Image: Lucy Alcorn
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Seated in a box at the Concert Hall of the Opera House, I felt close enough to touch the head of the double bass player, sitting with his back to me on a stool, knees straddling his instrument. Close enough to almost read what I would later consider choreographic notes from the conductor David Robertson, because he would turn out to be quite an accomplished dancer, as well as a moving metronome keeping pace.
I was initially distracted by what felt like a pre-show shady deal, swapping my two tickets for one, double the price, from a woman whose son ditched her at late notice, so another man in this transaction could sit with his date and the woman with a cad for progeny could be partially reimbursed. I was distracted still, by the hole burning in my figurative wallet/pocket, until the random sounds in warm-up ceased and their bodies moved in sublime precision as a by-product of their aural magic making.
Still preoccupied by my pre-show antics, I failed to obtain a program, so knew nothing more than the scant information gleaned from the friend I originally bought the tickets from. All I knew was that some famous trumpet player, Wynton Marsalis, was teaming up with the Sydney Symphony. I asked the young woman seated beside me the length of the running order and realised this could be a long night. But when the music began, I felt an instant familiarity. The music literally spoke to my muscles, neurons firing. It was conversational, dictating a whole set of scenarios, at once curious and playful, then faster, chasing, until caught in a swaying embrace. Immersed in yet another piece I felt the giddiness of a party in full swing, could imagine hearing laughter erupt after the punch line of a joke, from the far side of a ballroom. I pictured myself retreating to the shadows for a slow dance when slow dancing might’ve suggested a prelude to something more.
This was not your average symphonic outing. Upon being handed a program from a polite young fella seated behind me (girlfriend of the young woman seated beside me) the penny dropped. I was listening to Leonard Bernstein. The orchestral arrangements, original scores to musicals including Fancy Free, premiering in 1944, which featured a young dancer, later renowned director and choreographer, Jerome Robbins.
It was no wonder I could hardly keep still, my body betraying my occupation. This was true of the musicians too, the violinists moved in short staccato increments, twisting torsos lateral representations of the second hand of a clock stuck somewhere between 22 and 23, their caterpillar spines inching up a tree with each beat. The brass and woodwind sections wore malleable expressions, scrunching their souls through the pipes as they blew. But it was the rhythm section that looked like they were having the most fun, whole bodies beating the syncopated tattoos. I craned to fully capture the man playing maracas, because I swear he looked like Brian Brown mixing cocktails in that movie with Tom Cruise. In the final piece composed by Marsalis, I spied the man on cymbals fairly having a go at that thing with a wire coat hanger. Yes, a cheap wire coat hanger, the type that Joan Crawford loathed.
This evening was a testament to both the historical role of music in the shaping/manipulation of physical sympathy/empathy on stage and screen and to the inclusion of the jazz movement on the formal (classical orchestral) musical stage, originally making its debut in 1923 by Frenchman Darius Milhaud’s Creation of the World and by George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue the following year.
Jazz is mercurial and by nature improvisational.
It was this melding of the improvisational with the highly formal that led my mind to wander, to a showing of emerging choreographers Amrita Hepi and Jahra Wasasala’s work Passing, which occurred at Critical Path earlier in the week. This work-in-progress draws inspiration from stereotypical cultural assumptions based predominantly on appearance. But it was not the context that prompted my mind to make this quantum leap whilst watching the SSO in full throttle, it was the breadth of form existing within the work. Within Amrita and Jahra’s various scores I witnessed the juxtaposition of the rigidity of highly formal movement sequences peppered with loose physical ideas, not fully reconciled. From the repetition of alternating, call and response gestures alluding to the dancer/characters’ homelands, to a tug of war in the round, elongated sleeves serving as both an umbilical cord and of servitude to the confines of one’s assumed identity. It was the melding of these two physicalities that prompted images of imposing forces (be they metaphors for governmental bodies or smaller cultural sects) manipulating fragile individuals, or of the capacity for multiple performative selves, including the performer as commentator. It is as if utilising the improvisational in combination with the highly formal has the ability to produce candid insight, a truth of sorts.
In the case of Wynton Marsalis and the Sydney Symphony, the musical arrangement played had the appearance of the spontaneous, but the improvisational element was codified and solidified long ago. Part of the consummate skill of the composer and the musicians was that they imbued the works with the illusion that what was being played was happening for the first time, in that moment. This portrayal of multiple selves and candour expressed through the illusion of loose scores, where the true self escapes and the divide between reality and theatrical conceit is a device well-honed by the likes of Sydney independents Kay Armstrong in her work An Hour With Kay (2015), exploring what it is to be both present an absent in one’s own production, Martin del Amo’s It’s a Jungle Out There (2009) where he extols the happenings of a sleepless 24 hour period in the city, Julie-Anne Long’s faux silent film The Nun’s Picnic, which features a surrealist site-specific congregation of nuns set loose in a semi-secluded pastoral setting, and the female trio of the Fondue Set’s work No Success Like Failure, in collaboration with Wendy Houstoun, depicting a post-modernist tongue-in-cheek exposé on the hidden machinations of performance. In the case of Amrita and her partner Jahra, this is an ambitious endeavour well worth the risk.
The title of the collaboration between Wynton Marsalis and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra was Swing Symphony and Passing premieres as part of the Next Wave festival in Melbourne in May.
-Vicki Van Hout