Monday, October 13, 2008

Desert Island Dances

Photo by Carla Gottgens
Choreographed and performed by Wendy Houstoun

Fairfax Studio, the Arts Centre, Melbourne

October 10, 2008. As part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival.

Wendy Houstoun’s performance style is disarmingly unconventional. With the house lights still up, she walks on and warmly says hello, chatting as she arranges items on the stage. Much of the piece is delivered in this conversational way, making direct eye contact with the audience, so that in the small Fairfax Studio it’s easy to feel involved in the performance.

Dressed casually, with no makeup and few props, Houstoun presents a series of vignettes, like a collection of favourite songs. The first is a description of the island, an idyllic image of blue skies and golden sands which gradually descends into murderous violence.

She goes on disrupting the expectations of the audience throughout the show. In her rambling, anarchic and occasionally very silly way, she comments on the performance and our reactions to it as she goes along, even graphing our response on the blackboard at the rear of the stage.

Another section is set under an ultraviolet light, though Houstoun expresses her disappointment that nothing on stage was glowing as she had hoped it would. She goes on to explain all of the extraordinary and impossible things she would have done, and tells us, “you would have loved it.”

There are occasional moments of pure movement, but for the most part, Houstoun combines speech and physicality in a very natural way. Her choreography reads as fragments of movement memories, suggestive of other people, other places. A particularly resonant image emerges of a woman doing the twist to a crackly piano recording, like an old home movie of your aunty in the lounge room.

But the mood never stays serious for very long, as Houstoun gently makes fun of herself, the audience and performance tradition.

In one cleverly constructed scene, her manner becomes vague as she starts to speak about being ‘present’ in the moment, while listening to an MP3 player. To cap it off, her voice is repeatedly overwhelmed by an instrumental version of the 1970’s ballad All By Myself.

Desert Island Dances is a light hearted exploration of some complex ideas, including the nature of memory, expectation and performance. Yet whether shunting around the stage inside a large box or coaxing us through a guided relaxation to the sound of gunfire, Houstoun seems set on achieving very little. It’s oddly enjoyable, though often disconcerting theatre.

First published in The Age newspaper

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