Sunday, 9 March 2014

Postcard from Perth/Brisbane


APAM Diary (conclusion)






Day 5: Saturday 22 February


It’s my last day in Brisbane, and I pack up my gear and leave it in a locker at the backpackers before walking down to the Judith Wright Centre to see my last two showcases. I’ll head back to the Powerhouse later for the Farewell Lunch, collect my other suitcase with my miniature set inside and my leftover business cards and USB sticks from the WA DCA booth before getting a ride back to the airport.

*

At the Judith Wright, I head upstairs for a 25-minute excerpt from Hello My Name Is by Melbourne artist Nicola Gunn. I’ve been following Nicola’s work for about five years now. It’s courageous, crazy, deeply life-affirming and walks a tightrope between sublime accomplishment and the risk of total disaster. She’s consistently worked with her collaborator Gwendolyna Holmburg Gilchrist as her lighting designer and stage manager, and there’s a sense of mutual understanding and trust between them that inspires faith in us too.

Nicola plunges in with her projects, throwing herself (and us) in at the deep end and developing the work in a genuine collaboration with venues and audiences. I saw Hello in its first incarnation at The Blue Room in Perth a couple of years ago before its subsequent season at TheatreWorks back in Melbourne. When she arrived at The Blue Room and saw the venue, she asked if she could do the work downstairs in the aptly named Kaos Room instead of upstairs in the theatre, and to their great credit they said yes.

Hello is ‘set’ in an imaginary community centre and involves audience participation in a workshop seminar with Nicola as an enthusiastic, slightly over-controlling, mildly neurotic but ultimately inspiring team-leader. We wear name-tags, are given tasks and activities, and share a unique communal experience that’s full of awkward comedy but ultimately surprisingly moving. In a twenty-minute excerpt, the experience is inevitably somewhat curtailed, but I do get to sing karaoke, and we do all get to dance the conga and do a nude life-drawing class with Nicola as our model.

They’ve done the show six times already this week, and have one more performance in half an hour, so I can’t stay and chat afterwards, but I tell them I loved it and head downstairs to the main space. I’m here to see another 25-minute excerpt from Lake, a contemporary dance–work directed and choreographed by Brisbane-based artist Lisa Wilson.

The stage is flooded with water, and upside-down leafless trees are suspended above it like an inverted reflection. Three dancers act out a romantic triangle involving a young couple on a camping holiday and a more archetypal anima-figure who could be the spirit of the lake or a ghost from the past. There’s a screen behind them with black-and-white photographic back-projections of a forest, and a recorded soundtrack.

I feel like I’m watching a contemporary ballet, really, with road-movie/teen horror flick overtones, but the whole thing’s in danger of falling into pantomime. There’s some great dancing, nice lighting and a lot of picturesque splashing about with wet hair and clothes; but the music is generic, and the back-projected trees seem redundant – as do the white cut-out digital silhouettes of the dancers which appear behind them in one sequence and ‘act out’ their thoughts.

All in all, I feel there’s too much illustration – too much exposition, in dramatic terms – and that narrative, characters, background and themes are too thin to sustain my interest for any length of time. The result is a softness and sentimentality that takes the place of intellectual rigor or emotional truth. I feel like these are common weaknesses in much of the Australian contemporary dance I’ve seen, and much Australian drama as well, including film and TV. It’s why I keep being drawn to European work, or alternative work from the US or UK.  An Australian colleague next to me murmurs breathless words of admiration. I wonder what Minneapolis would make of it. Not much, probably. The words ‘National Geographic dance’ drift unbidden through my mind.

*

I head back on the special bus to the Powerhouse, feeling like a grey nomad again, or at least a seasoned delegate who’s on the last leg of his tour.

Everyone’s congregating outside the Hub for the Closing Ceremony: another round of traditional dancing on the lawn. This time some of the delegates join in: a few intrepid white women, and a couple of fellow-indigenous men who also look like dancers, including Eric Avery. I remember his ordeal fielding questions about cross-cultural collaboration on the panel at the Keynote Event four days ago. He looks a lot happier dancing with this mob now.

Afterwards there’s a local band, and we all scatter for our free picnic lunch-packs. I sit on the grass and watch the band, feeling peaceful and in no need to socialize, the pressure to network finally over. I catch sight of Minneapolis, deep in conversation with someone, possibly her non-committal French presenter. I wander off to the wings and perch on a table to negotiate with my picnic-lunch, but it’s largely inedible, or I’ve lost my appetite. A producer and regional presenter from Victoria tracks me down. He makes vague noises about my pitch and I promise to keep him in the loop about my show.

Minneapolis saunters over, and we say farewell and promise to keep in touch. It always amazes me how you can meet a fellow tribe-member somewhere, and instantly there’s a personal, artistic and philosophical rapport, and then you never see them again. That’s the nature of working in the performing arts I guess, especially in remote and far-flung Australia. I suggest a couple of dance-related contacts in Perth, and we exchange business cards  – a box of mine having been returned to me earlier, along with most of my USB sticks, by a hapless DCA project officer who spent the whole week behind the DCA booth and missed out on most of the action at APAM completely.

I collect my set-case and score a ride to the airport with some fellow artists, including Nicola and Gwen, and two other artists from Sydney whose work I’ve seen in Perth and admired, but whom I’ve never met and didn’t even know were here. One of them tells me she’s just moved from Sydney to Melbourne, and I find myself offering advice on my original hometown, and how closed-minded it can be. I remember the piece of Melbourne bluestone I threw into the Brisbane River only yesterday. It feels like weeks ago, and Melbourne a million miles away, even though it’s actually a lot closer than Perth – the most remote city on the planet, as everyone keeps telling me.

At the airport we all make brief but awkward conversation; everyone just wants to get on their respective planes home. I’ve got time to kill, so I fork out for an extortionate cup of tea, and flick through the news. Bloody revolution in Ukraine. Asylum seeker bludgeoned to death on Manus Island. Starving siege-cities in Syria.

And another Australian Performing Arts Market in Brisbane comes to an end.

*

So what have we learned?

I’m officially no longer an ‘independent’ artist. My show hasn’t exactly been snapped up on the international market or festival circuit, but there’s interest in regional Queensland and South Australia – and possibly NSW and Victoria, if I continue ‘building those relationships’. If ‘collaboration’ means anything, it means sharing power. Quicksand is no longer a cultural signifier. And Perth is The End of the World.

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