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Balancing the scale

Did anyone else notice?

Featured among the international artists appearing at the Perth Festival were two local composers, and they were both women.

Cat Hope’s searing opera Speechless made a profound impact on audiences at its premiere and scores by Rachael Dease were a large part of the success of the daring dance theatre work Sunset (STRUT Dance and Maxine Doyle, with Tura New Music) and the children’s theatre piece A Ghost in My Suitcase (Barking Gecko Theatre).

A female singer on a dark stage
Composer Rachael Dease in “Sunset”. Photo: Anthony Tran.

It went unmentioned – as it should. A woman composer headlining a national festival shouldn’t be exceptional. Yet until very recently it has been. As we celebrate International Women’s Day today it is worth remembering that the playing field has not been even for women in the arts and in many ways they are still playing catch up.

Everything I’ve ever wanted to do would’ve been easier had I
been a boy. But never mind, I never paid much attention to it,
I just marched in and there I was.

These fighting words come from Peggy Glanville-Hicks (1912-1990), arguably the most famous female composer in her lifetime and one of the first Australian women to march into the male-dominated world of composition.

Back then the costs were high: Glanville-Hicks’ colleague Margaret Sutherland was married to a psychiatrist who thought a woman wanting to compose music was a sign of mental illness, while many women had to lie about their gender to be published. Positions on the boards and in the institutions were held by men, who also received the majority of the commissions. In spite of this Sutherland almost single-handedly pioneered modernism in Australian music and in 1938 Glanville-Hicks was the first person to represent Australia at the International Society of Contemporary Music.

Australian women have made a significant contribution to Australian music history, a subject I researched and celebrated in my book Women of Note; the rise of Australian women composers (Fremantle Press 2012). As I pieced together the missing jigsaw pieces of our music history it became startlingly clear that our women composers have substantially shaped our history, often punching above their male contemporaries and often against great odds.

Today Dease, Hope and their female colleagues make up around 27 percent of Australian composers, sound artists and improvising performers. Sadly our concert programs (in any musical genre) don’t reflect anywhere near this statistic. Musicologist Sally Macarthur noted in 2013 that only 11 percent of the works in Australian new art music concerts advertised online featured works by women. And you can scour the West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s 2019 program without finding any female composers represented.

Album cover for Women of NoteFortunately some organisations and individuals are rethinking their approach to inclusive programming and commissioning. ABC Classic has begun to intentionally program more music by women on its airwaves and, as part of International Women’s Day, has scheduled four days of music entirely by women. The station has also released an album titled Women of Note which celebrates 100 years of music by Australian women. This contribution towards a more balanced canon of music is a crucial part of rewriting history and normalising gender diversity for future generations.

The album includes music by Sutherland, Glanville-Hicks and other trailblazing works including Miriam Hyde’s first Piano Concerto, premiered in 1934 by the composer with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, plus Dulcie Holland’s highly regarded Piano Trio, a work that was unperformed for nearly fifty years before it was unearthed and premiered at the Adelaide Composing Women Festival in 1991.

The album also pays tribute to living composers such as Anne Boyd whose As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams (1975) was an early precursor of minimalism. Elena Kats-Chernin, arguably Australia’s most popular and best known composer, is represented with her famous Russian Rag while Yuin woman Brenda Gifford brings insights from her Indigenous culture to the Western classical tradition. And composers such as Sally Whitwell, Maria Grenfell, Kate Moore, Nicole Murphy and Olivia Bettina Davies represent the myriad ways in which classical music is developing in the 21st century.

Which brings us back to Cat Hope and Rachael Dease and their fresh, absolutely unique contributions to the Perth Festival. I hope I wasn’t the only one who noticed. I hope curators, directors and commissioners noticed. I hope commentators, creators and the audience noticed. And I hope future generations of gender diverse composers noticed.

– Rosalind Appleby

To celebrate International Women’s Day Seesaw has copies of ABC Classic’s album Women of Note and Appleby’s book Women of Note; the rise of Australian women composers to give away. To enter, email hello@seesawmag.com.au with “Women of note comp” in the subject heading. Competition closes 5pm, March 11.

Pictured top: Soloist Karina Utomo in Cat Hope’s “Speechless”. Photo: Rachael Barrett.

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Three people in an art gallery, watching a film of a person in a fire-proof suit, engulfed in flames.
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Flux and fluidity

Review: Cassils, “Alchemic” and Marco Fusinato, “Lower Power” ·
PICA, 16 February ·
Review by Jenny Scott ·

Curated by Anne Loxley and Eugenio Viola, “Alchemic” offers an overview of the powerful works by US-based artist and bodybuilder Cassils, who is known for moulding, challenging and manipulating their body as their artistic medium. One of two exhibitions presented by PICA in association with the 2019 Perth Festival, “Alchemic” investigates and interrogates cultural and gendered narratives surrounding the body; exploring themes of resilience, vulnerability and the documentation of violence and trauma. Referencing the four elements of Western occultism (earth, fire, air, and water), these selected works are both aesthetically stunning and vital in their political intent.

In Tiresias (2013), a 15 minute video work documenting a four-hour durational performance, the artist presses their body against the male torso of a classical Greek sculpture that has been carved from ice. The artist stares stoically out at the viewer as the ice slowly melts, their stillness belying the pain they must have felt during such an act of endurance. Referencing a Greek mythological figure who was transformed from man to woman, this work speaks to the fluidity of gender – with Cassils describing their own transgender identity as “a continual process of becoming”.

The installation Becoming an Image (2012 – current) presents the remnants of a live performance that took place during this year’s Perth Festival. During this event, Cassils physically attacked a 900kg lump of modelling clay whilst being documented by a white male photographer, whose camera flash provided the only source of light. The resulting mushed clay obelisk sits in the gallery as a misshapen monument to the artist’s force and energy, while the surrounding walls are papered with a huge composite photograph of the audience members looking disoriented, shocked, bemused and grim. Overlaid on this wallpaper is a series of glossy shots showing Cassils in action, their muscles taut and eyes wild as they strike the clay. Approaching these walls, the gallery-goer views the viewers and the viewed. It’s a reminder of the power of the gaze; the impact the audience has upon its subject, and of the accountability of being a witness.

One whole wall of the Central Galleries is taken up by the cinematic video Inextinguishable Fire (2007-2015), which offers a close-up view of the artist as they endure a full-body stunt burn in a fire-proof suit. Alluding to the use of fire in protests and as a punishment, the footage has been dramatically slowed – 14 seconds of action extended to 14 minutes – which makes the flickering flames seem otherworldly. At a casual glance the sheer spectacle of this work is enjoyable, but extended time spent with this agonisingly slow piece makes the viewer appreciate the high tensions felt by both Cassils and the audience during the original performance.

Two photographs on the wall of a gallery, showing a woman about to throw a rock, at a protest.
Provoking a sense of unease: Marco Fusinato’s “Lower Power”. Photo: Bo Wong.

Ideas surrounding evidence, spectacle and the depiction of violence are also explored in the works of Australian artist Marco Fusinato found upstairs in the Westend Gallery. In this space, however, the urgent and visceral vitality of Cassil’s works has been replaced with the cool remove of high-end, commercially printed images. Produced for this exhibition, each of the two huge prints in “Lower Power” depicts a protester with their face covered, in the moment before they throw the rock visible in their upraised hand. These works belong to Fusinato’s series “Infinitives” (2009 – ongoing), in which the artist sources images of rioting published by contemporary mass media and enlarges them to monumental scale, printed on massive sheets of aluminium.

By removing these photographs from their original contexts and presenting them without any identifying information about the protesters or their circumstances, Fusinato has ensured that the images become depoliticised – they seem to retain only a generalised sense of “revolution”. The viewer becomes a voyeur, free to appreciate or dismiss the images at their leisure, perhaps choosing to admire only the formal composition or the precise rendering of the prints.

There is a sense of unease provoked by this aestheticization of anonymous rioters, whose intentions and beliefs remain unknown, and who are depicted in dire and possibly deadly circumstances. These works raise questions that are worthy of consideration for citizens of the Information Age, where images depicting violence and suffering are always just a click away.

Cassils “Alchemic” and Marco Fusinato’s “Lower Power” both run at PICA until April 14.

Pictured top: Cassils, “Alchemic”, as part of Perth Festival, at Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, 2019. Photo: Christophe Canato. Image courtesy of Cassils and Ronald Feldman Gallery.

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A privilege to witness

Perth Festival review: Art Gallery of WA, ‘Desert River Sea’ ·
Art Gallery of Western Australia ·
Review by Miranda Johnson ·

Step into the world of “Desert River Sea”, at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, and the expansiveness of this Perth Festival exhibition is striking. Delve further and you will discover that this sense of breadth is about much more than installation  choices.

“Desert River Sea” is the culmination of an extensive six-year research and development project between the Art Gallery of WA (AGWA) and Aboriginal artists and art centres throughout the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Documenting, commissioning and exhibiting works expressing the cultural and artistic life of the area, the project bridges the distance between the Kimberley and Perth, and – in turn – between art centres and artists working throughout the Kimberley, who are often just as isolated from one another. The resulting exhibition provides a comprehensive overview of the art practices and important cultural narratives embedded in the Kimberley region and spanning the past half-century of Aboriginal art centre production and individual creative practice.

This spirit of collaboration and the establishment of networks between art centres, language groups and geographic locations permeates the exhibition itself. Whilst “Desert River Sea” is divided into separate galleries titled Commissions (works made especially for the exhibition), Legacy (works selected by Indigenous curators for their cultural and historical importance) and the State Collection (works drawn from AGWA’s existing collection as well as some private collectors), stories and images thread their way throughout the exhibition and between the galleries.

Mrs Taylor Aru 2018 ochre pigments on paper 57.5 x 76 cm Courtesy the artist’s family and Kira Kiro Art Centre
Mrs Taylor, ‘Aru’ 2018, ochre pigments on paper, 57.5 x 76 cm, courtesy the artist’s family and Kira Kiro Art Centre.

Passed from generation to generation, these stories often date back an untold number of years. The Wandjina (spirits) float through the skies in new works by the Kira Kiro Collective, a collaboration of works by artists Betty Bundamurra, Mary Punchi Clement, Mercy Fredericks, Mrs Taylor, and Valerie Mangolamara celebrating the seasons, animals and spiritual practices of the artists’ Country. In the State Art Collection, this Wandjina figure appears again, in Alec Mingelmanganu’s ochre on bark piece from c.1972-74. Wanjina images are present, too, in much of the ancient rock art of the area. As I traversed the exhibition, I saw that such conversations abound between the separate galleries, with stories, artists and locations arising multiple times, refusing to stay firmly in the past or present.

As the curator’s introduction reminds us, whilst art from the Kimberley does not conform to any one medium, subject or style, what unites all work from the area is the synthesis of artwork, story and Country – Kimberley art is what it is because it carries the essence of the Kimberley itself. It is no surprise, then, that many of the works are made through collaboration or by collectives, with the act of making or developing the work as much a part of sharing cultural knowledge as the presentation of the final works.

Central to the exhibition is the stunning installation by Waringarri Aboriginal Artists, which takes as a starting point the cultural practice of Wirnan, or exchange. Comprising video projection as well as an installation of important artefacts used in the ceremony, the work provides an insight into the particularities of the ceremony for viewers, whilst also successfully synthesising old and new materials – paperbark and stone, through to metal, wood, and film.

This use of traditional and new technology features strongly throughout the other commissioned pieces in “Desert River Sea”. Warmun Art Centre’s commissions are both paintings and new animations based on paintings, celebrating the multiple ways in which stories can be communicated and voices heard. This is also an inter-generational act of knowledge exchange. Many of the paintings are by senior artists, whose stories of living on stations and experiencing first-hand the effects of violent frontier colonialism – such as Kathy Ramsey’s emotional Mistake Creek Massacre (2018) – are passed on to the younger generation, not only through their paintings and stories but through experimentation with digital media. This combination of traditional and contemporary forms of art-making continues, from luminously bright and colourful acrylic paints on cow hide of the Mangkaja artists to the pool salt used in Daniel Walbidi’s installation Wirnpa (2016-19).

Daniel Walbidi, ‘Wirnpa’ 2016–2019 (detail), sand installation and digital video, dimensions variable, courtesy the artist and Short Street Gallery.

In a similar manner, the concerns and local issues presented throughout the exhibition traverse time, from massacres and slavery to life on colonial cattle stations, and into present concerns about the impact of environmental disaster, land grabs by mining corporations, and native title settlements. This responsiveness to the present as well as the ongoing impact of past trauma is, perhaps, typified by curator Lynley Nargoodah’s selection of works on paper by Mangkaja artists, all of which address the importance of water as a life-giving and life-saving resource that is increasingly threatened by the environmental impact of fracking, mining and agriculture. It is not just the recently commissioned works that look to the future of life in the Kimberley, but historical and legacy works as well.

The stories and art practices in “Desert River Sea” gesture towards not only the vibrancy of the region, but the strength of spirit and survival of Aboriginal artists and art centre workers seeking to ensure this living and responsive cultural legacy continues into the future in a generous and thoughtful exhibition that is an honour and a privilege to witness.

Pictured top: Helicopter Joey Tjungurrayi, “Wangkartu'” 2017, kiln fired glass, 31.2 x 21.7 cm, courtesy Warlayirti Artists.

“Desert River Sea” is on display at the Art Gallery of Western Australia until May 27.

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Ambition vs art

Perth Festival review: Ochre Contemporary Dance Company & Daksha Sheth Dance Company, Kwongkan (Sand) ·
Fremantle Arts Centre, 16 February ·
Review by Varnya Bromilow ·

Creating overtly political art is hard. As an artist, how do you strike the balance between missed message and straight-up didacticism? Where does beauty fit into the picture, or should it not matter? Considering the fraught nature of the path, it’s unsurprising that many artists steer clear of broader political messages, irrespective of the depth of their personal convictions.

As a creator, Mark Howett has always dived fearlessly into this fray. As artistic director of WA’s Ochre Contemporary Dance Company he has directed 3.3 (2018), Kaya (2016) and Good Little Soldier (2017). Each of these productions was notable for its deft handling of thorny social issues and for the high calibre of technique and artistry. Whether the topic was Indigenous incarceration (3.3) or PTSD (Good Little Soldier), Howett straddled the line between preachiness and meaning with certainty, creating compelling shows that spoke truth as they engaged. With Kwongkan (Sand) however, that sweet spot is missed. It’s a deeply felt, impassioned treatise about climate change… but it’s also deeply flawed.

Like Kaya before it, Kwongkan is the fruit of a cross-cultural exchange between Ochre and Daksha Sheth Dance Company in Kerala, India. The work began life as a film, which some audience members may have seen preceding 3.3 last year. This first, film version of the work is lushly evocative, signalling an interest in the environment, but lacking the overt political agenda that forms the core of Kwongkan as a dance work. The most effective parts of 2019’s Kwongkan feature sections from the original film as backdrop, with dancers Ian Wilkes, Isha Sharvani and Kate Harman silhouetted in the foreground.

As a former lighting designer, Howett has a terrific eye for the visual and in this way, Kwongkan meets the high bar set by his previous efforts. Unfurling plastic film sheaths Harman, as she leaps across the grassed stage of the Fremantle Arts Centre; a blanket of soft plastics unrolls down an incline; Sharvani shinnies up a silk suspended from one of the eucalypts bordering the stage – there are some wonderful visual elements here but they feel like additions bolted onto what is an unfocused and uncertain narrative.

Kwongkan’s troubles begin with a split narrative focus – we start with climate change and humanity’s destruction of the planet, then we shift suddenly to the Stolen Generation and back again to the climate, this time with an emphasis on plastics. Each of these themes is worthy of a dance work of its own – to combine them all into one hour feels cruelly brief.

There is some truly remarkable filmed footage of the camps Aboriginal children lived in after being torn from their parents. This is complemented by incredible traditional dancing from Wilkes, who is one of the best young dancers at work in Australia. Sharvani and Harman join him in this sequence, one of the only joint sequences that enjoys a synchronicity noticeably elusive elsewhere. The accompanying skit of Wilkes’ forced adherence to Western dress codes is embarrassingly simplistic, seriously underestimating the audience’s capacity for a more nuanced depiction of this abhorrent period of our shared history.

Then, without notice, we are back to the environment. Admittedly, Howett faces a tremendous challenge in creating work about climate change – socio-cultural fatigue. Even the most ardent among us are sinking into a kind of inert despair at the lack of political action on this front. We understand the danger, we make lifestyle changes… but I’m ashamed to admit that I now actively avoid looking at the plastic ocean imagery because it makes me feel so awfully hopeless. There’s no avoidance to be had here – image after image of plastic-choked sea creatures were projected in a sequence that had many in the Fremantle audience in tears. This was followed by the dancers chanting (“we can’t eat money”) and exhorting the audience to join in. But rather than feeling like an uprising, it felt to me like a sad, desperate refrain.

There is no doubting the urgency of the themes tackled here, or the passion of the players. But despite these noble aims and some flashes of brilliance, Kwongkan fails to live up to expectations, both of Howett’s work and of Festival curated fare.

Kwongkan plays Fremantle Arts Centre until February 20.

Pictured top: Ian Wilkes in “Kwongkan”. Photo: Daniel Grant.

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A star is born

Perth Festival review: The Last Great Hunt, Lé Nør   ·
PICA, February 13 ·
Review by David Zampatti ·

Lé Nør  (The Rain) is the most ambitious work yet by The Last Great Hunt. It’s also the first time that all six members of the West Australian company have combined their talents as devisers, operators and performers in one production.

The result is awe-inspiring.

Here’s the bare bones: Lé Nør is set on the imagined North Atlantic island city-state of Sólset (from now on I’m going to dispense with the accents and umlauts; more on them later) that has endured a terrible seven-year drought that has reduced its inhabitants to water-hoarding, water-blackmailing obsessives. When the rains finally come, they keep coming. Before long the little island faces an even more existential threat.

We follow the lives of the inhabitants of one apartment block, Inez (Gita Bezard), a pregnant rescue helicopter pilot, and her husband Leal (Jeffrey Jay Fowler), Petri (Chris Isaacs) and his inseparable mate Tobe (also Fowler), and two single women drawn to each other, Eliza (Arielle Gray) and Soren (Adriane Daff). Another woman, Suzette (Jo Morris, the only non-Hunter in the cast) pines for her fled boyfriend in her lonely flat, endlessly playing and replaying Phil Collins’s Against All Odds.

All of their shenanigans are overseen with mild menace by the narrator, TLGH’s gamester-in-chief, Tim Watts.

That’s the last you need bother about the plot. It’s the how, not the what, that this thing is about.

As well as the Collins dirge, there’s I’m Not in Love, White Wing Dove, Head over Heels, How Do I Get You Alone, steak knives and more in the exquisitely hideous 1980s soundtrack ­– is there a word for nostalgia for a time you didn’t have to endure yourself?

That’s only part of the referential delight of the work. It’s a deep dive into a world transformed by the lens of a camera, a stage show that becomes, more completely than anything I can remember, the Grand Illusion, the making of cinema.

Effectively the set is a screen that dominates the PICA stage, designed, along with its attendant gadgetry, by the “seventh Hunter”, Anthony Watts. All the show’s action, all its effects, are created for, and live on, that screen. Around it bustle the Hunters and stage manager Clare Testoni, setting scenes, setting up camera shots, striking poses, delivering lines, all to be distilled into images on it.

It’s a phenomenally intense ride – if anything a little too dizzying to actively engage in for 90 minutes – wildly funny and sexy. It’s a technical achievement, with a personality and charisma, like nothing we’ve seen from a West Australian company.

The title, the Hunters say, means “The Rain” in the hilarious gibberish-language they have concocted for the show (there are English surtitles), but we know better.

It really means film noir (although some of the shots, of Gray and Daff in particular, owe as much to flicks like David Hamilton’s soft focus, gauzy 1977 Bilitis as anything grittier) but film theory is probably as unimportant here as narrative. Nothing is important (when nothing is real, there’s nothing to get hung about).

So just sit back and watch Jo Morris in a phone box climbing up the walls and across the ceiling while you see how it’s done; watch two fight superstars (Gray and Daff as goodie and baddie respectively) suddenly come to life on their billboard; watch Bezard’s matchbox helicopter swoop down to rescue our heroes from Solset’s last unsubmerged rooftop (the one with the billboard) like eagles on the slopes of Mt Doom.

With Lé Nør The Last Great Hunt have confirmed their individual and collective stardom and their mastery of their craft. Now it’s time for the real fun to begin.

“Lé Nør” is playing at PICA until February 24, and Mandurah Performing Arts Centre February 28 – March 2.

Pictured top: Visual marvel – Jo Morris and The Last Great Hunt soar. Photo: Daniel Grant.

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Stark, dark and utterly compelling

Perth Festival review: Michael Keegan-Dolan and Teac Damsa, Swan Lake/Loch na hEala ·
Heath Ledger Theatre, 14 February ·
Review by Nina Levy ·

Anyone who saw Michael Keegan-Dolan’s dance theatre work Giselle at Perth Festival, back in 2009, will know that the Irish choreographer has the capacity to show us that the dark and often gruesome side of 19th century Gothic fairy-tale narratives lies just below the surface of contemporary life.

So it’s no surprise that his Swan Lake/Loch na hEala, created for his Ireland-based dance theatre company Teac Damsa, is laced with loneliness and grief, punctuated by violence. Instead of a castle we see an Irish housing estate. In place of a prince we have Jimmy O’Reilly (Alex Leonhartsberger), a 36-year old man emotionally paralysed by unemployment and the loss of his father.

The evil sorcerer is The Holy Man (Mikel Murfi); the story is his confession. In a flash-back scene we learn that he has sexually abused Finola (Rachel Poirier), a teenaged girl in his parish. When he realises that the crime has been witnessed by her three sisters he silences them with a curse that transforms all four girls into swans.

Years later, when Jimmy seeks solace at the local lake,  he is transfixed by the swan-woman Finola. And so the story unfolds but this is no escapist Romantic tragedy. Instead it’s a tale of the insidious nature of depression, of prejudice, and of corrupt power.

It would feel unrelentingly dark, but Keegan-Dolan tells this modern-day fable with a light touch. For starters, there’s a liberal sprinkling of humour. Then there’s the sparkling live music, composed by Dublin-based band Slow Moving Clouds and performed with zest by Aki (nyckelharpa, vocals), Mary Barnecutt (cello, vocals) and Danny Diamond (fiddle). The folk resonances of the tumbling score, with its yearning wordless calls and minor key melodies, are soothing as the story takes increasingly disturbing turns.

And, of course, there’s the dance, which interweaves the spoken narrative with curlicuing limbs and spiralling paths. It’s beautifully executed by the cast. As The First, Second and Third Watchers, Saku Koistinen, Zen Jefferson and Erik Nevin are lithe and nimble, while the swan sisters Kim Ceysens, Anna Kaszuba and Carys Staton, and Poirier are at once weighted and expansive, their arms extending with an airiness that belies their firmly grounded steps. With their broad-spanned swan wings (designed by Hyemi Shin) they are almost angelic.

Poirier and Leonhartsberger’s two duets are highlights, the first flinching and stuttering; the second softer and more supple, a moment of comfort before parting. Both dancers portray their vulnerable, damaged characters with poignancy and sensitivity.

As The Holy Man (and various other minor roles) Mikel Murfi is outstanding. This is no fantasy villain; chilling yet comical, his Holy Man is both repellent and believable. And Murfi is versatile; so swiftly and deftly does he switch between two conversing characters that we almost see two men on stage.

It’s a pleasure to see Australia’s own Elizabeth Cameron Dalman playing Jimmy’s widowed mother Nancy. At 84, this doyenne of contemporary dance inhabits the role with stoic grace. Her wonderfully expressive face speaks volumes and it’s a privilege to see her dance in the final scene, albeit briefly.

Though the feather-filled finale feels disconnected from the story’s tragic conclusion, it also allows viewers time to gather their thoughts and spirits. By curtain call on opening night, the audience was, justly, ecstatic.

Stark, dark and disturbing, Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Swan Lake is utterly compelling.

Swan Lake/Loch na hEala plays the State Theatre Centre of WA until February 17.

Pictured are Alex Leonhartsberger (Jimmy) and Rachel Poirier (Finola). Photo: Matt Grace.

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A writers festival for you

Running from 18-24 February, Perth Festival Writers Week is a feast for the mind, combining an immersive weekend of panel sessions at the University Club at UWA as well as a number of satellite events around Perth. This year marks William Yeoman’s second as Writers Week Curator and, with one successful event already under his belt, he’s excited for what he promises will be an even better program this February. Claire Trolio spoke to Yeoman to find out more.

William Yeoman
William Yeoman

William Yeoman works an eight day week.

Yes, you read that right.  Maintaining his full time job as Books Editor and Arts Writer at The West Australian, he also works two days a week in the Perth Festival offices and steals time early in the morning or in the evenings to make up an extra day. Fortunately, there is some overlap between his jobs, most notably the copious amount of reading required!

To get through those mountains of literature, Yeoman has perfected the art of skim reading. When he’s reading for work and it’s not a text he’d otherwise choose, he is able to familiarise himself with a book in about one hour.

But reading for enjoyment? That’s another story he says. I wonder if there is any time left in his schedule for a leisurely read? “I make time,” he stresses. “If you love the language [of a writer] you need to slow down.” At the moment, Yeoman is savouring Fiona Wright’s collection of essays “The World Was Whole”, ahead of her appearance in two sessions at Writers Week.

Curating Perth Festival Writers Week is a mammoth task and Yeoman doesn’t pretend otherwise. “Let’s be clear, this kind of writers festival is a major international festival. But once you get your head around all that, it’s fine,” he chuckles. To approach the task he starts with a rough idea of the themes he wants to explore and the kinds of authors he wants to invite. But, he stresses, “it’s also about being flexible enough to change your mind and being ready to accept those authors who are offered up to you, sometimes quite late in the piece.”

Jane Caro. Photo: David Hahn.

Jane Caro is one example. The writer and social commentator’s new book Accidental Feminists, is coming out this month and Yeoman jumped at the chance to add her name to the bill. Not only does this make for an up-to-date, relevant program, but Caro is also a big name. “Someone like that is going to raise the profile of the festival,” explains Yeoman.

Entertaining the audience is also high on Yeoman’s list of priorities. “I am big on the ideas of performance and theatre,” he reflects. “Of course, solid, conceptual ideas might be at the heart of that, but hopefully they are presented in an engaging way. Part of creating that experience is related to the kind of guests you invite,” he continues, naming Benjamin Law and Mikey Robins as two 2019 Writers Week guests whose brilliant presentation styles were a big drawcard when planning the program.

As Writers Week Curator, Yeoman considers his responsibility to be “first and foremost, to the reader”. It’s the same way he approaches journalism. This means he must compromise his personal interests and, sometimes his political opinions. “It’s important to have dissenting voices [within a festival], not if they are extreme, but where they are reasonable,” he remarks.

There’s also room in the festival to have some fun, and one of the program highlights for Yeoman himself is Freo Groove, a celebration of the musical history of Fremantle. “To have writers and musicians Claire Moodie and Bill Lawrie together with Lucky Oceans and some of the musicians who feature in their book, in a free, outdoor marquee sundowner – what’s not to like?”

A keen musician himself, he admits to always seeking out musical connections, and the program reflects this. As well as Freo Groove, Yeoman has programmed author and travel editor Stephen Scourfield in conversation with Margaret River based guitar maker Scott Wise (There Are Strings Attached); Jazz High Tea, combining a conversation about The Great Gatsby with live music from WA Youth Jazz Orchestra; and a performance of songs of love and desire in German and English preceding a discussion about singing in translation (Lust in Translation).

The intersection between literature and other disciplines is a feature of Yeoman’s programming. Film, architecture, photography and fashion, as well as music, are represented in this year’s program. Where do you draw the line when it comes to crossing disciplines at a writers festival? “You don’t!” Yeoman responds emphatically. “You find a connection somewhere. If someone has written a book on a topic, well, it’s as easy as that.”

The architectural legacy of Kerry Hill will be discussed by Kerry Hill Architects’ Patrick Kosky and architect Geoffrey London alongside a tour of Hill’s City of Perth Library (Remembering Kerry Hill). And one of Australia’s most famous and respected film critics, David Stratton, will pop by. He’ll discuss hidden cinematic gems (101 Marvellous Movies You May Have Missed) before joining Jane Lydon, Joanna Sassoon and George Kouvaros to consider how moving and still images shape our memories and future (Migration, Memory & Movies).

Benjamin Law

Yeoman is also excited to present madison moore, an American cultural critic, DJ and Assistant Professor of Queer Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. Moore’s first book, Fabulous: The Rise of the Beautiful Eccentric, explores how eccentric style, fashion and creativity is political, particularly in queer culture and non-white cultures. As well as appearing alongside Benjamin Law and Ursula Martinez in panel session A Queer World, moore will present a late-night performance lecture at the State Theatre Centre of WA, exploring the concept of clubs as a safe space for experimentation and self-expression (Dance Mania: A Manifesto for Queer Nightlife).

Evidently, moore’s work ties in closely to what Yeoman has declared to be the theme of Writers Week 2019: Our Imagined Selves. “In fact,” declares Yeoman, “this year’s theme was partly inspired by madison moore.” As beautifully diverse as Yeoman’s 2019 Writers Week program is, this concept ties it together. Stories – both fiction and non-fiction – are the essence of who we are. So as you journey through Perth Festival Writers Week, consider yourself, your own story and how it fits with those around you. Because as much as the festival is about the writers, it’s also about you.

Perth Festival Writers Week runs from 18-24 February 2019. 

Pictured top is madison moore.

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Olympian spectacle

Perth Festival review: Dimitris Papaioannou, The Great Tamer ·
Heath Ledger Theatre, February 8 ·
Review by David Zampatti ·

Dimitris Papaioannou’s The Great Tamer begins with a slow, simple contest. A man’s naked body lies on a white panel on a grey/black stage. A man covers the body with a sheet; another man blows the sheet away. They enter, play their game, leave. Enter, play and leave. Again and again.

As it transpires, all of Papaioannou’s spectacle (it can’t be meaningfully described as a play, or a dance) is a game, the subject of which, the rules it adheres to or breaks, the bats, balls, dice, cards it plays with, is time. Time is the great tamer.

Papaioannou, who is best known as the creator of the opening ceremony for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, is by training and inclination a visual artist, and The Great Tamer is most satisfactorily approached as an animated work of art.

The set, a captured ocean swell, consists of a seemingly disordered jumble of those panels, like a jigsaw puzzle all of whose pieces are the same colour and shape. On and through this monochromatic landscape, Papaioannou’s troupe of ten actor/dancer/acrobats form and reform into tableaux, mutant creatures, or body parts, appearing and disappearing through unseen fissures into some unimaginable underworld.

It’s a world of art, sometimes specific (Dr Tulp gives his anatomy class, Kronos/Saturn devours his children) sometimes suggested (there’s much of the spirit of Dali in Papaioannou’s visual imagination; Escher and Bosch also), always playful.

Unsurprisingly, the forms and images of classical Greek art recur throughout. A figure has its marble surfaces cracked away to reveal the boy beneath (the debris is the rubble of time, swept up, bagged and thrown into the void), disembodied arms, legs and heads scurry from holes across the stage

For all the visual thrills of The Great Tamer perhaps the most brilliant effect Papaioannou creates, with his colleague Stephanos Droussiotis, is its music, a remarkable attenuation of Strauss’s An der schönen blauen Donau (The Blue Danube). It’s signature passages are excised, gradually dissolving into separate phrases and, finally, single notes, the musical equivalent of the aforementioned disembodied limbs. It’s a game, of course, a playing with the time that tames sound to make it music.

The Blue Danube is also, of course, a recurring motif in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Lovers of that similarly disconcerting visual extravaganza (I bet Papaioannou is) will recognise other references to it in the incongruous spacemen who float awkwardly across the stage, the light behind their helmets’ visors, like the reflections of the eye of HAL.

The cast of The Great Tamer are superbly skilled and superbly choreographed. Some of the physical effects they create defy logic, their acrobatic and circus skills are of the highest order, their wordless expressiveness compelling.

Because this is a world without words, and without narrative. It’s Plato/Socrates’s world of forms, of timeless ideas, of sight and appearance, the original Twilight Zone.

It’s Papaioannou’s playground; it’s where Estragon and Vladimir wait and Lear is exiled. It’s Beckett and Eliot and Shakespeare distilled, first into images and then to thought.

It’s no surprise, and no accident, that Papaioannou’s final image is of a skeleton breaking apart into rubble like a ruined Greek statue. Its skull rolls off the stage and comes to rest against . . . a book.

Perhaps waiting, in the marvellous game of The Great Tamer, for a Danish prince to play with.

The Great Tamer is playing at the Heath Ledger Theatre until February 12.

Pictured top: Platonic forms – the cast of The Great Tamer animate classical works of art

Photo: Julian Momert

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audience and dancers move together
Dance, Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Cross-cultural collage

Perth Festival review: Beijing Dance Theatre, Dancenorth Australia, Jun Tian Fang ensemble,Genevieve Lacey, Gideon Obarzanek & Max de Wardener, One Infinity ⋅
His Majesty’s Theatre,  February 7 ⋅
Review by Jonathan W. Marshall ⋅

Concert dance performance is a tricky beast. Dance productions tend to use recordings. If live musicians are present, they tend to be either peripheral, or fully incorporated into the scenography as physical performers in their own right. One Infinity is a bit of both, and is consequently uneven; enjoyable but flawed.

Director Gideon Obarzanek positions us in two opposite seating banks surrounding a rectangular strip running left to right. Five musicians are located at the edges of the strip. Dancers (from Beijing Dance Theatre and Dancenorth Australia) only enter the central area twice for what are the most successful sections, with the dancers and instrumentalists literally sharing the space. Otherwise the dancers are located in the seating banks, with a key dancer whom audiences are encouraged to physically echo being seated at the very top. The main group of dancers are however two levels down from this. It is therefore not possible to focus on any of the numerous elements within One Infinity. When each audience group joins the elevated performer in weaving our arms within fairly simple movements, the idea seems to be to just “go with the flow” within a dispersed and encompassing vision. The relationships between the live instrumentalists, electronic musical interludes, and the dance however vary from the banal to the opaque.

Genevieve Lacey’s breath-takingly subtle recorder playing. Photo Gregory Lorenzutti

The problem may lie in the musical composition by Max de Wardener and Genevieve Lacey. Lacey is a breath-takingly subtle recorder virtuoso. Here she performs opposite four Chinese classical musicians from the Jun Tian Fang music ensemble. Three play a rarefied form of horizontal unbridged Chinese harp or zither, the guqin (Wang Peng, Zhuo Ran, Zhang Lu), and a fourth is on bamboo flute (Xiao Gang). Peng is the guqin master who trained Ran and Lu. He performs two exquisite solos which showcase classical modes of string bending, sharp and light attacks, and so on. His acolytes perform one additional solo each. Ran plays like a slap bass guitarist, his contribution pushing the instrument into harder, more extreme outcomes. Lu by contrast has a slightly differently tuned instrument, her notes having a beautifully microtonally frayed edge, each tending to hang and resonate into vibrating fractures. While these younger performers do indeed also play with Lacey, their more striking solos rest largely outside of the larger structure.

The electronic elements, verging into noise at times, feel like they come from a different composition. There is some cross-fertilization as Lacey’s extraordinary, heavy and wooden sounding bass recorder echoes (and may have been sampled) within the electronic accompaniment, but the music by and large exists as discrete blocks.

Obarzanek consequently struggles to provide a substantive choreographic dramaturgy. The section on the floor where the dancers begin by shaking, bouncing, then sawing at the space as though swimming, finally breaking out of lines and across the strip, is the most interesting and the only section where one can actually watch the dancers while also observing the extraordinary musicians. The rest of the choreography however reinvents some of the oldest clichés about Oriental and/or mystical movement. Dancers are seated behind each other with arms intertwined like Hindu gods, or fold in and out around a central point like a blossoming rose. It is attractive enough, and Obarzanek wants it simple, but it is frankly unexciting and does not compare to other instances of similar choreography by say Akram Khan let alone experts in Indian classical dance.

It is perhaps significant that Obarzanek uses the mandala as his inspiration, a spiritual visual motif associated principally with Buddhism and especially its Tibetan mystical forms. The guqin however has traditionally been associated with the Confucian/Daoist scholarly class of the Chinese Imperial court and was originally not even intended for performance, rather being a personal form of meditation and contemplation. It is therefore not surprising that this kind of music, which calls for extremely focused attention in the listener, does not blend well with the more visually florid motifs of the mandala.

Members of the Jun Tian Fang music ensemble playing the guqin. Photo Sarah Walker

One Infinity is therefore a curate’s egg. The guqin performances are quite simply jaw-dropping as well as being very modern in expression despite the long classical tradition to which Peng and his students are heir. I would moreover happily go again to hear Lacey’s beautiful, spiralling recorder. Parts of the choreography are strong, and the audience interaction is well handled. But the question of what this show actually is has not been fully addressed. Is it a concert, in which the dance functions as marginalia? Is it a show about audience participation and immersion? Is it a meditative choreographic experience in which the music functions as the accompaniment but not focus (this seems closest to the end result)? Or is it something else again? One Infinity includes superb elements, but it does not gel.

One Infinity continues until February 10.

 

Pictured top: dancers and audience move together in One Infinity. Photo Gregory Lorenzutti

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Features, News, Performing arts

Home-grown produce

Nina Levy ·

It’s November 1, 2018 and the Perth Concert Hall is packed for Wendy Martin’s final Perth Festival programme launch. Anyone who has paid attention to Martin’s programming over the last four years will know that the Festival’s artistic director is a passionate advocate for contemporary dance. When the banner for STRUT Dance’s Sunset opens her 2019 line-up, however, the ripple of excitement is about more than dance.

It’s a historical moment. A local show is leading the charge.

Martin’s decision to open her final Festival launch with a home-grown show is part of a greater plan to showcase local work in this year’s programme. Alongside a terrific selection of international and interstate works, there are numerous shows and events by local artists and companies that are appearing this year under the newly-created banner, “Made in WA”. That list includes six Festival commissions.

Martin is immensely proud of the 2019 Festival’s local content. “It’s important to have a fantastically curated international programme, but it’s also important that, whichever place you’re in, the artists of that place are seen on the same platform,” she explains.

From the outset Martin’s vision was inextricably linked with WA. “When I [started at Perth Festival, four years ago] I said, ‘There are festivals in cities all over world. The thing that makes a difference is the place in which the festival happens.’ So when I arrived here, I saw myself as a detective, looking for clues and stories and threads to figure out, how I make a festival that really belongs in this place,” she explains.

Martin was immediately struck by what she describes as “the unbelievable list of artists who come from this place, both historically and now“. Her immediate response was to commission “Home” as the opening event of her first Festival, a free, one-night-only celebration of West Australian talent that included the likes of Tim Minchin, the John Butler Trio, Shaun Tan, The Drones, The Triffids and The Waifs.

The much-loved ‘Boorna Waanginy’ will return to Perth Festival in 2019.

The opening event of her second festival, Boorna Waanginy: The Trees Speak, was another home-grown special, and one which returns to this year’s Festival. Bringing together the talents of Noongar elder and director Richard Walley, and designers Zoë Atkinson and Sohan Ariel Hayes, under the direction of Nigel Jamieson, Boorna Waanginy sees one of Perth’s most treasured landmarks, Kings Park, transformed by light and sound.

Thus the seeds for the Made in WA programme were sown… but it was an idea that needed time to germinate. “As a curator, you have to know artists and they have to know you, and there needs to be a certain level of trust to be able to work on projects together,” reflects Martin. “So it’s taken this much time, three years living in Perth, to be able to commission all this new work.”

The Last Great Hunt was one of the local first companies to catch Wendy Martin’s attention. Pictured is a scene from ‘Le Nor’ which will premiere at this year’s Festival.

When it came to choosing which shows to commission under the new Made in WA banner, one company caught Martin’s eye early on. “From the time I began [at Perth Festival] I could not believe that The Last Great Hunt, who had toured the world, had never been in Perth Festival,” she remarks.

Martin wasn’t going to rush into anything though. “I had so many meetings, across the years, with Tim [Watts] from The Last Great Hunt. I kept saying, ‘Come on, give me something, I’d love to have you guys in the Festival…’ and then I saw New Owner [by The Last Great Hunt, commissioned by the Awesome Festival] and I loved it. If I’d have known about that show I would have loved to have had it in Perth Festival… but of course, it’s fantastic that it was in Awesome, which is an amazing Festival.

“[Tim and I] met about three times. He wanted to experiment with form and what I didn’t understand – because at that point I didn’t know him well enough – is that Tim is a wonderful storyteller, but he doesn’t start with the idea, he starts with the form of the production.”

And then The Last Great Hunt pitched the idea for Le Nor, a work that weaves together film and live performance, so that audiences witness both an on-screen story and behind-the-scenes action. “When Tim did his pitch for Le Nor I was almost crying, because I thought it was so magic, such a beautiful idea, funny and poetic,” Martin recalls. “Tim’s work, at its core has big heart … and as a programmer that’s one of the things I care about most.”

Glamorous woman in a black pillbox hat
Natalie Allen in ‘Sunset’, a new work created by WA’s STRUT Dance, in collaboration with UK dance theatre company Punchdrunk. Photo: Simon Pynt.

Another commissioned work that is close to Martin’s heart is STRUT Dance’s Sunset. Created in collaboration with UK choreographer and director Maxine Doyle (associate director and choreographer, Punchdrunk), in association with Tura New Music, Sunset is an immersive dance theatre work that takes audiences on a walking tour of Dalkeith’s Sunset Heritage Precinct. “Sunset is like a dream in terms of my programming aims,” she explains. “It’s a collaboration between a great international artist and local artists, it speaks to the history of this place, it’s a collaboration with more than one [local] artist and company – as well as STRUT and Tura New Music, Rachael Dease is the composer and doing the sound design, and Bruce McKinven is doing the set. It’s also a fantastic opportunity for the artists here to work with an absolute game changer. UK dance theatre company Punchdrunk have created whole new form of immersive theatre … to have someone like [Punchdrunk’s associate director and choreographer] Maxine Doyle in our midst, excited by this place… you couldn’t really ask for more.”

No words: Cat Hope’s ‘Speechless’. Pictured are the hands of the four soloists, Tara Tiba, Sage Pbbbt, Judith Dodsworth and Karina Utomo. Photo: Paul Tadday.

WA’s Tura New Music is involved in a second 2019 Festival commission, producing Cat Hope’s new opera, Speechless. In the case of Speechless, a response to the issue of children in detention that combines four soloists, a 30-voice choir, the Australian Bass Orchestra and Decibel new music ensemble, it was the motivation behind the work that appealed to Martin. “I love that Cat is an activist and a great humanitarian,” she reflects. “She was so disturbed by the decisions that the government was making in our name. So she felt the best thing that she could do is make a personal, artistic response. She read the Gillian Triggs report into children in detention and then figured out this beautiful concept which is her graphic score. The music she has written has kind of been written over the photographs and drawings that the children have done. In a way she’s giving these kids a voice by responding so directly to their art work. There are no words because those people have no voice. Cat is a really important Australian artist.”

Man in front of Mill
Lost and Found Artistic Director, Chris van Tuinen, pictured at Jarrahdale Heritage Mill, where ‘Ned Kelly’ will be presented. Photo: Nik Babic.

Like The Last Great Hunt, Lost and Found Opera was on Martin’s radar from early on. Renowned for presenting unusual operas in unexpected but effective spaces, Lost and Found will be presenting its first commissioned opera, Ned Kelly, in a Jarrahdale saw mill. “Lost and Found Opera have been doing super exciting work,” enthuses Martin. “I think they have a brilliant concept and the fact that they now want to create a work from scratch – they have such a track record that you just have to trust that they’ll deliver. They’ve also got a great following… but I think the platform of the Festival will make it more recognisable.”

Three woman. One looks scared, one is ready to fight, one is calm.
A rip-roaring yarn: ‘A Ghost in My Suitcase’. Photo: Daniel Grant.

Much-loved local company Barking Gecko Theatre also has an established following but stands to broaden its reach by being commissioned to appear on the Festival programme. In terms of Martin’s aims, it was the cross-cultural nature of the work that caught her eye.  “When Matt Edgerton proposed adapting A Ghost in My Suitcase for the stage I was immediately attracted to the possibilities that Gabrielle Wang’s award winning YA novel offers up,” she remembers. “I was excited that Matt wanted to create the production out of deep cross cultural collaboration. It’s a rip-roaring yarn – a great adventure story of a young girl who goes to China and discovers her grandmother is a ghost hunter. It seemed to have all the right ingredients to be a perfect family show for the festival.”

Climate change is at the centre of ‘Kwongkan’. Photo: Tao Issaro

Kwongkan is another Festival commission that is a cross-cultural work, and one that has fascinated Martin as she has watched it evolve. A collaboration between WA’s Ochre Contemporary Dance Company and India’s Daksha Sheth Dance Company, the work brings together Indigenous Australian and Indian performers in a ritual of dance theatre, live music, aerial acrobatics and film. “When the artists pitched the idea to me, they intended to explore the similarities between these two ancient cultures, both of whom dance barefoot, but over the course of three years … the thing that sat at the forefront of their concerns, was climate change,” she explains. “They realised that if we don’t do something now, there will be no trace, not just of ancient cultures, but of anything. So in a funny way, ‘Sand’, which was about touching the earth has now become, ‘Well if we don’t do something, sand is all we’re going to have’. To see the evolution of an idea has been exciting.”

It’s clear that witnessing the germination and blossoming of ideas intrigues and inspires Martin. “As a curator and commissioner of work, that’s the really exhilarating thing,” she remarks, “hearing an idea and being able to play some kind of role in those artists realising their vision by offering the platform of the festival.”

That platform offers greater visibility to the home crowd, but also, potentially, further afield. “I’m hoping that we’ll have international presenters and national presenters coming over to see that work, to consider it for their venues and festivals,” she concludes. “I think that’s a really important role that the Festival can play.

– Nina Levy

Perth Festival opens February 8 and runs until March 3. Head to the Perth Festival website to view the full program, including the six commissioned works from Western Australian artists and companies, and the rest of the Made in WA program.

Pictured top: Ian Wilkes and Isha Sharvani in Tjuntjuntjara, a remote WA Aboriginal community, during the final development of ‘Kwongkan’. Photo: Mark Howett.

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