News, Reviews, Visual arts

Intrigue in Thompson’s powerful gaze

Christian Thompson, ‘Ritual Intimacy’ ·
John Curtin Gallery ·
Review by Jenny Scott ·

The spaces of John Curtin Gallery have been transformed by ‘Ritual Intimacy’, an exhibition surveying the last 15 years of Bidjara artist Christian Thompson’s career.

Originally curated by Hettie Perkins and Charlotte Day for Monash University Museum of Art, ‘Ritual Intimacy’ has been installed within an intricate floor plan of distinct rooms and resting areas designed to encourage contemplation of Thompson’s multidisciplinary practice.

It’s a dense show with the potential to be discombobulating, but the exhibition design and accompanying room sheet successfully showcase Thompson’s rich practice and the context behind his selected works. Spanning photography, sound, video and performance, these works reveal thematic links and trace the artist’s interests in language, song, ancestry, and living cultural traditions. The exhibition is also be accompanied by the publication of the first monograph on Thompson’s career and work.

Projected onto one wall is ‘Heat’ (2010), a three-channel video featuring the granddaughters of Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins. Each woman stares straight ahead as air from an unseen source whips their hair around their faces. Intended by Thompson to evoke the feeling of being on desert country, the footage imparts a sense of resilience as the women remain stoic while being buffered by outside forces.

On the opposing wall are five prints from Thompson’s iconic photographic series ‘Australian Graffiti’ (2007), which are stylish self-portraits of the artist adorned with cuttings of native flora; a low-slung crown of banksia flowers, a jaunty garland of grey gum leaves. While his eyes are obscured, Thompson’s posture hints that he can see from under the shadows of his foliage. Forming tensions between strength and fragility, masculinity and glamour, these works reflect on a corporeal connection to the Australian landscape, and the power of the gaze.

The artist’s exploration of identity and representation continues in the Northern Gallery, a large room of stunning C-type prints relating to Thompson’s experiences working with the Pitt Rivers Museum’s Australian photographic collection in Oxford.

In works from the series ‘We Bury our Own’ (2012), Thompson has staged personal reinterpretations of the ‘essence’ of selected photographs from this collection, using costume and symbols to invoke hidden meanings and unseen practices. These works re-inject museological specimens with an intimacy, subjectivity, and uncertainty of meaning, contesting the authority of ethnographic collecting. Thompson terms this process ‘spiritual repatriation’ – a concept that is particularly relevant with the increasing global pressure on museums to repatriate their collections.

Thompson’s challenge to the legacies of colonialism is more explicit in works such as the series ‘Museum of Others’ (2016), in which the eyes of famous ‘dead white males’ (an explorer, an artist, an anthropologist) have been removed and replaced with the artist’s own. Viewing such an evocative array of prints is made even more powerful by the atmospheric leakage of overlapping songs from other nearby works in the show.

‘Ritual Intimacy’ is a rich exhibition in which it is worth lingering to soak up the aesthetic pleasure of this collection of thought-provoking and vital works.

‘Ritual Intimacy’ runs until 21 July.

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Mixing the moguls and the maestros

Business and arts leaders pose creative ways to boost WA culture and the economy but Mark Naglazas finds it is a fraught path to success.

The arts and business communities have long been locked in a marriage of convenience. The impoverished bride is happy to walk down the aisle with any almost suitor with desire for a bit of culture so long as they have deep pockets; the cashed-up groom, on the other hand, is elevated in everyone’s eyes by the class act at their side.

The two communities engaged in a public courting ritual at the Hyatt on Tuesday morning (or, more accurately, a round of speed dating) during a breakfast hosted by Business News and ScreenWest and presided over by the Marriage Broker-in-Chief, Culture and Arts Minister David Templeman.

Interestingly, the minister and other members of the creative community on the panel did not focus on their need for money but came out fighting, reminding their cousins in the business sector they are a major contributor to the Australian economy, especially when it comes to attracting tourists. It was more of a case of you need us more that we need you.

“We know that visitors to Australia now are more likely to engage with arts and culture than they are to visit wineries, casinos or even attend sporting events. We need to maximise that opportunity,” said Mr Templeman, suggesting that it is now high time for Western Australia to shift its economic focus from the resources to creativity.

Mr Templeman’s call to arms was following by a similarly stirring speech from Ben Elton, who reiterated the minister’s point that the creative sector should not be regarded as a penurious relative always shaking the begging bowl but a dynamic part of a booming global industry.

“The creative arts are clearly a money-making proposition,” Elton said. “If we can get a successful (creative) industry – and we are a long way from being there – in the long run the benefits won’t just be cultural. They will be financial.”

Naturally, Elton’s focus was on film and television, which he believes presents enormous opportunities in the age of streaming. Companies such as Netflix, Amazon and Disney, who will soon launch their own streaming services, are craving content, the comedy legend said, so it is not a question of benevolence on the part of investors but a chance to make big bucks.

Elton, however, is not so naïve as to believe Western Australia can compete on the global stage without government intervention. “It has to be hand-in-hand with public investment and a public initiative to support Australian arts. Without infrastructure – and infrastructure is very expensive – we are not going to get business to join hands (with us),” said Elton, who threw his weight behind the long-standing fight for a movie studio.

Chamber of Arts and Culture WA executive director Shelagah Magadza kept the rhetoric to a minimum and drilled down on the impossibility of forging a relationship between arts and business without up-to-the-minute data and a sound strategy that considers the arts in a broader educational, social and economic context.

Ms Magadza likened the current situation trying to swing a Datsun 120Y engine into an electric vehicle. “We need a long-term plan in which it’s clearly articulated what needs to happen – where the investment and skills development need to go for artists who want to take advantage of the opportunities that people like Ben (Elton) are creating in the state,” she said.

Interestingly, Tuesday’s breakfast confab about the relationship between business and the arts was taking place on the same morning that The Australian’s fearless, highly respected Victoria Laurie published a piece about the dangers of the business world climbing into bed with the arts.

Laurie zeroed in on the practice of stacking the boards of arts organisations with people who have no direct experience of working in that particular art, causing as much of a problem if it was the other way around, that is, practitioner-heavy boards.

Laurie sought comment from former Australia Council chairwoman and Musica Viva board member Margaret Seares, who cautions against adopting the American model of appointing wealthy donors to boards.

“If you’re putting money into something, what power and leverage should that give you? It’s a debate we haven’t had but it needs to be discussed. For any company to have no one on the board with an arts background, or one lone voice, is as dangerous as having only arts practitioners,” Professor Seares was quoted as saying.

Laurie’s piece is a continuation of her investigation of the ugly situation at Black Swan State Theatre Company, in which the board, headed by high-profile philanthropist Nicola Forrest, removed the company’s executive Natalie Jenkins and replaced her with a recently-appointed board member with no performing arts industry experience.

Among those who’ve also expressed concern about the abrupt exit of Ms Jenkins is Black Swan’s founding patron Janet Holmes à Court. “I’m extremely disappointed that Black Swan seems to be turning out to be the sort of company that Andrew Ross and myself and Duncan Ord and the others who were involved in founding in 1991 did not have in mind,” Mrs Holmes à Court said.

So it was disappointing that Mrs Holmes à Court did not attend the State of the Arts in Business event, where she had originally been billed to appear on the panel. In doing so, she avoided any awkward encounter with Minderoo CEO Andrew Hagger, who was there in place of Mrs Forrest.

Still it was hard not to contain an ironic smile when Mr Hagger said that “when you have partners working together that’s when you get great outcomes” while our ears are still ringing with the news that Ms Jenkins, one of the State’s most experienced and respected arts administrators, had been moved on after falling out with a board headed by a major private sector funder.

There was a buzz in the Hyatt Ballroom during and after breakfast – the arts crowd certainly comes alive in the presence of money. Much of that discussion was focused on the benefits and needs for the two communities to work together and less about the issues raised by those relationships, such as the freedom of arts companies to criticise industries from which they’re benefiting.

The backbeat, of course, is the overall decline of government funding for the arts. Organisations such as ScreenWest (now reconstituted as a not-for-profit) are on the hunt for private investment so in the future that marriage of convenience will take on air of urgency. Minister Templeman may have to get out his shotgun.

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World premiere a thrill for Perth

REVIEW: Musica Viva, Doric String Quartet ⋅
Perth Concert Hall, June 9 ⋅
Review by Ron Banks ⋅

The launch of the world-renowned Doric String Quartet’s national Musica Viva tour was an auspicious occasion for Perth. The performance featured the world premiere of Australian composer Brett Dean’s third string quartet. Programmed between European composers Haydn and Schubert, whose traditional approach to the quartet form is now so well-known and deservedly loved, Dean’s modernistic approach was a complete contrast – but by no means less enjoyable or inventive. Dean is a man of his times of course, as were Haydn and Schubert, and his approach to composition is based on the tempo and issues that confront us in the 21st century.

His String quartet No. 3, subtitled Hidden Agendas, is inspired by, as Dean notes in the program, “the strangely fascinating and invariably unsettling political climate of extreme personalities.” Introducing the world premiere from the stage, Dean amplified that comment by referring to a certain US president. The work is also influenced by the world of modern media, the bombardment of messages by the digital devices we all possess and, to quote the program notes again “other challenges to the democratic process.”

Quite a formidable canvas of issues on which to draw, but Dean is bold in his approach to the string quartet format with five movements that display not only his adventurous compositional skills but the brilliant talents of the Doric String Quartet.

The work begins with the sounds of the digital age expressed musically – noises both subtle and loud of the messaging in this century. There is dissonance, aggression in the notes wrought from the violins, viola and cello that convey a sense of unease. This is a work that aims to unsettle, provoke and confront.

Subsequent movements keep up the tension and confrontation, with little time for relaxation or release. Hidden Agendas is a thoughtful, inventive and complex work that deserves our attention and succeeds remarkably well in getting and holding that attention. The Doric String Quartet, who are familiar with Dean’s previous two quartets, must have thrilled the composer with their interpretation.

Now regarded as one of the leading quartets of the younger generation, the UK-based ensemble moves easily between Dean’s 21st century concerns and the old world of European music with its charm, tradition and familiar comforts. Haydn’s String Quartet in E flat major Op 33 is a case in point. Subtitled The Joke because of its ending (we don’t know quite how it will end as the musicians tease out the final bars), the work draws on all kinds of cheeky influences – from comic opera and folk music to the tarantella – to make its bouncy, jaunty impression. The Doric Quartet’s interpretation is, as to be expected, flawless and full of finesse in conveying the sense of joy and humour inherent in Haydn’s Opus 33.

Their execution of Schubert’s no 15 quartet in G major is similarly flawless to the point of majestic. Rather long at 45 minutes for a string quartet, Schubert demands a lot from the players and the Quartet’s energy and skill never falters, which makes the experience of listening to this first-class ensemble entirely pleasurable.

The Musica Viva Doric String Quartet tour continues to Melbourne, Adelaide, Newcastle, Sydney and finishes in Brisbane on June 26. Tickets online.

Pictured top: Hélène Clément, Alex Redington, Ying Xue, John Myerscough from the Doric String Quartet.

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Operatic thriller

Review: Freeze Frame Opera, Tosca ⋅
Centenary Pavilion, Claremont Showgrounds, June 8 ⋅
Review by Rosalind Appleby ⋅

Tosca is opera’s closest thing to a thriller. Puccini’s late romantic opera with its jealous lovers, political activism and gender violence is set within Napoleon’s imminent invasion of Rome and unfolds in a seamless blend of arias, recitatives and choruses.

The design team behind Freeze Frame Opera’s groundbreaking productions of La Boheme and Pagliacci have transformed the Centenary Pavilion at the Claremont Showgrounds into an opera set of cinematic proportions. In typical FFO style the opera has been trimmed and subtitles adjusted to sharpen the action, but the key elements remain and purists won’t be offended. Plus the audience gets to experience the show from grandstand seating while enjoying pizza and beverages – what’s not to love?

Director Rachel McDonald has updated the opera to the Cold War. On opening night crackling loudspeakers announce the escape of the political prisoner Angelotti, who staggers into the pavilion through a side door.  The painter Cavaradossi and his lover the famous singer Tosca help him escape and the suspense begins as Scarpia, the chief of police begins to hunt them down.

Robbie Harold’s set design makes fabulous use of the pavilion, maximising its vastness for the Act One cathedral and Act Three warehouse (with prisoners arriving for execution in the trunk of a vintage car). Even more impressive was the almost claustrophobic intimacy achieved in Act Two. Curtains framed the chief of police Scarpia’s office, revealing at various points Scarpia showering (in silhouette) and the graphic torture of Cavaradossi (a dramatically committed Jun Zhang) taking place. Meanwhile front and centre Scarpia (a menacing James Clayton) attempts his final conquest: the rape of Tosca.

Harriet Marshall as Tosca, wreaking her revenge on Scarpia (James Clayton). Photo Robert Frith.

But Scarpia’s political and social power is crumbling and as Tosca wreaks her revenge police agent Spoletta (cast in a fabulous twist as a woman) watches with grim satisfaction. This is a post #metoo Tosca (sung by Harriet Marshall) who takes charge, masterminds rescues and brings hope to those around her, ultimately at great cost.

McDonald’s characteristic attention to detail deepens the story. The meta-narrative is elucidated by Mia Holton’s video projections (Scarpia’s face is superimposed onto the Madonna, Tosca becomes a poster girl for the revolution) while McDonald’s stage direction draws out extremes of tenderness and violence from her cast. Even Jerry Reinhardt’s lighting helps develop character (a halo spotlight for Scarpia) and Tommaso Pollio at the piano invests Puccini’s voluptuous score with real emotion.

Clayton is terrifying as a vocally imposing, glass-smashing Scarpia and Pia Harris is a mix of swagger and frustration as the bullied Spoletta. Kristin Bowtell is a desperate Angelotti and Robert Hoffmann doubles as the Sacristan and Jailer. Zhang, his voice a little worse for wear, nevertheless steals the show with his exquisitely intimate O dolci mani (Oh sweet hands). Gliding through it all is Marshall, singing with vocal splendour as the glamorous, jealous, terrified and gutsy heroine.

FFO has done it again; don’t miss this thrilling night at the opera!

Tosca continues at the Centenary Pavilion until June 14.

Pictured top:  Scarpia (James Clayton) seducing the unwilling Tosca (Harriet Marshall). Photo by Robert Frith.

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Dance, News, Performing arts, Reviews

The techno-digital sublime

Review: Rachel Arianne Ogle, i have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night ·
PICA, 5 June ·
Review by Jonathan W. Marshall ·

Rachel Arianne Ogle’s superb precipice concludes with a reveal at the back of the darkened stage, where a curtain draws open to show an intensely glowing, curved wall situated at the rear of a small box, within which stands a sun-struck dancer. i have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night takes this image and turns it into a short, stand-alone performance installation, with glitchie live electronic music from Luke Smiles and a blindingly purist lighting design and luminescent projections from Benjamin Cisterne.

Smiles, Ogle and Cisterne build here on the optical games and devices that immediately preceded cinema proper, such as the spinning, slotted zoetrope, or the carefully lit and crafted panoramas and moving dioramas of the nineteenth century. Cisterne has previously experimented with patterned moiré effects in lighting with his design for Sydney Dance Company’s 2 One Another (2012). Robin Fox’s use of digital projection and intense, immersive digital noise for Chunky Move is clearly another influence (Smiles previously danced with Chunky Move), as is, presumably, the regular to DarkMofo and the Melbourne Festival, Ryoji Ikeda, with his supra-minimal techno and lighting works for dance and installation. The strongest resonance, though, is with the landmark Morphia series, which dancer Helen Herbertson created with designer Ben Cobham of Bluebottle in the early 2000s, featuring an often agitated, naked Herbertson suspended in a blacker than black space, housed in a glowing white box.

Photo: Mick Bello

The movement of i have loved the stars too fondly is, however, more minimal than Herbertson’s intimate gestures. Halfway through i have loved the stars too fondly, there is a blink-and-you-miss it section in which Ogle briefly tilts onto an extreme angle and folds herself onto the floor, legs protruding above her, whilst lit by a totalising, white wash. Elsewhere she ever-so-unsteadily walks slowly and with very small steps down the centre line from the back of to the front and then back again. She is, therefore, more object than dancer, more a sculpture than a human.

The sheer over-stimulation of optical and aural signals means that the audience’s perception itself begins to warp (as in a zoetrope or Ikeda’s installations). As the sound pummels us (featuring, for a period, some of the most intense bass thuds I have heard outside of the work of Fox or Decibel), and as the light excoriates Ogle from behind, there are times where it seems she may be perhaps mouthing a silent cry. But the solarisation about her head and shoulders, and the silhouette effect it produces, is such that one cannot be certain.

The framing of the performer within i have loved the stars too fondly, therefore, echoes the work of performance artist Stelarc, who insists on calling himself “the body,” signalling his status an entirely impersonal, fleshy sensate unit sewn into a non-human, technological system. The effect, then, is that the body itself is almost blown apart, shattered and digitised (think the origin of Dr Manhattan in Watchmen). This is the techno-digital sublime in the extreme, producing a mildly terrifying feeling of euphoria and amazement. In the most impressive visual effect within the production, when Ogle stands at the front of the stage, the rapid shifts in the colour and directionality of the light create the illusion of up to six or eight shadowy figures, arrayed in a semi-circle before us, each swimming into existence as its predecessor is blown away by the lighting.

This effect is staged early in the piece, and to some degree the dramaturgy has nowhere else to go. The distorted white dots on the back wall are patterned according to random transmissions picked up while the show is in progress. As Ogle moves away from us in this slightly more forgiving light-and-sound world, one is tempted to read this as a return of the human after its technological auto-da-fé.

But closure is denied and she keeps her back to us. The conclusion seems to arise out of its duration more than it does out of any musical or choreographic evolution per se. While it seemed a shame to end on a whimper rather than a bang, precipice and i have loved the stars represent the sort of work which drew me to dance in the first place: austere, formal, painstaking, and scenographically brilliant – two of the best movement works of 2019.

i have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night runs until June 8.

Read a Q&A with Rachel Arianne Ogle.

Pictured top is Rachel Arianne Ogle in “i have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night”. Photo: Mick Bello.

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Children, News, Reviews, Theatre

Enormouse success

Review: CDP presents Tall Stories’ production The Gruffalo⋅ 
Heath Ledger Theatre, June 5 ⋅
Review by Rosalind Appleby ⋅

The theatre has the potential to be the ultimate playground for children. The sense of exploration is ignited just by climbing the stairs into the venue (especially the State Theatre Centre staircase with its stalactites hanging from the ceiling) and working out how to sit on the folding chairs. As teachers shushed and parents passed popcorn the sense of adventure was palpable at the Tall Stories (UK) production of The Gruffalo which opened in Perth this week.

The success of this adaption of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s classic storybook (touring Australia with CDP Kids) is that it takes a child’s imaginative potential and lets it flourish. The audience are invited into the adventure in true British pantomime style; there is no time for yawns in this action-packed hour, no need to dampen down lively spirits.

The audience were part of the storytelling from the outset as the three actors introduced themselves and applied their accessories onstage: a rope tail and a painted nose for the Mouse and hat flaps that turned into ears for the Fox. There was no doubting the characters or the story line and in several places the actors allowed the delighted children to fill in the gaps of Donaldson’s iconic rhyming verse.

Mouse meets the animals in the forest (cast from 2017 production). Photo Heidrun Lohr.

The story about a mouse taking a walk in a deep dark wood is supplemented with song and dance numbers and lots of banter. Fox references Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail in his list of tasty meals, and blames a bouncing Tigger for his indigestion. Owl is a retired air force general who gets Mouse marching, while the sequined Snake dances a samba in front of his (fairylight adorned) logpile house. The additions are funny, smart and draw the audience deeper into the characters. The response was one of undampened enthusiasm as children shouted directions, completed the rhymes and screamed with delight when the shaggy Gruffalo came running into the auditorium to hide from the Mouse.

The all-Australian cast was led by Shannen Sarstedt as the sharp-witted, karate chopping Mouse, supported by narrators  Kyle Kaczmarczyk (who doubled as a Gruffalo that was more softie than scary) and Skyler Ellis whose theatrics created hilarious caricatures of the woodland animals.

Isla Shaw’s forest set design was playful and lush, colourfully lit by James Whiteside. Jon Fiber’s music was catchy and Liesel Badorrek’s recreation of the work of original director Olivia Jacobs completed the entertaining package. My 6 and 8 year old theatre goers were completely caught up in the adventure, delighting in the bravery of the mouse and the antics of the Gruffalo. The show is marketed towards children 3+ and we can confirm it is an ‘enormouse’ success with kids of all ages.

The Gruffalo runs at the State Theatre Centre until June 9.

Pictured top: Mouse meets the Gruffalo. Photo Heidrun Lohr. (Cast from the 2017 season).

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Two percussionists perform with a bass clarinet player and pianist in the back ground
Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Musical artefacts

Review: Intercurrent Ensemble, ‘Walkman Antiquarian’ ⋅
UWA Callaway Auditorium, 27 May ⋅
Review by Eduardo Cossio ⋅

Developments in technology brought new performance tools for musicians in the 20th century: transistor radios, turntables, and voltage-controlled synthesizers made their way into concert programs. At the same time, the rapid pace of technology rendered many of these artefacts obsolete. Walkman Antiquarian, by Perth ensemble Intercurrent, presented a program of works featuring bygone-era devices along with modern equipment in a concert that evoked themes of nostalgia and discovery.

John Cage’s Credo in US is a piece for prepared piano and found objects. Tin cans, a buzzer, a radio and turntable are used to create a performance full of non sequiturs. The original version from 1942 starts with a phonograph playing a classical music excerpt (Cage suggested something by Dvořák, Beethoven, Sibelius or Shostakovich). Intercurrent’s version had Ashley Smith cueing pre-recorded samples from a mixer. Bombastic orchestral music was heard in the loudspeakers and then cut short by the loud clanking of tin cans played by Louise Devenish and Jackson Vickery. Emily Green-Armytage followed suit with repeated phrases on the prepared piano, adding melodic contours to the clangorous racket. It was a wild ride of free-roaming sounds and musical passages. In a solo section, Green-Armytage played a teasing melody reminiscent of Western films; at another, a radio emitted topical news regarding the recent election. Intercurrent’s conciliatory approach bound these elements together but the anarchic spirit of John Cage was missing. It would have been interesting to see more engagement with the randomness of the radio (only one station was used), or having not just one, but several orchestral excerpts play during the piece. Perhaps more stress on the aleatoric elements within the composition would have brought about the ‘unknown outcomes’ Cage sought in his work.

Two new premieres by local composers followed. Intimate Distance by Olivia Bettina Davies pits acoustic sounds against a backing track of faint, whistle-like harmonics. Bass clarinettist Ashley Smith played pinched tones in the upper register; his playing was strained, as if wanting to match the roughness of the audio track. Devenish bowed on the marimba eliciting whispering noises and pianist Green-Armytage provided dry, scattered sounds akin to drops of rain. The handling of the material was nuanced, creating a sense of motion that brought different instruments to the fore and then receded them into the background.

Composer Lachlan Skipworth’s reworking of Beata Viscera, by the 12th century polyphonist Perotin, is a response to the recent burning of Notre Dame Cathedral. An audio track of crowds singing hymns during the incident was slowed down and further processed; Smith, Devenish, and Green-Armytage played alongside these sombre vocalizations. Perotin’s modal canticle was repeated over and over in long sighing phrases. Skipworth’s writing is austere and spacious, with a looseness that feels comforting.

Franco Donatoni’s Soft 1 and 2 for solo bass clarinet was a departure from the general theme of the concert; rather, it is part of Ashley Smith’s ongoing investigation into the works of this Italian composer. Donatoni is an interesting figure in 20th century music; early in his career he aligned himself with the ultra-rationalist composers at Darmstadt (Bruno Maderna, Luigi Nono, Karlheinz Stockhausen), and was later influenced by the chance operations of John Cage; an about-face in the polarized milieu of the fifties. Donatoni’s career was marred by depressive episodes and stretches of almost no activity, but he wrote profusely in his later years; Soft 1 & 2 belongs to this period. Smith’s performance had a thespian quality, he seemed to channel an inward, brusque character absorbed in a monologue. There were hiccupping figures followed by silence, and low caressing tones contrasted with high-pitched assertions. It was a thoughtful performance that broadened the scope of the concert. While some pieces in the program flirted with more experimental approaches, Soft 1 & 2 sat firmly within the tough, virtuoso tradition of the European avant-garde.

But the core of the concert was Walkman Antiquarian, a work by the Australian-born Berlin-based composer Thomas Meadowcroft. The piece juxtaposes acoustic instrumentation (piano and a wide array of percussion instruments) alongside degraded audio samples. There was something Cagean in the realization as Jackson Vickery and Devenish explored and manipulated a variety of objects: they poured beads on pulsating speaker cones; in a rotating turntable there were bowls, paper and wood from which they obtained glitch sounds; a glass of water was emptied, and at some point, a tree branch was used as a shaker. On one side of the stage, Green-Armytage played broken chords that evoked the coolness of minimalism and post-rock, the restrained figures  intertwined with noise textures triggered by Smith on a keyboard. The ensemble brought a sense of discovery, of being caught up in the creative process. It was a satisfying conclusion to a concert whose well-considered program was carried out with great deftness.

Pictured top: L-R: Emily Green-Armytage, Ashley Smith, Louise Devenish and Jackson Vickery. Photo Olivia Davies.

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Hairy, horrifying… and heart-warming

Review: Michelle Aitken, Unrule ·
The Blue Room Theatre, 30 May ·
Review by Claire Trolio ·

It’s a great thing when a show comes along that is acutely relevant to your personal taste or interests. A feminist consideration of the female body using comedy and horror devices? Sign me up!

It’s even better when that show delivers insightful, relatable, thought-provoking and jovial entertainment. Thursday night’s premiere of Unrule did just that.

Created and directed by Michelle Aitken, and devised/performed by Chelsea Gibson, Mani Mae Gomes, Alicia Osyka and Rhiannon Petersen, Unrule mixes recorded and spoken stories with short vignettes that explore experienced body horrors.

Bathroom elements reference ‘Psycho’ and ‘Carrie’: Chelsea Gibson in ‘Unrule’. Photo: Susie Blatchford, Pixel Poetry.

The horror genre has long been linked with the body and its mysteries. The theme of adolescent transformation is a popular trope within that genre, and films like Carrie (1976) and Teen Wolf (1985) – both of which are referenced in Unrule – are just two of many examples. It’s the parallels between the bodily changes of adolescence, and those played out through the supernatural, that make this theme a popular one.

And it’s not just the adolescent body that’s ubiquitous in the horror genre. The Cartesian separation of mind and body reigns supreme in such texts, and – no surprises – it’s a gendered binary. The female body is often represented as the site of something sinister; the feminine is linked with weakness, unpredictability, evil… in opposition to the rational, in control masculine. As a result, female characters in horror narratives are often treated with distrust and apprehension. Women are frequently seen succumbing to temptation, in thrall to their bodies rather than their minds. Sexually active women are often punished by the text or presented as villains. Such narratives are a manifestation of men’s lack of understanding, a fear of the unknown and, importantly, a desire to control.

Unrule interrogates these horror devices in various ways. It’s the women who control the story here, by performing, creating and sharing both metaphorical and literal stories involving abject horror. The performers explicitly criticise the separation of mind and body in patriarchal discourse. They admit that bodies are unpredictable, and that humans experience their own physical horrors, whilst arguing that – too often – the medical profession ignores women’s concerns and patronises female patients.

Unrule covers issues of bladder leakage, endometriosis, giving birth, breastfeeding, menstruation and more. Playing with intertextuality, wigs – representing unruly body hair – come alive à la the Gremlins (1984) or Critters (1986) franchises; an attack of flying sanitary pads references The Birds (1963). Being a woman is hard, it admits, but don’t pity us. Unrule asks that women be listened to and respected: it’s that simple.

Wigs come alive: L-R: Chelsea Gibson, Rhiannon Petersen and Alicia Osyka. Photo: Susie Blatchford, Pixel Poetry.

Olivia Tartaglia’s elaborate set design is an integral part of the message. With a DIY, crafted feel, it is as raw and emotive as the performance itself. Covered in sanitary pads and allusions to menstrual blood, with the aforementioned synthetic wigs, and bathroom elements that reference Psycho (1960) and Carrie (1976), Tartaglia’s set complements and carries the performance.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this show – and I am reminded of Charlotte Otton’s 2018 work Let Me Finish – is the sense of inclusivity and an optimism that comes with not being alone. Whilst Unrule concedes that interpretive dance murder will not beat the patriarchy, being in the audience of a show like this engenders a feeling of progress. It’s conveyed not just through the subject matter and delivery, but via the intimate seating arrangement and shared snacks. You are made to feel a part of the fight, and it feels good.

Aitken, Petersen, Osyka, Gomes and Gibson have made a raw and honest work. Though a little green and underdeveloped (yes, it could be tighter), Unrule is a funny and heartwarming show that’s a treat to watch.

Unrule plays until June 15.

Pictured top are Alicia Osyka, Mani Mae Gomes and Rhiannon Petersen. Photo: Susie Blatchford, Pixel Poetry.

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Singing the message

Review: Perth Symphony Orchestra, ‘Girls Night Out’ ⋅
Astor Theatre, May 30 ⋅
Review by Rosalind Appleby ⋅

The Perth Symphony Orchestra is a diverse orchestra with repertoire that ranges from Mozart to George Michael. On Thursday night they added Madonna to the list for Girl’s Night Out, a concert featuring songs written by some of the greatest power women in history. Chief conductor Jessica Gethin leapt onto the podium and introduced the all-woman line up with exuberance: orchestra, singers, arrangers – even the lighting and stage crew – were all women.

The evening was about celebrating and elevating women and as Perth’s favourite soul singer Odette Mercy (Ofa Fatu) belted out  Chaka Khan’s I’m Every Woman it was clear we were in good hands. With the help of pick-up mics and gutsy bowing the orchestra provided the rhythm section supplemented by percussion, keyboard, saxophone and drumkit. Mercy’s  luscious voice soared easily over the top.

A Samoan singer is backed by three vocalists and an orchestra
Odette Mercy grooves with the Perth Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Angelyne Wolfe.

It’s tough to cover some of the greatest singers of all time but PSO’s soloists were outstanding. Contemporary singer Sophie Foster channelled Aretha Franklin with a mix of power and vulnerability that was impossible to fault. Her cover of Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance with Somebody sparkled with vitality thanks to the tasty harmonies of backing singers Alana Fay, Chelsea Cullen and Mia Matthiesson – nothing beats three-part harmony sung by voices as sweet as these.

Lucy Peach, of ‘My Greatest Period Ever’ fame, arrived on stage to sing a sleek version of Madonna’s Material Girl. Minogue’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head drooped a little but Peach’s sultry growl was perfect for Winehouse’s Rehab, with tenor saxophone solos from Erin Royer adding extra grunt.

Blues-folk singer Rose Parker delivered a heart wrenching original number She Makes Her Future before rocking out to Piece of My Heart by Janis Joplin, ‘the biggest-ovaried singer in the history of music’. Tina Turner’s What’s Love Got to Do With It and the Divinyls’ I Touch Myself had the audience singing along. But it was the irresistible combination of all four singers belting out the Spice Girls’ Wannabe that finally got the (mostly female) crowd dancing.

Straddling classical and popular genres is not as easy as it looks; fortunately PSO commissioned arrangements which ensured neither the song nor the orchestra come out looking foolish. Stephanie Nicholl’s visceral arrangement of Beyonce’s Single Ladies (low strings have so much grunt) , Kathy Potter’s rumba version of Franklin’s Sisters are Doin’ it for Themselves, and Nicholl’s plaintive string quintet arrangement of Parton’s Jolene utilised the intimacy and power of the orchestra.

The irresistible combination of Parker, Mercy, Foster and Peach. Photo by Angelyne Wolf.

As the songs rolled by with their messages of endurance, politics, love and survival, there was a sense of warm solidarity in the room. Historical facts about the songwriters were projected on a screen (did you know Nina Simone studied piano at Juilliard School?) as PSO brought a spirit of celebration and inspiration to the #metoo conversation. Unfortunately the need to elevate women was illustrated by a male spectator who verbally abused another audience member, ironically missing the memo from Aretha: R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

But the music prevailed. My enduring memory will be of Odette Mercy stumbling over the lyrics in Adele’s Someone Like You as the act of singing took her on a journey down memory lane. The strings swelled beneath her achingly sweet melody line, and when she hesitated the audience took over. “It just shows the power of singing,” she explained afterwards. “Some things are cleverly hidden within and don’t come out unless you sing”.

Pictured top: Perth Symphony Orchestra bring a spirit of celebration and inspiration. Photo: Angelyne Wolf.

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Dance, News, Performing arts, Reviews

An exhilarating ride

Review: Rachel Arianne Ogle, precipice ·
Studio Underground, State Theatre of WA, 29 May ·
Review by Nina Levy ·

Silence.
Two thin beams of light mark the stage with a giant “x”. A dancer in each corner.
Standing. Waiting.

From the opening moments of precipice, local independent choreographer Rachel Arianne Ogle places the viewer on edge. The prolonged silence at the start of the piece – before two of the four dancers tip off-balance into a run – sets the scene for a work in which movement, light and sound unite to repeatedly push the dancers and, by extension, the audience to that edge… to the precipice.

It’s a wild ride; visceral and invigorating. Though the work is abstract, there are clear arcs – sensual rather than narrative. And though precipice is unquestionably a contemporary dance work – the movement is often athletic in that way that makes you draw your breath sharply – it’s the deft interweaving of the choreography with the lighting and visual design by Benjamin Cisterne and score/soundscape by Luke Smiles that makes the ride feel so immersive.

Niharika Senapati and Tyrone Robinson in the 2014 season of 'precipice'..
The female dancers become perilous dolls: Niharika Senapati and Tyrone Robinson in the 2014 season of ‘precipice’.. Photo: Traianos Pakioufakis.

And finally, though it is designed around ramping up the senses, there is a poetic quality that infiltrates precipice. Now the stage is sliced in two by one of those beams of light from the opening. Against a swathe of ghostly electronic sounds, we see a dancer (the wonderful Tyrone Robinson) twisting, falling, staggering, limping. On the other side of the line, the remaining three dancers (Niharika Senapati, Yilin Kong and Linton Aberle) move through a series of supine tilts, rolls and suspensions that trace circular patterns on the floor and through the air.

Those circular patterns repeat throughout; we see them again as the two female dancers move through balances in which their legs and arms bring to mind the hands of a clock marching endlessly through time.

Though it’s hard to pick favourite sections (there are many), the synchronised male-female duos are a highlight. Apparently immobile, the female dancers become perilous dolls, to be manipulated by the male dancers who diligently insert themselves between the women and the floor. This morphs into a dance of fanning and falling counterbalances as the lighting gently oscillates between warmth and cool. The strength and focus required to pull off this movement material is considerable and on opening night, Aberle, Kong, Robinson and Senapati ensured this section had the audience mesmerised.

Another memorable movement phrase sees the dancers lie across one another as though their bodies have been plaited. To a soundscape of lightly pattering beats interspersed with electronic surges, a pattern of planks and folds ripples through the quartet; a strange caterpillar labouring through a field of light circles.

Storm Helmore, Tyrone Robinson, Imanuel Dado and Niharika Senapati in the 2014 season of 'precipice. Photo: Traianos Pakioufakis
Though the work is abstract, there are clear arcs: Storm Helmore, Tyrone Robinson, Imanuel Dado and Niharika Senapati in the 2014 season of ‘precipice. Photo: Traianos Pakioufakis

There is relatively little to separate audience and performer at the Studio Underground and in the penultimate scenes of precipice, the energy from the stage feels encompassing. Engine-like noises become increasingly loud and urgent as the dancers variously move as one, separate, pause, and explode into the space. The tension builds and builds until, with a blinding flash of light, it hits an almost unbearable peak. No spoilers – you’ll have to see the show to find out what happens next.

As aforementioned precipice depends heavily on the physical and mental discipline of its dancers. On opening night Aberle, Kong, Robinson and Senapati gave an outstanding performance.

This is not precipice’s first outing. The work was originally presented in the same theatre in 2014. As Ogle notes, it is rare that independent work is granted a second outing. Watching precipice for a second time, it’s easy to see why the State Theatre Centre of WA and Perth Theatre Trust chose to break with tradition and program this work.

Together with her creative team, Ogle has made a work that is exhilarating.

precipice plays the Studio Underground until June 1.

The sequel to precipice, i have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night, plays PICA, June 5-8.

Read a Q&A with Rachel Arianne Ogle about the two works here.

Pictured top is a scene from the 2014 season of ‘precipice’. Photo: Traianos Pakioufakis.

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