Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid

Sydney Festival, January 8.

The Hans Christian Andersen tale on which Meow Meow has based her new show is typically gruesome: an innocent young creature gladly endures unspeakable agonies in order to be close to Prince Right, only to see him promptly marry someone else. In an interview in November 2011, with Steve Dow, she said that “The Little Mermaid is about sexual punishment, in many ways for love”. She has all her power taken away “in order to have love”.

Meow Meow, the famously passive-aggressive – and very powerful – kamikaze cabaret artist, might be expected to take this badly. Indeed, she recently told The Australian’s Matthew Westwood that the story “is very resonant for me as it’s a perceived fate or destiny — so often imposed on the tragic female diva — that I do not want.”

Little Mermaid_SF 2016_credit Prudence Upton 004

Meow Meow in Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid. Photo: Prudence Upton

So what’s up when she tells her audience that Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid is a show about happiness? She means it, too, in a Meow Meow kind of way. This Little Mermaid takes a scalpel to the original, peels away the layers and peers into the dark. Obsession, self-abnegation and physical mutilation get their moment as Meow Meow prowls, twirls and hobbles her way through the minefield that is romantic love and sticky sex, hoping for a shot at fulfillment.

As always, Meow Meow may be observed on multiple levels simultaneously. The diva’s fabled ability to seduce an audience with fragile neediness and control it with an adamantine will is in full bloom and those expecting Meow Meow to co-opt audience members, crowd surf, bitch about the management and sing like a voluptuous fallen angel won’t be disappointed. On the surface there is much that’s familiar, even cosy. The real action is in the knotty mess of emotions, impulses and desires underneath, particularly in the songs, of which many are new. Listen carefully.

Meow Meow isn’t afraid to tread the primrose path, as in Megan Washington’s gorgeous Making Love: “I don’t mind strings, you can leave them attached.” The opening song, Black’s Wonderful Life, speaks of magic everywhere but loneliness too. Meow Meow’s off-sider in this show, Chris Ryan, gives a piercing account of Schubert’s Am Meer (By the Sea), in which tears of love prove fatal. As I say, listen carefully.

Meow Meow’s ending is a happy one because she chooses it to be so. She may be tossed and buffeted in the sea of love but by god she’s not going to drown. In a funny way Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid has a happy ending too. Our wishy-washy heroine, having displayed her shining goodness, is given a shot at immortality. If that counts as happiness.

Our Meow Meow is made of sterner and earthier stuff of course, but it was nevertheless possible to discern in her show the hint of a gentler, kinder Meow. Perhaps for now.

Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, January 28-February 14; Perth International Arts Festival, February 24-28.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on January 11.

Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich

Sydney Opera House, January 9.

In 1999 Jack Anderson reviewed Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich for The New York Times, reporting that Flemish choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker had “recently announced her wish to retire it from her repertory”. Fortunately she changed her mind. Fase has not only continued to be seen, but seen with De Keersmaeker in it.

She made the work in the early 1980s, in collaboration with Michèle Anne De Mey and Jennifer Everhard, when she was little more than 20. It premiered in Brussels in March 1982 with De Keersmaeker and De Mey as the performers and almost instantly made De Keersmaeker’s name as an important, influential contemporary dance artist. In its first three years it was much revived and in recent years has been shown frequently: Los Angeles in November of last year, New York in July 2014 and London in July 2012, each time with Tale Dolven, the dancer seen with De Keersmaeker at the Sydney Festival. Dolven was born in 1981, the year Fase was nearing completion; De Keersmaeker is now 55.

Fase(c) Herman Sorgeloos 1 copy

De Keersmaeker and De Mey in Piano Phase. Photo: Herman Sorgeloos

Fase is highly formal and abstract, requiring extraordinary levels of precision and stamina. It may at first blush look cool – chilly, even – and austere but its dizzying wealth of detail and the illumination of Steve Reich’s music make Fase an incredibly rich, even voluptuous experience. It’s a demanding work to be sure, giving the audience a substantial workout too. So often watching is a passive business. With Fase, alertness and concentration are required and the rewards are great.

The choreographic material appears to be simple and there is ample time during many, many repetitions and small variations to observe its qualities and relationship with the music. In the first section, Piano Phase, the emphasis is on progression in a straight line while pivoting, walking and raising and lowering the arms, which also loosely wrap around the body. In Come Out, performed seated, the head is touched with the arm at an angle, there are bends from the waist and an arm stretches out strongly. Violin Phase is a solo for De Keersmaeker in which circling is the predominant motif and in the short, snappy Clapping Music the duo repeatedly rises sharply en pointe in sneakers with knees bent.

Fase_Anne_Van_Aerschot_6.jpg

By themselves these things have no meaning, even though they may spark ideas and responses. They do, crucially, impel close listening to the music and its almost imperceptible changes. At many times the dancers are in unison; at others move in and out of phase with one another. They may stop abruptly then start again. There are tiny gestures set against large ones, and so on. You note how the apparently plain, unassertive dresses worn in the first and third movements have a swirling life of their own (and, in Violin Phase, how the dress allows De Keersmaeker to be very flirty and folky as she lifts its to reveal shiningly white knickers). You also note the small variations in reaction time of the dancers and their different movement quality. In her mid-30s, Dolmen is a strong, juicy presence; De Keersmaeker in her mid-50s is more wiry, more intense.

While there are new things to apprehend in each individual moment, it’s also necessary to pay attention to the overall arc of a piece in which music, movement and design work together in a highly sophisticated way.

In Piano Phase the dancers’ shadows merge and separate, multiplying the performers in ghostly fashion. In Come Out the menacing mood created by overhead lights (lighting by Mark Schwentner) is amplified by the workmanlike shirts and trousers the women wear, so different from the pale, feminine frocks of Piano Phase.

Fase_Anne_Van_Aerschot_4

De Keersmaeker (left) and Dolven in Come Out. Photo: Anne Van Aerschot

The movement here is no less repetitive or contained than in Piano Phase but somehow more sombre. Reich’s distortion of a man’s voice – it is a repetition of the words “come out” until they are no longer recognisable – is chilling and there is an intimation of forced labour and a desire for contact. The bend from the waist would seem to suggest anguish and the outstretched arm a yearning for touch that is never fulfilled. (Others may well take away a quite different impression.) Clapping Music, with lighting by Remon Fromont, uses the same trousers-and-shirt combo but in this context they take on a sporty air, even as one can see a connection with Come Out via the lighting.

And to think this was only De Keersmaeker’s second work. Astounding. It’s no surprise that Fase has become a modern classic: 34 years after its creation, it feels timeless. There are just three Sydney Festival performances, the last of them tonight (January 11).

De Keersmaeker’s company, Rosas, also performs a relatively new work at the festival, Vortex Temporum, made in 2013, in collaboration with the contemporary music group Ictus. It opens on January 15 at Carriageworks.

The festive season

THE last crumbs of Christmas cake have scarcely been brushed from the lips, the last Champagne bottles are not yet in the recycling bin and New Year’s resolutions are still full of shiny potential. ‘Tis the season for rest, recreation, family and friends. Or, for those of us whose calendars are ruled not by the earth’s rotation or religious observance but by cultural activity, it’s festival time.

And I don’t just mean in my hometown Sydney, where the annual festival – this year celebrating its 40th birthday – starts on January 7 and runs until Australia Day. The Perth International Arts Festival, with new artistic director Wendy Martin at the helm, starts on February 12 and goes into early March, overlapping with the Adelaide Festival, starting on February 26 and ending March 14.

I include the New Zealand Festival too – February 26-March 20 – because it’s about as easy for an east coast resident to get to Wellington as Perth (less flying time; more queuing for airport security).

That’s the first quarter of the year accounted for, right there.

Nelken_6_Paul_White_Credit_Alexandros_Sarakasidis

Paul White in Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch’s Nelken, to be performed at the Adelaide Festival. Photo: Alexandros Sarakasidis

There is, of course, a great deal of non-festival activity in every big Australian city. In Sydney, for instance, Sydney Theatre Company ran King Lear through the Christmas period and it closes on January 9. Belvoir opened Jasper Jones today, January 6, Melbourne Theatre Company hosts the transfer of Queensland Theatre Company’s new musical Ladies in Black from January 16 and so on. These companies provide year-round nourishment but the festival experience is something else: concentrated, distinctive and heightened.

Yes, there can be an element of déjà vu as old favourites return (I’m thinking Batsheva Dance Company, choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkoui and director Robert Wilson, for instance) but there are, almost by definition, performances and performers one would never otherwise see: The Giants in Perth last year and the Berliner Ensemble with The Threepenny Opera in 2013; Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s Life and Times: Episodes 1-4 (2013) and the heart-stoppingly wonderful Trisha Brown retrospective (2014) in Melbourne; and Semele Walk (2013) and The Black Rider (2005) in Sydney to name very, very few.

Go further back and there’s Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota, which I saw in Perth but it also went to Adelaide, in 1998, and in the same year Belvoir’s theatrical adaptation of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet (Sydney and Perth). All these things are big and mostly far-from-mainstream events that wouldn’t be likely to happen outside a festival. In 2016 the equivalents are Thalia Theater Hamburg’s Woyzeck in Sydney (Robert Wilson is a co-creator), William Kentridge’s Refuse the Hour in Perth and Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch and The James Plays Trilogy in Adelaide.

Fase_Anne_Van_Aerschot_5

Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Fase, to be performed at the Sydney Festival. Photo: Anne Van Aerschot

The very small equally finds a festival footing. Leafing through some old programs I am reminded that in 2006 About an Hour, the powerfully affecting and effective (and very affordable) mini-festival within the Sydney Festival was deliciously devoted to contemporary dance from Australia and abroad, although there was one ring-in in the form of The Tiger Lillies, the anarchic British punk cabaret outfit who, as it happens, return to Sydney this year.

Events whack up against one another in fruitful or clashing combinations. There’s something about a festival that encourages viewers to take risks – risks our hometown arts organisations might perhaps eye a little enviously. But one has to remember that the festival material brought in from abroad comes to us well-honed, sometimes over years, and has survived the brutal winnowing process all new work goes through. So in some ways it’s not at all risky while having the potential to broaden the experience and perspective of viewers.

On a pragmatic level, this first-quarter cluster of festivals enables some sharing of events, although there are fewer double-ups than you might think. The cities are far-flung enough that only the truly dedicated audience member will travel to each, but are sufficiently in the same neck of the woods for an international artist wanting to maximise travel time. This year Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, The Tiger Lillies, theatre pieces The Object Lesson, The Events and Every Brilliant Thing, circus spectacular La Verità and new cabaret show Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid will be seen in more than one festival city. Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs! was seen in several (non-festival) Australian cities leading up to the Sydney appearances.

The Tiger Lillies Perform Hamlet_cr. Martin Tulinius_07

The Tiger Lillies Perform Hamlet, Perth International Arts Festival. Photo: Martin Tulinius

A comparison of programs reveals some very tempting changes of repertoire in two cases. For instance, in Sydney The Tiger Lillies gives us The Very Worst of the Tiger Lillies while Perth is treated to The Tiger Lillies Perform Hamlet, a mind-boggling prospect. I don’t think I can get to it unfortunately, which is a huge, huge regret.

I will, though, move heaven, earth and frequent flyer points to get to Wellington for Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch where, from March 17-20, the company performs a double bill of Café Muller and The Rite of Spring. Bausch’s Rite is considered one of the very best of the more than 100 (and counting) choreographies to one of the greatest of dance scores.

But before that, on March 9, the company performs the full-length Nelken (Carnations) in Adelaide. As a bonus, it offer the rare chance to see one of Australia’s most inspiring contemporary dancers, Paul White, who has been a member of the company since 2012. There are two other Australians with Pina Bausch – Julie Shanahan, a member since 1988, and Michael Carter, who joined last year.

An incomplete list of things I’d like to see, in no particular order:

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch (Adelaide, Wellington)

Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs! (Sydney)

Alan Cumminh Sappy

Actor and singer Alan Cumming 

Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid (Sydney and Perth festivals; also Melbourne and Auckland)

Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich and Vortex Temporum (Sydney)

Woyzeck (Sydney)

The Rabbits (Sydney; premiered in Perth in 2015)

The Tiger Lillies (Sydney, Perth)

The James Plays Trilogy (Adelaide)

Apocrifu, by Sidi Larbi Cherkoui

Every Brilliant Thing (Perth, Wellington)

Simon Stone and Belvoir’s The Wild Duck (Perth