A week of pattern formation and dissolving, day by day, show by show. The weather cooled, then heated up again; the moon waxed to full, and honeyeaters dipped the curved needles of their beaks into grevillea flowers in suburban gardens.
Every day, every night, and in every conversation with artists and audiences, our focus has been pulled throughout the festival across levels of scale to see and touch the patterns in our lives, both minuscule and massive, from the human heartbeat to the changing of our climate, from the dipping of the honeyeater’s tongue to the great pulses of life, and death, on earth.
Photo: Ruth Little
It’s all physics; everything is physics, says Ursula Martinez in A Family Outing 20 Years On, quoting her father Arthur Lea, former physics teacher and now stardust, thanks to physics. His presence in the work, on a 20-year old VHS recording of the prequel to this piece, A Family Outing, emphasises art’s capacity to play with time, to seem to lift us momentarily out of the relentless unravelling of the skein of our own lives, of all lives, and remind us, as evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould said, that the living - bright, beautiful and fragile - are a rare species of the dead.
The Nature of Why. Photo: Toni Wilkinson
It’s all physics, according to Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman. Feynman’s brusque but mind-bendingly encompassing musings on the infinite hall of mirrors that the simple question, ‘why?’ opens onto is the inspiration for The Nature of Why, by Charles Hazlewood, Caroline Bowditch and the British Paraorchestra. And Hazlewood’s response to the unanswerable question of ‘why?’ is ‘why not?’ Why not challenge the social physics of exclusion and elitism that keeps people apart? Why not gather the insights and capacities of professional disabled musicians to form an orchestra built on the principle of access? Why not bring disabled and non-disabled musicians and audiences together in the same space, to listen and move together, in full expression of that principle? Why not include dancers in the mix? Why not throw the hierarchies of classical music appreciation to the wind, and participate in the whole body experience of music-making together? Ever wondered what it feels like to put your ear or your heart up close to a double bass or a French horn? How you might move if you moved with the music of a violin or the commanding voice of a soprano? Come and find out this week.
Photo: Ruth Little
’If I had any of the appropriate skill set, I’d be an astrophysicist’, says composer, singer, performer, and sound designer of Sunset, Rachael Dease. Not, like Feynman, to put a curious but hapless BBC reporter in his place, but to search out the forces and laws that move within the universe and give rise to our sense of ourselves as both infinitesimally insignificant and yet, somehow, at home within it. Lacking the relevant skill set to plumb the depths of space, however, Rachael practises here on earth, in Perth, as an artist, and our own imaginative experience of being alive, of thinking about being alive, is all the richer for it. Inspired and moved by the iconic image of this small blue planet taken from space by the Apollo 7 mission in 1972, Dease makes work about time and change, drawing on the perspective provided by rituals and devotional practices around death, and the insights of science. Together they offer an overview, she says, and help us to see ourselves as participants in, and not authors of, the great scheme of things.
Sunset. Photo: Simon Pynt
The location of Strut Dance/Tura New Music’s Sunset is the former Sunset Hospital in Dalkeith; a palliative care home for old and destitute men (later men and women) in what is now, ironically, one of the wealthiest suburbs of Perth. Here men hovered ‘in existential limbo’, as director Maxine Doyle puts is, beneath the wheeling sky and the ground that waited to receive them. Sunset has had a profound impact on its audiences, many of whom have seen it several times. It’s not just that the site itself is resonant and beautiful, the work haunted and poignant, but, I think, that it lifts us up, somehow, into a collective experience of inhabiting a mystery. For all our millennia of self-reflection in art, later in science, and more recently in the context of the superhuman capacities of artificial intelligence, the human mind can’t entirely probe and explain itself, its existence and its experience. But art enables us to move back from our individual minds to consider the flux and flow of our larger communal lives, and find comfort, meaning and a sense of belonging in the ubiquitous and universal patterns we find there. That means of course, acknowledging that all patterns are eventually disrupted by random or intentional disturbances, by chance and desire, and ultimately by death. Which brings us back to our selves.
Sunset. Photo: Simon Pynt
In title, setting and intention, Sunset takes place on the threshold between life and death. In anterooms and in the hospital hall, somewhere between the red sand foundations of its past and the red sand shroud of its future, we joined forgotten and half-dreamed former residents and staff to watch a performance on the stage of the old theatre there. We sat or stood where they once sat, suspended, like many of them, somewhere between the real and the imagined. We stood in for them, while the performers gave form and movement to their memories, daydreams and nightmares.
Death is, of course the ultimate act of unbecoming, but in our lives we go through countless other, more subtle forms of dissolving and resolving. In One Infinity the audience sat onstage in Her Majesty’s Theatre, facing one another on opposite sides of the performance space, and found ourselves inside the performance, both witnessing and creating it. Mirroring the simple symmetrical movements of a dancer in the seats across from us, we saw our own mass movement reflected in other bodies beyond and around us. The communal gesture animated the space, opening and closing like an anemone. We belong to a living reef of human culture. It’s profoundly moving to watch others moving in quiet synchrony; not with the aggressive geometries of a military parade or an orchestrated public display, but with the slow and deep resonance of ancient instruments - recorder and guqin - human bodies gently, ritualistically responding and giving form to the waves of sound and energy in the space. Composer Cat Hope, whose wordless opera Speechless (created in response to the Immigrant Children in Detention Report of 2014) opens at the Sunset precinct this week, says that low frequency sound is perceived and felt in the hair follicles across the body as well as in our ears. One Infinity and Speechless make us aware of the receptive capacities of our bodies, and, for a time, take us out of our minds, our restless, searching, chattering minds, and bring us to our senses, to our eyes and ears and the feathery hair on our arms.
One Infinity. Photo: Toni Wilkinson
And oh, the feathers. The storm and eddy and drift of white feathers that fill our field of vision in the final scene of Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Swan Lake. The release from thought that is this feather-fall, this communal movement out of harm and hurt and into play, into dance, into the gentle pulse of Irish-Nordic band Slow Moving Clouds’ ‘Swan Song’. The end of Swan Lake is as unexpected as its beginning, in which a semi-naked Mikel Murphy, tethered to a breeze block, steps in fretful circles, bleating; a scapegoat, an animal earmarked for slaughter, a dumb beast beneath contempt. One of us. Between this beginning and this end, the true story of an Irish man in mental distress shot dead by police, of carelessness and abuse by the institutions of church and state, is absorbed into the tragic romance of the classical ballet, which is in turn encompassed by the ancient Irish legend of the Children of Lir, from which the story of Swan Lake is derived. Stories within stories, birds and beasts within our ancient brains. And an apotheosis of feathers and fellowship. Because this way of moving is possible too.
Swan Lake. Photo: Toni Wilkinson
Patterns become visible when we step back from the chaos we’re immersed in and recognise the larger forms and flows of matter in time. They are one of the ways our minds try to make good the limitations of our knowledge, because they turn motion and the complexity of immediate sensory information into meaning, into music, memory, metaphor. They link our individual lives, loves and losses, as physicist F David Peat said, 'to the feeling that appeared in our hearts when we first saw earth from space’.
The Blue Marble: NASA/Apollo 17 crew, 1972
The human energetic pulse, followed closely by the spreading sand and creeping seas, is moving towards life’s margins. This is not a metaphor. The stories we tell, the gestures we make, the fellowship with other humans and with other-than-humans we re-establish through the practices of the cultural body really do make a difference, really do bring home to us that, yes, it’s all physics, and that the forces we’re part of are bigger, stronger and more enduring than we are. But that we can learn and enact new patterns in life and in art, make less invasive and obliterating gestures on earth, and live more lightly. It’s physics, and it’s also feathers.
Photo: Ruth Little