Monday, 2 December 2013

Postcard from Perth 3

Theatre Reviews and Reflections from WA 



Questions of Relevance

1.     Art and the World

Recently I had a conversation with a fellow Perth theatre artist about the relationship between art and the world. Coincidentally we both have kids, and we speculated as to whether this experience had de-centred our previously self-centred (or at least work-centred) perspective on things (I’m not sure if it has in my case).

She told me about an experience she’d recently had on her local primary school parent committee when she’d proposed allocating some unspent funds to decorating the school-buildings with street-art instead of getting iPads for the kids. The experience made her wonder if she couldn’t practice her art as a stage designer more effectively in the field of education, for example, rather than theatre. This led to another story about a theatre project involving a traumatic trip to the remote northwest to visit an Aboriginal artist that led my friend to question what she herself was doing there. In fact her presence had possibly saved a life, but the trip had shaken her own sense of artistic purpose. Her words reminded me of the questions posed by Shaun Tan in his story about the Stick Figures: ‘Who are you? Why are you here? What do you want?’ Fuelled by her words those questions seemed more burning than ever.

2.     Literacy and Relevance

At an artists’ forum hosted by The Blue Room as part of Summer Nights at Perth Fringe earlier this year, there was a discussion about the lack of cultural ‘literacy’ among Perth and Australian audiences in relation to avant-garde work. I felt uncomfortable about the use of word ‘literacy’. I wondered if it explained why so much contemporary art and performance seemed irrelevant to the rest of the community, in Perth and elsewhere.

James Berlyn’s Crash Course (reviewed last week) is the exception that proves the rule; in fact it depends on its audience being literally ‘illiterate’ (even if it had to invent a language for precisely this purpose). The night I saw Crash Course at least half the audience were members of the ‘general public’ rather than typical ‘art-house’ aficionados. Regardless of our common lack of literacy, indeed because of it, we were all challenged and then won over by the work. We became a transient community. We learnt a few words in an unfamiliar language, but more importantly we shared an experience and emotions in a way that underlies all literacy, even if we would probably never know how much our private experiences and emotions had in common and would probably describe and interpret them using different words with different meanings attached to them (all variations on the famous ‘problem of other minds’).

There is something beyond literacy that generates an audience, something that goes back to the questions: ‘Who are you? Why are you here? What do you want?’ Asked by an audience of an artwork (or vice versa) these become questions of relevance. We don’t need to get (or even have) answers, but if we sense that there aren’t any, or that the questions aren’t even being asked, then the work (or our presence) feels irrelevant.

We might ask these questions of the Melbourne Ring for example, and get all kinds of answers, ranging from the form and content of the work to its accessibility or function, and the contradictions between them. Why the Melbourne Ring? What is the work about? Whom is it for? Humanity? The planet? Or merely the Gods? Is it a revolutionary work for the masses that Wagner began in 1848 or the decadent spectacle of their own Götterdämmerung that he completed for the ruling classes in 1874? Why does it have to cost so much? Why go?

Closer to home, I went to Black Swan’s production of Midsummer, a play with songs, in the Heather Ledger Theatre at the State Theatre Centre recently. The play had charm, the creative team did a fine job, the performances were engaging, and one sequence involving a talking cock-puppet stood out in more ways than one, but I wondered why I was there. I think I wouldn’t have wondered if I’d seen it in a small venue at the Edinburgh Fringe (in fact it was a light-comic love-letter to that city) or even Perth Fringe, either performed by a Scottish cast or in a local adaptation set in Northbridge. As it was, I saw a team of artists struggling: with accents; with a modular set that was clever but unwieldy for two actors to manipulate on such a large stage; with indifferent songs well-sung by the cast and well-played by a fine local band who looked a bit uncomfortably well-lit at the front of the stage. I should add that the audience seemed to enjoy themselves; so perhaps the problem lies with me. This isn’t meant to be a criticism of the artists, or the audience, or comedy, or imported Scottish plays, but I found myself questioning the company’s programming. Who are you? Why are you here? What do you want?

3.     SDS1

Ahilan Ratnamoham is an artist and athlete. He was born in Australia but his parents migrated here from Sri Lanka. After finishing a film degree in Sydney he went to Europe to purse a career in professional football. On his return to Australia he decided to make performances inspired by sport. The Football Diaries with Urban Theatre Projects was based on this body of skills and experience. His next work, Michael Eissen: I Want to Play Like You was based on the transient community of Africans who migrate to Europe to play football. Ahil trained with a group of these players in a park in Antwerp and made a show with them. I found his blog documenting this experience at

Ahil now lives in Antwerp, but he’s just finished a residency at Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts where he’s been developing a new ensemble work called Drill with stuntman Connor van Buuren and Perth dancer Imanuel Dado. SDS1 is not that work, but a new solo which Ahil performed in the Performance Space at PICA for three nights at the end of his residency. I like the fact that he didn’t feel pressured to perform or show excerpts from the other work in development, and I applaud PICA for investing in Ahil and being open about the outcome.

I saw SDS1 on Friday night, along with about twenty other people. Outside PICA I ran into a friend wearing red high-heeled shoes. This turned out to be an omen.

In the foyer one of the audience-members came up to me and asked if I was here to see the soccer show. I said yes, and she told me she only played soccer ‘socially’. I said my knowledge of the game was pretty much limited to watching my daughter play with the local East Fremantle Soccer Club on Saturday mornings when she was younger. Then she asked me if knew much about dance. I said not much more than I knew about soccer. She asked me what brought me here, and I said I thought it sounded interesting.

Inside the PICA performance space we sat in a single circle. The stage was bare and Ahil was warming up. He wore a t-shirt, tracksuit pants and a pair of luminous orange soccer shoes. They matched the orange soccer ball he produced from his sports-bag. He hitched up one leg of his pants, hit the first soundtrack on his laptop and killed the houselights. The rest of the show was lit by single lamps: a blue, an amber, and finally the powerful yellow sodium arc-lamp that normally illuminates the PICA rooftop but here turned the performance space into a kind of black-box stadium. Lit by these single lamps in the round, Ahil was always sculpted in profile, his face obscure. He became pure body.

Half the sequences in the show involved the soccer ball as a dancing partner in a demonic pas-de-deux. During these sequences his eyes never left the ball. Then he would toss it to an audience-member and do a solo, a phantom ball dancing between his feet or away across the floor, his eyes always on the audience. Like the red shoes in Andersen’s story, the soccer cleats turned out to have a life of their own, possessing their owner in a furious dance of death. They were dainty and strangely feminine, with hard toes that tapped and squeaked their way across the painted black floor. The intentional object was always us, or the ball. He also occasionally addressed us with unscripted requests: Can some of you sit down this end? Can you hold this reel of tape while I wrap it around my wrist/my foot/my torso? Can I give you my shirt? Will you promise not to wash it when you get home but keep it stained with my sweat? Can I crowd-surf across you? Can you boo me? We did. And at the end we clapped and cheered.

Otherwise there were no words, no narrative, indeed no game, just pure play; but the physical and emotional content of that ‘play’ (in both senses of the word) was tremendous. The sheer stamina and technique displayed by this fusion of dance and football was thrilling, and animated by seemingly unfeigned hope, fear, joy, pain, delight and rage, as Ahil spun and danced towards and away from us, sometimes gasping for breath or emitting high-pitched simian coughs and cries. I have said that there was no narrative, but there was certainly content. One does not have to know much about sport, professional or ‘social’, to know about racism, sexism, homophobia and class, how sport promises and fails to transcend them. This was the symbolic drama embodied and enacted by Ahil in SDS1, even though he didn’t ‘tell’ us anything, or ‘play’ anyone other than himself. If anything we were the ones who took on roles, not him. At times we were team-mates; at others, opponents; or again, a crowd of spectators. As such, we were also participants. As in Crash Course, we were immersed. We became a transient community.

This is not to sentimentalize football or sport in general, which like the rest of culture and society is riven by contradictions and conflict. I’m not suggesting that sport is more relevant than art, or that we can make art more relevant by simply hybridizing it with sport; but perhaps one can illuminate the other. ‘There is a crack in everything,’ as Leonard Cohen crooned at Perth Arena last week. ‘That’s how the light gets in.’ Perhaps through this mutual illumination of art and sport Ahil can even emancipate football from the constraints of the game itself. This would be a logical extension of the emancipatory potential of all art.

4.     Art and Sport

In the field of sport and popular culture the questions ‘Who are you? Why are you here? What do you want?’ hardly need to be asked. We know the answers, ‘without question’. Or do we?

Of course sport and popular culture are not immune from the demand for literacy or the question of relevance either, but these depend less on education, wealth, social status or class than is the case with art. Sport in particular has always been much more global in reach than art or any other form of culture, popular or otherwise. In part this is to do with its emancipation from language, its focus on the body; in part because it’s a spontaneous activity rather than a scripted one.

If all art is a species of play, as the playwright Schiller argued (the German word Spiel covers both senses of ‘play’, like its English counterpart), then sport is even more playful than performance because it can’t be rehearsed or repeated. Unless the game’s been fixed, or we’re watching World Championship Wrestling, no-one knows what’s going to happen. And unlike literature or art, or indeed cinema, video or recorded music, sport is not the mere image or trace of an object, activity or event, imagined or real, but the thing itself. Sport is thus more ‘real’ than art, at least in the sense of ‘real’ as opposed to ‘artificial’ flowers. As such, untainted by resemblance, sport seems to free itself from the burden of meaning, too. It has sensory, emotional and imaginative content, to be sure; and it certainly demands knowledge, competency and rules; but it doesn’t seem to ‘say’ anything. It has a syntax but no semantics.

Nevertheless like all species of play, sport still necessarily involves a kind of fictional representation: specifically the representation of war or conflict, for which the game is a substitute. In place of the state and its citizens, there is the team and its followers (both traditionally attached to a territory); in place of the enemy, the opposition. Sport thus provides an outlet for emotions like aggression and solidarity (or sexuality). Actually art does this too, but in a more ‘artificial’ way.

In another way sport is less playful than art, which is more about breaking rules than following them. (This is why Kant qualifies the faculty of ‘aesthetic judgement’ as ‘reflective’ rather than ‘determinative’, because the exercise of the imagination involves discovering rules rather than applying them.) In fact the rules of sport are even stricter than those of communication, or the laws of ethics. Because of its competitive nature, sport overrules Kant’s moral law ‘to act only as you would have others act’, as long as you follow the rules of the game. This is something else that sport has in common with war and other forms of conflict. 

Some of these tangled implications were teased out for me by SDS1.

5.     Form and Meaning

The form of contemporary dance emerged out of the emancipation of dance from music; just as Western art music emerged out of the emancipation of music from dance, sacred or secular rites, language, storytelling and even performance. Both are instances of the emergence of ‘pure’ from ‘applied’ art, ‘professional’ from ‘amateur’ artists, or ‘high’ from ‘popular’ culture. In traditional cultures the performing arts (music, song and dance as well as painting, costume and decoration) were fused (together with science and religion, knowledge and practice) into a single narrative act (traditional indigenous dance, classical Greek theatre). Then religion, the arts and sciences began to separate into more specialized spheres and traditions. Finally modern art sought to become autonomous by separating itself from the world. Now postmodern art and culture experiment with hybrid forms, genres, disciplines and levels of practice, as if ironically returning to more ‘primitive’ forms of tradition and society. But even in a postmodern world, artists still need to live; and if they are professional artists, they still need audiences. In other words, art remains an object of exchange, as it was in traditional societies, symbolically if not financially.

All art is social as well as personal: a form of expression and means of communication as well as a matter of pure ‘form’. As such it necessarily has content as well as mere ‘matter’, whether that content be narrative, thematic, emotional or sensory. This is as true of the most ‘abstract’ art as it is of genre-painting, genre-movies, contemporary dance or even sport. Perhaps we are never free of the burden of meaning after all.

The question of relevance, then, remains, for an artist or an audience: what does this mean to me? Perhaps not much. Or perhaps, everything.

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