; in desperation, he seeks to have his sibling murdered. After witnessing the violent death, the younger brother is then startled to see his elder return from the dead… only to be killed again, and again, and again, with the subsequent slayings becoming almost farcical – a joke unto themselves. The fact that the younger brother insists on the deaths being recorded on video creates a dark sense of bemusement; this carries over into some of the other characters’ interactions with the dead man walking.

The unexpected stage presence of a live rooster caused one of my neighbours (who, it turned out, is ornithophobic) to noticeably tense… which is a far stronger emotional response than the work ever caused me. Because at the end of the performance, I was left befuddled: was there a point to all of this? If so, did the production fail to make it, or did I just miss it? Whilst I could appreciate the production values of the piece – some of the staging, including the gorgeously constructed bath scene, was hauntingly dream-like – they felt largely inconsequential; the story of Doku Rai could have survived just as well without the complex and ever-evolving set, the elaborate-without-a-need lighting, and even the live band.

The closing moments of the performance – when the entire cast gather onstage to sing whilst video footage of the work’s East Timor development was played – suggests that there was a lot of effort behind the production. It certainly seems to treat the native culture with a great deal of respect, and delves deeply into native mythology… but the end result somehow feels shallow.

There was precious little detail of Doku Rai‘s content on hand at the 2013 Festival launch event, and – in retrospect – the cynic in me should have picked up on that; the whole thing reeks of a production where a bunch of money has been committed to the project without any real expectations of outcomes. Sadly, it really felt as if this mega-co-production was given enough rope to hang itself.

[2013070] Skeleton

[2013070] Skeleton

Larissa McGowan (and company) @ AC Arts Main Theatre

7:00pm, Thu 28 Feb 2013

At the launch event for the 2014 Adelaide Festival (which, at the time I type this, was just over two weeks ago), I bumped into a new friend from this year’s Festival; she mentioned that she’d been reading this blog every day (thanks!), but asked why I hadn’t kept writing.

The answer (which I never got around to telling her at the time) is, quite simply, “Skeleton.” This show.

Because there’s no way I can possibly convey what I felt during and after this show; there’s no way I can describe how it affected me. My word-writing skills, they ain’t that good… and yet, I want to try. I really want to impress upon the reader how totally fucking amazing this performance was: how gobsmacked it left me, how much I wanted to rave about it to anyone who would listen, and… well…

…see? I feel utterly incapable of writing about its impact on me. But what I can write about is what I expected… and what I saw.

Anyone who has engaged in conversation with me about the Australian Dance Theatre over the last couple of years has instantly regretted it; my (increasingly irrational) disappointment in their output manifests itself as a boorish outspokenness. But one positive constant throughout recent ADT performances has been the presence of Larissa McGowan; far from the ever-so-slight stereotypical dancer, her Amazonian physique exudes strength – whilst her movements still revel in grace and finesse. So when Skeleton was announced as her first independent work, I was anxious to see what she would conjure up outside of the technological constraints of the ADT.

So I was initially a little nonplussed when the piece opened with a series of person-sized screens (like mobile office partitions) steadily crossing the performance space, constant velocity their only virtue. But then the screens started leaving behind dancers: clad in simple grey garb, they’d sneak onstage under the cover of the screens, hold a pose or commit to a small movement, before disappearing from the stage behind another screen.

The effect is… well, magical. The understated nature of the movements – both human and mechanical – assures me that this is no ADT-style technological tour de farce.

And then Objects start appearing, their pure-white presence a stark contrast to the inky blackness of the space and the grey-and-tan of the performers. A shoe appears from behind a screen; a skateboard rolls into the dancers’ interactions. A bike becomes a focal point. The threatening presence of baseball bat matches the unsettling soundtrack of samples from movies; the audio verges on the discordant throughout, with the end result being an edgy undercurrent of violence.

Whilst the movements of the dancers spans the range from ballet to pop’n’lock, Skeleton also has a couple “gimmicks”. The aforementioned screens frame the performance, and even when they’re static – most notably during the kicking sequence – their presence still defines the space, providing a contrast to the engagement of the dancers. But the most startling gimmicks are the Objects: their pure white appearance gives the impression that they are made of plaster… an impression that is validated when they eventually shatter.

And those moments – those shattering moments – are real technical standouts. Whether it’s a skateboard snapping in two, or a t-shirt on a dancer in motion, every breakage seems perfectly timed. I honestly have no idea how some of those moments were controlled; in particular, after tensions simmered within a protracted atmosphere of violence, the dancers stop mid-move, and turn in unison to look at a bicyle at the back of the stage… they hold the pose for a perfectly weighted beat, and the bike snaps in two. Retrospectively, it seems like a bizarre series of events, but it triggered something in my mind that has been haunting me ever since.

But even without the gimmicks, Skeleton was still utterly compelling. The physicality of McGowan’s troupe brings a real sense of power to the stage, engaging me on a visceral level; the fact that the soundtrack of the performance was unnervingly discordant, and that the gimmicks were so stunningly effective, was super-delicious icing on an already glorious cake.

As with the Ennio Morricone event last year, at the end of the performance I was suddenly up on my feet, clapping and wooting as loudly as I could. It’s only the second time ever that I’ve (intentionally) given any performance a standing ovation, but – once again – I found it absolutely inconceivable that I could not be on my feet. Skeleton was a contemporary dance masterpiece that engaged me more than any other performance in the last half-a-decade… and, what’s more, it encouraged me to believe that there is a viable intersection between dance and technology.

[2013069] The Smile Off Your Face

[2013069] The Smile Off Your Face

Ontroerend Goed @ State Theatre Company Rehearsal Room

2:00pm, Thu 28 Feb 2013

At the Festival Launch last October, I was delighted to see that Ontroerend Goed were bringing a trio of their immersive performance art pieces to the Adelaide Festival; they were the first three tickets I actually bought. And so it was that I was in the first group of people for the first performance of The Smile Off Your Face; poor timing (and a sleepy haze) saw me running stupidly early, the first to arrive at the little waiting area just inside the Playhouse. A lovely chat with the Festival staff, some friendly words with the other five patrons who turned up (none of whom had taken part in this performance before), and before I knew it I was descending the steps on my way to the STC Rehearsal Room with another punter… the first two people to participate in the 2013 revision of The Smile Off Your Face.

After an amiable chat as we sat across from each other in the low light of the “waiting area” prior to the Smile experience, I offered the woman who had come down with me the first spot; I’ve already experienced this performance, I told her, and I playfully ignored her curious queries as to the nature of the piece. And, as I watched one of the Ontroerend Goed crew quietly bring in a wheelchair and gently introduce themselves to my fellow audience member, the memories came flooding back: The wheelchair. The blindfold.

The binding of the hands.

Oh shit – the binding of the hands. “There’s going to be some light bondage” – that’s what had been whispered in my ear five years ago, and I started remembering the mild sense of (eventually) swallowed panic that had accompanied the initial engagement… and all the other memories that had been rattling around my skull (which were more feelings and broad features, rather than minute details) disappeared in a rush of apprehension.

But I was soon in the wheelchair myself. Comfortable… familiar. The blindfold… yep, I’m good. The binding of the hands again… my heart flutters a little, and I take a deep breath as my wheelchair is pushed, swung around corners…

…and then I hear a looped snippet of PJ Harvey’s Catherine (from one of my favourite albums ever), and I’m instantly at ease.

Just like last time.

So much of the experience is familiar: I’m still lured into a world defined by my lesser-used senses. I drink in the ambient noises that accompany Polly Jean, hearing the woman that preceded me in the temporal distance; I’m left alone just long enough for me to start wondering whether (maybe) I’d been forgotten. The nose-rubbing with (what turned out to be) the “bearded” bloke; taking the left side on the bed again (some habits die hard), with a sensuous female voice whispering in my ear. The tactile double entendre of the carrot and red-lace of Saint Nick… and then the denouement.

The “bearded” man greeted me again, and showed me the Polaroid taken earlier, just after I’d been pushed up against a wall; the photo showed a genuinely happy version of Me, grinning whilst craning to hear sounds. But then he looked at me, just prior to the finale; “I like your smile,” he said.

“I’ve done this before,” I pre-empted. “I know this is the part that fucks me up.”

He faintly nodded and smiled in acknowledgement, and that caused me to grin, too. He seized the opportunity – “hold that smile,” he insisted, before the tears started rolling down his cheeks as my wheelchair was pulled away, his arm outstretched towards me.

And, once again, I was left emotionally mangled by the experience. Once again, I walked away from the venue elated and shattered and spent, grinning and aching and silently delighted that I got to go through That Experience… again.

But, as I walked up the stairs of the Festival Centre, I suddenly remembered that I’d done this before. I’d written about this before. Out came the phone as I stood mid-flight and compared notes… and I was genuinely surprised to see how much I have changed… and how much Smile has stayed the same. The similarities and changes in my reactions.

By seeing The Smile Off Your Face a second time, not only was I subjected to a wonderful piece of performance art, but I was also shown my own growth… and that, in itself, makes for a pretty amazing – and deeply personal – experience.