Thursday, October 26, 2006

Sounding Out (Melb Arts Fest pt 8)

My voice is the first thing to go. If you want to give me a 100-point check-up, the way a mechanic would sort out a car's current state of being (but at a mere fraction of the cost!), I suggest you listen for the rattles and whines. I can go for long stretches coasting down life's highways with nary a shudder, but I'm pretty sure my vocal register acts as an index to what's going on under the bonnet. Maybe it's just me.

For someone with so little control over that register, however, I've found over the years that other's voices really stick with me. I used to delude myself into thinking I had a good memory for names, and when that proved wrong I went for the obvious "faces" option, but really, it's turned out that I have no particular facility for remembering either. Voices, on the other hand, I do recall rather well. If I think of someone I once knew, I can always summon up their voice. Can everyone do this? I hope so. I can imagine that, in our visual/textual culture, when we think of another person we rarely do so by conjuring their sound. If you're like me, though, and find it pleasurable to drag a memory out of the old toybox and enjoy it for itself, passing it from hand to hand, feeling its weight and the way gravity pulls at it, you could do worse than trying this kind of recollection on the aural level. If you know me, try to recall my voice.

Two of the shows I've enjoyed most during this year's festival have been dependent on the power of one person's voice. They're vastly different pieces, but each offered a sole speaker throwing words into the void, hoping that they would find some purchase.

William Yang's Objects for Meditation sounds as dry as can be, on paper at least. One guy standing alone on a stage, talking for an hour and a half about, well, stuff, while twinned projector screens behind him are filled with photographic images illustrating said stuff. It works, though. Yang is a charming orator, speaking in a very emphatic, slow style, and taking us on an eclectic oral journey encompassing decades of his life, his travels, his sexuality, his family, his pseudo-Daoist philosophy and the relationships between all of these things. It's an artfully artless performance, seeming on the surface to consist of little more than the peripatetic ramblings of a worldly (and wordy) soul, but hinting at great correspondences between the various aspects of a person's existence. It's also a very humble work; describing his attraction towards water, he sums this up well. Water seeks out the lowest places, but it carves its way through mountains. Water's softness slowly defeats hardness.

There's a great deal to ponder over in the narration, and it's the kind of piece that slowly settles into your mind over a while, well after the show has ended. It kind of reminded me of W. G. Sebald's writing, which I've never felt I truly understood, but which nonetheless gets my mind going in all kinds of directions. Which, I suppose, is a kind of understanding in itself.

Yang's an engaging speaker, but not quite engrossing. Marie Brassard, on the other hand...

Brassard's Peepshow really is my festival pick for 2006. I didn't go in with particularly high expectations, since the idea of a solo show that boasts a performer whose voice is electronically altered screamed 1979 performance art nightmare. How wrong I was. Brassard is an actor who holds her audience in the palm of her hand, but uses that power conscientiously. She takes us to places we might not be comfortable with (and god knows, her climactic thigh-carving bit is an exercise in Deleuzian panic-button-pushing) but also offers a shag-pile carpet to fall back onto when all's said and done.

Well, all might be said, but it's never done; not if a show is worth it. Peepshow is worth it. If you only see one show this fest, make this the one. If not: sorry. Come back next week to read more.

Monday, October 23, 2006

History by Request (Melb Arts Fest pt 7)

I've been asked by the irrepressible Ausculture Jess to post on a matter dear to my heart, about which she has been subjected to countless rants (well, one, and it wasn't very rant-like, and only lasted about a minute) and of which she would like to read more in a textual online form, since this will make it authoritative and quotable and perhaps true. Be warned, however: Jess does live in a barn and is periodically attacked by cats of various sizes who may or may not be under my mental control. She's moving out of the barn soon, though.

So: today's lesson is a quick primer in the subject of Historical Disco. Not disco which has been imbued with an historical patina now that we're several decades on from that colourful era of the late 70s and early 80s; no-no, sweet silly children, how innocent you all are! Take your places, now, and ready your notebooks. Afterwards, if you are good, there will be singing.

Disco was much reviled during its heyday, and its often bland excesses and vacuous hedonism leading, among other things, to the rise of seemingly-antithetical musical genres such as punk, mainstream metal and 80s white bloke rock. A rise of music which offered an antidote to disco wasn't just a taste thing, however, since it played upon a rich vein of social tensions only hinted at in the overt rhetoric. For many, disco was a feminine realm (and by implication, feminising, since it's always been ok for chicks to boogie, but John Travolta's uplit white-suited gyrations just ain't on, man). The hairy rock of Bruce Springsteen or the frenetic pogo-ing of Pistols fans didn't upset the boundaries: no chance of a guy being misconstrued, is all I'm saying.

Same with instrumentation: there's long been a divide between 'real' music (written and played by the band itself) and 'plastic' music, performed by artificial figureheads whose strings are pulled by some savvy Svengali in the studio. The issue of keepin' it real, of course, took on extra dimensions right about the time disco died, with the 'realness' of rock's talented white singer-songwriters suddenly challenged by the sample-heavy sequencer-ridden 'reality' of West Coast gangsta hip-hop.

"Disco will never be over. It will always live in our hearts and minds. Oh, for a few years, maybe for many years, it will be considered passe and ridiculous. It will be misrepresented and caricatured and sneered at. People will laugh about John Travolta, white polyester suits and platform shoes . . . Those who didn't understand will never understand. Disco was much more and much better than all that."

Impassioned and entirely unironic words from the classic disco film, The Last Days of Disco (released around the same time that the atrocious Studio 54 was stinking up silver screens everywhere). But why care? Why give two bits about a dance music genre which merely gave upwardly mobile white narcissists a chance to pretend they could dance?

Historical Disco might not answer that question, but it's pretty awesome anyway.

Every genre of music has something like it, I'm sure; if not quite its mirror, at least its penumbra, that grey area which unites the mode with its opposite. Literary Rock/Pop, for instance, Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights" or the Velvet's "Venus in Furs" spring to mind. Or that style of funk/soul dedicated to marriage and making it work, long-term.

Historical Disco attempts to combine funky cheese-laden melodies with educational content, for no reason scientists have been able to discern so far. The undisputed heroes of the genre are Boney M, mainly due to three things: a) they were the creation of disco pioneer Frank Farian, who was German (Historical Disco invariably comes from Germany, b) they released not just one, but a swag of historical songs, and c) they were kind of the only group to actually record anything resembling historical disco.

Now, I know, I know, this last claim is a bit dubious. After all, Dschinghis Khan's "Moskau" often competes with Boney M's "Rasputin" as the most prominent HD title. But as most people realise, while Dschinghis Khan were kind of historical (if you count faux fur hats and bad Russian dancing as somehow historical) the song itself is just, you know, about Moscow. Not Moscow way back when, or anything. Ok, sure, you do get the line "City of mystery/So full of history". I guess I'll pay that. And they did possess what might well be the best stylist in the history of any form of music, anywhere, ever. I draw your attention to Exhibit A.

But "Rasputin" is a beast of a different character.

Consider the finely wrought lines of just a sample stanza, and see how they take dry textbook material and fashion it into a thing of great beauty:

"This man's just got to go!" declared his enemies
But the ladies begged "Don't you try to do it, please"
No doubt this Rasputin had lots of hidden charms
Though he was a brute they just fell into his arms
Then one night some men of higher standing
Set a trap, they're not to blame
"Come to visit us" they kept demanding
And he really came

Now, Boney M. were obviously as familiar with history as they were with things like syntax, cadence and meter, but they could sure slap some multi-layered vocals over a jumping bassline.

Farian put the band together after he'd scored a solo hit under the Boney M name; not exactly being of model looks, he decided to bring in four dancers, two of whom sang along on with him, and two of whom were just there for visual interest. Interestingly, he gave this tactic another outing when he formed Milli Vanilli years later (also composed of German session musos and fronted by miming dancers).

Why he decided to turn to history we'll never know. But along with "Rasputin," Boney M pumped out "Ma Baker," "Painter Man" (about Andy Warhol), "He Was a Steppenwolf" and a few others (including religious songs about little baby Jesus and stuff). Many featured instrumentation and arranged that could be described as inspired, but 'inspired' is a short trip from 'I'm totally confused as to why my dance music is telling me things about early twentieth century Russia."

And of course there's that lovely spoken word bit in the middle, in which a strange man attempting to sound like an authority but really just coming across as pissed seriously steps up to tell us that "When his drinking and his lusting and his hunger for power became known to more and more people, the demands to do something about this outrageous man became louder and louder!"

Further listening: Falco's "
Rock Me Amadeus" (also in German, of course, though Austrian in origin, and more New Wave than disco); ABBA's "Waterloo" and "Fernando"; Dschingis Khan's "Dschinghis Khan" (less popular than "Moskau" but actually about an historical figure which helps) as well as other songs such as "Samurai"...uh, I can't think of any more and I'm a bit bored.

Dan Zanes plugs history to pre-teens. He's on at the Melbourne Festival this year; I saw him on Sunday and it was a pleasant experience. He didn't play any of my favourite tunes, which are the bolshie depression era work-songs or the gospelly blues laments or the sea shanty-style drinkin' songs; I mainly like these because I think it's an excellent idea for a four year-old to ask his or her mother what's the origin of lyrics like:

Take the two old parties, mister
No difference in them I can see
But with a farmer–labor party
We could set the people free


What about the simplicity of:

Pay me, you owe me
Pay me my money down
Pay me or go to jail
Pay me my money down!

Or the 13 year old kid singing:

Well it's all for me grog, me noggin’ noggin’ grog,
all for me beer and tobacco.
For I spent all me tin with the ladies drinking gin,
Far across the western ocean I must wander.


I interviewed Dan a little while ago and he said some stuff I liked. It's more than I expected. I'll just quote him verbatim.

When my daughter was born I had this idea in my head of what I thought everybody was listening to. I didn't know anything about parents or parenting. I didn't know anything! I grew up listening to a lot of folk music, Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seger and all that stuff, and I just assumed that that's the kind of music that people were playing for their kids, just updated versions of all that. And I went into the record store to get some and it seemed like everything was tied into a TV show or a movie, it just felt very corporate. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but that was all I found.

And then I looked a little harder, and then there's always been great stuff for kids and families. So I eventually found lots of stuff, just not in the mainstream. But I didn't find that handmade sound that I was hearing in my head. For me, I was just trying to update Folkways Records. That was all I was really thinking about. Try and write a couple of good ones along the way, and make the kind of music that I used to hear, that made me want to play myself.

That's the name of the game, if you hear something know, we played down at the Andy Warhol museum last week down in Pittsburgh, and you know, when you're around something that's so good, it makes you want to do it yourself. Looking at Andy Warhol's prints just makes me want to get out some paint and just get creative in the visual realm. So I grew up listening to music that made me want to make my own music and so that's the goal really, because I don't think we make nearly as much music these days as we could be and, you know the world is not a very peaceful place and it's not a very united place.

I know over here in the States there's a lot of fear and suspicion and it's a very divisive climate, and it's from the top down, really. I think music-making is the antidote to that. Music-making really brings people together. It's very social, it's very enjoyable, anybody can do it. It connects us to our past, it connects us to the stories that we can tell other people. If somebody else is connected to their culture that's different from mine then we've got something we can pass back and forth.

There's just all this insanity now about this whole immigration into the US, particularly from Mexico and the South, and it's just lunacy, you know. It's created this climate of fear and suspicion and I think that, really, people are coming here with so much to share. So much culture, so much music. And I think the more we make music with each other, the more we're reminded of that. And it gives us a sense of what life can be. So people might call it kids music or something, but for me, I call it social music. Because that's the name of the game, really, it's what we do with each other. But we're at that point in America where we're not a particularly musical society anymore. But I really think that could change. You know I'm not a big complainer, I'm just sort of calling it what it is. I really believe that that can change.

The thing that got me especially excited in the beginning was going to the park. A lot of the people here that are babysitters are from the West Indies, so we'd go to the park and hang out with these West Indian women and they would teach me songs. They were pretty cool about it, they were happy that somebody was asking these questions and was interested in their culture, and I was just thrilled that they were so willing to teach them to me, so we spent a lot of time together and a bunch of them ended up forming a group, and that group is on the first record, they're called the Sandy Girls.

That made me realise that a lot of this stuff was just here for the asking, it's a cultural goldmine, and it also made me think about my own heritage. You know, if someone were to ask me about songs that I grew up with, what would I really have to say? So it got me thinking too. Like I said, I don't feel like I do enough. Hopefully the next CD we do will be a lot of songs from Latin America, Mexico on down. That's really exciting me. But every day there's new ideas. Everybody's here. I just love good music. I love great songs, I love stories. It's all around me. It makes me so insane when there's this suspicion and this feeling that we should try and keep people out or make it hard to get here, to America. These people are what's making America great!

And so on. Good dude. Not a bad show, and the kids mostly seemed to be having a swell old time. But who knows, I'm not a two-year old. And this post has gone on way too long.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Interval and The Bert Moment (Melb Arts Fest pt 6)

It's Melb Fest interval time, since we're about halfway through, so grab a drink from the bar and elbow your way back here tout suite; we haven't got much time before the second act.

Quick review - what have we had so far? Well, we've had all manner of things, but variety hasn't exactly been the defining feature of this year's festival. In fact, the number of common elements linking shows has been surprising, seeing as how pundits were having trouble finding a 'theme' to this year's program and the festival director denied the existence of one.

If there was a theme, though, I'd say 'DREAM' pretty much sums it up. With the exception of one or two shows I haven't posted on yet, every performance I've attended has ended with me stumbling out into the auditorium rubbing knuckles in my eye sockets, blinking myself awake, and attempting to reconcile the previous hour or two with the realities of, you know, getting home. It's as if this year's festival has been calculated to turn the usual arts crowd into a horde of zombies shambling up St Kilda Rd, not groaning "BRAAAAIIIINNNNSSSS" but "AAAAAARTTTTTT". Or, in many cases, "WWWWWWTTTTTFFFFFFFF?"

Tonight I saw Japanese dance company Fluid hug hug's Rise:Rose, and as I watch my memories of the event rapidly recede in the rearview mirror I'm compelled to write something about the event. It featured three terribly adept dancers pulling every move possible, it seemed. The sparseness and control of traditional Japanese dance was tempered by the fluidity of contemporary practice, and even hip hop elements crept in with hand plants and subtle popping. But though there's no denying the skill of the dancers (amongst the best I've seen this year), it was one of those shows where I had no idea what was going through the choreographer's head when he put it together. Why this move, and not that? What's this sequence dealing with? What the hell is going on?

This confusion, mingled with the obvious abilities being showcased, put me into the state that's been the recurring theme of the festival, that dream-state I mentioned earlier. It's not sleep, exactly, but it's certainly a reduction in the beta waves, to get technical, and a major upping of the theta cycle.

It's as if these shows are designed to put you into that state where you're not quite asleep yet, but are ready to dream. As my plus-1 put it tonight, it's that moment where you're lying in bed thinking about stuff, with music playing softly in the background, and suddenly you snap to and realise there's no music playing. Or, as he put it more succinctly, "I feel a long way away from my feet."

I've been feeling that for a while, and I'm hoping to find a show that puts my feet squarely back in the picture. Not that I haven't been enjoying the festival so far, or that my feet are a pretty addition to any picture, but as the fat sheriff in the cult 1971 film Two-Lane Blacktop puts it:

"If I'm not grounded pretty soon, I'm gonna go into orbit."

Back when I was a teenager with bad hair, poor social skills and no dress sense, long before I became an adult with poor hair, bad dress sense and no social skills, I had what is known as “potential.” I suppose the downside of “potential” is that it usually leads to “potential squandered,” but there were at least a good few months there when people were willing to give that kid a chance, because they thought they saw something glimmering beneath the surface, a diamond-glint amongst the clay, and they felt the sudden urge to throw caution to the wind and take a gamble on some chump who might not have great hair, or dress sense, or social skills, but by gum he’s got that something. And maybe they were drunk.

Of course, as a teenager, I was also only dimly aware that things had actually happened before I was born (wars and perhaps dinosaurs, if my education serves me correctly). But history has a way of running up and punching you in the goolies, as I found out too infrequently.

At about 17 or 18 I was asked to perform in a play commemorating an historical moment in the history of Warrandyte, a small town on the Victorian coast. The event in question was the collapse of coal mine many decades ago; I played a young miner, Bert, who was trapped in the collapse alongside the many who died from the disaster. The play was nothing special, dramatically, but it had a major significance to many of the elderly townsfolk who recalled the incident from their childhood. And as I was leaving the auditorium a man of perhaps 80 stepped towards me and introduced himself. “I’m Bert,” he said in embarrassment. “I was you.”

It’s hard to say what responsibility a director has when dealing with a real historical catastrophe, especially when those who survived are still alive. These are the problems Lucy Guerin has faced with her latest work, Structure and Sadness, presented as part of the Melbourne Fest. Her show is dedicated to the workers who died in the collapse of the West Gate Bridge in 1970, but the show itself isn’t a dedication, or a recreation. It’s something more, and I think it’s a works.

Creating a dance piece centred on a real tragedy is a big ask, and Guerin has made a wise choice, I think, in going for an impressionistic response rather than a literal one. The work tries to evoke both the physical forces at play in the construction of massive structures as well as the human response to great calamity. I think it succeeds.

It’s hard to be objective about the end result since I’ve been following it for some time now (I was even thanked in the program, to my surprise). But having spoken to some of the people involved in the bridge’s collapse way back when, I think they’d be proud of the result. I hope that none of the dancers have a Bert moment. But it’s a pretty powerful moment to have, and I think that their Bert would have shed a tear during the show.

Insert Coin to Continue (Melb Arts Fest pt 4)

For some reason I had trouble hustling up a willing companion to accompany me to Robert Wilson’s A La Galaga. Why? The question really beat the urine out of me. I mean, here we have the chance to see a work by one of the world’s leading directors, arguably the world’s premier director of contemporary opera. The guy made Einstein on the Beach, which has surely earned its place in the pantheon of “on the” artworks (Kafka on the Shore, Fiddler on the Roof, Blame it on the Boogie). Sure, come the naysayers, it’s three hours long with no interval.

But look at the title! It’s Wilson doing Galaga! How can this be wrong? If I heard that they were touring Peter Brooks’ After Super Mario or Robert Lepage’s Eight Airs in the Key of Pong or, hell, even Barrie Kosky’s overrated The Insatiable Man of Pac, I’d be jumping onto the back of the couch, sending my dinner ($3 microwavable nachos from 7-11) arcing across the room to Pollock the wall, yelling at the top of my lungs something like “get me Ticketmaster on the dog-and-bone ANON!” before collapsing in a giddy heap and coming to in a congealing puddle of room-temperature salsa and not-quite-cheese as the realisation struck me Bruce-Lee-double-punch-style: I have no one to make such calls for me, and perhaps there’s a reason for that.
But it’s Galaga!

As a kid, I’ll admit, I hardly acted honourably during the whole Galaga/Space Invaders civil war which fractured the globe during the early 80s; I was the double agent, the lad who’d spit coins at any flashy number that came my way. I’d heard the propaganda: that the big G was just a cheap rip-off; that Space Invaders was the only ‘pure’ way, and that anything else would only lead to a life of sordid squalor and Russell Street arcade hanging out in-ing. But I didn’t care: give me bleeps and squiggles, blinking lights and ever-rapidly descending aliens, hope and loss for 20 cents a pop – I’d gladly get it wherever I could.

Three hours of Galaga? Nothing. Even as a twenty year old, after a decade hiatus, when I found a vintage Galaga machine at the old International Bar (now Ding Dong) in the city, I rediscovered my lack of ability but abundance of optimism in the game, frantically mashing those random buttons in the belief that I could stave off global annihilation for far less than the cost of a beer. And I found this through the wealth of friends and strangers who were eager to challenge me at that very same task.

Three hours of Galaga? That was just a warm up for us.

So where were these gallant button-jockeys now? Where were those looking to see their teen computer game addictions played out on Melbourne’s largest stage, by a director at the top of his game?

They were reading the program more closely, it seems. As it turns out, Wilson’s epic is titled I La Galigo, and it’s his rendition of an Indonesian creation myth that rivals The Odyssey in length and impact.

I found a friend, finally; D_____ was a frequent visitor to Indonesia in his youth, and knew enough of the language and culture to educate me well before and after the show.

Which was, itself, like a lot (if not all) of the festival as I’ve seen it so far. The best word I can find to sum it up is: interesting. Yeah, hardly a word that will have you cussing yourself for not booking tickets earlier, but that’s how it’s been. There’s been nothing that I’d rave to my friends about, and insist that they MUST see, but there’s been nothing that I’ve been tempted to walk out of, either. It’s all been rather intriguing, quite original, somewhat different, nicely produced and adequately attended.


Wilson’s saga is three hours, yeah. And it could be cut, I suppose. The initial sequence of performers walking slowly across the stage bearing traditional Indonesian artefacts as the onstage band plays distantly, not too dramatically, wasn’t an instant turn-off but felt unnecessary. Once the actual story itself kicked in, at least half an hour on, it proved fairly compelling, in the way that most creation myths are. There was war, prophecy, divine intervention, exploration, wonder, sex. The usual. And Wilson did a good job making the thing pretty pretty, though not super-pretty (I know his thing is making the backdrop lighting impressive, but he needs to expand the palette).

And the venue. We were obliquely notified that we were free to enter and leave the auditorium throughout the performance, in keeping with the fashion of Indonesian theatre. And god knows, at three hours, throughout an epic creation myth mostly conveyed without words, this would seem appropriate.

But we were at the Arts Centre, for a Melbourne International Arts Festival show, so the young couple immediately to my right were subjected to about 80 Sharp And Disapproving Glances by the older couple in front of me, as they giggled and talked during the first ten minutes (they walked out after that). Others occasionally spoke in hushed tones, but there was the generally stultifying air of a High Art performance throughout.

Which is fine, in context. But this show didn’t deserve such a context.

It deserved a showing in an open-air amphitheatre, with a large crowd coming and going, talking, commenting on and drawing thoughts from the goings-on onstage. It wasn’t a show for breathlessly absorbing: it was a show for engaging with, in the full sense of the word, for being a part of, in the way that audiences are so rarely these days. It should have been the Galaga experience, in which every paying audience member felt a vital and immediate connection with the story being told and the many people who are telling it.

It was, however, interesting.

NB: If anyone wants to produce a show with all the interactive energy of an old-school video game, I’m right behind you. I imagine a Bosch-style mise-en-scene with dozens of actors onstage, each tethered by marionette strings which are controlled by an individual audience member. The audience, then, creates the performance we see, and its up to our creativity in conjunction with the performance abilities of the cast to make something wonderful. Perhaps impractical, though.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Boarding Pass (Melb Arts Fest 06 pt 3)

I am a very good audience.

I am perfectly willing to sit motionless for hours at a time, watching something I'm only half enjoying. I will gladly sacrifice both armrests. I can uncross and recross my legs in absolute silence, or shift my body weight without a creak, and without rocking the seat of the poor fool in front of me. I try to sit as low in my chair as possible so as to maximise the sightlines of the people behind. I attempt to breathe inaudibly.

The Castellucci show I wrote about yesterday was performed, as far as I recall, in near silence. To be honest, I don't remember if there was music involved; I think there was some sound during the scene changes, but it was the kind of show you don't remember clearly. There was sound from the actions onstage, obviously. But there were also long, long periods where you could have heard the proverbial pin. I guess the reason I don't remember whether or not recorded sound was laid on top was due to that old John Cage dictum about the myth of silence, about how there's always sound, especially when you have an audience. Audiences make sound, and this is part of the performance, too, or at least the 'event' of which a performance is only one part. I love audiences; I loved it when a little boy behind me spoke up during a quiet bit in Warby's Monumental to tell his mother that he was hungry. Me too, kid!

But the chilled hush during the Castellucci piece was broken, for me, by a far more testing sound. At some indefinable point, the dude to my left began breathing loudly through his nose, and sounded sort of sinusy and blocked up, so I was watching the onstage proceedings with a soundtrack that sounded like a wheezing, desolate wind blowing across a craggy moor. Wheeeeeeeze. Pause. Wheeeeeeeeeeeze. Pause. Wheeeeeee- you get the picture.

And then a funny thing happened. The woman to my right picked up the beat, and began wheeeeeeezing in syncopation. Suddenly I was in the aural equivalent of a tennis match played by two lumbering giants with a bad case of the sniffles.




Oh well.

Not much room for quiet when last night's Voyage started up. Instead, the cataclysmic roar that Japan's dumb type do best, the kind that resonates at such thunderous and low frequencies that it feels as if every atom in your body is being shaken violently and you might just begin to disintegrate if it keeps up much longer.

How was the show? Well, hard to say. I think my +1 for the night put it best: afterwards, she said that during much of the performance, she was asking herself "do I like this or not?" And we both agreed that the question sort of became irrelevant after a while. It wasn't a show you liked, or cared about, or anything. It was a very similar experience to the one I had when I last saw the same group, about two years ago, I think. I vividly remember being struck by several moments in that show, but the rest of it is just a hazy, dream-like memory. Same thing last night. You emerge from the theatre rubbing your eyes, waking up and already feeling the experience starting to slip from your conscious mind into some dark crannies of your forgettory.

The group mix tech-heavy multimedia such as microscopic cameras, electronic soundscapes and carefully controlled lightshows and projections with contemporary movement: sometimes dance, but sometimes stretching the dance vocabulary to such an extent that the word doesn't really apply. The sequence of scenes presented had a few loose connecting themes, mainly to do with voyaging, air and space travel, and diasporic experience, but it was more often an impenetrable logic that structured the subject matter; often thematics seemed sidelined by the pure theatricality of the moment, an arm arced in a particular fashion reason enough for its own existence. Overall, even with the body-shaking score which sometimes erupted, the overall thing seemed carefully constructed in order to put you into a different state of attention, one where a small part of your brain was taking in the sights on offer and doing a little bit of meaning-making, while the other, less literal parts where sent of a voyage of their own, given licence to take flight and take you far away from a little seat in a large, darkened room. Coming back was a bit like stepping off a plane, the unfocused eyes and difficulty speaking and sense of soul-lag there as well. So, I wouldn't say that I liked the show, or that I'd necessarily want to recommend it. But I sure had a good trip, and some pretty vivid dreams when I finally went to sleep.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

All About the Baby (Melb Arts Fest 06 part 2)

I approached Italian director Romeo Castellucci's BR.#04 Brussels with a certain amount of excitement. I mean, I very much expected it to be a terribly overblown piece of onanistic self-indulgence, since there's plenty of that going around and getting big ups from the theatre crowd. But I secretly hoped that it would be something more, and it surely was. Some disagree, and think it was tripe; others have raved to me about it. I'm with the latter.

The show is just one part of a massive 11-play cycle (the Tragedia Endogonidia); each part was developed upon arrival in a city, and as a direct response to that city's history, culture, and so on. We got Brussels, and I read somewhere that Brussels was once the seat of legislative power in Europe or some guff like that, so themes of governance, institutionalised power and dominance run throughout this episode. But there's also a more generalised evocation of power and powerlessness centred on time, aging, duration, growth, decay, and hair loss.

The show is made up a number of sequences, wordless all, played out in a massive white-marbled cube suggesting a museum, palace, cell or church (among other things). The scenes are densely cryptic, travelling in directions often quite unexpected; sometimes they don't really travel at all. The first, for instance, sees a cleaning woman slowly moping the floor, boredly, maybe absent-mindedly. BORING. Or not. I found it hypnotic after a while, and began watching the way that the arc of her mop sweeping across the marble created a kind of mandala effect after a while: she wasn't randomly swishing the thing around at all. I didn't know what it meant, and I suspect it might have meant nothing, but it gestured at the possibility of meaning. Sums up the whole show, that.

Now, it's nothing new to lay out a stack of signifiers and refuse us the ability to construct any kind of sense from them. Normally I can't stand that kind of theatre, since it's so hard to do well. But I don't think that's the result here. Castellucci's created a tragedy without a chorus to explain the events we're seeing for us. We're not being told why these events are significant, or how we supposed to interpret them.

Since the Greeks, the chorus has been a hugely influential tool in theatremaking, and you could say that later modes saw the chorus internalised into the drama itself, so that the language and staging and so on maintained its function. A piece of theatre usually, in some way, says "this is this" and then "this is why it's here before you". Castellucci cuts that out, which is a very different thing from cutting out meaning or significance entirely. What we see on stage are very dramatic and gripping events, but there's no commentary of any kind which forces us to interpret them in any given way.

It wouldn't work if the scenes produced weren't so provocative, I suppose. And if you did't find them so, you'd probably be pretty switched off by the production. But for me, the image of a live human baby maybe six or eight months old sitting alone and unattended on a huge stage, gurgling away merrily, noticing a toy and picking it up curiously, slowly beginning to register some painful thought or feeling and transforming its face into a mask of rage or disappointment, then just dropping it all and thinking about something else: I was absolutely enthralled by what I will gladly call the Performance of the Year. And upstage, a naive cut-out face propped up on the floor began to open and close it's mouth and eyes, reciting numbers in a garbled voice. What was the connection? Was it the child being taught by rote? Was it technology as dumb infant? Was there comparison and contrast or connections to be made?

In a way the automaton reminded me of the play itself: it was a narration without a narrative, a plot with out a story (in the Russian Formalist sense), it was the hollow decoration that delights with its movement but contains no deeper soul inside. Because it was hollow, it had that levity I was thinking about yesterday: it wasn't 1984, screaming "this is important!" It was useless in the best way, in the Wildean sense ("all art is quite useless", says Oscar, and I wholeheartedly agree with that complex suggestion). It's the laughing seriousness advocated by Sartre, too, the work which approaches the truth by revealing the floating and ephemeral and plain silly nature of any kind of truth.

Man, it was a good show. Or not, maybe.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Levitas (Melb Arts Fest 06 part 1)

A friend of mine was recently telling me how, during a trip to Florence, he became transfixed at the window of a tiny shop selling (as he put it) "pope costumes". I asked if he'd bought one, since a number of circumstances in which papal threads would prove handy sprang immediately to mind (pulled over for cycling without a helmet; Jehovah's witnesses at the door; passed out in primary school sandpit). No, he explained, not costumes: this was where the bishops and prelates and I-don't-know-the-terms went to pick up this season's latest outfit ("What is this!? I told you I'm an autumn, infidel!"). I don't know to what extent mitre styles are dictated by Milan, but I imagine that like any item of clothing, wear and tear is inevitable, and a change of wardrobe is at some point necessary (is it blasphemy to suggest that addressing a crowd of a thousand faithful could perhaps up the perspiration rate and leave Il Papa a bit pongy?) And so, here in this tiny, dimly lit shop, little ninety year-old staffers shuffle about tending to the racks and the little ninety-year old men looking to buy something from them. I like that image. It has levity.

The concept of levity is, I think, very important.

When the pope drops by Casa di Firenze to refresh his walk-in-robes, what happens to the outfits he throws away? Does he donate them to the poor, the homeless? If I'm ever asked for spare change by someone got up like a cardinal, I'll swear eternal fealty to the church, believe me. If not, where do those robes go? To the Vatican staff, so that would-be assassins stealing into the Holy City are inundated with popes stirring broth and mopping marble and chatting up nuns before the tabernacle? Are they burned in a ceremony bordering on the profane? Or is there a secret that's been kept hidden for centuries, something to rival the Da Vinci Code in its combination of intrigue and inconsequence, a cover-up for what happens to the things that cover-up the high-ups?

Yesterday I got styled. Agreeing to a work assignment of a potentially ill-advised character (my boss today actually uttered the words "I don't think I should be encouraging this predilection") I agreed to hand my image and good sense over to a professional stylist, his assistant, a hair and makeup artist and a photographer with an unhealthily good sense of humour. What was I thinking? Would I be transformed into some bronzed He-Man deserving of a laurel crown?

Or would I, like Fabio, end up looking like a fallen idol bashed in the grill by an errant goose? Worst-like, would I be found gurgling in a haze of hairspray and 'product', halfway to comatosis, a gaggle of colleagues wiping the gunk from my pallid face as I uttered the immortal words of Ghostbusters' Venkman:

He styled me.

You'll have to wait and see.

Last Thursday I was due to attend the opening of the Melbourne International Arts Festival's 1984. Work commitments prevented me from making it, and to be honest, I was kind of ok with that. I'd read reviews that repeatedly mentioned the word "shouty"; if you want to turn me off a show, that's pretty much the first button you need to mash. I can appreciate a lot of theatrical modes. Gimme some Theatre of Cruelty, a side serving of Theatre of Catastrophe, with a dollop of Theatre of the Oppressed for good measure. The appetite's there. But Theatre of Shoutiness? I've had my fill, thanks (subtext: fill=university).

I won't review 1984, since I clearly ain't seen it. And it wouldn't be wrong to say that my reluctance to check it out is due to its reported didacticism, its literalism, the way it takes an obvious point (uhhhh...fascism is, like, totally sucky) and yells it at you for two hours. There's a lack of levity, it seems.

But what's this levity deal all about?

Generally, I've always thought of myself as a big fan of levity's opposite, gravity. A production with weight, with an immanence that grounds it firmly in the earth, rather than presenting itself as something disposable, the flyaway hairs that resist the brush and you only hope won't be visible to outsiders; that's the thing.

But I don't know, really. Sure, last year's MIAF-sponsored presentation of Le Dernier Caravanserail was probably the most impactful show I've ever seen, and will ever see, and it was also a dramatisation of one of the most crucial crises to face the contemporary world (the situation of The Refugee).

And last Sunday's performance of Ros Warby's Monumental was an exercise in levity, despite the show's title. Warby is a dancer of immaculate precision, perhaps the most accomplished mover I've seen, every twitch and quiver a measured and immaculate thought embodied. The show plays with the classic, iconic balletic images of the Swan and the Soldier, but doesn't speak them, rather tickling our preconceptions to work against the grain. Warby knows her business, for sure; the show isn't an earnest plea for something-or-rather, but offers instead the kind of playful pointlessness only a master of the form can toy with. Ballet fans with intellect would find much to revel in here; I found it a skeletal dance, too light to gain a foothold anywhere I'm likely to be standing.

But isn't that the essence of levity? The opposite of gravity, the term signifies something impossible, the absence of weight, yet something equally sought (cos dammit, isn't zero-G the ultimate goal?!? No need to answer). Isn't the opposite of weight something purely theoretical? Can lightness achieve reality? Can levitas signify gravitas?

Romeo Castellucci's Tragedia Endogonidia finds the balance, in my opinion. I tend to agree with one judge, while finding myself at odds (critically speaking) with several others.

More to come.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

One of them meme things

My earliest memory is… looking out the window of an commercial jumbo jet at the green fields dawdling by far below. My mother doesn't make sense of this memory; where did we fly when I was a baby? Don't know. If I dreamed it, that's ok, I guess, though it's crystalline in the memory banks. I really don't get it. Otherwise, it's the car accident in Booran Road, Ormond: I was mildly peeved that I only suffered a sore thumb, since that would hardly earn respect at school.

At high school I… could never have envisioned the high-powered, jetpack-enabled future of grotto-dwelling party-goers and marathon macrame sessions which awaited me. Funny, I still can envision it. But time, as the Stones said, is on my side (NB: assuming immortality).

My first relationship was… Better than I could have expected.

I wish I’d never worn… that patchwork shirt that made me a pariah in high school dancing classes.

My mother told me… that hair would eventually grow over the scar which runs across my crown from one ear to the other. It never did, which is why I wear my hair long, so as not to frighten small children.

I wish I had... three more wishes. And a robot valet.

My most humiliating moment was... just a precursor to the many minor humiliations to come. Read about 'em here.

At home I cook… for anyone who will eat, as often as I can. Cooking as therapy is vastly underrated (see also: gardening; knitting; emotional house-cleaning; the meticulous preparation of tea; cycling through a park on the first warm day of spring, a balmy breeze caressing your cheek and the sun glinting off the teeth of smiling strangers; and, of course, dancing.)

My last meal would be… prepared by me for people who'd enjoy it.

I’m very bad at… relationships.

When I was a child… I once had a sudden and unexpected understanding of the way the universe fits together which I still recall vividly.

The book that changed my life is… written by Thomas Pynchon.

It’s not fashionable, but I love… pitching peeled grapes towards the gaping maws of partially-clad supermodels during cocaine-fuelled Eyes Wide Shut-style scenarios in remote Tuscan grottos. No, wait, that's probably quite fashionable. Sudoku, then?

Friends say I am… different things, depending on who you ask. Anything from the crazy, kooky one to the calm and centred observer. It's the parallax view, I think. Don't get it.

The song I’d like played at my funeral is… Another One Bites the Dust, hummed beatifically by the congregation.

If only I could… make everything better, for everyone.

The last big belly laugh I had was… Little Superstar. I laugh hard only a few times a year, and that worries me. But when I do, I find it's mostly, and consistently, inspired by the sight of someone unselfconsciously dancing in a totally radical way. I don't know what that means.

What I don’t find amusing is… Most forms of humour based on us/them dynamics, which perhaps relates to a) why I really laugh so infrequently, b) my routine education in an arts-based course and c) why I'm pretty boring to be around at times.

I’m always being asked… How old are you really?

If I wasn’t me… I'd like to know who it was, and how to get those ugly stains out (vinegar, apparently).

At the moment I’m listening to… Diana Ross' Upside Down.

My favourite work of art is… by Franz Kline.

If I were a car I’d be… getting outta here.

I often wonder… if krumping is just a passing cultural fad.

I often wonder (2)... if I'll make it to the age of 70 or 80, when I'll be able to sit on a porch somewhere with all the friends I've managed to retain, lovers and nemeses, the garrulous and the begrudged, the ones who never got it, but accepted it anyway and found a connection with me in that, at least, if nothing else, or just ended up on that damn porch while I was there and somehow bridged the gap between banana lounges with a withered outstretched palm or gave me, a stranger, that knowing smirk that says "we got away with it!"

We didn't get it, but by god: we got away with it.

TAG: Our Man and (H)Ausculture.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Get Outta Denmark

It's a well-known fact (I think it's even in the Bible somewhere) that most of life's little "tight spots" take on an entirely different character when you reimagine them narrated by a crusty ol' Southern coot. I thinking of the whole Waylon Jennings thing from "The Dukes of Hazzard" and I'll be hornswaggled if Jennings ain't gotten me through more tough times 'n I can number. "Lookit thet, poor son's gotten one a them eviction notices!" or "Heh heh heh, seems like he's gone and got himself a bad case of lime disease!" or "Sometimes you can be cruisin' along, doing your own thing, 'taint bothering nobody. And then come the handcuffs. Life's funny like that, ain't it?"

So I've decided to hand the next leg of the trip over to Waylon, and busy myself with cookin' up some grits to keep him happy. Take it away, boss.

Well howdy there, glad you could join us. You might remember that we last left our wanderin' Jackdaw in the ol' Dalby Hotel, a fine mess of a place if ever I seen one - an' I seen my fair share (suffering a debilitating addiction to cocaine throughout the early 1980s). But this ain't about me.

So here's our hero, rustlin' up the fire to get his sorry ass outta bed and back on that there road. When he hit the hay last night, he was sure fixin' to leave that damn broke down horse of his out there in the carpark, and to leg it the rest of the way every which way he has to. But look at 'im now:

He's thinking "durn it, that tootin' nag got me this durn far, and I'll be durned if I'm a gonna give up on him when the going gets rough!" So even though it might be no use to nobody as a trusty steed, it's still got enough of the ol' pack horse in it to make it outta Denmark.

So he saddles up the thing, strapping his bags all over it till you can barely tell what's under all that junk. And it's back out on the open road, where he walks with his burro past the wide fields and thick forests lining the way. It rains the whole way, but he ain't fussin'. Takes about three-four hours afore he finds the next town, little place named Naestved, and soon he's a-buyin' a ticket to the coast, where a ferry will be takin' him on south over international waters.

Now, listen up, y'all.

You might think from this image of the wayward stranger trudging into town through the driving rain, leading his hobbled horse by the nose and not sayin' a whole darn lot, well, you might think he was some kind of troubled drifter out on a mission of revenge, or runnin' from a dark past he refuses to name. You might be prospecting some leathery gunslinger whose hidin' a fistful of pain behind his no-nonsense, stoic demeanour, spoilin' for a Danmark death-run that'll help him forget, or die tryin!

Well, that's where you'd be wrong, mister. See, turns out all that riding left him happier 'n he'd been in years, and you know what: he's still got that to this day. Whenever times are gettin' him down, he just remembers making his way through that strange countryside, so licked he could barely see the road ahead of him. And hell if that ain't some kinda good feeling.

I guess it comes down to the little pow-wow he has with the nice lady at the train station in Naestved. Come down from Copenhagen, he says, on this here little fella, so I'll be needin' a ticket for him too. "Rode from Copenhagen?" she asks.

Sure as the nose on his face.


He thinks about that. And if he's going to be honest with himself, it's the first time he really did think about it. People had been askin' him in other ways for a time now, but he'd never really had an answer. And now it's almost over, he still don't.

"I don't know. Just felt like it, I guess."

As he's about to board the train, the conductor comes running over. "You ain't takin' that on this here train," he says. But I bought a ticket! "Not on my train". So what, I just leave it here on the platform? "That, or you stay with it."

So there you go, partner. If you're ever in Naestved, keep an eye out for a lonesome looking bike on platform 2. Give it a good home, or fix it up so it's back on the road. I like to think some kid found it, some poor Danish country kid with no money for a ride of his own, but who knows. Last we saw of it was out the window of the train as it pulled out of the station, and soon it was gone.

When the train pulled in Rodby, he saw the ferry squatting there like some kinda bull toad. And he scanned the horizon to see that, yessiree, Rodby was just like every other town he'd been through: nothing there. And there ain't no way he was spending another night in another no-good wasteland of a town, so he determined to get on that boat, whatever it dang well took. When's the boat leave? he asked the woman selling tickets. "Two minutes." You take cards? "Not in two minutes." But I'm outta cash!

And then, when he least expected it, this kindly old woman he'd never met and never would again, bit her lip for a moment then stuffed the eighty dollar ticket into his hand. "Go!" she yelled. "Run! RUN!"

And run he did, dagnabbit! You shoulda seen that critter fly! Scootin' up stairs, hot-footin' it round blind bends and heck, his feet mighta hardly even touched the gangplank! That little act o' kindness was the last thing Denmark gave him, and boy was he grateful. And then he was gone.

Well, that's about it for me, and that's about it from him, too. We'll be shuttin' up the travel shop for a whiles now, seein' as how there's some big festival in town that's a-gonna be takin' up all his time. He'll probably get back to the usual point of this here place, which is writin' up all them shows he sees. But maybe one day he'll be back with tales of illegal Russian bars and riding through mountains and the place where the word for "yes" is "no". Till then, I'd like you all to join in me and my little pal here for a duet:

Maybe tomorrow, I'll want settle down,
Until tomorrow, I'll just keep moving on!

So if you want to join me for a while
Just grab your hat, come travel light - that's hobo style.

Maybe tomorrow, I'll find what I call home,
Until tomorrow, you know I'm free to roam!

Everybody now-

Monday, October 09, 2006

No Sleep till Dalby (pt 7)

My wardrobe’s lycra-quotient is zero. I’ve never scoured the classifieds for a position labelled "freak willing to cycle the length of Denmark pursued by inner demons." Did it, but. If you’re not the sort predisposed to find value in cycling tour diaries, perhaps the presence of ass-paddlings and/or tight jeans will change that. Perhaps not.

Did I really feel it appropriate to cycle the length of a country in rolled-up stovepipes, $2 sunglasses that folded up to pocket size and a tee screaming "Who loves Burritos!"? I’ll never tell.

If I ever run into God in a pet store or Ticketmaster7 outlet or motocross rally or wherever, I think the first thing I’d say is "Hey! You probably hear this all the time, but I’m a real fan of your early work."
But I’m pretty sure in God’s workshop there’s a corkboard with a note on it saying something like "DON’T FORGET – FINISH DENMARK (it looks rubbish!)" And over the millennia, the memo has been covered with all sorts of other post-its and party invites ("ladies, please bring a plateaux!") and God never did get around to touching up Denmark. A few structural refinements would have been nice.

Like mountains. Mountains are smooth (if obvious) manoeuvres. They’re like God’s jazz-hands. Cheap and gimmicky, the ole razzle-dazzle, but hey: mountains, man.

There are no mountains in Denmark, not a one. I saw a few hills with delusions of grandeur, but they’re dreaming. The highest point is 173m above sea level. The annual death toll for persons falling off cliffs is only 0.2, compared to the whopping 18 Australians who die every year from the mountainous fatalities which I just made up. Needless to say, riding a bike across Denmark isn’t like climbing Everest.
But rural Denmark wasted no time at all in letting me know that it was a boring place. I guess I have to respect that, since it didn’t offer the pretence of something interesting around the next corner. No, it took about 20 minutes to realise that it wasn’t getting better. Don’t get me wrong: I’m deeply in love with Denmark and want to live in your wonderfully friendly country for many decades. But do some terraforming, please. I totally know a canyon going for a sweet deal. That said, if empty wheat fields are your ‘thing’, you’ll probably get your dollar’s worth from a trip like this. I guess I saw a few trees too.

After enjoying the pleasures of a day riding across Denmark I feel qualified, nay compelled, to state that said day would have been infinitely improved if it hadn’t required a bicycle to be involved in any important aspect of the trip. The journey from Copenhagen to Dalby was like an eight hour behind-paddling from an over-enthusiastic prefect at an English boarding school in the 1930s. I think I violated a number of United Nations treaties on myself during the trip. That wasn’t the worst part of the ride, but it was the part that would probably most easily bring that bitter-beer wince to your face, so I thought I’d start with that.
I begin the ride aiming for Koge, a little seaside town around 20kms out of Copenhagen. It looks doable, and I decide to try and make it by nightfall. I make it by 2pm, which sort of throws my plans out. What now? Might just keep on riding. See how far I do get by nightfall.

And so I do. Just keep on riding. Occasional stops for a cigarette, or to pop into a petrol station for something to eat. It’s worth noting that petrol stations in Denmark don’t have anything for a vegetarian to eat, not even a plastic salad sandwich. I don’t eat for the entire ride (I down a lot of unpronounceable fizzy drinks, though).
This lack of food, combined with endless hours of pushing on down deserted country highways, past quaint farmhouses and lowing cows, up rickety hills and down ancient, winding lanes, knocked my brain about a bit. An hour after Koge, I was deep in the country. The ‘towns’ I passed through consisted of a petrol station and maybe four-five houses. That was usually it. There’d be a car every ten or twenty minutes, but I otherwise rarely saw a human being. I just kept on, burning up in the hazy sun, drenched in perspiration and aching all over.

About six hours in, I wasn’t thinking much. I had the funny idea that if I maintained the rate I was going at, I would probably hit the south coast of Zealand by about 10 or 11pm. In fact, I’d complete my entire ride by lunch the next day, rather than the three or four days I’d given myself.
A little after this, I was passing a cobbled side road and noticed a figure not far down it. It was bent double, as if tying its shoes. From the waist down, entirely white. Waist up, entirely black, including its head, and kind of fuzzy-looking. I stared, and couldn’t make out how it could be human, though it had a human-kind of shape. But it looked more like some kind of Danish rural creature from a fairy tale, some mythical thing that you’d never see when you were in a normal state of mind.

And I thought: Oh boy! I’ve just lost my mind.

I should have seen that one signposted by the looks every petrol station attendant gave me when they saw me pull up on my squeaky velocipede. They gave me the glazed stare I’d expect if I’d been wearing a tee-shirt with "I’m biking my way through personal crises!" iron-printed across the front. In short, they were short.
I knew during this period that the real reward I was gaining was the pleasant memories I’d be fondly recollecting for about eight minutes after the trip was over, and this was enough to keep me soldiering on, though I was more like the soldier who runs crying and blabbering incoherently through the undergrowth in any direction but the one the colonel has ordered. I’ll admit it: I was a pitiful skid-mark on the toilet bowl of humanity, a dangling booger bringing an embarrassed rictus to the face of every Danish commuter zooming past towards the north. I’m amazed some Dogme-appreciating father of four didn’t ‘accidentally’ hiccup and cause his 7-seater to swerve across a few lanes to put his fender through my grill ("A hit, a palpable hit!" cries a child! "A mercy killing" he tells his traumatised daughters, "the thing was already halfway to Copenheaven, really.")

Such terrible thoughts. To be or not to be.

For years I’ve had the whole Haunted Man shtick going on, thinking I’d earned a Nam-style thousand-yard stare caused by the recollections of the things I’ve seen ("We were just babies, dammit, and they sent us into a warzone!") But really, I was just a dumb schlubb (or is it schmuck?) who thought that people gave a crap what crappin’ crap makes up your crappin’ history, when people usually have their own crap to deal with. That was the real lesson Denmark taught me, when Haunted Man had his ass kicked by Broken Man. Had his ass kicked so bad I’m surprised I didn’t have to sleep standing up.

Getting Broken can be the best thing you ever do, if you’re a self-pitying fool like me. Reduced to nothing, just a husk running on autopilot, almost at the animal stage, so tired that actual thought is barely even possible, well, it can open up new perspectives, put things in order. It’s not that you make better sense of things; the opposite, really. You stop trying to make sense of anything, and just accept all the stuff you’ve got no control over. It’s the same sort of state people aim for with extreme sports, or getting completely wasted, or marathon meditation sessions, or starving themselves. You empty out the human and hand the reins over to the reptilian part of your brain leftover from the old days. You wouldn’t really want to stay like this forever, but the occasional visit can be an eye-opener.

I was so Broken that all I could do, eventually, was ride. So Broken that after an hour of wondering about that funny bump the back wheel of my bike was giving me, I finally summoned the mental energy to turn around and have a look. I’d been riding on a completely flat tyre for an hour. It was time to stop. The next town was about five kilometres away, so I coasted down hills and walked the bike up them until I got there. The town, as usual, was just a petrol station. The attendant politely informed me that yes, there was somewhere to stay nearby, about five kilometres back the way I’d come. So I walked the hour back along the route I’d just taken, and as darkness fell found myself at the Dalby Hotel.

Thinking back, I wonder if the Dalby Hotel even existed. Perhaps I just slept in a field and imagined the place. Certainly, it was the weirdest place I’ve ever been. It was as if Stanley Kubrick had designed it for The Shining 2: Death Comes to Denmark. Long, empty corridors, wood panelling everywhere, a low and omnipresent hum, and not a soul to be found. If a wall of blood suddenly erupted from behind one of the closed doors, I wouldn’t have blinked.

I wandered for a long time before I found the concierge, who stared at me blankly as I asked if there was a room available. He spun the check-in register around and I filled out my details. I’m so happy I found this place, I tell him. I’ve just ridden a bike from Copenhagen. His face is still devoid of all expression. Seconds pass.

"That’s a long way," he says.

Yes, yes it is. Good night Dalby.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Just Copen (pt 6)

Seeing as how the travel posts have been unfurling unstoppably like a roll of toilet paper across the bathroom floor, I may as well give in and try to unravel them all as quickly as I can. I should say, however, that I didn't get many charming shots of Copenhagen since I had nowhere to recharge my cameras batteries (campsite: remember?) and since a lot of European cities look quite similar in photos, I'll save the architecture for later. Today, alongside the text, I'll post some lovely images of people pretending to be Scandinavian instead. I can do that because I consider myself a pretend Scandinavian, too. I am the Scandy Man, and the Scandy Man can, as the song goes.

Our old friend Saint Augustine tells me that “Life is a book; not to travel is to read only one page.” Augie’s modern day equivalent, Oprah, gives us contrary advice: “Wherever you go, there you are.” I don’t know who is right, and today I was wondering which side I’m on. Does travel change us, expand us, make us more? Or do we carry our bags at all times, every new destination only reflecting where we’ve come from?

Talking to Darko last night, I learnt that he’s studying psychoanalysis, which was interesting as I’d never met someone who was accredited in that field and also because the guy next to us had a drink gaffer-taped to his hand and a chair taped to his leg, which begged interpretation from some kind of professional or at least exuberant Montenegro guy who was on his way there. I asked Darko the obvious question, given the company he kept and the past he’d had (not much fun, to put it blunt-wise): you’re doing it to understand yourself, right? He laughed (which, typically, made the table shake, plaster fall from the ceiling and old people in nearby apartments cross themselves and whisper prayers to the Lord) and nodded, going further to argue that every conversation with another person is just a chat with ourselves.

But if that’s the case, I’m back to the same old question: why am I here? Don’t get me wrong. I’m not asking this in the manner of some old guy who spends as much time as he can sitting in his ’83 120Y listening to Yes and wondering how he went from a go-getter who possessed what is known as “potential” to a mortgage-saddled burnout trying to raise a blended family while doing his best to avoid them. I mean, sure, I’m an embarrassing husk of what I might have once been. But I’m still doing ok. The reason I was thinking along these lines today was simple. In hungover agony, I started pondering the routines I fall into, the rituals that tell me who I am. No, I’m not going to detail any here since that’s none of your business, but I suppose putting yourself in a strange environment throws those patterns into relief, makes you wonder why you react to something in a certain way and not another.

Let’s take another philosophical position: to be is to do. We don’t arrive at our selves fully formed, but continually produce who we are by the way we act, and the way we react. Of course, you can argue that we don’t have that much choice – how we act is often conditioned by other factors. But once you realise a constant to your personality, once you’re aware of it, you suddenly do have that choice, since to continue to act that way is no longer something unconscious. Maybe that’s what travelling can offer: the chance to change. Maybe not.
Switching gears, or perhaps just coasting for a while: If we are what we do, I understand why I like Copenhagen so much. It’s the bikes. It’s most definitely the bikes. Words can’t really do justice to their ubiquity. I cannot recall, in all my time here, a moment when a cyclist wasn’t in view. Moreover, from anywhere I’ve been there has always been at least a dozen parked bikes visible. Everyone rides, everywhere, and it’s probably why everyone seems so damned fit. They’re not the cycle freaks of most countries, pedalling determinedly in lycra and fierce scowl; businessmen, pensioners, supermodels and ferals all rub elbows in the bike lanes that border every roadway.
If there’s one piece of advice I’d give any traveller, anywhere (except, perhaps, London, where traffic is lethal) it’s to buy a bike. It’s not just the fact that an entire city becomes convenient, any destination just a few pedals away. It’s the unique mode of perception made available. You get to see vastly more of your environment, without removing yourself from it. You’re still in the streets that you ride, but can skip the boring bits. In a car or bus or train, the panorama unfolds like a TV screen. Riding around a strange city is less like TV, and more like being really cool in a cool place with people who think you’re cool. Not exactly, but it feels like it (cool). Riding a bike is fleshy, corporeal. And when it comes to Copenhagen, it’s terribly cute.

In Malmö, another bike city, I saw an older woman telling off a young cyclist in corporate attire for talking on her mobile while riding. In Copenhagen, riding while talking is very common, and unremarked upon. I don’t know what the distinction means, but it feels like something.
Both cities have one thing in common, though: European wasps hovering over every bin. I guess it’s Europe, after all.

My last night in this city I’ve grown to love ends on a strange note. When I return to the campsite at around 11pm, I notice a row of candles leading up the hill to the site restaurant (yes, they have a restaurant. While I’m drowning in a sodden tent, the camper van crowd is living it up on Tuborg and saganaki). I realise that I haven’t seen the campsite at night, so this might be a regular thing, but I wander up the steps anyway. I pass the restaurant and head for the beach, avoiding the couples dotting the shore. They’re murmuring quietly on benches, and I can’t help but think how camping is connected to whispers, furtive sounds slipping out from canvas and zippers to only hint at what’s going on inside. Camping is stealth, cunning and disgraceful.

I wander down to the two piers which jut out fifty metres or so onto the water. The first had a white-clad garble of figures vaguely discernible at its end, a romance-ridden couple, probably, so I keep on till the second quay and tread the creaking boards. Near its terminus, I sit down and look out at the lights of the city in the distance, and the foggy grey of the horizon. A smudge of light, only visible at the peripheries of vision, might be Malmö. Boats are sprinkled along the horizon, betrayed by tiny safety torches.
Then I hear him. It’s not a couple on the other pier, but a man on his own. He is visible as a vague silhouette, kneeling. He is singing.
It’s a devotional song in Arabic, a Muslim prayer directed out across the ocean. His chorus is the birdlife quacking and squealing at irregular intervals and the steady lapping of waves against pylons.
His song is the most beautiful thing I’ve heard on this trip, and I feel like I’m his sole audience member. The passion with which he sings is audible in the occasional cracks in his voice, not flaws but fault-lines suggesting a tectonic, heaving faith. There’s a gradual rise in volume, until he almost seems to be crying his song. After 20 minutes he hobbles to his feet and staggers off. A drunken prayer, perhaps. Still a beautiful thing.

Time to leg it from this joint. This morning was an exercise in disaster, to overstate the case (as is my wont). I hadn’t banked on summer nights in Denmark hitting freezing point, and so I spent the night in my tent shivering, sleepless, wearing every item of clothing I’d brought for the trip and serenaded by the chatter of my own teeth. When I got up at sunrise (not woke up, since I hadn’t gotten a wink, but literally just stood up to see if sunlight meant warmth, and to separate night from day) my troubles, well, continued. I bought a bottle of orange juice from a supermarket and took a big swig. Thus discovering that I’d bought a bottle of orange cordial. I dropped my iPod in a puddle. I decided to ride the 40kms to Koge on a rusty bike with one brake, a backside and spine nearing breaking point, a pocketful of krone and a heartful of optimism. Care to join me?

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Conditioned (pt 5)

Copenhagen. I will learn to love this kind-hearted and cheeky colossus. I’ve only been here 30 minutes and I feel at home. It’s not the prettiest city, sure, but it’s got moxie. I’m sitting in a café surrounded by unassumingly cool kids with laptops and lattes browsing the creased old novels set in bookshelves below the bar (pulp romance, detective or sci-fi, mostly). They (the patrons, not the books) spill onto the street where bicycles whirr by incessantly. A sultry Danish folk singer croons from the stereo. And it looks like the sun is about to come out.

The best part of the Laundromat Café (probably a novel name in Danish) is what gives it its title: the tiny red-walled room at the back which houses a row of modern washing machines and a couple of gleaming steel dryers. Coming from Malmö, I’m in heaven.
Malmö has no laundromats, no public washing facilities, and no substitutes in the hostels, ya see. In an unrelated coincidence, I arrived in town with no clean clothes. Every residence in Malmö, I’m told, has its own machines in the basement, so there’s simply no call for a Laundromat. I can go to a dry cleaners, the hostel owner hopefully suggests. Yeah. I’ll be getting my underwear chemically cleaned and steam-pressed, because my name is Jean Claude Van Damme and my unmentionables are worth more than pressed gold and I’m incognito for a film here in Sweden based on the true story of an expensive underwear-wearing cyclist who battled his demons while doing the splits on a cheap rented bike. That’s why I’m here at your hostel. I hear it has splits-friendly facilities. Oh, and a pool table.
The Malmö clothes-cleaning crisis was a blow, and last night I was out wearing a crumpled, unironed shirt which I found near the bottom of my bag, and a pair of jeans and a jacket which I literally doused in aftershave before daring to brave the streets. Maybe this contributed to my minor malaise; dirty, running on an average of 3 hours sleep since arriving in Europe, and feeling like a bedraggled stranger in a strange land. Now I’m rested, washed and cheerful. God bless Copenhagen. God bless the Laundromat Café.

Well, you’re back. Now, where did I leave you? Ah yes, Copenhagen. The city has only gotten better. While my time in Malmö was defined by solitude, the opposite has been the case in Copenhagen. In my first 24 hours, I met dozens of people – people who’d approached me, stopped me, dragged me onto a dancefloor or into a bar. Nice change, this.

Meet The Bike. It might not look like much, and that’s because it isn’t much. In fact, since it was the Cheapest Bike in Copenhagen, I don’t think I’m out of line in dubbing it the Worst Bike in Copenhagen. Still, I’m sure we’ll have lots of odd-couple adventures, knocking over apple carts and being chased by fist-waving cheese vendors.

In case I haven’t mentioned it yet, I bought the bike so I could ride down the length of Denmark to the Southern coast, where I’ll jump on a ferry to Germany. Why not, I say. And to add to this completely frivolous decision to camp out in a one-man tent while here, and I just know what you’re thinking: Oh Boy! He’s going insane again.
But that was later. Dalby. We'll get there.

Shortly after I’d done my laundry I saddled up the bike and headed for the camping ground. At this point, the heavens opened up and I stayed drenched for the next six or seven hours. Pitching a tent in driving rain is nasty business, especially if you’re trying to shield two bags from the elements. It’s even worse if you have no idea how to construct the thing.
Luckily, as I stood huddled in a tiny alcove (a remnant of the 1880s fort the site is built upon) and pondered my problem, a Danish man walking past offered to keep my bags in his large tent while I set up. I took up the offer and he introduced himself as Stig, while his ‘travelling companion’, a firm-looking youger guy from Poland, served up steaming coffee from a thermos. When the rain let up a little, we turned to the task of tent-up-putting, though the other guys were as baffled as I was when came to the assembly process. An hour or so later, it was mostly up. A bit saggy, and filled with water, but workable.

I badly needed warmth, civilisation and a drink after the horror, so I thanked my new friends and headed back into town.
It wasn’t long before I met Darko. I was sitting alone at a bar when he approached me and told me he was happy for me to join him and his friends. I’d noticed them on the way in; a noisy, motley lot, mostly young and attractive and energetic. I should have guessed that they were a hospitality crowd; the staff of the bar itself, in fact, sending off one of their own in a typically rowdy fashion. Ethan was an Australian and after eight months here was off to Melbourne again. The others were mostly Danish, with exceptions.
Exceptions like Darko. At 38, he was older, and hailed from Montenegro. He was unnervingly vivacious, with a booming voice and animated features. He’d clap a bear-like hand on your shoulder to emphasise a point, then bounce back in his seat laughing wildly. He didn’t work at the bar, but I could tell he made friends wherever he went. I guessed I was one now, too.
When the bar closed, we were shuttled around the corner, a solid mass guided by unknown forces. We found ourselves in Rust, where Darko managed to fast-talk us past the long and unmoving queue. Inside, the crowd was big and beautiful. Copenhagen knows how to party. But if the daytime Danish are friendly, it’s amplified after a few drinks. More than once I’d feel a tug on my sleeve or a call from a nearby booth as a local struck up a conversation with me. Confronted with a reel of Danish, I’d have to respond with an I-don’t-speak-Danish apology. And just off the boat (or train) my first reply was an I-don’t-speak-Swedish, which was fine since the woman I was talking to didn’t either. But it’s unsettling to feel welcome when you’re travelling blind. Enjoyably so.
It’s probably not right to characterise the city as an especially open and friendly one. The people don’t seem that different to those I encountered in Malmö. There are just as many curt workers, and couples in cafes who’ll politely answer questions but won’t welcome you into their homes. I don’t think Copenhagen is necessarily the most amicable place around, but it sets up the conditions for friendliness. People don’t drive as much; they glide around on bicycles, which are a far more sociable form of transport. Diners and streetside café tables line the roads and laneways. There are spaces to encounter someone everywhere you turn (I’m talking about the areas just outside of the city centre, at least – the centre seems colder). In Copenhagen, it’s just possible that you can go out for a quiet drink on your first night in town, and go stumbling back to your bed as the dawn begins to sweep across the sky.
Though in my case, that bed was a tent still filled with water. Not the best end to a night, but an end, nonetheless.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Odd Stranger (pt 4)

Did you ever have that thing at school where you accidentally called the teacher "mum"? All the other kids laugh and it's embarrassing. It's way worse when you call someone else "mum" though. Like that police officer. Or the magistrate. Or your cellmate, Frankie. I usually find the best way out of these is the tragic route: pause, and follow up with "I never knew my real mother". Don't say that to your real mother, though.

I don’t think I ever knew the real Malmö, Frankie. Malmö isn’t a city that rewards the lonely. Some places do. Paris is the city of lurve, but the flipside of this is that being lonely becomes an integral aspect of any visit to the place. We can never measure up to the romance of Paris, and the city is wonderfully, gorgeously deliberate about this disappointment. Berlin subsumes loneliness, making us aware of the smallness of our suffering and the inconsequential nature of a brief moment without friends or loved ones, before cheering us up with all the other things invented to stave off despair.
Malmö does none of these. If anything, it reminds me of London on a miniscule scale. It offers polite indifference to my miserable solitude. It recognises me with a clenched-teeth smile. I don’t think I should have come here alone. Sure, it’s a pretty city, and its inhabitants are obscenely beautiful in a way that I, as an Australian, can’t begin to comprehend. And its name obviously throws a bone to all those hardcore umlaut fans. I’ve often thought Melbourne’s loss of “most liveable city” status was largely due to its lack of umlaut action. But all of Malmö’s loveliness only makes things worse.

I did have my photo taken for a Swedish magazine. Being forced to recite the labels of the clothes I was wearing was a humbling experience, mainly because I had to check each label as we went along. The journos were lovely kids, though.

The most meaningful human contact I have here is with an old man at a table outside a nondescript pub. I’ve hit a minor crisis point, having covered much of the city on foot and not finding a toehold anywhere. I’ve exhausted my mental resources trying to find a way into the city, and been saddened to discover that all said mental resources could come up with is the purchase of this miserable dessert pizza slathered in cream and Spanish onion. The look on the face of this woman says it all.

Good times, good times. So I just stop, and sit down at an outside table. The old man at the next one along says something to me in a good-natured way and I gesture to him my lack of Swedish (I can’t describe this gesture, but it’s kind of like the “no speaka English” shrug which was rightfully banished from the Australian comic repertoire around 1991). He idles over and asks where I’m from. He knows Australia; this I gather from his battered English. His friend’s brother’s girlfriend lives there. In a big city, like Stockholm.
He’s a nice guy, in a sodden, standoffish way. Even the drunks here, it seems, are defined by a politely distant formality. It’s not the distance I saw in others who stopped to chat with the guy – they offered the tight-lipped curt blokeiness I recognise from home, the carefully macho pose outlined with quick nods and regular silences which reminds the listener that the conversation isn’t too close, and can be terminated at any time. Old drunks are often granted familiarity, comrade-status, but are rarely allowed to think they’re anyone’s friend. I guess I shouldn’t characterise him as an old drunk. I have no idea of his age.
When I begin to inquire about this man’s story, he tells me that his father’s brother is the richest man in the world, and that I must have heard of him. I nod, though the name he gives me is nothing like Bill Gates or the Sultan of Brunei or whoever’s pouting from the cover of Forbes these days. I ask if my new drinking partner is from Malmö and he shakes his head before informing me that his mother’s mother is Astrid Lindgren. This is a name that I do know, and will get to know better in the next half hour. He tells me a lot about Astrid. How her novels such as Pippi Longstocking (or Pippi Långstrump, as she’s known here) were the greatest fantasies the world has ever known; of her time as a teacher in the DDR; of the award she received in those years in Moscow; how she was never a socialist and how no one knew her age when she died in 2002 (if she really died, he cryptically adds). This is interesting, but every time I try to steer the conversation back to his own life, I’m met with a blank stare, even a jolt. Each time, he bounces back with more details of Astrid’s life, non sequiturs all.

Something smells fishy here, and I ain’t talking about Astrid’s recipe for Gravlax Surprise (note: gravlax is literally translated as “entombed salmon.” For what it’s worth). I have no idea if he was really related to her or if he just knew a lot about her. What did hit me, though, and leave me with a terrible ache, was the way he seemed to be filling some void with these stories, unwilling to talk of his own life, only throwing random facts of another person’s history forward at whomever would listen. And the pain came not from pity, but recognition, since this is a lot of what I do for a living. I don’t know anything about the guy, really, but I imagine him staving off a monstrous loneliness in Malmö by trying to create some kind of narrative which will give him a place within it. And all he is met with by all is indifference.

Hey Frankie, did you ever watch Battle of the Planets when you was a kid? Now that was a good show. Every time that came on I’d go abso-freakin’-apeshit (on the inside). But what really got me, years later, is finding out the truth about the cartoon. It turns out that it was an American edit of a Japanese show called Kagaku ninja tai Gatchaman. Not just an edit, really: the US version took the footage and remixed it to create an entirely different story, more suitable for Western audiences. The whole “planets” deal, for starters. The original didn’t feature any space travel, for instance, which is why BotP featured excursions to strange remote worlds which looked suspiciously like Earth. More bizarrely, the character of Keyop, known for his creepy Tourettes-style verbal tics and nonsensical vocal eruptions, was completely different to the original, in which he made total (if sometimes profane) sense. And of course there’s arch-nemesis Zoltar: in Gatchaman the villain was a hermaphrodite, but in the US the character became two completely different villains, so as not to confuse the poor kiddies or their bible-belted parents.

Where was I going with this? Oh yeah. It’s just that sometimes I think that writing about yourself is like watching an episode of this show. The amount of editing that goes on, and the fact that you’re second-guessing your audience, well, you’ve walked a mile in your own shoes and there’s no way you want to foist those stinky old goobers onto someone else. So you pretty it up, make with the funny and possibly add interstellar travel as a major structural component, even if it doesn’t quite add up. You might be depressed in Malmö, but nobody wants to hear about that, so you splice some Astrid Lindgren into your footage and try to cover up the seams.

Dang, he’s gone off to sleep right when I was gettin’ to the good bit. That ain’t like Frankie.

So, obviously, it’s really me I’m writing about here. And of course, it probably helps when Lindgren Jr. does find the odd stranger willing to listen to his story for a little while, so thank you too, reader.
Hey, did I mention how ridiculously good-looking everyone is here?