The eyes of BalletLab performers have a unique quality. There is a strange, distant, satisfied world behind them. Strange in its exoticism, distant in its mystery, satisfied in its method.
In a work like Amplification, this quality suggested the serious certainty of mortality—death being exotic, mysterious and inevitably methodical. In a work like Aviary, this quality infused the occasionally maddening ornithology with an equally maddeningly convincing internal logic—the kind of logic that is masked, impenetrable and yet undeniable. In a work like Miracle, this quality suited the transcendental mysticism to a tee—is there anyone as strange, distant and satisfied as someone on a higher plane of consciousness?
And All Things Return to Nature Tomorrow is a double bill of works by Brooke Stamp and Phillip Adams that both make full use of the BalletLab corps. Thematically, the works feel linked to Miracle. They are cosmological, ritualistic and transcendental.
Brooke Stamp’s And All Things Return to Nature kicks off the evening in full house lights. We are seated in an unevenly weighted square, where two sides are stacked with audients and two sides are made of only single rows. Above the stage are suspended 16 cymbals that form a golden circle of circles, a halo of musical vibration. The dancers are clad in high fashion sportswear by Susan Dimasi—part Nike the brand, part Nike the goddess. As visual signposts, the design elements point the way clearly enough: this will not be proscenium theatre, we will encounter the celestial, we will be party to mysticism dressed in high technology fibres.
Initially, the dancers move in isolation. They are transfixed by their own paths through space, uninterested in the other, wrapped in the self. Their gentle vocalisations suggest chants, incantations, mantras. Garth Paine’s intensely detailed composition picks these sounds up and layers them, forming a cascading aural blanket of indiscernibility.
As the dancers draw together, Stamp’s choreography echoes one of Phillip Adams’ stylistic touchstones with a prolonged sequence of action—in this case, a shuffling unison of steps. As the four performers stretch from a line to a diamond to a square, the squeak of their sneakers against the floor becomes a lulling certainty. Though their steps never break the unified rhythm, their faces betray some deeper meaning. At times, their eyes subtly shift focus and lose clarity. The strange, distant, satisfied world vacates them and one sees the struggle, the striving and the searching. Higher planes are hard work.
In Tomorrow by Phillip Adams, the eyes are back on full beam. Entering naked, the performers build a stage of swags, stones, fluorescent twine, reflectors and audience members. We are courting UFOs, constructing a landing pad and hoping for ascension in the form of abduction. The eyes, the nudity and the whispered intimacies with the front rows set up a peculiar dynamic of compelling coerciveness. What are you willing to do in the safe confines of a theatre with a hundred witnesses? When you look into a naked man’s eyes and see an exotic, mysterious and assured alternative world, will you follow him? It is to BalletLab’s credit that we do. They have created a cult with nothing more than their eyes.
This article originally appeared online in RealTime issue 114, April-May 2013, pg. 35, and is reproduced with permission. http://www.realtimearts.net/article/114/11064
The title More or Less Concrete might as well be a concise personality test of the half-glass variety. Are you a more concrete person? Or a less concrete person? Or are you more or less a concrete person?
Do you look for concrete meaning, narrative and figuration in Tim Darbyshire’s creation? Or do you look instead between the figuration to the abstractions, reveries and enigmas? You might find yourself pondering such questions as you take off your headphones at the end of More or Less Concrete.
Yes, you get headphones. For a production presented with a fairly standard end-on seating bank and a letterbox proscenium arch it seems an odd choice. The sound design itself rarely makes specific use of the medium in terms of aural quality, apart from at the very beginning, when a brilliant rendering of a muffled conversation between a man and a woman seems real enough for one to question the soundproofing of the North Melbourne Town Hall. Apart from that, the sound itself is not so quiet, nor so delicate that one needs headphones to discern it.
What the headphones largely achieve is to personalise and internalise the audio. On the one hand, there is the physical reality that no one else is hearing your headphones. On the other hand, there is the psychological paranoia that someone else’s headphones are getting better sound. Looking at rows of audience members in front of you, it becomes impossible not to feel distanced from them by this technological interference and perhaps the ubiquity of headphones in public spaces has rendered them a visual liability as much as an aural utility. This personalising aspect is compounded by how our brains process the information from headphones. We can perceive depth, location and movement using only our ears. When we move our heads, the sound signals alter slightly and this gives us even clearer metrics on where the sound is coming from. Headphones, by not changing the sound signals when we move our heads, cancel our depth perception. Our brain decides that the sound cannot be external and collapses the sound image into our head.
For a work like More or Less Concrete, this internalisation of the audio is a potential boon. So much of what Darbyshire seems to be striving for here is a liminal space between humour and melancholy, between the concrete and the abstract. The internalising aspects of the headphones can engender the pensive questioning of ambiguity required, they beg for subjective wandering. Yet, Darbyshire and his collaborators have not fully capitalised on their decision. The sound design largely remains within the literal diegetic sphere of amplified sounds from the stage relayed in real time. These sounds themselves are often literal in their choreographic derivation: the dancers move their arms as though being inflated and make sounds of inflation, the dancers move like animals and growl appropriately, a dancer bites an apple and we hear the crunch of an apple. Musique concrète is cited as an inspiration but there is only very occasionally the kind of collage, musicality and poetry that Pierre Schaeffer and his acolytes brought to that form. When the sound and the movement do contrast, both are made more profound, more expansive and mysterious. We are given room to imagine, to set our minds adrift in this non-literal space and the piece lifts accordingly. In other words, I wanted less concrete and more concrète.
Visually, More or Less Concrete can be seen as an evolutionary bildungsroman in blue. It begins with a distant body, an indiscernible blue clay that writhes slowly until it ejects one human form, then another and another. Their bodies are heavy, weighed down by the primordial soup, leaving only their backsides to float upwards. They find breath, they find limbs, they find extension. Bit by bit, they approach us, mounting one obstacle after another though they can barely stand. As they emerge finally beyond the proscenium, the house lights rise to meet them but their eyes are closed like moles, like newborns. It is all too much for them. Not 45 minutes ago they were still sparks in Prometheus’ eye. Now, they retreat slowly into the gloom far away.
But through our headphones we still hear their echo in our heads. Sound travels slower than light.
This article originally appeared online in RealTime’s Dance Massive coverage, 2013, and is reproduced with permission. http://www.realtimearts.net/feature/Dance_Massive_2013/11026
Four years ago, at Dance Massive 2009, the Meat Market in North Melbourne played host to the premiere of Lucy Guerin’s Untrained. Her latest work, Conversation Piece, can be read as an evolution and extrapolation on this earlier work.
Untrained placed two professional dancers beside two complete dance novices in an investigation of performativity, purity and, of course, training. Conversation Piece places three professional dancers beside three professional actors in an investigation of performativity, language and modes of communication.
Untrained was restricted to a clinical essence of form, a physical call-and-response, where the authorial voice of Guerin was evident only in the structure (a list of provocations), rather than in the content, which wholly derived from the performers. Conversation Piece operates with a somewhat looser form, where the performers now respond to one another’s provocations, and is leavened with choreographed intermissions that act to reassert Guerin’s voice in proceedings. Guerin also gradually inflects the piece with a unifying tone and a quasi-narrative based around the performers as characters rather than the performers as themselves.
The set for Untrained was simply a grey square marked out by a white line. The set for Conversation Piece is a minimalist suggestion of an anonymous waiting space—a bus terminal, a Centrelink office—with its three sets of four orange chairs echoing those in Shaun Parker’s This Show is About People.
Untrained was an experiment in physical performance unmediated by technology. Conversation Piece is an experiment mediated by iPhones, which do not act as phones, but rather as audio and video recording devices, playback devices and, crucially, as signifier of the age.
What is the value of juxtaposition? When one places a trained body beside an untrained body, does it simply reveal that one can pirouette, the other not? When one places an actor beside a dancer, does it simply reveal that one can speak, the other move? When one places one show beside another, does it similarly reveal only the literal points of difference?
In Untrained, the juxtaposition revealed as much about the audience as it did about the men on stage; what did we find engaging, funny, charming, impressive? It deftly walked the line between a celebration of naivety and experience, without falling into mawkishness or snobbery.
In Conversation Piece, the juxtaposition is more complex and more ambitious. Yes, we are at times invited to witness the gladiatorial struggle between body and voice, as though it were a battle of virtuosity where our laughter or applause determine the victor. But we are also asked to consider how both these forms—how communication itself—is affected by the iPhones’ mediations.
The work begins with an eight-minute improvised conversation between the three dancers, which is recorded on iPhones. The three actors come on stage, plug into an iPhone each and listen back to the conversation. Each actor then relays one of the dancers’ words, but stripped of modulation, gestures or appropriate tone. When all laughs are presented as cackles, all words presented with the same intonation and there is no gestural language available, it is a spoken text message. Some commentators have begun diagnosing texting-addicted teenagers and twenty-somethings as ‘flatliners’—their lack of engagement with the spoken word turning them into the walking dead of verbal communication. In Conversation Piece, the actors bring them alive.
In other respects, Conversation Piece rehashes some very familiar twentieth century tropes. The presentation of people linked together on a superficial level of purpose but without any expressive connections—that is to say, people waiting together at a bus terminal—is at least as old as Jean-Paul Sartre and his conceptions of seriality and alterity. So, if philosophers and artists have warned of increasing human disconnectedness since the inception of radio, what more can be said? Perhaps nothing completely new, but Guerin steadily pushes the tone of Conversation Piece into unexpectedly sinister landscapes.
At first, we might see a young woman talking irrepressibly in a one-way stream—channelling all three parts of the original recorded conversation. Then, the social one-sidedness might morph into the attempt a young man makes to converse with another man capable only of non-sequiturs. After this, that young man might start to manipulate the other man’s body in an increasingly cruel and unusual manner. Perhaps a woman debases and humiliates another woman in front of everyone. Perhaps a man, uncomfortable in conversation, unsure of himself with others, enacts a slow motion murderous fantasy in a bus terminal. The most important aspect is that all these things happen as monologues.
Conversation Piece is not about the conversation at the beginning of the show. It is about the lack of conversation anywhere else.
This article originally appeared online in RealTime’s Dance Massive coverage, 2013, and is reproduced with permission. http://www.realtimearts.net/article/issue111/10836
Skeleton is a struggle between strength and fragility. Like its namesake, the production itself is hard but brittle. Hard in the demands it places on the athletic dancers, brittle in its undernourished overall vision.
The work draws inspiration from Ricky Swallow’s sculptures, specifically those involving skulls and 80s paraphernalia. This is a tricky point to leap from. A vital feature of Swallow’s art is his ironic use of monumentality—making the unimportant extravagantly important, the practical completely impractical. It is a feature that is, to a certain extent, predicated on his medium, which is static and timeless. The theatre—kinetic and ephemeral—is a different beast entirely.
Nevertheless, Larissa McGowan and Sam Haren’s subsequent vision for Skeleton is of an “archaeological puzzle” that fleshes out the human frame with the muscle of pop culture. Unfortunately, the skeleton and the muscle end up running parallel. McGowan’s choreography carves out the physical concreteness of the skeleton in the present tense, whereas the pop culture exists merely as artefact, never truly coming alive. These artefacts include an all-white BMX that directly quotes Swallow’s famous 1999 work “Peugeot Taipan, Commemorative Model (Discontinued Line).” Lisa Griffiths’ intricate dance with the bike is expert in its execution but the interaction is not affecting, for her or for us. The archaeology of culture is not merely the digging up of urns, it is also the contextualising of the urn. And, though the props are skateboards and stilettos and the sound design is littered with Nintendo bleeps and horror movie howls, the work as a whole fails to build a context for these references, stripping them of meaning.
McGowan’s choreography bears the hallmarks of her time with Australian Dance Theatre. It is fast, explosive and at its best when the speed and forcefulness catch the viewer by surprise. Softness is not part of the vocabulary, nor should it be, given the subject matter. McGowan extends the dancers’ bodies as though from within them, the internal physical mechanics becoming apparent. And there seems to be a recurring motif of bodily disassociation, where the intention of the mind and the action of the body run counter to one another. We see this in Lewis Rankin’s frenzied solo, in Griffiths’ suddenly stiffened muscles. The choreographic language is rooted in the mechanical and, importantly, it is firmly internal.
The dynamics between the dancers are similarly mechanical. There is no engagement, nor relationship between them beyond emotionless grappling. This isolates the dancers from one another, creating spatial pockets of action rather than a stage full of tension, love, contempt or any other of a host of intangibles that can imbue the space between people with meaning. This, in itself, is not necessarily a negative, but the isolation here feeds into the larger, more crucial problem of the show’s parallel themes not interacting.
Skeleton promises most when it is at its most playful. Jonathon Oxlade’s design is perhaps too rigorously geometrical but the black screens that whisk across the stage are a brilliant creation. Silent and smooth, the screens deposit dancers and props in place or clean them up on their way out. They are a physical manifestation of a film edit, all the more appealing for their simplicity. Their use is effective as a way of quickly altering the space, but their potential is most apparent when reinventing images as though by magic. In these instances, the pop film language that the screens nod to is given its due weight but more could have been made of these opportunities.
Similarly, Jethro Woodward’s sound design is often a remarkable assault of mashed up film foley sounds. The splatter, the gore, the piercing screams are punched together so quickly that they become their own delicious music. However, as they lose their distinctness they also lose some of their ironic humour and the chance to juxtapose contrary or incongruous references is also missed. Occasionally, the engagement between the dancers’ bodies and the score approaches the well-worn path of fighting to sound effects (recall the martial arts scene of Chunky Move’s Tense Dave, 2003). McGowan steers away from that course for the most part, but the result feels like a compromise rather than a strong alternative.
In the end, the real strengths of Skeleton—the internal electricity of McGowan’s choreography, the dedication of the dancers, the magic of the black screens—cannot sustain a full-length show. The bones are willing but the flesh is weak.
This article originally appeared online in RealTime’s Dance Massive coverage, 2013, and is reproduced with permission. http://www.realtimearts.net/feature/Dance_Massive_2013/11003
Ashley Dyer’s Life Support tackles the politics of smoke with highly inventive brio. We are talking not merely of the personal politics of the body and health, but also the societal politics of pollution and climate change. No small feat.
The politics begin in the foyer. When we collect our ticket we are asked three questions for which our answers are noted:
1. Are you a smoker? (2 out of 39 respondents said yes)
2. Can you hold your breath for 60 seconds? (29 respondents said yes)
3. Have you ever saved a life? (28 respondents said yes)
The statistics on smoking were inconsequential; the statistics on breath holding were empirically proven to be highly inflated; but the politics lay in the heroic nature of our audience. Two were chosen by the artists to volunteer the nature of their life saving story. Then, having heard the tale of their heroism, we, the citizens of Dancehouse, voted on who would be our leader. They would determine when the show ended—a form of representative audience participation.
In the theatre itself, the work begins with a prolonged scene of a man smoking in a pool of light. It is impossible to escape cliché here: the practiced precision of the rollie; the sensuous intake of breath; the smoke drifting listlessly into the spotlight above; the deliberate poking of the ashtray; the fetishisation itself. One of the few clichés missing seems to be smoke rings. But on that, Dyer is ahead of the game.
Entering with what looks like a small drum, a performer stands behind the smoking man. Tapping the drum, filled with smoke, exudes perfectly formed smoke rings. Their sticky consistency, perfect curve and persistence through the air draw approving murmurings from the audience but, though the technical achievement and ingenuity of the method are laudable, it is the incurrence of bathos that is most effective. As the smoker adopts various arch poses, the smoke rings break on his head, his fist, they surround him and undercut him, undoing the vanity of his opening scene. Caught in the shafts of light, clusters of rings seem like visions of autoluminescent jellyfish. Thus, despite the bathos, the smoke itself never loses its primal appeal nor its mystery. It is as though Dyer is suggesting: smokers come and go, but smoke itself is eternal.
The magic of smoke and its visual elasticity are perhaps too enchanting. Life Support lags when it too overtly presents smoke as effect, rather than smoke as visual language. For instance, the smoke rings are followed by smoke bubbles, which are undeniably stunning as an effect, but in terms of affect offer nothing new. At times like this, Dyer’s formal investigation and his political enquiry have not fully melded.
However, the formal enquiry is important to the political one. Initially, the lighting reveals the smoke. Later, when the smoke is denser, it reveals the lighting; it makes visible the rays, cones and striations of the design. Similarly, speakers rigged to buckets of smoke create automated smoke rings on beats. Dyer is making the invisible visible and, in so doing, draws our attention to how much we are otherwise able to overlook—how are those lights and speakers powered but for smoke?
The smoker from the opening scene is present, if not pivotal, throughout. He is eventually, with solemn ceremony, plastic-wrapped into a cage filling with smoke. The image is haunting and affecting. The choking opacity of the smoke is broken at first by a disembodied hand pressed against the plastic. At the same time, smoke machines above the audience are turned on for the first time and the back wall of the set pushes in towards us. It is a nightmarish vision of asphyxiation and I wondered if this was the time to end the show. Was our representative leader, elected on the basis of her life saving abilities, to cut short the mesmeric display to save the performer’s life?
No. At least not this time.
Instead, the performer himself aborts his gassing with a slash of the plastic wrap. The back wall of the set closes in on us further, cutting off our view of the stage and, then, an object descends from the ceiling above our heads—a jaunty deus ex machina in the form of a glowing plastic sea urchin playing glitchy reggae as it descends. Apparently now was the time to end the show, though I cannot help but feel that the political agency of the citizenry might have been more seriously put to use two minutes earlier. But maybe that is the answer to Dyer’s political enquiry: you get what you vote for.
This article originally appeared online in RealTime’s Dance Massive coverage, 2013, and is reproduced with permission. http://www.realtimearts.net/feature/Dance_Massive_2013/11001
Back in 2008, Antony Hamilton’s debut full-length work, Blazeblue Oneline, established some of his choreographic reference points: street dance, graffiti, the link between the visual and the physical. In that production, the sheer bursting mass of his creative energy led to a procession of set pieces both tonally and chromatically varied. Given a large blank canvas, Hamilton threw everything on it at once. Somehow, it hung together remarkably well.
If Blazeblue Oneline was his thesis, then Black Projects 1 & 2 are his antithesis. Both are fascinated with the physical possibilities of mark-making and the ways in which a flat canvas can achieve three dimensions. However, where the former is ranging, the latter is taut. Where the former is exuberant, the latter is stern. Light, dark. Colourful, monochromatic. Et cetera. Hamilton has zeroed in on one section of his palette in order to go deeper rather than broader.
Black Project 1 is a study on the most minimal of variations. At first, there is nothing but a rumble. The rumble itself, if magnified, if expanded, would be discernible as a set of beats or individuated vibrations. But here it is a single sound, as large and enveloping as the sky. The set is a black floor and a black wall built on top of a black floor in front of a black curtain. But none of the blacks are truly black; there is a bit more gloss here, a small scuff there. The tonal vagaries are enhanced by a subtly shifting, cloudy projection on the wall.
In his program note, Hamilton claims he set out to investigate whether it is possible to create a controlled, neutralised aesthetic environment devoid of the subjectivity of context. He readily admits he failed. However, subjectivity aside, the kind of minimalist order he seeks will always be trumped by instabilities — entropy inevitably wins. One can look to minimalist music for precedents: Charlemagne Palestine’s Strumming Music, in which two notes on a piano are played continuously for some fifty minutes until the harmonics and tuning change entirely; or the phasing of Steve Reich’s tape loops. Given time and space, imperceptible differences become meaningful.
Hamilton’s choreography retains an austere, antihumanist formalism throughout Black Project 1. It resists any ready kind of psychological meaning making. Perhaps its only consistent symbolism comes in the paradoxical theme of erasure as revelation. The two dancers remove tape from their blackened bodies to reveal white skin, they remove tape from the walls to reveal jagged lines that are half silicone chip, half Suprematist painting. There is the potential for a political statement here, but Hamilton is too clear-eyed to step fully into any easy narrative. He remains steadfast in his investigation of tone and neutrality.
In Black Project 2, the visual language is even more restricted than in Black Project 1, though the number of dancers has tripled to six. The floor projections are almost exclusively of triangles, the costumes are identical baggy black body suits, the choreography largely limited to pivoting symmetrically about a central axis (though the dancers’ symmetry unfortunately falters in more complex choreographic phrases).
The central axis is key. The dancers slink on in front of the set of Black Project 1 and mass in a huddle. As the dominating sound design shifts from rasping solidity into fluidity, so the dancers transpose themselves into a six-headed beast, symmetrical on either side of the centre line. As they move their arms, they become a giant, animated, breathing Rorschach test. Neutrality be damned, Hamilton challenges us to project our Freudian unconscious onto the bodies of the dancers. Is this a rebuke to subjectivity? A literalising of the symbolic? Or is the reference accidental?
Black Project 2 feels less assured than the first; its connection between form and content is less coherent. The symmetry of the choreography could easily be read as a kaleidoscopic expression of fractal geometry, the projections certainly point that way. But with this colder reading of intent, how do we make sense of the moments that are not symmetrical? When one dancer falls deliberately out of line, the others quickly draw them back in. Is this a nod to the human desire for breaking machine-like rules or is it a barbed attack on the normative functions of Freudian psychotherapy? Probably neither. Rather than eschewing symbolism, here, Hamilton piles it on with a confounding thickness.
However, at the end of Black Project 2, Hamilton’s symbolism pays dividends. The six dancers reverently construct a small black pyramid to idolise. Then, in the closing moments, the pyramid vertices glow red — the only colour yet seen. While the dancers remain bowed in shadow, the audience find themselves applauding a glowing red pyramid as though it really were a thing worth idolising.
This article originally appeared online in RealTime’s Dance Massive coverage, 2013, and is reproduced with permission. http://www.realtimearts.net/feature/Dance_Massive_2013/10998
Short crust pastry, crème pâtissière, caramelised pears. Based on a Damien Pignolet recipe.
The first jar from winter’s preserved lemon efforts has been popped open and they’re turning up in everything. Aside from adding some welcome zing to end-of-week rescue pilau, the last two Sundays have seen more considered uses.
Baked Ocean Trout with Preserved Lemon
You’ll be making two things here: a stuffing for the fish cavity and a dressing for the final result. The two complement each other: the stuffing infusing the fish in the cooking, the dressing allowing the final dish to have a freshness of flavour.
1.2kg whole ocean trout, gutted and well-cleaned
extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper
1 preserved lemon, rinsed and rind only, thinly sliced
stalks from half a bunch of dill, chopped
half a red onion, thinly sliced
juice of half a lemon
1 orange, peeled, diced
a splash of white wine (optional)
half a red onion, very finely diced
1 preserved lemon, rinsed and rind only, finely diced
fronds from half a bunch of dill, chopped finely
juice of half a lemon
Preheat oven to 220°C (conventional). In a medium-sized bowl, mix all the stuffing ingredients except for the wine and season with pepper. Place the fish on a lightly oiled aluminium foil sheet large enough to wrap it up in. Salt the skin lightly. Pack the stuffing into the gut cavity of the fish. Splash white wine over the fish, wrap it in the foil (so that no steam or liquid will escape in the oven), place it on a baking tray and put in the oven for 15-20 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the dressing by first quickly blanching the onion in some boiling water to mute its taste. Then mix with the rest of the ingredients and stir through a few tablespoons of olive oil until you have a balanced dressing.
Once the fish is baked, use a knife to cut fillets and a spatula to ease the flesh away from the bones. Serve skin side-down with the dressing on top. Goes excellently well with roast potatoes, sour cream and asparagus.
Chicken Thighs with Yoghurt and Preserved Lemon
2 free range chicken thigh fillets, skin on
half a preserved lemon, rinsed and rind only, finely diced
2 heaped tbsp yoghurt
2 tsp sumac
juice of half a lemon
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
half a preserved lemon, rinsed and rind only, finely diced
4 tbsp coriander, finely chopped
Clean the chicken thighs and cut away or cut through tendons and bone. Score the skin in a few places. Mix the marinade ingredients, using the salt to help crush the garlic. Pour the marinade over the chicken and rub it in well. Place in the fridge overnight or for a few hours.
Heat a frying pan or barbecue (I used a cast iron frying pan lightly greased with rendered chicken fat). Depending on the size of your pan, fry one or both thighs skin down first until the skin is well-browned. Turn and fry the other side for a couple of minutes until the chicken is only just cooked through. Remove the chicken from the hot pan, sprinkle with coriander and preserved lemon and cover with foil for the meat to rest and the coriander to slightly cook. Serve with fresh bread and a green salad.
The Easy Dinner
Dinner for 12: 1 table, 2 chefs, 3 pheasants, 4 days of cooking, 6 hours of eating.
The Easy Menu
Oysters with chorizo, tomato and pomegranate molasses dressing (variation on Greg Malouf recipe)
Scallops with crispy jamon, parsley, breadcrumbs and butter (variation on Tessa Kiros recipe)
Simple Country Terrine of chicken, pork and spinach (Damien Pignolet)
Jerusalem Artichoke soup with Mushroom Pouch (Drakamöllans)
Cypriot Lamb with Potatoes, Tomato and Cumin (Tessa Kiros)
Pheasant Bestilla (variation on a Tess Mallos recipe)
Sherry Vinegar Mushrooms (Frank Camorra)
Grilled Polenta with Parmesan (traditional)
Caramelised Orange, Witlof and Asparagus Salad (Maggie Beer)
Campari and Grapefruit Granita (variation on River Cafe recipe)
Baklava (family recipe)
Antony Hamilton’s previous full-length works have been unified by a predilection for the adolescent or naïve. In the excellent Blazeblue Oneline, it was the playful mark making of graffiti mixed with cardboard box Transformers. In I Like This, Hamilton, together with Byron Perry, ended a piece about dance creation with a beautiful image of themselves as prelapsarian boys under a doona—fascinated by the magic of light, the possibility of imagination. In Drift, the theme continues with what feels like a pastiche of Heavy Metal comic book tropes.
On the other hand, the clearest point of difference between Drift and Hamilton’s earlier work is that this one eschews the theatre and takes place under a highway. Whether it is the epic scale of Peter Brook’s Mahabharata in a disused quarry, or the intimate celebration of the Flinders St – Elizabeth St intersection by The League of Resonance, site-based works call on their environs and their architecture for framing, for meaning, for reflection. Hence, it seems utterly appropriate that a work set underneath a highway should also be a drive-in show, where we park side-by-side and tune in to the soundtrack’s frequency. In fact, there is a giddy thrill in being given a map and a radio frequency instead of a ticket.
And so, in the gravel and dust beneath the CityLink overpass, down past the Xanadu tent, beside the film studios, in the shadow of the crippled remains of the Southern Star Observation Wheel, across Railway Canal from the city of shipping containers, in front of a row of cars, Antony Hamilton and friends create a post-apocalyptic vision. In that sense, this is a work that responds to its space. The Docklands, and the Wheel in particular, are the perfect location for an examination of the end of history, the folly of civilisation and the browbeaten individual.
Drift has already begun when we arrive. Three dancers are crouching and fretting their way across the ground in single file. They are led by a man in a dust-coloured hoodie who is shadowed at every step and bounce by a pair of ninjas. Yes, they are almost certainly ninjas. A soundtrack of noise, hum and beeps on our radio begins to divulge string instruments, percussion, an incoherent voice or scream. Above us, the tops of concrete pillars flicker with an enigmatic light.
We are watching from some distance, through the inherent frame of a windscreen with the necessary intermediary of glass at a landscape-cum-set that is vast in its reach and its scale. Yet, the dance itself is small and precise, with the physical strobe of jerking motions that Hamilton has incorporated so frequently in his work. Therein lies a problem. There is already a detachment in sitting behind glass, there is a detachment in being in the familiar space of one’s car and there is a distance between audience and the barely-lit dancers. One senses that Hamilton wants to play with this detachment in the sense of its consequent voyeurism—that we have stumbled upon a strange world in a place we have no call to visit normally—but that feels like a conceptual cul-de-sac given that there is no follow-through either on the notion of gaze, or on our presence. Instead, these distancing factors compound on each other to obscure and detract from the choreography. Or rather, the choreography does not fully meet the demands of the location. In this sense, Drift does not respond to its space but merely uses it as a backdrop.
Nevertheless, there are glimpses of what could have been. After the ninjas have left, a woman emerges in nothing more than boots, undies and bejewelled bracelets swinging a large tree branch in desperate circles. The image is strikingly strange and drew some confused looks from a group of young men who happened to wander past, but the image that stands out is when the woman, trying to plant the lifeless branch in the barren ground, holds onto its bulk to stop herself from falling. A spotlight falls on her and the wind blows her hair dramatically to one side. The image of nakedness, lifelessness and futility is framed perfectly by the massive concrete pillars and suddenly the work responds to its epic setting with an image of epic decay.
It finishes with a disappearing act. The topless woman, the ninjas and their leading man have clashed but eventually come to terms and, together, hugging the contours of concrete, they escape from view and we are ushered to start our engines and depart. As we drive off, talk turns to deserts and princesses, shamans and evil warlords, Conan the Barbarian and the seventies. The adolescent pop culture of the drive-in lives on.
This article originally appeared online in RealTime’s Dance Massive coverage, 2011, and is reproduced with permission. http://realtimearts.net/feature/Dance_Massive_2011/10260
In the performing arts, memory can be short. Fashions are forgotten, missteps are glossed over, wheels are reinvented. It is the blessing and curse of producing ephemera. So, when a choreographer upsets the usual cycle of memory lapse by returning to an old work, what is the result? How does an audience primed for immediacy respond to archival distance? What do we see and what do we miss?
Amplification is the work that launched BalletLab and Phillip Adams. Its premiere dates back to the far reaches of 1999. The same year, sanctions against Libya were dropped, something called Napster started and The Matrix opened. So, in some respects, Amplification is ancient history. Yet, here it is again, resurrected.
It is impossible to watch Amplification with eyes a decade younger—to see it now is to see it with the knowledge of what has come since. The problems this gives rise to are clear: the groundbreaking may now seem derivative, the accessible may now seem obscure and the noteworthy may now disappear into a fog of familiarity. However, the rewards are nevertheless there. Amplification holds its own if only because, while some of the style might seem dated, the expressive language remains distinct. Adams’ direction and choreography, in its metaphorical leaps and snowballing dramaturgy is unlike anything else at Dance Massive so far.
It is possible to draw a worthwhile comparison here with German choreographer Sasha Waltz. Premiering only a few months later than Amplification, Waltz’s seminal Körper (seen recently at the 2009 Melbourne International Arts Festival, RT94) has informed not only a decade of contemporary dance but also marked a fundamental moment of artistic expression for Waltz herself. In the subsequent years, Waltz has produced two other works—S and noBody—in response to Körper, making a trilogy of sorts that reflects her development as an artist as much as it does the development of the themes. Similarly, just over a year ago, Adams produced a response to Amplification called Miracle (RT 93). And this year he produced a third instalment, Above.
The most enticing conclusion to be drawn from this is that Amplification is an incomplete work. One that provokes questions rather than providing answers; one that leaves you wanting more; one that Adams has not finished exploring. This also suggests an excellent reason for a remount—for the audience to revisit a work with knowledge of its progeny.
Indeed, as someone who came to Miracle before Amplification, it is only possible to view the older work refracted through the lens of the newer. On the one hand, the distillation and evolution of Adams’ choreography in Miracle becomes evident—for instance, his increased trust in the dancers as embodiments rather than functionaries of his expression. On the other hand, cross-referenced understandings can be reached—for example, the common motif of the saffron cloth makes an overlong ritualistic swaddling of a corpse in Amplification ring with the memory of Miracle’s extraordinary final image of levitation.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a choreographer, the locus for Adams’ artistic interest tends to be the body itself. But rather than the encyclopaedic vein of Waltz’s investigation in Körper, Adams is particularly focused on the extremities that the body can conquer, endure or suffer, which leads inevitably to the final extremity—mortality (like live performance, the body too is ephemeral).
In Miracle, the body was a site for internal hysteria, a hindrance to be denied, a vessel to be exited. In Amplification, the violence enacted on the body comes from without. The partnering work is fast and violent, bodies flung with disregard, Lynton Carr’s soundtrack an oppressive ceiling edging downwards. The space is never fully devoid of menace—the silhouetted torture scene is reminiscent of the disturbingly sterile violence of Romeo Castellucci’s Tragedia Endogonidia: BR.#04 Brussels (RT 76), yet there are moments that almost break into the absurd—threatening toy cars roll towards the dancers, one scene mimics the tropes of horror films, another alludes to the symphorophilia of J.G. Ballard’s Crash.
In the end, the clearest point of contrast between Miracle and Amplification comes not in their exploration of the living body but in their vision of the afterlife. Miracle ended with a transcendent sleight of hand, a weightlessly impossible vision of the body in harmony with space. In Amplification, the body retains its mass. The afterlife here is one grounded in the body’s inescapability and so, one by one, the naked bodies of the dancers form a soft eternal landscape.
This article originally appeared in print in RealTime issue #102 April-May 2011 pg. 10, and is reproduced with permission.
Branch Nebula’s Sweat is concerned with turning our attention to the invisible members of society—the ones who pull back our chairs, sweep up our dead skin, wipe away our skidmarks and collect our cafeteria trays. Coincidentally, Chunky Move’s Connected touches on similar ground with its dip into the world of security guards, but Sweat tackles the brief far more directly and provocatively.
Nevertheless, it starts by turning our attention to our own behaviour. On entering the well-lit vastness of the North Melbourne Town Hall, there is nothing to look at but ourselves as we mingle and coalesce in atolls of strangers and acquaintances. It is the foyer writ large, a continuation of the antespace and, yet, Sweat has actually begun. From the gathering comes the sound of a welcome. A young woman, dressed in black with a tray and an apron, steps forward to suggest that we really could have made a better entrée—too noisy, too slow and now we are running late. But punctuality is less important than quality so we are asked to leave and re-enter properly. It is a disempowering experience, like any scolding, which is followed on our second entrance by a pronouncement of the social contract we are entering into. We are expected to stand and move as instructed, to do so autonomously when required, to empathise with the performers, to view them objectively on occasion, to clap them at the end until we are told we can stop clapping and to be upbeat about the show afterwards, indeed, to focus on three central messages:
- that we saw ordinary people doing extraordinary things
- that the piece challenged accepted forms but always remained accessible
- that it is a work of great importance to the future of Australia
The sheer tongue-in-cheek gall and cliché of these pronouncements produces knowing titters in the audience and they are delivered with the host-like air of a waiter explaining the evening’s specials, but the tone shifts markedly as our host walks from one audience member to another and asks them first to dress her in the accessories of a cleaner and then to remove her other clothes. At last, semi-naked in rubber gloves and hairnet, she kindly asks a man to force her to the ground. He complies. The shoe of disempowerment is now firmly on the other foot and we have all been implicated.
This simple point of departure is reminiscent of the recent work of performance artists like Georgie Read, who play a consciously mercurial game of push-pull with the audience’s affection. Throughout Sweat, the performers invite our attention and the visibility it affords with flirtatious glances, sweetness and displays of skill. But they can just as quickly disappear into the resentful distance, punish us or deride our presence. This dynamic with the audience enacts the same power hierarchies that are being represented in front of us, where the performers are ordered to clean the floor with their hair, threatened with violence and abused in Spanish in the course of a few minutes.
The piece is constantly shifting in its use of space, using an ingenious collection of mobile light sources to carve out discrete landscapes. And the audience, as instructed, moves about to stay in contact with what is happening, but the reason for the movement itself is not always clear. As an aesthetic policy it is interesting—forcing us to engage with different angles, different architectures, rejigging our perspective. On the other hand, the meaning-making of it is sometimes less evident or necessary. When we are asked to choose a corner to stand in and, thereby, choose a performer to favour, the act of choosing is a potentially loaded act. What are our criteria? Why do we choose a man and not a woman? Why do we look around to see what we are missing? Yet, the subsequent scene feels redundant in its reformulation of previous content and the movement of the performers from corner to corner negates the weight of our choice and elides the kind of interrogation it could provoke.
However, this is a quibble with one short moment in the middle of Sweat and, towards the end, in its final set piece it regains most of the traction it had to begin with. A group of audience members are invited to sit a table, where the performers, dressed as sweatshop workers, politely serve them wine, spaghetti, tomato soup, peas, pineapple, frankfurters—the kicker being that these items are ladled very carefully into completely inappropriate places. The end result is part Grand Bouffe, part Abstract Expressionism. The smiling ceremonial quality of the rebellion is so disarming and so cleverly worked in with our own understandings of theatre etiquette that the audience victims are left laughing rather than humiliated. The humour relies also on our empathy with the performers who, in becoming so clearly and endearingly visible, make mockery of the established codes of service and their concordant entitlements and disenfranchisements. The performers leave the space with gusto, with an animalistic exuberance. At last, they have been seen.
This article originally appeared online in RealTime’s Dance Massive coverage, 2011, and is reproduced with permission.
Chunky Move’s recent work has been characterised by dancers surrounded by the digital. In Mortal Engine and GLOW, Gideon Obarzanek paired the lyricism and vulnerability of the human form to the spectral bling of interactive video graphics. Connected is a lo-fi third chapter. Where the earlier pieces extrapolated on the human form with projected pixels and lasers, Connected does so with strings and wood in the form of a giant Reuben Margolin kinetic sculpture.
Entering the space, the first thing we experience is the dominating presence of this sculpture, resembling an incomplete loom of dangling warp. Two dancers soon enter and, as one tumbles across the floor to the fuzzy glitches and scratches of Oren Ambarchi’s score, the other begins carefully completing the sculpture, clicking magnetised shards of paper to connect the suspended threads into a grid of diamonds. The tumbling dancer soon becomes two, then three, then four, rolling and undulating across the floor but the deployment of numbers cannot conceal the niggling sense that we are being merely diverted while the main course is prepared.
When the paper grid is completed, the sculpture becomes a latent contraption of elegant beauty. And when the dancers’ bodies are then hooked up to the other ends of the threads, the image is made all the more wondrous. Like a diagram of light rays, the strings emerge from the human subjects, refract through a wooden lattice, bounce across the ceiling and drop down into the reflected image of the grid. In that moment, the connection of the human to the mechanical becomes both abstracted and essentialised.
The physical connection itself is not inherently revealing or even interesting. When a person rides a bicycle, they are connected to a mechanical contraption of exceptional elegance and their vertical force translated into horizontal displacement, but this relationship reveals nothing more than the strength of their quadriceps. The bicycle does not express. On the other hand, Margolin’s sculpture, in the frisson between its mathematical rigidity and kinetic fluidity creates the potential for a mechanical poetry. As the dancers shift their bodies forward and back, their movement is translated into the undulation and contortion of the grid. It becomes an infinitely variable abstract canvas for our associations—a bird’s wings, an open ocean, an enveloping cloak.
As such, the sculpture augments the expressive potential of the dancers by extending the reach of their neurons into new fibres (one imagines the ineluctable fun the dancers must have had in rehearsal, exploring the potential for expression and variation, like babies still conquering gross motor skills). When the sculpture is attached to an intimate duet between a man and a woman, the reflected shudders and waving of the grid seem to describe an elusive mathematical representation of love. When the duet evolves into sexual thrusting from the man, the grid responds with some unimpressed crinkling—a neat bathetic joke.
The grid as a reflection of the human form also makes manifest the very scientific thought that created it. It is an expression of the rational mind, a reminder that what we invent is inevitably in our own image, no matter how apparently disembodied. The programming of Connected in parallel with Narelle Benjamin’s In Glass, brings this aspect into clearer focus. Where In Glass treats reflection as a shady psychological force, Connected celebrates the altogether different shadiness of the scientific and mathematic by making it symbiotic with the corporeal.
However, just as this celebration begins, it grinds to a halt. The eponymous connectedness is dispelled when its potential is only beginning to be realised and, instead, the sculpture is unplugged from its human drivers and plugged into a wall socket. As an automaton it becomes even more mathematical and pure, losing none of its beauty, but the dancers become irrelevant (cast your mind to the poetic force of Stifters Dinge). To his credit, Obarzanek acknowledges this irrelevance with a surprising shift into semi-verbatim theatre that transports us very literally into the inner life of art museum security guards. There is perhaps a vein of social critique here, or for that matter an opportunity to emphasise the intricate beauty of the first half with the banality of this episode, but it feels instead that the promise of the first half is left underutilised and that Obarzanek is dancing around rather than with the concepts he provokes.
This article originally appeared RealTime’s Dance Massive coverage, 2011, and is reproduced with permission.
Za’atar blends vary but the mix of fragrant herbs (thyme, oregano) with sumac’s citric tang and the texture of sesame seeds, makes it a great thing to dredge fish in before frying.
2 fillets of blue eye (skin scored)
2 tbsp za’atar
1 tbsp flour
sprinkle sea salt
sprinkle black pepper
1 tbsp olive oil
1-2 tbsp chopped parsley, juice of half a lemon to finish
Put the za’atar, flour, salt and pepper into a dish and mix. Dredge the fillets in the za’atar mixture and fry in olive oil, skin side first. Turn fish over after a few minutes (once skin is crispy) and seal the flesh side til the crust is crisp. I then take the pan off the heat, put a lid on and steam the fish til they’re just cooked — you lose some of the crispiness that way, but retain more moisture in the flesh and don’t stink out the kitchen with fried fish smell. You could also seal and then finish in a low oven. Garnish with lemon and parsley and serve (with asparagus, green beans, salad, potatoes whatever).
By bringing a John Cassavetes film to the stage, one would suspect that director Ivo van Hove wants to start a conversation about the interplay between cinema and theatre. Indeed, the fact that the film Opening Night is set in a theatre appears to confirm this suspicion. And by including a raft of screens and cameras in the production, van Hove appears to be making some strong opening remarks. But in truth, he has never seen the film he is staging and thinks of the cameras as theatrical, rather than cinematic devices.
At 52, van Hove was only 19 years old when Opening Night was released. He might have missed that film but, growing up in Antwerp, he had made a habit of visiting the local arthouse cinemas and devouring Cassavetes’ earlier works, along with those of Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Pier Paulo Pasolini and Luchino Visconti.
As a teenager, the emotional and psychological terrain of Cassavetes’ films was alien to van Hove, but the intimacy and rawness of the work were evident and infectious. When he returned to the films in his thirties, he felt their full impact and set about bringing them into the theatre. Adapting films for the stage has been brilliantly lampooned by the likes of Wes Anderson with Rushmore, however, van Hove is not strictly interested in staging films—he is interested in staging screenplays. The difference is more than academic because by removing the desire to mimic or deconstruct the visual and aural language of cinema, van Hove can simply concentrate his efforts on realising the text with the same set of skills and theatrical inventiveness he brings to any play.
Film titles—Scenes from a Marriage, Teorema, Rocco and his Brothers—leap out from van Hove’s directorial résumé. He sees these screenplays as an exciting frontier because staging them for the first time is effectively a premiere. Instead of being the thousandth director to tackle The Cherry Orchard he can be the first to tackle Cries and Whispers on stage. And he looks at Antonioni and Bergman not in terms of the aesthetic markers that characterise their cinema but in terms of their thematic uniqueness—who does death better than Bergman? who examines love in modern society like Antonioni?
And Cassavetes? Open, actor-oriented screenplays dealing with adult relationships in all their sensuality, vicissitude, violence and, most importantly, artifice. In 1997, van Hove presented a staging of Faces in the Netherlands, which, in a brilliant perversion of cabaret seating, had the audience lying shoeless in beds as the actors performed around and almost on top of them. He wanted next to tackle Husbands but Cassavetes’ wife Gena Rowlands politely withheld the rights because of the very personal subject matter. Instead, van Hove came to read Opening Night and found in it a story equally as compelling. The film centres on a famous actress, Myrtle Gordon (played by Rowlands), who is struggling through the rehearsals of a new play, which also stars her ex-husband (played by Cassavetes). Gordon’s internal conflicts burst to the surface when an adoring young fan dies in a car accident (a dramatic catalyst quoted by Pedro Almodovar in All About My Mother). Cassavetes’ screenplay avoids pinning down exactly what is at the heart of Gordon’s psychological turmoil and instead revels in its complexity and unresolvedness. It could simply be viewed as a portrait of an aging actress driven to despair by the death of her younger self (the fan), but van Hove sees it also as a family tragedy. Either way, in its examination of inner lives curtailed by social mores and niceties, it continues Cassavetes’ obsession with the difference between people’s private and public faces—the masks and artifice of adult life.
The first words van Hove wrote in his copy of Opening Night were “Neil Young”. Music always plays a vital role in van Hove’s theatre, whether it is Steve Reich’s minimalism in his latest production in New York, The Little Foxes, or six hours of live percussion in his compendium of Shakespeare’s Roman tragedies. Indeed, van Hove is happy to label his work “music-theatre” just to emphasise how much music is more than wallpaper to him. In this case, Neil Young’s Heart of Gold provides what van Hove refers to as “an extra layer of humanity” with its “good-sentimental” tone.
Alongside that song, Marc Meulemans’ sound score for the stage production is a constant companion that sometimes underscores moments of choreographed movement. These interludes of physical expression are some of the most apparent theatrical extrapolations on the source material. Van Hove is fascinated by the way in which psychological subtexts can be explored or made manifest by physical motion and he emphasises that his actors are always very physically engaged with the text they are speaking. He cites the French opera, theatre and film director Patrice Chéreau as a key influence on the way in which he directs bodies in space. But the physical dynamics at work also reveal the creatively symbiotic relationships between van Hove and his Belgian contemporaries: Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker, Alain Platel and Jan Fabre.
But what of the cameras? By giving the theatre the capacity for a close-up, they enlarge and expand the emotions on stage. Hence, van Hove thinks of them and the video screens as a contemporary extension of some of the oldest theatrical devices we know of—Greek masks. In this sense, one could argue that the video aspects of van Hove’s Opening Night reaffirm Cassavetes’ obsession with the many masks that people wear. Yet, van Hove shies away from such thematic neatness and points instead to practicality and circumstance as the reasons for video’s inclusion. On the one hand, he wanted to reduce and simplify the many locations of the film but, on the other hand, to maintain the sense of the text being set in a theatre he and his designer Jan Versweyveld created a theatre on the stage, complete with paying audience. Thus, the set is a rangy agglomeration of public and private spaces, some of which simply cannot be seen by the main auditorium without the aid of cameras. Of course, even this reductive explanation reveals that the cameras give the audience access to spaces, both physical and psychological, that would otherwise remain hidden or private. In fact, the best analogy for van Hove’s use of video in Opening Night is the fly-on-the-wall documentary crew that lucks out by happening on a crisis. As people attempt to maintain appearances and gloss over problems, the cameras reach behind the delusions and obfuscations.
The constricted, magnifying gaze of the camera with this power to unravel and reveal can be intoxicating, but van Hove maintains that the screens do not diminish the importance of the actors being physically present (the fundamental differentiator of theatre). To ensure this, he frustrates the audience by never giving them everything in one medium or the other. In other words, it is impossible to receive and follow every moment of Opening Night by watching the screens or the stage in isolation. It is only in their combination that the narrative unfolds, that the characters reveal themselves and that we see both sides of the mask.
This article originally appeared in print in RealTime issue #99 October-November 2010 pg. 15, and is reproduced with permission. http://realtimearts.net/article/99/10008
In La Paz, an electrician is wiring an apartment in a new part of town. In Melbourne, bartenders are rattling bottle bins into laneways. But in Waiting Room B of the Eurostar terminal at Gare du Nord, there’s a British lady rifling through the trash for the piece of cake she accidentally tossed out and an American mother calling out to her colgate of brats, “Do you want to buy a souvenir?”. It’s 5:45pm but it’s never too late for binned brioche or a Carla Bruni keyring, now is it?
I’m finally bidding adieu to the arrondissements and architraves, the transparent bins and iron railings of Paris. Last time I wrote, the rain was keeping me indoors, away from the Bastille Day pomp and firework, away from a 44km walk.
John and I eventually dislodged ourselves from our Marais loft for a night in the 20th at Mama Shelter, a hotel penned by design guru Philippe Starck—a man who can pull off paunch, acne scars and leather pants at the same time. As it turns out, he can also pull off a hotel. Though I didn’t have time to discover much in the hip 20th (bar a Lebanese lunch spot where freshly-shaved bastourma and kibbeh sated my appetite), it is the well-known home to a hell of a lot of famous dead people. To tackle the tombs of Père Lachaise, I met up with Electra, my new partner in flâneurising, gourmandery and aestheticisation.
After some aimless meandering, we realised a map would be useful if we were to commune with the resting places of anyone other than various Barons of Mecklenburg. A pair of mopey Swedish girls curtly refused to tell us where they got their map from in two languages no less—has the country still not recovered from it’s relegation to the Eurovision wilderness? Anyway, we found a map and duly marched on. No one was doing anything remotely cool at Jim Morrison’s grave (you couldn’t even buy smack, I mean c’mon), while Oscar Wilde’s ostentatious plinth attracts all the loonies. Nearby, Marcel Proust has a humble little spot devoid of kisses, garbled tributes, misquotations and signed Metro stubs. Maybe the Proust fans need a gimmick too—like writing the title of their post-doctoral thesis in White Out or something. Maybe not.
After almost two weeks in Paris, the experience that stands out as the most Gallic was not the bronze shimmer of fried duck fat, nor the two students playing Django Reinhardt tunes to their friends on the banks of Île Saint Louis. No, it was a trip to the Roger Le Gall swimming pool via the Promenade Plantée. John and I had had a brief jogging flirtation with the Promenade earlier on, but it warranted revisiting. A disused train line, the Promenade begins just behind Place de la Bastille as raised brick arches and continues as an uninterrupted lineal park for several kilometres eastward. New York’s Highline is based on it, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke walked along it in Before Sunrise, it offers one of the most pleasant walks in Paris and, yet, thankfully, somehow, it remains largely free of tourists in a city that is bursting at the seams with them. In their place, is a jogger or two, a book-reading student, a homeless man and a crocodile line of kindergarten kids. After an hour or more of walking it, Electra and I emerged at the far edge of the 12th, a few steps from one of the only full-sized outdoor pools in Paris.
At its doorway was a simple sign explaining key rules: boardshorts forbidden, bathing caps obligatory. We had met the first requirement but the second prompted a visit to the pool’s vending machine, which doled out everything from goggles to rubber lifeboats. We decided to buy one bathing cap and take turns, though we acknowledged that stretching it over both our heads at the same time would have been much funnier. We split off into our gendered changing rooms and Electra, who “ne parle pas français”, promptly got a browbeating from a French lady for wearing her shoes over the no-shoes-beyond-this-line line—a border defended more fiercely than the Maginot Line ever was. Meanwhile, I almost faceplanted in a pool of tepid chlorinated water when I failed to notice the sheep-dip-style foot bath at the exit to the change rooms. Reaching the pool area, it very quickly became clear that, though bathing caps and budgie smugglers are de rigeur, wearing a bikini top is entirely optional. Sunbathing breasts dotted the horizon as pointed evidence of France’s stubborn but gratifying certainty in itself as a rational, rather than a moral state. A country where the veil is supposedly banned not because of what it represents but because “we need to be able to see you”. The continuing echoes of 1789
And then there was Ireland. My cousin Madelin and I had managed to co-ordinate travel plans so that we could reach Dublin on the same morning and, in a feat of triangulation that Pythagoras would have smirked at, we were met at the airport by Margie, erstwhile travel companion and Adelaidean, who has lived in Dublin long enough to say “grand” and “craic” but not so long as to forget the word “gumboot”.
After a quick stint in the capital that involved Irish beer (tick), Irish potatoes (tick), Irish butter (tick) and an excellent exhibition of illuminated manuscripts from the Mughal Empire (tick?), Madelin and I headed west to Galway, which served as launching pad for the wild coastlines, mountains and lakes of County Mayo, Connemara and the Aran Islands.
Housing us for our first night was Inishmore, a treeless island of cows, horses and the odd person. Those familiar with Father Ted won’t have to imagine what it looks like. A healthy dose of bike riding got us round most of the island in an afternoon. Even on a sunny day putting my feet in the Atlantic at a “swimmable” beach was a jaw-shatteringly cold experience, but watching the same icy waters crash underneath us as we sat in the ruins of a Neolithic cliff-top fort was much much more appropriate. Indeed, though the sun was gloriously present, the wind from the west destroyed any scraps of real warmth on the island, which meant that even in high summer smoke rose from the chimneys. And, thus, riding past cottages and farmhouses gave us our first experience of the humid, cigar-like whiff of a peat fire. There is something irrefutably primitive but pragmatic about burning the soil in your backyard and the ubiquitous scars of peat diggings and that smell followed us wherever we went. One thing has to be said, sitting in front of a peat fire has none of the romantic nor pyrotechnic appeal of a wood fire.
In Leenane, the youth hostel was run and populated by French people hiking the surrounding national park. Yet, the first person we met was not a Pierre or a Claudette, it was a Neil. Before I’d managed to get my less than enormous frame out of our hire car, Neil was already engaged in a conversation that we soon realised we were party to. He was a tall man with a ginger beard and ponytail, wearing a 3-piece black polyester suit and speaking with the rapid bounce of a salesman in full pitch. After some spurious name-dropping related to how we should have a drink with him (Richard Harris, Oliver Reed and Russell Crowe), he told us that he lives in Prague, wears his beard like a proud Irishman, is part of a band called Digital Druids, has recorded with someone from The Cure and gave us a quick review of the book he was reading on the Cathars. Just when I thought he was going to give us a flyer for a gnostic rave seance, he asked us whether we had traced ourselves back to our Irish clan name. “Ah no, we’re Greek”. His response, “Fantastic! You’ve done well. I was a Greek high priest in a past life.” Oh yeah, I thought, a very convenient path of reincarnation given that, when the Greeks were building Delphi, his ancestors were probably throwing mud at each others genitals and calling it organised religion.
Another one checked off the list. Duck. I’m definitely going to be at the Vic Markets buying up big when I get back. So rich, but so good. This recipe is complex and all over the place because I picked it up at a cooking class in Paris and I couldn’t be across all the components (eg the vegetable stock came from vegetables cooked as an accompaniment).
Serves 2-4 depending on size of duck breasts
2 duck breasts, fat on
1 large eggplant
vanilla olive oil
250g fresh yellow and black cherries, pipped and quartered
very small bunch of basil, leaves only
a good splash of white wine
a small splash of vegetable stock
Halve eggplant lengthways and then finely slice (< 5mm). Drizzle with vanilla-infused olive oil and cook in a steam oven until tender (obviously we don’t all have steam ovens like a professional kitchen, so I’ll try to find an improvised work-around; as for the infused olive oil, buy a vanilla bean, pop it in oil for maybe a fortnight and whammo!).
With a sharp knife, clean the duck breast of any blood or sinew. Trim the fat so that it fits the breast neatly, but keep the fat cuttings. Salt the meat side of the duck rather generously. In a hot pan, seal both sides of the duck until brown (fat side first; give the meat side 2-3 min). Put aside to rest.
In a separate pan, cook down the excess fat trimmings until you’ve got charred crispy bits and rendered fat. Strain this rendered fat into the rendered fat from the duck breast cooking. With the charred bits, add a good splash of white wine and reduce (we’re looking for crackling here). Then add the splash of vegetable stock to create an emulsion.
Meanwhile, pop the pitted cherries and basil leaves into a small pot and begin to cook. Strain the emulsion of stock and crackling into the pot. Add the juice that has drained from the resting duck breasts (add some of the rendered fat if you feel it needs it). Reduce it hardcore.
While that’s reducing, pop the duck breasts into the oven that’s previously housed the eggplant to bring them up a few temperature notches. After 5 minutes, take them out and slice them crossways.
Present by alternating the duck slices with eggplant slices and drizzling the cherry-basil-duck-fat sauce over the top. Bon appétit!
Somehow I’d managed never to cook pork in anything but mince form until this dish. But with pork being the only readily available meat at the Bretenoux markets, I had to come up with something to sate our carnivorous urges. Et voilà!
6 baby carrots, peeled
2 scallions or spring onions, halved lengthways
500g kipfler potatoes, peeled
2 tbsp olive oil
1 leek, sliced
2 garlic cloves, finely sliced
cup of stock (vegetable or chicken)
8 sage leaves
2 pork loin chops
Place scallions and carrots on a baking tray, drizzle with olive oil, season and roast in a medium-hot oven (the scallions will obviously start to caramelise much faster than the carrots, keep an eye on them).
On the stove, boil kipflers in salted water until just tender (10 min). Meanwhile, heat half the butter and half the olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat, add the leek and half the garlic and cook until tender (5 minutes).
Also meanwhile, heat the remaining butter and olive oil in a frying pan, add the sage leaves and fry until starting to crisp. Remove the sage leaves to a bowl and add remaining garlic. Once the garlic has become slightly golden, remove it to the bowl as well. You should now have some happy sage and garlic-infused fat in the pan. Fry the pork in it to your desired state of doneness.
Back with the vegetables, drain the potatoes and add them to the leek, coarsely crushing them with a wooden spoon, cook until golden (5-6 minutes). Add the stock and cook until almost fully reduced, season to taste and keep warm.
Plate up as shown, garnishing with crispy sage leaves and garlic.
* I was improvising and amending on the go, so measurements and timings are approximate. *
When do you know you’ve arrived? In Sweden, it was the first crunch of snow underfoot in the Landvetter carpark and air so cold it could bite your face off. In Borneo, it was the hot, clinging humidity in the air bridge. In Greece, it was the undeniable whiff of cheap aftershave mixed with dubious fiscal policies. This time, at Charles de Gaulle airport, it wasn’t the 150cm-tall policewoman with an 80cm-long assault rifle or the 50 centimes toilets, it was the sudden and instinctive loss of muscular tension at the gentle touch of 7am sunshine on a 30° day.
Today is Bastille Day and I wasn’t meant to be indoors. I’d planned to join a Finnish artist and a bunch of others on a 44km walk that would spiral through the centre of Paris’ numbered arrondissements, from the 20th to the 1st. Unfortunately, getting up at 5am to do so proved untenable after a sleeplessly muggy night listening to mosquitoes, firecrackers and general revelling. But more on that anon.
The first week here in France was spent in and around the Dordogne Valley. Two short wogs, père et fils, had the run of a cottage in the little village of Carennac in a part of France famed for its truffles, its foie gras and its history of cardiovascular disease. And when in Rome … so, much of our time in Carennac was spent lowering our fitness, raising our cholesterol and otherwise pushing strongly for a bout of gout.
Being at the Lot end of the Dordogne, rather than the more touristed Perigord, the local markets at Bretenoux were truly local and it soon became clear that the only person importing anything from outside the valley was the fromageur. Thus we found sustenance in stone fruits and berries, potato and leek, lettuce and tomato, pork and more pork, a little bit of extra pork, and quantities of cheese that I’m still digesting a week later (for those playing at home: Brie de Meaux, Tomme d’Estaing, Tomme de Savoie and Bethmale Vache, plus the pale, fatty goodness of Beurre des Charentes Grand Cru).
In between cooking, eating and watching the World Cup, we did manage somehow to raise our fatted arses from their rustic thrones and career around the winding roads to sightsee and the like. The region is unimpeachably lovely in the summer, with the humid heat making every inch of soil sprout a bounty of lush, chirping undergrowth beneath the enormous walnut and oak trees that forest the hills. Popping up every few kilometres are villages of old stone houses, sometimes lovingly restored to uberquaint perfection by Brits, sometimes pragmatically repaired with unbecoming cinder blocks by the locals, and occasionally refitted with glassy appendages by Germans. However, while the place is far from untouched, the narrow roads and lack of amenities keep the tourist buses away and the town squares humming with children and tractors rather than American accents.
I can’t claim to have seen a single tractor on the streets of Paris though. Tanks, fighter jets and other military miscellany, on the other hand, are in great supply today on the Champs Elysées — as are puffy dignitaries and very wet spectators. As the rain beats down and the lightning strikes, some of the baking heat trapped in the city’s cobbles and facades is being washed into the Seine to everyone’s relief.
As has become tradition when we’re in Paris, John and I have been startling council workers and homeward-bound drunkards by jogging the boulevards at 6am. The temperature is clement, the footpaths free, the smell of piss demure, and the city is almost entirely asleep. Indeed, it can be said quite definitively that Paris is not a morning person. Plenty of places don’t open til 11 and it can even be hard to get a baguette before 9. To top it off, my favourite new find, the Palais de Tokyo contemporary art space, restaurant, cooking school and general cool factory, is open from noon to midnight every day of the year. Yes, please!
Once the city gets going, the Marais, where we’re staying, bristles with the heady mix of people that comes from it being the orthodox Jewish quarter, the gay and lesbian quarter, the French hipster quarter and the young-american-with-a-trust-fund quarter. And, while I was loving the locavore cooking in Carennac, it’s nice to be back somewhere where terms like couscous, kibbeh, pho and polyunsaturated are used more commonly.
Ah, but now, the rain has paused. Perhaps only briefly. Or perhaps I’ll join the walkers when they get to the 10th.
This year’s Adelaide Festival was awash with dialectical entanglements: cultures melding, disciplines merging, texts colluding. The artist takes the given and makes it new or, in some cases, newish.
In Vs Macbeth, the given is William Shakespeare. And the new is danger. The Sydney Theatre Company’s Residents and Adelaide’s own Border Project teamed up for this new work that sought to reimagine Macbeth through the accidents that have made it the superstition-laden “Scottish play” that it is. The conceit is honourable. After all, the dangers of theatre can be very real. Performing it and witnessing it can be like walking along a cliff top backwards. Yet, this production never raises a solitary hair.
The problem is not in conception, but in realisation. From the outset, there is an undeniable whiff of Occupational Health and Safety, from the high visibility jackets to the yellow hazard tape. Yes, they mark the space as perilous, but they are also measures designed to dampen the unexpected and to ward off danger. If anything, they mark this theatre as eminently safe and flag in fluorescent clarity the fact that we should be prepared for things to go safely awry. When paintball guns are brought out for every death scene, so too is a cumbersome protective curtain of cyclone fencing meant only to protect the front row from pink shrapnel. Suspense? No, thanks.
The lack of tension in the space is only compounded by the bathos exerted by a series of interruptions—a missed entrance, a hurt hand. The sporadic nature of the interruptions suggests an unwillingness to commit wholly to the conceit, though it must be said that some of the actors commit themselves to the text beautifully. Indeed, it is the half-heartedness of the reimagining which is most problematic. The central melody here is still Shakespeare’s voice but the counterpoint is little more than an embarrassed suggestion of revolt, leaving even the erstwhile iconoclasts in the audience yearning for tights and doublets (the lycra-hungry had to head to Back to Back’s Food Court for their fix (RT 92, p42).
the sound and the fury
Fittingly, there wasn’t an inch of spandex to be seen at Elevator Repair Service’s staging of April Seventh, 1928, the first part of William Faulkner’s novel The Sound and The Fury. The company is familiar to these shores. Last year’s six-hour Gatz [RT91, p43], saw them transpose the entirety of The Great Gatsby to the stage. In that work, the dialectical frisson between the forms of prose and theatre was a little elusive—the vastness of Fitzgerald’s text was inflected by the joy of reading it rather than the thrall of deconstructing it.
In The Sound and The Fury, a newer work, there is a sense that director John Collins and his ensemble are developing their modus operandi. Again the text is read from the novel but this time not its entirety. Again the text swirls about in a non-literal mise en scène but seeks now to represent the world of the novel rather than an anonymous backdrop. And again the narrative voice propels the text forward along with dialogue but this time it is complemented by projected surtitles that swing our attention in a different way to the written quality of the language. These changes, along with the more stylistically demanding source, serve to make this a far more complex and concentrated production than the sprawling, durational transparency of Gatz.
Remarkably, despite its complexity, the sense of theatrical storytelling and its grounding in prose is rarely lost. The disorienting carousel of actors and characters manifests the chronological jumps of Faulkner’s prose but also produces a fractured perspective, a kaleidoscopic confusion of glimpses into the Compson household that are as rowdy and shabby as the characters themselves. Amongst this kinetic frenzy of staging and the odd Woosterish dance interlude, Collins has wisely left room for moments of transcendent stasis, when the text, projected, is allowed to speak for itself. Yet these moments work not only because of the strength of Faulkner’s writing but also because of the strength of the theatrical text around it—Hegelian synthesis at its finest.
be your self
Across town at Her Majesty’s, Australian Dance Theatre was premiering its latest work, Be Your Self, an investigation of the body-mind compact inspired by the work of 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume. As director Garry Stewart notes in the program, Hume’s A Treatise on Human Nature suggests that humans are “nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.” This quotation is almost a pithy précis for the show itself.
It begins with a clinically white and vast stage. As a dancer slowly and meticulously begins to ripple movement up from the floor, through the feet and into the legs, another performer speaks an impressively detailed, thorough and ceaseless description of the neurobiological processes involved in what the dancer is doing. It is an inspired overture that deftly introduces the two disciplines that inform this work: science and dance. The former is taxonomical and exhaustive, the latter expressive and essential. If we were to think of them linguistically, science is the langue and dance the parole.
Unfortunately, the promise of the beginning is not maintained throughout. The piece itself sets out to be somehow analogous to the erratic nature of our human thoughts and physicality, but it feels instead like a physical illustration of the text we heard at the beginning without further development or consideration. The rhythms are punchy, the soundtrack is banging, the lights are in full wizardry mode but the result is a continuation of the clinically detached aesthetic of the start, without any of the discoveries that merit the scientific method, making for a surprisingly joyless experience.
Nevertheless, there is consolation to be had in the uber-athletic performances of the ensemble. The ADT dancers are surely some of the most muscular in the world and their broad shoulders and tendency towards explosive piston-like movement is displayed here to great effect. The set by New York architects Diller, Scofidio + Renfro is largely circumstantial until the very end, when a wide ramp set at 45 degrees is rolled to the front of the stage. As carefully designed animations are projected onto the surface of the ramp, isolated sections of bodies emerge through its weave, swimming in a protean liquid of colours and swirls. It is an assured finish and a striking image, but it is simply the final element in a “collection of different perceptions” that, combined, paint a very cold, distant and unwelcoming sense of what it is to be human.
ngurrumilmarrmiriyu (wrong skin)
A much warmer, though hardly uncomplicated vision of humanity was to be had at Her Majesty’s a fortnight later with the premiere of Ngurrumilmarrmiriyu (Wrong Skin), which teamed Elcho Islands’ Chooky Dancers with director Nigel Jamieson.
The Chooky Dancers, like Justin Bieber, Susan Boyle and the Back Dorm Boys, came to fame on YouTube. In a dark gym hall they danced to a remix of Zorba the Greek in a unique hybrid of dance vocabularies—part Yolngu, part hip hop, part disco, part Busby Berkeley. The cultural provenance of their performance is breathtakingly complicated, but unadulterated joy and immediacy are the key to its appeal. Existing in a geographically isolated community that, thanks to modern telecommunications, can consume an entire world of creative influences, the Chooky Dancers made manifest postmodern intertextuality not as an ironic exercise in form but as a fundamental expression of self.
Jamieson’s attempt to build on the Chookies’ self-expression and foster it into a piece of theatrical storytelling is an unenviably difficult but worthy undertaking. The director chooses to use the complex Yolngu moiety laws as the basis for a forbidden-love story, with overt references to West Side Story along the way. This gives him a straightforward narrative hook on which to hang various dance sequences and video montages of life on Elcho Island, but it also imposes a stifling rhythm on proceedings and creates a strange tension: are the performers co-creators or merely the subjects of the work? Occasionally, it even reveals the technical shortcomings of the dancers when they are required to step out of their own style. At other times though, the show is a brilliant populist work that sheds light on an oft-overlooked part of our country, and the charisma and pleasure of the performers is disarming and contagious. Indeed, whether it be the Zorba or a riff on a Bollywood dance scene, the most engaging moments are those in which the mechanics of the theatre step out of the way and allow the Chookies to simply do their thing.
This article originally appeared in print in RealTime issue #97 June-July 2010 pg. 4-5, and is reproduced with permission. http://www.realtimearts.net/article/97/9852
This recipe started when I found some orphaned ouzo hanging out in a pantry. My days at Maha taught me that arak (Middle Eastern ouzo) can make a lovely dressing for a watermelon salad, so I triangulated that information and came up with this little summer’s night delight. It makes for a lush rosy mixture that can be made into a granita or a sorbet.
Serves 8 – 12
500g fresh strawberries, hulled
500g seedless watermelon
juice of 1 large lemon
up to 200g icing sugar
mint leaves to garnish (optional)
In a food processor, blitz all of the ingredients (except for the mint) at a slow speed until it’s a smooth liquid and check for sweetness. For an unfussy granita, pour into tupperware and place in the freezer for a few hours before removing and stirring. Depending on the temperature of your freezer and how soon you’ll be serving the granita, you’ll need to play around with if and when to fridge or freeze it. For a sorbet, pour the mixture into an ice cream machine and churn according to instructions. Serve in short glasses with a mint leaf.
Another late summer essential is tomato sauce. I’m not talking condiment here, I’m talking sugo. Until now, I’d been well-versed in the old blanche, peel, blitz and boil methodology (deseeding was tiresome). It took an Englishman with floppy hair to suggest otherwise (this one) and it seems quite a useful way of doing things. He prefers using lovely heirloom varieties, but what’s in big supply in SA right now are Romas. I’ve done it in two different ways, both with excellent if divergent results. One yielded a rich roast tomato purée that I used as the basis and liquid for a quinoa and vegetable melange, the other made a rustic tomato base for a pasta sauce.
Method 1: purée
Makes about a litre depending on tomatoes
1.5kg Roma tomatoes
2 cloves Australian garlic, crushed with some salt
freshly ground black pepper
50ml extra virgin olive oil
Cut tomatoes in half and place in a baking tray with cut side up. Splash on the other ingredients then roast in 180°C oven for 35-45 minutes, until soft, browning and oozing. Remove, allow to cool slightly, then rub the tray contents through a sieve, discarding the seeds and skin that get left behind.
Quinoa is à la mode right now with its whole urfood thing going for it, so who am I to skip it.
1 quantity of the above tomato purée
1 cup dry quinoa
a big splash of extra virgin olive oil
2 carrots, sliced (optional)
1 red capsicum, cut in chunks (optional)
2 small zucchini, cut in chunks (optional)
Heat the oil in a heavy-based saucepan and gently fry the onion until soft. Add the carrots and capsicum (if using) and then a few minutes later add the quinoa and tomato purée. Stir well and simmer. The quinoa should take around 15min to soften (the white ‘tails’ become more prominent) so add the zucchini (or any other vegetables you might be using instead) as required.
Method 2: sugo
Makes just over a litre depending on tomatoes
1.5kg Roma tomatoes
2 cloves Australian garlic, crushed with some salt
freshly ground black pepper
50ml extra virgin olive oil
a mixed bunch of parsley, basil and oregano leaves
Cut tomatoes in half and place in a baking tray with cut side up. Splash on the other ingredients then roast in 180°C oven for 35-45 minutes, until soft, browning and oozing. Remove, allow to cool slightly, then blitz it all in a food processor. The result should be a thick, rich, slightly smoky sugo that’s a perfect base for strong tomato sauces like puttanesca or amatriciana.
Rampant basil in the garden is one summer glut that’s always welcome. Basil pesto makes sense at no other time. Recipes don’t really differ that markedly, but this one is based on Tessa Kiros’ Tuscan recipe in Twelve. I’d usually use pine nuts but since they’ve reached $100/kg, I decided to swap in some macadamia nuts that were loitering with intent in the pantry. If you have patience and a big mortar and pestle, pound away for that extra flavour, otherwise blitz it up in a food processor. Use immediately or refrigerate it with a layer of olive oil on top in a tight container.
1/2 cup macadamias
1/4 cup walnuts
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 fat cloves of Australian garlic, crushed
60g pecorino, grated
90g parmesan, grated (grate extra for serving on pasta)
as much basil as you can fit in your food processor (2-3 large bunches)
Lightly toast the nuts in a pan. Then pound or blitz it all to a coarse paste.
Why anyone buys tzatziki is beyond me. If push comes to shove, you can make it with nothing more than yoghurt, cucumber and garlic and still have it taste better than the bought stuff. I never really measure anything while I make it because I enjoy tasting it to see how it’s shaping up, so treat this as a guide.
Serves 8 as a meze
2 cloves of Australian garlic
a sprinkle of salt
1 Lebanese cucumber, peeled and coarsely grated
extra virgin olive oil (optional)
juice of half a lemon
around 750g Greek yoghurt
small handful of mint (or dill), finely chopped
Peel and finely chop the garlic. On the cutting board, sprinkle salt over the garlic and then use the flat of the knife to mash it into a paste. Having grated the cucumber, squeeze the water out of it between the palms of your hand or in a sieve. Place the garlic paste and drained cucumber in a bowl and mix well with a fork. I add a splash of seriously good extra virgin olive oil at this stage because I like the grassiness it adds, but don’t do it unless it’s oil good enough to take intravenously. Add two thirds of the yoghurt and a splash of the lemon juice and mix well. Taste (a subjective thing, but check for the balance between the garlic’s heat, the yoghurt’s cool and the lemon’s acidity). Add the rest of the yoghurt and lemon juice to taste. Add the mint, mix and taste again. Refrigerate or serve with bread to dip or as an accompaniment to a meal, especially something like roast lamb.
This is a favourite lunch during summer. The recipe gets tweaked every time depending on what’s in the fridge and, therefore, doesn’t always resemble a traditional fattoush. Indeed, on one key point I always fiddle with the Lebanese standard — the bread. Fattoush is traditionally served with toasted pita bread (khoubz) in the salad but because we tend to eat this salad by itself for lunch, with no other accompaniments, we tend to crave a bit of leavened bread in there, hence the Turkish pide. (note: if you are going to use khoubz, tear the bread apart, separating the two ‘sides’ and rub with olive oil and sumac before toasting in the oven). If you’re looking for a more authentic recipe, check out Tess Mallos’ seminal Middle East Cookbook, but this one’s a rough approximation and uses pretty standard buy-it-for-other-things groceries. Fiddle with the ingredients and the quantities as much as you like…
1 clove of Australian garlic
half teaspoon salt
juice of 1 lemon
60ml extra virgin olive oil
freshly ground black pepper
4 ripe tomatoes
1 Lebanese cucumber
half a red capsicum
half a red onion (or half a cup spring onion)
a few leaves of cos lettuce (optional)
half a cup parsley leaves
half a cup mint leaves
half a large Turkish pide
Make the dressing first. Crush the garlic into a measuring cup or jar and add the salt. Stir together into a paste and then add the lemon juice, oil and pepper. Stir to emulsify.
Chop tomatoes, cucumber and capsicum into chunks. Roughly shred the lettuce and finely chop the onion. Cut the pide open horizontally and place under the grill until lightly browned. Cut the toasted bread into bite-sized chunks. Finely chop the parsley and mint and toss all the above with the dressing in a large bowl.
Sometimes the lure of a minimal ingredient list really gets the better of me. This comes (barely adapted) from the River Cafe Cook Book and the brevity of it was appealing but I can’t say it’s something I’m going to make again. Not that it didn’t turn out well — it’s just insanely rich, quite stupidly expensive to make and essentially a great big flavoursome wad of fat on a plate (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Anyway, if that seems like a fun night out rather than Type II diabetes, carry on!
Serves 16 at least
400g bitter chocolate, broken into pieces*
900ml double cream, at room temperature**
cocoa for dusting
Line a 25cm cake tin with Glad wrap (if it’s a spring form, all the better). Slowly melt the chocolate in a bowl over simmering water. Don’t stir the chocolate and don’t let the bowl touch the water. Thanks to a coolish ambient temperature, the top of my chocolate stubbornly retained the shape of the pieces even though it was melted and the rest was liquid underneath. Rather than stirring the chocolate, I simply pierced the top ‘skin’ with a skewer to check that the chocolate was liquid underneath. Once liquid, allow the chocolate to cool ever so slightly. Meanwhile, whip the cream in a large bowl until it can form very soft peaks (be careful not to over do it). Add a large spoonful of the whipped cream to the bowl of chocolate and fold in quickly until there are no white streaks visible. Then quickly transfer the contents of the chocolate bowl into the bowl of whipped cream and fold everything together. You should have a lustrous milk-chocolate-coloured batter to pour into the lined cake tin. Chill for at least 2 hours, then invert onto a plate or do a sneaky slide and pray if you have a spring form to get the top looking all swirly like I did. Dust with cocoa and cut with a sharp knife.
* I went with good 70% cocoa Fair Trade stuff … there’s no point skimping on quality when there’s only two ingredients at work.
** none of that half-arsed thickened cream, this is all about having at least 50g of fat per 100g serving … check the “nutrition” information on the cream tubs.
The blueberry glut has largely been dealt with. Many of them have been eaten fresh and some have been frozen for later use. AF made some muffins yesterday and methinks I’ll concoct a clafoutis for tomorrow night. But today was all about jam.
Almost 5 years ago, I tried making lemon marmalade with a swag of lemons I ganked after climbing a neighbour’s fence. Alas, I cooked it too long, not having a thermometer, and I renounced jamming there and then. Nevertheless, the call to jam was undeniable and I took time to consult the oracle … but the CWA cookery book doesn’t have a single effing entry on blueberries. Anyway, this is approximately what I came up with…
Makes about 7 cups jam
6 cups fresh blueberries
4 cups sugar
juice of 1 lemon
Don’t wash the blueberries but do remove manky looking ones, stems etc. Crush or blitz half the blueberries, then put them in a very big pot (jam bubbles up like crazy when it’s cooking so you don’t want the ingredients to sit even halfway up the walls before cooking). Add the other blueberries whole along with the rest of the ingredients. Heat slowly til the sugar has dissolved then crank up the heat and boil them intensely for 5-7 minutes depending on how runny or set you like your jam. There’s plenty of thorough info on all the vagaries of pectin, jars and sterilisation on the web and on the back of pectin packets, so I won’t go into that here.
We picked around 12kg of blueberries today from a friend’s property. The blueberry bushes have been there for decades and are now completely untended, unwatered, unpruned and unsprayed. With dozens of rows of bushes, we barely scratched the surface. Having eaten around 2kg with our hands, the next few days will involve trying to work out how the hell to use them all. Stay tuned.
A great market day lunch. Straight from the monger to the pot. It all takes 15 min tops.
Serves 2 to 3
a big splash of extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves Australian garlic chopped finely
1 can diced tomato
1 kg fresh Tassie mussels debearded
plenty of chopped parsley
bread to mop up with
In a deep stainless steel pot, fry the garlic in oil until just golden, add tomatoes and cook for a minute or two until that tomato is practically krumping with bubbles. Add the cleaned mussels in one go (not too violently) and slam on the lid. Leave for 6 minutes. Add chopped parsley at the end, stir through and then ladle mussels and the attendant juices into big bowls. Provide napkins and a bowl for shells, it’s gloriously messy stuff. If you have enough bread, you could eat the whole dish without cutlery.
Best banana loaf recipe ever. Baked New Year’s Night as a treat for the W’town and Glenlyon crews. Massive props to the Penmans for sharing. You can halve the quantities to fit into a standard bread tin, just reduce the cooking time to 45min.
Serves plenty, unless you’re a fatty
2 cups sugar
1 cup honey
4 free range eggs
5 or 6 bananas (tip: put overripe bananas in freezer and then thaw them, they come out pre-mashed)
3 cups plain flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
a sprinkling of Australian walnuts
Cream the butter and sugar. Mix through honey, then eggs one at a time, then bananas. Sift flour, salt and baking soda together and mix into batter. Pour into a greased or lined cake tray of about 25x40cm, top with walnuts and bake at 180°C for 60min.
My first go at baked eggs happened impromptu for New Year’s Day breakfast. Taking my cue from a half-remembered dish at Birdmann Eating, this could pass as an eggy riff on puttanesca though the feta adds a pleasingly Hellenic touch.
drizzle of olive oil
1 teaspoon Carmelina Spaghetti Condiment (a shortcut way of adding chilli and sundried tomato flavour … if you’re in Melbourne, get it at Mediterranean Wholesalers)
1 can diced tomato
1 gregarious tablespoon of capers
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
4 free range eggs
a wad of Dodoni feta
parsley to garnish
sourdough toast plied with extra virgin olive oil
In a cast iron frying pan heat the first five ingredients on the stove top until the tomatoes have reduced and the whole thing looks the colour of a British tourist in Dubrovnik. Take off the heat and crack the four eggs on top of the sauce, then crumble the feta on too. Put in a preheated oven of around 200°C (I played around with the temperature as I peered through the oven door, so don’t take my word on it) and leave in there until the egg whites are semi-cooked (keep an eye on them, we’re talking a few minutes here). Fry some bacon while all this is going on and toast some bread, you know how to do that. Then put the eggs and tomato under the grill to finish off. The idea is to have the bottom cooked, the top cooked and the centre on its way, so that the yolks can still break free once you spoon them over your toast. Chop some parsley for prettiness and season for saltiness.
It is a truism to say that Hofesh Shechter’s dance pieces are as much about music as they are about choreography—in the double bill of Uprising and In Your Rooms, Shechter is credited with creating both. Indeed, his interest in their combination is hardly novel ground for dance, but his capacity to synthesise their impact on an audience together with a cinematic sense of imagery is the key to his popularity.
Uprising begins with a steady slightly metallic beat, a bank of spotlights tilted towards us and haze swarming portentously across the empty stage. From somewhere behind the lights emerge seven male dancers heading downstage with a determined gait. The air is menacing but Shechter subverts the expected and just as the men can go no further, they arrest their charge by lifting a leg to their other knee and holding themselves in a sweetly balletic stance. The line is ordered and controlled—a display of technical acumen certainly—but the image it presents is only a whisper away from collapse. These men are vulnerable in their balancing act.
As the beat continues to drive on, the men slide out of formation looking dejected, defeated even. Shechter reportedly created Uprising in response to the 2006 riots in Paris, though thematically it feels more like a response to the banlieue riots of 2005, which were more palpably and brutally linked to the ennui of disaffected young men. However, to see Uprising as a political statement is problematic. The real source material is testosterone and, as it does in life, it peaks at puberty. Uprising is less an investigation of men and militant outrage than it is a celebratory omnibus of adolescence. Yes, the dancers show us forms of violence, rebellion and manhood, but they are mock displays, the simulated games of boys testing their own limits and not to be taken too seriously—the pants are khaki but the label is American Apparel.
The music is a propulsive assemblage of percussion that whips the choreography along rather than merely accompanying it. In the words of one of the dancers, Chris Evans, Shechter “liberates the dancers from chasing a meaning around” by using music to set the tone. The result is a physical language that, in being both persistent and simple in its intention, is remarkably legible without dipping too often into literalism. The dancers respond with powerful abandon: throwing their arms back as they run head down, breaking formation in fits of individualism, using their hands to slink across stage like simians, wrestling and caressing. Throughout, flashes of popular dance genres emerge—the negation of the lower body typical of breakdance, the bopping kick of skank—as does the unmistakable urban dubstep of Vex’d with their track Thunder.
With a barren stage and a highly structured beat, Shechter has to find both engaging imagery and fluidity in the bodies on stage. Lee Curran’s sharply focussed spotlights provide pools of visibility that the dancers slide in and out of. Trios and duos flicker past each other in discreet frames like spatial cross-dissolves. When dancers are shrouded in darkness one feels that they have not exited so much as briefly moved out of frame. And when Shechter has all seven dancers working in unison, he is amplifying the human form as a cinematographer might do with a close up. The result is spare but extremely beautiful.
Uprising finishes with a spurt of bathetic triumphalism. The men construct a limp flag-waving human pyramid equal parts French Revolution, Soviet agitprop and summer camp. In some respects, the finale makes sense as the antithesis of the opening image—asymmetrical and multi-tiered rather than a strict line. But it also feels like a cheap shot. The preceding dance has already done the work of dismantling order and control, but rather than living up to or even coveting the title of Uprising, Shechter shies away from revolution and delivers a safe implication of delinquent folly.
A similar whiff of shyness was sensed next door at Look Mummy I’m Dancing, written and performed by Belgium’s first transsexual Vanessa (Van Durme). Adapted from her own book of the same name, the show is a sort of staged Bildungsroman that tells the story of Vanessa’s transformation from a troubled boy into a troubled woman.
For a show based on a very fundamental questioning of gender, Look Mummy I’m Dancing manages to shy away from questioning traditional gender concepts. Vanessa begins her monologue with a story of a couple at a checkout line. In both subject matter and delivery it feels like the anecdote of a stand-up comic pointing out the banal universal tropes of married life for us to both recognise and find funny. One expects this cliché of binary gender absolutes to then be undercut by the subsequent story. Yet, save for a few moments of inner conflict, the tone never really shifts. The writing constantly finds ways of being relatable, hackneyed, earnest and predictable.
Occasionally, often in moments of dark, visceral humour, a real theatrical tension is evoked between Vanessa’s delicate aspirations and the staggering pitfalls of her life. And one might argue that it is not her role to do anything but tell her own personal story, rather than speak to the conceptual or the societal. However, too often, the narrative metes out to incidental players the same one-dimensional characterisations that are supposedly the bane of Vanessa’s own existence and skirts across stories with nary a sideways glance at insight.
A similar problem befalls Anna Tregloan’s The Dictionary of Imaginary Places. Taking the art of public transport eavesdropping and mashing it with the Dadaist penchant for collage, Tregloan has shaped a piece of theatre out of verbatim transcripts of one-sided conversations on trains. The concept itself is cheekily promising, with non sequitur humour and pathos possible at every turn, but the various components never quite slot together.
Tregloan takes advantage of the Meat Market’s extraordinary depth by creating a train carriage out of rows of chairs but, in spite of her design credentials, the set is otherwise underdeveloped and lacking in detail. Tregloan’s 2007 work, BLACK, with its refractive centre of characters, was as much a spatial installation as it was a performance, and that level of attentiveness to the audience’s relation to space was sorely missed in The Dictionary of Imaginary Places. The unhindered distances around the performers created an unfocused, centrifugal effect that compounded the fractured nature of the narratives, leaving the audience to forage for meaning from afar.
Wrapping up many people’s Festival experience this year was Le Salon from the Belgian company Peeping Tom. Partly borne out of the Belgian powerhouses Ballets C de la B and Needcompany, Peeping Tom are a collective of artists orbiting around the central creative partnership of dancers Gabriela Carrizo and Franck Chartier. Each of the performers, including a mezzo-soprano and an actor, bring their own idiosyncratic talents and foibles to bear. This, combined with the very real emotional relationship shared by Carrizo and Chartier, creates an onstage chemistry not dissimilar to that of an amiably dysfunctional family—sometimes pulling in very different directions but inextricably rooted in the same mire of history, experience and artistic heredity.
Le Salon is the middle section in a trilogy of work that loosely follows a family through a cycle of generation and degeneration. The gently decaying wood panelling of the set is at once an allusion to a bourgeois grandeur of the past and a presaging of the characters’ internal declines. With only a sparse use of text, the theatre, humour and intelligence of the piece is in the bodies and the music. And both, while brimming with technical mastery, are also able to seethe with the signs of downfall. Though at times it threatens to undermine itself with overplaying, Le Salon beautifully delivers what it sets out to do—to intimately make flesh the fear of loss, the fear of death and the fear of not noticing it arrive.
This article originally appeared in print in RealTime 94, December-January, 2009-2010, page 4, and is reproduced with permission.
Phillip Adams’ choreography sometimes repeats a physical action until it achieves the transcendent extremity of a ritual. By taking on the subject matter of mass hysteria and apocalyptic cults, where the held breath of expectation is clothed in mantras and cyclical behaviours, he has found a fitting underpinning.
In BalletLab’s 2007 Brindabella, the piece was literally bisected by four dancers jogging in near-unison around the stage. It went on for far longer than one expected and, in doing so, it suspended the audience from any act of judgment or any desire to draw literal meaning. It was a relatively unadorned pause in between more elaborate worlds on either side. It acted as an enforced threshold, the thud of footfalls was mesmeric and the circling bodies were hypnotising. We were being lulled into a different state.
In Miracle, it’s all about different states—the hallucinatory, the delusional, the ecstatic, the postmortem. We start in a state of quiet dislocation. The space is filled with brightly lit haze, creating an obscuring curtain of white. As the haze fades, four figures are revealed far back on the stage. They stand in a line, in loose-fitting robes: orange, yellow, blue, green. The costumes, by fashion designer Toni Maticevski, are a confectioner’s riff on tie-dye.
The dancers retain their stance and their silence for a long, enticing moment. After all, when you are waiting for the end of the world, anticipation is the key. Then, suddenly, and with great force, the sky opens up and peals of sound rush forward along with the dancers. Their bodies carve out a diagonal sweep and the speakers crush out an orchestrated wall of strings, voices and beats. Holding hands, the dancers retrace their steps, their mouths agape with cries, and they cross forward and back again and again until their efforts drive them into prostration. The effect of such intensity could be galling, eviscerating or transformative but the emptiness of the stage, marked simply by a square of grey, and the swathes of movement suggest an animated Franz Kline painting: urgent and physical, but safely contained on a canvas.
In a question and answer session after the show, Adams felt that this particular run of Miracle had been “too cosy, too comfortable” for the performers. He stressed the importance of the hysteria being experienced, not merely represented. Yet, he also spoke of his desire to achieve a “cinematic” effect. Perhaps he meant something else with this statement, but it seemed at times that the performers were fully enveloped by the experience, yet in the vast reaches of the Meat Market they were held at a projected distance from us that was neither threatening, nor fully engaging—we were invited to watch them but not to feel like one of them. We witnessed hysteria and ecstasy, but were never transported to that state ourselves.
Hysteria and performing arts are hardly strange bedfellows. The success of a theatrical experience usually demands a communal suspension of disbelief, arguably an act of mass hysteria. Thus, in making the experience of hysteria the sine qua non of Miracle, Adams binds the success of his concept and choreography to the success of its mass reception.
Nevertheless, even on a “cosy” night when the fever doesn’t quite set in, the extraordinariness of Miracle’s components is apparent. The stunning score is a joint creation by David Chisholm and Myles Mumford. They mix and process a range of diegetic and recorded sources live for every performance, in what they describe as a “plunderphonic” composition. In the large, blank space, the multiple speakers cut through the air giving shape to the void.
The performances, despite Adams’ qualifications, display a rare mix of sensitivity and visceral dedication. BalletLab’s work has increasingly tilted towards the second part of its name and the exploratory nature of experimentation requires a very different specificity to that of ballet. Like Deborah Hay’s company of dancers in the recently toured If I Sing to You, the dancers in Miracle are constantly aware of the whole and not just themselves. The result is an apparent freedom of form, an organic flow of actions and reactions that feel autonomous rather than directed.
This performative freedom and the permutations that result suggest the centrifugal whirling of a dervish. From the original point of stillness and silence, Adams spins Miracle into sound and fury, we pass whirling rag balls and extension cables, we circle bullhorns and clogs until, in a final astonishing image, having exited Earth’s gravitational pull, Miracle hovers weightlessly in a moment of divine suspension.
This article originally appeared in print in RealTime 93, October – November, 2009, page 37, and is reproduced with permission.
The titles of Lucy Guerin’s recent works have been marked by clarity and transparency, even literalness. Structure and Sadness dealt with the aftermath of grief caused by the West Gate bridge collapse. Melt was a duet for two water molecules that move from ice through to steam. Corridor limited itself to a long traverse stage and took a corridor scene from Kafka as its inspiration. And now Untrained juxtaposes two artists trained as dancers with two artists untrained as dancers.
Contrast these examples with the titular and choreographic opacity of Shelley Lasica’s Vianne and there would appear to be nothing hidden in Guerin’s world, nothing that is so mysterious that it cannot be elucidated in a simple, perfectly decipherable title. For her critics, this is a cause for frustration: her works can be seen as the physical equivalent of begging the question in rhetoric, where the proposition assumes its own truth before being argued. In other words, is the dance redundant once you read the program notes?
Yet, aside from the inherent value judgements involved in meriting metaphor over literalness, describing Guerin’s dance as redundant is to deny its capacity to transcend the admittedly literal text that tries to encapsulate it. Guerin is not given to ornateness in her language but her sensibility for the human form is far from plain—the duets across her body of work are remarkable in their mesmerising intimacy, their detail and their capacity to enliven the space between the dancers as much as they animate the bodies themselves. Moreover, by starting with such conceptual distillation, Guerin’s work emerges from a kind of purity, with every subsequent extrapolation seeming to fit and flow on perfectly from the last.
Indeed, it is a questioning of purity that lies at the heart of Untrained. The title is easily decipherable, yes, but what is it to be untrained? Is the untrained body pure in its movement—unfettered by the conditioning of choreography and exercises? Or is it the trained body, in its refinement and exactitude, that achieves purity by sublimation? Guerin is certainly not looking for an easy solution to this dialectic. She is interested in what it does to us as an audience and to the performers themselves to see these questions made manifest by exploring the continuum from pure naivety to pure technique.
Her staging of Untrained maintains this notion of purity. The set is nothing more than a grey playing square marked out by broad white lines. It is a clever delimiter, its form suggestive of a playground ball court or a boxing ring—both stages perhaps but ones not restricted to the arts. The performers never leave our sight, yet, with just one exception, only when they enter this square are they viewed. This is no geometrical sleight of hand. What we are witnessing is an experiment where we are the lab technicians and this square our Petri dish. By placing contrasting physical presences in the same space one after another, Guerin provides us with a microscope through which to examine the idiosyncrasies, the likenesses, the differentiators and the foibles of four bodies in motion.
The identities of these four bodies are important to note. Byron Perry and Antony Hamilton are two wunderkinder of the Melbourne dance scene. Not only are they ubiquitous presences in the works of Lucy Guerin Inc and Chunky Move, but they are also celebrated choreographers and visual artists. Their untrained co-performers are Simon Obarzanek and Ross Coulter, who are both visual artists. So, as it happens, all are men and all are visual artists.
To begin with, the performers present themselves to the audience one at a time by standing in the centre of the square for a few seconds, doing nothing. They have been asked to be neutral. However, each of them carries a stamp of personality and of habit, and we see this. From this starting point, Guerin uses a succession of provocations to tease out different performative languages: sing a song, be a cat that gets electrocuted, copy your partner. At times, the audience laughs at the ineptitude of the untrained. At times, they laugh at the hubris of the trained. As the work progresses, the laughs dissipate and the analytical eye is no longer restricted to the audience — the performers themselves begin to reflect on how they compare with the others and, vitally, are asked to speak to their own image.
This article originally appeared in print and online for RealTime Dance Massive Special, March 2009, and is reproduced with permission.
The Hong Kong Arts Festival began as a private initiative in 1973. One year later, in a moment of belated British pragmatism, Chinese was finally recognised as an official language by the colonial administrators, though the Arts Festival cannot necessarily be held responsible. So, in this part of the world, millions of people were taking a first step out from the shadow of Empire. Move across the Pacific and one year further on, to 1975, and the Wooster Group stages its first production in New York.
Now, as part of the Hong Kong Festival’s 37th iteration, the Wooster Group has dusted off its rendering of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones for another outing. Originally conceived in 1993, this production is the culmination of the Wooster Group’s deconstruction of blackface. Of course, there have been (and there still are) some observers who consider it merely a reconstruction of blackface. But, back in 1981, before The Emperor Jones was even conceived, the company produced Route 1 & 9, the first part of The Road to Immortality trilogy. Route 1 & 9 was welcomed by a gale of controversy, partly because of its blistering desecration of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town but largely because of the use of blackface in this desecration. The calls of racism and insensitivity reached the bureaucratic halls of the New York State Council on the Arts, which severely cut the Wooster Group’s funding as a result, citing “harsh and caricatured portrayals of a racial minority.”
The director of these productions, indeed the director of all Wooster Group productions, is Elizabeth LeCompte. Grey-haired, with lucid, dark-green eyes, LeCompte has a compelling demeanour that fuses a cutting intelligence with unassuming blitheness. When she is asked a redundant question that presupposes her answer, she sees it for what it is and is curt. When asked about her upcoming work, she turns to her producer, Cynthia Hedstrom, for support or deliberately undermines herself with humour. Yet she also shows an unerring confidence in the scope of her imagination and her ability as a theatre maker when she says, of her upcoming adaptation of Vieux Carré by Tennessee Williams, that she is inventing a “completely new form of naturalism.” LeCompte sees every performance of every Wooster Group show in order to take notes and gauge the audience response, but she claims to be utterly disinterested in comparing her work to that of other theatre makers, preferring to watch films, musicals and “lots of television.” This ability to focus her attention on her own work combined with her steadfast sense of artistic vision and purpose might explain why, notwithstanding the volume of criticism, the Wooster Group continued its use of blackface in not just one but three separate shows.
Amidst all this offstage politics, the visual aesthetic that most clearly infuses The Emperor Jones is that of Japanese Noh theatre. One sees it in the costuming and in the gestural language of the performers. Also, one sees it in the makeup. The character of Henry Smithers, a British trader, appears in Noh-inspired whiteface alongside Brutus Jones’s blackface. It is a deliberate counterpoint that manages to underline the use of blackface while simultaneously shifting the cultural reference points with which we view it. In other words, what the Wooster Group have done with blackface is to make it a performative, rather than a pejorative, mask.
Yet, beyond any theatrical coup de grâce that one might ascribe to this deconstructive effort, the reason for LeCompte’s initial interest in staging The Emperor Jones is less grand, though no less valid. Kate Valk, the actress who plays Jones, had appeared in blackface in previous Wooster Group productions and, in LeCompte’s words, was “developing a voice” that LeCompte thought was worth exploring—O’Neill’s text provided the perfect vehicle for a more detailed outing. For Valk, the opportunity to play behind the mask of blackface is an opportunity to be liberated as an actor, to be freed from the psychological barriers of the self and, as a result, to be fully present in the immediacy of the stage environment. Valk explains this by referring to the “two-step process of denial” that wearing the mask entails. First of all, the mask allows the performer to deny their own subjective psychological presence. Second, in then denying that the mask itself exists, the performer is able to fully disassociate their self from the situation and inhabit the stage as an other.
As with the visual aesthetic of the show, Valk’s investigation of masks is indebted to the Noh tradition. Indeed, there are videotapes of Noh theatre that play on a loop on screens that face the actors—Valk is given to watching them as a point of focus in what is, at times, a solitary stage existence and she relishes that she can randomly incorporate gestures from the videos in her performance as a way of keeping things fresh, all without the audience’s knowledge. However, to suggest that the entire show is an ode to Noh would be an unfortunate feat of elision. The Wooster Group work so meticulously on their productions and from so many angles that their work defies such a reductive suggestion of provenance. The choreography for various dance interludes is snatched from Hawaiian folk dances; the sound design draws on cartoon sound effects; the video screens present distorted low resolution images that create a deliberately damaged but exacting accompaniment to the live action.
Somehow, in all this feeding on references, LeCompte’s team of collaborators find a distinct and unique theatrical language that, like herself, has two complimentary aspects: one rapier sharp, the other playfully obtuse. The red flyswatter that almost becomes an Oriental fan, the incongruous soccer shin pads, and the stage assistant that almost becomes a character all create a slightly tattered sensibility and remind us of the theatremaking. On the other hand, the technological integration, the dynamics of the show and the performances by Valk and, on alternate nights, Scott Shepherd and Ari Fliakos, are far from tattered.
Near the beginning of the show, Valk sits in an old office chair in the centre of the space, her costume is a ragged riff on a kimono, she holds a microphone on a black stick and wields it as naturally as one of her own limbs, or as jauntily as a cane. The whites of her eyes, luminous within the thick mask of blackface, dart and roll, her lips and teeth stretch their moorings as she plunges her voice into a growling baritone. Valk’s virtuosity is astonishing and powerful. She is a picture of both precise stylisation and humanity limited by stylisation. The blackface that, on the one hand, causes furore and, on the other, liberates the actor is more than the sum of its parts. By casting a white woman in blackface, who so accurately, yet so artificially, recreates the stereotypical idiom and mannerisms of a black man, we see the performative nature of the character himself—a man unable to escape the hateful script dealt to him by a history of slavery, subjugation and segregation.
Across the Hong Kong harbour, two weeks later, Akram Khan and Juliette Binoche shared the stage in their self-devised dance duet In-I. To say that Binoche is not renowned for her dancing prowess might imply a dry reproach for a foolish endeavour. Yet, the truth of the matter is that it is exactly because she is not an accomplished dancer that this show even exists.
In-I sits in that realm of contemporary dance theatre often occupied by Jérôme Bel (Pichet Klunchun and Myself) and, newly, Lucy Guerin (Untrained). It is not the tanztheater of Pina Bausch or Meryl Tankard, but rather a dialogic medium that investigates the gap between the physically articulate and the physically inarticulate by juxtaposing them on stage. Bel achieves this through a simple conversation, Guerin achieves this through follow-the-leader games, but In-I tries a more unwieldy and less formally clarified combination of choreography and text that butt up against each other but rarely intersect.
Binoche initiated the project after seeing one of Khan’s dance pieces. It is a credit to Binoche as an artist that she so forthrightly ventures into unknown territory, but there is a sense that Khan has not fully met her enthusiasm with his own. Though Binoche does not quite achieve the extension and line that one takes for granted in a trained dancer, she executes the choreography with unceasing energy and alacrity, even as the sweat pours down her face and her hair becomes a tousled mop that defies her film star credentials. On the other hand, Khan is a performer of stoic restraint and economy, whose face is a stern glaze from start to finish. When Binoche’s arms open outwards, they do so to welcome something in with generosity. When Khan extends his, they seem to deflect and defend. Certainly, there is something of the feminine/masculine binary at work here, but Binoche’s presence is more engaged, more fluent, where Khan’s is determinedly one-note.
In the end, In-I is, as its eponymous pronoun suggests, less successful as a duet than it is as an insight into two very different artistic talents. The one liberated by exploration, the other troubled by the unknown.
This article originally appeared in print in RealTime 90, April-May, 2009, page 6, and is reproduced with permission. http://realtimearts.net/article/issue90/9393
As the child of migrants, I became inured to biennial 40-hour flights to Sweden, punctuated by those character-building 7-hour stopovers in Changi or Schiphol. My body learnt the rhythms of this journey, where a flight to Sydney was an hors d’oeuvre, the trip into Asia merely an entree, the stint to Europe an impossible braise and the hop across the Kattegatt an anticlimactic sorbet. Thus, flying to Asia as a destination has always been a somewhat mystifyingly pleasurable experience. “Oh, we’re here already.”
So it was that, at 6am the next morning, i woke up as the green dawn combed through the skyscrapers of Hong Kong. Alone on a shuttle bus I soon grew cold from the air conditioning. Indeed, in Hong Kong, one dresses not for the weather but for the air con. At this time of year, the temperature outside hovers between 20 to 25 and the humidity is clement enough, but every bus, arcade, restaurant and shop is chilled to ensure everyone can go on wearing suits and jackets. I’m not sartorially, nor ethnographically qualified to say whether this desire to deny the climate is a headache from a postcolonial hangover, but the preponderance of Anglophilia seems to at least nod in that direction.
I’m staying in a serviced apartment in Tsim Sha Tsui with John, the man who begot me a quarter of a century ago. It is, by my standards and by most standards, a luxy pad. As an aside, the receptionist who gives me my keycard and my guest membership to the gym downstairs is called Panther Lee. 12 days later and I’ve said “thank you” more times than i would normally do in a year as doors are opened for me, beds are turned down, chairs are pulled back and i’m otherwise treated to service embarrassingly beyond my means.
Tsim Sha Tsui is on the edge of the Kowloon peninsula, which means our window on the 30th floor faces the two dimensional concrete and glass jigsaw puzzle of Hong Kong island. Or, most days, it faces a wall of fog, spotted by ferries and pierced by falcons that circle at this altitude presumably looking for fake Rolexes or a good deal on a Louis Vuitton clutch bag. The fact that I’m here partly for the purpose of editing the English in science textbooks has meant that I’ve spent quite some time wistfully looking out this window when the thought of correcting another completely abstruse sentence on moss gets too much for me.
Fortunately, I’m also here for a lighter purpose, which is to cover the Hong Kong Arts Festival. First up it was the legendary Wooster group, who lived up to expectations perfectly. Then a far, far less impressive local production that i thought was going to be my taste of young Hong Kong theatre, but turned out to be a school-holiday-shopping-centre musical. A spot of Baroque opera later and i was in a colonial cathedral listening to the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir rock out with some Arvo Pärt and Mendelssohn. On Friday night, Shostakovich snuck his head in with a bawdy proletarian opera set in Mtsensk. It featured some fleshy groping and one of the heartiest brass sections I’ve ever heard, but a dozen French horns make for some seriously disturbing coital accompaniment, so unless your sexual fantasies involve trebuchets and Stalin I wouldn’t go there. Now I’ve just got some Bach cello sonatas and a dance duet between Akram Khan and Juliette Binoche(!) left before i fly out.
My travel joys have been of the gastronomic variety. Sea urchin, sea snail, dim sum, double boiled chicken and more pork than an election-year budget. The local street markets in Mongkok have also been inspiring with everything from dried oysters to live toads on offer to the local cooks. But I wussed out and bought some mangoes and a pair of plimsoles.
I’ve done it in Turkey, i’ve done it in New York and now i’ve done it in Honkers. Whether you call it a sauna, a bastu, a shvitz or a hamam, as long as it’s a dry 58 degrees in there, i’m happy. The gym that our accommodation gives us access to is the very well-appointed invite-only Pacific Club. And so, having wandered past the cadre of naked old Hong Kong millionaire businessmen doing callisthenics in front of the mirrors, i’ve been sweating it out like the hairy little gweilo I am. Yep, I’ll leave you with that image rattling in your id.
Its unique breadth of geographical locations and its distinctive sense of pan-island fraternity have always set Ten Days on the Island apart from its mainland cousins. Following on from her work in 2007, Artistic Director Elizabeth Walsh sees this year’s program as “going a bit further” with regard to providing an even more innovative and challenging program of events.
When I interviewed her, Walsh was in Melbourne for the opening of Woyzeck at the Malthouse Theatre. This particular translation and adaptation of the Georg Büchner play is by the Icelandic writer, director, actor and former gymnast Gisli Örn Gardarsson, whose version of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis is one of the headline productions at the Ten Days festival. The popularity of Gardarsson’s work on our shores, though seeming rather sudden, has been only a matter of time. With his theatre company, Vesturport, Gardarsson has become a darling of the British theatre scene thanks to the extreme physical acrobatics he employs in his theatrical adaptations—the result of bringing his gymnastic skills and aesthetic to bear on projects from Romeo and Juliet to Faust. And, on most of these pieces, he has collaborated with Australian musicians Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, whose output in recent years has increasingly included scores for stage and screen. In terms of theatrical antecedents, Gardarsson’s Metamorphosis is a very different dish to that served up by Steven Berkoff in 1969. Where Berkoff used his physical alacrity and invention to construct Gregor Samsa’s entire world from lights and a few bits of scaffolding, Gardarsson’s vision is grander and locates Samsa within a much more traditional theatrical design. Nevertheless, both are very much vehicles for physical virtuosity and, in that respect, Gardarsson’s pedigree is hard to fault.
On the topic of pedigree, Wu Hsing-kuo’s company has the potentially hubristic moniker of Contemporary Legend Theatre. However, having studied Chinese opera from the age of 11 and performed as lead dancer for the extraordinary Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, Wu Hsing-kuo has earned the title. He brings to Tasmania what Walsh describes as his “party piece”—a solo performance of King Lear. Though Lear is not what everyone would call a party, there is something undeniably attractive about seeing such an outrageously ambitious project undertaken by such a capable performer. This kind of transcultural adaptation of Elizabethan drama into other equally strong theatrical traditions has some great forebears, such as Akira Kurosawa’s use of Noh elements in his acclaimed films Ran and Throne of Blood. In Wu Hsing-kuo’s version, the narrative arc of Lear’s fall from regal pageantry to barren essentialism is echoed in the costumed glory of traditional Chinese opera being gradually stripped away as the old king’s mind unravels before us.
On the musical front, Ten Days on the Island is flying Perth composer Ross Bolleter back and forth in search of Tasmania’s most attractively derelict pianos. John Cage made the ‘prepared piano’ popular and Bolleter does the same for ‘ruined pianos.’ In other words, he takes those weathered wrecks that have been sitting in a galvanised iron outhouse for a few too many decades and uses their unique aural fingerprint of decay to create his own particular brand of composition. For Walsh, this has been the perfect opportunity for the festival to interact both with the colonial heritage of Tasmania and smaller regional communities. For Bolleter, it is an opportunity to interrogate the idiosyncratic resonances of some truly decomposed ebony and ivory. And for the audience, it is a potentially inspiring call to arms and good reason to lift the sheets from those long-forgotten instruments. Having toured to Stanley, Derby and Ross, the pianos will eventually be installed in the equally neglected and remarkable Bond Store at the Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery in Hobart, where their stories and their sounds will both be on show.
In a strangely beautiful parallel, another installation-cum-concert takes its aural inspiration from a far more modern instrument—the siren. Created by English sound artist Ray Lee, Siren stretches the possibilities of the Doppler effect to an enticing extreme. Presented at Launceston’s Queen Victoria Museum & Art Gallery, Walsh points out that the venue’s role as a nexus for science and art makes it the perfect place to install this musical experiment. Set on giant tripods, sirens and lights rotate on long arms to create a finely tuned field of sound that is interspersed with inevitable beats and natural harmonics. Within this space, the audience is encouraged to move around, adding another level of sonic mobility and distortion and thereby affording each listener an entirely personal experience of the sound. Together with fellow performer Harry Dawes, Lee moves around the space with the audience, operating the sirens and adjusting their tone. Lee is interested in what he describes, with a nod to outmoded physics, as the “circles of ether”—the invisible forces of electromagnetism and the like. In Siren, he creates an appreciable representation of these forces using the invisible yet sensible nature of sound to make manifest the waves and concentric spheres of radiation.
Someone else who radiates their own special brand of electromagnetism is the pluridisciplinary artist Hiroaki Umeda, who sneaks into the festival program with only a few performances. Bringing two dance works, Duo and while going to a condition, as well as a short video work, Montevideoaki, Umeda is one of the more exciting prospects in the festival. Watching Umeda dance in while going to a condition is like seeing a human oscilloscope, as he builds his movements from Butoh-like restraint into frenetic climaxes. All of this occurs in front of a flickering wall of light and with the audience enveloped by an intensely loud field of electronic crackles and whirs. In Montevideoaki, Umeda’s dance is placed in front of the backdrop of the eponymous Uruguayan capital. The elementary wordplay of the title ought not obscure the fact that it was made in collaboration with Octavio Iturbe, a video artist who has previously made award-winning screen adaptations of Wim Vandekeybus’ choreography.
From the shores of another island-off-the-mainland comes Terra Che Brucia. This Sicilian combination of jazz and projected archival footage is led by saxophonist Massimo Cavallaro. The music fits quite safely into that mode of European electrojazz popularised (and done better) by the likes of Nils Petter Molvaer but the footage itself is a fascinating collection of documentaries on everyday Sicilian life made by Panaria Film between 1948 and 1950, when Italy, especially the impoverished South, was still recovering from the wreckage of the Second World War.
One of the more enigmatic forces in Ten Days on the Island will be the Icelandic Love Corporation. This trio of female artists (Sigrún Hrólfsdóttir, Jóni Jonsdóttir and Eirún Sigurdardóttir) produce installed happenings. Walsh met the group in Iceland and invited them to come to Tasmania largely on the basis of the way in which they made coffee. She is gleefully ready to admit that she has no idea what they are bringing to the festival, apart from the title of the show, Hospitality. One suspects there might be a few cups of something involved but the piece will undoubtedly have the wry whimsy that is bred in a country where everyone is related and the banking system has collapsed. You can catch the Icelandic Love Corporation’s particular brand of hospitality at Contemporary Art Services Tasmania in North Hobart for the duration of the festival and a few weeks afterwards.
This article originally appeared in print in RealTime 89, Februrary-March, 2009, page , and is reproduced with permission.
The Band’s Visit begins with a gently absurd level of theatricality. Not the kind of camp histrionics that Baz Luhrmann starts his movies with, but rather the stylised simplicity of Akira Kurosawa or Roy Andersson. In the opening shots, cleaners at the airport walk across the frame from edge to edge, creating an implicit proscenium arch, and the palette is chilled to a pale blue that matches the uniforms of the Alexandria Ceremonial Orchestra, the eponymous musical outfit, who have travelled from Egypt to Israel to perform at the inauguration of an Arab Culture Centre.
The band is led by the pursed lips and imposing nose of Tawfiq Zacharya (Sasson Gabai), whose pride is made manifest in his moustache. With the most elementary of phonetic mistakes, Tawfiq and his orchestra end up in one of those villages of parched concrete banality that dot the deserts from Tripoli to Samarkand. There is nothing for the band to do but idle away the hours until the next bus; a conceit that gives writer-director Eran Kolirin the opportunity to patiently play with a microcosm of Arab-Israeli relations.
In an interview included on this edition of the DVD, Kolirin explains that the aesthetic of the film emerged from an imagined moment of a uniformed, disciplined Arab man singing a plangent song, unaccompanied by instruments or fanfare — a carapace surrounding a palpitating soul. It is a stirring image and one that has inspired a beautifully crafted and tender film whose humour and strict cinematic vocabulary save it from any charge of self-indulgence or cute exoticism.
Sometimes curation is nothing more than serendipity and sometimes serendipity bears all the hallmarks of curation. This month in Melbourne, the stars have aligned and the fortunate populous has the opportunity to see an exhibition (Intimacy) and a film (Hunger) that in their symbiosis would make a truly excellent day-night double bill.
The provenance of filmmakers is like a timeline of cultural influence: they came from the ranks of theatre, then they cut their teeth in television, lately it’s been the turn of MTV darlings, but now it’s all about video artists. Hunger is the first feature film by the Turner Prize-winning video artist Steve McQueen. And if his debut is any indication, cinema’s pantheon might have to make room for a second coming of that legendary name. Hunger is terrifying, intelligent and thrillingly well-made. It charts the violence and suffering of the Troubles in Northern Ireland through the chill corridors of the Maze prison as IRA inmates stage passive protests against their gaolers. The issue at stake for the prisoners is their status. Having fought for their self-determination, they now protest at being labelled criminals instead of political prisoners. Inside and out, it is a matter of identity and dignity. In the name of these abstract notions, the prisoners deny themselves the concrete material of human rights: clothing, hygiene and, eventually, food.
The first half of the film is a largely wordless mapping of the prison terrain. Motifs are established, repeated and transmuted, like the building of a visual symphony that ends with an inevitable but nevertheless breathtaking cymbal crash. Given his background, McQueen’s acute cinematographic sensibility in all this is hardly surprising, but what is remarkable is the deftness of the rhythms and the unflinching sweep of the narrative. It is not relentlessly harrowing, there are moments of inspired pause for something peculiar or idiosyncratic-a fly at a window, the tears of a young officer, or op art in faeces-but it never loses its momentum either. In the wake of this horizontal march of violence, comes a scene of extraordinary dialectical depth and clarity, a 20 minute scene with only one cut and no more movement than is required to smoke a cigarette to its death. Hunger‘s first act is so redolent with determined action and the pain of ingrained hatred that the characters take on a mythological scale. This second act, a conversation between a terrorist and his priest, serves as the counterpunch of psychology.
Meanwhile, in Southbank, the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) has an exhibition entitled Intimacy. Included in the collection is a Steve McQueen video work that amuses itself with the sculptural posturing of African wrestlers but, for me, the most intimate of works and the most inspiring is right at the end, tucked behind a warning for those not yet 18-a slideshow by the American photographer Nan Goldin. These photographs of couples at their most private moments were themselves not new to me, but this display of them, complete with the satisfying whack of the projector and the theonostalgialogical soundtrack by Björk was completely mesmerising. Sophie Calle and Louise Bourgeois (still kicking at age 96) occupy the rooms preceding Goldin’s and don’t neglect Jesper Just’s hilarious ode to Roy Orbison.
Hunger opened November 6. Intimacy runs until November 30 (admission is free).
Purgatory is a temporal noun. There are no clocks in the Inferno or in Paradise—there is no time in eternity. But Purgatory is immanently ephemeral. At least, that’s how Dante would have it. Purgatory is also theatre. It is a morality play writ large, where the actors are sinners and the curtain call is the expurgation of sin.
Romeo Castellucci’s staging of Purgatorio, commissioned by the Festival d’Avignon, begins with a quotidian scene of bourgeois domesticity. The set is an expansive, hyperrealist snapshot of refined 1970s living—dark wood, muted tones, recessed lighting. In it, a boy dangles his feet at a table and a woman washes dishes. It is, by every appearance, a literal kitchen-sink drama that we are witnessing. But Castellucci establishes these references, these codes of theatrical familiarity only to derail our expectations. Like Michael Haneke in The Seventh Continent, Castellucci begins by feeding us these images of habit without the anchors of narrative or character. The mundane actions and props of life are thereby removed from their context and float in front of us as anonymous signifiers, suggesting the illusiveness of this existence. Purgatory is, after all, theatre–the replaying, in real time, of a misjudged life.
The woman, a screen tells us, is called “First Star”; the boy is called “Second Star”. When they speak to each other, a screen presents their words just before the actors vocalise them and the dialogue is drawn out by silences, as though the characters were not so much conversing but simply passing the time. And time does pass. The first act of Purgatorio is a blatant invocation of time as punishment—weary festival-goers would have been forgiven for resting their eyes a little. The discrepancy in timing between the surtitles and the text is no technical hitch, but rather a deliberate ploy to disrupt the action by anticipating it with text. Castellucci thereby de-energises the dramatic tension, distances the characters from one another and asserts a painterly torpor on the space. This inertia has strange effects, particularly on time, the measurement of which is always a measure of movement. With no reference points of action, the audience’s sense of time is dislodged and what might have been only twenty minutes feels instead like an hour.
With all this inaction, what does the audience desire at this point, what does it expect? It wants a change and it expects action. Castellucci delivers. Having apparently returned from a day at the office, a man (“Third Star”) has entered the domestic scene. He does not touch the food his wife presents him with, but dons a cowboy hat and takes his young son upstairs. The stage is emptied of actors but slowly, discomfortingly one hears the brute grunts of the father and the weeping pain of the son from offstage. The audience has been given the drama and action they craved in the form of a torturous and prolonged rape. So, the initial stretching of the audience’s patience is not done merely to punish but also to disturb. Just as sinners would pass through the seven stages of Purgatory to be cleansed, Castellucci puts us through these early tests of our own theatrical sins of expectation.
Having, at first, exasperated the audience and having then slapped them in the face with their own hand, Castellucci changes gears once more. The father eventually returns to the stage in a somewhat dishevelled manner and is joined soon after by the boy, who bears no tangible sign of mistreatment. Strangely, the boy consoles the man with the words, “Ne t’inquiète pas, tout est fini.” (“Don’t worry, it’s all over.”) It acts as a pardoning and, thus, an inversion of the power structure we expect.
This inversion is echoed in the final act, when two different actors come on in the costumes of the father and son. The father is now a shorter, slighter man and played by an actor (Juri Roverato) who suffers from severe spastic tetraplegia. On the other hand, the boy is now a towering two metres tall. The father begins a sort of fitful dance that the son echoes until his body is totally at the mercy of the convulsions. In front of this action, a clear glass circle hangs spinning as black paint is squirted onto its surface by automated jets. The resulting web of interweaving spirals on the glass is beautiful to the point of distraction, but beneath the blackened circle that hovers in the space, the son continues to unceasingly jar his body against the floor. A realisation soon dawns: it’s not all over after all.
This article originally appeared in print in RealTime 87, October-November, 2008, page 4, and is reproduced with permission.