FANTASTIC CREATURES AND DIZZYING FALLS – POETRY, CEREMONY AND THE UNCANNY
By Urszula Dawkins
Theatre, perhaps more than any other art form, comes in all shapes and sizes. At its most poetic, it can plunge the audience into astonishing realms of light, sound and feeling to create narratives that penetrate the skin, eliding words completely. At another of its sensual edges theatre becomes ritual, a form where the creator’s journey becomes a ‘telling’ that fixes an idea, perhaps magical, in time and space.
The two programs of The Exchange achieve both, gathering an inspired and eclectic clan of young artists working at the vertiginous and visceral edges of live performance: Justin Shoulder (with colleagues Nick Wales and Toby K); and Italian company Dewey Dell.
Brought together by artist and creative producer Jeff Stein and presented by Arts House and the Next Wave Festival, the artists of The Exchange boast very different legacies: three of Dewey Dell’s four members are the children of Romeo Castellucci and Chiara Guidi, founders of Italy’s ground-breaking contemporary theatre company Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio; while Justin Shoulder’s artistic roots lie in Sydney’s fiercely creative queer performance scene. In The Exchange, they come together to present two double bills of their work – all going well, the next stage of The Exchange will be a collaboration between the companies to create a new work together.
Falling, and the Three Winds: Thoughts from Dewey Dell
Dewey Dell describe themselves as four people with an urgent need to make certain ideas “real and alive” – ideas, they say, that a drawing, an installation or any other form would be impossible to express.
Interviewed by email ahead of their arrival in Melbourne, the company explained the ‘certain idea’ behind their Exchange Program 1 work, Cinquanta Urlanti, Quaranta Ruggenti, Sessanta Stridenti (Furious Fifties, Roaring Forties, Screaming Sixties). Speaking as a group, they describe a marine universe, tied to the relationship between ships and sailors: “The ship, once sailed from the port, melds with the sailor in a sort of total dependence on each other, a virtual circle that feeds itself… Everything that surrounds this new being in the open ocean – namely wind, water, storm, day and night – becomes the dramaturgy of the performance.”
The unity of ship and sailor are reflected in the way the work was developed, say Dewey Dell, with different theatrical elements inspiring one another in a constant dialogue.
“During the preparation, even the sets and the lights have inspired dance and music, so in fact the idea of the amalgamated body of the ship, which incorporates humans and objects, seemed to us closer and more concrete.”
Dewey Dell’s Exchange Program 2 work, Grave, explores a more consistent natural force than wind or sea: gravity. Arising from the desire “to reproduce the physical sensation of a fall from a dizzy height”, Grave explores a feeling which, “at the physical and instinctual level, you already know”.
“For this performance we decided to rehearse in silence, and only later did we add the music, which had to behave like a distant background… Like when you are on a high skyscraper and the sounds of the city come to our ears so rarefied and so far that they create by themselves a vertigo.”
When asked to describe the mood of each of the two works, Dewey Dell reply with a lyricism that anticipates the multisensory poetry of their performances. Of Cinquanta Urlanti, Quaranta Ruggenti, Sessanta Stridenti, they say:
“[It] has a universe that could be called troubled: the same anxiety you feel when you are on a ship at night, where what is heaven and what is the sea is no longer distinguishable, and there is only a perfectly black mass that encompasses all. Loneliness then, the fear, but also a strange melancholy, move the sensations.”
Grave, they say, is a more subtle exploration, both violent and delicate:
“Grave moves on precise sensations: dizziness and height, the friction with the air during the fall… Grave is also tragedy, reduced to lowest terms: if a human body falls from a height, from the moment when it throws itself its end is already written. Death, thus, in some way enters into this work, but is not examined: it is caressed, like a cat.”
For Sydney-based creator Justin Shoulder, the natural universe is populated with Fantastic Creatures – self-devised vehicles for expressing his “fears and desires”. Often beginning their lives as drawings, Shoulder’s creatures are, he says, “inspired by the universal lineage of mythical creatures: serpents, dragons, chimeras, cucumber gods, vampires, monkey demons, and many others manifest in endless profusion”.
Shoulder is inspired by traditions of masquerade, “where masks are used for religious rites and festivals to tell stories and invoke spirit. I want to create my own sort of ceremony and understanding of community and spirit.”
A member of performance collective The Glitter Militia, much of his performance work has its roots in Sydney’s queer club culture, creating spectacular characters for parties, ﬁlms, exhibitions and immersive theatrical experiences, in warehouses, nightclubs, and theatre and festival spaces.
“[The Glitter Militia is] informed by a lineage of costume performance artists like Brenton Heath-Kerr, Leigh Bowery, Strykermeyer and Peter Tully, and collectives like San Francisco’s The Cockettes and Brazil’s Dzi Croquettes. I emphasise the queer community because it is where the creatures came from, and who support this sort of work… The Glitter Militia have a huge influence on my practice and are very inspiring to me.”
Shoulder describes his work for The Exchange Program 1, V, as “a hypnotic calling-to-life of the Fantastic Creature V. V is summoned by uttering the letter V. It is a religious spectacle, a clowning ceremony, a drag show.”
Wanting to create a tragic clown that was friendly yet monstrous, Shoulder was “excited about the idea of playing with the mouth and having a permanent grin a bit like the Joker – a character that was forever grinning yet dually solemn.”
Fascinated by the way V grew out of its beginnings as an ink drawing, “It got me thinking about drawings as mirrors. I started to research the tradition of Vanitas still-life paintings – dealing with the meaninglessness of earthly life and the transient nature of vanity. V the Fantastic Creature, responding to this, became a contemporary performative Vanitas.”
“[Pinky is] a comic–tragic figure obsessed with pink, sparkles, caffeine, screen pop culture and the internet. Like the clown as a pure reflection of you, Pinky’s highest role is to lead people to G-d, and their lowest role is to humiliate. Pinky is a fool and a trickster.”
Underneath Pinky’s skin, explains Shoulder, another persona – OO – is trying to break through.
“Where Pinky is a celebration of artifice, OO is an elemental figure and a bridge to something much more primal. The invocation of OO is a funereal masquerade…thinking about death and the body dissolving into the river of the underworld.”
The River Eats was fuelled in part by Shoulder’s experience of reading of William Burroughs’s “frenetic concoction of human, fear, desire, sex and death”, The Wild Boys.
“I was reconciling my own obsessions with the screen, pop culture and internet celebrity… Initially the show came as a purging of these obsessions.”
But the river of The River Eats refers to something more primal, the Brazilian Amazon, where Shoulder travelled in 2011, and which impressed him deeply:
“Comprehending the majesty of this world, I was also thinking about the recent loss of my grandmother, who had passed away while I was in Brazil. I created my own rituals of remembrance, making offerings to these sites.”
“Watching the river for days I could see its omnipotence. It fed the overflowing abundance of life living on it, flooding the forest. I watched animal and plant life decaying in the river and thought about the process of the river eating, dissolving these bodies and then feeding new life. I wanted to create a performance of remembrance for ancestors who had passed, and also a reminder for myself of what I had learnt.”
Afterword: Creative Producer/Facilitator Jeff Stein on The Exchange
Can you explain briefly what The Exchange is?
The Exchange is a context to co-present two groups of artists – one from Australia and one from Italy – who I think share something interesting in common. That ‘something’ is not easily definable – I guess it’s about their ability to manifest an ‘uncanniness’ on stage.
How did the project come about?
I have worked with Dewey Dell’s parents, who are part of Italian company Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio, and I am continuing to work with their mother Chiara Guidi on a children’s theatre work to be presented in Australia next year. I presented a work in Raffaello Sanzio’s theatre in Italy some years ago and Eugenio (a member of Dewey Dell) assisted me on that work. Eugenio introduced Dewey Dell’s work to me and the images resonated and stayed with me. I mentored Justin Shoulder two years ago through the Australia Council’s Jump program and continued to work with him. With the encouragement and support from Ashley Dyer, Next Wave Festival and Arts House we have made this happen. The plan is that if this program goes well, a future collaboration will develop between all the artists.
How would you describe Justin Shoulder’s work? What do you think are its special qualities?
Magical and wonderfully weird. What I love about Justin’s work is that it’s not dealing with the banality of the everyday, although it is very human in a strange way. His work evokes things in me similar to my relation to my dog – I mean sometimes my dog reminds me of things like unconditional love, loyalty and unbridled joy that no human can embody. Our relationship to animals reminds us of our own humanity or our lacking as human beings.
How would you describe the work of Dewey Dell? What are the especially interesting elements of their practice?
Visual and physical theatre – but not in any normal sense of those words. They create unique atmospheres – dense atmospheres – through the ability to fuse light, sound and movement. That is their magic.
Justin Shoulder (Australia) & Dewey Dell (Italy)
V (Justin Shoulder)
Cinquanta Urlanti, Quaranta Ruggenti, Sessanta Stridenti (Furious Fifties, Roaring Forties, Screaming Sixties)(Dewey Dell)
Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall
Sat 19 – Tue 22 May 2012
Duration: 75 minutes, including interval
The River Eats (Justin Shoulder)
Grave (Dewey Dell)
Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall
Thu 24 – Sun 27 May 2012
Duration: 85 minutes, including interval
Book for one or both programs:
(03) 9322 3713