Monday, October 20, 2008

Melbourne International Arts Festival (2)


I was at the hairdresser the other day demanding the restoration of my coiff's practiced disarray (as opposed to the actual, lazy disarray which has now returned) and was part of an fascinating exchange between my hair guy and his 17-year-old assistant. Said assistant was raving on about Guitar Hero, the console game where you play a plastic guitar and try to replicate the playing of classic rock or pop or metal or whatever. It’s incredibly hard.

Hair Guy: All that effort - why don't you just learn the guitar?
Assistant: Because you can't win points playing a normal guitar. And you can't beat people online with a normal guitar.

Wha? I felt old. Still, it had me thinking – music as point-scoring competition seems strange, but isn’t the real point she was making about how Guitar Hero is a social activity? A game whose relevance is between its players, not located in any one of them?

It also had me thinking about the collision of art forms/media: music and TV and computer games and the internet. Which leads us to El Automovil Gris.

I was transfixed for the 90 minutes of this show, often laughing out loud. Quite a few people around me were having nanna naps. It’s not for everyone.

The Mexican group Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes have made a mash-up of a Mexican silent film from 1919, modern digital technology, the antiquated Japanese art of the Benshi and contemporary live performance. Benshi were performers who gave live audio accompaniment to silent films in late Meiji/early Taisho Japan, giving voice to characters, adding narration, and sometimes wandering off into original interpretive regions (singing songs, reciting poems etc).

Here, the original film gets proper treatment from the only remaining Benshi in Japan, who initially speaks in Japanese. I couldn’t understand her but the textures of the voices she used were just great, giving the sense of what was going on on-screen. They were also often hilarious, ridiculous in the way that modern anime voices frequently are.

Eventually things broadened – more performers, subtitles which increasingly went off-track, dance or song routines, the narration and subtitling bringing in opera, absurd comedy, nonsense languages, animal noises. I found it brilliant, but then silent film is something I’ve been trained to appreciate, and it can be pretty tough going. I see it like dance in a way – you need to switch yourself into a different mode of viewing. Anyway, two thumbs up from me.


I wish I’d seen Tim Crouch’s ENGLAND before his an oak tree. I enjoyed it a lot more – the second half at least. There are some common elements to both.

Crouch sure likes to smile. If there were smiling competitions somewhere in the world (there probably are) he’d be like the Michael Phelps of grinning. Depending on your mood, he can come across as expansive and welcoming or really, really smarmy. That worked fine for an oak tree since he was playing a shabby pub hypnotist, but I found it grating here.

In ENGLAND Crouch and collaborator Hannah Ringham play two art gallery guides, leading us around the Ian Potter NGV and occasionally referring to the space and the art but not that much. The piece is more concerned with delivering a non-linear narrative about a person with a bad heart and a boyfriend. Crouch and Ringham both play this person, delivering an overlapping monologue that does a good job of fracturing the character’s identity (one character, two performers) but doesn’t really have much to do with the environment. The boyfriend (we hear a LOT about him) is an art dealer. Crouch and Ringham say “LOOK!” repeatedly, since that’s the title of the exhibition we’re in and presumably a gesture towards making the piece site-specific. I suppose it’s also meant to have extra levels of meaning – pointing out how we look without really seeing the truth of others – but I’d love to see how the show would have worked in a past exhibition such as “Spirit of Football”.

The second half of the thing takes us to a different space and time – a year later – where the narrator now confronts the wife of the man who saved his life. It’s a waaaay richer sequence, which amps up the drama unexpectedly. It also made me wish the first half was that strong. It’s also when people stop smiling, which is nice. I don’t know where the hell The Boyfriend went, though.

ENGLAND is really about the notion of transplantation - medical transplants, cultural transplants, the transplantation of art and history and cultures. My experience of transplants as a theme has largely been confined to movies where some innocent gets lumped with the hands of a murderer or the heart of a baboon or something, which rarely qualifies as high art. I'm still hankering to see a film about the guy who gets hair-plugs and starts having visions of stables and groomers and an insatiable desire for oats. Everyone starts admiring his flanks and he develops a fetish for dragging people around the city in a cart and defecating on Swanston St. Eventually he discovers that his new rug came from a destroyed horse named Pinkles and he has to bust open the animal abuse case that led to Pinkle's death before the horse's spirit can move on. I'd probably call it The Mane Man or Mounting Tension or My Rug Was Once A Horse or something equally catchy.

As is, though, ENGLAND isn’t that catchy until it’s halfway done. It’s almost a spoken-word piece, and could work just as well as a radio play. The themes are interesting, the performances a bit static. Like I say, I found the second half pretty thought-provoking, but it takes a while to get anywhere that you especially care to be. Ultimately, the piece suggests the uselessness of art in a very impactful way but that’s one of the most dangerous themes for an artist to play with. In effect, it highlights the uselessness of the first half of the piece. So, yeah, ok.


What a sensational experience – this is the sort of dance that goes straight past the analytical, verbal parts of your brain to tickle the primal lizardy bits hanging around from the (really) olden days. Watching it, I felt a bit like the apes at the start of 2001, confronted by this alien, sublime THING that would evolve me if I got too close.

Not evolve like this (thanks Defamer):

Which is beautiful and cruel. More like this:

Helen Herbertson and Ben Cobham have made one of those rare dance works that words simply can’t do justice to. Any description will reduce the piece. It’s a wonderful synergy of design and choreography that emphasises different experiences of time and the moment, both meticulously planned and utterly open to spontaneity. That’s all I’ll say.


Lucy Guerin’s works often have “communication” as an explicit or implicit theme, but her choreography isn’t dialectical in the way that, say, Two Faced Bastard was. It’s not about finding the conflict between two opposing forces and exploring that tension to reach a third space (the Full Stage of Two Faced). It’s more about physical possibility as its own end, with ideas like communication simply the spur to these movements.

I don’t think Corridor should be read for what it ‘says’, then, simply what it does. There’s some fantastic movement here, and an intriguing through-line which explores how movement itself moves between bodies. The six dancers are given commands in a variety of ways – spoken commands through mp3 players, whispered to one another, through microphones, written on walls etc.

The whole thing takes place on a long strip, with audience seated one row deep on either side. It’s akin to a tennis match, as you continually swivel to follow dancers in either direction. In a fantastic early sequence the preformers “pass” movements, where each copies another dancer’s motions in a kind of daisy-chain or Chinese whispers way. The difference between each dancer’s form becomes an act of translation, in which something is both lost and gained as the same choreography echoes through six very different figures. I didn’t at first realise that people at either end were aping one another, though, since it was impossible to see both at once. There was a lot of this in the show – slowly realising exactly what was occurring, obfuscated by the limitations of your own perception.

1 comment:

Chris Boyd said...

Mounting Tension... wasn't that the name of Sherpa who climbed Everest?

"Mane Man" -- you're a cracker!