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Richard James Allen and Karen Pearlman delineate for Keith Gallasch the impulses behind Tasdance’s new work, the epic Thursday’s Fictions

KG Your work is distinctive on two fronts. First is the the role of voice. Second there is a narrative interest which is not typical of a lot of contemporary dance.

KP Richard and I both feel very strongly that dancers are not dumb and that means both that they are not stupid and that they are not mute, that the voice is a part of the instrument known as the body, and the body is the instrument that you have to work with in creative dance. With voice we have tried to develop a language as sophisticated as the physical. The level of writing for the voice has to match the level of choreography, and vice versa.

KG How do you get that quality of voice you need in performance, since from the earliest days of a dancer’s training the focus is so much on the body.

RJA I was chatting last night with a guest actor in our latest show and he said, sort of jokily, “I’m not sure you really need me, because all of you dancers are so good at speaking and dancing. Most actors couldn’t do the physical things they do and be so clear.” That was a nice comment. In the ten or more years Karen and I have been working together we’ve developed both conscious and unconscious ways of training the body so that you can use the voice fully as well as the body fully. There is a sense of freedom in the use of the voice.

KG That’s fine for you, but what about for a relatively new company?

KP When we were auditioning we looked for great dancers and we had more than enough to choose from. Then we asked them to speak. First of all they had to be willing to speak, willing to open their mouths. Dancers are so often trained to be quiet. It is very much a part of dance culture, especially in classical training and that is a way of showing your respect.

KG Not questioning the choreographer’s intent?

KP The first thing an actor has to do is to ask “why”, and that is the last thing a dancer ever does. We are now getting dancers to ask us why, and it certainly pushes the thinking of the choreographer.

RJA If the choreography can’t be discussed, then it can’t be pushed further, particularly in this case where we are creating physical and verbal characters. It requires a full understanding by the dancer-actor, of why they are doing what they are doing.

KP We look for dancers with clear, simple speaking voices, unmannered and malleable, which is a similar thing to what we look for in their bodies, that their years of training haven’t left marks on them that have to go.

KG Presumably, Richard, you compose this text that is to be spoken well prior to the rehearsal process?

RJA I’ve been writing Thursday’s Fictions for three or four years. It’s an epic poem and part of the process has been to make a stage adaptation of it. We went through a creative development period with a whole series of guest artists from Tasmania and Sydney, working with us on imagining different ways of staging this text in performance.

KP The creative development project was part of the PAB-funded Time and Motion project allowing us to bring in Don Mamouney to work on the acting, Mémé Thorne on the Suzuki approach and many others from Tasmania and beyond. We had Scott Grayland working at the cross-roads of aerial work, dance and acting. We had Theresa Blake and Dan Whitton from Desoxy at the nexus of acrobatics and acting. Everybody brought ideas to the process. Don stayed on as co-director.

RJA Ultimately, Karen was the dramaturg, creating ‘with the knife’. We worked on it together, and I’d say, “Yeah, that sounds good, but put that back in!”

KP We had a lot of help also, Greg Methé and Ruth Hadlow of Hobart’s Terrapin Theatre were involved in the creative process both on design and dramaturgy. Their design background makes the question always come up, “Do we need to say this in words. Can’t we say it physically or visually?”

RJA To me this was, in a way, a workshop for defining what is a performance script. It’s is not a traditional play, and it is not a poem anymore. It is now a performance script, and that was a lot of hard work and a lot of discussions and a lot of actual trying out.

KG How much of Thursday’s Fictions is driven by the narrative, how much by dance’s sense of the moment?

KP It’s structured by the narrative and it is also character-driven in the sense that each of the sections offers a quirky individual around whom we can centre our images and ideas. While it is a very rich and fascinating plot, it doesn’t move at the speed of lightning. It goes off from side to side, in a sense, and gives us horizontal views into the minds of these people. The dancers play several roles. They play the poems, Thursday’s poems, which are this central object passed from hand to hand. They play the left and right half of Friday’s brain. A set of triplets, all named Monday, run a funeral parlour. Later on, they torture Tuesday on the rack. Three dancers combine to play a large blue spider, looking like a cross between a praying mantis and a chandelier.

KG What about the choreography, Karen? Are you going off in any new directions?

KP I think there are some new directions. One of the places that modern dance has got stuck, in a way, is in the development by individuals of dance vocabularies that they call their own. So you can look at a dance and know immediately that it is a dance by Martha Graham, or a dance by Russell Dumas. I feel those vocabularies—like Trisha Brown’s—are wonderful, and they are rich, but they have a limited range of emotionally expressive possibilities.

KG You immediately know what they are saying?

KP Right, and when we get into our idea of narrative, where have the full spectrum of psychological and emotional vocabularies to work with, we are in a sense trying to let the characters develop their own vocabularies, rather than the choreographer work on his or hers.

RJA That doesn’t mean that we don’t create it, but it does mean that we are trying to create specific vocabularies that suit those characters in those situations.

KP There are moments in the dance where you might look at it and say ‘Martha Graham’ because one of the things she was really strong on was torture. There is a section in which I am tortured and I am really trying to make myself think in terms of very hard, bound, striking movements, as opposed to soft flowing gliding actions, which are completely inappropriate for torture, even though they are things which I personally enjoy doing.

KG Given that Thursday’s Fictions is character and narrative-driven, what role does ensemble dancing play?

KP A significant role in the sense of ensemble acting. There is no corps de ballet here at Tasdance. We have really selected people who are very distinctive. They look different, they dance different, they talk different.

RJA It is a company of soloists, a complementary mix rather than a sort of bland sameness.

KG Language is central to the work, what about sound?

KP The composer and sound designer Andrew Yencken is using live musicians, recording them and manipulating the sound to evoke travel through time. He has references from moments in music history. He is also working with radio mikes on us, the performers, and he is modulating our sounds and words into the sound design as well as we perform. There’s also a pre-recorded radio component (involving a number of Tasmanian actors) which plays a surprising role.

KG You say Thursday’s Fictions is a fairy tale, but its themes and sometimes graphic violence and sexual content make it definitely not for children.

KP The theme of the work is the power of art to live on past us. The question at the heart of the work is, “Is it possible for a human to create something better than themselves?” Kids just aren’t going to be interested in that. I think it is adult also in the sense that it requires a very attentive audience. It’s also the question of whether the language of dance is universal in the sense that people who don’t speak your verbal language could easily understand your dance language, including children. I have a lot of problems with that.

KG Richard, why the interest in re-incarnation?

RJA I am personally very interested in yoga and Buddhism but Thursday’s Fictions isn’t a work of religious instruction. It is a spiritual work in the sense that it deals with issues of where we are and what our lives mean. I don’t think people are going to walk out of the theatre thinking this, but if someone was to reflect on it for a long time, they might decide that at a deeper level they’ve experienced a dialogue between a western spiritual vision of heaven and hell, and an eastern vision.

KP In the first instance, we are creating a spectacle. If people can come to it without deciding in advance what dance is or what theatre is, then they will get a lot out of it.

RJA I hope that people will come out delighted and intrigued and chuckling.

KG Is the work ultimately about creativity through words? Is it about the poet?

KP No, but do I think that dance is the most ephemeral of art forms, and poetry is one of the least ephemeral artforms. Dancers disappear and poems don’t.

RJA There is another medium in Thursday’s Fictions, other than dance, acting, design, sound and radio, and that is print. Thursday tries to get her poems buried with her, so she can pick them up and keep writing them in the next life. In the end, you never hear the poems on stage, but the program contains Thursday’s 24 poems. And you can take them home with you in the innovative Paper Bark Press publication which doubles as program and poetry volume. You see these poems in the performance buffeted through time and history, and different people care about them or not, and by some miraculous chance they end up on your lap.

Tasdance, Thursday’s Fictions. Text—Richard James Allen. Dramaturgy, direction, choreography—Karen Pearlman. Don Mamouney—co-director. Andrew Yencken—composer and sound designer. Dani Haski—costume designer. Greg Thompson—lighting design. Simeon Nelson—rack designer. Ben Little—radio producer. Karlin Love—music production coordinator. Dancers—Joanna Pollitt, Gregory Tebb, Kylie Tonatello, Samantha Vine, Richard James Allen, Karen Pearlman. Actor—Michael Edgar. Earl Arts Centre, Launceston, Dec 7-10; Peacock Theatre, Hobart, Dec 14-17.

RealTime issue #10 Dec-Jan 1995 pg. 29

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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