Monday, January 29, 2007

A Field Guide to the Birds of Iraq

The first Field Guide to the Birds of Iraq, published by Birdlife International and Nature Iraq, was released on the 26th of January! The book describes and depicts the 387 bird species that are recorded as residing in Iraq. Importantly, during the surveys conducted prior to the publication of this book researchers have found that no bird species have gone extinct since the last major survey in the 1970s. Conversely, it seems that some conservation efforts have improved the situation in the important bird habitat of the Mesopotamian Marshes. Former marsh dwelling people have been returning to the area in large numbers and have re-flooded significant areas of formerly drained marsh.

For more information, visit the Birdlife International site here.

By the way, I'm keen ... anyone up for a bird-watching trip to Iraq?

Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Face of Jesus

[British actor Robert Powell as Jesus in Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth]

If you head over to the rejesus website at the moment you can place your vote in their Faces of Jesus poll. The poll asks for you to consider twelve 'faces of Jesus' and then to vote on the question, 'Which of the pictures above looks most like Jesus as you imagine him to be?' So far 26% of the votes have gone to the 'Jesus of Nazareth' image (see above), with the next most popular being the 'Laughing Liberator' with 14%. The poll site is worth a browse as each of the images has an attached text that explains its history and cultural background.

Which Jesus would you vote for? And be honest ...

I've been thinking about depictions of Jesus because this Saturday I start rehearsals for the NSW Bible Society's annual Celebration of Word and Song. This event started over a decade ago as an Easter gathering for supporters of the Bible Society, allowing them to hear the easter story read, to sing together, and to enjoy musical performances. However, over time the bible readings have grown into staged performances of the biblical texts. Staging the biblical texts poses some really interesting questions: How exactly do you present the character of Jesus, and the context in which he lived and ministered, onstage? What impact do your representational choices have on your audience? Are they helpful? Are they a hinderance? And what do your choices say about how you view Jesus?

It seems that in this age, in which the primacy of the visual has reached an apogee, our imaginations are highly influenced by the variety of movie representations that exist, from the rather ponderous The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) to Mel Gibson's almost unbearably gory The Passion (2004). Most of these (with some notable exceptions) seek a large audience beyond the church by attempting what you might call 'historical renderings': Jesus is shown in some sort of recreation of 1st century Palestine as he heals the sick, reasons with the scribes and pharisees (who can be easily recognised by their rather impractical headwear) and hangs out with a bunch of scruffy unwashed disciples and various filthy villagers. But does this Jesus get in the way of us meeting the risen Christ on his terms?

[Jo Kenny and Neil Modra perform during the Celebration of Word and Song 2006 - photograph by Ramon Williams]

For last year's Celebration I opted for a rather traditionally inflected stage presentation. Jesus, and the other characters, wore suitably 1st century-ish garb and handled stage properties that evoked a vague historical setting: scrolls, baskets of bread, swords, a crown of thorns, etc. The staging did however include some necessary stylisation. During Jesus' crucifixion, for instance, the actor playing Jesus stripped himself, applied the crown of thorns to his own head and took up a cross bar which he then held across his shoulders. This took place whilst a narrator described these actions being done to Jesus, effectively allowing the audience to imagine the surrounding scene.

This year I've decided to take a new tack. I realise that I have the privilege of creating a performance for an audience who know the biblical accounts of Jesus, who know his teachings, his healings, his death and resurrection. However, at the same time, in what way do they know it? Is it a knowing that is accompanied (or even formed) by various movie depictions of Jesus (like the willowy form of Max von Sydow?) Has their understanding of Jesus been shaped and determined by these cultural images? As a challenge, this year I've decided to stage an ensemble performance in which five actors will together re-tell the story of Jesus. Dressed in contemporary clothing, and gathered around a large table on which sits the remnants of a meal, they will begin to recount (rather than re-enact) the story using the text of the four gospels. From this they will then start act out episodes, thereby presenting some of the characters. But, in each scene, Jesus and the other characters will be presented by different actors (both male and female). I hope that this will be a Jesus who can in some way be heard (and seen) afresh through the testimony of his disciples.

Dredging up some past work

The days of thesis writing were long and hard, and I often needed a few hours of rest (approx 8) in the middle of the day so as to keep myself in peak mental condition. Here's something I've dredged up from the past. All the best to the new Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews. I hope his policy announcements don't inspire me to similar creative renderings ...

Censoring God (!?)

It seems that on some airlines the version of the film 'The Queen' that has been screened has had all references to God 'bleeped' out. But rather than being a statement by airlines (ala this), it seems that it was just a rookie censor. (Read the news article here. It was referred to on the rather excellent GetReligion blog.)

Monday, January 22, 2007

My thesis is now online!

[My workspace in earlier days - AF]

So, it's late. And you can't sleep due to the heat, the snoring emanating from the prone form beside you, the pangs of a guilty conscience, or a combination of all three.* But wait, help is now only a mouse click away! That's right, my PhD thesis, entitled Backstage Space: The Place of the Performer, is now available online! And you can find it HERE.

So, to whet your appetites, here's a classic section from page 2 where I contend that there is a 'significant lacuna' stemming from the lack of focus (to date) on backstage space, and skillfully set the scene for the 250-odd pages of closely argued text that follows. Enjoy!
In recent decades, the humanities and social sciences “have been experiencing an unprecedented spatial turn.”1 This turn has influenced a “move towards more culturally and geographically nuanced work, sensitive to difference and specificity, and thus to the contingencies of event and locale.”2 Within the associated academic fields of Theatre Studies and Performance Studies this has been manifest through increased attention being directed to the function of space and place in the production and reception of theatrical performance, both that which occurs in theatre buildings and that which is site-specific. Despite this, little sustained attention has been directed towards backstage space and the use of such space by performers. It is my contention that this represents a significant lacuna in our knowledge of the complex interrelations between performers, the performances they create, and the spaces and places in which they create such performances.

1 Edward Soja, "Thirdspace: Expanding the Scope of the Geographical Imagination," in Human Geography Today, ed. Doreen Massey, John Allen, and Philip Sarre (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999), 261.
2 Denis Cosgrove, "Landscape and Landschaft," German Historical Institute Bulletin, no. 35 (2004): 57.
*Ie: you went to bed and left the heater running in the midst of summer, thereby exacerbating your partner's sleep apnea and resulting in the midnight realisation that you have foolishly contributed to the further warming of the globe.

Contemplating a bit of writing

I need to start writing. This may seem a somewhat strange comment given the undeniable fact that it is written. However, what I mean is that I need to start writing some truly publishable material. This is so:
  1. I can disseminate my wildly original and extremely important research findings to the wider world.
  2. I can place myself in a position where someone says 'Wow! Look at your CV! And all those publications for one so young! Why don't you come and work for me in a meaningful and well paid job?'*
  3. I can provide for my wife (for the first time in at least three years).
  4. I can have the joy of seeing my name in print.
Sadly all I have really learnt in eight years of tertiary education is the ability to procrastinate.

I shall start writing tomorrow.

Friday, January 19, 2007

What are you looking for?

Recently I’ve been meeting regularly with a friend - Ashley - and together we’ve been improvising. The style of improvisation isn’t in the vein of the more popular theatresports, but rather is a form of improvisation in which a performer constructs their performance before an audience from whatever starting point they find when they begin. The skill of the improviser is then to develop an interesting, structured, and ultimately satisfactorily engaging performance from that point.

Ash and I are meeting and improvising together for a variety of reasons, particularly the shared desire to be better improvisers, as well as simply to be better performers (the skills involved in improvisation are basic to many styles of performance). Most recently we've been working on text; we've been improvising narratives, characters and contexts.

Last night we had our first audience since we’ve been working together – a very select audience of two. One of these two isn’t particularly enamored with improvisation and so afterwards pressed a few salient questions on us. In essence, she questioned what it is that an audience receives when watching improvisation. What are we giving them? It is our choice to step onstage without anything, so what interest is this to an audience?

It is true that I find perfomances based solely on the display of virtuosity somehow soulless. Sure, acrobats, musicians, actors and vocalists can train themselves to achieve amazing feats. But if I can't really understand why they are performing those feats, here, now, and with this particular audience in this place, then I find I’m often left a little cold. If the virtuosity is used to illuminate some thematic that I find resonates with the here-and-now, or raises pertinent questions about some aspect of the human condition then I find it has a definite reason to be. Does improvisation deliver this in performance? Or is it the process of improvising, and the way the art-form exists within a community of participant-interpreters, that provides each particular performance with a larger resonance? Am I simply engaged in a cheap and energetic form of therapy?

So, with all this in mind, do you go and see live performance (theatre, dance, etc)? If so, why? What do you want? What are you after? Do you ever get what you're after?

[Photo: BAAM - Lynda Ng]

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Apt words about Anth...


My lovely Anth now has an online tribute to her from her good friend Lusi! If you are so disposed you can view it here. (The post is a long one so just scroll down until you find it).

Monday, January 15, 2007

Addressing Anti-Australian Bias

Right, well I've recently got a bee in my bonnet about the way in which Byron has displayed a distinctly Euro-centric bias in the photographs he has been displaying on his blog. What's wrong with a bit pride in Australia, the land of the Hills Hoist, V8 Supercars and VB? We've got picturesque countryside, and we've got culture. (I'm cultured, matter of fact, I'm eating yoghurt as I type this).

So, by way of subtle protest I have hereby included three photographs that were taken on genuine Australian soil, and I am offering points for those who can supply the requested information. The winner will receive the genuine replica boomerang that I recently discovered when I shifted a pile of papers from under my desk.*

Good luck! I await your replies!

Ten points if you can name the town in which this photograph was taken and twenty five points if you can name the street. Hint: the broadcast towers on the hill in the background supply residents of Victoria's second largest regional centre.

Ten points if you can name the town in which this photograph was taken, fifteen points if you can name the event that made it famous, and twenty five points if you can tell me the year in which that event occurred.

Ten points if you can name the highway this concrete pylon supports, fifteen points if you can name the artist who has used it as a canvas, and a fifty point jackpot (!) if you can name the Australian performance art troupe posing in the background.

*You will have to supply evidence of Australian citizenship: a photocopy of your birth certificate or a passport, certified by a JP, will suffice.

Sunday, January 14, 2007


The sermon at church yesterday evening was on one of the fruits of the Spirit: kindness. It will eventually be available online from here. Kindness seems like such a sappy concept, but the power of simple kindness was brought home to me by the actions of a man I met on Saturday.

Anth and I were on our way back from the Southern Highlands (see the preceding post) and on the spur of the moment decided to drop by the Bunnings 'megabarn hardware extravaganza' store at Bankstown. We'd heard there was a bargain on trestle tables going. As it turned out they were a bargain (at $58). So I looked at the table and I thought, as I handed over my credit card to the guy at the checkout, 'Yeah, it'll fit in the car.'

Five minutes later, having unpacked the car in the car park, folded down the rear seats, and then attempted to safely stow the table, I realised the error of my ways. No amount of shoving was going to fit a 1.83 metre table in the boot of a Corolla. So much for me thinking that I'm spatially gifted. Maybe if the car could drive itself and we could walk home separately ... Anyhow, I lug the table back into Bunnings. Home Delivery? That's an extra $30.

So we decide that the excursion has been a rather frustrating waste of time and that we will attempt to return the table and get our money back. In the line up for the information desk we are exchanging some comments with a guy behind us about the cost of the table (and our foolishness) when the man standing behind him asks, "Where do you live?" "Padstow," I reply. The guy pauses briefly and then says, "Well I live at Condell Park, I'll give you a lift."

We're both amazed at this (geographically this stranger is offering to drive past his house a good number of km's to home deliver our table). We wait outside while he finalises his purchases and while waiting Anth and I ponder his motivations. Why on earth is he randomly offering us help?

Riding in his van, and having a chat, I soon realised that his offer of help wasn't entirely random. It turns out that he's a Christian who attends the nearby Condell Park Bible Church (as well as working for Bunnings at another store). Of course he didn't link his faith to the offer of the lift - but for me his act of simple kindness really affirmed the way that Christian faith can and does result in a radical re-shaping of one's priorities and attitudes; as recipients of God's awesome grace we too seek to love and to serve others.

The kindness displayed in his offer of a lift might have only been a small and insignificant thing, but it has given me some mighty encouragement this week.

A Week in the Southern Highlands

I've just returned from a week in the Southern Highlands, holidaying with my wife (and her parents!). One of the highlights of the highlands was the Box Vale Walking Track, a walk that follows the route of a disused railway line. The line was built in 1888 to provide transport for a coal mine located at the bottom of the Nattai River Gorge. Unfortunately the mine proved rather uneconomic and it closed in 1896. The tracks, sleepers and wooden bridges were removed, but the cuttings and embankments remain - allowing for an unusually level walk through the bush! The most impressive part of the walk (apart from the view of the Gorge) is just before the end when the line passes through an 84 metre tunnel. Standing in the middle of it is a strange experience - my eyes found it hard to adjust, and so even though I could see the light at either end I couldn't really discern the uneven ground underfoot.

[Box Vale Colliery Tunnel - AF]

Given the level of industrial activity this area once witnessed (an estimated 1000 tons of coal per annum were transported along the railway) I found that the degree to which it has been reclaimed by vegetation was a humbling reminder of how quickly many of our labours fade and are lost.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Zero Degrees

Akram Kahn and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

Zero Degrees is the first work to take place in the new Wilson Street CarriageWorks. Despite this the CarriageWorks themselves aren’t finished yet; the exterior concreting is largely roughly done, with the main entrance from Wilson Street lacking any signage; exposed bolts mark the spots where the signage will hang. The CarriageWorks are accessed via stairs from Wilson Street. The stairs are accompanied by a wheelchair ramp that zigs and zags, under cover of a large shed that runs parallel to the street. This too is unfinished as yet.

[Wilson St CarriageWorks in 2004 - AF]

The exterior walls of the CarriageWorks retain a colour and resonance, bearing marks and scars as reminders of their previous usage as a site of heavy industry. Contrasting with this are the smooth glassed doors and the warm colours of the entrance, drawing pedestrians in. Inside, the high-pitched roof is left visible. The foyer exists in a space between the original exterior and the new interiors. These interiors are encased in large panels of smooth pre-formed concrete. The original rows of cast iron pillars have been taken as strong guiding lines by the architects. They largely determine the dimensions of the new interiors, with one line of pillars continuing unimpeded down a passage between the 800 and smaller 300 seat performance spaces.

Zero Degrees is performed in a large white box, reminiscent of that in which Peter Brook set his famous A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Behind the rear panel are hidden a quartet of musicians and vocalists. In the space itself are two life-sized dummies. Both are white, but as the performance continues and both are manipulated by the performers one appears more flexible, the other stiffer. Interestingly this reflects the difference between relative angularity of Kahn and the extreme flexibility of Cherkaoui. Indeed, perhaps the casts are actually of Kahn and Cherkaoui’s bodies.

Kahn and Cherkaoui appear from opposite sides at the rear of the stage area and walk to face one another. Kahn is darker in appearance, Cherkaoui lighter, with a line of hair across the top of his forehead (both dancers are bald or balding). They are dressed in clothing that is identically cut; the difference lies in the colours. Kahn is dressed in an olive brown fitted t-shirt and broad pants, Cherkaoui in a blue-grey ensemble. Their entrances, in silence, (the musicians have been briefly illuminated before this – presumably to reveal to the audience in advance that they are performing live) contrast with the final image of the performance in which Cherkaoui carries a stiff, prone Kahn from the stage. However, to begin with, they meet at the centre rear of the stage, turn towards the audience and walk downstage, seating themselves at the very front of the stage.

At the front of the stage both performers begin speaking in unison. The text itself is rather conversational, as are the pauses and rhythms, but the effect of the unison is humorous. The text conveys the experience of travelling across the border from Bangladesh to India, and of having one’s passport confiscated by a border guard seeking a bribe. The text references the culture shock experienced by a western visitor who becomes aware that the usual rules of engagement don’t apply here. Their initial anger turns to fear.

This opening text is followed by a period of intricate arm movements, accompanied by the hidden quartet. The pattern of the performance is thus established, a pattern of downstage text interspersed amongst sections of movement. This pattern isn’t rigidly adhered to; it is also broken in numerous ways. Midway through the performance Kahn himself vocalises upstage, a series of staccato utterances sparks a new rhythmic pattern. Later Kahn repeats an earlier piece of text – this time without Cherkaoui. Finally, following the telling of an encounter with a dead body on an Indian train, Cherkaoui sings what sounds like a lament. Throughout the performance the musical accompaniment also shifts. Affected by a distinctly Indian inflection, the accompaniment contains a strong vocal component. Violin, cello, guitar and percussion join long trailing vocal notes that provide an aural environment that colours the mood of the white box. The shifts in rhythm and pace provided by the musical score are a major source of segmentation in the performance. Segments of movement begin from silence and are seemingly picked up and carried by the musicians.

The movement sequences of Kahn and Cherkaoui shift in tenor. At the outset they involve a playful tangling of arms; whose is whose? Their arms seemingly entwine, ever moving and shifting past one another. The effect is of a gentle unfolding towards and with one another. Soon this is replaced with an agonistic tone. A mock battle of arms and legs is engaged in. Kahn knocks Cherkaoui out flat following a sharp spin. The dancers’ shadows on the rear wall become a mediating focus as they join, and then lengthen and shorten separately. Playful sequences with the mannequins also provide humour and a certain note of reflexiveness. While the mannequins’ lack of response and blankly white exteriors allow the performers to manipulate them and project actions onto them (Cherkaoui, for instance, has one mannequin first caress and then abuse him), they also troublingly signify corpses as they are dragged about the space.

[Kahn and Cherkaoui -]

First Cherkaoui and then Kahn perform solos in the space; Cherkaoui uses his flexibility to roll, tumble, rise and fall from the stage. Kahn sits upstage left on the midriff of one of the mannequins. Kahn’s solos are more upright. He executes a range of spins and turns, including a rapid series of spins – so fast you would think he would lose control. Later Kahn investigates Cherkaoui’s flexibility, rolling and then bouncing him like a basketball. At different times both dancers abuse the mannequins, with these hits or kicks reflected in the body of the other. Cherkaoui in particular endows the mannequins with personality and agency; he seems to expect them to respond.

The shifting and often playful relationship between Kahn and Cherkaoui provides the emotional heart of this performance. While they test the limits of the space, of their own bodies, and the forms of the mannequins, it is the testing of each other, the glances, pokes, prods and stimuli they provide and respond to that propel this performance. Indeed, the title Zero Degrees, for me, has resonances of the title of John Guare’s play Six Degrees of Separation. In the white box of the set every gesture, movement and shift in attention, rhythm or speed is exposed and magnified; the dancers blend and separate; their similarities and their very profound differences are made evident as they share the telling of stories and as they weave in and out of each other’s orbit. Contrasting with its minimalist visual aesthetic Zero Degrees is a profoundly humane work.

A postscript: In the post above I don't actually mention anything about the specific experience of being in the audience. This is an oversight as it profoundly affected how I perceived the performance (indeed, it almost ruined the performance). To give you a better idea, I have included below an email I sent last night to ''. I will post any reply I receive ...

To Whom It May Concern,

Initially, let me say thank you for tonight's performance of Zero Degrees by Akram Kahn and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. The performance was excellent - deceptively simple, joyful, and reflective. I caught Kahn's Kaash when it toured Sydney a few years ago, and so being able to see Kahn in Sydney again as part of the festival was great.

Unfortunately this email is a complaint. The seating arrangements in the new CarriageWorks space are not excellent, nor even sufficient, and it is for this reason that I am emailing you. I attended the first night of Zero Degrees and was seated, with my wife, towards the rear of the stalls (seats U9 and U10). I booked via Ticketek, and my booking number was 6532761 (tel). The cost of these seats was $70 and $60 respectively (I have a student concession). Both seats were considered 'A Reserve'.

The rake of the seating in the venue was such that from our seats neither of us could see the front third of the stage area. This was the case for half the audience; everyone from the aisle back suffered from very poor sight-lines. Added to this, the front third of the stage was used extensively by the performers throughout the performance, especially when they repeatedly sat downstage centre to talk to the audience and perform what I presume were small, intricate gestures. Throughout the performance there was a great deal of restlessness as members of the audience shifted in their seats, stood briefly, or moved to the side aisles to stand and gain a glimpse of what was happening onstage.

Within a few minutes of the performance starting both my wife and I found that the situation was intolerable. We therefore walked to the rear of the seating bank and stood for the majority of the performance. Interestingly, even standing at the rear of the seating bank still didn't allow us a clear view of the front of the stage. All up I found this experience very frustrating. I was frustrated that I couldn't actually see what was going on (and I am 186cm tall) and that despite the great efforts of the performers their performance couldn't be adequately appreciated by at least half the audience.

So, I am asking for a partial refund of my ticket price in lieu of the fact that what was advertised as 'A Reserve' only afforded a partial view of the stage. In fact, ultimately what my wife and I purchased was very expensive standing room. I've been very polite in this email, but I am quite irate at the poor planning of this event - that a third of the stage was obscured by the insufficient rake of the stage is very substandard, especially for a dance performance where to be able to see all of a dancer's performance is essential! I therefore expect that this complaint will be taken seriously.

I understand that the condition of the venue is largely the fault of the venue's management (whom I have also contacted), but I did buy my ticket from the Sydney Festival organisation, so that is why I am asking for a partial refund from you. Perhaps you could provide me with a third off each ticket, considering I couldn't see a third of the stage?

I have kept my receipt and tickets as proof of my attendance and am very happy to produce them in order to receive the requested refund. I have provided means by which I might be contacted below. I would very much like a response to this email. I will be out of Sydney until the 13th of January, but can be contacted by mobile.

I would be very surprised if you do not receive a number of responses from other audience members.

Yours Sincerely,