For dance enthusiasts the visit by George Piper Dances was a smorgasbord: five short pieces commissioned from five of the top UK choreographers on the one bill.
Like a smorgasbord there was variety, but with the sacrifices in quality also found on a buffet table. The pieces by Akram Khan, Christopher Wheeldon, Michael Clark, Russell Maliphant and Matthew Bourne were all created within a two-week period, with each choreographer offered the same conditions (number of dancers, studio time, technical assistance) and all the experiences filmed during the rehearsal period. It was not so much a bold as cheeky experiment and not out of character from the GPD directors Michael (George) Nunn and William (Piper) Trevitt.
The pieces were always going to be brief and subsequently unsatisfying in varying degrees, but screening the short films based on each rehearsal process was an entertaining insight into the participating choreographers’ peculiar aesthetics.
The one to watch out for (for this reviewer at least) was Matthew Bourne, which speaks more about his gloriously technicolour vision of the world than his expertise as a choreographer (which has been criticised in the past as too populist, simple and technically conservative). Bourne is a creature of narrative. The openly gay British choreographer created the multi-award winning reworking of Swan Lake with an all-male chorus of swans and a homosexually inclined Prince, as well as a version of Cinderella set in London during the Blitz. Having just seen his version of The Nutcracker in London (which actually made a ludicrously camp ballet even camper, under the new title Nutcracker!) there were high hopes for something unashamedly gay. Bourne did not disappoint, with a two-man pas de deux set in a 1930s hotel foyer and then in a park, trotted to the music of No?Coward. Homosexuality here was hidden and discreet, but Bourne (courtesy of his short film) defended his preference for representations of love and romance that leave something to the imagination, in a distinctly overt universe.
Documentary style footage also proved effective in Tulp: The Body Public, though perhaps to the detriment of the overall piece. The performance event held in the belly of the Art Gallery of NSW was conceived by virtual artist Justine Cooper, composer John Rodgers and the band Elision and was based on Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp. The show was punctuated by talking heads interviews with ordinary folk about their somatic experiences, while a soprano rose from the operating table to sing Baroque ditties against latex backdrops.
Sadly the hour-long work was light on ideas, with an overuse of the Italian and English translations of the songs projected onto screens substituting for genuinely exciting theatrical ideas. There were some beautiful moments, for example when wind instruments and body parts pushed through the latex screens as if through skin. The vox pops, however, were rarely integrated into the performance in a meaningful way -“ such that Pulp was neither convincing documentary nor great theatre.
If reality TV was to blame for the presence of fly-on-the-wall films during George Piper Dances and Tulp, then a sorry old bitch called post-modernism was definitely the culprit responsible for the re-dubbed screening of La HaineÂ later that week.
Too, too groovy Asian Dub Foundation wrote their own soundtrack to the 1995 French cult classic (sorry -“ alleged cult classic -“ how does one measure these phantoms?) and played it during a screening of the film at the Enmore Theatre. The crowd was hip and funky and probably would never use terms like hip, funky or groovy, but the boyf and I were nonplussed by their smug youth.
Then the music started. There’s no easy way of saying this, but I must. The music was too loud. No, not banging, not pumping, not even acceptably hard. It was just too fucking loud. It was so loud -“ and this is truly embarrassing -“ I shoved bits of tissues in my ears so I could survive the full 90 minutes. It was so loud the dialogue in the film could not be heard, though obviously it was a happy coincidence that this particular cult classic was subtitled. (It would be interesting to hear them re-dub My Dinner With Andr?or maybe A Chorus Line).
Look -“ people loved it. Heads were bobbing, not to mention pushing forward from the chin, walk-like-an-Egyptian style. That’s got to be a good sign.
With some relief it was time for a trip back to the Theatre Royal for a performance that was a little more my style, an onstage interview with Sir Ian McKellen by the fabulous and underrated actor Bille Brown.
It started brilliantly lowbrow. Before a single question could be asked and as McKellen took his seat, the microphones crackled uncontrollably. Fucking mikes, said Sir Ian, with a grin. When a stagehand materialised behind him, McKellen jumped, then smirked as he was rewired from behind. It’s the story of my life, he said. Young men suddenly appear -¦
McKellen was warm, political and full of gems. Speaking about previous roles, McKellen was unable to describe Macbeth as evil, but referred to him as truly ill-mannered. He confessed a longing to play Antonio in The Merchant Of Venice as gay, because Shakespeare probably intended it. Shakespeare is interested in everybody, he asserted. When an audience member made the frivolous request, Show us your Lord Of The RingsÂ tattoo, McKellen replied, You seriously consider the prospect of my stripping in public as frivolous? He ended the afternoon with a little known Shakespearian monologue about compassion for refugees (believe it or not), a dig at Australia’s inhumane policies which earned him a standing ovation.
Thereupon followed a frantic dash across town to catch Alibi, the Australian premiere by Meg Stuart’s company Damaged Goods. Foyer bells rang angrily, along with the stern warning that Alibi was two hours long without interval.
There was much to dislike about Alibi, so much that yes, this was the performance which saw over 60 people walk out. They began their odyssey after the first half an hour, although some people were still exiting at 10pm, when only five minutes of the performance remained. Now that’s angry. They walked out in groups. They walked out during silences wearing loud shoes.
The exodus was at times rude and might have engendered more support for the cast except the show itself was so very annoying. A ruthless barrage of movement-theatre clich?were thrown at the audience: dancers pretended to have fits; dancers pretended to be disabled; dancers pretended to be assaulted by invisible aggressors; dancers ran into the crowd to sit and intimidate audience members (I stared back). Agit-prop slogans were hurled at us like wet salmon. A female performer delivered a truly embarrassing monologue in which she demeaned herself using patriarchal imperatives, in the sort of speech that gives feminism a bad name.
Perhaps even more irritatingly, there were moments of wonder. A dancer spoke entirely in noises that traditionally interrupt speech: choking, sneezing, gasping for breath. It was a disturbing Dada-esque sound-poem, uncomfortable for all the right reasons. The opening chaotic minutes (though featuring said pretend fighting) consisted of recognisable moments of conflict that were continually interrupted, averted and upset. It was like watching a full-length performance edited down to 10 minutes, with mad, seemingly random cuts. This was dazzling to watch, an oasis in a parched desert of creativity.
Near show’s end though, I was distracted enough to notice that the elderly gentleman sitting in front of me seemed to have an unusual profile. Oh. My mistake. He was perfectly normal. He just had tissues stuffed in his ears.
Visit www.sydneyfestival.org.au for information and booking details.