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

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.

Rape of the Sabine Women

Video artist Eve Sussman brings her latest work, The Rape of the Sabine Women, to the Melbourne International Arts Festival this month. Based on an eighteenth century painting by Jacques-Louis David, it is an example of the artist’s ongoing use of canonical paintings as sources of inspiration.

Sussman was born in London in 1961 to American parents. Her mother was an interior designer with a talent for historic restoration, while her father, a chemical engineering professor, took travelling sabbaticals, which allowed Sussman to grow up not only in Massachusetts but also in Turkey, India, Israel and New Zealand. Having studied photography and printmaking, Sussman moved into sculpture and installations in 1989, but maintained an interest in the reflective qualities of materials as much as in their spatial dynamics. On the phone from her studio in Brooklyn, Sussman explained to me how she had played with surveillance cameras since high school and that her interest in sculpture had always been closely related to this fascination with observation, reflection and projection. An effortless consequence of this fascination was Sussman’s move into video art.

However, the categorisations that one inevitably falls into in succinctly verbalising an artist’s career can too easily elide the details. Sussman’s apparent departure from photography towards the moving image is not so clear-cut. She herself is adamant that her work and her interests cannot be pinned down to one mode of communication or representation. She is as likely to create a sculpture next, as she is a photograph, as she is a video. Moreover, the very attaching of the nomenclature “video” immediately differentiates and establishes a tension between Sussman’s work and that of “filmmakers”. This is clearly no small matter. Much of the history of video art has seen it deliberately drive itself in opposition to the film industry. That is not to say that there haven’t been many exceptions, but the subject is clearly important to Sussman, who distances herself from this culture of video art by affirming her cinematic influences.

In The Rape of the Sabine Women, Sussman’s attention to her cinematic and artistic predecessors is abundantly clear. The initial catalyst for the work came haphazardly when Sussman was flicking through an art book and chanced upon Jacques-Louis David’s The Intervention of the Sabine Women from 1799. She had been looking for a reason to once again work with choreographer Claudia de Serpa Soares and the painting provided the perfect starting point, with its vividly populated battle scene lending itself to Soares’ abilities. Based on a Roman myth, The Intervention depicts the efforts of the Sabine women to make peace between their fathers, the Sabines, and their husbands, the Romans, who had kidnapped the women for wives. In the end, Sussman and her team of regular collaborators, known as Rufus Corporation, decided to work more from the original myth than from the painting. They brought the story into the aesthetics of the 1960s and with that came the concomitant cinematic references of that decade. Foremost among these is the work of Michelangelo Antonioni, whose distinctive visual style utilised long focal-length lenses to produce abstract graphical compositions with flat areas of colour, in the tradition of painters such as Barnett Newman. Sussman readily admits to having rewound again and again across “millions” of frames of Antonioni’s films for inspiration, as well as those of Jean-Luc Godard and John Cassavetes.

The work of Cassavetes is an important touchstone here because of his legendary use of improvisation in the creative process. Sussman and her team rehearse thoroughly, but within the framework of rehearsal there is scope for creative license. In a method developed during the filming of 89 Seconds at Alcázar, Sussman’s reimagining of Las Meninas by Velázquez, certain rules or necessary points of action might be established and then it is left to the actors to realise the scene. The nature of the work is always non-verbal, so the improvisation is in the languages of gesture and proxemics. Yet for someone who speaks freely of an “organic” process of improvisation and collaboration, Sussman seems to hold the authorial reins much tighter with the rest of the crew. Though some reports suggest that Rufus Corporation is a democratic body with Sussman as a benevolent mediator, the tone she adopts in speaking about working with her director of photography implies that the vision of the work—the eye of the camera—remains very much hers. However, in discussing the music, by composer Jonathan Bepler, it is clear that the collaborative democracy of the process does sometimes lead the piece in directions that Sussman might not have chosen herself. Indeed, the sheer pluralistic scale of the work is something that Sussman was evidently happy to leave behind when it came to the editing, which she did herself with the help of Kevin Messman, the editor on Todd Solondz’s Palindromes.

Trawling through almost 200 hours of footage, Sussman cut the final film down to 83 minutes, but she makes use of the discarded footage on side projects, or “postcards”, that form a sort of halo of works around the main feature. Along with these shorter sequences of film are still photographs taken on set that are distinct from the film and not to be mistaken for film stills. The effect is a collection of works that feels much more like a gallery exhibition than a movie. Nevertheless, The Rape of the Sabine Women is just that, a movie. The shorter works, in their use of vérité time and brief, looping gestures, allow the viewer to engage with them in the way one might with a painting or photograph—Sussman also likens them to fish tanks and has called one of the pieces Aquarium. But the film, in its traditional feature length, its narrative structure and its dramatic aspirations, is a work of cinema with all the corresponding audience expectations and, in this regard, Sussman is breaking new ground for herself as an artist and opening herself up to a whole new array of viewers, fans and critics.

This article originally appeared in print in RealTime 87, October-November, 2008, page 2, and is reproduced with permission.

The Deborah Hay Dance Company is coming to Melbourne for the Arts Festival in October. I caught up with her from her home in Austin, Texas to discuss her career and her new show If I Sing to You.

Click here to download the podcast (5MB)

You feed us. You dress us. You choose clothes for us. You bathe us. You lay down the law. You sing to us. You watch us sleep.

Tim Etchells came to the Melbourne Festival with his company Forced Entertainment and their glorious big-massive-party of a production, Bloody Mess, back in 2005. This year he returns with a very different kind of show, That Night Follows Day. Featuring a cast of Flemish-speaking kids, it explores the parent-child relationship through the voices of children, but in a way that’s aimed squarely at adults. I caught up with him from his home in Sheffield, England, and began by asking him what brought him to Belgium and Victoria, the company who commissioned the work.

Jérôme BelWhile the big dance number at this year’s Melbourne Arts Festival has to be the Merce Cunningham residency, there are some other equally remarkable choreographers on show. Take Jérôme Bel for instance, the enfant terrible of French contemporary dance, whose work has garnered that heady mix of consternation, castigation and celebration synonymous with avant-garde.

A relatively small number of Melburnians saw Bel’s work at last year’s festival, when he appeared in a short run of Pichet Klunchun and Myself. That show, one of my personal favourites in a strong field, was a two-way interview between Bel and Klunchun, a classical Thai dancer. It placed the two artists on a bare stage, with nothing but bottled water, chairs and a laptop to call their own. In a little over an hour, they queried and conversed their way into some kind of mutual understanding of each other’s work to which we were also privy.

I spoke to Bel by phone from his home in Paris and, thanks to the time difference, his watch had just ticked over to 9am, which was, he noted with a dry rasp, an early start to the day. I began by asking him whether the person on stage with Pichet Klunchun was actually Jérôme Bel or a persona he invented for the purposes of the piece. “It’s me!” he laughed, then extrapolated: the piece that eventuated was not the original design, Bel was supposed to choreograph a solo work for Klunchun to perform at the Bangkok Festival but, because of chronic traffic jams and his cab driver getting lost, the ten scheduled rehearsals quickly diminished to only four. With opening night looming, the two had so far only talked and so, out of necessity as much as anything, created a work that opened the fourth wall to their rehearsal room and exposed their process as individuals and collaborators to the public. As to the identity of his on-stage self, Bel is gleefully assuring that there is no pretence. For someone who had become uncomfortable performing, he found the piece a liberating avenue to be himself on stage.

Pichet Klunchun and MyselfOne of the strongest aspects of Pichet Klunchun and Myself was its dramaturgical coherency and efficiency. Bel emphasised that while aspects of the piece are still developing from season to season, the structuring of it as a strict two-sided interview rather than a free-form dialogue maintains an inherent tautness. It is, in his words, a case of “structure and freedom” rather than “structure and sadness”—a reference to Lucy Guerin’s work from last year’s Melbourne Festival that Bel missed seeing but whose title he clearly loved.

I wondered whether, though there has been no opportunity for further collaborative works, his time with Klunchun and their repeated conversations between Occident and Orient had impacted on Bel’s outlook on his work. After a moment’s thought, his response was emphatic, “yes, it has changed the paradigm of my work completely.” Previously, his work was trying to engage the political on stage but always with a sense of “how will Jérôme Bel do this?” Now, his emphasis has shifted towards an interest in the Other, in interviewing others for their ideas, rather than being constantly concerned with the “Jérôme Bel” of the third person.

His ability to deconstruct himself in an interview with such vigour is the sign not only of his intellectual credentials but a confidence in his capacity to bring these ideas to bear in his work. Indeed, his development from a dancer to choreographer was a thoroughly intellectual migration. He worked as a dancer for many years, an experience he urbanely sums up like so, “dance, dance, dance, enjoy, enjoy, enjoy, feel, feel, feel, express, express, express.” But amidst all the merriness and expressiveness, Bel felt something was amiss. While some would start reading their horoscopes a little more intensely or take up tarot cards, he took up books by Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes. The Show Must Go OnFrom post-structuralism to discourse theory, these big men of French philosophy and linguistics gave Bel reason to pause and, like Descartes, be certain only of his doubt.

From this departure point of doubt, Bel wondered how he could intellectualise dance. In order to link thought to dance, to mesh the physical and the cognitive in his work, he felt that something radical was needed. He began with the notion of erasure, “to bring the mind on stage, I had to remove the physical.” For those familiar with Derrida’s work, the notion of erasure (sous rature) is of course a central concept underpinning his deconstruction of signifiers. For those unfamiliar with Derrida, it would be an impossibly long day in the office if I were to try to decode that last sentence. In any case, the point for Bel in bringing deconstruction to dance was that it would make people look twice and hopefully reconsider what was being attempted on stage. In his excitement at piecing this together for me, Bel worked his way down a cul-de-sac of logic and came up with the phrase “physical discourse” before exclaiming, “No! That’s an impossibility.” But there was a discourse of some kind, or at least a problematising of contemporary dance. However, this process of erasure is also a limitation—if the only way for Bel to bring thought on stage is through subtraction, eventually he arrives at zero. In this respect, Bel cites his heroes, William Forsythe and Trisha Brown, as choreographers who manage to make “thinking dance” without subtraction.

This limitation that Bel discovered in his own methodology has, in concert with the revelations of his work with Pichet Klunchun, moved him further away from dance and closer to language-based theatre. Describing his experience of choreography, he noted that typical rehearsals are largely talk and that there is a sudden break with that when it comes time for performance—the dancers, who are normally verbal interlocutors with one another, become mute in front of the audience. Bel feels that the performances should reflect the rehearsals, just as it did so clearly in Pichet Klunchun and Myself. But “I won’t direct Chekhov or Beckett” he assures me, though he has been offered the chance. Indeed, his move to theatre is not so much about directing but about devising. He has a fundamental suspicion of printed texts, feeling that the (absent) playwright can still exert an unacceptable “authority” over performers and directors. So, in response, he imagines a theatre of oral authorship, where the performers are the living writers of a language whose existence is isolated to performance and not reproduced in printed forms. In other words, the performance is always “live”, always focused on performance rather than adaptation. Clearly there are precedents for this kind of work in theatre’s long history but that is not to say that what Bel is working towards is somehow redundant, if only for the sheer passion and experience that he brings. Bel speaks with the eager and mercurial energy of someone still in that luscious moment of epiphany. Consumed by remounts and touring, he has not had the opportunity to put his new paradigm in motion, but his previous paradigm will be here for our enjoyment (or enervation) come October.

Shaun Parker: This Show Is About PeopleIn the midst of rehearsals for his upcoming Melbourne Arts Festival production, This Show Is About People, Shaun Parker took time out to talk to us about the work and what brought him to it.

Parker graduated from the VCA dance school in 1992 and is credited as the director-choreographer of This Show Is About People but, as became clear in our conversation, music and song has been just as vital as dance in shaping his artistic vision. In his childhood, up until the age of seven, Parker struggled with a speech impediment. However, his mother quickly noticed that his stutters vanished whenever he joined in with the songs on Playschool and thus began his continuing fascination with song. While working as a dancer with Meryl Tankard’s ADT in Adelaide, Parker researched mediaeval music. Being a natural countertenor, Parker’s voice was inherently suited to the style and he was taken under the wing of Leslie Lewis who developed his knowledge of baroque and early music. Parker’s talents as a singer led him into work with groups like Adelaide Baroque and artists like that doyenne of avant-garde voice, Meredith Monk.

In This Show Is About People, Parker’s passions for music and dance have come together in a thoroughly entwined manner. Of course, dance and music are hardly odd bedfellows, but Parker started this project with the conceptual undertaking of using live music and dance as interactive elements that, through the development process, would react with each other in a loop of mutual inspiration. This development of the project began well over two years ago with an initial three weeks of work in January 2005. A collaborative understanding of the rehearsal room was key, especially in this early phase, and Parker was keen to have the idiosyncrasies of the dancers feed into the work. He set tasks for them, with each individual’s personal style and background ensuring a plurality of responses. At the same time, musicians came into the process on a regular basis in order to begin matching the growing physical vocabulary of the group to songs.

A year later, Parker returned to the project with a further fortnight of development, this time focused on music. During his seven year stint with Tankard at ADT, Parker was involved with the production and tour of Songs with Mara, which brought him into contact with Mara and Llew Kiek—musicians who are now the musical directors of This Show Is About People. Their involvement ensures that the show is steeped in the rich vocal heritage of Bulgaria, but their work with Parker has been as much about finding a coherency for the musical smorgasbord that has made its way into the show: word art, beat box, baroque, Hawaiian slide guitar and pop. And now, with only weeks to go until the world premiere at the Melbourne Festival, director, musicians and dancers alike are applying the finishing touches to Parker’s debut major-cast work.

In Kristy Edmunds’ recent chat with Spark Online, she stressed how important it was for the local artists she commissions to have a confidence in their vision and aesthetic. In Parker’s case, seventeen years in the dance world has given him the opportunity to absorb the processes of many significant choreographers. He is a strong believer in aspiring choreographers taking the time to dance and learn through rehearsal and performance before looking to stamp their own footprint.

Indeed, the harsh realities of the arts world can be a daunting slap in the face for the unseasoned. Making This Show Is About People a reality has taken Parker several failed grant applications and several successful ones over the course of several years. Keeping a large-scale project such as this one afloat for so long has at times felt overwhelming for him. Nevertheless, he has been staying afloat and supporting his family thanks to a Robert Helpmann Scholarship from Arts NSW and the fiscal bonuses of commercials and film work. In the end, it was Edmunds’ support that guaranteed Parker’s hard work would receive an audience.

The effect his work has on an audience—its capacity to transform them—is fundamental to Parker’s approach. He wants This Show Is About People to be viscerally engaging and thought-provoking, with meaning that is neither obscure nor ham-fisted. From a thematic point of view, the piece began its evolution around various perceived dualities: life/death-afterlife, religion/war, violence/undoing it, man/woman. They are grand themes all and it is an ambitious undertaking to render such weighty matters in a coherent and unsentimental manner, but for Parker they are tied together.

Why belong? This seems to be the question at the heart of Parker’s investigation of the human condition. The answer for him has been an optimistic affirmation rather than a bleak abyss, though Parker is quick to point out the distinction between optimism and cheesiness—there will, we can thankfully assume, be no Hallmark cards folded in with the program.

This Show Is About People will play from Thursday October 11 to Sunday October 14 at the Malthouse’s Merlyn Theatre as part of the 2007 Melbourne International Arts Festival. Further festival dates in other cities can be anticipated in 2008-2010.

On her last day in the office before taking a well-deserved overseas jaunt, I caught up with Kristy Edmunds, Artistic Director of the Melbourne International Arts Festival (MIAF), to talk about this year’s program from her perspective.

There is something wonderfully seasonal about Melbourne’s festival circuit. The winter solstice comes and goes and, even though the winter winds still chill everyone in their tight black jeans, the Arts Festival program launch and the Film Festival screenings get Melburnians out on the streets, all of them flipping the bird at the frost and the rain and looking ahead to the warmer, longer days to come.

My experience of MIAF has been limited to the two previous years that Edmunds has led but something that struck me as noticeably different about this year’s program announcements was the flurry of names familiar from last year’s festival—Robert Wilson, Dan Zanes, Jérôme Bel, William Yang and Daniel Bernard Roumain all return with fresh engagements. In an industry where festival spots can be vital career catalysts, there may well be artists feeling that they’ve been left out in the cold when others are getting a second go, but Edmunds’ reasoning for the decision is convincing. As she related to me, each artist is coming back for very specific reasons.

In the case of the Grammy-winning children’s musician Dan Zanes, Edmunds explained that, for the kids who went to see him last year, it would have been their first encounter with him. This year, the kids will be familiar with his songs and excited about the chance to see him again, instead of him just being a funny guy in a green suit that their parents thought they might enjoy.

Edmunds cites her curatorial responsibility to both audiences and artists. In bringing these performers, directors and choreographers back, she is able to develop an audience for their work and sustain their practice while also enriching the experience of audiences by giving them the opportunity to garner a broader and deeper understanding of an artist’s work. Edmunds suggested an analogy with visual artists whose work is constantly retrospectively surveyed and considered, whereas the performing arts have an inherently more ephemeral quality. As such, repeat appearances allow us to see the evolution of an artist’s style.

From a practical perspective, it would be impossible for MIAF to mount two Robert Wilson pieces in one festival, but the 12-month interval also allows for audiences to fully digest the epic I La Galigo in advance of seeing this year’s The Temptation of St Anthony. Where I La Galigo was an opera inspired by the story and musical tradition of the Bugis people of Indonesia, The Temptation pairs Wilson with Bernice Johnson Reagan (founding member of Sweet Honey in the Rock) for an African-American-meets-Flaubert musical.

In the case of Jérôme Bel, The Show Must Go On is a seminal work of contemporary dance that Edmunds has been working on getting across for the last two years. Last year, Bel was here with a delicately understated and hilarious piece of conversation-cum-dance-lesson with Pichet Klunchun that was one of my festival highlights. So, for those who witnessed that work, The Show Must Go On has already been contextualised by a sense of Bel’s aesthetic and sense of humour.

The program for this year’s Melbourne Interantional Arts Festival also brings to our shores a number of works by international artists with long-established reputations. Renowned theatre-maker Peter Brook, aleatory choreographer Merce Cunningham, butoh master Ushio Amagatsu and multimedia whiz Laurie Anderson are names that have been reverently honoured for decades. All of these artists have left an indelible mark on their artform in terms of their legacy, but Edmunds is quick to point out that they are still active practitioners, not taxidermies of a bygone era.

The Merce Cunningham residency, with its myriad offshoots into the intertwined worlds of John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg, is a festival within a festival. With exhibitions, installations, films, discussions, new works, old works and happenings, there’ll be plenty of opportunities for older generations to revisit a choreographer whose work they may have first seen half a century ago. For those of a more youthful disposition, who perhaps thought that Cunningham had already danced his last mazurka on this mortal coil, the old master’s form is still du jour, with iPod shuffling used as part of Program A, as well as hip, Sigur Rós perform live as part of Program B.

The inclusion of big-ticket international items like Cunningham is conversely also part of Edmunds’ focus on developing the local arts scene. By bringing important practitioners to town, she hopes to aid in the artistic edification of emerging creatives who have barely enough cash to pay their rent, let alone to catch a flight to New York for a premiere. Of course, she also wants to put Melbourne and Australian artists on show to the world. This year sees the return of wunderkind Barry Kosky with another show originally conceived in Vienna (his home away from home) that promises to follow up his sell-out success Boulevard Delirium. Edmunds also commissions local works for the festival and I asked her what it was she looked for in developing projects. The festival arena allows Edmunds to shine a beacon on artists ready to make the next step onto the international arts scene but she highlighted that the arts festival circuit “is not what I would call a hyper-nurturing environment for artists”. The investments are large, the criticisms quick and scathing, so Edmunds looks for artists whose vision is solid, like Lucy Guerin with last year’s Structure and Sadness and Shaun Parker with this year’s This Show is About People.

For those local artists who will simply be audience members come October, Edmunds has a treat for you too. Since coming to the festival, she has established the Artist Card initiative that provides practising artists with concession pricing, rush-ticket specials and Artist Lounge access in the hope that one’s professional research can afford to be broader and richer with this assistance.

With only a few moments left on the clock before Edmunds had to get to her next appointment, I asked her what was next for her (she departs after the 2008 festival). “Nothing” she said. She’s never considered herself career-driven but, though we joked about the possibility of her opening a very entertaining hot dog stand, her skills as a facilitator of artists will surely be snapped up by an appreciative body somewhere if she doesn’t decide to return to being a full-time artist herself. Indeed, it was because of a sense of responsibility to her fellow artists that she originally donned the cap of facilitator/artistic director/curator. Edmunds felt she could be a conduit between living artists and the impersonal monolith of institution that provided their livelihood, but she has never given up on being an artist herself and it would seem that there are still paths in her art that she has yet to explore and which we may yet be witness to.

For now, get hold of a MIAF program and book your tickets before all the decent concession seats are snapped up. For those interested in theatre, Edmunds couldn’t stress enough that Dood Paard and Teatre Lliure’s respective productions are must-sees for those wanting to see cutting-edge stuff.

The Melbourne International Arts Festival takes over the city October 11-27, 2007, with select shows touring regionally.

Habib Koité

Coming from a noble line of traditional Khassonké griots, Habib Koité assimilates rock and jazz influences into his classical guitar training. Having played with Bonnie Raitt and The Art Ensemble of Chicago, he came to WOMAD with his seasoned West African band Bamada.

Bill CobhamBill Cobham is a legendary drummer who has played with the likes of Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and Oscar Peterson over the course of his 30 year career. This month, he comes to Australia to play the WOMAD festival in Adelaide so I spoke to him about his long life in music and the path his career has taken him along.

Bill was born in Panama but moved with his family to New York when he was three. We started off by asking him what his earliest musical influences were.

Well, I listened to a lot of big band jazz and of course Latin music, so my influences were most strongly Basie, Ellington, Tito Rodriguez, Tito Puente, people like this. And of course going to the School of Performing Arts helped to solidify my foundations in both those areas along with the classical music side. Jazz wasn’t a part of the curriculum at the School, actually it was taboo. We had to learn the classical repertoire: the Mozart and the Brahms and the Mendehlsson and all that—and that was very important. At the time I felt it was… well I could accept it but I understand more now why technically and for proficiency purposes it was very important to do. We still played jazz anyway and there was a very strong jazz community at the School of Performing Arts in the guise of people like Eddie Gomez and Fred Lipsius, who played with “Blood, Sweat & Tears”. So I had a lot of peers and we walked through the early days of jazz together and solidified our ideas and our projections as to what we wanted to do later in life and in our career.

After completing his studies at the famed New York High School of Music and Art, Bill had four years of playing with local musicians who he’d gone through school with, including George Cables, before he joined the military in 1964.

I went into the army and, actually, it was like the school of greater learning. There was the Vietnam scene and this was a good way for me to bury myself in the music books while all that was blowing over and so I went into the US army band and worked there until 1968. Then, when I came out of there, I began working with Horace Silver and I’ve been working ever since.

Horace Silver is one of many, many jazz greats that Bill worked with. In terms of the people from whom he gained the most insight:

RebetikiMelbourne has a habit of reminding itself that it’s the second largest city in Australia but often forgets that it’s also the third largest Greek city in the world. From tzatziki to saganaki, Hellenic culinary traditions have successfully permeated the Anglo-derived mainstream over the decades with the result that everyone knows olives are for more than just martinis. On the other hand, Greek music is far from ubiquitous. While the particular timbre of the bouzouki is instantly identifiable to most people (it even makes a surprising appearance in Timbaland’s production of JT’s “What Goes Around Comes Around”), horribly kitsch pop singers like Demis Roussos and Nana Mouskouri have eclipsed stars of traditional Greek music in terms of Western popularity. But for those in the know, the true jewel of Greek music is rebetika.

Rebetika emerged from a confluence of hardships. The Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922) had displaced Greeks residing in Turkey to the major cities of the Greek peninsula. These exiles fled horrendous ethnic violence only to find themselves relegated to overpopulated urban slums. Within this context they developed the particular style of music they had already been playing, particularly in Smyrna, into a raw and bitterly impassioned reflection of their lives. Sung by junkies, whores and everyone in between, rebetika and its lurid subject matter began as the music of the Greek demimonde and it took more than two decades before it became a socially acceptable genre. It is easy to spot a parallel development in American blues, whose roots also lie in displacement, urban hardship and vice. And just like how nice white guy Eric Clapton now plays the blues, so too rebetika has had its share of gentrification and sanitization. Still, there are great blues artists out there now and there are also great rebetika groups playing right here in Melbourne.

One such group, who’ll be travelling over the border for WOMAD, are Rebetiki, who have been around in various formats since 1986. I caught up with two members of the current line-up Tony Iliou (vocals, guitar) and Achilles Yagouli (vocals, bouzouki, tzoura) before they flew to Canberra for another festival drawing on their talent. Like most Greek-Australians, including this writer, Tony and Achilles grew up listening to traditional Greek music at home. Achilles is also a classically trained instrumentalist and professional musician but, like Tony, the cultural understanding of rebetika and its musical complexities proved a constant source of inspiration.

There are few things in art more ubiquitous than improvisation. Yet cinema, a relatively young art form, has still to find a method with which improvisation can be used to inform the entire creative process. Sure, there have been famously brilliant scenes of improvised acting or unplanned strokes of directorial genius but improvisation in these instances has been localised and individual—it has not been the overriding framework, the means of creation from beginning to end. This is not to undermine the potency and effectiveness of individual improvisation, upon which much of jazz is based, it is instead to posit the idea that filmmakers could go further.

Jazz is a very effective counterpoint in this argument. Standard jazz improvisation is, at its most fundamental level, a soloist playing more or less freely while the rest of the ensemble play notated or otherwise pre-determined music. However, some musicians have extended this notion and, thus, there are many ensembles that are capable of having all their members improvise at once without descending too far into self-indulgency. Another quite distinct format for improvisation was developed by the cornetist Lawrence “Butch” Morris.

Morris, born in Long Beach in 1947, developed his musical acumen in the “new jazz” scene of Los Angeles in the early 70s. By 1976, Morris was working in France and experimenting with diverse ensemble structures and frameworks that ranged from solo performances, trios and jazz big bands to a 29-member saxophone choir. The common denominator in all these ensembles was that Morris’ selection of musicians was strongly linked to their personality and the blend they would create with other members. His method for leading these ensembles is known as conduction. As one of Morris’ press releases states:

Conduction (conducted interpretation/improvisation) is a vocabulary of ideographic signs and gestures activated to modify or construct a real-time musical arrangement or composition. Each sign and gesture transmits generative information for interpretation, and provides instantaneous possibilities for altering or initiating harmony, melody, rhythm, articulation, phrasing or form.

In other words, Morris composes live with his baton and hands. The process, known as comprovisation, relies on the improvisatory capacity of the musicians as much as it does on Morris’ on-the-fly authorial decisions. Conductor and musician are thus involved in a kind of symbiotic feedback loop where both are influenced and directed by the other, though the conductor clearly retains a greater deal of authority. Hence, the results of a conduction are spontaneous and emerge out of the creative interplay of the conductor-composer, whose aesthetic takes precedence, and the musicians, whose personality, playing style and improvised offers strongly affect the final nature of the music. It is interesting to note that while Morris was bringing conduction to the new music and jazz scenes, Frank Zappa had long been using a similar method for conducted improvisations during live rock concerts—Zappa similarly used encoded hand gestures to communicate to his band members.

This particular style of cooperative improvisation is not naturally suited to a cinematic context for the simple reason that it would be very difficult to organise a film shoot around a conductor whom everyone could remain in eye contact with. However, this model can provide the basis or at least the inspiration for more aptly structured modes of improvisation in filmmaking. In trying to find such a mode, an important precedent comes in the work of theatre-maker Tanya Gerstle.

Having attended workshops in 1989 at the Whitney Museum in New York, where Morris was artist-in-residence, Gerstle began examining how comprovisation/conduction could be used in devising theatre. Drawing inspiration from Morris, she imagined actors working improvisatorially while receiving live feedback from a director. However, getting the attention of actors who were moving about a space and interacting with each other proved to be far more difficult than it was for a conductor to direct musicians sitting still. The most practical solution was for Gerstle to instil in the actors basic precepts that would guide their work and, thus, largely free the director from having to interrupt—she calls this mode of working Pulse. While Gerstle may still call out some side-coaching, the true directorial influence and aesthetic development comes in the post-improvisation breakdown and debriefing, where Gerstle can comment on what worked and what failed, the opportunities missed and the ideas that should have been dropped. Through these sessions a common language of improvisation is established. Hence, the actors and other collaborators (providing improvised lighting and music) gain an understanding of how the format can be used to devise engaging theatre.

When the Pulse begins, the actors have no idea what will emerge. They are attempting to allow the piece to evolve organically. To work from a place where the unconscious and conscious meet. To synthesise inspiration with technical understanding. The only structure that exists for them is a shared performance language developed over this working period of 8 weeks, a strong trust in each other and faith in this process.

It is with this notion of a “shared performance language” that cinema can take full advantage of improvisation. Collaborative ensembles of creators working together over extended periods is not foreign to cinema—directors have often used the same crew and cast for several films—imagine Bergman without Nykvist or Ullman, imagine Fellini without Rota or Masina. Thus, part of the building work has already been done, in the sense that the trust and intuition needed in joint improvisation would already be established. What is needed to augment this is the language of improvisation—development, contrast, repetition, recurring motifs, climax, juxtaposition, dynamic tension—and the motivation to investigate the potential of all-encompassing improvisation. Perhaps the most important technological hurdle to this motivation, the expense of film, has been overcome by the increasingly detailed potential of digital cameras.

Human society develops telescopically; new advances and leaps happen faster and more regularly the further on we go. Similarly, cinema, as one of our youngest art forms, has already had the opportunity to question itself, to undermine itself, to laud itself and to forget itself. Embarking on an improvisatory style is dangerous and thrilling because failure and unabashed success are separated by an infinitely narrow gap. Of course, it is precisely this perilous uncertainty that makes improvisation so appealing and so necessary if cinema is going to continue to grow as an art and not allow itself to recline into the lazy mediocrity of craft.

See also: Spinoza on Stage