News, Performing arts, Reviews, Theatre

An absolute cracker

Review: shake & stir theatre co, George’s Marvellous Medicine ·
State Theatre Centre of WA, 4 July ·
Review by Varnya Bromilow ·

Making children’s theatre is hard.  Unlike adults, children will not laugh politely at your jokes or remain silent when bored.  If a heartfelt monologue is a trifle too long, it’s liable to be interrupted with a half-shouted “Can we go now?”  Combine indulgent parenting with whiny kids and it’s a short step to a theatre-maker’s nightmare audience.  And then there’s the issue of dual audiences – can you make a work that kids will love and that adults will also enjoy?  Can you get away with a few ribald jokes?  

I point out the difficulty of the feat because I want you to take what I say next seriously – George’s Marvellous Medicine is the best show I’ve seen in recent memory.  Not the best kids’ show, the best show.

This production, based on the famed Roald Dahl book, is co-produced by Brisbane’s shake & stir theatre co. and the Queensland Performing Arts Centre.  Under the direction of Ross Balbuziente, each aspect of the production has been finessed from start to finish.  It’s rare to find a show that so comfortably straddles the stylistic line between charmingly home-made and professional, but this is that unusual spectacle.

The wonderfully elaborate set, representing the farmhouse in which George lives, is a patchwork of jumbled shelves, crammed with all the accoutrements of domestic life.  The shelves are set upon a series of moving panels that shift as the action shifts, large enough for the performers to weave in and through. Part nostalgia trip, part theatrical wonder it’s a piece of exceptional craft from designer Josh McIntosh.  Lighting design by Jason Glenwright is also a central feature – the walls of the set are studded with an assortment that flicker on and off at opportune moments, adding to the magical lustre of the production and providing rich fodder for visual jokes.

And sure, the actors have gold to work with – Dahl’s words beg for dramatic interpretation – but shake & stir has taken brave liberties here with an adaptation that deserve accolades of its own.  The story cleaves pretty closely to Dahl’s narrative, but the characters are airlifted into the modern age with genuinely hilarious results.  George’s mother, played by the fabulous Nelle Lee, has become a saucy, selfie-taking shopaholic replete with chunky red heels, leopard skin skirt and fishnets.  Her sassy rapport with George’s Dad, played with an easy joy by Tim Dashwood, is central to much of the sly adult humour that sneaks its way into the script.  George himself is convincingly depicted by Nick Skubij as a wide-eyed mischief-maker, perhaps a trifle sweeter than Dahl’s own creation but very funny nevertheless.  The chicken in Dahl’s story is here too, embodied by the lithe Johnny Balbuziente who has a grand time incorporating a variety of au courant dance moves into his chickenish antics, much to the awe and delight of the young audience.  Flossing and dabbing anyone?

A wide-eyed mischief-maker: Nick Skubij as George. Photo: Dylan Evans

But for me, it was Grandma who stole the show.  As the anti-heroine, Leon Cain is sidesplittingly evil.  His flatulent, mean spiritedness providing all the justification one needs for George’s drastic actions.  Cain has a perfect gift for comic timing and physical humour, well aided by a bang-on soundscape created by Guy Webster.  From the initial horror of her easy-chair entrance (cue terrifying music) to her sudden expansion and diminution later in the show, each scene featuring Gran had me in extended giggling fits.

The 55 minutes pass extremely quickly – if you recall Dahl’s tale, there’s actually not a great deal that happens.  All the more extraordinary then that this bunch manages to weave such a spell in such a brief time.  As my ten year-old companion exclaimed to me post-show, “It was like magic.”  And the nine-year-old?  He rated it 15/10.  An absolute cracker.

George’s Marvellous Medicine plays the State Theatre Centre of WA until July 8.

Pictured top: Leon Cain in ‘George’s Marvellous Medicine’. Photo: Dylan Evans.

 

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three dancers
News, Performing arts, Reviews

A mixed bag of Short Cuts

Review: STRUT dance “Short Cuts, Program A” ·
King Street Arts Centre, June 14 ·
Review by Varnya Bromilow ·

If you’re not familiar with contemporary dance, I’d recommend the hot bath strategy – one toe at a time until you’re fully in.  STRUT dance’s “Short Cuts” is an annual program of curated short works that presents an easy way to get better acquainted with this often misunderstood discipline.  It’s important to note that these works are essentially in draft form and created in a very short amount of time – you’re getting raw ideas, some of which warrant further exploration, some of which do not.

Last Thursday an enthusiastic throng packed into one of the studios at King Street Arts Centre to check out the fare on offer.  It was an unusually lengthy program, compared to the traditional Short Cuts hour-long show and comprised nine pieces.  The first, Dance, Quiet Riot was choreographed by Emma Fishwick, an associate artist with CO3 Australia.  Fishwick is a multidisciplinary artist with a strong visual sense on effective display here.  Two dancers performed elegant, synchronized phrases in the centre of the square stage, while four others formed a sombre perimeter.  All were wreathed in sheer fabric – a bold choice for an all-female work.  Can the work transcend the spectacle of the naked form or is it more of a distraction?  The dance was executed with a gorgeous, rolling grace, but if I’m perfectly honest, I felt a bit ashamed of my inability not to be distracted by so many naked breasts.  But even my shortcomings as a viewer could not detract from the ability showcased – Fishwick has a clear vision, refreshing in its confidence.

Another highlight of the program was a trio of brief works curated by a key choreographer of the Perth independent scene, Bernadette Lewis.  The first, Miss Where are My Pills, was choreographed and performed by Natalie Allen with Lewis also performing.  Allen, the recipient of a bagful of awards, is an insane dancer to watch.  Her combination of precision, energy and frenzied bustle is just extraordinary.  This work was no exception and the complementary style of Lewis provided an additional measure of inspired looseness – Lewis has a gift for looking like she’s having so much fun while she dances.

Following this was my choice of the evening – Miss Fury choreographed by Laura Boynes and performed by the choreographer and Lewis.  I’m not sure whether it’s the subversion of the “seriousness” of contemporary dance, or if it’s just because I love a good laugh, but I am a total sucker for dance with a sense of humour.  Boynes and Lewis stroll onstage, mouthing pre-recorded words of a conversation that tackles tropes of modern feminism with a rare hilarity.  Boynes is creating a strong reputation for herself as a maker of politically charged art, yet she has a lightness of touch that is truly inspired.  The duo slip into dance – inventive hand movement here warrants special note – and as strains from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly swell, together they seal a perfect package of art and humour cut through with politics.

Not every idea was a winner.  Joshua Pether’s Water Stories was a tentative work, big on ideas but scant on the dance.  And while there was a lot of heart in Ellen-Hope Thomson’s Moth, the execution missed the mark.  Conversely, The Sessions provided another blistering display of Natalie Allen’s talents and when coupled with Samuel Harnett-Welk’s technical prowess, one could only marvel at the skill evident, if not anything resembling meaning.

At the conclusion of the program, STRUT’s Paul Selwyn Norton asked the audience to vote for which work deserved the extra time and funding to be further developed.  With half the slate of works worthy of further exploration, Selwyn Norton and his team are spoiled for choice – and that was only Thursday night.  We’ll see the results of the voting as part of the upcoming MoveMe Festival later in the year.

For more info head to: www.strutdance.org.au

Photo: Simon Pynt.

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The Natural Theatre company
Comedy, Features, News, Performance art, Performing arts

Getting their gear off – or are they?

If you’re uncomfortable with nudity, you may want to avert your gaze in Freo this weekend.  Actually, never mind, it’s just clever costuming!  Varnya Bromilow recently caught up with Andy Burden, Head Nude aka Director of Natural Theatre Company – a British theatre company that prefers their comedy laid bare.  They’re in town this weekend for the Fremantle Street Arts Festival.

If you had to, what would you rather do:

A. Eat a stew made of chopped liver, finely diced worms and earwax
B. Go to work and sing your heart out in front of all your colleagues with no explanation
C. Wander around the streets naked for 30 minutes

I would choose A.  No question.

For a posse of bold Brits this would be a no-brainer.  Option C – easy!  The Natural Theatre Company has been doing nude runs all over the world for the last 45 years.  And okay, they aren’t actually nude – they’re wearing extremely realistic costumes.  But still, it leaves little to the imagination.  Director Andy Burden explains that the intention is not to make people feel weird or freak out, it’s to laugh.

“Our aim is to make people smile,” Burden explains on the phone from the UK.  “In our street theatre we focus on comedy and making people around us feel comfortable so they can have fun.”

So, how on earth does one come up with the idea?  Counting back, I guess it was 1973, which explains something but still…

Burden laughs.  “The idea for the Nudes originated from our naturally cheeky sense of humour, the characters are very charming, very British people who do not realise that they are naked, which people seem to find hilarious.”

The Natural Theatre CompanyThe costumes are deliberately silly, but it definitely requires a double take to realize that the person you are gawking at is not actually nude.  Which begs the question – do audiences realize immediately that costumes are involved?

“It depends how far away from the action you are!  But yes, once you get closer it becomes clearer.  The fact that they are ‘nude’ adds to the comedy but these characters have a great personalities too.

“The Naturals designed the costumes many years ago,” Burden explains.  “We create them ourselves – one of our longest serving actors makes the, er… ‘accessories’.”

The nudes are a very diverse bunch, physically speaking.  From your slimline versions to other more portly forms, the representation really runs the gamut of physicality.  Burden explains that this range was intentional.

“We didn’t want to shy away from what nudity is but our characters make the costumes comical,” Burden says.  “Body shape is completely irrelevant, we celebrate all shapes and sizes!  The Natural Theatre Company has a diverse range of actors in terms of age, ethnicity, and body shape. There is no particular ‘type’ in terms of appearance, all of our actors play all of our characters…over 100 scenarios!”

With such realistic costumes, not much is left to the imagination.  So why cloak up at all?  Did they ever consider going the whole hog?  In the early 70’s you probably could have gotten away with it!

“Not really,” Burden laughs.  “A large part of the comedy lies in the fact that they that are not really nude – it is the surprise our audiences have thinking that the actors might be and then the realisation of what is actually going on.”

It’s easy to imagine the gobsmacked response of children to the show.  But when I ask Burden about the shock value, he says any initial eyebrow-raising subsides surprisingly quickly.

“Less shock, more laughter,” he says.  “After a while it is not even about the ‘nudity’, they are such charming characters that people completely forget and just end up chatting to them.”

Any company that has lasted 45 years can be counted as a serious success.  The Naturals have toured all over the world, spreading their innocent glee.  Considering how much attitudes towards nudity vary from culture to culture, have they noticed a difference in reception, depending on where they’re performing?

“In our experience, the Nudes always get a great reception, people completely understand the tongue-in-cheek comedy,” Burden explains.  “Sometimes clients can be nervous about booking the Nudes but every single time we get amazing feedback. They are a great ice-breaker!”

But it’s not all about (the illusion of) getting one’s gear off.  The Naturals have expanded their enterprise into a drama school, education and workshops as well as a sub-company Natural Diversions that feature performers who are disabled.

Laughs aside, it seems the over-arching theme of the Natural Theatre Company is acceptance.

You can catch The Nudes all this weekend at the Fremantle Street Arts Festival.

Pictures courtesy of The Natural Theatre Company

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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

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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

 

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Vessel
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.

Vessel
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.

 

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The Far Side of the Moon_Cr. Toni Wilkinson, Perth Festival 2018_03
News, Performing arts, Reviews, Theatre

The far side of expectations

Perth Festival Review: The Far Side of the Moon, Robert Lepage ·
State Theatre Centre, 24 February ·
Review by Varnya Bromilow ·

Occasionally you’ll see a performance that is so captivating, it changes the way you view almost everything in its wake.  When I saw Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota at the Perth Festival back in 1998, it was a transformative experience.  I’ve tried to describe that show to countless people since but because it’s a seven-hour theatrical experience, I always come off sounding insane.  Seven hours?!  On the strength of that show, I’ve always been keen to see everything Lepage has created since.  Which is why I was so excited to The Far Side of the Moon programmed as part of this year’s festival.  

Expectations huh?  I tried to rein them in, honest I did.

The Far Side of the Moon tells a story based loosely around humankind’s first exploration of the moon.  Lepage’s work usually incorporates major world events, cultural or geopolitical and then frames them within the microcosm of human experience. In Seven Streams it was Hiroshima; in Quills it was Napoleonic France; in The Dragon’s Trilogy it was the Chinese diaspora.  Lepage has enjoyed global acclaim for his work – his back-catalogue is littered with awards.  There are a couple of main reasons for this success – stagecraft and narrative drive.  Far Side has all the gorgeous stagecraft of any Lepage show, but it’s the narrative that meanders, resulting in a concept that seems to be searching for a story.

The show opens with a glaring bank of fluorescent lights, pointed at the audience.  The lights then rise and invert, revealing a panel of mirrors.  The show’s only actor, Yves Jacques, steps into view and explains the premise of the show.  Perhaps alarm bells should have sounded then – what show worth its narrative salt requires an explanatory prologue?  Jacques recedes and projected production credits replace him.  Lepage’s work is often filmic in quality – his other main medium is film.  Far Side was made into a film in 2003 and the Quebecois artist has either directed or acted in many others.  

Incorporating archival footage of the Soviet and American space landings, Far Side is part homage to Soviet space exploration (as a Quebecois Canadian, no love is lost for the victorious Americans here); part exploration of two brothers’ fractious relationship.  One is a flamboyant weatherman, the other a failing PhD student.  Their mother has just died and these two very different brothers need to come together to distribute her meagre last possessions.  The topic of the PhD student’s thesis is a Russian artist/cosmonaut – therein lies the loose narrative thread that binds the two parts of the story together.  But neither of these two disparate tales are fully told and their interweaving feels both awkward and strangely superficial. Unlike the other Lepage works I’ve seen, the emotional core of Far Side feels unrealised.  The weatherman brother verges on caricature, and the other, while a far more nuanced role, feels constrained by the script. We want to feel real grief with this character as he mourns his mother, but our attention is repeatedly diverted to the latest chapter of the space race.  

Better then, to focus on the spectacle.  The set is a chameleonic wonder, packed with sliding panels, light boxes, multi-media projections and hidden compartments.  Each new scene brings an ingenious re-imagining of each set piece – a circular port hole is re-assigned functions throughout, what was once a washing machine becomes a spacecraft becomes a fishbowl and so on.  It’s extraordinary.

In the end though, no amount of visual splendour can compensate for the lack of storyline punch.  Jaques, an accomplished and talented actor, does his level best to bring emotional resonance to the script, but it’s difficult to take the audience on a emotional journey when you keep being interrupted by bulletins from the final frontier.             

Pictured top: Yves Jacques in The Far Side of the Moon. Photo by Toni Wilkinson.

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Jordi Savall
Classical music, Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Foot stomping and whistles!

Perth Festival review: Jordi Savall ·
Perth Concert Hall, 17 February ·
Review by Varnya Bromilow ·

Why do we like the music we like?  Ever since I can remember, medieval/early baroque music has resonated with me in a way that I have no explanation for.  I mean, sure, my forebears are from the UK (how fabulously exotic!) but my great-grandfather was making brooms not playing the viola da gamba.  There is something about the melody, even the tempo of European music from the 1600’s that feels both familiar and deeply evocative to me.

Jordi Savall is a master of this style.  The acclaimed Catalan musician formed the early music group, Hesperion XX in Basel, Switzerland back in 1974.  (The group rebranded itself as Hesperion XXI with the change of the century.)  The ensemble is renowned for its scholarship of early music from the 16th and 17th centuries, particularly that of Spanish origin.  For this series of concerts, Savall has brought in Mexico’s Tembembe Ensamble Continuo as collaborators.  Tembembe is a chamber group devoted to the performance of Hispanic baroque music and a form Indigenous to Mexico known as ‘son’.  A love of early music is not the only common thread binding these groups – both are known for their improvisation around old melodies and their reworking of early music.

The evening began with the players filing onstage, carrying instruments largely unfamiliar to contemporary audiences.  The only one I knew immediately was the harp.  But apart from that, it was all one could do from pulling out one’s phone and plugging “tiny guitar” into Google.  (Savall explained later – it’s called a mosquito)  There was a large wooden box upon which a player sat, drumming the softest, most melodic bass notes (marimbol); a plump guitar (huapanguera); a lute with an extremely long neck (theorbo) and an array of others.  And I haven’t even mentioned the horse jaw yet!

There followed a luscious assortment of songs and music from the 15th and 16th centuries, much of it improvised.  Kicking off with the sublime La Spagna by Spanish composer Diego Ortiz (ca. 1510 – ca. 1570), the program alternated between early music from Spain and that of Mexico.  Often, songs would follow on immediately from each other, highlighting stylistic and tonal similarities.  Between others there would be a pause, allowing the musicians to change instruments and the audience to break out into rapturous applause.  The Mexican contributions were frequently highlighted by the remarkable vocals of two singers – Ada Coronel and Zenen Zeferino.  From the first strains of Zeferino’s emotive tones, the audience was putty in his hands.  The play between the two singers was gorgeous to watch – these are sensual songs – and served to highlight the cool reserve of the European repertoire.

It goes without saying that musicians of this calibre are incredible to watch, but what was particularly noticeable about these groups was the camaraderie amongst the players.  (I guess when you’ve been playing together for 30-plus years, you’d want to get along.)  Harpist Andrew Lawrence-King (who, if you can picture it, would have been voted Person-Most-Likely-To-Play-Baroque-Harp in high school) is Hesperion’s resident jester, frequently prompting stifled giggles from guitarist Xavier Dias-Latorre.  Dias-Latorre, is should be said, is an astonishing player, extracting the most intricate melodies from his early baroque guitars with extraordinary ease.

We were entranced.  I expected the standing ovation at the performance’s conclusion, but not the whistling and foot stomping!  There’s nothing better than seeing a silver-haired elderly woman waving her arms and stamping her feet for more medieval music.  It made my festival.  Who says classical music is dying?

Jordi Savall plays Government House on February 18th.

Photo by Toni Wilkinson

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Compagnie XY Il n'est pas encore minuit
Circus, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Hoopla! Hoopla!

Perth Festival review: Il n’est pas encore minuit by Compagnie XY·
Regal Theatre, 9 February ·
Review by Varnya Bromilow ·

I don’t have a whole heap of regrets, but one that I do have is never having learned to do anything really incredible.  I’m not talking about learning to speak Spanish fluently, or playing the trombone…these are admirable skills to be sure, but they are not incredible.  I mean doing a triple axle on ice-skates, or starting a fire with two sticks, or memorizing the phone book.  Doing backflips off someone’s shoulders definitely counts.  It’s a skill that evokes sheer wonder.

This sense of wonder filled the Regal Theatre last Friday when an underpacked house witnessed the spectacle that is Compagnie XY.  The French troupe of acrobats are renowned for pushing the limits of the human body…Il n’est past encore minuit (It is not yet midnight) does just that.  The show begins with a series of authentic-seeming wrestles between the players – so authentic that I convinced my junior companions that I’d forgotten it was actually a fighting show, not an acrobat show we were here to see.  The mild tension built by these fierce tackles quickly changed to laughter when two very petite women took centre-stage, wrestling with such brutality that it felt a bit like watching a couple of elves having a battle.

Wrestling transformed seamlessly into throwing…the throwing of bodies, that is.  Watching how easily bodies were propelled into the air, it was difficult to remember that these were actual human beings being tossed around, rather than feather-weight fairy people.  One of the really refreshing aspects of Compagnie XY is the sheer diversity of human forms within the circus.  Of course, one has the petite women and men who form the top of human towers, but there were also a good number of more generously proportioned individuals.  Remarkably, these latter figures were also frequently airborne.  There’s a spirit of egalite here in all aspects of play.  The usual gender roles one observes within the circus are regularly flouted – women suspending smaller men; the troupe holding men aloft, rather than the usual female star.

There’s also a vast range of ages performing – I haven’t been able to pin down the age of the troupe’s founder, Abdeliazide Senhadji, but let’s just say he has the silver hair and bearing of someone in his late 40’s or early 50’s.  Others are barely into their 20’s.  It’s a novel and gorgeous thing to witness such a disparate group of bodies coming together in perfect cohesion.

And there is so much to witness!  One’s eyes flit ceaselessly around the Regal’s sizeable stage, trying not to miss a thing.  This is impossible – you’re caught up in an elaborately arranged pile of humans when suddenly from stage left a body literally flies into view.  Highlights included a sequence involving four humans standing atop each other’s shoulders; a perfectly average-sized man being propelled into the air off a plywood platform, executing a triple backflip; a tower of three humans collapsing forward into a group of catchers only to remain assembled and then tipped backwards into the arms of other catchers.  Ridiculous!  My personal favourite was a subtle routine wherein players had another player standing on their shoulders…they then strolled calmly about, no hands supporting the weight of the human atop them.

Mix in an eclectic mix of music and you’re left with a wonderfully entertaining hour, thoroughly deserving of the gasping admiration and standing ovation from the audience.

Fabulous. I implore you to see it.  No really – go and book your ticket now.

Il n’est pas encore minuit runs until February 17th

Photo: Perth Festival

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Attractor
Contemporary music, Dance, Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Incredible art-making

Perth Festival review: Attractor by Gideon Obarzanek, Lucy Guerin, Dancenorth and  Senyawa ·
State Theatre Centre, 8 February ·
Review by Varnya Bromilow ·

A group of people sit around in a semi-circle, in the centre of a Spartan stage.  Just as the audience is becoming restless, a couple of the figures start to move, robot-like, up from their chairs.  Others join in but two people in the middle of the semi-circle stay put.  As the bodies around them expand their movements, one of the two remaining figures picks up a large instrument and out of the silence comes a crashing metallic chord.  Here we go…

Attractor is a unique beast – a joint creation from two of Australia’s luminaries of contemporary dance, Gideon Obarzanek and Lucy Guerin.  Obarzanek is best known for his founding of Chunky Move, the Melbourne-based contemporary dance outfit in part responsible for the popularization of the genre in Australia.  Guerin is one of the country’s leading choreographers whose company Lucy Guerin Inc is renowned for its innovative, challenging works.  Both are credited as choreographers for Attractor while Obarzanek alone designed the work.  It shows – while the frenetic blur of movement may be familiar to anyone who has seen works by either Obarzanek or Guerin, the sinister underlying tone is distinctly Chunky Move-ish.

The collaboration does not stop there.  All the dancers, save the excellent Harrison Hall from Lucy Guerin Inc, are from Queensland’s esteemed Dancenorth.  But the centrepiece of this extraordinary collaboration is provided by Senyawa, a two-piece duo from Indonesia.  Incorporating elements of doom metal, folk and acapella, Senyawa’s music is a sonic trip.  The soundtrack of Attractor becomes the focal point of the performance – when someone is screeching into a microphone, accompanied by reverberating chords of pure noise, it’s hard to focus on anything else.

To be honest, I had no idea what instrument guitarist Wukir Suryadi was playing.  Was it a Chapman stick?  Was it some kind of guitar indigenous to Indonesia?  I had to look it up.  Turns out, Suryadi created the instrument himself – it’s a bambuwukir (namecheck!), an amplified zither made out of bamboo.  It’s loud, really loud.  And whether Suryadi is coaxing doom-like horrors out of it, or something more melodic, it’s incredible to behold.  That is, you think it’s incredible to behold until you shift your gaze to Suryadi’s partner in crime…Rully Shabara.  Shabara vocalizes (one cannot call it singing) as though he is possessed by the same spirits that created Suryadi’s instrument.  He wails, he ululates, he growls and groans and shrieks.

Surrounded by this sonic furore, the dancers flail and pop, sometimes in unison, sometimes in a mess of discrete movement.  There is no particular narrative here – we’re being taken on a trip, a trance and there is nothing to interpret, we are here to observe.  The choreography is as intense as the music – contorted exertions that ripple with energy.  Some of the most effective phrases are those performed in unison, the dancers slicing through space, jerking and bustling with near-perfect cohesion.  A solo from Samantha Hines is absolutely gob-smacking.  Her arms and hands shuddering, her back arched, head thrown back – all while Shabara howls gutturally into the microphone.  Intense doesn’t begin to describe it.

This is incredible art-making.  Go see it.

‘Attractor’ runs until February 10th.

Photo: Gus Kemp

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