Monday, 16 December 2019

Postcard #2 from NYC 

The Inheritance, Matthew Lopez/Stephen Daldry, Ethel Barrymore Theatre

The Inheritance is a two-part, seven-hour adaptation of E. M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End, set in contemporary New York. It deals with three generations of gay men in the wake of the AIDS epidemic of the 80s and 90s – before the advent of anti-retroviral and pre-exposure medication reduced the impact of the disease, at least in the developed world – in the context of the current crisis of neo-liberalism and the rise of Donald Trump. 

The play was originally produced at The Young Vic in London in 2018 before transferring to the West End and now Broadway. New York playwright Matthew Lopez developed the play in collaboration with British director Stephen Daldry (An Inspector CallsBilly ElliotThe Hours, The Crown) and an American-British cast of thirteen, the five leading actors remaining consistent from London to New York, along with the stunningly simple set and costume design by Bob Crowley. The set essentially consists of a white box with a central dais that can be raised or lowered, on which the ensemble cast lounge around languidly at the start of the show like students waiting for an acting or writing class to begin; they then gather around the dais to sit and watch or comment on the action as it unfolds. There is virtually no furniture, the actors mostly wear simple clothes in subdued colours, and most have bare feet throughout the show.

The relationship between a theatrical adaptation and a novelistic original resembles the biological phenomenon of homology (as opposed to analogy), in which the body parts of two different species share a similar structure because of their origin rather than function (the classic example being the relationship between arms and wings). In this case plot, characters and themes (most obviously, the concept of inheritance itself, which is a key motif and plot-device in Howard’s End) are transposed (sometimes in a disguised, divided, doubled or ‘queered’ form) from one narrative setting and artistic medium to another. 

The process of adaptation itself is also thematized by the incorporation of Forster (animated with spritely energy by British actor Paul Hilton) as a kind of artistic and personal mentor-figure called ‘Morgan’ (as Forster was known by his intimate friends), who interacts with the rest of the cast, encourages them to tell their stories and assists with the unfolding of the play. The other characters also refer to Howard’s End and other novels – including Forster’s only overtly gay novel, Maurice, which was withheld from publication until after his death. 

In fact, even the off-stage collaboration between playwright, director and actors is replicated onstage by the homologous relationship between Forster and the ensemble, who at least initially appear to be more or less improvising the action and storytelling, if not the actual story itself, as they go along. This is especially marked in the use of collective and self-narration in the ‘omniscient’ third person for ironic effect to introduce characters and plot-points and to report on the characters’ thoughts and feelings. There are also some early ‘improvised’ sex-scenes using acting warm-up exercises, in a hilarious Brechtian ‘baring of the device’. All of this generates an exhilarating sense of performative lightness and freedom. The use of narration in particular recalls the authorial voice employed by Forster that continually interrupts and comments on the action in the novel.

In this regard one could also point beyond Forster and Howard’s End to Jane Austen, and in particular Sense and Sensibility – a similarly ironic novel about love, marriage, money, property, inheritance and social class. The precursor novel also features two sisters with contrasting personalities, one (in her own eyes at least) more ‘sensible’, the other more given to romantic or idealistic flights of fancy (the ‘sensible’ older sisters, Margaret Schlegel and Elinor Dashwood, are memorably played by the divine Emma Thompson in the film versions of both novels). 

Lopez makes his boldest move by recasting the Schlegel sisters of Howard’s End as a gay male couple: conscientious liberal activist lawyer Eric (a deeply felt and anchored central performance by London-based American actor Kyle Soller) and narcissistic aspiring playwright Toby (a witty, mercurial and ultimately anguished Andrew Burnap), who are happily but precariously ensconced in a coveted rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side that once belonged to Eric’s Jewish refugee grandmother (paralleling the Schlegel’s similarly provisional occupancy of their father’s flat in central London). Meanwhile Forster’s pragmatic and wealthy industrialist Henry Wilcox and his more ethereal and intuitive wife Ruth are transformed into a billionaire property developer teasingly also named Henry Wilcox (and played with ebullient bluster by John Benjamin Hickey) and his life-partner Walter (also played by the versatile Hilton with touching fragility) who share an apartment in the same building. They also own a rural retreat in upstate New York, echoing the country house in Hertfordshire (itself a fictionalised version of Forster’s own childhood home at Rooks Nest) that gives its title to Howard’s End. (The 'reveal' of this house at the end of Part One, and again in the final Act of Part Two, is the only significant 'prop' in the show.)

What follows is an ingenuous set of variations on the novel which are no less brilliant, moving and salutary for being recognizable, at least to those who’ve read it (or seen the film); for those who haven’t there are complementary pleasures in terms of the plot-twists and emotional vicissitudes. Lopez and Daldry add a few twists of their own, most memorably at the end of Part One in a devastating coup de théâtre I won’t reveal, except to say that it expands the frame of the play and production (as well as the novel) in a way that had me sobbing along with most of the audience, and took me much of the next two hours’ break to recover from.

After this moment of transcendence, Part Two didn’t quite live up to the promise of Part One. Instead, the play seemed to digress from itself as well as its novel-source in form, content and spirit. The figure of Forster was literally banished from the stage, while the ensemble of other actors also became increasingly absent or marginal. Instead the story of Toby (now separated from Eric) took over, in an increasingly melodramatic spiral of self-destruction and protracted revelations about his past. The use of long backstory monologues, which had been effective earlier in the play, also struggled to hold my attention six hours later, especially when introducing new plot-points, characters and even actors, notwithstanding fine performances from Burnap as the increasingly off-the-rails Toby and Lois Smith as Margaret – the only female character or actor in the show, unfortunately tasked with a rather generic, sentimental and dramatically redundant story about a formerly homophobic mother who becomes a carer for gay men dying of AIDS. 

In short, I felt we’d shifted from the late-romantic irony of Forster to the melodrama of Tennessee Williams or Douglas Sirk, but without the former’s tortured brilliance of language, characterization and psychology, or the latter’s pointed use of Hollywood conventions for the purposes of social critique. Meanwhile the political diatribes and debates about Trump, the contradictions of neoliberalism and the mainstream assimilation of gay culture were enjoyable enough but sometimes felt more like watching a bourgeois domestic satire by Bernard Shaw or even (horribile dictu) middle-period David Williamson. The previously exquisite minimalism of Jon Clark's lighting and Paul Arditti and Christopher Reid's sound design also began to crank up and decorate or underscore scenes and speeches, and a similar element of theatricality crept into some of the lead performances.

As the result Toby’s story became pure soap opera, driven by the mechanics of plot rather than the dynamics of character or larger social forces. Here the most tenuous narrative thread for me was that involving the lookalike roles of parvenu actor Adam and desperate rent-boy Leo (respectively played with consummate charm and touching pathos by Samuel H. Levine) as the successive objects of Toby’s narcissistic obsession. The theme of ‘the double’ is of course another melodramatic convention straight out of the Gothic novel by way of Vertigo, but here it was introduced without any stylistic sense of psychological disintegration or nightmare. Indeed I couldn’t help feeling that Toby’s story might have been better served if Adam and Leo had been combined into a single character with a more complex and satisfying dramatic arc. Admittedly the corresponding figures in Howard’s End of the aspirational clerk Leonard Bast and his ‘fallen’ co-dependent partner Jackie are also the weakest link in the novel’s plot and its attempt at a comprehensive portrait of Edwardian class society. Indeed the clumsily contrived way Leonard is summarily dispatched in the novel mirrors Toby’s dramatically unconvincing end (no spoilers here, as his death is flagged throughout the play) when faced with the opportunity to finally confront his past. Personally I’d rather have seen him exercise his freedom of choice ‘to live’ (as the closing words of the play exhort us to do) rather than his fate being seemingly pre-determined by childhood trauma and parental role modelling.

In saying this, I’m not necessarily asking for a conventional happy ending. Certainly the novel closes with Margaret reconciled with her sister and husband, and living with them and Helen’s infant son at Howard’s End. Nevertheless the scene is hardly one of domestic bliss or achieved grace. Though Henry’s hypocrisy is forgiven, he is an emotionally broken man, and there’s a sense that their connection with the local countryside and community is similarly fragile. The nostalgic glow of an Edwardian sunset lingers over the novel’s closing pages, with the shadow of encroaching suburbanization – not to mention global slaughter on an industrial scale – looming on the horizon. In this context the novel’s famous injunction to ‘only connect’ feels almost plaintive. Connect with what, or whom, and for how long? The Inheritance ends with an even more tenuous ménage – Eric, his now-ex-husband Henry, and Toby’s (and Henry’s) former hired lover Leo – living on (and eventually dying of old age) in a kind of pastoral idyll at the house in upstate New York that Walter had turned into a hospice for men dying of AIDS. The medical and social catastrophe of the epidemic lies behind them, as well as the successive ravages of neo-conservatism and neo-liberalism – and it is implied that they will weather the storm of Trumpism as well. 

This is the point at which the play perhaps more than the novel seems to take refuge in sentimentality, and the privileged status of the main characters (with the exception of Leo and the ups and downs of Toby’s childhood) begins to limit their perspective as well as stretching our capacity to care. As my companion at the performance commented afterwards, why not turn their rural retreat into a halfway house for LGBTQ homeless youth, or others plagued by discrimination and disadvantage? It’s worth noting in this regard that in the US the cost of PrEP treatment for HIV infection is around $US 20,000 per year, which effectively restricts its use to those who can afford to pay for it, because of big pharma monopolies and political-administrative indifference to communities most at risk (not to mention the rest of the underdeveloped world).

In a similar vein I couldn’t help wondering why Lopez (who himself has Puerto Rican heritage) and Daldry envisaged and cast all its main characters as white, limiting cultural diversity to only a few other members of the ensemble in supporting roles. Forster (like Chekhov) was writing about the vanishing world he knew, socially and culturally, but this is hardly the case for the playwright and director of The Inheritance, or its audience. A more intersectional perspective would extend a chain of equivalence back to the story of Eric’s Jewish grandmother as well as forward to other forms of injustice, and allow for a more complex legacy of oppression as well as privilege. 

This notion of equivalence (rather than identity) is also another way of thinking about adaptation, because it recognises similarity while also acknowledging difference. In the case of The Inheritance the notion of an inherited past (together with its traumas and gaps, its acts of denial and gaping wounds) underlies the play’s title, and implicitly gives it a different purview from Howard’s End. In fact, even in the novel, the eponymous house was always more than a house: it was a symbol of connection, between kindred souls, and within the soul, between sense and sensibility – or as Forster rephrases this in his 'adaptation' of Austen, between 'prose' and 'passion'.  

What does it mean, Eric movingly asks at one point in the play, to be gay now, today? Who are we – whoever ‘we’ are – if we can't connect with our history, in the form of a shared experience, knowledge, culture or sense of community, transmitted from one generation to the next? In this regard the most potent gift of The Inheritance may be its evocation of spiritual and artistic mentorship, not only between generations, but also across the river of time and forgetfulness that separates the living and the dead. Perhaps here the phrase ‘only connect’ acquires its greatest resonance.


The Inheritance opened on Broadway at The Ethel Barrymore Theatre on 17 November, 2019.

Monday, 9 December 2019

Postcard from New York

Akhnaten, Philip Glass, Metropolitan Opera, New York 

Akhnaten is the third of Philip Glass’s early trilogy of portrait-operas, following Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha (the Sanskrit word for Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence). Where the previous two works focus on revolutionary figures and movements in twentieth-century science and politics, the third deals with an ancient and less well-known episode in the history of religion. 

Akhnaten (or Akhenaten as his name is usually spelled in English) was an Ancient Egyptian New Kingdom Pharaoh who abolished traditional Egyptian polytheism in favour of the exclusive worship of the sun-god Aten. He also challenged the authority of the priesthood and moved the centre of power and worship from Thebes to the newly built capital city of Akhetaten (now Amarna). 

The period of his reign was also marked by more fluid and naturalistic or distorted forms of artistic representation, especially regarding the Pharaoh and his family. In religious art conversely there was a move away from animal, human or hybrid images of the various deities towards the increasingly abstract symbol of the sun’s disk and rays; eventually even this image was forbidden, and the name of the Aten was spelled phonetically rather than using hieroglyphs.

Images of Akhenaten display bizarre and even androgynous features, which may or may not have been anatomically accurate. Possibly they were stylized or represented symbolic aspects of the god Aten, who was called the ‘mother and father’ of creation; in his famous ‘Great Hymn to the Aten’ (which strikingly resembles Psalm 104), Akhenaten refers to himself as ‘thine only son’. He appears to have shared royal status to an unusual degree with his famous queen Nefertiti, and there is speculation that he also shared power and had sex with his daughters as well as his sister (with whom he fathered his successor the briefly reigning child-king Tutankhamen) and even his mother Queen Tiye.

The Russian polymath and pseudo-scientist Velikovsky (with whom Glass originally intended to collaborate on the libretto) claimed that Akhenaten was the origin of the legend of Oedipus; and the late, great Dorothy Porter made him the queer, androgynous, incestuous and ultimately monomaniacal anti-hero of her eponymous verse novel Akhenaten. However a more significant influence on the composer was Freud, who argued in Moses and Monotheism that Moses was an Egyptian follower of Akhenaten fleeing his homeland after the latter’s death with a band of fellow renegades, who eventually turned on their leader and killed him before founding Judaic monotheism out of guilt (a theory that possibly says less about Akhenaten, Moses or monotheism than it does about Freud himself). 

For whatever reasons (most likely political and economic) the Atenist revolution in religion, art, politics and (possibly) morality was short-lived, at least in Ancient Egypt, though arguably it merely lay dormant until its next historical incarnation. Subsequent generations of Egyptian rulers erased all record of what was regarded as an aberration. The power of the traditional priesthood was restored, the names of Akhenaten and his immediate successors were removed from the official list of Pharaohs, the city of Akhetaten was abandoned, and the temples consecrated to Aten were destroyed.

Glass makes the story of Akhenaten a kind of Passion Play, as the title character is not so much the tragic author of his own downfall as the martyr-victim of external forces that destroy him: the priesthood, the military, and the threat of Hittite invasions. However he also represents a possible figure of hope or salvation in the future – or at least in the symbolic afterlife of religion and art. So at the end of the opera the Narrator/Scribe – a speaking role who in this production is also the ghost of Akhenaten’s father, Amenhotep III (a vocally and physically commanding performance by bass-baritone Zachary James) – becomes a present-day tour guide describing the ruins at Amarna (using words from a Fodor’s travel book); meanwhile the ghosts of Akhnaten (counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo), Nefertiti (mezzo J’Nai Bridges) and the Queen Mother Tye (Icelandic soprano Dísella Lárunsdottir) appear and sing wordlessly as the music from the opening Prelude to Act 1 is reprised. One is reminded of the importance of the afterlife and the transmigration of souls in Ancient Egyptian religion; perhaps the sun-god Aten is to be reborn as Yahweh, his son-king Akhenaten as a Messianic saviour, and even the city of Akhetaten as the New Jerusalem – or in more secular terms, a horizon of freedom and peace on earth (though in historical fact the Atenist revolution seems to have degenerated like all such programs into intolerance and tyranny).

The score and orchestration as well as the libretto and dramaturgical structure of Akhenaten are in some respects more conventional than Einstein or Satyagraha. The orchestra more or less resembles that for a typical nineteenth century romantic opera, with the addition of tubular bells and the notable absence of violins, which gives the overall sound a darker and more melancholy colour (Glass allegedly did this because of the reduced size of the orchestra pit at the Stuttgart Opera due to renovations when the work was first performed there in 1984). The composer’s signature use of relentless ostinatos –repeatedly rising and falling arpeggios, scales and two-note oscillations – and almost imperceptible shifts in tempo, time-signature or even key-signature (most of the opera is in A minor) are made more palatable by the use of soaring melodies, especially in Act 2 for the tender love duet between Akhnaten and Nefertiti (which recalls the divinely erotic love poetry of the Hebrew Song of Solomon), and then later for Akhnaten’s ardent Hymn to the Sun. The last is a long solo aria which Glass specifies is to be sung in the language of the audience (most of the rest of the libretto is in Ancient Egyptian or Akkadian); it is then recapitulated by an offstage chorus, this time using the Hebrew words of Psalm 104.

The opera is thus something of a glorious mishmash (or perhaps more appropriately midrash, or Jewish scriptural commentary) in terms of musical, dramatic and theological material. British director and long-time Glass collaborator Phelim McDermott (who will be performing in his production of The Tao of Glass for Perth Festival in March 2020) previously directed Satyagraha for the English National Opera as a co-production with the Met and his theatre company Improbable in 2007–8; Akhnaten is a similar co-pro with LA Opera and Improbable which debuted at the ENO in 2016, and is the first production of the opera to be seen at the Met. 

McDermott’s staging adds another layer of dramaturgical ‘commentary’ to the score and libretto, which gives the whole work an added sense of coherence and cumulative impact. This involves the indeed improbable but nonetheless inspired use of juggling (suggested by early depictions of juggling in Ancient Egyptian tomb paintings) more or less continuously throughout the show, with twelve onstage jugglers (choreographed by Sean Gandini) in hooded and speckled Lycra bodysuits, sometimes augmented by members of the chorus and even the Narrator/Scribe, making increasingly complex patterns of movement with an escalating series of more and more numerous juggling balls in various shapes and sizes. The effect is to give a kind of visual counterpoint to the rising and falling, intricately woven and incrementally changing patterns of the score, as well as adding a heightened level of tension and focus to the music and its flawless realisation by the orchestra and singers. You really have to hear Glass performed live to appreciate the thrill of this as well as its hypnotic power – here allowed to unfold with unusual sensitivity and flexibility by the Met Opera Orchestra under the baton of Glass specialist Karen Kamensek. 

Stylized movement in extreme slow motion by the singers is also carefully choreographed, and gives the impression of hieratic figures in Ancient Egyptian art slowly coming to life and (especially in the case of Akhnaten and Nefertiti) becoming free-flowing bodies in three-dimensional space. In a New York Times interview McDermott says he used Michael Chekhov’s elemental ‘movement-qualities’ to achieve this; whatever the case, the result is an unusually liberated physicality on the part of the singers. 

Kevin Pollard’s hybrid costumes add another layer of visual complexity by referring both to Ancient Egypt and to the era of nineteenth-century European archaeology when the remains of Akhenaten and his city were uncovered. In particular the roles of Nefertiti’s father and imperial advisor Aye (bass Richard Bernstein), the High Priest of the former reigning god Amon (tenor Aaron Blake) and the military general and future Pharoah Horemhab (baritone Will Liverman) are all costumed in a way that suggests that the nature of power behind the scenes has changed little in the intervening centuries. Aye is dressed in a Victorian frock-coat and top hat (surmounted by a voodoo-like skull) like a sinister and manipulative business tycoon, and Horemhab wears a khaki jacket and culottes like an army officer poised to stage a military coup. 

In contrast, Akhnaten, Nefertiti, Tye and the Narrator/Scribe are dressed in a riot of what looks like gloriously coloured and textured bric-à-brac. Zachary James’s bald, towering Scribe resembles a Klimt painting in his long patched gold robe (later stripped back to expose his muscular arms). Akhnaten’s royal dress fans out like a Velasquez Infanta and is decorated with sewn-on doll’s faces. Later he and Nefertiti appear in matching diaphanous scarlet nightgowns, beneath which the barely visible outlines of female breasts and pubic triangles give them the appearance of twin hermaphrodites. 

The impact of the costumes is heightened by the saturated colours of Bruno Poet’s lighting and Tom Pye’s multileveled scaffolding set, crowned by a succession of huge descending gold, red and silver disc-shaped solar icons. In combination with the postmodern minimalism of Glass’s repetitive score, the overall effect is of a vaguely steam-punk sci-fi visual and aural world that is less archaic than futuristic in its vision of Ancient Egypt as a floating realm of unchanging dreams.

All this is anchored by Costanzo’s extraordinary central performance. He first appears for his coronation naked and totally shaved like a newborn baby, and the first piercing note of his clean, almost vibrato-less counter-tenor twenty minutes after his entrance is a coup de théâtre in itself. Even more effective is the delicacy with which his voice floats above and later entwines with the deeper, richer mezzo of Bridges as Nefertiti, or the protective shield of Lárunsdottir’s higher, more gilded soprano as his mother Aye hovering above them both. Beyond his musical gifts, however, Costanzo’s expressive but controlled face and body, combined with his underlying vulnerability, enable him to inhabit the role with such conviction that he appears to coincide with it – as one imagines Akhenaten himself must have done, in his sense of immanent divinity, perhaps even to the detriment of his own sanity and survival. 

Hegel wrote that Ancient Egyptian religion and art had the character of an enigma or riddle – not only for us, or for the Greeks, but for the Egyptians themselves. This was because of the sense of mystery or indifference on the part of their gods in relation to humanity; hence the use of animals as figures of divinity, because of the impenetrability of both divine and animal consciousness to human understanding. The ultimate symbol of this was the Sphinx, which unlike most Egyptian gods had the head of a human and the body of an animal (rather than the other way around). The ultimate answer to the riddle posed by the Sphinx was ‘man’ – or for Hegel, human consciousness, which remained hidden to itself, at least until Greek self-consciousness arrived in the conquering form of Oedipus. 

The historical figure of Akhenaten arguably has something of this enigmatic quality, not only because of the puzzling nature of some of the archaeological evidence, but also because of his fundamentally ambiguous theological, political and even psychosexual significance.  Was he a monotheist or monomaniac, tyrant or liberator, masculine or feminine, gay or straight, human or god? Perhaps this is one of the reasons that his revolution was resisted and finally suppressed; too much ambiguity is intolerable for any society, especially in a leader. 

Glass’s opera – at least in McDermott’s production, and especially as embodied in Costanzo’s performance – goes some way towards expressing this enigma without forcibly resolving it, making the riddle communicable if not comprehensible, by using fragments of text in various languages (living and dead), hybridized images from different eras, and sometimes even wordless singing as a form of pure sound, purged of meaning. As such, the enigma of Akhenaten comes alive for us again, and becomes something deeply exciting and beautiful.


Akhenaten by Philip Glass, directed by Phelim McDermott and co-produced by the English National Opera and LA Opera in collaboration with Improbable, debuted at The Metropolitan Opera in New York on November 8 and closed on December 7.

Thursday, 21 November 2019

Postcard from Palace Opera and Ballet 2019/20 Season

La Traviata/Simon Stone/Pretty Yende/Paris Opera/Palais Garnier 

The title of La Traviata literally means ‘the courtesan’ – or more figuratively ‘the fallen woman’ or ‘the woman led astray’. Verdi originally intended to give what is now his most popular opera (and the most frequently performed in the world) the somewhat grandiose title of Love and Death, but the work he eventually completed in collaboration with his regular librettist Piave deals with more down-to-earth issues of sex, money and class. 

To be sure the term ‘courtesan’ is more ambiguous and refined than ‘prostitute’, but despite the more multi-faceted and elevated status of the former as the paid mistresses or ‘kept women’ of upper-class men – and even if some courtesans enjoyed a certain autonomy and even had their own literary and artistic salons – ultimately they too depended on the exchange of sex for money as professional fringe-dwellers in the demi-monde of nineteenth century Paris. Indeed it’s not for nothing that the most successful demimondaines were known as les grandes horizantales.

The opera is based on La Dame aux camélias, a roman à clef and play by Alexandre Dumas fils based on the life of Marie Duplessis, who died of tuberculosis at the age of 23, and whose lover-patrons included Dumas and Liszt; the title refers to the white or red camellias she wore to indicate whether or not she was sexually available depending the time of the month. Verdi was inspired by seeing the play in the company of his own lover and artistic muse the soprano Guiseppina Strepponi, whom he later married but was herself at the time regarded as something of a ‘fallen woman’ – like many female singers, actors and dancers of the day who had lovers (and in Strepponi’s case children) but remained unmarried in order to have professional careers, which of course was considered unsuitable for married women.

Verdi’s choice of subject was thus a very personal one, as well as being socially and artistically controversial. La Traviata is the first opera that deals so openly with sex, money and class, as well as being the first to be set in the present-day world rather than far-off times and places; it thus anticipates the later verismo of Mascagni, Leoncavallo and Puccini, though its realism is arguably far more provocative than any of these. As with his previous opera Rigoletto, once again Verdi fell foul of the censors, who wanted to alter both the setting and content of his new opera, in particular with reference to Violetta’s profession (to which the composer famously retorted, ‘A whore must always be a whore!’). It also caused a scandal at its first performance in London in 1856: the church tried to have it shut down, Queen Victoria refused to attend, and critics decried what they called ‘the poetry of the brothel’ and ‘an exhibition of harlotry upon the public stage’.

All of this is easy to forget today, when the work has become such a staple of the repertoire – partly because the music is so ravishing, partly because we like to think we live in more enlightened post-Victorian times, but mostly because opera itself has become a cultural commodity and signifier of status that no longer communicates as directly to the public as it did in Verdi’s day. As such it invites radical renewal by a stage director who is attuned to the work’s original meaning as well as to its contemporary reception. 

Simon Stone’s new production at the Paris Opera succeeds on the second front perhaps more than the first. By transposing the setting to modern-day Paris, Stone is true both to his audience and to the composer’s intentions (as with the auteur-director’s recent contemporary adaptations of Chekhov and Ibsen). More specifically this Traviata takes place in a world (and on a stage) flooded by digital content. The spectacular set by Bob Cousins features two towering, conjoined and reflex-angled video screens on a vast revolving stage; at full revolve the now reversed and obtusely-angled sceens become blank white and merge with a similarly white floor to create an endlessly receding and featureless horizon. When facing the house, the video screens display ever-changing footage (video design by Zak Hein), from an opening close-up of Violetta’s (South African soprano Pretty Yende’s) closed and heavily made-up eyes – which slowly blink open as the haunting overture to Act 1 begins (echoing one of the obsessive motifs of French surrealism, from Bunuel and Dali’s Un Chien Andalou to Bataille’s Histoire de l’oeil, as well as suggesting the role of surveillance, ‘the gaze’, visibility and visuality generally in postmodern culture) – to a recurrent marketing image of Violetta/Yende (role and singer being effectively indistinguishable here) promoting a perfume called ‘Villaine’ on a giant advertising billboard which overlooks much of the rest of the Act. They are also continually traversed by scrolling emails, texts, emojis, newsfeeds, social media posts, bank statements and medical records. 

The effect is that real and virtual, private and public realms dissolve into each other in a société du spectacle that becomes indistinguishable from its representation on the stage/screen. This sense of a simulacrum without borders extends backstage as well as into the auditorium and foyer of the opera house at the Palais Garnier, as captured live on video before the show and between the acts, skilfully edited and included in the digital broadcast shown in cinemas. The result is that we ourselves feel as if we are not merely spectators but voyeurs participating in Violetta’s downfall.

Against this continuously morphing and shifting backdrop the revolve transports the characters on a restless journey from one narrative location to another. This occurs most effectively in Act 1, which becomes an all-night party, beginning with Violetta jumping a queue outside a club, then heading inside for her set-piece brindisi (‘Libiamo’) with Alfredo (French tenor Benjamin Bernheim), before leaving through the kitchen to a back lane (‘Oh, quai pallor/Un di felice eteara’), and then wandering the streets of Paris (‘E strano/Ah, fors'è lui che l'anima’) to a kebab-stand beside the Joan of Arc statue in the Place des Pyramides, where her closing love duet with Alfredo (‘Sempre libera’) takes place via SMS while he sits at his laptop in an internet café. 

Act 2 Scene 1 ran aground for me both scenically and dramatically as the action shifted to the country retreat where the lovers have fled from Paris, and where Alfredo’s bourgeois father Germont (Québécois baritone Jean-Francois Lapointe) tracks them down, confronts Violetta and persuades her to leave his son. Scene 2 then became unmoored and drifted into the doldrums of recycled trash-camp at Flora’s party back in Paris, where an impressive array of fancy-dress costumes (designed by Alice Babbage and decorated with randomly protruding dildos) failed to enliven an orgy even more inert than the one in Eyes Wide Shut. In this context the function of the ‘gypsy’ and ‘matador’ choruses (surely intended by Verdi to be hired entertainers doing double-duty as sex-workers) seemed dramaturgically unclear, while Alfredo’s drunken e-gambling on an iPad (with his winnings displayed on the overhead screens) looked more like stage-technological gimmickry than convincingly motivated scenography. As for the putative climax of the scene, Alfredo’s challenge to Violetta’s former lover the Baron Douphol (French baritone Christian Helmer) to fight a duel to the death, his verbal and physical abuse of Violetta, and his father’s unexpected entrance and reprimand, all seemed curiously enervated and lacking in dramatic intensity. 

Things became more intriguing again in Act 3, which began with Violetta languishing in a hospital ward in the terminal stages of consumption. The revolve then took her on a hallucinatory journey back through the street-scenes of Act One (recalling the closing shots of Antonioni’s L’eclisse, where the camera revisits the locations where the lovers have met throughout the film) for her nostalgic farewell aria (‘Addio, del passato bei sogni ridenti’), before arriving back at the hospital for her final trio with Alfredo and Germont (‘Prendi, quest'è l'immagine’) and then departing through a slowly widening chasm between the dark and empty video screens, as if disappearing through a fissure in social reality into a kind of ontological void.

The key performance was of course Yende as Violetta, who looked and sounded luminous (especially in her shimmering gold sequin dress in Act 1), but who struggled with the demands and complexity of the role both musically and dramatically. In this she was not helped by the generally glacial tempi adopted by conductor Michele Mariotti, and too often sounded plaintive rather than energized, not only when overcome by illness in Act 3 but also in the more spirited passages of Acts 1 and 2, when the role required her to embody the wilful courtesan or passionate lover. Bernheim as Alfredo was more successful, with a gloriously relaxed lyric tenor voice and easy stage presence; but again – partly because of the tempi but also Stone’s direction – he seemed fatally passive almost to the point of defeat from the very beginning of the opera, often appearing more interested in the contents of his smart phone than in what was happening around him onstage. In the third crucial role, Lapointe’s Germont was both over-acted and under-sung, laying on the sentimental pity for Violetta but failing to underline his character’s fundamental role as the irresistible voice of bourgeois reason and patriarchal authority. 

More questionable for me was Stone's decision to make Violetta a celebrity 'influencer' and fashion icon. This glosses over the economic precarity of her position as a courtesan, along with the sexual and class dynamics that underpin her fragile status. To be sure, the toxic nexus of social media, advertising, narcissism and commercial interests might be seen as a form of prostitution, which is potentially just as exploitative, degrading and even destructive. To turn Violetta into Kim Kardashian is however to give her significantly more social agency than she possesses in the original. Conversely it reduces the physical, tangible, corporeal dimension of her way of life and means of survival, which is essential not only to her tragedy, but to the musical and libidinal energy of the opera itself. Perhaps this explains why Stone's direction, Mariotti's conducting and the performances of the singers all seemed strangely lacking in vitality. 

In a pre-show foyer interview Stone cites Meghan Markle as a current-day analogy with Violetta in terms of being ostracized because of race and class; but the former (as well as being somewhat more secure in her social status than a courtesan) is as outspoken about her feminism and progressive politics as she is about the challenges of being mixed race, and is targeted so viciously in the media and online precisely because of conservative (and implicitly sexist as well as racist) expectations regarding the wife of a British royal. In contrast, Stone makes Violetta the acquiescent celebrity girlfriend of a contemporary bourgeois, while the latter is reconceived as (in Stone’s words) ‘a writer, artist or architect’ – in other words, a member of the knowledge/culture class, making it even more unlikely that his association with a media superstar (regardless of race) would be in any way scandalous.

In short: gender, race and class are not interchangeable either as cultural signifiers or social realities. They interact with each other in complex ways, and their meaning and significance depends on this, as well as on historical context. The definition of class in particular is determined by how it divides and organises a society. In nineteenth century Paris, the hypocritical morality of bourgeois patriarchy (Germont) colluded with the reactionary trappings of a residual aristocracy (the Baron Douphol) and the permissive ethos of the demi-monde to engineer a situation in which marriage, sex and romantic love were entirely separate transactions. It is the tragedy of Violetta and Alfredo that they seek to transcend this contradiction. In the contemporary world of consumer capitalism, however, desire and money are all that matters; all other considerations of status, value or meaning fall by the wayside; the body and even the emotions are reduced to being little more than appearances or simulations. In the era of the hyper-real, death is the only reality that resists technology (despite the best efforts of billionaires to achieve immortality through cryogenics); thus in Stone’s production Violetta’s illness (here implicitly cancer rather than tuberculosis, which in the 19thCentury was associated with syphilis, another shameful disease of contagion) is the only tragedy, rather than the contradictions of class. The latter are smoothed over, so that the streets of Paris at night appear to be populated solely by people of wealth and privilege. Indeed in terms of dramatic economy the production would arguably be more consistent if Act Two were cut entirely.

As for the issue of race – alluded to by Stone in the comparison he makes with Meghan Markle, and possibly reflected in the casting of Yende as Violetta (though curiously the role is alternated in Paris with Czech soprano Zuzana Marková, who is white) – this too is a matter of context. Like class or gender, race is a social category rather than a biological one; in other words, it’s a question of how skin-colour or heritage are valued. This is very different in the case of a global supermodel or social media starlet, a British royal’s wife, a 19thcentury French courtesan, or a contemporary South African soprano; indeed opera singers are now increasingly cast with as little regard to race as age or body-shape. If anything, the colour of Yende’s skin only enhances her status as a stage beauty when she enters as Violetta in a gold dress with an expensive clutch under her arm and saunters past the other fashionistas outside the club; and her race effectively disappears as soon as she begins to sing – which is surely as it should be. 

In fact the most telling – and moving – moment for me was when Yende reappeared for a solo curtain-call in the blue hospital gown that was Violetta’s final Act 3 costume, and curtsied so deeply that she almost touched the floor. In this simple gesture – and the tears that stained her face – I suddenly saw her journey from a small South African town to the gilded proscenium of the Opéra Garnier. In that moment, for the first and only time, I saw her as Violetta.


La Traviata directed by Simon Stone for the Paris Opera opened at the Palais Garnier on 12 September. It was digitally broadcast and shown in cinemas as part of the Palace Opera and Ballet screenings from 15 November.

Tuesday, 23 July 2019

Postcard from Perth 59

WA Opera, Sweeney Todd

The tale of Sweeney Todd – the ‘demon barber of Fleet Street’ who slit the throats of his victims and then passed on their corpses to Mrs Lovett, who made them into meat pies – was first published in a Victorian serialized novel or ‘penny dreadful’ called ‘The String of Pearls’, and almost immediately turned into a stage melodrama. It rapidly became the stuff of urban legend; subsequent versions included a 1936 silent horror film (starring the deliciously named Tod Slaughter) and various stage adaptations of the original story, including a 1973 play by Christopher Bond (whose subsequent adaptations include The Beggar’s OperaA Tale of Two Cities and Dracula), which in turn provided the source for Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 musical. Bond’s play elevated the tawdry plot into a revenge tragedy by providing Sweeney with a motive (or at least a psychopathological explanation) for his crimes: his wrongful conviction and transportation to Australia at the hands of the unscrupulous Judge Turpin, who rapes Sweeney’s wife (who in turn goes mad) and adopts his daughter for his future perverse sexual enjoyment. 

Sondheim seized on Bond’s play as the basis for his most complex work of musical theatre – or some would say opera, depending on the theatrical context and musical forces employed. The composer himself called it a ‘musical thriller’ or ‘black operetta’, and insisted that it was a psychological study in ‘obsession’. Hal Prince’s original Broadway production, however, emphasised the story’s origins in the Industrial Revolution by setting it on a stage dominated by a huge reconstructed iron foundry (a staging which has some parallels with the Boulez/Chereau interpretation of Wagner’s Ring a few years earlier). As such, Prince drew attention to the social-historical dimensions of the work, which Sondheim himself denied, but are arguably latent in the libretto and score: the former invokes a strong sense of social injustice, while the latter includes factory whistles as well as pounding rhythms and whirling ostinatithat recall the primitivism of early Stravinsky and Bartok, the minimalism of John Adams and the film scores of Bernard Hermann.

The WA Opera remount of Stuart Maunder’s production (originally staged by Victorian Opera in 2015) follows in the footsteps of the Broadway original, with Roger Kirk’s set design featuring a looming 19thCentury industrial cityscape of painted brick. A movable two-storey structure places Lovett’s cramped pie-shop beneath Sweeney’s upstairs barbershop; a trap-door beneath the barber’s chair opens onto a central chute like a gullet down which his victims plunge to the bakehouse in the basement. To one side of the stage another towering structure represents Judge Turpin’s house, where Sweeney’s daughter Joanna appears trapped on the balcony like a fairytale princess. The Victorian Gothic atmosphere extends to the whole stage when the architecture is cleared away to make room for the picaresque Soho street-scenes, Fogg’s lunatic asylum, or the subterranean bakehouse with its meat-grinder and fiery oven. All of this is spectacularly lit by Philip Lethlean, with green fingers of light spreading out through the haze beyond the proscenium like a Hammer horror film come to life, especially in the venerable Edwardian splendour of His Majesty’s Theatre in Perth. 

All of this is given added punch by the considerable forces of the WA Symphony Orchestra, the WA Opera Chorus and the principle singers, including both operatic and more music-theatre-trained voices. Antoinette Halloran in particular steals the show by making the leap from opera to musical theatre, with an interpretation of Mrs Lovett that manages to be grotesque, witty, sentimental and tragic in her greed, lust, intelligence and ultimately doomed love for Sweeney; baritone James Clayton is both fearsome and pitiable as an almost Scarpia-like Judge Turpin; and recent WAAPA Music Theatre graduate Joshua Reckless is initially touching and later spooky as Mrs Lovett’s devoted but eventually deranged apprentice Tobias. 

The big let-down for me was Ben Mingay in the leading role. Sweeney is a complex character, and needs to be both sympathetic and genuinely terrifying. Mingay simply didn’t have the acting chops to embody this, and his mellifluous voice remained safely in the realm of Romantic opera, without ever taking on the raw edge of sheer madness required by the role. To be sure, in this respect it has something in common with certain operatic roles (Wozzeck, Peter Grimes); and certain opera singers who are also actors could certainly go there (James Clayton for one); but for my money, in all its cheap, messy, sensational penny-dreadful glory Sweeney Todd still belongs in the realm of musical theatre rather than opera; and in the end, there was something a little too neat and tidy about this production, for all its undoubted musical and dramatic pleasures.


Sweeney Todd played at His Majesty’s in Perth on the 13th, 16th, 18thand 20thof July. 

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Postcard from Perth 58

Feet First Collective, S-27, Fremantle Arts Centre

S-27 (or Security Prison 27) was a former secondary school in Phnom Penh that was used by the Khmer Rouge to imprison, interrogate, torture and execute those who were deemed to be enemies of the regime. From 1975 to 1979 an estimated 20,000 people were incarcerated there, of whom almost all were killed. Forced confessions and denunciations were used to arrest others – including family members and friends – who were in turn tortured and killed, in a vicious cycle. The prisoners were photographed on arrival and forced to give an account of their lives up to the time of their arrest, before being stripped of their clothes and belongings and sent to their cells to await interrogation. Many of the prison guards were teenagers or in their early twenties – including children taken from prisoner families – and lived in terror of breaking the rules and being arrested, interrogated and killed themselves.  

British playwright Sarah Grochala’s play S-27 was first produced at the Finsborough Theatre in London in 2009. Based on prison records and interviews, the play is set in an abstract fictional world that makes no direct references to Cambodia (there are no geographical markers, and the characters all have English names) but that clearly draws on the unique circumstances of that particular hell. 

The action takes place in a room where prisoners are photographed and interrogated on arrival before being sent through a doorway – implicitly to their deaths. The central character, May [in a tight-lipped performance from Gabriella Munro], is a young female prison photographer, and the play consists of a series of physically as well as emotionally torturous interactions between May and a procession of newly arrived prisoners, including a former policeman from her village [Samuel Addison], a woman with a newborn baby [Caitlin Griffiths], and a former lover [a touchingly vulnerable performance from Samuel Ireland] – as well as her equally immature but more emotionally hardened colleague, June [Trinity Emery Rowe]. 

S-27 is a relentless study in betrayal and the cost of survival. The writing is sharply etched and rigorous, and the action and emotions heightened and taut. It reminded me of Brecht’s The Measures Taken, which has been much misunderstood as an apologia for revolutionary violence and rigidly enforced party discipline, whereas Brecht himself pointed out that it was actually a story about someone who participates in their own self-extermination. As one of the most famous passages in that play clearly states:

It is a terrible thing to kill.
But not only others would we kill,
But ourselves too if need be,
Since only force can alter this
Murderous world, as
Every living creature knows.

In a sense May too – and even more so her emotionally damaged colleague June – are engaged in an act of self-murder (the German word for suicide, Selbstmord, seems appropriate here) regarding their souls if not their bodies (though physical extinction is also their likely ultimate fate).

This production of the play by Feet First Collective is directed by Teresa Izzard and staged at Fremantle Arts Centre – a 19thcentury Gothic structure of local limestone built using convict labour, which was formerly used as a psychiatric hospital or ‘asylum for the criminally insane’ and later as housing for homeless women and ‘delinquent girls’. As such it has a somewhat sinister and even haunted ambience, especially at night. 

The performance began in ‘immersive’ mode, with the audience aggressively rounded up and herded inside one of the buildings by the cast, who were dressed as black-clad guards and armed with truncheons. We were told to form two lines, and our valuables confiscated, before each being given a lanyard with a number and marched upstairs. Those of us who had chosen at the box office to wear a wrist-band indicating that we were willing to be manhandled by the performers were singled out for special abuse and mistreatment. Meanwhile some of the ‘guards’ were dragged off by others to be interrogated for failing to do their duty, and angry shouts and cries of terror were heard echoing through the building.

I found this the weakest part of the performance. It felt somewhat unconvincing (and even a little tasteless) to be treated like prisoners, especially while holding plastic glasses of wine in our hands; and the actions and demeanour of the ‘guards’ were (perhaps inevitably) a little half-hearted. Things improved once we were seated in traverse in an upstairs room, and the play was performed in a more or less traditional format, apart from stylised ‘post-modern’ movement sequences between each ‘scene’, which I felt were a little affected, especially in the context of such a brutal and uncompromising play. I also felt that the emotional and technical demands of the play and the production were somewhat beyond the reach of a young and relatively inexperienced cast. Despite some highly atmospheric original music by Rachael Dease and subtle lighting by Andrew Portwine, the production as a whole seemed to fall slightly uneasily between student and professional standards of expectation, so that I wasn’t quite sure what genre of performance I was watching, or how to engage with it. Consequently the play itself didn’t hold me as powerfully as I felt it would in more confident hands.

In sum: S-27 is a gripping and complex play about a harrowing period in history, which has important things to say about dehumanisation that are more relevant than ever today, when systems of surveillance and punishment are on the rise even in so-called democracies like our own. As such, this is a worthwhile production, even though some of the artistic choices – in particular the gesture towards ‘immersive’ staging – didn’t entirely come off.


S-27 is at Fremantle Arts Centre until Sunday July 21. 

Friday, 19 April 2019

Postcard from Dance Massive

Luke George and Collaborators, Public Actions
Atlanta Eke, The Tennis Piece
Stephanie Lake, The Skeleton Tree
Marrugeku, Le Dernier Appel/The Last Cry
Joel Bray, Biladurang

Russell Dumas, Cultural Residues 2020


How can dance intervene in the world? And how is it subject to the world – not only physically but also economically and politically?

This year marked the sixth edition of Dance Massive, a biennial festival of Australian contemporary dance held in Melbourne (sometimes called the nation’s dance capital). Hosted by Arts House (whose venues include North Melbourne Town Hall and the Meat Market just down the road) in partnership with Melbourne’s venerable Dancehouse and Malthouse Theatre – as well as at alternative venues like Collingwood Town Hall and the Abbotsford Convent – this year’s festival embraced thirty productions from around Australia as well as a free public program of masterclasses, talks and showcases. Crucially the festival is also a market for domestic and international producers, and the pressure of this on some of the work and artists was palpable.

The dominant themes in the work – and brochures, programs and online marketing – were democracy, identity, technology and the nature of dance itself. More interesting to me however (especially in the context of dance) than these verbally articulated themes were the physically articulated performance practices they inspired – and beyond these, the economic and institutional practices that support or undermine them, including those of arts organisations, the arts market and the festival itself. In particular the festival (my third in less than two months, after Perth and Adelaide) raised questions for me about how art is marketed and described (including in reviews like this one) in ways that don’t helpfully serve or even accurately ‘frame’ the work. This is especially the case when art is talked about in terms of ‘content’ instead of artists, materials, processes and what might generally be called ‘form’.


Luke George has been making Public Actions with a diverse group of seven other performers and creatives (Nick Roux, Brooke Powers, Latai Taumoepeau, Leah Landau, Melanie Lane, Russell Walsh and Timothy Harvey) for the past couple of years. The work is described in the program as being in three ‘Parts’: Part 1 (‘Public Action’) and Part 2 (‘Group Action’) are ‘performative happenings’ that occur in the theatre at North Melbourne Town Hall; Part 3 (‘A Call to Actions’) is an exhibition in an adjacent room at the town hall archiving a series of ‘happenings in public spaces enacted by public participants’. The exhibition contains archival material including a looped video screening and a tree trunk; the video shows some of the artists and members of the public carrying the tree truck and negotiating their way around the Abbotsford Convent with their eyes closed. 

The term ‘happening’ invokes a performance art lineage that goes back to New York in the late 50s and 60s, and in particular the work of Allan Kaprow (who was inspired by the musical ‘happenings’ of John Cage). Similarly the term ‘action’ evokes the ‘action-painting’ of Abstract Expressionist painters like Jackson Pollock, especially as championed by critic Harold Rosenberg, who argued that the canvas was ‘an arena on which to act’ – in other words, a kind of stage. Crucially, Rosenberg shifted the focus away from the finished work as a self-contained object or product and onto the ‘action’ or process of making it. Thus the painting (or production) became a kind of ‘residue’ (which interestingly is also the term strategically chosen by Russell Dumas to describe his work in the festival, discussed below). 

In fact one could argue that the first two ‘parts’ of Public Actions actually took place prior to both performance and exhibition – namely, the ‘happenings’ at the Abbotsford Convent and the ‘action’ of making the performance in the rehearsal room – while the third ‘part’ at the Town Hall attempted to synthesize or recreate this with an audience in the theatre and to archive it in the exhibition. As such the term ‘happening’ might well describe what took place at the Convent; and ‘action’ in the sense of ‘action-painting’ might even describe what happened in the rehearsal room; the question is whether or how these terms apply to what ‘happened’ in the performance. The ‘performative happenings’ of Public Actions took place with a paying audience in a professional theatre, within a set time-limit and according to a prescribed sequence of events which might even be called a kind of ‘plot’ (or ‘performance score’). They also took place within the institutional context of Dance Massive, a market in which the ‘product’ (as opposed to the process of its making) is being put on display as a commodity for sale to domestic and overseas producers. These considerations arguably mitigated against the performance-component of Public Actions being a ‘happening’ at least as theorized and practised by Kaprow – let alone a work of ‘action-theatre’ (which to be fair it doesn't claim to be). More seriously, they also had implications for the dramaturgy of the performance.

The brochure and program also use terms like ‘taking action’, ‘group action’ and ‘mobilization’ in a political sense, asking ‘what it would take’ to ‘mobilize a group of people’ – presumably the audience, but possibly also the cast – ‘in this theatre, this town hall’. A theatre however is not a town hall, even when it’s inside one (or a former one); and an audience or a cast is not just ‘a group of people’. Audience participation is not the same thing as ‘rallying the audience as mobilized citizens’; and even when the cast marches around the theatre, it’s not the same thing as marching in the street (let alone when the marching is being done by ‘mobilized citizens’ or troops). One again, this theatrical context has implications for the claims being made by the language used to describe the work, as well for the dramaturgy of the performance.

Finally, phrases like ‘taking action’ and ‘group action’ also have ideological associations. These too are evoked by the language of the brochure and program, which claims that the work has been ‘provoked by the debilitating culture of individualism today’ and that it ‘rallies the audience as mobilized citizens…to reconsider the question of art as a force for social cohesion’. Presumably the intention is progressive and democratic, but phrases like ‘social cohesion’ and ‘the debilitating culture of individualism today’ also suggest reactionary and even fascist ‘actions’, ‘forces’ or ‘movements’ like Action Française or Nazi Aktionen against the Jews. The question of a group-action’s progressive or reactionary intentions or consequences depends on the group, as well as on what we mean by ‘action’. Is the group open or closed? Democratic or autocratic? Are its actions violent or non-violent? And are its communications reciprocal and transparent or one-way and distorted by relations of power? As Weber argued, social action is reflexive because it takes into account the actions and reactions of others. In a theatrical context: it’s not only the artist’s understanding of their work that matters, but also the audience’s understanding and reactions, and the feedback between the two that takes place in performance (as well as in workshops, rehearsals, showings and critical dialogue). 

All this is relevant to my experience of what ‘happened’ on the night I saw the show.


‘Part 1: Public Action’ began with the audience on movable chairs on a tiered seating block, facing an empty floor with a large projection screen at the back that showed what appeared at first glance to be a mirror-image of ourselves. Closer inspection revealed that it was actually a cleverly constructed collage of ‘strips’ of footage taken from previous audiences and ‘sutured’ together. As it happens I recognized some of the performers (who in some cases appear more than once in the image) sitting in various seats amongst the mirror- audience looking back at us; and as it happens I was also sitting next to a friend who had seen the show more than once, and his image also appeared more than once in various seats. 

I was totally enchanted by this, although others in the audience were still talking and generally behaving as if they were still waiting for the show to start, until a commotion began several rows behind me. My friend and I stood up and turned back to see what was going on. Someone in the middle of the audience appeared to be slowly sliding or falling out of their chair. As it happens (that phrase again!) I recognized them as one of the performers and surmised that this was part of the show, especially as they continued slowly sliding down the seating block. Other members of the audience seemed unsure; and their uncertainty was compounded when a member of the front-of-house staff entered and announced (somewhat bizarrely) that they would have to stop the show. By this time some of the audience members sitting near the performer had vacated their chairs and begun moving towards the aisles on either side of the auditorium, either to make room or simply to stand and watch. At this point, the usher came back in, announced that it was indeed part of the show and (even more bizarrely) asked us all to sit down again. Most of us however remained standing, especially as other performers were now emerging from the audience and sliding down the seating block, tumbling over the empty chairs ahead of them in a slow-motion avalanche of bodies and chairs that reminded me of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa or Rodin’s Gates of Hell

Once again, I was fascinated by the image, but distracted by the confusion of the front-of-house staff and audience. As the prison warden says at the end of Cool Hand Luke, what we had here was a failure to communicate. I also found myself distracted by thoughts of health and safety, not to mention legal liability, especially when one of the performers caught his belt in a chair-leg, and an audience member reached out and began struggling to disentangle him. 

Meanwhile the human avalanche continued crawling across the floor towards the projection screen – which now showed its mirror-audience sitting in the brace position as if for a crash-landing – while we stood somewhat awkwardly around them. They began to raise the screen, which it became apparent was made of fabric, and revealed the rest of the vast Town Hall space. This ‘reveal’ inaugurated Part Two: ‘Group Action’.

Sound and video artist Nick Roux was positioned on the proscenium stage at the far end, with a sound desk and microphones positioned in front of several vertical sheets of metal and some kind of long wind instrument that looked like a Tibetan horn. We’d been offered earplugs at the box office before the show, and fortunately I’d accepted, as unpredictable bursts of deafening industrial noise ensued for the next ten to fifteen minutes. No one else seemed perturbed, but even with earplugs and both hands covering my ears I felt nauseous from the bass frequencies, and found myself struggling with the urge to either leave the space or cross the floor and unplug the sound system; once again, I found myself distracted by thoughts of legal liability in the event of long-term hearing damage. (Afterwards I was reassured that the sound-levels had been meticulously ‘tested’, to which my response was: ‘On whom?’)

Meanwhile the performers were now marching up and down around the space and auditorium like soldiers or robots, reinforcing the (presumably intentional) impression that this section was meant to be an example of ‘group action’ by a stronger group against a weaker one (in this case, the audience). On every level, I felt that the transition from Part 1 to Part 2 certainly performed what the brochure described as a ‘rupture’ in the theatre (if not the ear-drums). However it totally negated the proposition (also stated in the program) that social ‘displacement’, ‘relocation’ or even ‘terra-formation’ (literally, the transformation of a planet or moon to make it like Earth and therefore habitable -a rather dubious ecological metaphor for social change) might happen through ‘immense softness’ rather than violence and noise. As such I felt it had more in common with fascism than democracy. Again, perhaps this was intentional; but I found myself confused about the larger purpose or necessity of this, and increasingly troubled by the work’s method of implementation and ethics. 

Individual performers were now moving among the audience and issuing instructions. One ‘group’ of audience took their chairs into the space and formed a new ‘onstage audience’; then a performer approached me and others sitting nearby and asked us to do the same thing (though I had trouble hearing what she was saying over the noise). Other audience members were apparently following instructions in various ways, doing creative things with brooms and generally enjoying being part of the action, as people often do (for better or worse). Eventually two audience members approached my onstage group and instructed us to pile up our chairs and then lie down on the floor. I assumed that they were relaying further instructions from the performers, and obeyed, even though once again I found myself distracted by thoughts of safety and liability as we piled up our chairs somewhat precariously and then lay down beside them.

Afterwards I learned that the second round of instructions had simply been an invitation to enter the space and change anything we wanted to (or not); and that the two audience members who had approached us had simply taken this a step further by telling us what to do. (It’s too bad I missed out on the original invitation, as I would have unplugged the sound system.) When I learned this I couldn’t help reflecting on the fact that once again (as with the ‘avalanche’ in Part 1) there had been a systemic distortion of communication, aided and abetted by a lack of transparency or reciprocity between the performers and the audience. In particular I was struck by the somewhat mystificatory and even dogmatic silence or lack of intervention from the performers when things ‘went wrong’ – or perhaps simply ‘went differently’. This seemed to me like a case of doggedly ‘sticking to the script’ and washing one’s hands of the consequences while encouraging the audience to improvise and take things into their own hands – unlike the verbally transparent and reciprocally guided ‘happenings’ at Abbotsford Convent, where both artists and members of the public had their eyes closed but remained in physical contact and were allowed to signal ‘Eyes open!’ when needed. This inconsistency seemed particularly distorting given the imbalance of power between performers and audience in a theatre (just as it would be for police to simply ‘let things happen’ when things ‘got out of hand’ at a protest on the streets). If it was meant to be an exercise in voluntarism or ‘direct democracy’ then it seemed as naïve, specious or even disingenuous as those concepts themselves (in fact both are typically manipulated by demagogues and often lead to violence); if a more ‘value-neutral’ demonstration of ‘how things happen’ then once again its purpose, execution and ethics seemed poorly thought through. In comparison with the original ‘happenings’ of Cage or Kaprow, or more straightforward immersive performances like The Nature of Why (reviewed in an earlier Postcard from Perth Festival), this felt like an needlessly complex and distorting hall of mirrors, and ultimately a game of power rather than a work of genuine collaboration. 

‘As it happened’ however this time I was happy enough to lie down (at a safe distance from the pile of chairs) and watch the rest of the performance pleasantly unravel around me. In fact I found it something of a relief to return to the more traditional (albeit immersive) role of contemplative audience member while the performers embarked on a final, very beautiful and indeed ‘immensely soft’ sequence of improvised individual interactions and ‘farewells’ in relation to the space. At last, I felt, a genuinely transparent and reciprocal (even if wordless) encounter between performers and audience took place. Such surely is the beginning of any collective action not based on force – and perhaps of any genuine democracy.*

*Since writing and posting this I’ve received a personal communication from a cast-member and friend to the effect that my review may inadvertently give the impression that Public Actions failed to take adequate precautions in terms of health and safety. This was not my intention; rather I was reporting on what I experienced as moments of perceived confusion (in the cases of the ‘avalanche’ in Part 1 and the relayed instructions about audience participation in Part 2) and oppressiveness (in the case of the sound levels), which on reflection I attributed (in the former two cases) to distorted communication and (in the latter) to a neglect of audience comfort, as well as (in both cases) an underlying confusion (which could be mine!) about the work’s intentions and execution. It’s true that as a performer and theatre-maker I’m highly sensitized to issues of health and safety in the theatre as my habitual workplace, as well as to issues of audience perception; and that personally I’m also highly sensitized to the issue of noise (which I regard as a neglected health and safety issue across all workplaces and in society generally); but I have no doubt that the project took adequate precautions and always had the performers’ and the audience’s health and safety in mind and at heart at all times. 


I found Public Actions deeply problematic; but this is also a tribute to the work’s complexity and fundamental integrity. Such complexity and integrity was sadly lacking in some of the other work I saw at Dance Massive, which consequently I wouldn’t describe as ‘problematic’ but simply as bad work.

Many shows failed to live up to or even resemble the claims made for them in the marketing blurbs.  They also failed in terms of their dramaturgy – and were in many cases choreographically disappointing as well. I felt I was seeing a lot of bad theatre or conceptual/performance art repackaged as contemporary dance simply because it involved dancers and was created by choreographers. The latter however were not necessarily directors, performance-makers or conceptual artists – and in some cases barely even choreographers, judging by the evidence. This misleading ‘packaging’ seemed largely driven by marketing, and one could sense local audiences, international presenters and social media slavering over sexy ideas, technology and bodies without seriously or honestly engaging with the work in front of them. Generally I was engaged by the craft of the performers; but in most cases I wished they had been put to better use.

The Tennis Piece by Atlanta Eke for example was described in the festival brochure as ‘an experimental choreographic performance and multimedia installation performed by four dancers, 400 tennis balls, four self-feeding tennis ball machines and a robotic lute’. The work claimed to be ‘a choreographic deconstruction of Renaissance dance...unleashing an explosive new process beyond human agency’ (presumably referring to the tennis ball machines) created by ‘one Australia’s most provocative choreographers with a radical approach to tackling the complex anxieties of our technologically laden world’ (possibly referring to the robotic lute). The show’s program went even further, proclaiming that the work ‘re-imagines the Tennis Court as a time-machine’ in which ‘Eke together with her dancers travel back to 20 June 1789 where the members of the French Third Estate congregated in the city of Versailles and took the Tennis Court Oath, a pivotal event in the French Revolution’. Presumably after this act of time-travel, ‘Eke contemplates the confines of “supreme cosmic intelligence” [presumably a reference to the Revolutionary Cult of the Supreme Being rather than Eke’s own cosmic intelligence] though a new choreographic modality that reorganises the known into the deeply unrecognisable’ (an accurate description of the marketing jargon if not of the actual show). ‘Dancing in the face of obsolescence against an irrational and intensifying flow of 400 tennis balls’, the program concluded in a supernova-like burst of enthusiasm, ‘The Tennis Piece becomes a container for positive feedback loops – ever-rapidly approaching an unthinkable limit that was [in a final pleonasmic flourish] forever and always already there.’

The work was performed in the ballroom at Collingwood Town Hall, an elegant Art Deco refurbishment of a typical late-19thCentury neoclassical shoebox-style auditorium with a wooden floor and proscenium stage at one end. The venue was ideal for concerts and dancing, so I felt we were off to a promising start. Tennis court markings were taped to the floor; the audience entered the brightly lit ballroom and sat downstairs in a single line along the walls or upstairs in the gallery. Four dancers (Atlanta Eke, Ivey Wawn, Annabelle Balharry and Ellen Davies) warmed up playing tennis, while their images were duplicated on a video screen above the stage, and the sound of the ball hitting the racket was echoed by deafening synthesized lute chords (generated by sound artist Daniel Jenatsch) which continued relentlessly for the next hour.

Sadly the warm-up was the most interesting part of the show. The tennis net was removed, and two of the dancers re-entered without expression and moved around the space taking it in turns to exchange short barrages of dance steps back and forth (just like playing tennis). Then another dancer entered, covered herself in a dark sheet, knelt and began intoning the Latin names of female body parts (which were also projected as text on the video screen) while a tennis ball machine began lobbing balls at her. This was followed by all four dancers performing an interminable series of what looked like Renaissance or possibly French Baroque court ballet dance steps with great precision but still no expression or significant variation in length, rhythm or dynamic. Finally the lights went down, ultraviolet lights came up and a barrage of tennis balls began flying through the air at the dancers, who smeared themselves with luminous paint and began rushing around, occasionally trying to catch the balls or hit them back.

Presumably this had something to do with the French Revolution, patriarchy, the female body, royal tennis and the origins of ballet as an instrument of political power in the court of Louis XIV. I wondered what difference it would have made if I hadn’t read the program. Possibly I would have been more interested – but in the end probably just as irritated. The sound and staging made it almost impossible to contemplate the movement and allowed no imaginative space for corporeal meaning to emerge; the choreography was inert and demonstrated no sense of visual or spatial intelligence; and the whole thing was illustrative.

I thought of the term ‘program music’. Perhaps The Tennis Piece could be described as ‘programmed dance’.


Little advance on this score was made by the admittedly more accomplished Skeleton Tree by Stephanie Lake at Malthouse. Lake, like Eke, is currently hot property on the contemporary dance market, and is described in the program as a ‘multi-award-winning choreographer’ who ‘draws inspiration from the punch and poeticism of funeral songs and dances for the dead to create a powerful new work about the primary human experience that language constantly fails to articulate: the ecstasy of grief’. 

As this blurb suggests, death and grieving were totally aestheticized and anything ‘primary’ completely avoided. Lake admitted in an interview in Dance Magazine during rehearsals six weeks before the show opened that she had no experience of death but was ‘planning to interview people once I get further into the process’. I’m not sure how things panned out on that score, but the work certainly showed no evidence of any primary research – or indeed of any direct emotional response or original thought. Instead, as with so much contemporary theatre and dance that is driven by technology and technique, images and sensations were all. The staging was certainly eye-and-ear-popping (or alternatively ‘caressing’, depending on the sensation required) and the choreography occasionally jaw-dropping, but there was an emotional and intellectual coldness and emptiness at the heart of this work that made it less ‘about’ death than dead itself.

After a preliminary ‘Final Bow’ by the dancers (to recorded applause), a sequence of thirteen so-called ‘meditations on death and loss’ ensued. This largely consisted of a series of clichéd images augmented by lighting and sound effects, and a ‘funeral playlist’ of songs created by sound designer Robin Fox and including tracks by Joan Baez, Nick Cave, J.S. Bach, grindcore metal band Agents of Abhorrence, techno ‘noisician’ Paula Temple and (most cringingly) Saint Saëns’ Dying Swan, along with tracks by Fox himself.

Opening with Baez singing ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’ was I felt a mistake as nothing else in the show could (or would) match the sadness and beauty of her voice or that song. Playing it at the end might have worked – certainly better than the hackneyed Saint Saëns, which coupled with the deciduous gold-leaf worn in that final number had me wondering if the intention was to be naïve, sentimental, kitsch or just plain camp. In between there was the eclectic ‘playlist’, a lot of loud noises and flashing lights (expertly engineered by Fox and lighting designer Niklas Pajanti but essentially more about sensation than imagination or reflection), and a series of dances that exploited the beauty and dexterity of the performers (James O’Hara, Nicola Leahey and Marlo Benjamin) and a few dazzling choreographic moves by Lake – most memorably including a seething pre-human John Carpenter’s Thing-like collective body with twelve arms and legs, which was for me the most striking image in the show, while still remaining an essentially a derivative and sensationalized one.

The most problematic sequence for me involved Benjamin and O’Hara laying out and washing Leahey’s flesh-coloured-underwear-clad ‘corpse’. I found the image generic, aestheticized, inauthentic and (in the languorous movement, arrangement of limbs and choice of underwear) primly eroticised. I would have been less irritated if it had been entitled ‘Necrophilia’ instead of ‘Ritual’; alternatively they could have simply washed a naked body.

More generally, I couldn’t help feeling that Lake was trading on an aura of sexiness surrounding death and grieving, and that the whole show engaged in a kind of pornography of mourning – both in the element of voyeurism assumed on the part of the spectator, and in the simulated or absent emotion on the part of the performer in the role of an object offered to our gaze. The title Skeleton Tree is presumably taken from Nick Cave’s 2016 album of the same name, recorded just after his son’s death. Cave at least speaks from experience, has chosen to share his loss with his fans and been characteristically careful to remain the subject rather than the object of the album as well as the concerts and films – and has used these to probe deeply into his own psychology and spirituality. Lake’s work in contrast seemed to me derivative, exploitative and ultimately shallow.


Four of the works showcased in Dance Massive were by First Nations choreographers. I saw two: Marrugeku’s Le Dernier Appel/The Last Cry and Joel Bray’s Biladurang. Both were much more substantial productions than The Tennis Piece or Skeleton Tree, even if they lacked the formal sophistication of Public Actions or Russell Dumas’s Cultural Residues 2020 (see below).

Marrugeku is an intercultural indigenous performance company based in Broome and Carriageworks in Sydney, and led by artistic co-directors Dalisa Pigram and Rachel Swaine. Le Dernier Appel/The Last Cry is a new ‘trans-indigenous dance theatre work’ created in partnership with the Centre Culturel Tjibau in Nouméa, directed by Burkina Fassoan/Belgian associate artist Serge Aimé Coulibaly and co-choreographed by Coulibaly and Pigram, with dramaturgy by Swain. It features six dancer/co-creators (Anrita Hepi, Stanley Nalo, Krilin Nguyen, Yoan Ouchot, Dalisa Pigram and Miranda Wheen) of First Nation, immigrant and settler descent from New Caledonia and Australia. 

It’s a striking team, and perfectly poised to ask painful questions about colonization and post-colonialism in a comparative and collaborative spirit. The work is inspired by the 2018 referendum in New Caledonia on independence from France, as well as the 2017 Statement from the Heart by the First Nations Convention at Uluru, which made recommendations on recognition, treaty and an indigenous ‘voice to parliament’ in Australia. The Statement from the Heart was rejected by the Australian Government; in the case of New Caledonia, a narrow majority (56%) voted to remain a French colony.

Le Dernier Appel/The Last Cry is thus a work born of collaboration but also frustration and even anguish (as the title suggests), and its form and content are hard-edged and unrelenting. This may have been intended to reflect seemingly unchanging colonial and post-colonial realities, but the aesthetic made me switch off from the work and close my eyes and ears to its relentless message. Nicolas Molé’s set and video installation – including an abstract geometrical backdrop that looked like an 80s space ship, and a giant iPad-shaped screen displaying endlessly looped text and footage about the New Caledonian referendum and the Uluru Statement from the Heart interspersed with a screen-saver of digitized leaves – was ugly and distracting. Nick Wales and Bree Van Reyk’s electronic score was similarly monotonous, relieved only by Papuan ‘future soul’ singer-songwriter Ngaiire’s haunting vocal tracks, which evoked a sense of possibility that seemed otherwise lacking in the work. The program refers to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in relation to decolonisation and its ‘states of inertia and reoccurring cycles of waiting’; but Beckett’s play is leavened with a sense of humour and indeed playfulness (if not necessarily hope) that was sadly absent from Le Dernier Appel

The choreography ranged from pacing up and down or standing and staring into space (as if ‘waiting’) to semi-internalised spasmodic twitching, which eventually blossomed into frenzied outbursts of traditional and contemporary dance and movement. These revealed a little more individuality and complexity in terms of personality and movement-language, including some beat-driven break-dancing from Noumean Stanley Nalo, wild martial-arts-inspired leaping and spinning from Noumea-based Vietnamese Krilin Nguyen, intense traditional/contemporary fusion from Kanak/Indonesian New Caledonian Yoan Ouchot, and the more subtle and mature presence of Yaruwu/Bardi woman Dalisa Pigram. However there was very little contact between the dancers, who seemed emotionally trapped in their own worlds, and consequently their internal stories didn’t translate beyond the footlights. This was frustrating, as it seemed as if intercultural collaboration and interpersonal communication must hold some kind of promise for the future, but it was not visible onstage (although it was audible in Ngairre’s music).

I wanted to love this work and be moved by it, but I felt that it was dramaturgically inert and that its rhetoric remained mired in a form of generic protest that seemed ultimately self-defeating.


Joel Bray’s Biladurang also grapples with questions of colonisation, trauma, struggle and identity, but it does so in a much more personal, complex, engaging and inclusive way. The psychologist Abraham Maslow theorised that ‘love and belonging’ constitute a cluster of interrelated human needs. Biladurangspeaks to us intimately of this, no matter who we are or where we come from. 

In terms of form, it’s an immersive and participatory one-man dance-theatre work performed in a hotel room for an audience of about 15 people. Originally commissioned for the Deadly Fringe program of Melbourne Fringe Festival in 2017 and performed at the Sofitel on Collins in the Melbourne CBD, it has since been remounted in hotel rooms in Darwin, Brisbane and Sydney. This was a return season at the Sofitel – on the 44thfloor, to be precise.

The immediate creative and personal ‘inspiration’ for the show comes from a time when Bray was living in hotel rooms while on tour in Europe after having lived and worked in Israel for ten years, broken up with his partner, lost his visa and found himself single and homeless. The deeper source-material for the show however goes back to his upbringing as a pale-skinned Aboriginal man from north west NSW coming out as gay while being raised by a white Pentecostal Christian foster-family in the country town of Orange and spending holidays with his Wiradjuri activist father. Beyond this lie two hundred years of colonisation and thousands of years of racism and homophobia. All this is symbolically expressed in the dreaming story of the biladurang, or platypus, who was born of the forbidden union between duck and water rat and banished into exile upriver in south-eastern Australia, where it lives (and struggles to survive, depending on the environmental health of the river) to this day.

All of this – and more – was revealed in the course of the show. We were ushered up to the 44thfloor of the Sofitel by a host (Sofii McKenzie) who told us that ‘Joel’ was a bit self-involved and liked having his photo taken. She then knocked on the door and a naked and flustered Joel opened it and asked us to wait. He reappeared a few moments later in a white hotel bathrobe (and white undies) and let us in, handing out matching bathrobes for all of us, inviting us to make ourselves comfortable and pour ourselves some sparkling wine or mineral water. 

A deliberately awkward (and I felt slightly clumsily conceived and performed) exposition section ensued, establishing ‘Joel’s’ nervous performance-persona and a somewhat sketchy dramatic scenario in which he’d invited us up to his room after apparently having had sex there with someone (who it turned out later had possibly left with ‘Joel’s’ phone). Things became more interesting when he began throwing himself violently around the room, against the walls and on the floor; the use of his body and the space was remarkable throughout the show, especially given the confines of the hotel room, its typically cluttered and clunky furniture and the proximity of the audience. He then embarked on the story of his sexual coming-of-age as a teenager in Orange, saving up to buy his first gay porn magazine and compulsively wanking over it night after night; this lead to a hilarious physical sequence with him bouncing around under the doona on the bed.

The show became even more interesting when he asked an audience member to assist by operating sound and video cues on a laptop and then dimmed the lights, went into the bathroom, filled the bath, poured in bath foam, stripped, got in and began a writhing dance sequence, while his image was relayed back to us via a closed-circuit camera on the TV screen in the bedroom, before coming back naked and covered in foam to continue speaking and moving around the room. More personal revelations ensued about self-abuse in the form of smoking, drinking, drugs, casual sex, self-harm and even dance training itself. He danced again, then invited us to imagine what the country outside, its ceremonies and dances might have looked like before Europeans arrived – a landscape and culture now lost to us, and even more poignantly to him.

The final and most interesting part of the show involved Joel (now dried off and dressed again) giving audience-members hand massages using hotel products and inviting them to share their own stories about who they were and where they’d come from. He then put on some more music and we were invited to do some couples-dancing together (I danced with Joel and was complimented on my dipping-technique – ‘You’ve done this before!’– which was gracious of him but far from true). Finally we were invited to open the blinds and gaze down on the city at night, before being told the story of the platypus.

I found Biladurang an absorbing and moving experience. Despite the clunky dramaturgy at the start – which I felt had to do with its somewhat artificial nature – the rest of the show was finely judged in terms of its structure, pace, dynamics, use of space, physicality and text, and especially its relationship with the audience. Bray himself is a charming and compelling performer, especially when the artifice is left behind and he’s no longer ‘playing Joel’ but simply being Joel. The most effective part of the show for me was the last section, and especially the sharing of stories – which on the night I attended included one of Joel’s white foster-siblings (who revealed that they didn’t know at the time about his Aboriginality or that he was visiting his father) and a French woman of Native American ancestry who spoke about her ongoing relationship with land and ceremony. 

As we all left the hotel room together at the end, I was reminded of Inge Clendinnen’s book Dancing with Strangers, about the first months of tentative contact between the the First Fleet and Aboriginal Australians, and the sense of alternative possibilities that existed then – and perhaps still exists now, if only we have the courage and will: not to go back, but to move on.    


And so at last to Russell Dumas’s Cultural Residues 2020, the most artful and in its own way most provocative show I saw at Dance Massive. A standout work of pure choreography, it also managed to deconstruct the form/content dichotomy and address the questions of marketing and commodification raised at the beginning of this overview.

In a way, ‘dancing with strangers’ could also serve as a description of Cultural Residues, because of the eschewing of narrative or psychology in the duets and trios that make up the show. Even if Dumas’s dancers are known to us, and have certainly rehearsed and performed together, they are strangers in the freshness, immediacy and unfamiliarity with which they encounter each other and move together.

The program claims that the work explores ‘history and fake news’, but I suspect that this was partly Dumas poking fun at the need for dance to market itself by referring to ‘relevant’ social and political content in order to be funded, programmed or sold. In fact for Dumas all such references are probably ‘fake news’, because dance as an autonomous artform is arguably ‘about’ nothing other than itself.

However things are not so simple. Cultural Residues does not foreclose reference or escape ‘the closure of representation’; at the very least, it refers to and represents itself, because of the way it has been created and staged. The show takes the form of a re-enactment of material from Dumas’s own repertoire performed by a rotating cast of dancers (Jonathan Sinatra, Stuart Shugg, Alexandra Petrarca, David Huggins, Linda Astradipradja, Rachel Doust, Megan Payne) whom he has worked with over many years (Sinatra has been a member of Dumas’s Dance Exchange since 2011). According to the program, the cast choose the material, and Dumas chooses the sequence, so that the show is different each night. The dancers are also accompanied and illuminated by silent black-and-white film projections of what could be the same material (it was hard to be sure) performed by two other dancers (Josephine McKendry and Nick Sabel) thirty years ago.

Moreover Dumas’s work does have historical and social implications, not only because it’s conceived at least in part as an embodied critique of existing performance and political practices (including government arts funding policy and government-funded arts programming by institutions like Dancehouse and Dance Massive). More deeply it also seeks to ‘remember’ how movement and even thinking itself (including thinking about dance, arts funding and programming) become habits – and it does this in order to rediscover the possibility of moving and thinking differently. In other words: it’s a practice of freedom, or at least is in search of it: freedom of movement, freedom of thought, and above all perhaps the freedom of a form of sensation that is no longer tethered to meaning.*

This is partly (and perhaps only partly) possible because, as Dumas acknowledges in the program, his practice is financially supported by a network of artists and friends, and materially supported by the artists who work with him. In other words, he doesn’t receive (or more accurately, no longer receives) government funding and so is dependent on patrons and collaborators who presumably donate their money, time and skills for free. This is certainly a tribute to Dumas and the generosity of his patrons and collaborators, but it raises questions about the sustainability of this kind of practice – and even perhaps the sustainability of artform-based practice itself under mixed-economy capitalism.

It’s notable in this regard that Dumas was primarily inspired by the postmodern dance scene he encountered in New York in the 1970s after dancing in Australia and then the UK and Europe in the 1960s, since broadly speaking the limited performing arts opportunities that existed in Australia during that era were either amateur or commercial (Dumas himself danced for the dominant theatrical entrepreneur of the time J.C. Williamson), while in the UK and Europe government funding for the arts was already well-established and in its heyday. In New York by contrast there was (and still is) on the one hand a world-dominant commercial sector (Broadway) and on the other hand a largely self-funded experimental sector relying on cheap rents and free spaces like the Judson Church in Greenwich Village (or partially funded off-Broadway venues today). In other words: Dumas is still making work according to the social and economic model of mentors like Trisha Brown and Twyla Tharpe (or Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham before them). The difference is that the tradition (or ‘provenance’ to use a term favoured by Dumas) of American modern and postmodern dance arose in what might be called ‘salon’ or relatively small-scale performances; but that (in the case of its emblematic figures at least) it led to privately or publicly funded international touring companies and dance techniques that bear their names. In Australia by contrast a figure like Dumas is relatively isolated and unsupported by the social and political infrastructure, and so continues to work on a small scale and remains something of a legend in his own backyard – in his case, a small but dedicated community of supporters and collaborators in the contemporary dance community in Melbourne and at a ‘salon’ like Dancehouse.

This has its advantages, not only in terms of the work’s ferocious stylistic purity but also how it is made, presented and – perhaps most importantly – transmitted. As well as being a dancer and choreographer, Dumas is also a teacher who is interested in what he calls ‘embodied knowledge’ and how this is transmitted from one generation to the next. In fact he is interested in the faculty of sensation – both the sensations of the dancer and of the person watching (be that the audience or himself). As such he belongs to that tradition (or provenance) of teacher-artists who have much in common with religious or spiritual teachers (especially in Eastern traditions). Such artists and teachers are less interested in language than in the body, and have a particular focus on the present moment. In the context of dance, this means relying on movement and sensation rather than the ‘language’ of choreography, at least insofar as the latter is conceived in terms of writing things down or even naming them, as opposed to repeating and copying them. Once again, this focus on ‘presence’ still remains within ‘the closure of representation’, but it has more to do with images and sensations than words; and ‘representation’ here literally means doing something (or ‘making it present’) ‘again’. Of course, ‘doing something again’ also means doing it differently each time – which is partly why we continue to do or go to see live performances.

Cultural Residue2020 heightens this sense of ‘doing things again differently’ because of the way the material has been chosen, arranged, performed and juxtaposed with the film footage. This is projected onto a large fabric screen on one side of the raised proscenium stage at the rear of the Sylvia Staehli Theatre at Dancehouse. The screen can also be backlit to serve as a scrim behind which silhouettes of the live dancers approach and retreat or form various ensemble shapes. Most of the duets take place on the floor space below the proscenium (although a memorably trio takes place up on the proscenium itself) and are illuminated by spill from the projection or by minimal lighting from the floor. This is mostly from one side, so that shadows of the dancers are also thrown up on the opposite wall. The entire set-up is simple but enchanting and highly theatrical (a term Dumas himself might not like), being reminiscent of a magic lantern or perhaps Plato’s Cave. The superimposed layers of film, memory, physical presence and shadows evoke a dream-like state of contemplative reverie in the observer, and render us highly susceptible to the sensory and bodily-kinaesthetic intelligence of the work we are observing.  

Dumas’s choreography is obviously related to American postmodernism in its independence from narrative, language or music (there are none of these in the show), its minimalism and its interest in pedestrian movement – or more precisely, in what Dumas calls ‘the quotidian’. This is distinguished from ‘the everyday’ not only because of the skill required for its performance but because it focuses on ‘the forgotten in the everyday’; we might also call it the non-habitual, or even the anti-habitual. A simple example is running backwards; but most of Dumas’s choreography involves more complex mutual interactions between the dancers such as supporting, holding, lifting, catching, leaning or rolling against or away from each other, often in unusual ways or using unusual surfaces of the body, and in a state of perpetual imbalance which is endlessly sustainable and watchable. His preferred term for this is ‘managing instability’, and it obviously relates to the sense of ‘wildness’, ‘abandon’ and being ‘out of control’ that he admired in Trisha Brown and others when he encountered them, but which he felt was later tamed and commodified by being formalised as ‘techniques’; here though the mood is not so much ‘wild’ as gentle, focussed, flowing, peaceful, occasionally comic and very beautiful. As such there’s something inherently restrained, neo-classical and even Apollonian about it; the choreographer that springs to mind at least in this regard is Balanchine.

I found Cultural Residues 2020 a fascinating introduction to Dumas’s work, and a salutary reminder of what pure choreography can still achieve. In comparison with almost everything else I saw at Dance Massive, it dispensed with text, music, ‘sound’ and all but the most minimal lighting or other technical ‘effects’. It also dispensed with the marketing language employed by most of the other shows. Instead, it limited itself to simply saying what it would actually be and do, and then to simply being and doing that. As such, it posed some challenging questions about the making, presentation and marketing of work today. 

*Here and in what follows I’m indebted to an interview with Dumas conducted by Sally Gardner and published online in Postcolonial Studies; a link is available on Dumas’s website (Russell Dumas & Sally Gardner (2018)…dance for the time being: Russell Dumas in conversation with Sally Gardner, Postcolonial Studies, 21:3, 379–390).