Sunday, October 14, 2007

MIAF 1: Does Wilson Matter?

And so it begins.


Opening night of MIAF 2008 had me hunkering down for Robert Wilson and Bernice Johnson Reagon's The Temptation of St Anthony, which impressed me every bit as much as Wilson's contribution to last year's festival, I La Galigo.

(ie... not very much).

It was a bit embarrassing to be sitting in the very lovely festival Artists Bar last night next to a large group of obviously theatre-literate and intelligent young folks laughing about the show with the sort of derision you normally hear in "my kid could paint that!" art appreciation. Normally I'd be thinking "well, maybe you just missed something in the piece" or simply "it just didn't speak to you" but I couldn't help but agree with these kids. Temptation felt like a puffed-up, fancily-panted bit of not-a-lot. The cheery complainants were quoting lines from the libretto with mirth - "does matter matter? What is the function of form?" And while these are good questions for any artist to put to their audience, it felt like a year 7 philosophy class in which a bored teacher named Bobby Wilson threw those questions to the audience then left the room for a smoke break with a "discuss!" flung over his shoulder. And, leaving, left his charges with no reason or manner in which to tackle that heavy stuff.

The biggest problem with Wilson's show is Wilson. In every other aspect, the show is great - a huge cast of African-American singers deliver great performances of some great music, but Wilson takes the dynamism and elasticity of these performances and shoehorns them into his typically pomo staging. I had the same feeling during last year's show - after years of pleading the defence to students, I'm finally beginning to understand Fredric Jameson's argument about the depthlessness of high postmodern art. Wilson's work is so carefully self-conscious that it strips away historicity, context and authenticity. Normally I'm all for that, but in the case of I La Galigo, where he adapted Indonesian music theatre styles to produce a three hour epic, it felt like he had plundered this incredibly rich source and turned it into an empty spectacle. It felt about as Indonesian as a Mc-Gado Gado Special at McDonalds.

Take the Slow Walk thing. I hate it when works like Temptation have performers moving to their next arbitrary spot on the stage with that damn measured, meditative, almost Butoh-like stepping style. I know it's probably meant to draw attention to the economy of gesture, or a Kleist-ian sense of the performer's physical gravity, or of the negative space of movement, but Robert, you were drawing attention to that stuff before I was born. I geddit.

Now, I'm not arguing against Wilson's wonderfully important contribution to the modern stage, especially through all this postmodern stuff - and lord knows I love me postmodern stuff. But why marry pomo minimalism to - and I quote from the program - "the history of African-American music and culture"? I didn't see a shred of history in the piece, and it seemed that any possible connection to that history was deliberately severed.

I'm being harder on the thing than it really warrants. But as another patron said at the opening night party, The Temptation of St Anthony would make a great concert.


That's more like it! Good on ya, Shaun Parker, about whom I know exactly nothing.

When I asked a colleague their thoughts after last night's showing, she thought for a moment and came back with: "It was very... busy."

Which is just how I like it. There's so much going on in this piece - visually, thematically, aurally - that you often miss things. It's hard to be bored. You're always working, but there's such a great sense of play that you don't feel you're being punished or anything.

It's set in a kitschy, ambiguously defined space that could be a bus-stop waiting room, a hospital foyer, an underground bunker or an antechamber to the afterlife. A very strange collection of people are sitting around - a Hawaiian-shirted lout with a boombox, a nervous-looking secretary sort, a bearded hippie type and a few others. Things start getting weird very quickly. Hippie type pulls partially naked people from a vending machine, a nerdy fellow begins singing in an early music kinda of soprano, people split into two, and of course, being ostensibly a dance piece, there's plenty of dancing. Most of it is informed by breakdance styles with plenty of flips, unsupported headstands and even some popping an' locking. The infrequent dialogue isn't the show's strongest point, but it does make clear that the show is about the ways people make sense of their world, through philosophy, religion, violence and so on. There's also a strong motif of control, people often manipulating each other in innovative ways.

It's a pretty short show, and it finishes tomorrow, so get on down and grab yourself a seat. Like Temptation, what you get from This Show will largely depend on you - it's just that Parker gives you so much more to work with.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Have you seen Kosky's "Tell-Tale Heart", Daniel Kitson's "c-90", or the Sound Art Limo?