To be counted.

There is much I have seen in the interim between this and my last blog. I wanted to focus on three works in particular, Caroline Bowditch’s Falling in Love with Frida, Kim Vercoe’s Disaffected and Stephen Page’s Spear. Each work shares an urgency, each attached to a cause, a raison d’être surpassing their entertainment value,  which prompted me to lump them together.

As I sat on the train bound for Parra, my imagination went to work on the title Falling in Love with Frida, in eager anticipation of a celebration of the life of Frida Kahlo via a theatrical homage featuring dance. I conjured a saturation for the senses, which included some form of risky business involving sensual/ sexual pleasures (the season did coincide with Mardi Gras) and a high possibility of the poetically surreal.

I walked into an intimate setting as yellow as the Mexican sun and as blue as a cloudless sky, adorned with three large potted cacti, augmenting an outdoor hacienda feel. A large white dining table with a deathly still supine diminutive body, laid bare and on display, took centre stage. The seating in Riverside’s Lennox theatre was deliberately configured for close proximity on three sides.

Falling in Love with Frida was a well trodden work, which had enjoyed two seasons at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and was to be followed by a selected Australian tour. Caroline Bowditch is the director/choreographer and this was ultimately her biography, whereby her life was unveiled, consisting of personal anecdotes coupled with facts about Frida, peppered with short indulgent sequences. Bowditch has brittle bone disease and wheelchair mobility, Frida also sustained numerous bone breakages through a horrific automobile accident causing her to wear a full body cast, forcing her to spend prolonged periods in bed. It was from her convalescent berth that much of Frida’s work was produced.

I didn’t really learn anything new about Frida, but through Bowditch’s eyes I saw/labelled Frida Kahlo as disabled for the first time and simultaneously suspended my initial preoccupation with Bowditch’s disability. I was captivated by the transformation of the choreographic simplicity turned quirky and contagious through the interpretation of the contained parameters of Bowditch’s form. This included buttock perambulations and short staccato manoeuvres, as the body that was held rigid with control to maintain stability suddenly shifted in release in transition. Her interpretation of the choreography could have sufficed as a solo, although the juxtapositioning of her body with the two other dancers featured reinforced the legitimacy of Bowditch’s dancing body sans the disability label.

It was then that I could fully appreciate Frida Kahlo’s ability to turn disability on its head. Like an alchemist Kahlo was able to transform her misfortune into an asset, make it an integral part of her charismatic charm, her mystique. Kahlo’s limited physical circumstance became a source of inspiration for her work, which reflected the limitless quality of the inner workings of the mind.

By piggy-backing on Frida’s notoriety  and by the very nature of her choreographic input, Caroline Bowditch was rebranding her disability.

Disaffected was conceived by Katy Green Loughrey, directed by Kym Vercoe and presented at Blacktown Arts Centre four years after the original development. It featured  collaborative input through the combined effort of the performer devisors, Latai Taumoepeau, Ryuichi Fujimura and Valerie Berry. These three performers were representative of specific environs in jeopardy due to climate change. Each face lending an air of authenticity, a voice to their respective geographic plights.

The unadorned stage space spoke for lives spared of excess, evocative of far off exotic places emphasising the point, out of sight out of mind. We were simultaneously transported from our familiar habitats  and  accused of complacency through the deft manipulation of props. As we sat on  mattresses in the dark, we were haunted by the repetitious din of corrugated sheet metal peeling back from and then pelting the floor as it would just before it takes flight from a shanty roof. Large blue tarpaulin islands receded as the actors’ hungry fingers gobbled up the shoreline. A chain of coal wrapped around a head concealed identity, choking future certainty, emulating the painstakingly crafted  islander shell money necklaces it replaced, representative of the powerless individuals manipulated by all powerful business conglomerates.

Stephen Page’s latest work Spear is a full length feature which premiered as part of this year’s Sydney Festival line-up and recently had a limited release in cinemas nationwide. I  barely skimmed the review pinned to the board as you traverse en route to the rest rooms at  the Newtown Dendy but I did make out ‘rich imagery’ followed by ‘too much repetition’.

Much of the imagery and many of the shots featuring the bush were located in the Northern Territory. Spear appeared as a culmination or summation of Page’s body of work to date and duly reflects his ongoing relationship with Yolngu community/ies. As a graduate of NAISDA which has a long and close relationship with the Yolngu, conducting many yearly ‘traditional’ community residencies over its 40-year history, I have had the opportunity to learn some dances, begin to appreciate the complex relationship to country and experienced rare insight into community life and cultural practices. With my limited knowledge I recognised the form in which the film appears/aspires and that is of a Yolngu song cycle danced with meaning and purpose, for an event, perhaps a funeral.

The songs of a Yolngu song cycle are short and episodic, they are repeated individually and in a specific order chronicling a life’s history or a specific chain of events. The dances/songs come from the equivalent of a playbook, with a set of standards, and the same (or similar) ones may appear in several communities. It is the song’s lyrics, coupled with the rhythm or melody in which they are sung and the calls which occur before and after each song, which distinguish one from another.

Spear has been crafted honouring many of the characteristics of the Yolngu form as well as content.

So is it merely misunderstood? Should Spear come with a how-to manual which unpacks the mechanics of indigenous dramaturgy? Should it be reviewed in a conventional manner, according to western convention, because it is framed in a picture theatre’s black box? Should Stephen and other artists make the marriage of indigenous storytelling adhere or conform more closely to the western theatrical/filmic paradigms for audience satisfaction?

Should other voices broaden our palette by being more visible, more prolific, within the theatrical landscape? Should they be didactic in their education of difference, or is it enough to just exist until audiences become more familiar with their presence?

The three works linked in my mind because they were demanding to exist on their own terms, to challenge theatrical convention, to merely be seen.

-Vicki Van Hout