Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Culture Club reviews, 774 ABC Melbourne, 18th October. [October 19]

This week I stepped off a flight home from Paris and into the theatre for the Melbourne International Arts Festival (well almost – I did have a nap in between). I’m planning to do a longer post soon about my adventures in Divonne les Bains, France performing in the Festival d’Australie, but for now i’ll focus on the Melbourne Festival shows i’ve seen this week.

The first show I saw was ‘I Don’t Believe in Outer Space’ by the William Forsythe Company at the Playhouse of the Arts Centre. This is a new dance theatre work by award-winning American choreographer and director Bill Forsythe whose work has been seen in Australia several times before, at both the Adelaide Festival and the Melbourne Festival.

He is known for working very closely with his dancers/actors. I include ‘actors’ because they all speak on stage and have to do much more than ‘just’ dance. For example during the creative process with a new piece Forsythe often sends them off to do homework, tasks like ‘blindfold yourself and move around your home and come back and report to me how it felt’. As a result the dancers are more intensely engaged than in any other contemporary dance company I’ve seen. There’s none of that glazed-eyes, just-look-at-my-body thing – they’re fully present the whole time.

I LOVED this show. It was a wonderful welcome home present for me. Forsythe recently turned sixty and he says this work was in response to that event, and it’s certainly full of intimations of mortality. But it’s also full of comedy so I spent half the show laughing. There are nutty scenes that re-occur, like the one in which a female dancer describes a visit from the neighbour from hell, a man who flirts menacingly with her, who won’t leave, and who she doesn’t know how to handle.

Meanwhile the stage is covered with small black plastic balls that look like rocks or perhaps bits of shattered meteor, so a part of you is wondering whether this neighbour story is a reference to our fear of menacing visitors from outer space – or is it Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf re-told – or is it about social anxiety? There are so many possible layers, as with most of the best art.

Forsythe is also very playful with music, so another recurring theme is that the dancers keep finding ways to slip the lyrics of ‘I Will Survive’ into whatever scene they’re involved in. Sometimes the lyrics delivered dead straight like a poetry recitation, sometimes they’re spoken with a thick Japanese accent, but every time they take you by surprise and leave you wondering about the deadly serious way in which popular music can impact on our emotional lives.

And the text they’ve used – the script, if you like – has some very beautiful poetic writing. There’s lots of repetitive spoken material about objects and the spaces between them and their movements – falling, coming together, moving apart – which could also be a reference to what an audience sees human bodies doing on stage in a dance work.

At the same time, the dance language Forsythe is employing is very clear and specific and incredibly athletic. so there are all the pleasures of seeing the human body doing astonishing things. I sat in the front row and literally had those black plastic balls rolling off the stage and into my lap and I could see every sinew of every muscle moving on Forsythe’s multicultural body of dancers.

So it’s playful and it’s chaotic (or it looks chaotic, although it’s clearly highly choreographed) and in the end it is also deeply moving. The final scene involves one dancer pointing to another dancer’s body parts and slowly listing all the bits that will no longer be moving or expressing or present after death, which left me in tears. A beautiful work.

‘I Don’t Believe in Outer Space’ by the William Forsythe Company was on at the Playhouse of the Arts Centre until Monday this week.

The second show I’ve seen is ‘Michael James Manaia’, a one man play from New Zealand being performend at 45 Downstairs as part of the Melbourne Festival.

This is a play written a couple of decades ago which reportedly had a big impact in New Zealand. It’s a fictional story about a Maori man called Mick who goes to fight in Vietnam and when he comes home there’s a high personal cost to that war experience.

This play feels like a real immersion in Maori culture from the first to the last. We begin with what seems to be a ritualized prayer spoken in Maori and we end with a ritualized washing by the solo actor, Te Kohe Tuhaka, and there is a lot of Maori spoken in the text. It reminded me of the fact that we’ve had a number of really great one-person shows by Australian indigenous actors over the last couple of decades, including Leah Purcell, Kutcha Edwards and Ningali Lawford. Many of them have been autobiographical and you find yourself wondering how much of this New Zealand play is drawn from the playwright Bob Broughton’s own life, because the program notes tell us he spent 17 years in the NZ army.

In some ways this is very traditional story-telling. There’s a chronological description of the character’s life story, from his childhood growing up in the Pa (traditional Maori family ‘village’) with his beloved brother, his authoritarian Maori father and his English mother, to his experiences in the jungles of Vietnam, and then his marriage and the tragedies that followed (which I won’t be giving away!)

The actor, Te Kohe Tuhaka, has an extraordinary stage presence. It’s a very physical show – he’s leaping and jumping all over the stage, onto and off raised platforms, crawling under low platforms, doing ritualised Haka-style dance movements – and he has the most mobile face I think I’ve ever seen. It’s a virtuoso performance, although at times I would have liked to have had some more quiet moments, with less frenzied physical activity and less high intensity emoting. Sometimes less is more…

But if you’re interested in New Zealand culture, in particular Maori culture, and in the history of the Vietnam War, and if you like good theatrical solo story-telling, then this play is definitely worth seeing. Warning though – there are some pretty graphic sexual references and some ‘language’ – but we’re all pretty used to that now aren’t we?

‘Michael James Manaia’ is on at 45 Downstairs as part of the Melbourne Festival until Sunday October 28th.