Iceland, Taiwan, Sicily, England, Japan…Tasmania
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.