Monday 30 November 2020

Swallow Walk - Live Art Review

What: Swallow Walk
When: 1 - 28 November 2020
Where: Edwards Lake, Reservoir
Created by: Sandra Fiona Long and Ria Soemardjo
Performed by: John Cheong-Holdaway, Christopher De Groot, Jeremy Dullard, Natalia Gould, Sandra Fiona Long, Ron Reeves,  and Ria Soemardjo
Ria Soemardjo, Sandra Fiona Long, et al

In the arts we often talk about wanting to affect all of the senses encompassed within the human body and in Swallow Walk Sandra Fiona Long and Ria Soemardjo have done exactly that. Swallow Walk is a meditative experience. It is a chance for you and your body to feel the world rather than think it, which is our normal state of being in urban life.

Long is a music and theatre artist who has lived near Edwards Lake for many years. She tries to walk around the lake every evening and in this troubling year of lockdowns she and her friend and collaborator, Soemardjo, have used the quiet and introspection of these months of isolation to create a way to share their personal experience of this beautiful lake with the rest of Melbourne. 

The challenges of how to share in a time of isolation has been the focus of Digital Fringe 2020. Swallow Walk, a Darebin FUSE project, is one of the few projects which has allowed us to have permission to be outside and engaging in a group art experience without putting anybody at risk. It exciting to realise Swallow Walk works under all restrictions regardless, though.

Down to the nitty gritty. What is Swallow Walk? Swallow Walk is a meditative soundtrack which takes you on a journey around Edwards Lake in Reservoir. Using ASMR (autonomic sensory meridian response) audio techniques, the percussive ring of Gamelan music, and stereo sound Long guides us along the paths of the lake whilst Soemardjo hums and croons in the background, much like the keening of the wind as it passes through the clouds of the gods.

This guided meditation is not just a set of directions though. Long and Soemardjo takes us on a sensory journey which delights the body and the soul. We are asked to pause along the way as Long talks about her connection to a big sheoak tree. She asks us to look at it closely, feel it, experience her memories of the lake, the birds, the tree. 

When the gong sounds we move on and as we move a chorus of voices play across our ears, listing all of the types of birds who migrate to and from Edwards Lake across the year, flitting in and out of prominence like swallows in flight. The next stop is another group of sheoaks and we are invited to stand inside the "nest", allowing the tall trunks to tower over us as our feet crunch the dried needle-like leaves which carpet the ground. We are wearing headphones but can still feel and hear the crunch as we step inside. As we look up to the branches and the sky we are told the story of a young chick learning to fly or die. 

Again we move on and Soemardjo's vocals take on a ticking sound like that of the insects as we get off the paved track and closer to the waters edge. We are invited to sit at a recess of rocks and watch the lake and the birds and the water overflow in the weir as Long gets philosophical. Speakly slowly, softly, close miked - every syllable elongated, every percussive consonant popped, every sibilant savoured - Long's voice creates frisson's of arousal, our spines tingling as we smell and taste the air of the lake. Our bodies are having a party while our minds have a rest.

Gamelan instruments join in the fun as we walk past the playground, their riotous but gentle sounds mirroring the laughter of family fun and children playing on the swings and in the sand pits. Being the first weeks out of lockdown people are making the most of their new found freedoms.

There are several more stops along the way and a variety of poetry and meditations, but perhaps my favourite was the last. At a wide open spot where the view is of the lake and the sky, Long and Soemardjo take us flying with the birds we are watching. As these beautiful creatures soar and swerve and dive and then do it all again the women sit us on their extended wings. Suddenly it is as if I am flying alongside, looking down at the lake, as free as the wind, as light as the air...

This is the experience of the standard event. With the easing of restrictions, this team were able to create some live performances to complement the tour on the last couple of days. 

For this, the sound track was split in two. At the end of the first part, two musicians sit facing each other in a little grove and play their Gamelan instruments in an improvised call and response. The beauty is they were responding to the sounds of nature as well as each other. For me there was a point of magic as a bird call became part of the percussive rhythm and blended with the resonances of the Bonang as if they too were a part of the Gamalan Ageng.

At the end of the walk Long, Soemardjo and the rest of the Gamalan Ageng sat together and played along with each other and the lake, those ancient Indonesian instruments resonating with their environment gently, with love, with care. It was not a concert. It was an amplification of nature. 

The beauty of Swallow Walk is many fold. It creates inner peace and reconnects us with our bodies as well as connecting us with the Lake - it's habitats and it's inhabitants. It is nature as beauty sitting enmeshed with beauty manmade resulting in beauty as experience. It is ephemeral and real at the same time.

My great hope for Swallow Walk is that it becomes a permanent community resource. The work is timeless and can become part of a permanent community experience. 

5 Stars

Friday 27 November 2020

My Heart Is Aching And No One Can Save Me - Physical Theatre Review

What: My Heart Is Aching And No One Can Save Me
When: 25 - 28 September, 2020
Where: Digital Fringe
Created and performed by: Sara Caputo
Composition by: Josh Mitchell

Sara Casus

There is something which can be achieved with Digital Fringe which is almost impossible in a standard theatre and this is something which - if you take the artist's suggestion - is perfectly exemplified in Sara Caputo's new solo piece, My Heart Is Aching And No One Can Save Me. You can imagine what I am about to describe or you could just experience for yourself by registering for the show.

There you are, lazing indulgently in a warm bath, glass of wine in hand, the only light a candle or two flickering in the steam.. Bubbles are optional. On your laptop or tablet, skillfully balanced, you watch a woman almost asleep, naked in a steaming bath as well. You want your audience to empathise? You want them to get into the world of the character? It is impossible to create a stronger connection than something like this in my opinion.

A very soft soundtrack (Mitchell) creates a dreamy, surreal atmosphere. We supply the surround sound as our bath water swishes to her slow and lazy movements. She immerses her head dreamily then rushes to the surface gasping for air, a look of shock on her face. It is only a small disruption before she returns to the cosy, safe embrace of the water. It is enough, though, to tell us something isn't right.

In a sudden transition we find ourselves in a different bathroom. This one cold, stark, black and white, brick walls, concrete flaws, exposed cables. Suddenly things aren't cosy, things aren't safe. Caputo is still in the bath but that amniotic fluid is not longer there to protect her/us. There is no warm steam to open the lungs. The world is cold and harsh.

This woman is not alone, but there is no one except herself and reflections of herself projected onto the wall behind her in a 3 tier cascade. What ensues is a struggle to find herself. If she cannot look at herself, how can anyone see her?

Caputo has a strong background in physical theatre. In full disclosure I worked with her on a physical theatre piece back in Fringe 2012 called Self Contained Spaces. In that work I had her trapped in a light box, tied up with bungy chords, caught like an insect in a trap. Working with her, I discovered Caputo to be one of the bravest and most committed artists I have worked with. Risk is her alter ego and she was never reluctant to go to the dark places I sent her, working as hard on her own as she did in her time with me in rehearsal.

Caputo took a bit of a sabbatical over the last few years but has decided to come back to performance despite (or perhaps because of) the crazy 2020 we have all experienced. My Heart Is Aching is the perfect launch for her talents.

My Heart Is Aching And No One Can Save Me is the story of a woman struggling to emerge from a self-made cocoon, an intriguing reference to Melbourne's emergence from lockdown perhaps? In the blurb Caputo refers to escaping addiction. I got the feeling the addiction sitting behind this piece was a man and it reminded me of Alyssa Trombino's monologue 'Love Or Euphoria' in Freshly Minted

Regardless, as Caputo writhes and struggles within the confines of her bath tub it is clear the struggle of withdrawal, the lure of relapse, and the pain of facing reality, facing herself are tearing her apart. Perhaps the bath is the only thing holding her together...

The physicality of the work is a very modern, non-literal approach. There is definitely a Butoh base and I also detected Laban in some of the etudes. 

My Heart Is Aching And No One Can Save Me does have text, but it is sparse. It is emotional, and expressive, and explosive. Occasionally the words are lost through the movements and/or the natural reverberation of the space but I am not sure it all needs to be heard. It needs to be felt and to be understood but that does not always involve hearing each syllable of speech. Listen closely to the closing refrain though. You will also hear nuggets of insight throughout such as "No lies left to tell now that your gone", "Everyone around me gone", and the all important "I don't want to change!"

Mitchell's soundtrack isn't across the whole work, but travels the emotional journey perfectly. My one complaint is that the first piece of music is too soft. Many of us in the chat room thought the sound was missing until someone suggested we turn our sound up to full. Even then it was only a whisper. It is fine once the show moves into the white room though.

A solo work, Caputo does not move/dance alone. The three iterations of herself in the bath dance a wracking pas de trois and I can't express how impressive the choreography and execution are for her to have danced all three parts in such perfect timing. At one point there are even 5 of her intertwined as 2 shadows cleverly integrate into the ensemble. It is this which really sets My Heart Is Aching And No One Can Save Me above more standard fare.

Caputo has chosen to film the show for Digital Fringe to avoid technology problems (smart woman), but My Heart Is Aching can/will translate beautifully into a live show if she wants to travel down that path. Sadly, the audiences probably won't be able to bring their own baths...

4 Stars

Tuesday 24 November 2020

#txtshow (on the internet) - Live Art Review

 What: #txtshow (On The Internet)
When: 24 - 29 November 2020
Where: Digital Fringe
Created by: Brian Feldman
Performed by: Brian Feldman and Morgan Johnson

#txtshow (on the internet)

COVID 19 has kicked the live performance world in the guts, it's true. But what has emerged is an exciting army of artists who have not let themselves be cowered into hiding. Some have tried to tame the beast which is internet performance, some have tried to play with the beast, and then there are artists like Brian Feldman. A devotee of meaningful coincidence (or synchronicity) in his art, Feldman allows the audience to play with each other through Zoom.

From what I can make out, #txtshow (on the internet) is doing the fringe festival circuit across the world - something which has become so very much easier and accessible to artists and audiences alike in this lockdown era. The event has arrived in Melbourne. I suspect the outcomes will have a very unique flavour with this city having just emerged from 6 months of hard lockdowns (give or take a few weeks in the middle).

#txtshow is something of a 'write your own adventure' exercise. Everyone turns up to a Zoom meeting. Feldman walks in with nary a word and then he starts reciting whatever people type into chat. He doesn't just speak it though. He acts it out, trying his hardest to incorporate meaning and intention into what is, effectively, a garble of ideas and outlooks. 

I suspect our isolation brains are going to come up with some rather curious existential thinking after having been confined in body and spirit for so long. I know my writings were very Beckettian indeed.

Before going further I need to explain Feldman's artistry because on the surface it could be mocked as random. Actually, it is random, but that is the intention.

Carl Jung first coined the phrase synchronicity and defined it as two or more events, seemingly unrelated, occurring at the same time and thus creating a relationship. One of the most prominent proponents of meaningful coincidence (synchronicity) was John Cage. He loved it when unexpected sounds such as rain, or trains, or coughing, or bells, or sirens happened at the time of his performances. 

This was the genius of his famous 4'33" - a composition of complete silence. It wasn't about the silence. It was about whatever sound happened in these moments of not playing instruments.

This is the aesthetic Feldman plays with in his art. He sets up a conceit and then lets whatever happens happen. This is the magic of #txtshow (on the internet). Feldman has created a space and an idea and it is up to us to play with the toy he has given us. We find our own way to fun and inspiration.

There are some soft rules to make sure we feel a sense of community. The screen manager (Morgan Johnson) greets us all, explains what is going to happen, and asks us to turn on our cameras and microphones so that we can see and hear each other. Feldman walks into a stark white room with only a table, chair, and his mobile phone. Anything which appears in chat he will recite. Those are the only words we will hear him speak, and the only actions he will make. He is our puppet.

The performance I attended only had a few people so more of my text was performed then may be the case in a larger crowd. It had the weird effect of getting me ridiculously immersed in my own existential drama and I found myself resenting the intrusions of the other writers at first. For the most part I was able to follow their lead but there is a weird lag and the story moves on to something else before you have a chance to hit send. These interruptions, these meaningful coincidences, are analogous to life though. I know I am always getting interrupted on my life path and sometimes there is no going back to that distant yellow brick road.

I found this hilarious and I discovered a rhythm, keeping lines short (almost like a poem) and trying to keep them provocative rather than closed. Our story ended up being something about a cat named Ginger who had entered our Irish white cell several years after going on safari with our pleasant blueberry landlord... The only thing I can add is there was whisky involved.

A word of warning - the camera is on. You can choose to ignore that request, but where's the fun in that? Having been in isolation since forever, completely alone, my brain did not register this until I saw myself and realised I wasn't wearing a bra and my hair was a little bit too messed up to be called fashionable. For everyone who was in the Zoom room with me - I am sorry! I was too busy laughing and typing to do anything about it though.

Apart from the story, however, another strange thing happened. I started to get up close and personal with my inner conspirator. I found myself wondering if everything txt (Feldman) was saying was written in chat or if he was introducing his own stuff. I will never know and it doesn't matter. I don't think that is true because it doesn't match with his artistry but, dammit, the idea still lingers refusing to be swept into the rubbish bin where it belongs.

Another thing I realise as I write this review is the microphones were on. We all could have spoken during the event but we didn't. Talk about an opportunity missed! We are all too Zoom whipped I guess. I will never know if txt would have moved if I gave a verbal instruction. I could have collaborated with my fellow writers about the story being told. I could have sung to a captive audience! 

#txtshow is whatever you want to make it. I suggest going with friends. You will know how they write and think and you may discover artistic synergies which have been lying under the surface just waiting for a meaningful coincidence to emerge. Another word of caution: txt says everything you type including typos. That has it's own irruption of reality fun and games layered in. 

In #txtshow (on the internet) Feldman teaches us to have fun with a technology those of us in Melbourne have been slave to for most of 2020. I wish Digital Fringe had happened at the start and not the end. Lockdown would have been much more fun now that I am discovering all these great games and ideas. Of course, it is meaningful coincidence that this is happening now and not then. Enjoy your own personal synchronicity!

4 Stars

Sunday 22 November 2020

Freshly Minted - Theatre Review

What: Freshly Minted
When: 22 November, 2020
Where: La Mama Online
Written by: Fergus Black, Brigid Charis, William Foley, Georgi McLaren, Erin Miller, David Rorkell, and Alyssa Trombino, 
Performed by: La Trobe University students and alumni

The Bugs

La Mama is famed for providing presentation partnerships with the universities across Melbourne and the most recent collaboration is this year's digital festival, La Mama North Fringe, which is a presentation of works by La Trobe students and alumni. COVID 19 meant the annual La Trobe Moat Festival couldn't happen and La Mama North has the potential to become a regular part of the annual programming for both entities.

La Mama North consisted of 2 Zoom performances, an audio drama, and Freshly Minted. Freshly Minted is a collection of 20 minute Zoom performances written and performed by current students and alumni and it is a fascinating collection indeed! Between 12pm and 4:30pm a collection of 7 short plays and monologues were performed with breaks in between.

What impressed me most about Freshly Minted was the incredible variety of styles and techniques used across the program. It is true that most of the pieces were reacting to the pandemic in some form or another, but the variety of responses was intriguing and exciting.

The program began with Erin Miller's 'The Bugs' - a tense little thriller about infection, isolation, and desperation. 4 people have been sedated, kidnapped, and locked into hermetically sealed isolation chambers. Why? Who did it? What is going on? Will they make it out alive? 'The Bugs' is an intriguing new take on Satre's No Exit. I would love to see this expanded into a film.

Georgi McLaren explored the processes of grief and loss and the difficulties of maintaining relationships for a society in isolation in her play 'The Cat'. A cat is run over by a car and taken to the vet. A young woman is looking for her only friend in a world which has been difficult beyond belief. Two young lovers find communication difficult in a world where connection only occurs through Zoom and texts. In the middle stands a caring vet. Friendship, love and compassion are explored with insight in this tight little drama.

The other play in the Freshly Minted program was Fergus Black's film noir story 'All Hail The Lizardman!'. Whilst the title may put you off and the play is definitely unfinished, the confidence and competence of the film noir style is excellently executed. Characters have names like Credence, Bucky, and Jack and the Narrator does most of the story telling with the characters just saying their lines at the appropriate moments. The writing style is chock full of metaphor and simile, the lighting was shadowy and there were even the iconic louvres in place. I can tell you the plot revolved around a mayoral election and a suspicious video which turns up at the offices of The Daily Witness. What will the newspaper do with it? We never really find out but this could be a really fun and meaty story if it is ever developed.

The other 4 items in the program were monologues. William Foley presented a wonderfully lyrical piece about finding one's way through a disfunctional family to life as a gay man. Foley's writing is lyrical and evocative, if a little narratively disconnected. There is an element of stream of consciousness here. To be honest I found myself wishing he had committed to the idea of an extended poem. I hope this is the direction he takes it in the future. Having said that, the framing of his Zoom window with a real gumtree was stunning and at one point he dances along with the tree in the wind. It was magical.

There was one piece I hated - sadly it was the last one in the program which left me disappointed. David Rorkell's 'The Covid Cave: An Experimental Musical' was appalling and insulting. It is a shame because he worked with some extraordinary puppets but there was no real intent to produce something for an audience. You can call me old fashioned, but to me a musical has to have songs and perhaps some dance. Dressed in a friars hessian garb, surrounded by great puppets and a glowing orb, Rorkell proceeded to fill his time with what could easily be mistaken for a marijuana induced improvised stream of consciousness going nowhere. Every short play festival seems to have one of these things and it is almost always young white males who think they have a right to do this. They don't.

But I have to finish with what were, for me, the two great triumphs of Freshly Minted. Both Brigid Charis and Alyssa Trombino wrote and performed monologues which were truly great in both content, and performance. Charis talked about growing up mixed race in Australia and Trombino dealt with the issue of domestic violence. 

Charis is of Samoan heritage and talks about how her parents encouraged her to learn tennis as a child to help fit in. All Charis wanted was to fit in but all people could see was her non-anglosaxon skin tones. She jokes about it but eventually the rage erupts. At some point she goes to spend time on her mother's native island, Savai'i. She learns the stories and the traditions and they giver her a nickname which is the title of this piece- 'Palagi'. She feels special and included for possibly the first time in her life. And then she asks what palagi means... As well as an amazing story, Charis also demonstrated wonderful theatre craft and was the first person to perform physically, created relationships throughout the piece between herself and the Zoom frame, and thus between herself and the audience. Just because you are performing on Zoom doesn't mean you disappear into a static human bust. Charis showed us how it's done.

Trombino showed us even greater skills as she  took a long hard look at life as a woman in an abusive relationship in 'Love Or Euphoria'. Trombino careened around her house just like her character is careening around her relationship. Trombino has spent a lot of time making sure she had all of her frames worked out and although the performance was one uninterrupted stream, it was like watching those really cool ads where images slide into other images. Trombino's character takes us back and forth across time as she tries to explain her relationship with Luke. She explores young love and the traces and hints of control and abuse which start early but aren't seen until much later. I was particularly shaken by the observation, "Every bruise resulted in a gift. The bigger the bruise, the bigger the gift. My friends were so jealous." Trombino's character get's out after a near death experience. A lot of people aren't that lucky.

Freshly Minted was surprisingly refreshing and interesting. It is true that La Trobe Creative Arts students generally don't have the acting skills of the big universities, but their ideas for stories and story telling ideas are up there with the best for the most part. They have braved the digital environment with competence and I like this format too. My one suggestion would be to have a bell or something 2 minutes before each piece so that the audience have time to get back to the computer if they have used the break to do something.

I really like Freshly Minted - especially for audiences. It is much more likely I would watch something like this again on Zoom then that I would go to a live venue to see a program of this nature. On the other hand it is also a great way to test out ideas and see which ones can go further, and is a great place play with style.

4 Stars

Saturday 21 November 2020

A Red Square - Live Art Review

What: A Red Square
When: 14 - 29 November 2020
Where: Delivered to you
Created by: Pony Cam

The first thing I need to say is do not be fooled by this image! A Red Square is definitely Adults Only. Believe the content warnings when they say it contains "Violence, Self Harm or Suicide, Sexual References, Death, Murder".

The second thing I need to say is that A Red Square is truly post-dramatic in that late 1970's, stream of consciousness kind of way so whatever I say it is about will be meaningless. Perfectly post-dramatic in the academic sense, A Red Square is a seeming jumble of ideas and found objects and trains of thought which are brought together in a completely unique (and probably incomprehensible) combination of signs and symbols which some will revere and others will shy away from in horror and despair. This is trademark Pony Cam.

So what is A Red Square? To begin with, this event is a PowerPoint presentation. Upon registration, a USB memory stick will be delivered to your door. It will include instructions and 3 Powerpoint files - Act 1, Act 2, Act 3. The presentation works in a similar fashion to those flip through animation books and how seemless your animation looks will depend on how fast you click through the slides. Some you can pass by quickly, some you will need to linger on, and you may find yourself having to go backwards every so often thinking you missed something connecting the dots. (You probably didn't because a lot of dots aren't connected...).

WARNING: Each file contains around 1500 slides so you may want to switch between using your mouse and the arrow keys on your keyboard to prevent RSI! Also, it took me quite a bit longer than the suggested 50 minutes to get through all three acts...maybe I was thinking about it too much?

Act 1 lures us into what looks like a sweet and lovely animation. Two red squares meet, date, and marry. They then decide to adopt a little red square from the local orphanage. Little red square comes home but has some very odd nightmares and this is when Pony Cam start to hint that this story is not going to go where you think it will. The journey to follow is more shocking and graphic than I ever thought geometric shapes in Office Suite could ever take us. This is where the trigger warnings kick in and I cannot stress enough to please, please, please take them seriously! On a weirder note, some viewers may even end up giving themselves a 'happy ending' long before the show is even over ;)

Acts 2 and 3 hit post-dramatics hard and fast. Without giving away too much, one of the parent squares go in search of their missing little square and does a deep dive into Google. On the way they discover Liam Neeson and his movie Taken and a new obsession is born. 

Perhaps the one over-riding theme I can find - assuming there is one - is the act of searching. The red square searches for love, for family, for information, for praise, for revenge, for accomplishment, for peace...

I can't really speak in too much detail because I don't know how individual each USB version of A Red Square is. What I do know is that Pony Cam made me a part of their art (this is the "non-consensual:" aspect of the show) along with Liam Neesom, but I have read another review which suggests that reviewer was placed in the art instead. I don't know if everyone who receives A Red Square gets themselves in the work or if there are specific versions.

I was fascinated with my version though, because it established a dance between me and them which began with their Butterfly Club show Chook. I was invited to come and review, which I did. In my version of A Red Square my review featured prominently, especially a quote  "What I would like to see is a greater commitment to dramaturgy". It comes up time and again as the red square goes to drama school and culminates with a theatre full of Samsara's applauding their work. This dance ends, I presume, with this review as the coda.

Pony Cam is a company which is diving head long into post-dramatic theatre. It has been a while since companies have engaged so vigourously. You might recall the works of The Wooster Group, Goat Island and, more recently, Forced Entertainment perhaps. 

I feel as though the world has moved on a bit from this kind of stream of consciousness work for the main part. Especially when it lacks the protest passions of a social movement such as feminism, racism, classism, etc. Raw intellect in theatre can end up being theatre for theatre people and then the semiotics become meaningless - even when they are assumptively meaningless to begin with.

On the other hand, as we saw with all the crises at the start of the last century, confusing and difficult times give rise to confusing and difficult art. It is no surpise that the COVID 19 pandemic of 2020 is attracting artists to create work which as much of a whirlwind as our understanding of the world and our lives is right now.

One of the things I encouraged in the Chook review was for Pony Cam to not be afraid to go wherever their dark and crazed minds take them and they have definitely done this with A Red Square. If you take the risk and explore this work, you will be affected, you will be confronted, you will be challenged. You will feel, you will think, you will wonder. You will experience A Red Square in a way which is deep and rare. You may possibly even get a duet with the company while you watch...?

And now I take a bow because my dance has finished and yours is yet to begin.

3.5 Stars


WHAT: The Roof Is Caving In WHERE: La Mama Courthouse WHEN: 8 - 19 May 2024 WRITTEN BY: Matilda Gibbs with Jack Burmeister and Belle Hansen ...