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News, Reviews, Theatre

A call for belonging

Review: Black Swan State Theatre Company, You Know We Belong Together ·
Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of WA, 21 March ·
Review by Nina Levy ·

From the moment she welcomes us to the theatre, performer and writer Julia Hales has us in the palm of her hand. This is the encore season of her work You Know We Belong Together, created with director Clare Watson and writer and associate director Finn O’Branagáin. A co-production by Black Swan State Theatre Company, Perth Festival and Dadaa, You Know We Belong Together had its first outing at last year’s Perth Festival. In recognition, no doubt, of the success of the 2018 iteration, the show has moved upstairs into the Heath Ledger Theatre in 2019, with a run three times the length of the original.

Described in the programme as a “live documentary”, You Know We Belong Together is based around a series of vignettes comprised of monologues, filmed interviews, sketches and chats. With Hales at it centre, the work is driven by her dreams: to find love, and to be on the long-running television show Home and Away.

A woman sits at a coffee table another woman dances. In the background is a projection of a train station.
“When I dance I feel like myself”: Lauren Marchbank dances as Julia Hales looks on. Photo: Toni Wilkinson.

But there’s more to this show than personal aspirations. You Know We Belong Together is a passionate call for inclusivity for people with disability, in particular on stage and screen. A woman with Down syndrome, Hales gives us an insight into her life and the lives of some of her friends with Down syndrome. We meet dancer Lauren Marchbank, who moves with loose-limbed release; Joshua Bott, whose dance-style is all about funk; Tina Fielding, a performer and palm-reader who’s always up for a laugh; the gentle Patrick Carter, whose talents lie in both performing and visual arts; and Mark and Melissa Junor, who met at a dance class and have been happily married for almost 19 years.

A woman standing in front of a portrait of herself. Both have their arms extended up and out.
Julia Hales. Photo: Toni Wilkinson.

And then there’s Hales, who manages the show with warmth, humour and sensitivity, whether interviewing her friends about love or taking us on a guided tour of her life. Though she keeps us giggling with her references to Summer Bay and its residents (cleverly supported by Tyler Hill’s set design), she doesn’t shy away from the hard stuff. We learn of her struggles, as a young adult, to come to terms with the fact that she is a person with Down syndrome, and her ongoing grief for her late mother. It’s honest, poignant and, most importantly, relatable.

And so when she asks why we don’t see people with Down syndrome on shows like Home and Away, the injustice of this absence is striking. Why, indeed?

Together with the creative team and cast, Hales, O’Branagáin and Watson have brought to the stage an engaging work that quietly but firmly lets us know, it’s time for change.

It’s a message everyone should hear.

You Know We Belong Together runs until March 31. 

Pictured top are Julia Hales and Joshua Bott. Photo: Toni Wilkinson.

A woman stands with her hands clasped over her heart.
Julia Hales manages the show with warmth, humour and sensitivity. Photo: Toni Wilkinson.
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A group of men singing on stage
Musical theatre, News, Reviews

Bleak, brutal and bittersweet

Review: WAAPA 3rd year Music Theatre, Company ·
Roundhouse Theatre, WAAPA, 19 March ·
Review by Ron Banks ·

“What’s the point of getting married?” bachelor Bobby is asked by one of his many married female friends.

“Er, for company?” queries Bobby, uncertain of why one would commit to a lifetime with the same person, underlining at the same time the emptiness and loneliness of his own unmarried existence.

First performed in the early 1970s, Sondheim’s musical Company is now a timeless reminder that for many young people, getting married – and staying married – is a vexatious state of mind, and that the resolution of marital problems is never going to be easy.

The famous music theatre composer’s slate for the sketches that form Company is his home city of New York, a place where, it appears, hundreds of thousands of marriages go to die. Despite the slick New York night-clubs and bars, chic apartments and even the railway station that comprise its backdrop, Sondheim’s take on young relationships is bleak and bitter-sweet.

The play is a series of vignettes about young people who get married, the focal point of which is the one who does not get married. Bobby is a bachelor celebrating his 35 years in the single state with five couples who have opted for marriage as a resolution to the problem of curing loneliness. Love doesn’t seem to come into it, although they protest that it does. Well, these are cynical New Yorkers, you know, and this is a Sondheim scenario where too much sentiment is not good for you.

This WAAPA production is played in the round, an appropriate metaphor for these young couples as they circle around Bobby, trying to get him to get him to commit to marriage so he can be as unhappy as they appear to be.

Bobby has three girl friends over the course of the evening, but he is not really a seducer in the Don Juan league. Rather he is a confused young man who has not really found love and he backs out of relationships before they can get too serious.

We get to know more about Bobby through his interactions with his married friends, at the same time catching glimpses of his friends’ fears and foibles in regard to that particular state of legally-sanctioned relationship.

Conor Neylon captures Bobby’s personality and doubt with a convincing sense of confusion, and his delivery of the often-difficult Sondheim songs grows in confidence as the show moves through its many short, snappy confrontations.

This is a musical of set-pieces, with each couple showing what their lives have become in song, dialogue with Bobby, and the occasional spot of group choreography.

Each performer gets the chance to shine, and the graduating students make the most of their opportunities with style and pizzazz. Their outward sparkle is a poignant counterpoint to their characters’ inner insecurity and doubt. WAAPA director Andrew Lewis has wrangled their combined talents into a stylish ensemble. The costumes and settings are timeless, neither transposed to the present day, nor anchored back in the 70s. (The smart phones are the only disorientating clue that it might be the present.)

There is a stand-out performance from Annabelle Rosewarne as Amy, the girl who, on her wedding day, suddenly decides she does not want to marry Paul. She expresses her fears in a patter-song worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan but far more hip.

Company is famous for its song “Ladies Who Lunch”, delivered with convincing mockery and cynicism by Victoria Graves, as Joanne, whose marriage a second time is not going well.

Company is quite brutal in its dissection of modern marriage, but strangely fascinating and hugely entertaining in the hands of these young WAAPA performers.

Brutal yet honest.

But that’s the point of Sondheim, isn’t it? It’s why we love his work.

Company runs until March 23.

Pictured top: Conor Neylon, as Bobby, with the male ensemble. Photo: Jon Green.

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Juliet at her balcony
News, Reviews, Theatre

Students hit sweet spot

Review: Romeo and Juliet, WAAPA 3rd year Acting directed by Michael Jenn ·
Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre of WA, 16 March ·
Review by David Zampatti ·

I suffer from an unfortunate condition called Veronaphobia, brought on by a couple of productions of Romeo and Juliet so excruciating that good manners and the advice of my lawyer constrain me from identifying, other than to say that at the first the urge to flee at interval nearly overcame me, and at the second it did.

There’s a reason for the malady. Romeo and Juliet, while it is an extravagant achievement of the English language, can be a rose that smells too sweet.

Shakespeare (who, remember, was likely only 30 and six years into his career) had just discovered his mastery, and hurled it at everything he did with little restraint. For this reason his great early plays, Richard III and A Midsummer Night’s Dream among them, need to be handled with great control and command.

Lack either, and things can get very ugly very quickly.

Happily this production, performed by WAAPA’s third year Acting students, directed by the visiting British actor and director Michael Jenn, is an antidote to what ails me.

Camilla Ponte-Alvarez (Tybalt) and Ben Chapple (Samson). Photo: Jon Green.

He navigates his ill-fated lovers and their squabbling families towards the West Side Story point of the compass, without working that relocation too hard (I’m okay for a character to cross the stage on a Vespa, and street knives actually work better than rapiers in Andy Fraser’s fight scenes). Kara Rousseau’s set in the Studio Underground is timeless and functional; the balcony is a platform on scaffolding that doubles as the upper levels of villas and palaces above Verona’s dangerous streets.

Most importantly, Jenn allows his young actors to attempt Shakespeare’s lyrical text (only fifteen per cent of the play’s lines are in prose) with a natural, colloquial rhythm, and this gives it clarity and accessibility.

Even Shakespeare’s most audacious conceit, the sonnet “If I profane with my unworthy hand” injected into Romeo and Juliet’s love-making, is natural and unforced, while maintaining its aching beauty.

The supporting cast give strong, distinctive performances: in particular Bryn Chapman Parish and Saskia Archer are perfectly drawn as the grasping daughter-peddling Capulets, Mercutio is given a sassy humour not always afforded Tybalt’s pincushion by Peter Thurnwald, and Ruby Maishman’s Friar Lawrence brings much more than the traditional hapless meddler in the affairs of the heart.

Jonathan Lagudi is a tall, dark and handsome Romeo, well suited to love and be loved, but the play is always Juliet’s, the “splendid” Juliet as Harold Bloom described her, the prototype of all Shakespeare’s great heroines, his too-young Rosalind-in-waiting, the girl whose bounty is as boundless and deep as the sea.

Poppy Lynch is a beautiful Juliet, sensible, determined and ready for anything love and death can bestow on, and take from, her. There’s nothing ethereal about her Juliet, and she acts her age (something too often overlooked).

It’s a fine performance that caps a fine production.

Romeo and Juliet runs until March 21.

Poppy Lynch as Juliet and Jonathan Lagudi as Romeo are pictured top. Photo: Jon Green.

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Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Good times ahead

Review: West Australian Symphony Orchestra, ‘Symphony No 40’ ⋅
Perth Concert Hall, March 15 ⋅
Review: Rosalind Appleby ⋅

As the summer festival season fades into the background local arts organisations are ramping up their seasons. On Friday night the Perth Concert Hall was buzzing with enthusiasm as the West Australian Symphony Orchestra welcomed new CEO Mark Coughlan (complete with a brass fanfare!) and principal conductor Asher Fisch took to the podium for his first concert in 2019.

The program included Poulenc’s lesser-known Stabat Mater alongside Mozart’s popular Symphony No 40, a hint of things to come according to Fisch who is interested in introducing forgotten gems of the repertoire to Perth audiences. The concert also featured 2019 artist in residence soprano Siobhan Stagg singing Ravel’s Shéhérazade. The Australian soprano (hailing from Mildura) is building a successful international career and will juggle her commitments as principal soloist at Deutsche Oper Berlin to return to Perth for performances of Strauss’s Orchestral Songs and Verdi’s Requiem.

Stagg’s luminous voice found the perfect vehicle in Ravel’s three songs inspired by the exoticism of the east. Shéhérazade sits at the lower end of the soprano range and Stagg’s creamy bottom register suited Ravel’s languid writing. The orchestra seemed to enjoy shaping Ravel’s colourful orchestration, with some darkly glorious low string and percussion timbres in Asie and moments of smouldering warmth in L’Indifférent. But the moment that will remain with me was Andrew Nicholson’s flute shimmering and sighing in a mesmerising duet with Stagg in La Flûte enchantée.

Poulenc’s Stabat Mater, written in 1950 after the death of a friend, took us down a darker road. The solemn opening soon gave way to spitting vehemence as the WASO Chorus, supplemented by the St George’s Cathedral Consort, sang with grim intensity. The two choirs were mostly well blended and their delivery of the line ‘dum emisit spiritum’ had a hushed glow however the exposed a capella sections were less successful with drooping pitch creating uneasy transitions. In the centre of proceedings was Stagg, her crystalline top end radiating light. Poulenc’s unexpected mood changes were cleanly conveyed by the orchestra.

Opening the concert was a crisp Symphony No 40, with the orchestra immaculately navigating Mozart’s deceptively simple transparency. Whiffs of opera buffa and opera seria mingle in this symphony in Mozart’s darker than usual musical elucidation of humanity. Fisch captured the mix of buoyancy and fragility with thrilling contrasts between elegantly poised phrasing and dynamics so soft you could hear the scratch of bow hairs.

The concert, with its inclusion of less familiar repertoire, a sensational artist in residence and an orchestra in good form bodes well for the year ahead.

Pictured top: soprano Siobhan Stagg.

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News, Reviews, Visual arts

A call for change

Review: Olivia Colja (curator), ‘WOMXN’ ·
Spectrum Project Space ·
Review by Miranda Johnson ·

‘WOMXN’, curated by Olivia Colja, is a group exhibition featuring emerging artists from Edith Cowan University (ECU) whose work addresses and interrogates experiences of womanhood and femininity. Coinciding with International Women’s Day, the exhibition also incorporated a day-long conference, Articulate, with a number of presentations from female arts workers and artists, providing a platform for discussion, advocacy and mentorship.

The strong themes of activism, collaboration and community engagement are immediately obvious. Throughout the exhibition there are signs asking for donated sanitary items for women in need, as well as lit candles for every woman who died from male violence in 2018. In this way, the exhibition is more than a platform for some of ECU’s exciting emerging artists to show their work. It’s also a call for lasting change, and suggests some concrete actions to start you on your way.

a bed with blood on it
Daisy Safrasky’s ‘I Bled Four Days’. Photo: Kristy Scadden.

These features of the exhibition also stand as a gesture of acknowledgement that the show’s themes are people’s lived experiences, and the works created emerge from real-life situations of danger, pain, and frustration with structural gender inequality that cannot be left behind upon leaving the gallery space. A work such as Daisy Safrasky’s I Bled Four Days is the manifestation of the burden and trauma carried by victims of sexual assault. A live recreation of the artist’s bed in the centre of the gallery is covered with clothing meticulously embroidered with statements from women who experienced sexual assault. In their stories, a bed is not a place of refuge but of danger – in the gallery space, however, it becomes a platform for sharing experiences and releasing the burden of shame.

A room with pink and red curtains and cushions
Cian Holt’s ‘Womb Room’. Photo: Shona McGregor.

Many works have a particular focus on the handmade, with stitching, embroidery and thread common themes running through the exhibition. Some are understated, delicate works that pack an emotional punch, such as Janice Fawcett’s Kintsugi, an installation of threads and broken crockery that manifests the pain and loss associated with miscarriage. At other times, handcrafts have more expansive, light-hearted associations with traditional feminine – or feminist – imagery. Cian Holt’s Womb Room, for example, is a garishly pink and humorously playful space in which the viewer can rest, relax and unwind.

This focus on vaginal and labial imagery, menstruation and reproduction demonstrates that there is still much concern about the ways in which women’s bodies are represented, restricted and controlled, despite several generations of the feminist project. I felt, however, that the over- over-emphasis on vaginal or menstrual imagery as representing womanhood could alienate some viewers, and that some more nuanced interrogations about the nebulous definitions and interpretations of womanhood itself could be valuable.

However, the common threads running through the exhibition create a thoughtful exhibition that clearly portrays the strong emotional and professional bonds formed by the artists and curators during the conception of the exhibition, and the strength of feeling and clarity of vision associated with the subject matter.

WOMXN’ runs at Spectrum Project Space until March 16.

Pictured top: “Turn and face the strange” by Shona McGregor. Photo: Shona McGregor.

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A group of people in different uniforms and outfits lying on top of one another
Film, News, Reviews, Visual arts

Film fascinates

Perth Festival review: Felicity Fenner (curator), Love Displaced ·
Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery ·
Review by Jess Boyce ·

Curated by Felicity Fenner, Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery’s Perth Festival exhibition “Love, Displaced” seeks connection and intimacy in the 21st Century. The all-video exhibition features the work of Jacobus Capone, Richard Lewer (NZ), Tracey Moffatt and Gary Hillberg, Christian Thompson, AES+F (Russia), Jeremy Deller and Cecilia Bengolea (UK, Argentina/France) and Roee Rosen (Israel).

Singing of brotherly love, Christian Thompson stars in his 2014 work Refuge. Alone on a white screen, the artist’s voice is accompanied by a piano as he stares down the camera in an intimate interaction between artist and viewer. Though sung without translation in his native Bidjara language, the commanding ballad powerfully conveys the emotion of the words.

A close up of a man playing the piano accordion
Jacobus Capone, ‘Volta’ (still), 2016, 2-5 channel video, duration: 53 minutes. Courtesy of the Artist. Commissioned by the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art for NEW16.

Jacobus Capone’s Volta documents his father’s attempt to relearn the piano accordion, an instrument he had not touched since the onset of severe depression that caused him to be psychologically absent from Capone’s life for a number of years. The highly personal film follows an emotional reconnection, not only with a much-loved musical instrument but also with his son. Intimately cropped to accentuate Capone’s father’s body language, the work is installed on two floating screens, allowing viewers to walk amongst the work. Disappointingly, three further channels, documenting other members of Capone’s family watching his father’s performance, were not presented in this iteration.

Like the work of Capone and Thompson, The Dust Channel by Roee Rosen uses music as a narrative device, yet in contrast to the tender insights of the former two works, the strength of this surreal operatic ode to a Dyson vacuum cleaner is in its absurdity. The Dust Channel fetishises the need for cleanliness, whilst reflecting on cultural prejudice, the refugee crisis in Europe, and the plight of Palestine.

Tracey Moffat and Gary Hillberg’s fast paced and erotically charged montage video Other traces interracial encounters in film whilst critiquing the white gaze and the exoticisation of the “other” in pop culture. Beginning with moments depicting first contact between white explorers and local inhabitants, the dynamic film gradually builds to a climax, featuring energetic dance scenes and fevered sexual encounters.

Jeremy Deller and Cecilia Bengolea’s work Bom Bom’s Dream is, curiously, the only work to be displayed on a television rather than projected. Situated in the same room as the work of Moffat and Hillberg, the two dance heavy videos compete for attention. With its bigger screen and out-loud sound, Moffat and Hillberg’s work diminishes the impression of Bom Bom’s Dream.

Inverso Mundus by AES+F presents a hyper-reality in which humans and mythical creatures co-exist and the world is turned upside down; the rich are thrown to the street, pigs murder butchers, and street cleaners litter the cities with waste. The surreal video displaces traditional power balances and social dynamics.

A line drawing of an elderly Indigenous woman leaning on a walking stick
Richard Lewer, ‘Mavis’ still and detail from Never shall be forgotten – a mother’s story, 2017, hand-drawn animation, 5:04 minutes. Courtesy of the artist, Sullivan+Strumpf and Hugo Michell Gallery. © the artist.

In contrast to AES+F’s highly produced and polished animation style, Richard Lewer’s hand drawn imagery and use of an overhead projector as an animation tool allows the viewer to witness the artist’s touch. This insight into the artistic process helps to facilitate a compassionate connection to the narrators of the two stories Never shall be forgotten – a mother’s story and Worse Luck I’m Still Here as they explore the devastating loss of their loved ones.

“Love, Displaced” is a lengthy exhibition. To watch each work in its entirety takes two hours, twenty seven minutes and 33 seconds. Challenging our ever-decreasing attention spans, the exhibition tackles another difficult task: creating genuine connection with an audience through screen-based works whilst also navigating practical issues of sound bleed.

Though these logistical hurdles are met with mixed success, the exhibition is empathetic to the displaced, the marginalised, the downtrodden and the grieving, and looks to ways to reframe connection through community, storytelling, art, song and dance. With an exemplary selection of artists, each work alone is worth a visit.

Catch “Love, Displaced” at Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery until May 18.

Pictured top: AES+F, “Inverso Mundus”, Still #1-18, 2015, pigment InkJet print on FineArt Baryta paper, 32×57.5 cm (12.5×22.7 in), edition of 10. Image courtesy of AES+F and Anna Schwartz Gallery.

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Tarryn Gill's Belly of the Beast
News, Reviews, Visual arts

Intricate and ephemeral

Review: Ted Snell (curator), “RITUAL” ·
Presented at There is gallery by Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery ·
Review by Miranda Johnson ·

Curated by Ted Snell, “RITUAL” brings together works by 12 of WA’s leading contemporary artists. Touching on the ways in which rituals inform artistic practice as well as the role of ritual in our daily lives, “RITUAL” is a satellite exhibition of Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery and is currently installed at There is, a new gallery in Northbridge. Formerly the Stuart Street Gallery (which closed some years ago), the space is – once again – in use as a gallery, complete with a hole-in-the-wall café.

Art-making itself is a ritual, and the exhibition showcases a range of practices that constitute this ritual. Though varied, the conceptual links within and between the works are strong, exploring the many ritualistic behaviours we undertake throughout our lives; the personal, the public, the religious, the secular, the social, the cultural.

A wall sculpture of a lamb with its feet tied
Abdul-Rahman Abdullah, ‘I’ve Been Assured That You’re Going To Heaven My Friend’, 2013, resin and satin, 75 x 38 x 180 cm.

Some works in “RITUAL” investigate the ways in which these acts can be mundane or habitual, even compulsive, such as the repetitious act of mark-making to pass the time. Rebecca Baumann’s Untitled (any moment now) (2018) is a series of small lines on framed pieces of paper, tiny yet delicate imprints made to mark the passing of the hours and days. From farther away they merge together, and it’s only through getting close to the works that the simple marks reveal an intricate yet impeccably orderly tally of the passing of time.

A sculpture of a rocking horse
Olga Cironis, ‘Wild (in my mind)’, 2008, rocking horse covered and stitched with grey blanket and embedded sensors, size variable.

So often a part of our rituals, animals feature heavily in this exhibition, whether the engorged silver cast of the heart of Phar Lap in Anna Louise Richardson’s Wonder Horse and Gift Horse (2019), Abdul-Rahman Abdullah’s beloved childhood lamb in I’ve Been Assured You’re Going to Heaven My Friend (2013) or the echoes of childhood safe spaces that are so often tactile, like the childhood blanket and rocking horse combined in Olga Cironis’s Wild (in my mind) (2008).

Tarryn Gill’s extraordinary installation Belly of the Beast imagines a housecat as a kind of Egyptian sphinx lording it over the moon and sun, the tactility and shapeliness of the figures, as well as the sparkly, velvety materials hinting at the idiosyncrasy of the things we find ourselves worshipping.

Amongst all of these revered and holy creatures, Pilar Matar Dupont’s ghostly, foggy landscape photographs – inspired by a dream of Sigmund Freud’s, in which the ruins of Ancient Rome appear through the landscapes of mountainous forests – reminds me of the animals that crop up throughout Freud’s writings on his patients, most often as representations of our unconscious desires or of our hidden, base natures. Rituals, then, link us to the deeply held parts of ourselves, maintained through repetition, imitation, worship and cultural practices.

Finally, ritual can be ephemeral and inextricably linked to a place. Tom Mùller’s work Spectres (2019) is an installation reflecting the spaces in which rituals unfold, the moments before or after the event. An empty room with disco lights and silence, it feels oddly empty and seedy, like a nightclub during the day, waiting for something to happen.

Ephemeral though these spaces might be, I’m hopeful that There is gallery will stick around, at least for a little while.

“RITUAL” is at There Is Gallery until March 16.

Pictured top is Tarryn Gill, ‘Belly of the Beast’, 2017, mixed media, approx 250 x 600cm.

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Procession Soft Soft Loud
Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

An R&B ceremony

Perth Festival review: Soft Soft Loud, Procession ⋅
Fremantle Arts Centre, March 2 ⋅
Review by Eduardo Cossio ⋅

Soft Soft Loud’s cross-genre contribution to the Perth Festival this year was Procession, a collaboration between American composers Hanna Benn and Deantoni Parks which premiered in the US in September. The artists have a notable list of collaborators under their belts; Parks has toured with The Mars Volta, and Hanna Benn’s arrangements appear on indie-rock albums by Son Lux and Fleet Foxes. Loosely inspired by ceremonial music traditions, Procession grew out of mantras by Benn woven with uplifting numbers to create an expansive R&B suite.  In the program notes Benn stated Procession was about the power of the human voice to connect with listeners. For Parks, it was about aligning the core elements of improvisation, notation, hybrid instrumentation and sampling.

The performance starts in the garden of the Fremantle Arts Centre where the sounds of cymbals, bells, and chimes bring an incantatory mood to the proceedings. Members of the ensemble direct the audience into the building while playing these instruments sparingly. As we march down the corridors, a melismatic female voice along with the lilt of a rhythm section is heard outside, and by time we reach the inner courtyard the band is already locked into a celebratory, jazz-inflected groove.

Vocalist-composer Benn is on one side of the stage sitting behind a rack of synthesizers, opposite her is Parks who bends over the drum kit with an air of absorption. Both musicians take on conducting roles within the ensemble but whereas Benn conducts with dance-like movements, Parks maintains a focused demeanour. Centre stage is a cast of local and interstate musicians including Perth composer Brett Smith on saxophones.

Parks approaches the drum kit as though it were tuned percussion using the pads and controllers around him to trigger samples and bass lines. His drumming is full of off-kilter turns that seem to subvert the music’s direction. But overall the tone for Procession is reassuring and the music, as Benn states, ‘singable’. Strings drift in and out with sighing phrases and the wind section plays responsorial lines that complement Benn’s coaxing vocals. An interlude for clarinet and strings slows down the pace with their unhurried criss-crossing of lines but suddenly these are drowned by a swell of guitar distortion. After a pause, the strings and clarinet make a comeback but now they are pitted against energetic R&B rhythms. There is much to like in the music and execution, however the material in the second half becomes episodic and lacks some of the initial urgency. The concert concludes with a drum solo by Parks that is an impressive amalgamation of drumming, sampling and synthesisers. Yet, it feels odd to end the song-cycle with a solo feature.

Works with a program do not need to be didactic or obvious but as soon as an artist attaches concepts to a piece, audiences will try to find a correlation. Concepts can either enrich or distract from the listening experience and the latter was the case for me. in the program Procession was billed as ‘a celebration of people and place through a re-imagining of ceremonial music.’ ‘Procession’, ‘place’ and ‘ceremony’ are words loaded with cultural significance and it felt underwhelming not seeing a deeper engagement with the themes put forward by the program. Likewise, stressing the use of music technology felt a tad redundant as it had a supportive (rather than exploratory) role, just like most music we hear today.

However, aside from the confusing way it was framed, the musicianship and musicality of the artists made Procession an engaging work.

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A brightly coloured sculptural depiction of a deity.
News, Perth Festival, Reviews, Visual arts

Two transporting experiences

Perth Festival review: David Noonan, “A Dark and Quiet Place”; Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran & Renee So, “Idols” ·
Fremantle Arts Centre ·
Review by Belinda Hermawan ·

Fremantle Arts Centre has opened its 2019 programming with an impressively curated double-bill of exhibitions presented as part of the Perth Festival, both of which raise questions about visibility and power. David Noonan’s monochromatic film, collage and tapestry works transport us into a wholly immersive experience of stagecraft; while Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran’s and Renee So’s ceramic works “face off” in a gallery space of their own.

Noonan’s 28-minute film Untitled, A Dark and Quiet Place is the main feature of his exhibition. Noonan describes the piece as “art directing existing images, stripping them back”. Black and white photographs are overlayed, juxtaposed and collaged together in a shifting tableau that draws parallels between the way in which theatre productions are staged and the way in which we stage our own lives. Often the camera will pan out from what initially looks like a simple pattern of lines or shapes, to reveal the theatre stage, various props, audio-visual components, actors dissolving into the next frame or exiting stage left… all the elements of a performance. The viewing experience is immersive, even three dimensional; at times I felt I was in a fragment of an MC Escher sketch or inside a Magic Eye puzzle. While the images are not quite surrealist, they do conjure a sense of awe.

Black and white image of women sunbathing, with vertical lines running through it
Noonan’s untitled jacquard tapestry. Photo: Rebecca Mansell.

The film includes a variety of interchangeable actors who are never afforded staying power. This theme echoes into the untitled jacquard tapestry hanging in the adjacent room. The stage actors are performing, but are lying on their backs with their heads raised, as if they are aware of a potential audience but lack the agency to make the next move. In thematic contrast, the other three untitled works in this exhibition are prints that juxtapose actors in poses with collages of lines where patterns appear in the vertical. While these columns appear rigid, like the test pattern on a television set, the variation in the horizontal lines’ height and opacity demonstrates that not everything is fixed, that even within a set structure, there is room to move.

A Bellarmine jug depicting a naked woman
So’s enigmatic idols. Photo: Rebecca Mansell.

The playful sculptures in Nithiyendran and So’s “Idols” provide an equally evocative commentary on agency and representation, this time in the context of gender expectations and idol worship. So’s stoneware works Bellarmine XV and XVI and Woman III, IV and V present as artefacts from another world, the evocative, deep earthy brown colour a result of the oxidisation process during firing. But these enigmatic idols are tongue-in-cheek, from their peculiar heads and voluptuous figures, down to their alien-like three-legged bases. Questions are raised: Are they both male and female? From which body parts do their authoritative auras come?

One theory of the origin of Bellarmine, or Bartmann, jugs is that they were conceived to make fun of Cardinal Robert Bellarmine and his anti-alcohol stance. This context makes So’s subversive decision – to sculpt a womanly figure with a face of grapes as a drinking vessel – particularly satisfying. The grape motif reappears in the neutral-coloured, knitted pieces Legs II and Circle – protest interwoven in body, a resistance to labels or instructions.

Nithiyendran’s background as a painter serves him well in his outlandishly colourful depictions of deities. Having taught himself ceramics via YouTube tutorials, his sense of adventure comes through in the deliberately unrefined sculpting and glazing of the giant heads. Throughout history, idols have been, typically, serene but Nithiyendran embraces chaos, firing smaller pieces in the kiln before assembling them in totems of unexpected scale and textural detail – exaggerated facial features, a king’s crown of tubular creatures, coral-like beards, bones as limbs, piercings and tribal-like jewellery – on stages of vibrant yellow. His signature is painted haphazardly in huge letters on the back of one head, while the letters of his first name are implanted across two eyes in another.

Foreground: brightly coloured idol, background: painting of child-like faces
Nithiyendran embraces chaos. Photo: Rebecca Mansell.

Rather than worshipping order and rules, should we not celebrate the freeform and unique? Perhaps, as the large collage Trio of selves at the proverbial gym appears to suggest, it is unhealthy to subscribe to the myth of the ideal male body, an Instagram goal that doesn’t seem even remotely achievable when juxtaposed behind three figures whose features more closely resemble those of a child’s drawing.

Thought-provoking and visually arresting, these three artists’ curated works are an excellent example of worthy investment in visual art by the Perth Festival. Fremantle Art Centre’s installation and use of gallery space is particularly well executed and their staff knowledgeable. I highly recommend setting aside at least an hour for this free event – you’ll be transported to stages unknown.

A Dark and Quiet Place and Idols show until 31 March at the Fremantle Arts Centre.

Pictured top: One of Nithiyendran’s outlandishly colourful depictions of deities.

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Silkroad Ensemble
Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Conversations with spice

Perth Festival review: Silkroad Ensemble ⋅
Perth Concert Hall, March 3 ⋅
Review by Jonathan W. Marshall ⋅

Originally founded by classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the Silkroad Ensemble is a US based organisation devoted to bringing together highly trained classical musicians with various national and ethnic musicians to perform modern fusion works. The line-up has changed over the years, and today the route of the ancient silk road which led through Persia and the Caucuses to skirt India and arrive at China serves more as a metaphor than a reliable guide of the ensemble’s musical foci. The instrumentation for the Perth Festival performance included Spanish-Galician bagpipes, classical violin, grand piano, double-bass, somewhat Hungarian/klezmer inflected cello, Indian tabla, Chinese sheng (a polyphonic, harmonica-like instrument) and mixed percussion played by Euro-American masters (though instruments from the Caribbean and Iran were included).

Many of the compositions had a rhythmic drive and swing which made them feel like updated versions of the 1936 ‘exotica’ jazz standard Caravan, but this is appropriate given the artists are explicit about offering novel blends of international approaches, rather than presenting ‘authentic’ folk performance (whatever that might be). A bit of swing provides just the right spice and loosening agent to bring these materials together.

Despite the classical base of the ensemble, the performance therefore tended towards a mixed jazz ambience, which is both something of an advantage and a weakness. There is always something remarkable about classically trained artists playing jazz beats and swinging rhythms, a kind of precision and sharpness of attack which jazz performers do not always choose to embody (jazz is, after all, inherently looser). There is however already an extremely impressive history of international jazz fusion and ‘World music’ from the twentieth century, and while the Silkroad performers were pretty fabulous, they do not quite hit the ecstatic heights of the one-off improvised groups with sitar and tabla players convened by Miles Davis or John McLaughlin, nor that of the extraordinary performances captured on the wonderful and voluminous Éthiopiques recordings.

Silkroad’s performance was nevertheless very fine on its own terms, especially when the artists got more into the swing of things and the initially poorly balanced and rather distorted sound system was smoothed out. By and large the performers succeeded in spite of, not because of, the Perth Concert Hall. A more intimate, jazz-like location would have enabled them to shine even more.

The program was quite diverse, including a pair of absolutely outstanding solo vocal pieces composed by 20th century Hungarian avant-gardist Györgi Ligeti. Singing without amplification, soloist Nora Fischer was accompanied on piano by Cristina Pato. The pair captured the slightly fractured rhythms and halting but lilting time signatures and vocal phrasing beautifully.

A pleasant surprise was the closing suite by avant-garde composer John Zorn, whose exploration of radical Yiddish music underpins his Tzaddik label. Zorn’s compositions allude to the principal Archangels of Jewish lore. The pieces had a wonderful, bouncy lilt, but also unexpected interruptions, pauses and impressively bassy underpinnings. These were interesting but still fun pieces which extended on klezmer motifs and provided ample opportunities for different members of the ensemble to come forward, and then self-consciously play off each other.

Also notable was the piece composed by the ensemble’s tabla player Sandeep Das, which highlighted the rapid backwards and forwards musical exchanges between Das and the other two percussionists, including Shane Shanahan on the giant Iranian tambourine known as the daf. The string performers also got involved as the musical cross conversations developed.

Despite the initial teething problems with the sound (at least from where I sat), the Silkroad Ensemble offered an impressively celebratory and highly accomplished performance which had rather more of a jazzy feel than might have been expected. The ensemble is dedicated to using human differences productively, as a way of generating musical and affective links and new conversations. Our politicians and immigration officials could do worse than follow its lead.

Pictured top: the musicians from Silkroad Ensemble. Photo Max Whittaker.

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