Monday, 22 December 2014

Postcard from Perth 37

2014 Postcard Awards

I’m not a believer in star-ratings or ‘best-of’ awards in categories like ‘best actor’, ‘best play’, ‘best production’ or even ‘best company’. At the risk of repeating myself: I’m not really sure what such phrases mean, or how to compare or measure art in quantitative terms, as if it were some kind of sport. This doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in making qualitative aesthetic judgements per se. It simply means that I believe in making them by evaluating performances, productions or works according to their own criteria. So I prefer to give awards based on categories derived from the performances, productions or works themselves.

That said: here are my Postcard from Perth Awards for 2014 in chronological order, with apologies for everything I didn’t see – a substantial amount this year, as I was in more or less continuous work myself between April and November, for much of that time performing five nights a week. For those interested, longer reviews and discussions of many of the productions referred to can be found by searching the archives of this blog.

The year kicked off again in fine style with an even bigger and better Fringe World than last year, and with Perth International Festival hot on its heels. The True Grit Award for Non-Stop Treadmill Action and Stamina goes to Melbourne outfit Grit Theatre for Run Girl Run at PICA as part of Summer Nights: a relentless, edge-of-the-seat, alternately hilarious and hideous physical theatre journey to the dark heart of gender-as-performance. Also at PICA for Summer Nights, New Zealand devisor-performer Trygve Wakenshaw gets the Pied Piper Award for Inspiring Audience Participation (by eating invisible packets of crisps) and Evoking Multiple Characters, Narratives and Universes (using an endearingly ludicrous DIY costume) in Squidboy: a surreal one-man comedy show which I found irresistable. And last but not least, Mark Wilson’s Unsex Me for Melbourne company MKA at Noodle Palace/The Ken Dome (inside the former Picadilly Cinema) gets the Gene Roddenberry Award for Boldly Going Where No-Man/Woman Has Gone Before Onstage using drag, karaoke, Shakespeare and a well-lubricated microphone. Honourable mention should also be made of local writer-director-performer Will O’Mahony’s Great White, restaged at PICA for Summer Nights after an inaugural production at The Blue Room in 2013. Will gets the Trifecta Award for Writing, Staging and Performance (sharing the Award with co-performers Adriane Daff and Mikala Westall, set designer/producer Alicia Clements, sound designer Will Slade and lighting designer Joe Lui).

In the ‘main’ Festival, two theatre shows stood out that were perhaps more ‘traditional’ or ‘mainstream’ but nevertheless ‘poor’ in the sense defined by Grotowski. YaĆ«l Farber’s gripping contemporary South African adaptation and production of Mies Julie in the Octagon Theatre (with Hilde Cronje and Bongile Mantsai in the central roles) shares the Peter Brook Award for Poor Theatre Adapation with the fleet-footed and deftly touching version of An Iliad, staged in the Sunken Gardens at UWA by NYC-based two-person company Homer’s Coat (writer/performer Dennis O’Hare and co-writer/director Lisa Peterson). Mies Julie also gets the Last Tango Award for Rough Sex Onstage, while An Iliad conversely gets the Mahabharata Award for the Indirect Representation of Violence (in homage to the minimalist war scenes in Brook’s great production).

Three other outstanding Festival shows took place in non-theatre and gallery spaces and were in the realm of installation and visual art, although all I would argue were also works of theatre even without the presence of live actors. In the case of Situation Rooms – an immersive participatory work by German collective Rimini Protokoll about the ramifications of the weapons industry – the audience were themselves performers, armed with iPads, following instructions and moving through the interactive and hyper-real ‘set’ installed at the ABC studios in Claisebrook. This show wins the Augmented Reality Award, and also shares the Mahabarata Award for Indirect Representation of Violence with An Iliad – thus proving that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. In fact if I could I’d probably give both works a Nobel Prize for Peace. Across town at Curtin Gallery, The Tenth Sentiment by Japanese artist Ryota Kuwakubo – featuring a tiny toy train with a light-source inside it travelling through a landscape of domestic found objects and throwing their shadows on the walls – was also an enchanting work of theatre for me and gets the Minimalist Lighting Award. Meanwhile South African maestro William Kentridge’s enthralling film/sound/sculpture installation The Refusal of Time in the central atrium gallery space at PICA (courtesy of a loan from AGWA) gets the Henri Bergson/Albert Einstein Award for the Philosophical Investigation of Time. Here it was the setting, formal multiplicity and durational nature of the event that made it a theatrical experience for me – an experience anchored by the animated machine sculpture (the metaphorical ‘elephant’) keeping time in the centre of the room. PICA itself (and curator Leigh Robb) also gets an Award for Courageous Curatorial Collaborations and Spatial/Architectural Interventions for their shows throughout the year – most notably allowing Perth-born, now LA-based artist George Egerton-Warburton to punch holes in the walls of the West End Gallery Upstairs revealing random glimpses of the cityscape outside for his provocative installation Administration is a Form of Oulipian Poetry.

It was during Festival time that Black Swan Artistic Director Kate Cherry brought voice training legend and Shakespeare expert Kristin Linklater to Perth for a series of workshops with various smaller and larger groups of local theatre artists. As a participant I can testify to the powerfully transformative nature of these workshops – but also to the sense of solidarity they inspired in a local theatre industry that can otherwise feel somewhat fractured along artistic and generational faultlines. For facilitating this work – and that sense of solidarity – Black Swan, Kate Cherry and Kristin herself share the E.M.Forster ‘Only Connect’ Award, for that famous dictum in Howard’s End.  ‘Only connect! Live in fragments no longer!’ This was a State Theatre Company doing its job and generously sharing its resources with Black Swan affiliates and others, young and old.

Shortly after the Perth Festival was over, the brouhaha erupted in March over Transfield’s sponsorship of the Sydney Biennale, and the group of artists who threatened to withdraw their work over the company’s involvement with the offshore detention of asylum seekers. Without rehearsing these arguments again, I give the Wesley Enoch Award for Leadership (if Wesley will forgive me for invoking his name and Platform Paper in the context of a topic on which we have slightly different views) to the artists concerned for persuading the Biennale to severe its ties with Transfield, and opening up a much broader debate over the nexus between corporate sponsorship, government funding, arts organisations, individual artists, art and politics.

Back to Perth, and theatre: while I felt Kate Cherry’s take on A Streetcar Named Desire for Black Swan at the Heath Ledger Theatre in March ultimately softened the edges of the play’s cruelty and underlying sexual violence, Luke Hewitt was a revelation as Mitch, and his scenes with Blanche stood out in sharp and painful clarity. Similarly, while I didn’t warm to Roger Hodgman’s dumbed-down production of As You Like It in May (again at the Heath for Black Swan), I doff my cap to Steve Turner’s intense, understated, uncompromising Jacques. Luke and Steve share the Rudyard Kiping Award for Keeping Your Head When All About You Are Losing Theirs: two fine mid-career all-round character actors who bless every production in which they appear.

Shifting focus to another of Perth’s four so-called Major Performing Arts Companies, the WA Symphony (the other two being the WA Opera and the WA Ballet): new Principal Conductor Asher Fisch has raised the bar in terms of programming and sound (especially from the strings) and the orchestra has risen to the challenge with flying colours. My first experience of Fisch and the ‘new’ WASO in action was their inaugural concert together in March, with a program featuring works by Mozart, Wagner and a thrilling performance of Richard Strauss’s epic tone poem Death and Transfiguration; followed in May by a sublime rendition of Mahler’s immense 9th Symphony; and culminating in September with the monumental achievement of the Beethoven Festival, featuring all nine symphonies performed over two weekends. Fisch shares the Gough Whitlam Award for Vision and Ambition at the Helm with Paul Selwyn-Norton at STRUT Dance (see below); and the Beethoven Festival also shares the Dionysus Award for New Festivals with STRUT for the Move Me Improvisation Festival (ditto). With WASO’s Brahms Festival just around the corner next year, this is the kind of vision and ambition that justifies the existence and funding of Major Performing Arts Companies in the first place.

From Major Organisations back to local grass-roots theatre, my next two Awards go to productions at The Blue Room that were both directed by Joe Lui. Coming at the tail-end of Season One in June, Giving Up the Ghosts was a no-frills two-hander about mutually assisted suicide, written by local stand-up comedian and storyteller Sarah Young and performed with a commendable lack of judgement on their characters by Georgia King and Paul Grabovac. Ghosts gets the Harold Pinter Award for the Telling Use of Pauses, Ellipses and Silences Onstage. I don’t know how many were in the script, but they certainly enhanced its already terse, staccato vernacular eloquence. Later in the year towards the end of Season Two in October, Welcome to Slaughter was a devised work of Oz-road mock-horror with a text by Jeffrey Jay Fowler, co-devised and performed by Michelle Robyn Anderson, Jo Morris and Emily Rose Brennan, with a set design by Shaye Preston, sound design by Brett Smith and lighting design by Joe Lui – who also took the wheel as director at the last minute due to a previous cast-member dropping out and the original director-devisor taking their place onstage. I found the script a little two-dimensional but the performances, direction and design deliciously enjoyable. Slaughter gets the Halloween Award for Involuntary Audience Screams and Nervous Laughter. Together with Ghosts it also confirmed my suspicions that Joe is now a fully-fledged director of other people’s work as well as his own. On that score, he also gets the Tightrope Award for writing, directing and performing his own autobiographical solo work Letters Home at The Blue Room in September without falling into trap of being narcissistic or mawkish – a rare feat indeed.

Across the road at The Studio Underground in July, Declan Greene’s artfully excruciating 8 Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography was a co-production between Perth Theatre Company and Griffin in Sydney, directed by Griffin’s Artistic Director Lee Lewis and featuring toe-curlingly truthful performances by Andrea Gibbs and Steve Rodgers. A courageous verbal and physical exploration of contemporary online addictions and the fear that underlies them of real as opposed to virtual connection, 8 Gigs gets the Award for Proving that Live Theatre is More Relevant Than Ever in the Age of the Internet.

Upstairs at the Heath Ledger in August, Black Swan’s traditional period-costume Seagull was graced by a sublime turn from Rebecca Davis as Masha, and featured a revelatory Act 4 scene change for the final duet between Nina and Konstantin. Director Kate Cherry and designer Fiona Bruce share the Heath Ledger Theatre Award for Using the Fly-Tower to Reveal New Meaning in a Classic Without Updating It; and Rebecca Davis gets the Heath Ledger Performance Award for Finding the Creature Beneath the Skin of a Character (I’m thinking of Ledger’s late, great breakthrough performances in Brokeback Mountain and The Dark Knight).

Outside in the State Theatre Centre Courtyard in September, Yirra Yaakin Noongar Theatre Company presented a revival of David Milroy’s King Hit directed by the company’s current Artistic Director Kyle Morrison. Vigorous performances were set within the carnival ambience of an old-style boxing tent beautifully designed by India Mehta, which completely eclipsed the usually penitentiary/corporate surrounds of the courtyard and the STCWA itself. India gets the Award for Imaginatively Conceived and Scrupulously Realized Set Design with this and her hauntingly atmospheric set for Black Swan’s The House on the Lake upstairs in the Heath Ledger earlier in the year.

At the PICA Performance Space in September–October, Perth indie supergroup The Last Great Hunt gave us visionary theatremaker Tim Watt’s latest excursion into the outer reaches of lo-fi animation, mask-work, projection and puppetry with Falling Through Clouds, created and performed by Adriane Daff, Arielle Gray, Chris Isaacs and Tim himself. This was a work whose formal virtuosity and thematic reach I felt ultimately exceeded its narrative grasp, but it nevertheless gets the Robert Lepage Award for Dazzingly Inventive Dramaturgy in the Imaginary Representation of Dreams. Fantasies about flying and being haunted by one’s double never looked so real.

Also in the field of animation, Spare Parts Puppet Theatre in September–October completed an epic cycle of regional community-based development with their epic visual theatre work Farm, written by Ian Sinclair, directed by company AD Philip Mitchell and co-devised by two of the performers, Chloe Flockart and Rebecca Bradley. I reviewed this production critically at the time for its claims to represent life on the land and some aspects of the script and staging; but in retrospect I find myself wanting to honour the poetry of Ian’s writing, the humanity of the performances, the sheer scale of the enterprise and the vision and ambition of Spare Parts and Philip in bringing the whole thing to fruition. For all these reasons Farm gets the Paul Kelly ‘From Little Things, Big Things Grow’ Award: a production that no doubt gave back in spades to the regional community that nurtured its development.

My next Award goes to STRUT Dance and its new director Paul Selwyn-Norton for a busy year taking the organisation to the next level as a National Choreographic Centre: initiating, supporting and hosting new work, residencies, worshops and classes, culminating in the inaugural Move Me Improvisation Festival which took place across Perth venues in November. As mentioned above, Paul and STRUT share with Asher Fisch and WASO the Whitlam Award for Vision at the Helm and the Dionysus Award for New Festivals. As with Kate Cherry and Black Swan bringing Kristin Linklater to Perth, these are fine instances of exisiting organisations large and small extending their reach and resourcing events that enrich the local artistic community and their audiences. In particular, I applaud the seeding of grass-roots, thematic and even one-off ‘micro-festivals’ – in contrast with the increasingly generic, globalized and institutionalized ‘mega-festivals’ that otherwise dominate the national landscape.

And finally, the Billy Bragg/Mao Zedong Great Leap Forward Award goes to Perth Theatre Company for their 2015 Season announced in November, with an increased output of five shows: two in the Studio Underground, one upstairs in the Heath Ledger, one in the STCWA Courtyard and one at PICA. These include three directed (and one also written) by artistic director Mel Cantwell, and two directed and/or devised and performed by local independent theatremakers. This feels like the realisation of a vision that’s been brewing in Mel’s head for a long time now as the AD of Perth’s alternative mainstage theatre company – one that reflects and connects with the city’s distinctive contemporary grass-roots theatre culture.

That’s it from me for 2014. Apologies to everyone I missed out on seeing or including in this list of Awards. As always, I’m circumscribed by the limits of time, space and of course subjective tastes and priorities. I hope this round-up gives local and national readers a sense of Perth as a place to make and see theatre, dance, music and art. Bring it on!


For the record, Humph was busy rehearsing and performing in Perth from May till November with Wish (PTC/Night Train, Studio Underground), Jasper Jones (Barking Gecko, Studio Underground), Laughter on the 23rd Floor (Black Swan, Heath Ledger Theatre) and Overexposed (Danielle Micich/ Performing Lines WA, Studio Underground). Postcards from Perth will resume at the end of January with the onset of Fringe World and Perth International Festival 2015.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Postcard from Perth 36

STRUT Dance: Move Me Improvisation Festival

Since his appointment as Director of STRUT Dance last year, the effervescent Paul Selwyn-Norton – South African-born dancer/choreographer and alumni of William Forsythe’s Ballet Frankfurt – has been busy transforming the organisation into a national choreographic centre, with invited residencies and workshops by interstate and international luminaries like Anthony Hamilton and Byron Perry from Melbourne and former members of Ballet Frankfurt and Batsheva Dance in Israel. Paul has described his vision as ‘mulching the garden’, which is a great image for a landscape like Perth, where the sandy soil supports a small community of tough survivors who support each other across disciplines and generations. In the context of our relentless economic and cultural obsession with global and national export, it’s good to focus instead on enriching the local scene.
Last week saw STRUT hosting its inaugural Move Me Improvisation Festival, featuring a raft of performances, workshops, lectures and forums by local, national and international dance, music and theatre artists across Perth venues including PICA, The Blue Room, King Street Arts Centre and the State Theatre Centre. It was an exhilarating week, and I made the most of it, especially as the city’s cultural activities were winding up with the approach of Christmas, and my own capacities were about to be reduced by impending knee surgery. In fact I’m writing this now in recovery, in bed, with my leg in a brace and pain killers at the ready; so forgive me for waxing lyrical about my memories of Move Me.
The Festival kicked off on Saturday 22nd November at PICA with an opening three-night season of a double bill: Beast #3 by local choreographers Jo Pollitt and Paea Leach – performed by them and six other local dancers with a soundscore by Mace Francis and lighting by Ellen Knops – and No one will tell us, an improvised performance by international Australian artist Rosalind Crisp in collaboration with her partner improviser Andrew Morrish, Swiss-German musician Hansueli Tischhauser on electric guitar and German lighting designer Marco Wehrspann. I saw the show last Monday night. The evening was introduced by local actor-improviser legend Sam Longley as amiable festival MC; waiting for the doors to open, we were also entertained by the Festival Imp, a silent, inscrutable, red-masked and body-fitted dance-improviser who made unpredictable appearances across town throughout the week. As for the shows themselves: as a 25-minute opener, I found Beast #3 engaging if a little underwhelming (and wasn’t sure how or how much improvisation was involved); but was then gripped and held for 55 minutes by three charismatic mature artists making a relentless work of substance, beauty, ferocity and delicacy on the edge of chaos with No one will tell us. If at times the sound-palette of the guitar was a little restrictive, and Andrew’s playful verbal interventions occasionally a little reductive, these (perhaps inevitable) restrictions and reductions only served to highlight the emotional and semantic richness of the dancer’s body as a vehicle of pure unbounded expressivity. I left pondering the fundamental differences and possible relationships between music, text and movement, as demonstrated and explored by three virtuosi absolutely attuned to each other in a performance that was also a master-class.
The following evening in Studio 3 at King Street Arts I attended Unwrapping Danse: a performance lecture by Ros Crisp about the history of her practice that folded together improvised dance, semi-improvised discourse, filmed dance footage and written text. Here the free-flow of meaning was gently underpinned by artistic and personal reflections, ending with a short reading from a journal entry about leaving the rural landscape of her childhood. The result was an infinitely generous gift to a small but privileged audience. It only went for 50 minutes, but we didn’t want it to stop. It gave me a context for the previous night’s show – and a level of depth, an economy of means and elegance of structure that ironically exceeded the show itself.
On Thursday night I unhappily missed seeing Ros Warby’s solos Court Dance and No Time to Fly due to other commitments and scheduling issues, but made it to PICA in time to catch Happy Little Accidents: a one-off, one-hour improvised theatre performance by Sam Longley and fellow local artists Shane Adamczak and Sean Walsh (all longstanding members of much-loved ongoing Perth improv comedy show The Big Hoo-Ha). I was a little anxious about how this performance would fit, in the context of a festival predominantly oriented towards contemporary dance. In the event, the boys rose to the occasion and delivered a well-judged mix of gentle comedy, poetry and pathos based on a tacit but profound understanding of the game, each other and their respective roles as joker, straight-man and puppet-master (or ‘pirate’, ‘robot’ and ‘ninja’, to use the terminology imparted to me by a fellow improviser) – including a stand-out cameo by an invisible (and inaudible) talking teddy bear which took the show to another level for me in terms of form, plot, emotional substance and imaginative engagement.
Friday night however provided my festival highlight with The Ferrymen: an improvised performance by Andrew Morrish and Peter Trotman, with minimal and perfectly judged lighting (again) by Marco Wehrspann. This was a truly sui generis work of improvised movement and text (spoken and sung) hovering like a moth between lightness and darkness, comedy and tragedy, life and death. If the sketch-bound situations and characters in Happy Little Accidents remained largely within the generic confines of pop culture, pulp fiction, film and TV, The Ferrymen took us deeper into the realm of myth and folklore, archetypal psychology and the animal dimensions of being human, ageing and mortality. This was a performance that took its time to unfurl in a manner at once genuinely unpredictable and utterly inevitable. Andrew and Peter began working together continuously in Melbourne back in the early 80s, and subsequently established an international practice; but they hadn’t performed together recently for some years until invited by Paul to reunite in Perth for Move Me; so the show had an added sense of occasion, which they graciously acknowledged after the last performance. (I also had the privilege of participating in a four-day workshop with them along with about fifteen other local artists, which I found transformative.)
The closing night of the Festival saw dancer-choreographer Michael Schumacher (also ex-Ballet Frankfurt) and cellist Alex Waterman (both from the US) perform Dans le jardin, a site-specific work originally created for the courtyard of the Museum of Fine Arts in Lyon – and here reconceived for the courtyard of the State Theatre Centre (sensitively lit by Ellen Knops). Notwithstanding its heavy-sounding credentials, this was an engagingly light-handed finale, with Schumacher moving around and through (and occasionally interacting with) the crowd of onlookers, while playfully appearing and disappearing in and out of the somewhat grim, penal architecture. Best of all was the involvement of three young children in the audience, who followed the dancer like a Pied Piper and became his spontaneous assistants. The event was followed by the closing party and launch of the STRUT 2015 program across the way at the PICA bar; but I made my way to Perth Station instead, weary from a long week and with one final workshop with Andrew and Peter the next morning.
I haven’t even touched on all the events in the Festival I didn’t attend, including new works by local performers Jacob Lehrer and David Corbet; workshops with Ros Crisp, Ros Warby and Michael Schumacher (the latter culminating in a group performance by local participants at The Blue Room); and a one-off improvised concert by local and international musicians from across the festival including Rachael Dease, Tristen Parr, Louise Devenish, Madeleine Flynn, Tim Humphrey, Hans Tischhauser and Alex Waterman.
It’s too early to assess the impact of the week, both personally and on Perth; but there’s no question in my mind that Paul has initiated a major new event on the national and international stage. Improvisation is a great theme for a festival at the edge of the world. More profoundly, I’m convinced that – as a concept and a practice – it lies at the heart of all performance, and perhaps all creation.
Move Me Improvisation Festival presented by STRUT Dance took place in venues around Perth from Sat 22–Sun 30 Nov. Parts of the program were developed in partnership with Dancehouse in Melbourne and Critical Path in Sydney. Ros Crisp, Andrew Morrish and Ros Warby subsequently performed in Sydney from 29 Nov–5 Dec; Ros Crisp also performed in Brisbane from 3–5 Dec courtesy of Ausdance QLD; and Ros Warby is at Dancehouse on–12 December.