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Opening Night, Toneel Groep, Melbourne Festival 2010 Opening Night, Toneel Groep, Melbourne Festival 2010
photo Jan Versweyveld

A festival theme, “a motif,” he declares (conjuring images from his laptop onto the big screen before us), has emerged naturally from the well-spring of his discussions with Australian and international artists selected for the festival. “Spirit,” “mortality,” “transformation,” “transition,” “transcendence,” “ascension” and “epiphany” consistently bubble forth as the ever speedy Sheehy briskly uncaps his program. No mere froth and gas, there’s plenty of body here: a festival about “mortality and spirituality, not in a religious sense, but in terms of transition and transcendence.”

cassavetes’ opening night

The standout work in the program, and the one on which Sheehy lavishes most attention in this briefing is Toneelgroep Amsterdam/NTGent’s Opening Night by John Cassavetes, directed by Ivo van Hove whom Sheehy ranks as “one of the greats with Mnouchkine and Ostermeir” (whose works have appeared in Sheehy festivals). Van Hove is reproducing the 1977 Cassavetes classic on stage. As opening night of a new play draws near, an ageing actress faces emotional collapse after the death of a fan, “confronts her own mortality,” says Sheehy, “and comes out the other side with an epiphany.”

Sheehy explains that “over the last few years van Hove has been dissecting theatre and cinema and looking at the points of cross-over and diversion. Camera men and women, all professionals from the world of cinema, constantly feed the performance live by video [to screens large and small], creating a real time film of the performance throughout.” Cinema took much from theatre in its evolution and now “Van Hove is taking back from cinema certain of its achievements and putting them into theatre to create something new and fresh—the closeup, multiple points of view, sonic veracity. This is not new, directors have worked with video, but the way van Hove does it completely enhances the theatrical experience—every single scene is lit and blocked for both cinema and stage, for every seat, in real time in a work about a stage production.” One third of the audience is seated on the stage, ‘playing’ their theatre double.

For those of us who have admired Australian director Benedict Andrews’ virtuosic and integrated use of video in The Season at Sarsaparilla (RT78, p11) and Measure for Measure (p8), van Hove’s realisation of a film classic as a stage-cum-film work will, it’s to be hoped, engender further theatrical possibilities while offering a new understanding of Cassavetes’ unique vision.

hotel pro forma: tomorrow, in a year

There’s more hybridity abroad in the festival’s opera and music theatre offerings. Denmark’s Hotel Pro Forma, working to a score by Scandinavian electro-pop duo The Knife and the choreography of Japan’s Hiroaki Umeda, “creates a new species of electro dance opera.” Titled Tomorrow, In a Year, the opera celebrates the 2009 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species. Darwin appears as a character alongside Time and Nature—our understanding of which he radically reconfigured—with singers and dancers in a spectacular aural and visual stagescape, reminding us of the transcendant sense of duration, variation and diversity Darwin bequeathed. (A laterally related work, epi-thet, by Melbourne composers Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey [p47], offers audience members sonic and visual responses to their genetic makeup in terms of height, posture and movement in a work inspired by an ANAT Synapse Residency with Dr Shane Grey at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney.)

heiner goebbels: sifters dinge

Heiner Goebbel's Sifters Dinge (Sifter's Things; RT86, p54) is performed not by singers and musicians but by programmed, up-ended pianos "over a massive dry ice pit to a soundscape that includes Malcolm X speeches"—an installation as performance, in a theatre, with an inevitable touch of the uncanny. Goebbels, a multimedia pioneer, was inspired by the pantheistic writing of a 19th romantic, Aldabert Sifter. Sheehy describes the work as "deeply political and, finally, a homage to nature." Given that Sifters Dinge "is almost impossible to describe," Sheehy wonders what kind of reviewer—music, theatre, visual arts—editors should send to experience the work in which "the pianos play, fog rises, rain falls, water bubbles, objects move mysteriously" [Press Release]. There's original music by Goebbels, traditional chants from South America and Papua New Guinea, fragments of texts from Sifter’s novels, quotations from Claude Levi-Strauss, William S Burroughs and Malcolm X. Goebbels will speak about his work at the festival.

david chesworth: richter/meinhof-opera

Melbourne composer David Chesworth will premiere Richter/Meinhof-Opera (to a libretto by Tony MacGregor), “exploring the limits of representation and direct action.” To be staged at the ACCA gallery, the opera is inspired by German artist Gerhard Richter’s October 18, 1977, a series of paintings responding to the alleged suicides of jailed Baader-Meinhof Group members and accused at the time of “aestheticising terrorism.” Will the charge be repeated this time? This 45-minute work will musically and visually conjure a dark period in western democracy, one with immediate resonances, says Sheehy.

robert lepage: the blue dragon

Brett Sheehy says it's usually anticipated that Canadian director Robert Lepage's multimedia works will be "between four and seven hours in length, but The Blue Dragon is one hour 45 minutes: imagine all that theatricality and theatre magic condensed down into an absolute gem of a production." This time Lepage focuses on three people in contemporary Shanghai: "a Canadian ex-pat who runs a gallery in the city’s art district, a young Chinese artist exhibiting at the gallery and a Montreal advertising executive in town to adopt a Chinese baby." Sheehy sees the work as being about "the West grappling with the new China especially the Chinese artist." Doubtless The Blue Dragon will display Lepage's engaging theatre magic, but will it also feature the soap-operatics of Lipsynch (RT87, p3), with its crudely 'transcendent' treatment of a central female figure? And, the choreography of Tai Wei Foo (Singapore/Canada) aside, in what ways will Lepage choose to represent Chinese art?

australian art orchestra: soak+the hollow air

Paul Grabowsky and the improvising Australian Arts Orchestra frequently inspire with their cross-cultural collaborations. On this outing the focus, in two works, is multimedia. The Hollow Air brings together the AAO and shakuhachi player Riley Lee with "sound projection and real time digital manipulation using the visual programming language MAX/MSP." Soak is described as "a live music and film extended ambient work, it slowly unfolds through compositional elements influenced by artists such as Arvo Pärt, Henryk Górecki, Brian Eno, Radiohead, Dust Brothers and Miles Davis." Australian film artist Louise Curham will use a variety of projectors and screens to provide another layer of improvisation. The aim is, again, transformative, to create "an aural and visual exploration of sound that breaks down distinctions between musical genres and incorporates elements of ambient music, electronica, contemporary art music, jazz and rock" [Press Release].

thomas adès: in seven days ...

Britain's leading 'contemporary classical' composer, Thomas Adès will be in-residence at the 2010 festival. The American Calder Quartet joins Adès on piano to perform his Piano Quintet. Adès also directs musicians of the Australian National Academy of Music in a program of his own music and of "music close to his heart" by Rameau and Couperin. Michael Kieran Harvey, Anthony Pateras and musicians of the Academy will perform Thomas Adès’ Living Toys and the world premiere of String Quartet by Anthony Pateras.

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra will play Adès' violin concerto Concentric Paths, written for and performed by Anthony Marwood, and present the Australian premiere of In Seven Days Piano Concerto with Moving Image: "a collaborative work between Adès and video artist Tal Rosner...described by the artists as a video-ballet in seven movements that follows the Genesis tale of creation. The visuals and the music tell the story in a set of abstract variations, each new element—light/darkness, sea/sky, heavenly bodies, plants, creatures..." [Press Release].

akram khan, michael clark, hiroaki umeda

In Vertical Road, the multicultural Akram Khan Company (including Australian dancer Paul Zivkovich) will explore the pan-cultural phenomenon of angels who travel the road, as Sheehy puts it, “to heaven or whatever’s up there”, danced to a score by Nitin Sawhney in an investigation of “ascension.” Also the UK-based, Michael Clark Company will perform a new work (London premiere, October 3), come, been and gone, with Clark’s trademark mix of ballet and modern dance here set to the music of David Bowie and collaborators Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and Brian Eno. Sheehy describes the work as “an exploration of the musical world of the 70s and 80s and Clark’s own journey through it, with a moment of epiphany at the end.” Hiroaki Umeda, as well as choreographing for Opera Pro Forma, will perform two solos to his own computer, lighting and sound design. In Adapting for Distortion, “engulfed in computer generated sounds and optical effects, Hiroaki Umeda’s body seems to slowly fade away and go out of focus within luminous lines and spirals, until it is a mere vibration, a shadow of its real self.” In Haptic, Umeda works, minus computer, with light and colour. Evanescence and a sense of time standing still are central to the Umeda experience (RT 94, p38).

beckett, keene, ranters, jack charles, optimism

The Irish/French theatre company Gare St Lazare Players Ireland will perform The Beckett Triology, adaptations of the novels Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnameable by Samuel Beckett. Sheehy describes the performance—a “solo marathon” by leading Beckett exponent, Conor Lovett—as “riveting; it flies by,” doubtless not before throwing us into a few existential black holes and racking us with laughter. Daniel Keene gets a Melbourne Theatre Company guernsey after all these years. Sheehy describes Life Without Me as “a cross between Sartre’s No Exit and Fawlty Towers: an eccentric fable about taking up residence and trying to move on.” In another work on the theme of transition, Melbourne’s Ranters Theatre further their successful, cool poetic modus operandi of recent years with Intimacy, “a performance about intimacy in the age of celebrity,” says Sheehy.

Ilbijerri Theatre Company will premiere the solo performance Jack Charles V The Crown, featuring the Aboriginal actor (the subject of the documentary, Bastardy, RT91, p24) “at the peak of his powers” and a script by John Romeril based on Charles’ life in crime, theatre and on the road—challenges faced with “constant and unswerving optimism.” Optimism against the odds is also the subject of eccentric Canadian writer-performer Jacob Wren and Belgian writer, philosopher and theatre-maker Pieter De Buysser’s An Anthology of Optimism. The pair asked 200 business people, scientists and artists about their inclination—optimism or pessimism?—and collated the results into a droll, “low-tech as you can get” two-hander lecture-performance which will also canvas local opinion: “What sort of meaning can optimism have today in this era of heightened terrorism awareness and global warming..?”

Cabaret, live art and weirder stuff will populate Finucane & Smith’s Carnival of Mysteries at 45 Downstairs with 30 artists curiously “commissioned to respond to the Mysteries of Innocence, Passion, Mercy, Forgiveness and Love.” In the tradition of sideshow alley, you’ll wander four sites and buy tickets for what grabs you: music, miracles, freakery.

more transformation, transcendence…

Look out for Australian recorder virtuoso Genevieve Lacey and UK filmmaker Marc Silver’s part concert, part film, part installation immersive bird flight experience, en masse. US video artist Bill Viola will be showing The Raft at ACMI and Fire Woman and Tristan’s Ascension at St Carthage’s Catholic Church in Parkville—a 20-minute loop drawn from Viola’s contribution to Peter Sellars’ New York production of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. It’s less intimate than Viola usually is, but is nonetheless engrossing. In Sydney it attracted large numbers for months in a Redfern church. Aboriginal photographer Bindi Cole will curate an exhibition titled Nyah-Bunyar (Temple) at the Arts Centre: “it’s about contemporary Koori spirituality in an urban culture.” Sheehy adds that “at ArtPlay Cole will explore traditional mourning ceremonies with children and their families.” The titles of other visual arts shows are also telling: Gertrude Contemporary’s Dying in Spite of the Miraculous and ACCA’s Mortality.

seven songs to leave behind

The final festival show, Seven Songs to Leave Behind, asks singer-songwriters to perform favourites from their own and others’ repertoires, including the one song they would like to bequeath to the future. The lineup includes Sinead O’Connor, John Cale, Meshell Ndegeocello, Rickie Lee Jones, Gurrumul Yunupingu, Leah Flanagan, Shellie Morris, Dan Sultan and Ursula Yovich. Aptly, for a festival with a free-floating sense of the spiritual, this concert-ritual should confirm a sense of sharing between artists and audiences including the festival’s unavoidable sense of mortality and offerings of moments of transcendence. Brett Sheehy wraps up the briefing jovially, declaring that “there’s more levity in this year’s program; last year was much darker.”

Melbourne International Arts Festival, Oct 8-23,

RealTime issue #98 Aug-Sept 2010 pg. 16

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

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