Wednesday, March 27, 2013

On Your Marks

Ten Days on the Island

By Wendy Newton

Blue.  It's the colour of the sky and of the team I'm allocated to by one of Stompin's attendants as we make our way into the Aurora Stadium for a daytime performance of On Your Marks.  I'm told that 'blue' is all I need to know.  I almost reply that I was captain of team Florey in my Grade 7 sports day competitions and we were the blue team, but I stop myself.  What possessed me to think of that after decades of growing up?

The things that stay with us.

I am surrounded by hundreds of students and wonder who my team-mates are, if we're going to have to compete in our teams, if I'm going to have to do something, or be something, instead of a passive viewer.  The set-up has already begun.  My alliances are being formed, my mind is beginning to frame the experience in terms of 'my team' and 'the other' and I am measuring myself to see if I'm up to the task. I am as much a part of the performance as the dancers that are to come.

I follow the 'coach' with my team-mates onto the oval and feel exposed and insignificant in this giant space.  Applauding dancers encourage us to run through a Stompin banner and the audience runs through like champions who have never been clapped for anything before.  So the game begins.

On Your Marks is an engaging contemporary dance fusion that utilises theatre, film and alternate spaces within the Aurora Stadium to amplify different perspectives on competition, ambition and self-image - for better or worse - and to heighten our sensitivities within the immersive experience. 

We view gladiatorial dancers from a distance as they warm-up, face each other, tumble, tussle and fight for control, with moves that mimic footballers, sprinters, gymnasts and netballers.  Jerseys are remnants of pompoms that sit across shoulders like ribboned aiguillettes used to fasten armour; their team colours are worn like war paint.  We're behind glass like tv viewers and the rivalry becomes something apart from us, distilled to a projection of our own competitive urges that we can deflect onto the sporting field for the next few minutes of viewing.

But there's a clever juxtaposition between the public and private face of competition: we move into the Stadium's change rooms and are treated to a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the celebrity of sport.  Performers in their underwear dance in pairs, flimsy and vulnerable in their 'whites' as they hover in corners and glide trance-like among us.   It's an intimate and surprising moment: we might anticipate the replay of glory, of revelling in triumph and unity, but instead, we discover pain, alienation and shame.    

"Take a hard look at yourself and grow up."

"Why do you have to be so strange?"

"I never loved you."

They might be ghosts of conversations past, echoes remaining in the change rooms and in our heads as we try to convince ourselves that words don't hurt. The smell of liniment permeates the room; it settles on the benches, in the carpet, the lockers, along with the deep feelings of loss and anguish.  It's a salve for physical injuries, but not the ones that cut the deepest: the feelings of inadequacy, of failure, of not belonging.  Of not being good enough. 

The things that stay with us.

It's an extremely moving piece that brings me close to tears.

The final seven minutes of improvised dance is full of sound and fury, signifying everything.  Twenty-four dancers take to the field, but this time we are at an intimate distance and feel the threat.  A furious techno beat drives the chaotic dancing as performers are fuelled by rivalry, comparison and competition - but they struggle with themselves as much as each other.  There's no room for injuries here on the battlefield; the losses are shared, the triumphs, the euphoria. Individuality no longer counts; the uniqueness of each is lost in the homogenous drive to perform and conform and measure-up.  But what if we don't fit?  What if we're not 'good enough' for the team?  How do we find resilience in defeat when the hardest fought battle is the one with ourselves?

On Your Marks is four quarters of highly entertaining, intensely physical and deeply moving contemporary dance.  It might have only been a cleverly choreographed performance about competition and the way expectation permeates our whole lives, but it is so much more: it is an immersive and thought-provoking piece that suspends our disbelief long enough to experience something that moves us somewhere we hadn't expected.  That's the transformative nature of the arts and Stompin's unique and provocative work: to move us from the intellect into being, from the mind into the heart, where the real things live. 

The things that stay with us.


by Thomas Connelly

Nihil humani a me alienum puto

On a night when the heavens themselves seemed to be weeping in sympathy for us stupid apes I took myself to see Murder at the Playhouse Theatre in Hobart. I had heard that it was a powerful, confronting work. I was also intrigued by the use of puppets in the play. So I took my seat in the balcony and looked down upon the stage, like an Olympian watching the clots of gore.

There were many things to like about this production; the music of the Bad Seeds, the way the space was used and the stark use of pulsating lighting. The puppet masters were of great interest. Black burqa clad ninja blobs that seemed to appear and disappear, flitting about the stage like shades of the dead warriors confronted by Odysseus during the Nekuia. These puppet masters, like priests and shamans of old, controlled much of the action in the play and brought to mind questions of free will. Are we in fact free or are we controlled by these anonymous forces? All in all an interesting and powerful use of alienation techniques that propelled the action along and left the audience breathless. Added to the bubbling hexenkessel was the physical presence and voice of Graeme Rhodes who was able to pour out a rich roiling spew of tortured words. There was much to like in this production.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Tasmanian Writers Festival - the shock of the now

Saturday March 23, 2013

Shock of the old - Phillip Adams

Embracing the digital, is there a cost? – Anne Summers, Matthew Lamb, Rebecca Fitzgibbon, Damon Young, Tony Birch

Eating people is wrong – Phillip Adams, Anne Summers, John Martinkus, Martin Flanagan, Peter Singer

The 2013 Writers festival offered an ambitious programme that included a mix of accomplished writers of all genres. It was great to see our local Tasmanian poets, fiction and non-fiction authors along-side their peers from outside Tasmania, a reminder of just how well-endowed this state is with talent.

I attended the Saturday afternoon series in the Founders Room in the Salamanca Arts Centre, focusing on non-fiction and journalism, which is where my interest lies.

Phillips Adams was, as ever, an engaging raconteur and full of good stories about his brushes with terribly famous people, Henry Kissinger and Gore Vidal, to name a few. He summarised the many different versions of interviewees he had met during his radio career, my favorite being the person that does not require an interviewer and can talk happily for the duration of the interview without questions. I have met several of those types at parties. Adams described journalist and author Christopher Hitchens as someone that he would introduce and back–announce, and in the twenty minutes in between, Adams could have gone out to drink coffee and make a call. Hitchens would not have noticed the absence as he would blithely talk on.

The panel discussion on the digital environment for writers, hosted by Anne Summers, was interesting but somewhat perplexing.  Among the writers, journalists and editors assembled there was a prevailing acceptance of the omnipresence of digital media, with varying degrees of enthusiasm.  However, there was also a sense of powerless resignation in the face of the associated flaws, such as substandard writing, sloppy editing and vile behaviour. I, like many other members of the digital community, am looking for insight into how to foster the positive and overcome the negative that goes with the digital media, so I was bit disappointed the professional panel didn’t offer any great strategies.  Philosopher Damon Young discussed his own personal mode of quality assurance and it would have been nice to hear more ideas about a broader positive influence over digital culture. However, given the speed with which platforms are evolving, I suppose we are all just running along behind the speeding digital vehicle so influencing etiquette is no easy matter.

‘Eating people is wrong’ played on Peter Singer’s status as vegan ethicist and the way in which the media consumes individuals at any cost.  Sports journalist Martin Flanagan was a perfect member of the panel and expressed alarm at the weekly feasting on athletes and sportspeople by the press. I am not a huge follower of sport but I do feel saddened by the sight of the likes of Ben Cousins and others being pursued by journos and cameras. If you didn’t have a drug problem before the blanket exposure, then you would be pretty justified in developing one to cope with the onslaught!

Again, there was something of an air of doom and disillusionment about the modern state of the Australian media. Flanagan’s assertion that the ABC might not be excellent, but it is a whole lot better than the alternatives was affirmed by the other speakers. What did strike a chord with me was the observation that if we want quality media then we do have to pay for it, so rather than cursing the pay wall, we should buy a ticket to get behind it. Like voting for quality journalism with a credit card.

Tasmanian journalist and university lecturer John Martinkus’ account of life on the ground in conflict zones was a salient reminder of just how much we rely on those correspondents and independent documentary makers.  Given how much of the news content we consume is about war and strife we do have owe a great debt to the hardy souls who gather our news for us, often at a huge risk to their own safety.

Phillip Adams pondered that the proliferation of online media sources poses the risk that we can become informed entirely by self-affirming media outlets presenting only the version of world events that we want to hear, thus feeding political polarity to the point of irreconcilability. In light of this, if a healthy media is critical to a healthy democracy, will democracy manage to overcome the silo mentality fed by online news?

The increased presence of opinion pieces in newspapers was explained as a symptom of the dire economics of news. It is simply cheaper to print opinion than it is to pay and produce reporting.

So, mindful that I am contributing to the glut, I will offer one last opinion. My experience of the Writers’ Festival was really positive and I found it to be a great  success. The event was well-run, everything went to time, the speakers were clever and great to listen to, and from where I sat the attendance looked great.

by Stephenie Cahalan

As We Forgive

By Eliza Burke

As We Forgive is a play in three acts, about three sets of circumstances in the lives of three different men. Written by Tom Holloway, specifically for Tasmanian actor Robert Jarman it is structured as three separate monologues that explore the moral repercussions of events affecting each of the men. In its premiere season at the Theatre Royal, Julian Meyrick’s direction set a tone of classical restraint with each monologue divided by solo cello music, (written by Raffaele Marcellino, performed by Antony Morgan) and projected photographs and lighting (Lisa Garland; Nicholas Higgins) enlivening the spare set design (Jill Munro and Julian Meyrick). All these elements combined to make a show that was subtle and thought-provoking but ultimately left me feeling unchallenged and unmoved.

The acts are divided into the emotional realms of vengeance, hatred and forgiveness and in each we are given different angles on the complexities of morality: an old man who is empowered by the vengeance he wreaks on the teenager who invades his home; another man whose hatred for his abusive father affects his moral radar in his adult life; and another whose own deadly actions against his two sons leave him without recourse to forgiveness.

All three men describe tough personal circumstances and Jarman’s solid performance throughout threw light on many dark corners of the psyche, especially in Acts II and III. But by the end of the play I was left with a feeling of detachment, looking for links between the acts or to the world beyond each of these individual lives, but not really finding them.

For me, this was partly an effect of the retrospective angle of each of the monologues that set up a distance between the description of events and their effects. The circumstances to which we are being asked to apply our own moral radar come to us through subjective description which at times felt laboured and uncertain. Without witnessing the drama of the action or emotion as it has been played out, we are left to ponder the effects in their wake and I felt something of the drama of each moral dilemma and of the play as a whole was lost.

Although each character is written with great emotional awareness and there are profound insights into human frailty, there is a reserve in Holloway’s writing, (and perhaps also in Meyrick’s direction) that left me wanting more tension from these dilemmas, a greater sense of quandary, or perhaps just a greater sense of theatricality to match the depth of the play’s philosophical concerns.

Holloway is renowned for his subtlety and deft structuring of material to create emotional fields of great import. As We Forgive is another example of this. But aside from the shared theme of father/son relationships, it wasn’t always clear whether there were meant to be links between the three stories – a progression of some kind from vengeance to hatred to forgiveness? And if there was, whether these emotional fields had things to share that may have lead to a more coherent claim on what it means to forgive, what brings us to bear judgement in order to forgive, or what events may prevent or hinder forgiveness altogether.

The last act attempted to offer greatest insight into this latter concern, but ended up feeling more like a portrait of self-pity or grief, than a plea for forgiveness. The symptomatic bleeding from the breast in the character appeared as a somewhat trite rendition of the bleeding heart metaphor that ultimately distracted from the breadth of distress facing this particular character.

I wanted to care very much about these men, whose stories I recognised from our collective memory and whose lives were in various states of injury, ruin or suffering because of their own amoral acts or those of others. But I couldn’t help feeling that their concerns belonged to the contained kind of universe as described by the character in Act I – a world that didn’t quite connect with the collective “we” addressed in the title. But then, perhaps this is Holloway’s point – have ‘we’ lost our moral radar, is there no unifying moral compass anymore? – is the amorality of our age such that there is no sense of connection in these matters beyond individual experience and is this our greatest challenge?

I am still pondering these effects of the play, the questions it contained and the sense of detachment I felt as I left the theatre. To this end As We Forgive was a success.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Finding Centre

Trisha Dunn
Earl Arts Centre
Ten Days on the Island

By Wendy Newton

There aren’t enough words to describe Trisha Dunn’s choreography and performance in Finding Centre.  We need a new vocabulary, something that hasn’t been invented yet, to translate.  Exceptional.  Inimitable.  Exquisite.  Superlatives fall short, but they are all I have to describe this creationism event that is a flawless fifty minutes of contemporary dance.

No-one dances like Trisha Dunn.

The performance begins in a blackened room.  Soft lighting silhouettes Dunn as she appears to be floating, horizontally like a magician’s assistant, ten feet or so from the ground.  One leg slowly lifts to the thrum of ambient music, muscles in slow motion, cat-like and controlled as her body turns, stretches, runs in place.  It is a triumph of control, of physical strength and the illusion of weightlessness: she is suspended by the force of her own momentum across two video screens that come to life as paper flies across their monochromatic landscape.

It is breathtaking and it is only a few minutes into the performance.

The video screens are used to layer images of Dunn as she performs, first in synch with herself, then in discord, multiple selves that dance with and against. She moves behind the screens and they project her shadow, a giant self that investigates her frenetic twin dancing on the beach in a time-lapse video.  Simultaneous filmed interviews play behind her as she dances in front. Videos of her dancing flicker and disjoint as techno music drives the sound of automation, a machine clogging and breaking down; the physical Dunn continues dancing, uninterrupted.  In a near-silent moment, she carries an illuminated fish bowl across the stage, her face immersed in water, blowing bubbles that dance with her breath. 

There is so much going on in Finding Centre, but every element is a glorious piece of the whole.  I could write about the minimal use of lighting to create mood, the lo-fi ambient score, or the clever use of technology, but without any of this, with only the sublime moves of Trisha Dunn, the intention would still be transcendently clear: it is a performance on distraction, on questioning where reality lies, on finding our own truth and peace within ambition, expectation and chaos.

But it is more than that.

Dunn’s creative brilliance is in the way she connects with the audience through performance.  She is so immersed in the dance, so present in the moment, so exposed, vulnerable, real, that you’re left with no doubt about what the creative intention is: and it’s to move you to experience it with her.  She is the event horizon that draws you in: the lights come on and you’re lulled into a sing-along; she holds her breath and you hold yours; she ponders if she’s done enough in the end, if the performance needs to be started over, and we laugh, but it’s at ourselves and our own self-doubt.  The line between performer and audience, self and others, dissolves in the sublime moment we find ourselves in: it’s uniquely human, universally spiritual.  Her performance unfolds like a lotus flower; it is an awakened meditation in dance and we are moved from the personal to the transpersonal.

“Things move in circles,” Dunn says in her video interview. ‘What do you think the performance is about?”

Finding Centre: it’s a place at the heart of Trisha Dunn’s work.  If we are lucky enough to witness it, we find it fluttering like fallen words into the heart of us, where words no longer matter.


Mary. Contrary

Hannah Gadsby
QVMAG Art Gallery at Royal Park
Ten Days on the Island

By Wendy Newton

I’ll probably be crucified for writing this, but everyone should learn about art from Hannah Gadsby.  And crucifixion via the Tasmanian ‘arterarti’ is a lot quicker, but much more final, than the traditional way – trust me, I’m a Tasmanian arts reviewer.

Of course, the “In Gordon Street Tonight” performer is quick to point out that Mary. Contrary is neither a lecture on art nor a comedy, rather a “crossover” event that discusses the role the Virgin Mary plays in art and in our lives.  Or at least the lives of Catholics.  And lapsed Catholics.  Having been raised by one, Gadsby takes no chances: after a quick apology (aka ‘disclaimer’) to any Catholics in the audience of the sold-out show, she opens with, “The Virgin Mary - what a hoot.”

Mary. Contrary is a witty and irreverent “Emperor’s New Clothes” romp through the depiction of Mary as a religious icon in Medieval, Renaissance and Contemporary art, as well as in some ‘not-quite’, but popular, art.  Poor ol’ Mary doesn’t get much of a look-in in the Gospels, according to Gadsby, and yet she’s the Founding Mother of the world’s most popular religion - go figure!

Gadsby illuminates us with her hilarious and provocative insights via a slideshow of artworks that range from 3rd century frescos in Rome’s catacombs, Leonardo’s twice-painted “Virgin of the Rocks” and Giotto’s frescos at Scrovegni Chapel in northern Italy, through to icons at roadside shrines, Banksy’s “Toxic Mary”, the infamous Virgin Mary on toast (you know the one!) and a rather creepy photo of an unidentified man who has multiple Marys tattooed on his torso.  The Gospels might have made a glaring error; there’s definitely “something about Mary’.

Gadsby takes us from the sublime to the ridiculous as we learn about Our Heavenly Mother from the Annunciation through to the Intercession via some seriously knowledgeable interpretation of art symbolism and commentary on subjects such as mannerism and its role in the arts and literature - Dante’s “Inferno”, a case in point – while also pointing out why Dan Brown’s novel, “The Da Vinci Code”, got some [only some?] facts wrong, giving Pythonesque voice-overs to characters in paintings, and offering amusing religious conclusions: “Sex, don’t do it.” 

It’s clear she knows her stuff, and not only because she holds a Bachelor of Art History.  Gadsby is an intelligent comedian who plays with subtext in a delightful way; it’s provocative, but never insulting or crude, and we end up laughing at ourselves as much as with her.  As she gallops through centuries of insightful art interpretation, she plays with the reverence we give to art, to religion, to our own egos, and reminds us why we don’t always have to be so serious about it all: if you can’t laugh at art, at religion, at yourself, you can’t take any of them seriously either.

Clever girl, Ms Gadsby.  No wonder the NGV picked you up for a series of art lectures.  I hope the “Mayor of Tasmania”, David Walsh, hires you as a gallery guide.  You would give all art viewers the permission to point out what they’re really thinking about art, but are too scared to say.

Mary. Contrary: It’s art - just as you’d like to know it.