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A festival that feels, senses and thinks

Keith Gallasch: Interview, Wendy Martin

Refuse the Hour, William Kentridge Refuse the Hour, William Kentridge
photo John Hodgkiss
Wendy Martin, the new Artistic Director of the Perth International Arts Festival, wanted for her opening event a sense of place, of Western Australia rather than the usual European spectacles, although she thinks they’re great. WA, she says, has a wealth of talent, so for the event, titled HOME, she’s appointed large-scale events artist Nigel Jamieson to direct with Iain Grandage, Lucky Oceans and Wayne Freer working on the music, Zoe Atkinson on design and Sohan Ariel Hayes on media art. The focus is on how WA artists evoke a sense of place with the event to be opened with a very special Welcome to Country by storyteller and virtuoso didjeridu player Richard Walley, associate director of HOME. A sense of place, of one’s own being and of others intelligently and aesthetically pervades the 2016 festival program.

One of the festival centrepieces, Refuse the Hour is a live version of William Kentridge’s The Refusal of Time which appeared as an installation in the 2014 festival. I wrote then, “It’s a huge work occupying the whole of the main PICA space with five screen projections (filmmaker Catherine Meyburgh) on three walls of Kentridge’s animations and staged performances (choreography Dada Masilo) with enveloping music (Philip Miller) and dramaturgy by physicist and historian of science Peter Galison. I was taken in particular with the costuming (touches of Bauhaus inventiveness), dancing and transformations in the strange domestic scenes, as well as with the overall sense of time in and out of synch, measured against the stars, the beat of metronomes and the epic march of shadows of human beings bearing goods and possessions and led by a hauntingly scored brass band” (RT120, p17). Martin’s favourite moment in this live incarnation is “a phenomenal duet in which Berlin-based Australian Jo Dudley sings in reverse the words she’s just heard from a woman in the Soweto Choir.”

If Kentridge seduces us with his fantasia into reflecting on our relationship with time (and always with a South African political dimension), in Apocrifu, Belgian-Moroccan choreographer and dancer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, exploring the great religious and philosophical texts, wants us, says Martin, “to see that these can sit side by side and create beauty without having to be in complete agreement.” His expression of this is realised by Cherkaoui himself, a Japanese classical ballet dancer, a French contemporary dance and circus artist and the Corsican choir A Filetta—“singing to die for,” claims Martin.

If reflecting on others’ values is central to improving human relationships, there are works in the festival that focus very specifically on the bodies and feelings of others. You can read about the The Empathy Museum’s A Mile in My Shoes (UK) on page 23; it’s an experiential work for audiences created by Clare Patey and Kitty Ross with cultural thinker Roman Krznaric, author of The Empathy Revolution and opening speaker at the festival’s Writers’ Week. Also from the UK is Claire Cunningham whom Martin worked with on London’s Unlimited Festival of Disability Arts. “She’s a great artist and a great thinker,” says Martin of the Scottish artist. “She’ll present Guide Gods, which I commissioned for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games. It’s a dance theatre piece exploring the views of the world’s major religions on disability which began when she met a Buddhist monk in Cambodia who suggested she was disabled because of karma. It’s only performed in places connected with religion. She’ll also perform Give Me a Reason to Believe, her solo response to the works of Hieronymus Bosch and his depiction of the disabled—it’s an investigation into empathy.” Cunningham will also run a week-long workshop for artists from across Australia during the festival. Martin has a four-year strategy for the festival to work with DAADA (Disability in the Arts Disadvantages in the Arts, WA).

Pindorama, Lia Rodrigues Pindorama, Lia Rodrigues
photo Sammi Landweer
Depression is the subject of Every Brilliant Thing by British writer Duncan Macmillan and performer Jonny Donahoe, both geniuses says Martin, who was so moved by the performance that she thanked the actor for being so brave, to which he replied, “It’s not my life.” The work drew on interviews with sufferers. “It’s staged in the round and is very intimate and welcoming, like a conversation,” Martin explains, “and is funny, but deeply affecting.”

The need for understanding across cultures has never been so critical as ignorance—and its offspring, racism and sexism—increasingly threatens to undo democracy. Another work that will open audiences to the complexities of the lives of others, and our kinship with them is Common Wealth’s No Guts, No Heart, No Glory (UK), created by Bradford woman, Evie Manning, who directs the work and writer Aisha Zie. Twenty-eight years old and living next door to a Muslim woman with 11 children,” says Martin, “she asked her how she managed given that she herself could barely cope with one child. The woman said ‘come to the gym with me.’ It was full of Muslim women learning how to box to build their self esteem and being in the world. Evie interviewed girls 16 to 23 years of age including a woman who is the UK University Boxing champion. The performers are mentored by a Pakistani woman who’ll represent Britain in the next Olympic Games and has trained them in technique and how to feel confident and speak about their lives. No guts… will be staged in a Perth boxing gym. Evie’s staying on for 10 days to work with marginalised people towards a new work we’ll commission from her.”

WA dancer James Berlyn has crafted a fine live art repertoire including the 2013 work Crash Course, a surreal language lesson. In this festival he’s presenting and performing I Know You’re There, which Martin describes as “a beautiful personal story about his family and when something you thought was true no longer is. He builds the set out of recycled paper—it’s an understated ecological message—dances and engages the audience in conversation. You can choose to join in or not. It’s in the round and very intimate.”

The great kathak dancer Aditi Mangaldas, from India will present with her dancers two works on the one program. The first, Knotted, is a bold response to the December 2012 gang rape of a young woman left for dead, “not a direct response,” explains Martin, “but about the effect.” The second work, Unwrapped, a display of classic kathak accompanied by harmonium and vocals, will doubtless be riveting.

In Plexus, French artist Aurélien Bory will install Japanese performer and circus artist Kaori Ito in a beautiful cage of 5000 elastic cords in which she’ll be reduced to the role of puppet though seeking to escape as we watch, listening to the amplified movements of her body in the musical score.

Guide Gods Guide Gods
photo courtesy Perth International Arts Festival 2016
“It’s one of the most visceral works I’ve experienced, and the most visceral in the festival,” says Martin of Lia Rodrigues’ dance work, Pindorama, “which is the name of Brazil before colonisation. You enter a black space, you’re standing, a huge transparent tarp is unrolled. As it is moved by naked performers it becomes a raging sea, the sound of the storm coming only from its movement, of water against plastic, and you become one of the performers.” This work about danger, survival and cooperation is inspired by ancient ritual with which to meet current social and political challenges; Rodrigues recently moved her studio to Maré, one of the largest favelas in Rio de Janeiro.

There’s much more to Martin’s festival—Meow Meow as The Little Mermaid, PVI’s Blackmarket, the premiere chamber ensemble version of Mark Anthony Turnage’s contemporary music classic Blood on the Floor at Fremantle Arts Centre, Simon Stone’s The Wild Duck and The Tiger Lillies Perform Hamlet. Martin is eager to point out too that the Festival’s Conversations program will be hosted by Ruth Little, associate director of the climate change organisation Cape Farewell (UK), writer, literary manager and dramaturg for the likes of Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, and a great interviewer.

I tell Wendy Martin I’m impressed by the emphasis on empathy in her program, always from quite different perspectives—philosophical, political, collective and individual, and always aesthetic. “I’m not telling people what to think,” she says, “but if they find the ideas, that’s good.”

Perth International Arts Festival, 11 Feb-6 March

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2016 pg. 24

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

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