As Perth Festival rolls into its second week, two relatively low-budget avant-garde works of contemporary music and dance are a welcome extension to the festival’s predominant focus on works of scale and popular appeal. It’s a bold act of programming that demonstrates how Festival Director Iain Grandage’s personal ethos of cultural democracy includes works that demand more of audiences, ask less in terms of production resources and offer local and independent artists fresh opportunities.
Everywhen is a solo performance by Melbourne-based composer and percussionist Matthias Schack-Arnott. Essentially it’s a kind of sonic and visual meditation or mandala, involving a rotating structure of concentric circles like a kind of musical Hills Hoist or Alexander Calder mobile that hangs from the lighting grid, from which a collection of roughly hundred sound objects – ranging from cymbals, chimes, bells and marimba keys to found objects like branches, bunches of dried seeds or strings of shells – are suspended on counterweighted strings.
While the structure rotates, Schack-Arnott walks on his own narrow circular path between the objects – either in the same or the opposite direction – while raising or lowering them using the counterweights so that they scrape along the floor, which has variously corrugated, smooth or tiled surfaces that are also arranged in concentric circles. Whenever the structure briefly pauses and comes to rest, he detaches some of the objects from the strings, enters the inner circle – like the inner shrine of a Buddhist temple – and arranges them on the floor, where he scrapes them or plays them with sticks more rhythmically and intricately, as well as ‘playing’ the tiles on the floor, and striking the objects still hanging on the structure when it resumes its rotation around him. Objects also swing and collide with each other, and the strings of shells also vibrate and shake, almost as if they had minds of their own.
This one-person percussion orchestra is augmented by small shotgun mics which are placed on the floor around the mandala, as was pointed out to me afterwards by a helpful venue technician and further explained by a knowledgeable colleague. These crucially pick up harmonics and overtones and feed them back to a sound desk behind the audience, where they’re remixed and fed back into the auditorium, generating an ambient soundscape of shifting tones and textures that sometimes resembled the music of the spheres, and at one point sounded like rain.
Finally the entire apparatus is side-lit by theatre lights on tree-stands so that the surfaces and shapes of the objects as they move – especially the metallic instruments – serendipitously refract and change the overall lighting state as it subtly fades up and down. This visual effect, as well as the overall sense of a revolving microcosm, also echoes the Festival theme of Dinjda (stars).
Everywhen is a deeply meditative work of sound art, visual art and contemporary performance. It’s also a work of haunting beauty and – in its own way – absorbing drama. Schack-Arnott’s state of relaxed yet heightened attention – which is essential for him to effectively navigate and become part of the work – inspires a similar state in the audience as we watch, listen and notice things. Fifty minutes flew past, and I left the theatre in silence and at peace with the universe.
Equations Of A Falling Body. Photography by Shotweiler Photography.
Equations Of A Falling Body
Perth choreographer and director Laura Boynes’s new work Equations Of A Falling Body is a Perth Festival commission. The title also invokes the Festival theme of the stars and the cosmos, but it does so in a more abstract, process-oriented, comical and even anxious way than other works in the festival program.
In fact comedy and anxiety are states of mind (and body) that this work arouses in (and imposes on) its three performers – dancers James O’Hara and Ella-Rose Trewe and actor/physical performer Tim Green. Each of them has a distinctive movement style and stage persona – O’Hara more loosely expressive, Trewe more tautly contained, and Green more quirky and clown-like. However, all three swap functional roles in the course of the show and progressively develop their sense of individual and collective engagement as they spontaneously interpret the sequence of enigmatic instructions they are given via earpieces by Boynes, who sits at one side of the stage whispering into a head-mic.
Their interpretations are often hilarious but also result in images of beauty, terror and sadness. The process reminded me of the surrealist game of ‘exquisite corps’ in which each player adds to the contribution of his or her predecessor without knowing what comes next, so that a kind of spontaneous visual logic and poetry unfolds without any apparent overarching plan or divine intervention – apart from the tasks and structures put in place by the director-choreographer, who also appears to be responding spontaneously to the work of the performers.
There’s a strong sense of agency – and urgency – but also of inevitable failure and even powerlessness on the part of the performers in the face of the ongoing stream of instructions. I felt as if I was watching a trio of hapless fools attempting to handle and deal with some kind of historical catastrophe, and was reminded of Becket’s words: ‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’
Equations Of A Falling Body. Photography by Shotweiler Photography.
The motif of ‘falling bodies’ is repeatedly invoked, along with acts of hiding and revealing, denial, frustration, anxiety, desperation, surrender and resignation, counterbalanced by an ongoing sense of mutual trust, support and care. Beneath it all I felt a growing sense of helplessness and even grief that I couldn’t help associating with the era we’re living through, as clumsy and vulnerable beings in a broken and abandoned world that we’ve been giving the seemingly impossible task of putting right.
The overall form of the work could only sporadically be described as ‘dance’, though there’s undeniably dance and movement in the work. It’s more like a kind of bricolage, with the performers also acting as their own stagehands, dragging onstage and manipulating a collection of large and often unwieldy objects and materials such as giant fans, lengths of carpeting or rolls of silver sunshield reflective covering, as well as technical gadgets like loudhailers and headtorches.
Bruce McKinven’s evolving set and costumes are similarly practical and utilitarian: the black curtains, walls and floor of the venue, black clothes and underwear, knee pads, gloves, body mics and battery pacs. Matt Marshall’s elegant lighting is similarly minimal and mostly monochrome.
Initially – and perhaps inevitably given the task-based improvisatory form – there were some uneven and bumpy sections, deliberately underlined by abrupt blackouts followed by house lights snapping up. However the performance gradually revealed an underlying sense of unity and flow, no doubt due to the deep sense of collaboration between the performers, the ceaseless flow of inspiration coming from Boynes, the overarching functional aesthetic of McKinven’s and Marshall’s visual designs, and the carefully structured emotional progression of Felicity Groom and Tristan Parr’s music and sound design, culminating in a heart-stopping sequence choreographed/improvised to Saint-Saëns’ “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” (“My heart opens to your voice”) from Samson et Dalila – the title of the aria perfectly encapsulating the work’s methodology and underlying ethos.
The work of the performers was astonishing in its openness, honesty, fearlessness and tenderness, and required a similar spirit from the audience – to laugh, to accept, to wonder and to grieve. It’s rare to see something as daring and risky as this, especially in a Festival setting, and I applaud everyone involved – but especially Boynes, for having the courage and vision to expose and embrace the unknown, in all its nakedness and terror.