The Black Rider

The dark forest – Thao Nguyen as Wilhelm at centre

What is it?

A collaborative dance performance produced by the Travel Art Dance Company that showed for three nights last week at the Northcote Town Hall.

Set to the music of Tom Wait’s album, The Black Rider, the performance evokes a fairytale landscape of a dark forest, a lovesick couple and a mischievous devil who always has his way in the end. Taking as inspiration only the music and a short story written in the album’s sleeve insert, the performance is as discordant as a carnival, playful as a circus and creepy as a graveyard. Wait’s album is hardly the music by which to fall asleep, but Travel Art have successfully captured its bizarre and haunting energy.

What did we think?

The Black Rider is directed by Meah Velik-Lord, who also performs as one of the six versions of Pegleg, the devil. These six each have their own personality and stage presence, but also share common cues and costumes. Elizabeth Bryant, who plays the fifth Pegleg, is our favourite. As a classically trained dancer, Bryant invigorates the jangling musical score with the elegance and power of ballet.

Elizabeth Bryant as Pegleg in front, Nguyen behind

Travel Art follows an open philosophy that welcomes all dancers, no matter their background, training or technical ability. It also encourages dancer contribution to the choreography, which is at times scripted and others improvised. This is a fresh approach wholly suited to a small company and is well explored in The Black Rider.

Like any experimental process however, there are some hits and misses. The scene that accompanies Gospel Train is a bit of both – while a train formed out of a conga line is too literal for our tastes, the arrival of Pegleg, orbiting around the train at a quicker pace gives a great sense of space and movement. An early scene comprising fractured reflections of the would-be-suitor, Wilhelm, where shadowy dancers haphazardly mimic his motions, is fantastic, as is one toward the end of the performance where he returns to the dark forest to seek the devil. Black-clad dancers, with fingers splayed like the gnarled branches of old trees, close in on Wilhelm, trapping him as the music reaches its crescendo.

Despite some of the clunkier scenes, we enjoyed our experience of The Black Rider. It offered rewarding insight into an interesting collaborative process as well as a visual spectacle befitting the music that was its inspiration.

Rehearsals – Elizabeth Bryant and Anica Todorovska at centre

Silent Disco

What is it?

A smart, energetic and utterly convincing play by Lachlan Philpott on behalf of the Griffin Theatre Company. Exploring the attitudes, priorities and difficulties of growing up in contemporary Australia, Silent Disco focusses on school life and the relationships between two students and their teacher. Buffeted by difficulties at home and in the classroom, the students, Tamara and Jasyn, learn about love and loss the only way there is – the hard way.

We saw the play last week at The Arts Centre, Melbourne, in the final days of its first tour around New South Wales and Victoria.

What did we think?

All four actors – Sophie Hensser, Camilla Ah Kin, Meyne Wyatt and Kirk Page – were outstanding. Unlike The Haunting of Daniel Gartrell, discussed in a previous post here, there was no delay in our suspension of disbelief. Perhaps it was because we had never seen Hensser and company perform before, so did not need to disconnect their current characters from past encounters; or perhaps it was because of the subject matter – growing up and living the intensely competing emotions of boredom and passion is an experience close to every adult’s heart. Either way, we were drawn instantly into the world of Silent Disco and were effortlessly gripped by its ebbs and flows right up to its dramatic conclusion.

The play interweaves layers of thought, dialogue and SMS with deft fluidity. In so doing, it brilliantly captures the complexity of modern existence, of the pulsing boundaries between these modes of communication, giving life to each. Thoughts are eloquent, fully expressing inner needs, desires and fears. Dialogue is laden with meaning, each character sounding out his or her counterpart so carefully that true understanding seems impossible. And then there are the SMSs, announced in charecteristically short, sharp sentences – instructions or demands, stripped of the meaning the dialogue struggles to contain.

Combining perfectly balanced drama, heartache and humour (this latter element no better delivered than by Ah Kin’s magnificent Dezzie), Silent Disco is a profound play that expresses the unique challenges of growing up and finding our way in the world. It taps into currents born of nostalgia but firmly rooted in the zeitgeist and in so doing, left us absorbed and moved.

The Haunting of Daniel Gartrell

What is it?

A play written by Reg Cribb and directed by Lucy Freeman that showed up until yesterday at Fortyfive Downstairs. Its 3 performers, John Wood, Samuel Johnson and Marcella Russo, all shine in a production that is eerily familiar, quintessentially Australian and ultimately more than a little disturbing.

Wood plays Daniel Gartrell, a celebrated bush poet who has retired to the suburbs, a recluse who has neither ventured outside nor put pen to paper for 15 years. His only contact with the world is his daughter, Sarah (played by Russo), whose compunction to care for the broken keeps her doting on him but similarly isolated and lonely. Johnson is Craig Castevich, a young actor who barges into their lives after landing his first big role in a feature film – he is to play Gartrell and has arranged to spend 2 weeks with him to understand the man behind the mystery.

What did we think?

Not being regular theatre-goers, we discovered a peculiarity to the theatre experience not encountered in either cinema or literature. Sitting somewhere between a film and a novel, a play furnishes its audience with less visual information than the former but more than the latter. We are encouraged to use our imagination, but are directed in the way we do so. As such, the suspension of disbelief, the immersion of ourselves into the narrative of the play, took a little longer than we had anticipated.

Once in however, we were richly rewarded. The play paints a picture of the Australian bush in tones of contradicting duality, managing simultaneously to romanticise and criticise it. The bush of Gartrell’s childhood was raw and beautiful as well as ugly and racist, all traits that somehow find their way into the cramped confines of the suburbia of his twilight years. The set, composed almost entirely of differently-shaped and coloured doors, suggests that each of the characters are searching for something but are trapped in an extended moment of indecision.

Wood, Johnson and Russo have a clear chemistry that translates well on stage. While the roles of each character appear well defined and knowable – bitter old man, lonely daughter and innocent actor – the story leads us far away from these archetypes into disquieting terrain. None finish off where they started, leaving the audience to ponder the powerful currents that run beneath the surface of everyday life and threaten at any moment to throw all we know into irrevocable disarray. The Haunting of Daniel Gartrell starts slowly but builds to an unrestrained crescendo that shocked us and set our thoughts reeling.