Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Fisch comes full circle

Review: West Australian Symphony Orchestra, Verdi’s Requiem ⋅
Perth Concert Hall, 29 November ⋅
Review by Rosalind Appleby ⋅

Giuseppe Verdi is primarily a composer of operas, and Asher Fisch is primarily a conductor of operas, so it is no surprise that the West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Verdi’s Requiem had the intensity and emotion of a night at the opera. True, there were no elephants (Aida), hunchback clowns (Rigoletto) or Hebrew slaves (Nabucco). But there was a 150-strong choir (the WASO chorus supplemented by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra Chorus and the St George’s Cathedral Consort) and four high profile soloists joining the orchestra on stage, plus a capacity audience; the Concert Hall was bursting at the seams.

Verdi’s 1874 Requiem was premiered in a church, with a liturgy rather than an opera libretto. But it contains the drama and emotion of romantic opera and who better to bring this to life than Fisch, who has spent his six years at the helm of WASO schooling the orchestra in this sound world. It was full circle for the Israeli maestro, who conducted the Requiem in his debut with WASO in 1999 (then a protégé of Daniel Barenboim and yet to complete his now legendary first Ring Cycle in Adelaide in 2004).

As we have come to expect, Fisch brought Verdi’s dramatic architecture to life in all its majestic detail. From the haunting opening ‘Requiem’ whispered over misty string to the writhing storms of the ‘Libera me’, via moments of brass splendour recalling the Triumphal March from Aida and heart wrenchingly intimate vocal solos, each cameo reached its zenith. There were numerous exquisite moments from the orchestra as, under Fisch’s baton, the ensemble navigated tempo changes, eased fluidly in and out of phrases and breathed shimmering beauty into Verdi’s soundworld.

It’s a dark sound world, though; a work of fear and trembling rather than comfort and hope. Verdi exploits the period’s prevailing “judgement” theology with his inclusion of the Sequence. Its recurring ‘Dies irae’ (‘Day of wrath’) was sung explosively by the chorus and soloists and the orchestra was unleashed with Wagnerian lavishness. Four trumpets stationed in the upper gallery added to the immersive experience.

Soprano soloist Siobhan Stagg capped her year as WASO’s Artist in Residence with a compelling performance, her golden voice and delicately clear top end making every phrase a delight. Stefanie Irányi’s darker mezzo brought a penetrating intensity, tenor Paul O’Neill sang with gleaming ardour and Warwick Fyfe’s splendidly effortless baritone completed the quartet.

And now to the chorus, who in many ways were the highlight of the night. The 150-strong composite choir were remarkably unified, singing with a warm, cushioned sound that had the clean purity of an organ. For six years Fisch has honed a creamy, rounded orchestral sound built on German romantic repertoire: now he has found a choir to match his orchestra.

I am a huge lover of opera but I wonder if perhaps this was even better? As the great requiem composers recognise, sometimes the more profound experiences are those of the soul, not the spectacle. What a privilege to experience the increasingly refined beauty of our orchestra, chorus and world class soloists in immaculate acoustics, without distraction. One thing is sure; it bodes well for WASO’s much-anticipated concert performance of Fidelio in February.

Pictured top: Asher Fisch conducts the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. Photo Rebecca Mansell.

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News, Reviews, Visual arts

Conversations within but not between

Review: Charlotte Hickson and Ashley Yihsin Chang, ‘Unfolding Acts: New Art from Taipei and Perth’ ·
Review by Jess Boyce ·

“Unfolding Acts: New Art from Taipei and Perth” marks the 20th anniversary of the Charter of Mutual Friendship between the two cities; a friendship that is evident in the string of exhibitions, residencies and other programs involving these communities that have been held at PICA and other galleries and organisations in the sister cities over the last two decades.

Bringing together both Western Australian and Taiwanese artists, “Unfolding Acts” is curated by Charlotte Hickson and Ashley Yihsin Chang. The show presents stories from both metropolitan and regional areas and represents voices of artists, First Nations people, workers and everyday folk.

Created by the York Noongar community members and Community Arts Network, Welcome to Balardong is a collaborative series of animations that share stories of life in York. Whilst the childhood memories are reflected upon fondly, and the clay animations playful, undertones of systematic racism and colonial structures are hard to ignore.

Dondon Hounwn’s story explores a shifting dynamic between traditional and modern practices. Photo: Bo Wong.

Such storytelling is at the heart of many of the works in “Unfolding Acts”, including Yu-Cheng Chou’s A Working History: LU Chien-Te for which the life-story of a Taiwanese contingent worker nearing retirement was published and recorded, and Chia-En Jao’s video Taxi which documents conversations between the artist and Taipei Taxi drivers to piece together a story of Taiwan’s history and current political climate. Dondon Hounwn’s story looks inward instead; three videos displayed concurrently each show the Truku artist in some way being pushed and pulled by other performers, a shifting dynamic between traditional and modern practices.

Whilst all other works in the exhibition present stories from the artist’s home city, rather than a response to the sister city, Taiwanese artist Yi-Chun Lo’s Protective Layers responds to the impact of agriculture and feral animals on Western Australia’s natural landscape and wildlife. Created during a residency in Western Australia, Lo engaged with Noongar elders and utilised native trees and grasses as well as introduced grains to construct hides of a kangaroo and a fox, laid on the floor like ornamental rugs.

Also engaging with natural landscape, Whadjuk Noongar artist Sharyn Egan’s One mob features animals made out of yonga goona (kangaroo droppings) and balga resin, and Pilar Mata Dupont’s series of photographs, Multispecies, depicts invasive species of flora introduced to Jirndawurrunha, the lands of the Yindjibarndi people in northern Western Australia.

Pilar Mata Dupont’s ‘Multispecies’ depicts invasive species of flora introduced to Jirndawurrunha. Photo: Bo Wong.

Whilst pvi collective’s public residency and series of interventions tiny revolutions successfully reflects “Unfolding Acts’” aim to “examine the social, cultural and economic fabric” of Perth, presented separate to the exhibition in an upstairs room, it felt disconnected from the discourse in the main space. This separation is created by its physical distance from the other works and heightened because, unlike the resolved outcomes presented downstairs, it is a participatory project in progress, marketed individually without mention of “Unfolding Acts”.

Artworks in “Unfolding Acts” present a deep and thoughtful glimpse into the individuals and communities who make up the fabric of Perth and Taipei, yet for an exhibition filled with storytelling, the conversation between works and the two cities is lacking.

“Unfolding Acts: New Art from Taipei and Perth” runs until December 22.

Pictured top: ‘Welcome to Balardong’ by York Noongar community members with Community Arts Network. Photo: Bo Wong.

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Storm Helmore, Bernadette Lewis, Laura Boynes. Photo: Emma Fishwick.
Dance, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Dance double bill goes off with a bang

Review: Scott Elstermann and Shona Erskine, “Bang! Bang!” ·
The Blue Room Theatre, 28 November ·
Review by Nina Levy ·

November has been a boon month for dance in Perth, with no less than seven shows presented by various companies, organisations and independent artists. Packing a powerful punch, dance theatre double bill “Bang! Bang!”, by local indie choreographers Scott Elstermann and Shona Erskine, makes a fitting grand finale to this unofficial dance festival.

Scott Elstermann. Photo: Emma Fishwick.
Scott Elstermann alternates between elegance and frenzy in ‘Love you, Stranger’. Photo: Emma Fishwick.

As the gunshots of the title foreshadow, it’s murder that ties this double header together. The first work on the program, Shona Erskine’s Love you, Stranger, is a chilling exploration of the consequences of public shaming. Though we know this to be a contemporary issue, Erskine takes us back in time, to the fates of three Australian women – Martha Rendell (1871-1909), Audrey Jacobs (1905-?) and Ellen Thompson (1835-1887) – all brought to trial for murder.

Performed by three dancers (Storm Helmore, Scott Elstermann and Bernadette Lewis), each representing one of the accused women, Love you, Stranger interweaves stark solos with detailed ensemble work. It’s lightly seasoned with text (written by Vahri McKenzie, voiced by Jo Morris) that hints at horror of various kinds.

Representing Rendell, accused of murdering her step-children, Helmore is neat, deliberate, intricate. As the “seduced and then publicly snubbed” Jacobs, Elstermann alternates between elegance and frenzy. Arms flinging wildly, Lewis, as Thompson, seems to be fending off an attack from an invisible foe; later it seems as if her own gasps floor her. Joe Paradise Lui’s soundscape provides an ominous backdrop; a melange of repeating notes and deep drawn-out undertones, punctuated by whispers and breaths.

It’s a glimpse into the abyss; dizzying, compelling. Erskine tells me she has plans to develop this work, and I’m keen to see what comes next.

Bernadette Lewis, Scott Elstermann and Storm Helmore. Photo: Emma Fishwick.
Detailed ensemble work: Bernadette Lewis, Scott Elstermann and Storm Helmore in ‘Love you, Stranger’. Photo: Emma Fishwick.

It’s during the brief interval, complete with snack-bearing usherettes (Laura Boynes and Lilly King), that we are drawn into Scott Elstermann’s Act 2, Scenes 1-4, a mad-cap ride that takes murder less seriously. Elstermann’s work is inspired by Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel and, having filled that particular hole in my pop-culture knowledge the night before, I was wondering how the concept would play out.

Bernadette Lewis and Laura Boynes. Photo: Emma Fishwick.
Laura Boynes and Bernadette Lewis in one of many moments of physical comedy. Photo: Emma Fishwick.

Well, in summary, it is Wes Anderson’s style, cleverly transformed into contemporary dance. While you don’t need to have seen the film to appreciate this work (my plus one assures me), Anderson buffs will, I think, be thrilled by the result.

Unsurprisingly there’s audio from the film, but it’s the way it’s animated on stage that’s so effective. With his terrific team of dancers – Laura Boynes, Storm Helmore, Lilly King and Bernadette Lewis – Elstermann captures the cartoon-like nature of The Grand Budapest Hotel’s many fight and chase scenes, rendered all the more hilarious by the liveness and the proximity afforded by the intimate Blue Room Theatre space. From the sunrise-stained opening to a luminous aqua wash, Chris Donnelly’s lighting pays exquisite homage to the film’s famed saturated hues.

Boynes, Helmore, King and Lewis are superb. It’s not just the crisp perfection of their many slapstick scenes of physical comedy, but their wildly mobile faces that move, plasticine-like, into ever more comical configurations.

The only serious thing to say about this work?

You gotta see it. I don’t care whether you’re a contemporary dance aficionado, a newbie or indifferent.

And I reckon it will sell out, so don’t delay.

“Bang! Bang!” runs until December 14.

Pictured top are Storm Helmore, Bernadette Lewis and Laura Boynes in ‘Act 2, Scenes 1-4’.

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Chihiro Nomura as Alice and Juan Carlos Osma as Lewis Carroll in ALICE (in wonderland). Photo by Scott Dennis (14).JPG
Ballet, Dance, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Whimsical and wonderful: an Alice for all ages

Junior reviews: West Australian Ballet, Alice (in wonderland) ·
His Majesty’s Theatre ·
Reviews by Bethany Stopher (13) and Saskia Haluszkiewicz, aged 9 ·

Opening night, Thursday 21 November
Review by Bethany Stopher
Alice (in wonderland), performed by the West Australian Ballet, is a creative, vibrant ballet, full to the brim with humour and imagination. It is thoroughly enjoyable and perfect for a young audience.
The choreography is not strictly ballet; some of its features are neoclassical or contemporary. This keeps it fresh and different. The sequences are playful and fun, perfectly enhancing the characters from Lewis Carroll’s novel. It also has the hint of silliness and is definitely humorous in places, from the Cheshire cat, to the seductive red roses. The dancers use their voices, which is unusual for a ballet, but very effective in this case. Septime Webre has done an excellent job.
The scenery is outstanding. The plain white room and chair at the start of the show, give little clue of the imaginative props and scenery that are to come. Set designer James Kronzer has certainly gone above and beyond, making every scene as picturesque as possible. Suspension wires are used multiple times, in jaw dropping ways, during the performance. One of the highlights of this, for me, was when Alice “grew” after sampling the bottle labelled “drink me.” It looked so effective, especially as the adult “doors” are replaced by child guests to show how giant Alice is in comparison.
The scenery is also very portable and this is convenient, as there are many different settings, which have to be changed quickly.  There is even a touch of puppetry (artistically created by Eric Van Wyk), including a mini Alice, which is spun round to give the impression of falling, and a humongous Jabberwock puppet, which is controlled by many of the dancers. The scenery and effects are magical.
On opening night all the dancers were immaculate. Chihiro Nomura (Alice) stole the show for me. Apart from her flawless technique, she had a childlike quality and an abundance of expression, perfect for the role. I also admired the bird partnership of the dodo (Oscar Valdes) and the eaglet (Dayana Hardy Acuna). Oscar had such control in his pirouettes and elevation in his jumps. Dayana had a beautiful expression – you could see the joy that she has from dancing. Glenda Garcia Gomez (The Queen of Hearts) played the dominant and vicious queen with attitude and a dramatic snarl on her face. The child stars were given a large presence on stage, performed well and were adorable; the audience went “aww” every time they entered the stage. One thing that I found interesting is that the characters mirror Alice’s family in the real world. This gave me a deeper understanding of the story that was unfolding.
All the costumes are perfect for Wonderland; bright, colourful and quirky. I loved the White Rabbit’s costume, as he wore huge fluffy ears and a waistcoat with clocks on it. The children’s costumes are really fluffy and cute. The costumes have been designed so exquisitely by Liz Vandal  that all the characters look like they have stepped right out of the book. The costumes are also very clever; when the cards are “painting” the white roses red, the white petals peel off to show crimson ones! However, it appeared as though some of the costumes were uncomfortable to dance in. For example, the flamingo costumes looked spectacular, but it must have been hard to dance as gorgeously as they did with a ginormous flamingo beak on your head! I also found that some of the costumes had a plastic texture. Some of the costumes suited this, but others seemed a bit too shiny.  Overall, though, the costumes are creative and add to the thrill.
Alice (in wonderland) is a must-see. It can be enjoyed by all ages, as it is completely suitable for kids, and their attention will be hooked from the moment the curtain rises until the curtseys. It is the kind of ballet that makes you want to see it again and again. The season ends on December 15, so get your tickets before they sell out!
Friday 22 November
Review by Saskia Haluszkiewicz, aged 9
West Australian Ballet’s production of Alice (in wonderland) is a new version of Lewis Carroll’s famous children’s book, and captures the imagination of people’s minds with colour, dance and comedy.
The costumes (designed by Liz Vandal) are full of colour and life, and beautifully capture the detail and tradition of the period the book was written. Many have described the costumes as a “visual feast”. One part of the ballet has a scene where Alice is walking through a magical forest when she sees a caterpillar on a toadstool smoking a pipe. Through dance we can see that the caterpillar is talking to Alice. Then it shows the natural cycle of a caterpillar by turning into a butterfly. The wings are a majestic blue and are so big, they fill up the entire stage! This is one example of the effort put into making these costumes. Another highlight is when Alice grows so tall, she is nearly touching the top of the proscenium with Alice’s feet dancing at the bottom.
The choreography (Septime Webre) is interesting, exciting and clever. It is a mix of traditional ballet and contemporary movement and even includes a Chinese dragon style puppet of the Jabberwock.
The cast includes students of the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts and 15 child dancers, along with WAB’s principals, soloists and demi soloists.
The main characters are Alice, The White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter and the Queen and King of Hearts. Other characters are the Fishy Footman, The Tweedle twins (who at one point flew through the air on a tandem bike), the flamingos and the Playing Cards.
Overall, I think this is a wonderful ballet performance for people all ages. It is whimsical, fun and imaginative, showing perfectly the potential of storytelling through the art of dance.
Pictured top: Chihiro Nomura as Alice and Juan Carlos Osma as Lewis Carroll in ‘Alice (in wonderland’). Photo: Scott Dennis.
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A smiling conductor directs the orchestra from the podium
Music, News, Reviews

Fascinating musical exposé

Review: West Australian Symphony Orchestra, ‘The Art of Orchestration’ ⋅
Perth Concert Hall, November 23 ⋅
Review by Leon Levy ⋅

As audiences for the traditional concert format age and a younger generation seeks a fresh approach, it is exciting to see the West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s creative initiatives taking flight. ‘The Art of Orchestration’ is the second of WASO’s two Discovery Concerts this year featuring affable principal conductor Asher Fisch offering insights into the music. As judged by the enthusiastic reception, there are plenty of Perth folk of all ages who are open to having their musical appreciation expanded.

All three compositions in the programme were conceived for keyboard, but it took their orchestrated versions to bring them to their current renown and, as explained and illustrated by Asher Fisch, each work took a different route to orchestral life.

The evening opened with the conductor’s introduction from a dramatically deserted stage. Joseph Nolan’s masterful performance of Bach’s Toccata & Fugue in D Minor on the Concert Hall organ (and on a scale that would not have been known in Bach’s time) was followed by Stokowski’s technicolour orchestration for Walt Disney’s Fantasia. The orchestration is now considered to be in poor taste but it was impossible not to feel admiration for the skill with which the transformation was achieved; and for the fact that the movie is believed to have brought a generation of children to a love of music.

By way of contrast, it was Richard Strauss himself who sought a richer palette for some of his songs.  Here the audience had the immense pleasure of hearing Australian soprano Siobhan Stagg, WASO’s first “Artist in Association”, deliver a bracket of five songs. Earlier in her career Stagg won the Richard Strauss song prize at the Salzburg Mozart Competition with An die Nacht, and it was clear why.  Stagg has a voice of rare beauty, deployed with utmost sensitivity and with a core of contained intensity; the words have a natural flow and her stage presence is a delight. Regarding the transcriptions themselves, the first and last songs were accompanied successively on piano and by orchestra: unsurprisingly the composer achieved a close match of scale and mood between the two, both in the restraint of Morgen, as in the concluding Cäcilie, with its freely expressed emotions.

Following interval, Asher Fisch continued sharing his absorbing insights, happily contradicting Yvonne Frindle’s admirable programme notes by arguing, contrary to general belief, that Mussorgsky always had orchestration in mind when he set Pictures at an Exhibition for piano. At the keyboard, Fisch, a fine pianist in his own right, self-deprecatingly contrasted the unpianistic nature of certain passages with Ravel’s inspired orchestration. And if the audience was stimulated by this fascinating exposé, no less did the musicians respond. Older listeners might have been happy to see out their remaining days without ever needing to hear Pictures again, but here was a beautifully paced and weighted viewing of the chosen drawings and paintings, with the delicacy and wit of, say, Tuileries not suffocated by the mighty grandeur of the concluding Great Gate of Kiev. Played to death it may be, but here the introductory discussion of the work seemed to infuse new life into an old warhorse.

Asher Fisch and the artistic planning team must be saluted for being prepared to challenge the venerable ‘symphony-concerto’ formula without any dumbing-down, instead embarking on new paths designed to draw in younger audiences and stimulate old ones alike. On this occasion, with the conductor as an engrossing guide, the risk of a fragmented evening was entirely avoided: instead an appreciative audience went home savouring a small but memorable Richard Strauss song recital and consummate performances of the two other orchestral settings.

Asher Fisch and Siobhan Stagg join WASO again in Verdi’s Requiem on November 29th and 30th.

Pictured top: WASO’s affable Asher Fisch. Photo Rebecca Mansell

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Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Musical journeys

Review: Perth Orchestra Project, ‘Destinations’ ⋅
Calloway Music Auditorium, UWA, November 22 ⋅
Review by Rosalind Appleby ⋅

The Perth Orchestra Project is proving a welcome addition to Perth’s musical landscape. Conductor Izaak Wesson, who founded the semi-professional ensemble in 2017, is a student at the UWA Conservatorium of Music and his ensemble draws on student and graduate musicians. As conductor and artistic director Wesson (and team) have established a reputation for thoughtful programming, innovative presentations and a relaxed atmosphere. It is an attractive package, but the highlight for me is the new works. POP has premiered eight pieces from local composers, an achievement that surpasses the efforts of Perth’s professional orchestras, and the thrill of the new brings a exciting frisson to their concerts.

“Destinations” was the ensemble’s sixth concert since founding and the featured composer was Kate Milligan. Her new work Migrations offered a reflection on the other pieces on the program and also on her trajectory as a composer currently based in France.

Opening the evening though, was a work by Charles Ives, the pioneer of American modernism. The Unanswered Question is normally heard as an orchestral work but this performance presented the original, more intimate version for string quartet, flute quartet and cor anglais. For this quasi-dramatic performance the instrumentalists were spaced around the audience in the darkened auditorium, their music illuminated by stand lights. Under the steady hand of Wesson, the piece unfolded with gently sustained chords in the strings punctuated by a “question” from the cor anglais and answered by the increasingly animated flutes. The sense of stasis generated by the string chords was not entirely effective due to wavering pitch but the interaction between the groups was compelling.

The propelling rhythms of Steve Reich’s Different Trains was a complete contrast. A montage of Reich’s recordings of trains, train conductors, interviews with Holocaust survivors and general station noise exploded from the speakers. The string quartet interacted with the recording, drawing our attention to the melodic and rhythmic aspects of speech and mechanical noise. It was a slick performance with all four string players navigating Reich’s complex changing metres in synchronisation with the recording. The funky syncopations of thrumming train wheels and the bustle of station noise generated a sense of journey, the thrilling feeling of seeking a destination.

The clatter of vintage early 20th century trains were replaced by the calm hiss of pneumatic doors in Kate Milligan’s Migrations. Her recordings of the Paris metro underpin her new work, in a stylistic nod to Reich. The flutes returned to the stage and their rushing air and spitting sounds together with the slowly accelerating string rhythms took the audience on a distinctly more modern journey. Milligan’s field recordings included snippets of buskers (the melody taken up briefly by the instrumentalists) and the chatter of people at a station. The use of sine waves droning at the edge of audibility (apparently generated from the geographical location of current displaced people around the globe) added an ominous edge to our contemplation of travel. The last sounds we heard were the chatter of people fading into the distance. The silence afterwards was achingly lonely.

The works on the program spanned a century and Milligan’s work was a reminder that, 100 years later we haven’t travelled very far regarding the humanitarian right of being free to choose one’s location and destination. The synergy between the works on the program and the compelling performances confirms POP’s capacity to deliver an engrossing evening of music.

Picture top: The string players from POP L-R: Jasmine Middleton, Shannon Rhodes, Adrian Biemmi and Liz Moss. Photo Finlay Cooper.

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A project for the climate crisis

Sete Tele and Lisa Hirmer, ‘Drinking Water’ ·
Moores Building ·
Review by Jenny Scott ·

“Drinking Water”, a project by Australian dance artist Sete Tele and Canadian interdisciplinary artist Lisa Hirmer, cultivates a timely awareness of (and appreciation for) water as a precious natural resource.

A field of floor tiles, scattered over the ground level gallery of the Moores Building, frame an assortment of furniture, plinths and tableware containing varying levels of water. Piles of photographs have been spread over these plinths, and arranged on the floor, depicting various methods of improvised, small-scale water gathering.

Photo: Lisa Hirmer

As the Fremantle Biennale’s website explains, Tele and Hirmer began this iteration of their project by enlisting Fremantle locals to participate as volunteer “water collectors”. Together the artists and participants workshopped survival water gathering techniques, before designing and implementing a collection method bespoke to each person’s home.

The resulting photographs in this exhibition presumably document the efforts of this community, showing buckets, ice-cream containers, dewy plants, and hands squeezing wet cloths. Lacking any explanatory text, these loose photographs act as an informal archive; capturing multiple moments of water collection in a human-scale format that can be re-sorted and rearranged.

Resembling the remnants of a domestic ritual, these images seem to collectively speak to personal interactions with the natural landscape, our communal relationship with water, and our place as citizens within a wider ecology. However the lack of personal presence from the participants in the exhibition space is keenly felt – with this absence emphasised by the sounds of the bustling café surrounding the show.

Exhibited as a part of “UNDERCURRENT 19”, the second edition of the Fremantle Biennale, the considerations raised by this project could not be timelier in our current era of climate crisis.

“Drinking Water” runs until 24 November 2019.

All photos: Lisa Hirmer

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Behind the scenes of the suburbs

Review: WA Youth Theatre Company, The Cockatoos ·
Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre of Western Australia, 21 November ·
Review by Robert Housley ·

Behind the façade of suburban life are the complex stories of its human inhabitants. The relationships within individual households are a daily dance. The interactions between people living in the same neighbourhood can go beyond superficial pleasantries, if they can be bothered to even acknowledge each other. For many of us, this is a significant portion of our lives. Little wonder this milieu is such fertile ground for creative industry practitioners.

When one of Australia’s foremost authors, 1973 Nobel Literature Prize-winner Patrick White, dissects this world, its underlying complexities are exposed on the page. His short novel The Cockatoos has been reimagined for the stage by guest director Andrew Hale and presented by an accomplished twelve-member cast of WA Youth Theatre Company performers.

This moderately challenging work has the hallmarks of White’s dense writing – stream-of-consciousness storytelling from a multitude of perspectives. Just seven of the twelve performers have defined roles: Lauren Thomas (Olive), Liam Hickey (Mick), Alexander Gerrans (Clyde), Rebecca Collin (Gwen) Georgia Ivers (Miss LeCornu) Brent Shields (Figgis) and Sylvia Cornes (Mrs Dulhunty and Mumma). The remaining five – Amelia Burke, Christopher Moro, Grace Chow, Zachary Sheridan and Samai King – are all designated members of the chorus. When the principal characters are not in their roles, they too become members of the chorus.

Lauren Thomas as Olive and Liam Hickey as Mick. Photo: David Cox.

Deciphering who is who and where the narrative is heading is occasionally confusing, but there is a strong storyline that keeps the audience thoroughly engaged. Set in the 1970s, it revolves around an aging, childless couple, Olive and Mick. They have not spoken to each other for seven years, only communicating via an exchange of written notes. The apparent reason for their disturbingly unhealthy relationship is the death of her beloved budgie while he was caring for it in her absence. Mick has found loveless intimacy elsewhere in the company of Miss LeCornu, whose one-line descriptor typifies White’s searing wit: “Always stoned, but never to death”.

Archetypal suburban Australia rings true with the arrival of cockatoos that roost in the sugar gum in Olive and Mick’s yard. Can these new birds be the salve to repair their deeply dysfunctional relationship? But what about the noise?

Alongside this is the more peripheral story of eight-year-old Tim, who has sneaked out of his family home to spend the night alone in the local park. The things you can see after dark with a child’s imagination and when no-one knows you are there. Grumpy neighbours, judgemental parents and charity collections also find their way in to the story of this typical Australian neighbourhood.

Bringing this all together in 65 minutes was a directorial feat by Hale and his two assistants (Jono Battista and Elise Wilson) that the ensemble cast approached with gusto. Indeed, it is the collective strength of their performance and its dynamism that was the highlight of the show. There was never a dull moment, doubtless enhanced by WAYTC artistic director James Berlyn’s attention to detail in the unusual role of Movement and Intimacy Coordinator.

Costume designer Laura Heffernan has clearly had fun dressing the cast in classic 70s garb. The sound design by Neil Webster and assistant David Stewart is all about suburban atmospherics, starting beautifully with birdsong and piano. Ash Gibson Greig has also created an original song for the piece. Tony Gordon’s lighting does just what is necessary to subtly augment each scene on the ostensibly bare stage, which has a multifunctional giant swing as its only set item.

If this show is a reflection of performance quality from the WA Youth Theatre Company as it approaches its 30th anniversary in 2020, then funding the development of emerging theatre artists for its next 30 years is money well spent.

Recommended for ages 16 years and above.

The Cockatoos runs until 29 November. 

Pictured top is Lauren Thomas as Olive, with company members in background. Photo: David Cox.

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Dance, News, Performing arts, Reviews

A sea of beautifully executed moves

Review: Brooke Leeder and Dancers, Radar ·
The B Shed, Fremantle, 21 September ·
Review by Varnya Bromilow ·

The creaking, wooden glories that are the sheds of Fremantle port are one of the city’s secret beauties. What mysterious maritime activities go on inside C-Shed? What about D-Shed? Most of the sheds are off-limits to the public, a fact that seems suddenly heartbreaking when you attend a performance in B-Shed. These cavernous spaces create rustically sparse settings, ideal for dance or theatre. This year’s Fremantle Biennale makes fabulous use of these unique venues, but really, the public should be able to share in these spaces on a more regular basis. At the very start of Brooke Leeder’s Biennale contribution, Radar, giant wooden doors are pushed back, revealing a dimming sky on sea, terns restive on pillars. There was even the grand replica of the Leeuwin, an unwitting backdrop to the performance.

Leeder is well known in the Perth community, both as an independent choreographer and as a gifted teacher of dance. This work, created in collaboration with percussionist Louis Frere-Harvey and lighting designer Nemo Gandossini-Poirier, harnesses the talents of 23 of Leeder’s dance students from John Curtin College of the Arts, ranging in age from 12 to 17, as well as five professional dancers. With so many bodies, particularly when most are dancers-in-training, synchronised phrasing is very difficult. Throw in live percussion and you have a mammoth task ahead of you. Consequently, I was holding my breath for much of the show.

O ye of little faith!

The thrum of a densely electronic soundscape kicks off proceedings as two dancers thread through a brisk portside breeze. With an echoing thud, the trio of percussionists (Frere-Harvey, Rosie Taylor and Joel Bass), join the fray, building a menacing, aural cloud that fills the space. Black-clad dancers file in from the port, pairing with a partner in a fluid formation of geometric shapes. Arms scissoring through the air, legs all angles. Just as suddenly as the percussion began, it all stops. The dancers dart away, fish-like.

A new throng emerges from the wings – a younger set, mostly from year seven and eight. Is it just me who finds young performers so poignantly transparent in their motives? Look at me! We all want to be seen, I guess… young performers just wear it on their sleeves. The breeze buffets the wooden walls creating a ghostly effect as the dancers wind their way through the space. Undersea blips, the hum of a motor. The youngsters are joined by the older crew and then, in a wave of movement, comes the synchronicity. Lines of bodies, diagonally spread across the floor, alternating in their motions. Recognising the difficulty of synchronicity perhaps, Leeder opts for wave-like motions, movements spilling through the corps like water. I was worried for the nervy 12-year-olds, (Goddamn girl, leave the mothering at home!) but they nailed it. Driving drums, low lights, a sea of beautifully executed moves.

At its best moments, Radar reminded me of a rough-hewn iteration of Didier Theron’s work Harakiri. With just five professional dancers amidst a pool of students (however accomplished), this is a formidable achievement. It was hard to take my eyes off two of the pros in particular, Scott Elstermann and Lilly King. Not just their seamless execution, it was their unflinching commitment and confidence in seeing this ambitious enterprise through. Nerves? What nerves?

The single mis-step was an extraneous narrative piece towards the end. A police siren sounds, a girl falls, a boy saves her. There was nothing wrong with the dancing but the narrative felt awkward and unnecessary in a work that dealt primarily in abstractions. It’s a minor quibble and one quickly forgotten as the dancers re-emerged onto the stage for one last thrilling dance en masse.

It was over. The dancers filed out through the vast doors, into the darkened harbour, golden-lit with portlight. I breathed again as the audience rose as one, in cheering acclaim of Leeder and her collaborators.

Radar runs until November 24.

Read an interview with Brooke Leeder.

Pictured top is Lilly King and cast members of ‘Radar’. Photo: D. Wright.


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Chihiro Nomura as Alice and Matthew Lehmann as the Cheshire Cat in ALICE (in wonderland). Photo by Sergey Pevnev (3)
Dance, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Ending the year on a high note

Review: West Australian Ballet, Alice (in wonderland) ·
His Majesty’s Theatre, 21 November ·
Review by Nina Levy ·

West Australian Ballet (WAB) is ending the year on a high with its season of Alice (in wonderland).

A charismatic concoction of mad-cap music, surreal design, aerobatic puppetry and ballet that blends neoclassical and contemporary styles with a giant dollop of crazy, the success of this work lies in the collaboration between choreographer Septime Webre (artistic director of Hong Kong Ballet) and his creative team, composer Matthew Pierce, costume designer Liz Vandal, puppet designer Eric Van Wyk, set designer James Kronzer and lighting designer Clifton Taylor.

Though not a new production – Webre’s Alice was first performed by Washington Ballet in 2012 – WAB’s rendition feels fresh, under the guidance of répétiteur Johanna Wilt, WAB artistic director Aurélien Scanella and conductor Jessica Gethin (a small cheer was heard on opening night as this local conductor took to the podium to lead West Australian Philharmonic Orchestra).

Though closely based on Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Webre’s Alice holds the plot lightly, instead letting its dreamlike quality drive the ballet. From the outset, too, it’s clear that this work is as much about music as it is about dance. The prologue, in which we see Alice (Chihiro Nomura) daydreaming “as her family swirls about around her chaotically”, is underpinned by a score that’s a bit jazzy, a bit 70s. More than a backdrop, the music animates the scene; sliding into slo-mo as a family photo goes off-kilter, giving voice to a yelp as Alice’s highly-charged mother (Glenda Garcia Gomez) grabs her sweetly dopey husband (Matthew Lehmann) by his head. As the score unfolds it’s jam-packed with styles and references, perfect fodder for Gethin who is renowned for the breadth of her repertoire.

Julio Blanes as the White Rabbit and Glenda Garcia Gomez as the Queen of Hearts in ALICE (in wonderland). Photo by Sergey Pevnev
Julio Blanes as the White Rabbit and Glenda Garcia Gomez as the Queen of Hearts. Photo: Sergey Pevnev.

Puppetry, too, is central to this ballet, aided by wires that allow the dancers to fly (with direction from Dylan Trujillo of Flying by Foy). As well as traditional puppetry – most notably the Jabberwock, an imposing red-eyed creature operated by seven dancers – the dancers become puppets themselves. When Alice cries her “pool of tears”, she and the Dormouse (Mayume Noguromi) bob and tumble, courtesy of a team whose outlines can be seen through the blue banners of fabric that comprise the water. Later, the acrobatic caterpillar (Alexa Tuzil) is held aloft by many hands as she undulates and contorts through a circus-like routine. There’s no attempt made to hide the magic but that brings another level of humour; the scene in which Alice “grows” is comic gold on cables… but you’ll have to see the show to be in on the joke.

One of Alice’s many charms is the linking of the “real-world” characters to those in Wonderland. First as Alice’s mother and then as the Queen of Hearts, Garcia Gomez was hilariously terrifying on opening night, while Lehmann played her dim and down-trodden partner (Father then King) with foppish charm. All four characters are beautifully costumed by Vandal (as is the whole work); a stylised rose-inspired headpiece adds a touch of 1920s glamour to the Queen, while both Father and King sport heart-shaped glasses that perfectly suit their silliness.

With Swan Lake references in choreography and score, the lanky, neon pink flamingos were a huge hit with the opening night audience, but the puffy baby flamingos – danced with precision and character by a team of child guest artists – almost stole the show with their nodding heads and youthful enthusiasm. That said, Oscar Valdes and Dayana Hardy Acuna gave them a run for their money. Neat as a button, Hardy Acuna was charming as the Eaglet, but it’s the Dodo who gets the show-stopping moves in this scene, performed by Valdes with his customary panache.

Chihiro Nomura as Alice and Matthew Lehmann as the Cheshire Cat in ALICE (in wonderland). Photo by Scott Dennis (4)
Chihiro Nomura as Alice and Matthew Lehmann as the Cheshire Cat. Photo: Scott Dennis.

From here it’s difficult to select favourite scenes; all delight. There’s Alice’s meeting with the Cheshire Cat, (the versatile Lehmann) who oozes sexual innuendo, the strings simpering as he rubs his body against Alice. It’s a touch creepy but too silly to take seriously. Alice’s pas de deux with the Cat is full of complicated throws, catches and balances, handled by Nomura and Lehmann with aplomb.

There’s the Mad Hatter Tea Party, with its backdrop of artificially bright gerberas, it’s electronica reference (from the 90s?), the creepily colourful Mad Hatter (an irrepressible Juan Carlos Osma), the hyper March Hare (Adam Alzaim)  and the gorgeously grooving Dormouse (Mayume Nogorumi, delightfully recognisable as Grandmother).

And then there’s the Garden Party… and Vandal’s crisp and clever deck-of-cards tutus and art-deco-styled roses (sharply danced by Polly Hilton, Claire Voss, Alexa Tuzil) who risk their lives by fraternizing with the King… but you know what? You’ll just have to see if you can snaffle a ticket to find out more.

As the White Rabbit, Julio Blanes flitted in and out of the story with a leap and a grin. Special mention must be made of the aforementioned child guests, who impressed in various scenes. Last but certainly not least, in the title role Nomura charmed the opening night audience with her unfailing warmth, wit and grace.

Alice (in wonderland) is a must-see show… but you’d better book ASAP, it’s bound to sell out.

Alice (in wonderland) runs until December 15.

Find out what our junior critics had to say about Alice (in wonderland).

Pictured top: Chihiro Nomura as Alice and Matthew Lehmann as the Cheshire Cat. Photo: Sergey Pevnev.

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