Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Review: Desert Island Dances

Devised by Wendy Houstoun and John Avery
Performed by Wendy Houstoun
Season Ended

As I was seeping in the miasma that was fringe and stewing in my disappointment of 'An Oak Tree', 'Desert Island Dances' caressed my young, follicly blessed cheek like a cool, tropical breeze (to mix metaphors). 
Houstoun is incredible. Her presence is so disarmingly reachable and unassuming that she manages to bring so much in, without you necessarily even being conscious of it. And, bejesus, is she funny. 
In one of my favourite novels, Ondaatje's 'In the Skin of a Lion', there is a line which seared into my brain the first time I read it. I quote it often, so apologies to anyone I know who may be reading this, but its the first time in memory I have quoted it in relation to theatre.
It appears at about the midway point in the narrative, from memory, and it reaches out to you, it pulls itself through the (at that point) sticky layers of narrative and speaks clearly, honestly and humbly. It made me love Ondaatje.

Trust me. There is order here, very faint, very human. Meander if you want to get to town.  

I've never forgotten it. Its like some of those great fourth wall breaking moments in Spike Lee's movies, or Haneke's. It has a definite point and utility, yet is done with such grace and intelligence. Startling and exhilarating in its honesty.
Houstoun's 'Desert Island Dances' is beyond what I was expecting which essentially is artful artlessness, de-constructing our notions of performance and the interface between us. The piece does somehow transcend its postmodern self-reflexive origins to encompass a whole lot. Her images are delivered. The movements are surprisingly often poignant and allowed to settle. 
And it is incredibly funny. 
The only moment that didn't do it for me was when she turned a video camera, that had been recording the audience around and watched it and charted our enjoyment. I liked the charting, I liked what she was doing - I just got hung up on the fact that she wasn't watching the video, or at least I didn't think she was. And what she was saying wasn't necessarily in regards to our image on the little screen she was looking at. I would have preferred it if it were. Or obviously not - a superfluous theatrical mechanism that fails. Like the hilarious moment of black-light with nothing glowing on stage at all (there was, however, a woman in the first row dressed entirely in white. I am strangely and prejudicially mistrusting of people who dress all in white, it doesn't seem natural) and Houstoun describing what she intended to do.
I'm going to throw in another quote here, its relevance compounded by the fact that its Tim Etchells, a frequent collaborator of Houstoun's.

Inside the theatre there are only the performers and the audience. Onstage the performers have some material items - flimsy or not so flimsy scenery, various props and costume stuff. The audience, for their part, have their coats and their handbags and the contents of their pockets. But that's all. The whole of the rest of the world - its physical locations and landscapes, its entire population, its complete set of objects and its unfolding events - is invariably outside, emphatically absent.  
Theatre then must always (?) be: the summoning of presence in the context of absence. A bringing in of the world. 
Tim Etchells - Step Off the Stage, opening polemic of the SPILL Symposium 

This is exactly what Houstoun has achieved with 'Desert Island Dances'. Something all about bringing the world in, giving context. Performing an annotated thank-you list. Its all so incredibly human. 

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