Friday 23 February 2024

CUDDLE: Dance Review

WHAT: Cuddle
WHEN: 20 - 25 February 2024
WHERE: Arts House (Main Hall)
CHOREOGRAPHY BY: Harrison Ritchie-Jones
COMPOSITION BY: Max Dowling and Nick Roder
LIGHTING BY: Ashley Buchanan
PERFORMED BY: Harrison Ritchie-Jones and Michaela Tancheff

Harrison Ritchie-Jones and Michaela Tancheff - photo by Gregory Lorenzutti

cud·dle - VERB - to hold close in one's arms as a way of showing love or affection OR to lie or sit close OR to ingratiate oneself with - NOUN - a prolonged and affectionate hug.

The word cuddle is one of those curious words which sounds so innocent and so intimate and therefore it has a natural connotation which references love and affection. It sounds sweet. It sounds cute. It sounds loving. For the most part, this is true. But you can be in a cuddle without consent. You can be in a cuddle without love. You can be in a cuddle to lie and be cuddled as victim of a deceit. To cuddle is to be close to someone and cuddling is about only two people which makes it personal. A cuddle is two. Any more than that is a huddle. In the dance performance Cuddle now playing at Arts House Harrison Ritchie-Jones explores the intimacy of just two people being close together in various forms, digging below the assumptions to find some truths about the pas des deux of life.

Cuddle is a non-narrative exploration of a word which sounds and feels so innocuous and loving, and places us in a combat zone to investigate its connotations. Ritchie-Jones and dance partner Michaela Tancheff layer into the dialectic the sounds of squeaky toys embedded into the costumes so that every time they move (and squeak) we are taken back to a time when we played with a baby or perhaps our dog. Watching two wrestlers in a boxing ring style fight venue squeaking away sets up a cognitive dissonance which is disarming and alarming at the same time. One second, it's cute, next it is funny as a long fart sound emerges, and the next it is terrifying as the brain reads danger and harm for something we normally associate with vulnerability being in this dark dance of doom.

The external conceit of Cuddle is framed around the concept of fight as dance. Perhaps not so true in boxing, it is public knowledge now that those big televised wrestling franchises are fake and the fights are most definitely more of a dance duet than actual combat. A white dance floor swatch replicates the boundaries of a boxing ring, the lighting (Ashley Buchanan) is cold, white fluresence, and whilst there is some seating for the audience, there are also barriers for people to stand behind, as well as two large screens for closeups as it true for all mega sporting events these days. They even have a referee microphone hanging from the grid, ready to be pulled down for commentary.

Videography (Alex Walton) features strongly in this show, with various levels of efficacy. We are somewhat obsessed with screen images these days and Cuddle allows a lot of exploration of that dialectice between the presented (film) and the represented (live performance), and also the intimate (close ups) and the distant (mid and long shots). All of these concepts are legitimate conversations to have around the concept of cuddling. The videography is live and switches between long, mid and close up across the entire hour. The audience gets to decide how they view this coupling at each moment of the performance. 

For me, the video is at its most powerful on the extreme close ups. In those moments we get to see the kind of detail you can only see when you are locked deep in a cuddle with somebody. The detailed bulge of musculature, the minutest flick of a finger in partner grooming, the gleam of light reflecting on drops of sweat. Perhaps the main point of the longer shots is to remind us that to watch a cuddle from the outside is to have no understanding of the experience or relationship of the two people doing the cuddling?

The start of the show is intriguing as a concept but probably has little more than wow value. The stage space is empty but on the screen we see the two performers emerge from a car wearing balaclavas and carrying a boltcutter. They approach a fence and cut the chain whilst also suddenly being caught up in a hot and heavy pash session. We recognise the rear entrance to Arts House and they slowly work their way towards the foyer, never leaving this passionate embrace. Is this pre-record? It is intriguing and amusing and it sets the mood for the rest of the show. I think the audience loved how it resolved. 

Once in the space, the dancers square off and size each other up, circling warily and squeaking outrageously. They come together for short, sharp skirmishes as they test each other. The dance takes place in 'rounds' and at intervals the dancers stop sparring and sit at opposite sides, slowly doffing parts of their attire as the show progresses. Do not fear though, the composers (Nick Roder and Max Dowling) have not done anything as crass as including tedious referential sounds such as bells to end a bout. The entire sound design is sophisticated, powerful, and full of all of the complexities of the performance.

We often hear sword fights described as being a dance of death, and people talking about the beauty and grace of boxing, and the art of war. In Cuddle Ritchie-Jones places these conflicts directly within the paradigm of these art forms commentators and combatants often reference. The genius is he does it with humour as well as the brute strength of professional dancer bodies. At one point he asks Tancheff is she wants KFC or the Kitchen? As she ponders the question, and after we've had a bit of a chuckle, it takes us a while to understand the context. It brings to mind martial arts training and the use of AB forms to learn technique. If you have ever studied Tai Chi or Karate or Kung Fu you understand innately this linkage between dance and combat. When you see Cuddle you will know it regardless.

There is no narrative arc to Cuddle. It is pure investigation and exploration of the many ways we pair up as human beings, as dancers, as fighters. The choreography includes dance and fight moves from a multitude of genre including ballet, line dancing, boxing, clowning, and human coupling. The intimacy of partner grooming is contrasted by a full body flip and pin to the ground. They say all is fair in love and war. What they don't tell you is that it all takes place in a cuddle.

4.5 Stars

Monday 19 February 2024

HOUSE OF THE HEART: Cabaret Review

What: House of the Heart
When: 15 Feb - 10 Mar 2024
Where: Museum of Chinese Australian History
Created by: Moira Finucane & Jackie Smith
Performed by: Paul Fabian Cordeiro, Zitao Deng, Moira Finucane, Kate Marie Foster, Dave Johnston, Sophie Koh, Rachel Lewindon, Lois Olney, Raksha Parsnani, and Xiao Xiao

Zitao Deng - photo by Jodi Hutchinson

I rarely review shows twice. Usually, I question whether there is anything new for me to talk about. House of the Heart is a different kind of show though. House of the Heart takes us on many journeys through storytelling and music and dance, and having seen the first iteration last year I couldn't resist seeing the show again. Whilst still being presented in the Museum of Chinese Australian History, how could I possibly resist sitting with these wonderful artists and hearing their stories again, learning even more about them, the world, and myself along the way?

The timing of House of the Heart is no coincidence. The Lunar New Year has just taken place and this year is the year of the Wood Dragon. Moira Finucane (co-creator/performer) is a Wood Dragon. This is her year! Finucane starts the show by taking the time to tell us about the processional dragons in the room. I was lucky enough to be sitting right across from the Millenial Dragon (Dai Loong) - the one we see at Moomba every year. Dai Loong's body is so long (he is the longest processional dragon in the world), he wraps around the floors of the museum all the way to the bottom, just as he wraps around our hearts every year in the parade, and just like he wraps around the audience in the Dragon Gallery.

Finucane's tale winds downstairs with Dai Loong to the authentic replica mining town on the lowest floor, only to remind us of that dreadful White Australia Policy we will never be able to live down. Finucane explores all of her amazing connections with China, Chinese arts, and the Chinese Museum. We learn of the connection to her family and how central her connections with this museum are to how she travels through her life. A bit later she will reveal her German-Jewish grandmother's flight from the Third Reich and suddenly all the pieces which underpin House of the Heart fall into place.

Across the evening, we hear beautiful and heartbreaking stories of families being torn from their homes for a multitude of reasons. Sophie Koh sings across English and Chinese (I'm not sure which dialect) as she introduces us to the first ever Chinese pop song - and it is good! It certainly got me bouncing around in my seat! We learn about her family's migration to Aotearoa (New Zealand). Paul Cordeiro tells us the heart-breaking story of the fate of his brother only months after the family migrated from Singapore to Perth. As he sings some verses of 'Moon Shadow' I realise I have never really listened to that song before. I should have. Zitao Deng sings in three languages about their search for peace and a complicated relationship with their homeland, Taiwan. 

Finucane is back to tell us about swifts as Xiao Xiao plays her glorious and mournful cello. I love the story of the swifts. This is one of my favourite moments in the show. Raksha Parsnani celebrates her freedom with a glorious belly dance, having been told in her youth she would never be a professional dancer. New to this show for me is Kate Foster who sings a ballad version of 'Tenterfield Saddler'. So gentle. So sad. So tender.

The jewel in the crown, though, is Lois Olney, accompanied by Dave Johnston. With a voice reminiscent of (but better than IMO) Natalia Cole, Olney sings 'Autumn Leaves' and 'It's A Wonderful World' to remember her mother and son, both now gone. Olney was a stolen child who grew up in Perth. It took far too long for her to find her story and return to her mother's lands in Roeburn. She was 3 years too late to meet her mother but stays connected with her community. She sings us the only song she knows in her mother's language. 

Last year I came away from House of the Heart with resounding echoes of gentleness and sorrow. This year it felt different. Is the difference time? Is it something in the storytellers? Is it me? This year I come away thinking about the rebellion of human migration. The refusal to give up and stay in one place when that place is not giving you what you need or want. A refusal to have our lives predetermined. Moving our bodies in time and space is an act of searching. Searching for love, searching for food and sustenance, searching for a safe haven. 

For most migrants and - in particular, refugees - can never go back to their ancestral home for a myriad of reasons. Even if they do, it is not the same. Part of the contract of the journey though is there are no guarantees you will find what you are looking for, and it is hard to forget what you give up and sometimes even harder to remember why you gave it up. Or as is the case with Olney, you have no choice about giving it up and must then go on a search to try and find it again. 

Regardless of the differences in details, all of these stories are about an irresistible requirement to change destiny, to go in search of what you need to live and love and learn. Everyone on stage in House of the Heart heeded those words of Dylan Thomas and they have not gone gently into that good night. Instead, they find themselves standing (or sitting) on a stage in a museum at the bottom of the world. They sing, they dance, they tell their stories. They remind us of our story and how we all find ourselves in that very same museum at the bottom of the world. At the end of the show, we leave the building and head out into the world in search of wherever we need to be to find our own love, our own life, our own learnings. It is, once more, our turn to choose.

4 Stars

Saturday 17 February 2024


WHAT: Angel Monster
WHERE: Theatre Works
WHEN: 14 - 24 Feb 2024
CHOREOGRAPHY BY: Nerida Matthaei
LIGHTING BY: Keith Clark
SOUND BY: Andrew Mills
PERFORMED BY: Asher Bowen-Saunders, Jade Brider, Hsin-Ju Ely, Makira Horner and Nadia Milford
SET BY: Nerida Matthaei and Rozina Suliman

Hsin-Ju Ely - photo supplied

There is nothing I like more than a strong and dangerous outpouring of female angst, defiance and despair. Angel Monster, currently playing at Theatre Works, gives plenty of that along with beauty, fire and a whole of lot of fast fashion floordrobe.

Choreographed by Nerida Matthaei and presented by Phluxus 2 Dance Collective, Angel Monster is a non-linear narrative about the slavery of women in modern times. It ties us up in the domestic chores of endless laundry, girdles reaching up past our waists, a fashion industry systematically crippling our bodies and our financial wellbeing, and our physical inferiority to the male sex drive.

The show begins with us being ushered into the theatre by the ensemble (Asher Bowen-Saunders, Jade Brider, Hsin-Ju Ely, Makira Horner and Nadia Milford) dressed in retro-sexy flesh toned boy cut girdles and bras, bringing a bucket load of Manic Pixie Dream Girl energy and drawing people onto the stage to ask questions like 'What do you like most about being a woman?' before letting us sit in our seats. It is all very friendly and disarming in that charming way girls are supposed to behave. My space is your space, my body is your body, my smile is my consent. 

Something is not quite right though because at least one of the women seems to be semi-comatose and perhaps even ill. She is there. She is dressed like all the others. She is trying to be present but is she ill? Drunk? On drugs? The ensemble continue on, some ignoring, some trying to help. Other oddities begin to emerge but in the end everyone is welcomed and seated and prepared for the show to begin. As we sit we notice 'pregnant' sacs hanging from the ceiling which tell us this space, this world, is not quite right and whatever emerges is potentially the stuff of nightmares. 

The dance begins and the tone quickly shifts between sweetness and anger, the mood see-sawing across the hour or so as these women explore beauty, fashion, desire, and expectation. Pre-recorded stories and words pepper the show and talk through female experiences and ideas. One of the most powerful is the story of teenage date rape. Is it rape if you stop fighting? (Yes!) 

The words 'constructed, deconstructed, reconstructed' echo across the evening as the ensemble smell their pits and one of them begins to shave and pluck every hair from her body. Clothes are strewn across the stage and bodies reminding us of the tyranny of fast fashion, reflected in the manic way the dancers clothe themselves and each other, desperate to get as many items on as possible whilst at the same time fighting for their freedom - freedom to move, and choose, and reject. They play with each other's boobs as if they are just toys yet reference Barbie and her lack of genitals and heart. They dance around a washing line Maypole, tangling each other up until the monster constantly hinted at and exposed in spurts of fury is finally revealed in her full glory. The wonderful coincidence of this happening right after the Lunar New Year just adds to the power of that final tableau. Are you scared yet? You should be.

Matthaei and the ensemble have brought together a lot of powerful ideas and speak to them with honesty, vulnerability, and truth. Traditionally, in Western culture at least, men have always joked about how crazy women are. They give their cars female names because we are so unreliable. Perhaps if those men came to see Angel Monster they might understand what they are seeing in the women around them and realise it is not insanity, it is survival.

Andrew Mill's sound design is powerful and fully supports the shifts and changes in the choreography and walks the line between ferocity and gentility as finely as do the dancers. I admit to being less in love with Keith Clark's lighting. To begin with, there is just way too much of it and so much is overhead fresnels giving little more than a multi-coloured wash. This is a show about dreams and nightmares, but nobody is sleeping in all that light! There is haze, which in this instance is totally appropriate, and would be hella effective if the lighting design was more architectural. The choreography has a peek-a-boo construct and the lighting should as well. 

Angel Monster is choreographed with a very lyrical version of contemporary dance which is a pleasant change from the more anatomically questioning style explored across Melbourne. It perhaps dulls some of the outrage in the work, but also makes it more appealing to a broader audience. Angel Monster titillates and castigates moment to moment. It entices with a subtle BDSM edge. It will make you look. Hopefully you will see.

4.5 Stars

Friday 9 February 2024

DESTROYED: Theatre Review

WHAT: Destroyed
WHEN: 6 - 10 February 2024
WHERE: TW Explosives Factory
WRITTEN BY: Ebony Rattle
LIGHTING BY: Charis Rajamani
COSTUMES BY: Emily Busch
PERFORMED BY: Sarah Cooper, Emma Jevons, Artemis Munoz, Ebony Rattle, and Emma Snow
STAGE MANAGED BY: Kate Celikaite

Artemis Munoz and Ebony Rattle - photo by Leeav Henzel

Melbourne stages seem to be preoccupied with death over the last 12 months or so. Perhaps it is a phenomenon which extends back to lock downs. Perhaps is goes back further than that. It certainly seems to be high on the list of issues/questions for our female identifying theatre makers, so it probably goes back much further in history, and we just haven't seen it because it is only recently that the female voice has had a space to be heard unfiltered in our art and culture. Ebony Rattle's Destroyed is the latest in this sequence and is playing at The Explosives Factory until the end of this week.

It is a little bit strange to speak about a strong queer feminist work but then also say it non-ironically riffs off a play written by one of the great misogynists of history, but here I am telling you that Destroyed has hinged its major conceit off William Shakespeare's play Macbeth. Apparently Rattle keeps being encouraged to try adaptations. Why? Their writing and theatre making is strong so why dilute it by using someone else's old story? I think Rattle should just keep doing their own thing. They don't need the crutch of someone else's writing.

As I said, Rattle is a strong writer. Their writing is sharp and insightful, with a very dark humour which attacks rather than disarms - the way humour is usually tasked in entertainment. The play hinges around Evelyn (Rattle) who is experiencing a terrible sequence of loss with people around her dying. Whilst processing grief she finds herself trying to negotiate a new relationship with Gabriel (Sarah Cooper). Themes of BDSM are explored as pain and love get blended along with bodies and lives.

To complicate matters even further, Destroyed delves deeply into the phenomena known as suicide contagion and also bullying. Amidst all the grief, Evelyn has become blamed for causing the latest suicide and her friends are now avoiding her. The relationship between Maya (Emma Snow) and Evelyn is utterly compelling.

So where does Macbeth sit in all of this? To be honest, I don't think it sits deep in the heart of Destroyed, but it does dominate the theatrical framing. Rattle has taken the idea of the three witches who foretell the action in Macbeth and has transplanted them into Destroyed, apparently to foretell Evelyn's doom. I am not entirely clear on what they did because the biggest problem with this production is the voice recordings are over-processed and pretty much unintelligible. I have absolutely no idea what they said which means I missed some of the most important information in the show.

I might need to take a step back here. Despite the fact that the witches (Snow, Artemis Munoz and Emma Jevons) have quite a lot of script, all of it is pre-recorded. They never actually speak in the space. Their performance mode is interpretive movement/dance, and their words are played through the sound system. I personally don't understand why you would put live bodies on stage but not give them their voice. The audience becomes split about where their attention should be. The body and voice of the performer in the space with the audience is a key factor as to what makes live theatre a visceral experience for the audience.

Apart from literally disembodying the voice this way, there is a basic anatomic hearing/listening problem which comes into play when you do this. Without a visual context, the brain has to work hard to comprehend voice (and pretty much any sound) which means there is delay. This is why, when you speak on the telephone you should say a few words before you say your name to a stranger because their ears/brain need to get used to the sounds and interpret them for meaning. If you then layer in a whole lot of reverb and pitch change and other processing and then add in the acoustic properties of the room the loudspeakers are in, the audience has to work soooooo much harder to understand. 

In Destroyed this became a compounded problem because the first speeches held a lot of information, and it all went on for so long. It reminded me of the discontent I had with all the film content at the start of Transwoman Kills Influencer. People come to live theatre for its 'liveness' and to begin a show with a long sequence of pre-record in whatever form is a great folly. It doesn't allow the audience to key into the show with mind and body in the same way another person in the space speaking does. Don't get me wrong, I liked the idea of the pre-records, but they need to be led by live voice to really work in this context.

I also want to emphasize that all of the sound and music in Destroyed is fabulous. It is one of the strongest sound designs (Alex Mraz) I have experienced this year. Emily Busch's costumes are great too. I kind of assume Busch had some input to the set design too because the witch's cloaks and the stage backdrop seem far too harmonised to have come from different creative impulses. There is no set design credit, so I am not sure. Charis Rajamani's lighting finishes the tableau with great nuance and strong intention.

Destroyed is a show with an incredibly strong visual aesthetic, a biting commentary, and a deep and sad soul. Destroyed reminds us how easy it is to compound tragedy through unprocessed grief, fear, and the fallibilities which make us human.

3 Stars

Saturday 3 February 2024

HOME ECONOMICS: Theatre Review

WHAT: Home Economics
WHEN: 30 Jan - 3 Feb 2024
WHERE: Explosives Factory
WRITTEN BY: Declan Greene
DIRECTED BY: Stephanie Lee
SET BY: Filipe Filihia
COSTUMES BY: Louisa Fitzgerald
PERFORMED BY: Alfie Baker, Ian Ferrington, Edan Goodall, Sarah Iman, Marko Pecer, Shanu Sobti, and Charlie Veitch
SOUND BY: Jackie van Lierop

Sarah Iman and Charlie Veitch - photo by Ronin Green

In 2009 playwright Declan Greene wrote a series of 5 studies on sex and food which came together in a collection called Home Economics. Little Ones Theatre staged 4 of the 5 for a season, there was some rewriting and Currency Press have published it.  In 2023, emerging director Stephanie Lee was looking for something to direct for her VCA graduating play and decided to present three of the vignettes - 'Sugar', 'Truffles', and 'Flour'. In 2024 Theatreworks programmed the show into their Midsumma Festival line up.

This production begins with a pubescent school girl (Shanu Sobti) who is addicted to chocolate but has refused to go to a dentist her whole life. Because of this her teeth are decaying, and her breath is toxic. She is living and loving and crushing hard just like any teenage girl, but the boys (Alfie Baker and Charlie Veitch) are repelled and express it - right to her face at times - in that sadly authentic toxic way teenagers have about them. Greene is always spot on about the ugly in us all.

The second vignette portrays a couple at a restaurant. They are forced to sit there together for what seems like hours because they aren't getting served despite continually ringing a bell. Ah, the nightmare of restaurants with really slow service! The guy (Veitch again) is a dick and you might wonder why the woman (Sarah Iman) stays, but it becomes clear that she is working. This is not just a horrific date she can walk out on. When will that waiter come????

In the final scene a Home Economics teacher (Edan Goodall) is in a loving, committed marriage (Ian Ferrington), but a mischievous student (Marko Pecer) is intent on seducing him. Will the teacher give in to temptation or will his partner's love keep him faithful?

What is great about this production is its commitment to the Queer Theatre aesthetic. The set sparkles and shimmers and the actors are brave and bold. The visuals are strong and the topics are outrageous and authentic. We go to Queer Theatre to be shocked, amazed and challenged on every level and Filipe Filihia's set does that when we enter the space, and Greene's writing finishes the job on the way through.

The dramaturgy and the direction are where this production gets lost. It begins with choice of material. Whilst the vignettes are good, strong writing they are more a set of scene studies than anything easily collated into performance without strong intention. It is not that this is impossible. It is more that it needs skill and experience to know how to craft message and intention and I just don't think this team have enough dramaturgical skill yet (even though they did have a dramaturg on the project - Zack Lewin). The exception here is costume designer Louisa Fitzgerald, who created a costume palette which is perfect and helps the audience understand everything they need to know about these characters.

Filihia's set is a breath-taking cascade of silver curtains and draped white sheers but what does any of that have to do with any part of this show? It tells us nothing beyond a slight echo of the concept of over-indulgence. This is something, sure, but is nowhere near good enough to guide the audience through any practical or conceptual narrative. It's brightness and lack of architecture also made the lighting a challenge for Tom Vulcan. Vulcan did a great job in what was essentially a big, glittery white box.

The set turns out to be a precursor to a show over-filled with VCA unconditional positive regard self-indulgence. Sobti's schoolgirl is a wonderful swirl of energy to start the show, but Lee doesn't allow her the space to delve into, and expose, the pain which is so clearly there to be explored in the writing. Baker and Veitch are great as the schoolboys but it is as if Sobti never hears anything they say. She certainly never reacts to them.

In the third vignette Pecer's schoolboy is just a drag stereotype who reveals nothing about young love and the seductive power of innocence. I spent the whole time in the final vignette thinking who on earth could ever be attracted to such a little shit, never mind sacrifice a marriage for him? Goodall, as the teacher, is phenomenal but he is having to do all the work in himself because neither Pecer nor Ferrington really give him enough to justify his struggles. Lee needs to pay far more attention to the interplay of characters. The great flaw in both of these pieces is actors not hearing each other or offering enough.

The strongest vignette is the one in the middle. Lee has actually directed a masterpiece here and this is where the set also works in well with the conversation of the piece. Iman and Veitch explore the toxic male, and the hostage female wonderfully. In this section it is perhaps Greene who lets the team down as he doesn't entirely set the reason why the woman won't/can't leave clearly enough in my opinion. I love the table bell/boxing bell analogy - a simple but effective theatre trope.

In the end, though, my plus one said it best when he said "I don't know what the take-away was." Part of that comes from the source material which is not really designed to be a 'play'. This is surmountable though with a stronger sense of intention and dramaturgical skills. This production is a fine VCA piece but it really does not successfully transition into the outside world. 

On a personal note I was frustrated to see that VCA self-indulgence carry through to the scene changes. I know the art of the quick, efficient scene change has died but if you are going to let actors 'perform' at least keep it within the construct of where the performance is at so that the audience don't disconnect. Pecer's mincing theatrics as he mopped the stage completely destroyed the momentum into scene 2 and this then coloured the tone of scene 3. Theatre is story-telling. If it's not telling the story, don't do it!

2.5 Stars

THE LONG GAME - Theatre Review

WHAT: The Long Game WHEN: 28 - 13 July 2024 WHERE: TW Explosives Factory WRITTEN BY: Sally Faraday DIRECTED BY: Krystalla Pearce SET BY: Dav...