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Circus, Music, Musical theatre, News, Opera, Performing arts, Theatre

First peek at 2019 Perth Festival

Perth Festival has given us a tantalising glimpse of its 2019 programme, revealing four of the works on the line-up.

Returning to open the Festival will be Boorna Waanginy: The Trees Speak, a nocturnal wonderland that will, once again, light up Kings Park over four nights. This free, outdoor event is a celebration of Noongar culture and the beauty and biodiversity of the South West of WA, that sees audiences take a kaleidoscopic walk through projections, animation, sound and lighting effect along Fraser Avenue and deep into Kings Park.’

Balls of light in a park at night
‘Boorna Waanginy’. Photo: Toni Wilkinson.

That weekend will also see two international shows, both Australian exclusives, open in Perth. The first, Lang Toi, by Nouveau Cirque de Vietnam, is a daring display of acrobatics, physical theatre, live traditional music and playful bamboo constructions, that transports the audience into the heart of a Vietnamese village.

an acrobat standing on one hand
A scene from ‘Lang Toi’. Photo: Nguyen Duc Minh.

The second work, The Great Tamer, sees Greece’s Dimitris Papaioannou explore the mysteries of life, death and the beauty of humanity with enigmatic, dreamlike scenes and visual riddles. Using ten performers and a shape-shifting floor that undulates to Johann Strauss’s “Blue Danube”, Papaioannou’s magical stagecraft brings to life a series of inventive live paintings.

Last – for now – but not least, flying elephants, gaudy 1920s flappers, comic-book villains, gigantic spiders, butterflies and wolves run rampant as performers interact with animated characters in Barrie Kosky’s exhilarating production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, presented by Kosky’s Komische Oper Berlin, British theatre group 1927 in association with West Australian Opera and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra.

The full 2019 Perth Festival program will be announced 1 November 2018.

Pictured top is a scene from Komische Oper Berlin’s “The Magic Flute”.

A man throwing seeds over his head
A scene from ‘The Great Tamer’. Photo: Julian Mommert.
Iain Grandage
Features, Music, News, Performing arts

In the spotlight: Iain Grandage

The appointment of Iain Grandage as artistic director of Perth Festival for 2020-2023 received a highly enthusiastic communal thumbs-up when it was announced earlier this year. Grandage will be speaking at the Blue Room Theatre, Saturday 4 August, but Nina Levy decided to sneak in a pre-show chat.

When acclaimed composer Iain Grandage was announced as Perth Festival’s artistic director for 2020-2023, back in May, there was a palpable buzz of excitement in the WA arts community. It was immediately clear that people feel a sense of connection with Grandage. While this communal stamp of approval can be attributed, in part, to the fact that he’s a local (raised and trained in Perth), I believe there’s more to it than that. Grandage has composed and played across numerous art-forms – opera, theatre, dance – with the result that he has the affections of an unusually broad range of arts-enthusiasts. He has won numerous awards for his work as a composer and music director, including an impressive seven Helpmanns for his compositions for theatre (Cloudstreet, The Secret River), for dance (When Time Stops), for opera (The Rabbits with Kate Miller-Heidke), for film (Satan Jawa, with Rahayu Suppangah) and as a music director for Meow Meow’s Little Match Girl and The Secret River.

Grandage composed the score for Company B and Black Swan State Theatre Company’s production of ‘Cloudstreet’, pictured here at the 1998 Perth International Arts Festival (now Perth Festival). Photo: Heidrun Lohr.

Personally, I first came across Grandage’s work back in 2006, at the Perth International Arts Festival (now Perth Festival). He had composed the scores for two dance theatre works presented at the Festival that year, Steamworks Arts’s The Drover’s Wives and Splinter Group’s Lawn. Rich soundscapes packed with drama, both scores seemed, to me, inseparable from the action, inextricably linked to the movement on stage.

Twelve years later, then, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to talk to Grandage and find out about the process behind such compositions. When he picked up my interview call with a short song of greeting, my happiness was complete, in the manner of a teenager who has just acquired the autograph of her favourite pop star. Suffice to say Grandage is a delightful mix of creativity and general niceness.

Originally from Brisbane, Grandage moved to Perth with his family in the mid-1970s and began his formal music training shortly after, starting piano lessons at age seven and cello at ten.  Although he gave up piano at 13, he continued to play the instrument for pleasure. “I’d go to the music library and get books and books of pop songs, lots of stuff from the ’20s and ’30s… I don’t know why, I was really drawn to it,” he reminisces. “My dad’s dad was a linguist but also, as many people were back then, a composer. Because there were pianos in so many rooms, there was that great flowering of popular music that happened between the wars. So my grandfather, who my dad never even knew (he died when my dad was three months old), is a published composer. I often heard my dad play that piece and was drawn to music of that period.

While Grandage initially dreamed of playing in a piano bar, on acquiring such a job, at age 18, he discovered that it was “one of the loneliest things you can ever do in your entire life.” By comparison, he found the cello much more sociable. “Once I started the cello, within a year I was in the junior orchestras of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra,” he remembers. “That became [the source of] my closest friendships and so much of my social life revolved around holiday music camps and Saturday morning music-making. At that time Richard Gill was here, running the music part of WAAPA (the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts) and he also started a thing called Junior Exhibitioner Course, on a Friday afternoon. That was a collection 30 of us who did aural training, choir, performance practice and stylistic composition. It was revelatory for me. So that was my Friday afternoons and Saturday morning was orchestra. Very quickly, music was a large part of my social and extra-curricular life.”

Iain Grandage
Iain Grandage. Photo Pia Johnson.

Despite this, Grandage wasn’t planning to become a professional musician when he finished school. “I went to UWA because I wanted to be a lawyer, actually,” he tells me. “In those days you had to do a year of another degree before you went into law. I did music for that first year. For many years I had a great sadness that the university, at that stage, didn’t offer a music/law degree. They since have and I think I would have grabbed that with both hands because I love words, I love the power of words.”

What changed his mind?

There were two factors, he replies. “Firstly, I had a brilliant time in the music department at UWA. I fell in love with the fact that that music wasn’t just on the weekends, that you could do it day in and day out.

“Secondly, I read Albert Camus’ L’Étranger (The Stranger), in French literature class, and that was about a lawyer who failed his clients. I now know I was ill-informed but I saw that law wasn’t always utilised for good and that confused me. I thought that was all law. Now I see all the avenues by which law is an incredible tool for helping society. You see it standing up to Trump, to Farage, closer to home, to Dutton and various elements. I’m a huge supporter of the power of the judiciary. That’s a tangent, isn’t it? But, fundamentally, it was an affirmative choice towards music rather than a negative one away from law. It was more ‘I can’t help but continue doing this.’”

Fundamentally it was an affirmative choice towards music rather than a negative one away from law. It was more ‘I can’t help but continue doing this.’”

Grandage admits that during his 20s he had moments of questioning that choice, when struggling creatively or financially. Ultimately, though, he says he has no regrets, perhaps because of the eclectic nature of his career path. “I chose to move out of being purely a cellist and into other performing arts, writing music for theatre, and from there into dance, and from there into graphical music, and from there into opera,” he elaborates. “Each of those informs the other and you don’t need to get too stymied by one of them or too dulled by your experience with one of them, because the next is helping to change things up.”

Grandage made that move away from being a “straight” cellist and into other art forms relatively early in his career. “In 1995 I auditioned to be an actor in a Black Swan show, a piano accordian player in Louis Nowra’s Cosi. That was the first time I met [Black Swan director] Andrew Ross and we really hit it off. He’s a glorious human who has a wicked sense of humour and an immense brain, and intrigue about what is possible in storytelling in the arts. I said to him, ‘I’m a particularly shit actor,’ but despite that he still cast me.”

In fact, he told Ross, his real interest was composing music for shows, a confidence that paid off. “I did most music for most Black Swan shows from 1995-2000 and that was a great training ground,” he says. “In the midst of that, in 1997, Black Swan put me forward to do the music for Cloudstreet, the theatre production, with Australia’s finest director, Neil Armfield. At that stage, as a 26-year-old, I wouldn’t have had a look in, in terms of getting to work with him, except that it was a co-production between [Sydney-based] Company B Belvoir, which was Neil’s company, and Black Swan. So I got the entrée into the East coast theatre scene at the very top of the tree, which was a complete blessing.”

‘Perhaps my favourite dance experience was working with Gavin Webber and Grayson Millwood [Splinter Group] on a show they made called ‘Lawn’.’ Pictured at the 2006 Perth International Arts Festival.
As aforementioned, Grandage has composed across a range of art-form, and I’m interested to find out what it is about interdisciplinary collaboration that appeals to him. Once again, it comes back to the fact that Grandage is a social being.

“After I did those five years with theatre, I was slowly finding my compositional voice and a series of opportunities came up with West Australian Symphony Orchestra, and in various contexts, for me to be an art music composer, writing for symphony orchestras and choirs. It was essentially sitting in a room and delivering scores, in that old school traditional way of notating everything, then you deliver it, rehearse for two days and perform,” he explains. “The worst thing [about working in that context] was the fact that I like people. Fundamentally, it’s an incredibly isolated and isolating experience, creating music. It’s like being a painter or a sculptor or a novelist. It’s a solitary creative pursuit.”

Being an old school, traditional composer is like being a painter or a sculptor or a novelist. It’s a solitary creative pursuit.

Working across disciplines is different, he explains. “I enjoy the fact that, when writing for a collaborative medium like theatre, you can either improvise in the room and you know it’s right because you’re making it up as you go, and you can read the feeling in the room, but also, if you go home and write something, you can bring it in and go, well that doesn’t work, and you can change it instantly. The feedback is far more immediate. I find many brains are far more powerful than one.”

Being from a dance background myself, I’m particularly interested to learn more about the way Grandage works with choreographers. “Perhaps my favourite dance experience was working with Gavin Webber and Grayson Millwood [Splinter Group, now The Farm] on a show they made called Lawn,” he muses. “The theatre environment Webber and Millwood create, the meta staging, the mis en scene is so clear, that whether you’re talking about an external world filled with banalities or an internal world filled with emotional complexities, it makes a very clear distinction about what music to do when. In those internal worlds, we’d essentially both launch from same moment. I knew that the arc of their dance would be, [for example], between four and four and a half minutes. I would write an arc of four minutes that made complete musical sense, and that was consistently evolving and making an argument and coming down to a logical conclusion around four minutes and then going into a kind of a loop, so that if they’re having a ‘tired old man’ day, they’re safe, the music’s not going to finish. [Working] in this way gives you immense freedom as a composer because you can make an argument…that is, in and of itself, musically satisfying. You can then layer other things on top of that broad arc that then speak specifically to any particular movements that they’re doing.”

Natalie Weir, When Time Stops. Cr. Chris Herzfeld
‘For Natalie Weir’s ‘When Time Stops’, The Camerata of St John’s played live on stage and were just so fantastic and courageous in how they stood amongst fast-moving dancers and memorised huge slabs of the score.’ Photo: Chris Herzfeld.

“Then there are other scores, where I’m playing live. Another favourite score was for When Time Stops [by Natalie Weir, for Expressions Dance Company], with a much-loved band of fellow musicians from Queensland called the Camerata of St John’s. They played live on stage and were just so fantastic and courageous in how they stood amongst fast-moving dancers and memorised huge slabs of the score. It was such a thrill. That was an instance where I essentially wrote a score [and brought it to the choreographer] and for Natalie, who is a far more traditional choreographer, that worked very well.”

Essentially, says Grandage, the key factor in successful collaboration is that all artists have freedom of expression, but also clearly defined artistic aims. “When you’ve clearly discussed the [ground you want to explore] before you leap in, then you know that what you deliver is going to be on the same page. Those collaborative projects are a great joy.”

I love the idea of sewing these disparate lines together to make a festival that’s actually euphoric and filled with hope, and filled with a celebration of us in this place.

Grandage directed the Port Fairy Spring Music Festival from 2016-2018 and, listening to him talk about collaboration across art-forms, it’s easy to picture him in his upcoming role of Perth Festival artistic director, directing across disciplines. “I’m very attracted to the act of storytelling,” he agrees. “Something that occurred to me across my time running the Port Fairy Spring Music Festival is the fact that you can make statements about society and hopefully make a small change for people by presenting a whole series of works that talk to each other and are beyond the creative powers of any single artist. In curating that small festival and now with the chance to curate this big festival you can program people with bigger brains than your own, who have ways of the viewing some of the intractable problems that face us as a society, but also those things that celebrate the great shared moments of humanity in ways that you find unexpected and joyful and never would have thought of yourself. So you can make a bigger statement, and make more of a difference.

“It feels like a way of – just like when I am writing a piece of music – synthesising a whole pile of different lines together into a coherent whole. The whole idea of a conversation happening inside a piece of music is the same transaction as two large scale works of art being placed next to each other, having that same conversation. The way you stimulate an audience’s mind is the same, inside a festival program. You’re going, ‘See that… and now see this!’ It’s the same as having two vastly different musical voices sitting cheek by jowl inside a piece of music. I love the idea of sewing these disparate lines together to make a festival that’s actually euphoric and filled with hope, and filled with a celebration of us in this place. It’s a glorious part of world and I want to celebrate it with every fibre of my being.”

“Get to know Iain Grandage” at the Blue Room Theatre as part of “Winter Nights”, Sunday 4 August at 4pm.

Iain Grandage is pictured top. Photo: Rhys Woolf.

Iain Grandage
News, Performing arts, Visual arts

And the director is…

Perth Festival has announced the appointment of Iain Grandage as artistic director of Perth Festival 2020-2023, succeeding current director Wendy Martin whose final program will be the 2019 Festival.

It’s exciting news on many counts. Not only is Grandage an acclaimed collaborative artist and programmer, but he’s from WA.

A composer, Grandage’s Helpmann Award-winning back catalogue includes the scores for theatre productions Cloudstreet and The Secret River, dance production When Time Stops and opera The Rabbits (with Kate Miller-Heidke). He has also won Helpmann Awards for his work as musical director of Meow Meow’s Little Match Girl and The Secret River.

As a programmer, Grandage has curated the chamber music program for Adelaide Festival and been artistic director of the Port Fairy Spring Music Festival since 2016.

After a decade in Melbourne, Grandage recently returned to WA and is thrilled to lead an international arts festival in his home state. “Perth Festival inspired my journey into the performing arts when I first experienced it in the early 1990s,” he says. “I hope to similarly energise local artists and audiences by extending the Festival’s foundation mission as a Festival for all people.

“It’s a privilege to lead a Festival that has such a rich history, and to play a part in shaping its future on Noongar Boodja by presenting wondrous art made with intelligence and heart that places international artists cheek-by-jowl with locals.”

Seesaw will be catching up with Iain Grandage very soon… so stay tuned!

Pictured top: Iain Grandage. Photo: Pia Johnson.


Tank & the Bangas
Music, News, Pop, Reviews

With a bang

Perth Festival review: Lee Fields & the Expressions + Tank & the Bangas ·
Chevron Gardens, 4 March ·
Review by Tiffany Ha ·

The organisers of Perth Festival had a huge task planning the final show at Chevron Gardens. Not only was it the closing party of the international arts festival, but it signified the end of Perth’s summer festival season, following the conclusion of Fringe World last week. Could they fill the venue with their choice of artists? How would they give the punters a night to remember?

Contrary to programming norms, Lee Fields & the Expressions were first, despite their position as headline act. Fields, a veteran soul singer from North Carolina, USA, was welcomed on stage by his six-piece band, the Expressions. They kicked things off with the swaggering, brass-infused number, “I Still Got It”. Fields strode out, dressed in a fine black evening suit, grabbed the mic, and – quite simply – owned the stage. At 67 years of age his confidence and level of showmanship were the kind you don’t see in younger performers.

Lee Fields & the Expressions
Expert at engaging the crowd: Lee Field fronting the Expressions. Photo: Cam Campbell.

Fields and his band were experts at engaging the crowd, wholesome and cheesy like musicians and entertainers I’ve seen only in film clips from the sixties and seventies. They made us shout, sing, dance, and wave our arms in the air, rewarding our willingness with lashings of praise. They singled out different clusters of the audience: “these happy people right here – put your hands up!” and “those beautiful people, way back there, y’all got SOUL!”.

Fields, who is often nicknamed “Little JB” for his resemblance to the legendary James Brown, made the audience swoon with the richness and surprising warmth of his voice in slower, Hammond organ-drenched numbers like “Magnolia”, “Honey Dove” and “Paralyzed”. The whole audience was grooving and clapping on the backbeat in the more audacious “How I Like It” and “Don’t Walk”. True to their aptly-titled new album – “Special Night” – Lee Fields and the Expressions promised, delivered, and left us wanting more.

At this point I must admit I had little to no knowledge of any of these musicians before attending the show on Sunday. I once shared a video of Tank & the Bangas – their winning submission for NPR’s Tiny Desk contest in 2017 – but I otherwise had no idea what I’d signed up for.

It seemed no one else was prepared for the tumultuous musical rollercoaster that is Tank & the Bangas either. At least three people turned around to me, mouths agape, exclaiming “whaaaaat?!” during their first few songs. Though to call them “songs” is really underselling the whole experience. Lead vocalist Tarriona Ball (Tank) burst onto stage while the rest of the band (the Bangas) concocted a flurry of synth, drums, sax and bass against a backdrop of manic stage lighting. There was no epilepsy warning but there should have been. Tank led the troops with her impressive vocal ability, moving effortlessly between rambling Nicki Minaj-esque rap; soulful nineties R&B lyricism; sweet, heady, girly folk; impassioned ecclesiastical cries; thoughtful, measured verses of slam poetry – often without warning.

The New Orleans act is a fascinating slice of music coming out of that city today: rooted in jazz, wild and free-spirited, a celebration of community and diversity, a product of all the musical styles that have flourished there. But these relative new-comers to the music scene (they found their fame online) are not afraid to explore darker personal and political themes. The epic twelve-minute “You So Dumb”, which left the audience speechless, is a journey through romantic disappointment, self-rejection and grief. The touching, confessional “Rollercoaster” (about fear and self-doubt) is a mix of poetry and stunning vocalism backed by smooth, new-age slow jams.

By the end of the night, Tank & the Bangas had the audience jumping and fist pumping to the frenetic “Hey Hey Hey!” as they lead the final hurrah – blasting, banging, roaring and slapping with full exuberance. I understood then why they had been programmed as the final act.

Good move, Perth Festival.

Pictured top are Tank and the Bangas. Photo: Cam Campbell.

Installation, News, Reviews, Visual arts

Dancing or drowning

Perth Festival review: Repatriate by Latai Taumoepeau ·
Fremantle Arts Centre ·
Review by Jess Boyce ·

At the end of a hall I’m filed into a single line with the crowd as we move into a room to view Latai Taumoepeau’s Repatriate, displayed in a dark tunnel-like structure. It’s the opening night of Fremantle Art Centre’s Perth Festival programming, and Repatriate sits alongside the main event, Amy Sharrocks’ “The Museum of Water”.

When it’s my turn I move into the narrow tunnel, where I’m presented with five iPad screens, each depicting a different stage in a recording of the Australian-Tongan artist/dancer’s 90-minute durational performance. The rhythmic soundtrack accompanying the work is encompassing, yet muffled, and I feel as if I am submersed in water.

The claustrophobic installation mimics Taumoepeau’s situation. Contained into a Perspex tank no larger than a standard shower, she performs a Pacific Island dance as the tank fills with water around her. The dance is an amalgamation of choreography informed by multiple Pacific Island cultures, including her own Tongan heritage. Her wrists, ankles and waist are encircled by yellow floaties, playfully referencing the body adornments for which Islander dancers are known.

As the work progresses, the water level in the tank begins to rise, and Taumoepeau’s movement becomes laboured. Eventually reduced to a series of kicks and awkward gestures, her movement is not only affected by the water, but the floaties. These pull her body towards the surface, a hindrance rather than a help. Perhaps these ineffectual “aids” symbolise the limited resources that small island nations, such as Tonga, have to combat the effects of climate change (in comparison to the larger, more powerful nations that have caused the problems).

Eventually reduced to a series of kicks and awkward gestures, Taumoepeau’s movement is not only affected by the water, but the floaties.

As Taumoepeau is submerged, details of the dance are lost, a poignant metaphor for the loss of culture that will occur as sea levels rise around Pacific Island nations and residents are displaced from their homes and traditions.

According to the wall text, the small screens on which the work is displayed recall “souvenir postcards depicting Indigenous people as primitive stereotypes inhabiting island paradises”.  This format also allows for an intimate experience, an almost one-on-one viewing. Rather than displaying a lengthy screen work as a grand projection, as is common in galleries, this series of postcard-like glimpses into the work provides a sense of the entire 90 minute performance in a manner that is both efficient and engaging.

Repatriate is a powerful performance work, although it deserves a more prominent placement than its hall-end location. Latai Taumoepeau presents a compelling art work that draws attention to the impacts of climate change and rising sea levels not only on the Pacific Islands, but the world. The use of the artist’s own body to demonstrate this impact, paired with the intimate setting of the small screens and confined space is both humanising and commanding.

“Repatriate” is on display until 23 March. 


Second Woman
News, Performance art, Performing arts, Reviews, Theatre

Brave, intense, strange

Perth Festival review: The Second Woman by Nat Randall and Anna Breckon ·
Perth Institute of Contemporary Art, 3 March ·
Review by Varnya Bromilow ·

How many ways can you say the words: I love you?

In sarcasm; anger; desperation; with nonchalance; with love.

Nat Randall’s revelatory performance at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art was a study in the nuances of language and in epic theatre.  Randall began the show at 3pm on Saturday and performed the same, fairly short scene with 100 different men over a period of 24 hours.  24 hours!  Is she mad?  Maybe.  But wow, it was good.

The scene is inspired by a very similar one from the John Cassavete classic, Opening Night.  In her version, Randall is a woman alone in what appears to be a hotel room.  She is visited by a man (well, 100 men), her partner.  They exchange about ten minutes of sparse dialogue, parsing some of the details of their relationship.  They dance, they drink, the man leaves.  This short exchange was performed over and over and over, separated by intervals of ten minutes during which the packed audience could leave, chat, or stay.  Most chose to stay, many for an hour.  Some stoic souls stayed for the whole fraught adventure.

Randall is a Sydney-based performance artist and a core member of the collectives Hissy Fit and Team MESS.  She’s no stranger to Perth audiences, having performed most recently in last year’s Proximity Festival.  She performed The Second Woman in Hobart’s famed Dark Mofo last year and in the Next Wave Festival in 2016 for which the piece was created.

Randall is incredible to watch.  Taking her cues from each new sparring partner, she changes the tone of the same piece as easily as you or I might change underwear.  The first iteration I saw was bursting with humour – the audience breaking into laughs at every second line.  The second was heartfelt, intimate.  It felt like we shouldn’t be there, hanging on each word.  Another was a scene of fatigued sadness, of love gone old and stale.  In each scene of course, the dialogue was almost identical.  The dramatic tension of the work arises from the chemistry between the players, and the audience’s concern (or investment) in the welfare of Randall.  (When) will she falter?  When will she get to go the toilet?  Is she wearing special senior’s knickers?  (Answer: she has a 15 minute break every two hours)

The male players were chosen from a general call-out made through the Festival’s publicity channels.  They called for men of diverse ages and backgrounds with non-performers specifically encouraged to apply.  Of course, some of those who were featured were certainly actors, but many (most?) were not.  They were blokes who might otherwise be in the audience…in some cases wonderfully unwitting of the thrills of live performance.  In preparation, each was given a script with the barest of stage directions.  They knew where to move, what to say and do, but the open question was how.  And therein lies the power of the piece.  I love you.  I love youI love you.  It was genuinely surprisingly to see how ten minutes of dialogue could be interpreted in such radically different ways.  How a tone can change an outcome.

The set, designed by Future Method Studio is a thing of great beauty.  A boxed room, red and lushly lit with the fourth wall sheared off for our viewing pleasure.  It feels a little Lynchian, as does Randall in her red fitted frock and tragically blonde wig.  This room dominates only half the stage with the other half of PICA’s black box taken up with a large screen – each scene is filmed in real time by two camera operators who hover just outside the room.  Randall’s collaborator for this project is Anna Breckon, a film writer and director who is the co-creator of The Second Woman.  It’s Breckon directing the footage as it gets projected onto the adjacent screen, resulting in a very unusual cinematic experience that is almost as compelling as the live action happening next door.

Audience members came and went.  And the line to get in grew ever larger (though I’m betting there was no line at 3am).  I wanted to get in for a third viewing – but alas, by that time, word had well and truly spread and the line snaked outside PICA.  A small band of brave ones (mostly artists themselves as I understand it) stayed for the full experience.  I wish I had.

Brave, intense, strange.  These are a few of my favourite things.

Photo: Perth Festival

White Spirit
Dance, News, Performing arts, Reviews

On the outside, looking in

Perth Festival review: Ensemble Al Nabolsy & the Whirling Dervishes of Damascus White Spirit ·
His Majesty’s Theatre, 3 March ·
Review by Louisa Wales ·

It’s not every day that a well-heeled audience at Perth’s His Majesty’s Theatre gets itself into a clapping, rhythmic frenzy jamming with a bunch of Sufi musicians and whirling dervish dancers.

But when Perth Festival’s sold-out two night exclusive event White Spirit came to town last Friday and Saturday evenings, the rapture was catching.

The six musicians, three dancers (from Konya, Turkey) and Tunisian street artist Shoof created in their 80 minute set an utterly transporting and highly poetic portal into the mysterious and yearning world of the Sufi faith.  Combining songs of praise, Sufi poems and devotional invocations with the calligraphic live painting of Shoof and the vertigo-defying incessant spinning of the Whirling Dervishes, White Spirit was an exquisitely beautiful window onto a world both ancient and contemporary.

Hailing from Damascus in war-ravaged Syria, Ensemble Al Nabolsy – led by Noureddine Khourchid, the son of a Syrian Sufi sheik – evoked both a time and place, and a spiritual state, so far from that of the audience that at times it felt as though we were taking part in something quite voyeuristic.

The act of presenting Middle Eastern mysticism and spirituality as art and performance to viewers from the West led to some uncomfortable tensions in the experience.  Was the audience just “othering” the heck out of these people, exoticising their authentic religious beliefs and practices?  And why were the Sufi singers, dancers and artist presenting their practices and religious beliefs as a travelling show anyway?

Beneath the captivating, thrilling spectacle, it was all – in short – rather loaded.  And yet, by the end, White Spirit’s nominal exoticism and our consuming voyeurism were – albeit briefly – broken down as the audience summoned the artists back for a spontaneous encore, and then clapped themselves into an escalating frenzy of abandonment.

Then the lights went on and some in the audience looked a bit sheepish.  The realisation hit home that however sensually engaging this spectacle had just been – the mystical music, the trance-like dancing, the indecipherable exquisite white calligraphy painted by Shoof – we were still on the outside of the faith and mystical experience they were all evoking.

While acknowledging the indisputable beauty of both White Spirit’s components and its totality, the problematic nature of commodifying a spirituality and its devotion left this reviewer wondering if next year festival goers will be packing His Maj to the brim to hear Hillsong Church – and if we do, will we clap ourselves into a devotional frenzy then too?

Photo: Cyril Zannettacci


Dance, News, Performing arts, Reviews

We’re all animals

Perth Festival review: Damien Jalet & Kohei Nawa’s Vessel ·
State Theatre Centre, 2 March ·
Review by Varnya Bromilow ·

“It sounds like crickets,” a woman behind me whispered loudly.  “And frogs.”

There’s something delicious about making an audience wait.  In our restless age of instantaneous gratification, making an audience just sit there is a powerful (but surprisingly under-used) theatrical device.  No, you can’t look at your phone; no, you can’t talk; you’ve just got to wait.  Was the waiting a clue that we were in for a transformative experience?  Was it the theatre-makers attempting to prepare us?

Nothing really prepares you for this.

Imagine if David Lynch and Hieronymus Bosch got together and created a dance work.  I use the term dance loosely.  Vessel is a collaboration between Belgian choreographer Damien Jalet and Japanese artist Kohei Nawa.  If you extend the analogy I’m not sure who is Lynch and who is Bosch, but the product is as startling and compelling as you might imagine.  Employing a group of incredibly proficient Japanese dancers, as well as Australian Nicola Leahey and Greek dancer Aimilios Arapoglou, Vessel takes us on a journey into, as my companion aptly put it: “the primordial ooze.”

The seven dancers first appear melded together in three groupings.  Their heads are obscured by the contortions of their bodies, any humanizing feature is neatly tucked away.  The stage has been transformed into a pool filled with shallow water, the centrepiece of which is a white hillock.  Rippling through the water, the bodies slide, combine, grapple and intertwine.  We’re not quite sure what we’re watching, but because we’re human, we’re asking: are they naked?  Are those flesh-coloured knickers or is that his bottom?  Is that her elbow or a knee?  Is that breast or chest?

The water acts as a sucking anchor to this section of performance.  Only rarely is it sloshed around which gives the splash an extra sense of release when it finally happens.  Mostly, the action is tautly measured, tense with restraint.  As the bodies straddle and hold, evolving into a series of increasingly complex forms, the audience is transfixed.  This dance, if you can call it that, falls squarely into the realm of the super-weird but is as absorbing as it is strange.  The only respite from the intensity is a memorable phrase involving the seven bodies, knocking comically against each other – like Newton’s Cradle, one of those shiny desktop doo-dads popular in the 1980s.  It’s beautifully executed and provides a rare moment of hilarity.

Dripped over dancer’s bodies, the ‘adhesive’ creates a series of thick, milky waterfalls, cascading into a pool atop the hillock in the centre of the stage.

Writhing in the water, the headless bodies create grotesque forms reminiscent of the Japanese art of Butoh.  Butoh arose as a reaction to the dominance of Western culture in post WWII Japan and was renowned for tackling topics considered taboo in 1950s Japan.  The characteristic white body paint and grotesque poses both feature prominently in Vessel so it was not surprising to see that one of the dancers – Nobuyoshi Asai – is considered a modern master of the artform.  Butoh is considered by many to be a reaction to the atomic bombings of Japan, as well as Western dominance and the incorporation of these elements feels just as provocative here.

Rather than using the traditional white paint, sculptor Nawa created an adhesive for this performance that behaves as a solid when you touch it but then melts when you stop moving.  (My kids make this at home and call it “cornstarch goo”)  Dripped over dancers’ bodies, it creates a series of thick, milky waterfalls, cascading into a pool atop the hillock in the centre of the stage.

Accompanying all this is a spare, sinister soundtrack by Japanese composer Marihiko Hara featuring the famed Ryuichi Sakamoto.  The music swells and recedes, tidal-like as we witness the creation of yet another form.  Imagined insects; vulva-like folds; unfamiliar sea-creatures; evolution in flow.

Masterful and wonderfully weird.  We filed out of the theatre, spent.

‘Vessel’ plays Perth Festival until March 4.

Photos: Courtesy of Perth Festival.


Perfume Genius
Music, News, Performing arts, Pop, Reviews

A fitting farewell to summer

Perth Festival review: Perfume Genius and Mama Kin Spender: Perth Festival ·
Wednesday 28 February, 2018 Chevron Gardens ·
Review by Tiffany Ha ·

It was the last eve of February; I probably should have brought a cardigan. On the main stage of the Chevron Gardens stood Mama Kin Spender and the WAAPA Gospel Choir (dazzling in golden robes), ready to deliver a rockin’ send off to summer.

Mama Kin Spender
Infectious stripped-down alt-rock tunes and their luscious harmonies: Mama Kin on lead vocals and percussion, with Mama Kin Spender. Photo: Cam Campbell.

Mama Kin Spender is the musical project of three long-time friends – Fremantle’s Mama Kin (Danielle Caruana) on lead vocals and percussion with Melbourne-based musos Tommy Spender on guitar and vocals and Virginia Bott as choir director and arranger. The on-stage chemistry between these three was delicious – so genuine, alive and heart-warming. You could easily imagine all the jokes, the unspoken truces, and the late-night shenanigans that fuel their collaborations. These friends simply get each other – whether it’s knowing first-hand the subject matter of a bluesy confessional dirge, or flashing cheeky grins at one another during a rock ‘n’ roll number about “wanting to climb someone like a tree”.

The WAAPA Gospel Choir added impressive depth to the show. The two musical groups formed such a remarkable symbiosis in the short time they were together (only two days of rehearsal and sixty minutes on stage!) that it felt almost magical. They had the crowd swaying with their infectious stripped-down alt-rock tunes and their luscious harmonies, evoking PJ Harvey and The Dirty Projectors. The choir had their time in the spotlight too, performing a glorious rendition of “Lily In The Valley”, which Mama Kin liked so much that it made her “clench [her] butt cheeks”.

If the opening act was the sun rising over Chevron Gardens – bright and joyous with arms outstretched to the world – then Perfume Genius (Mike Hadreas plus band) was the fitting spectacular (WA-style) sunset. What better way to farewell a season of endless balmy night-time entertainment than with Hadreas’ signature stage persona? His voice is powerfully vulnerable and he has a hypnotic, seductive way of twisting and moving around on stage.

Hadreas and his band opened with ‘Otherside’, the first track off their latest album, No Shape. The delicate piano arpeggiation and quiet crooning lulled us into a false sense of calm, before our nervous systems were jolted to life by a thunderous explosion of drums, synth, and distorted guitar – accented by brightly flashing stage lights, against which Hadreas’ lithe silhouette could be seen. Majestic in a cropped brown Victorian-era military jacket and black harem pants, his demeanour fluctuated between coquettish and commanding, depending on the song.

The set-list spanned the intimate confessional numbers like ‘Die 4 You’ (recalling ’90s trip-hop band Portishead); the cool, sophisticated ones like ‘Run Me Through’ (which Hadreas says was inspired by Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis); the whimsical ditties like ‘Valley’; the seriously dark songs like ‘My Body’ and the explosively defiant anthems which have been embraced by fans in the queer community, like ‘Queen’ and ‘Slip Away’.

Perfume Genius tests audiences with unconventional song structures; sometimes a song will trail off into an extended section of ambience or noise, without a hook in sight; other times boundaries are pushed with irregular drum beats, harsh screaming vocals and moments where Hadreas retreats into himself, murmuring under his breath, slowly curling into a back bend while heavily-reverbed sounds wash around him. But these difficult moments are worth it, because the band rewards us on the other side with triumphant, glittering chords, sumptuous layers of rhythmic texture and Hadreas’ lovely tenor voice having undergone some sort of heroic transformation on stage.

After Perfume Genius’ epic set, which dealt with grief, shame, longing and oblivion – followed by songs about love, self-acceptance, solidarity and discovery – I finally felt ready to say goodbye to summer, to festivals, to excitement. I felt less saddened by the imminent cool weather, marking the beginning of city’s cultural hibernation until next summer. Because I was reminded that no one can stop the turning of the seasons, inside or out.

Mike Hadreas certainly knows this; it’s how he made his art.

Top: A hypnotic and seductive Mike Hadreas fronting Perfume Genius. Photo: Cam Campbell.

Human Nature, Zadok Ben-David
Installation, News, Reviews, Sculpture, Visual arts

Arresting and apocalyptic

Perth Festival review: Zadok Ben-David, “Human Nature” ·
Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery ·
Review by Miranda Johnson ·

Zadok Ben-David’s work is filled with trickery and illusion. Firstly, the illusion of a forest in Blackfield looks as though the work has sprung up overnight, when in fact, it took over 60 volunteers and many days of carefully unwrapping and assembling the tiny stainless-steel flowers, plants, and trees that make up the whole. The final number totals somewhere between 20-22,000 individual pieces, representing 900 botanical species from the world over – a truly huge undertaking.

Human Nature, Zadok Ben-David_cr. Cam Campbell, Perth Festival
“Blossoming into colour”. Zadok Ben-David’s ‘Blackfield’. Photo: Cam Campbell.

Standing over the field of miniature, blackened trees gives one a god-like feeling, as one errant step into this tiny landscape would crush whole swathes of it. As I carefully walked around the piece, I was struck by how different perspectives radically altered the landscape. A side-on view of these individual, paper-thin sculptures changed the effect of the whole piece, from a crowded forest to a nearly empty field. I was so distracted by this shift that I almost missed the more obvious and overwhelming transformation as the black sculptures gradually started blossoming into colour, their backs painted in a multitude of different hues. From the other side of the room it was an entirely different view – brimming with wonderment and the joys of biodiversity.

Ben-David’s work focuses on human emotion, in this instance, particularly related to the horrors of climate change. He states that his focus is more on the human response to this impending catastrophe than the environment itself, but I couldn’t help but feel that maybe focusing too much on human needs and emotions was what got us into this mess in the first place. I was struck by the field’s spreading renewal and replenishment – like the first shoots of green on a tree ravaged by fire. Why bring the human into this display of nature’s strength, when it’s so astonishing and striking on its own?

The second installation, The Other Side of Midnight, is similarly arresting. As I walked into the darkened room, I was unsure what I was looking at – was it a sphere, or a flat, circular object? It was only by walking around the piece that I became certain of its nature – a theme in this exhibition. Ben-David’s love of illusion is brought to the fore in this work. One side of the sphere is painted with colourful images of men with butterfly wings. On the back of the dish, the men have been replaced by swarms of cockroaches, reminding me that, as is commonly believed, cockroaches will be the only thing that survive the apocalypse. The title too, made me think of the end of the world – as the Doomsday Clock ticks closer to midnight, we can’t predict what will happen on the other side. Certainly, we will need a little hope and trickery in the future.

‘Human Nature’ runs at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery until April 21.

Picture top is the colourful side of ‘The Other Side of Midnight’ by Zadok Ben-David. Photo: Cam Campbell.

Miranda Johnson is an arts worker from Perth. She spent the past few years in London working as a record store clerk whilst studying an MA in Contemporary Art Theory at Goldsmiths College. Upon returning to Perth, she has been working for some of Perth’s major contemporary arts institutions, as well as co-directing Moana Project Space, an artist-run initiative. Miranda also sings in indie-pop choir Menagerie and co-hosts Fem Book Club at the Centre for Stories.

For the duration of Perth Festival, Miranda is part of its customer service team.