Thursday, January 12, 2012

I am Eora

BLACK CAPITAL DAY and I AM EORA, World Premiere, presented by Sydney Festival 2012 in association with The Balnaves Foundation in Bay 17 at Carriageworks.

According to the stylish corporate brochure and publicity material for the Sydney Festival 2012 :
Carriageworks in the heart of Redfern is the place to be for our FAMILY AND CULTURE DAY on Sunday, January 8. The official opening ceremonies for BLACK CAPITAL start at midday with a Welcome to Country, kicking off a colourful and fun-filled program of storytelling, music, art performance and food. The doors open on Brook Andrew's TRAVELLING COLONY of caravans as well as 181REGENT ST, a milestone exhibition celebrating 40 years of black theatre making. Be entertained by highlights from ERTH's latest puppet and multimedia spectacle, I BUNYIP. Discover the latest music sensations from the Gadigal Music label - Marcus Corowa, Jess Beck and Duke Box. Sample delicious Indigenous fusion cuisine from Yaama Dhiyaan and keep your eyes peeled for members of the South Sydney Rabbitohs who'll be around on the day. To everyone, that's a big BLACK CAPITAL welcome to Redfern.
We arrived at about 3pm. There was a milling crowd of mostly young families wandering about the space foyer of Carriageworks. They clambered in and out of the colourfully, hand-painted caravans of Brook Andrew, parked across the immense space of Carriageworks. This art installation is called TRAVELLING COLONY. Beneath the colourful, hand-painted 'skins ' of the caravans, which have been left, under the 'skin', as archaeological assets/survivors of another age, the intact caravan furniture, we are invited to watch video interviews of Indigenous citizens of the local area, answering a series of prepared questions, about their past, present and future experiences and aspirations/hopes. Some are more interesting than others. Some are inspiring as verbatim interviews can sometimes be. It is, though, a fairly tame and perfunctory experience. The care by the artist and his team about the editing of the gathered material is not of the best skill. In fact, the best of TRAVELLING COLONY is the fun of watching and negotiating around the 'kids' climbing in and out of the vans, and it is that that gives, for me, the work, life and meaning. These caravans with other relevant localised interviews (Vietnamese for Cabramatta, for instance) would have much the same impact in a corporate Shopping Mall in Cabramatta, Neutral Bay or Penrith, let alone in this significant space.

We wandered into the exhibition addressing some history of Black Theatre. It is 181 REGENT ST, curated by Rhoda Roberts:

The pervading legacy of 181 Regent St and this extraordinary time is explored in a special anniversary exhibition that draws on personal archives, films and photographs to tell the story of the National Black Theatre and the people who were involved. Covering pioneering works such as THE CHERRY PICKERS and THE CAKE MAN the exhibition considers where it all began and the ongoing influence of the National Black Theatre on contemporary Aboriginal theatre today.
1972-1977 - a sadly meaningful date/year for the theatre to disappear, I thought, later.

The exhibition is beautifully mounted and easy to negotiate. Some of the names and photographs gratefully connect to important memories, for me (I have memories of Bob Mazza, Zac Martin, Justine Saunders, Jack Charles, David Gulpilil and especially, Brian Syron). The material we see is fairly interesting but, seemingly, is very limited. The sources for the exhibited material are indeed, from viewing, clearly, mostly, personal and not at all comprehensive. It is an appetiser for one's curiosity only. I left, vaguely re-informed but hugely disappointed. There was a nostalgic gratuitous thanks for the opportunity to go back to a time in White and Black artistic interaction which was a kind of revolutionary action, complimenting the politics of the times - hugely contentious and fraught, but exciting and necessary. What someone, not of that volatile era, would gain from this exhibition is interesting to contemplate. Not enough, I fear. There is a symposium on January 14, 10am -4.30pm that might be invigorating to see and hear. It will need more rigour to ignite the history and contemporary issues, given the pervasive veneer of hagiolatry presented in this exhibition.

There were some rappers finishing up in one of the Tracks - missed them (at least, presently). The biggest buzz and queues of parents, prams and strollers, however, were coming from the I BUNYIP highlights presented by ERTH. In fact, they added a performance to try to help satisfy the demand. We couldn't get in - damn and blast.

Couldn't find the "Indigenous fusion cuisine", unless that was a sausage on white bread swathed copiously in sauces. If it were an example of the promised delicious, then it was, if not completely delicious, welcome, to a hungry visitor. But worse and woe, we didn't spy a single South Sydney Rabbitoh footballer - a sense of mission unaccomplished settled on us as we waited to enter the performance of I AM EORA.

The vast foyer of Carriageworks gradually filled with a lot of well dressed citizenry with the added buzz of fellow artists and politicians, some of whom were commenting, I overheard, that this was their first visit to the place!!!! Just where have they been and what is their essential interests in the arts, that such is the case? I was kind of shocked, considering the important and relevant work I have seen here over the past recent years. Years !!!

Some of us had paid to see this significant opening festival event and had been here before.

The organisers had us entering the biggest of the performance spaces, Bay 17, legendarily or mythologically, supposedly inspired by the famed Ariane Mnouchkine's Theatre de Soliel and then, taken up by the enthusiastic NSW Premier, especially sophisticated for the arts, Bob Carr. They had a conversation in the space about the space and some say: et voila! Whether, the invited audience were lost in getting here, to Redfern, at Carriageworks, or, just a schmozzle at the front of house, the VIP's were not brought into their reserved seats until about 5.15 pm and we didn't begin til almost 5.25pm for a 5 o'clock start. Considering my grumble about the Old Fitzroy, recently (see, THE HORSE'S MOUTH) I thought, in all fairness, I should mention the late time start here as well. Especially discommoding for some making a dash to other, later performance dates, that night.

What it did give us, however, was time to read the program notes. It was quite appetite whetting to read the three introductory biographical notes on the featured historical figures of the work: The Warrior - Pemulwuy; The Nurturer - Barangaroo; The Interpreter - Bennelong. I knew of Bennelong, and was excited to see a work using the Pemulwuy story, at last, and deeply curious about the female figure, Barangaroo.

Stephen Curtis the Designer for this production (Set, Projection and Costume Design), takes advantage of the immense width of the space, and has constructed an immense raked performance floor of white/ blue tinge with an angled mirror image back board cyclo-rama, upon which, are projected text and images. Whilst we waited a message of welcome was in sms-like type scrolling across the upper 'sky' panel. The technological effort and crafting of the projected texts and visuals was certainly one of the more impressive elements in this show. It was often a welcome distraction.

On the stage there is the paraphernalia necessary for a rock band and singers, spread across the upper horizontal. An aboriginal figure in traditional appearance smokes the space in welcome. Finally, a contemporary suited aboriginal male arrives on stage and very deliberately undresses and places, neatly, the clothes on the floor, and stands before us, pridefully, naked and ceremonially painted white.

What the next hour and twenty minutes are, is the presentation of a community-pride rock music concert. We are regaled by Radical Son representing The Warrior in raucous rock lyrics and music. He is answered by a contemporary rapper, Nooky. The boredom is that the music is ordinary and the lyrics by both men are also ordinary: FIST IN THE AIR!!! from Nooky - for goodness sake, especially after we have had a Performer (Jack Charles) abuse the cast for antiquated ideas and politics to start the show rolling.

Kaleena Briggs in full sparkly-dress-mode, sang for the second episode based around Barangaroo, her performance rollicking but ordinary. This representation of aboriginal woman is complemented by a pretty young pregnant, white pinafored Young Woman (Miranda Tapsell) fishing blithely and finally mopping the floor, and an expletive enforced duped aboriginal bride (Elaine Crombie), balanced by the actual Inaugural Speech of Linda Burney to the parliament, read by the real Linda Burney, on stage. The program notes gave us a far more arresting image of Indigenous woman. Barangaroo seemed to be a steadfastly feisty and principled individual - refusing even to dress to suit the white man's conventions (all our indigenous women, here, stayed dressed within the convention of this audience -what would Barangaroo have done?).

The third section, featuring Bennelong, is mainly a long spoken melancholic and grief stricken dirge, delivered in the vocally rich and life-worn tones of Jack Charles. What I find especially moving and ironic, in my contemplations during this section, is that Jack Charles once played Bennelong in the Old Tote commissioned play, CRADLE OF HERCULES (1974) by Michael Boddy and directed by George Whaley, in the Drama theatre at the Opera House on Bennelong Point. It told of the first settlement and the interaction between the indigenous people and the white invaders, colonists, led by Governor Philip (John Gaden). Besides Jack Charles, Zac Martin, David Gulpilil and Justine Saunders were members of the cast. I wonder what that play reads like today?

Wesley Enoch and Anita Heiss are credited with the writing of I AM EORA, and it  and the dramaturgy are less than ordinary, when discernible at all. The stage craft demonstrated by the Director Wesley Enoch, in the management of this huge cast in this big space, is ordinary. The choreography of the dancers, by Associate Director/Choreographer, Yolande Brown, is ordinary. This community pride concert is ordinary, no matter the stirring intentions and the sight of so many indigenous artists up on centre stage. And there is nothing wrong with a community pride concert (check out the David Edgar Guardian Weekly essay cited in James Waites recent blog-post) but, as the centre piece to the inaugural BLACK CAPITAL space and a cornerstone to the Sydney Festival I have my doubts. This work long conceived by Wesley Enoch after initial discussions with Lindy Hume in 2008, is ordinary beyond contemporary expectation.

This past year (2011) in Sydney, there has been, in my estimation, some groundbreaking and progressive Indigenous works in performance. BULLY BEEF STEW at PACT Centre for Emerging Artists. Bangara's BELONG at the Sydney Opera House. BLOODLAND for the Sydney Theatre Company and the Adelaide Arts Festival. POSTS IN THE PADDOCK at Performance Space, created by Moogahlin Performing Arts with My Darling Patricia. This Sydney Festival project (I AM EORA) directed by Wesley Enoch, is a work out of period, out of date. Maybe Mr Enoch has been too occupied with the Queensland Theatre Company in Brisbane to keep up to date with developments in the Sydney scene? It is a case where the line in the sand has been advanced magnificently by the above artists and that this work is considerably a mile behind the new markers. Two steps forward, a gigantic leap back. It is staggering ineptness. So much money, so much effort, and so little rigour and acknowledgement of what has gone on in the last year. It takes me back to my experience at Belvoir, this year of WINDMILL BABY (please read). That the Balnaves Foundation has been a source of support for this expensive looking corporate exercise is deeply saddening for them, I reckon. Who is advising them? Impressed by the surface gloss of the presentation, with no in-depth interrogation or investigation of the method of production? I find it curious that not one artist from above mentiond works that I regard as truly exciting e.g. Andrea James and her team; the Page family (not one representative, hardly believable, considering their ubiquitous influence in almost everything theatrical in Indigenous Sydney), nor the farsighted and talented Wayne Blair, is involved here. They could have commissioned or curated work for BLACK CAPITAL this year that would have been a sensation for the Festival, and the "this is my first visit to Carriageworks" audiences. I could have curated better and I just go to the theatre. Doesn't the Sydney Festival have any talent scouts out there going to watch shows by independent performers? Or, is it just a short cut to be dazzled by the glamour of well known names, or just lazy producing?

I estimate the money spent on the 16 page brochure for BLACK CAPITAL promotion could have built a work at Pact, by Andrea James.  History will archive these brochures and our heirs will think how wonderfully prescient of the Sydney Festival to begin this initiative. But the work actually experienced here, does not, cannot, really bear too close a scrutiny. Just look at some of the corporate friendly annual reports produced by some of our subsidised organisations, and see how an effect of glamour and ‘edge’ is achieved with the use of spectacular photography and graphic art direction - what can be spun out of truly awful or medicre experiences. All surface, no depth. Our arts managers do need to be kept real, really. It is the quality of all the elements of the product not the look of the brochures and posters, that ought to be the crux of our valuation of these projects. I AM EORA, is not an especially interesting experience. Experience it for what it is: a local, community-pride rock concert.

I read in the program notes that the new C.E.O. of Carriageworks, Lisa Havilah, has begun a plan for the future with the Redfern urban Aboriginal cultural authorities, to present an on-going involvement at this venue in the years to come. This is an important and timely vision.

An under-achievement to begin the festival and the year. If only Ms Mnouchkine, or someone of her creative vision and professional experience with such large-scale productions (Nigel Jamieson?) had been given the brief to use this space.

Oh, well, C' est la vie.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well, your very nice with your words Mr Jackson... :-) I found the whole experience very very disapointing... Lazy and indulgent direction .. some of the performances were good but lack of direction and cohesion.. the combination of dance, song (rap) and theatre didn't work AT ALL. Good concept tho'... needed a director who understands dance and song/music and not just theatre... or maybe someone with a vision...

Raymond D. Blanco