L’Orfeo is a performer’s piece. Composed at a time when the composition of music meant something quite different to what it does now, or in the 19th Century, though certain aleatory pieces of the 20th Century left very much of the act of creation to the performer these do seem to be considered somewhat freakish by many — to many programmers of concerts and some in audiences in particular — and popular opinion now gives very rigidly defined roles to composer and performer, to the point that many expect a very narrow field of professional activities of each. Perhaps it is partly the force of professional specialization which seems so strong nowadays, especially in the sciences. We wouldn’t want to turn into a race of Fachidioten, though.
With the Evening Star just about to set, hanging a little above a Harbour Bridge pylon, and, by the second interval, a waning gibbous moon rising through a back-lit bank of cloud, so the Sydney season of the Australian Ballet opens, with three new short ballets. They cover a broad range, like three points of a very large triangle, showing some of the versatility of the company. The Narrative of Nothing as the name implies is an abstract ballet, mostly. The Australian Ballet along with the BBC and the Stockholm Symphony Orchestra, has commissioned from Australian composer Brett Dean “Fire Music“, a new score specially for this ballet, and the music and lighting contribute almost as major a part as the dancing.
Before Diaghilev decided to bring Russian art to the west, starting with his exhibition of Russian art in Paris in 1906, in 1908 bringing Chaliapin to Paris to sing Boris Godinov, and then his formation of the Ballets Russes, first performing in Paris in 1909, unadulterated, purely Russian art was little known or appreciated outside asia. Vast Russia, except for its toe in Europe was perhaps considered something of a cultural backwater in Europe. Diaghilev didn’t hold back in bringing this unadulterated Russian art, also discovering and hiring young or little known artists — like Stravinsky — and this was part of his art’s huge appeal in west to this day. So when Stravinsky visited the far, far East — Australia — in 1961, it was perhaps not so far from his roots nor so incongruous. Traditional indigenous Russian or central asian art was often an influence in the set designs and style of Bakst, Benois, Golovin, Roerich and the others, costumes sometimes used original traditional textiles (like the ikat fabrics bought from nomadic traders at St Petersburg markets for the costumes for the Polostvian dances from Borodin’s Prince Igor), the choreography was sometimes classical in the best Petipan Franco-russian tradition preserved in the imperial Maryinksy school, but was often entirely new in style, especially Vaslav Nijinsky’s for the Rite of Spring, though often borrowing from traditional, indigenous Russian dance, as in Firebird and Petroushka. Western audiences seemed unconsciously to understand this bizarre new art and went crazy for it, famously starting riots and booing, also becoming most fashionable tickets to have.
Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton as artistic directors of the Sydney Theatre Company saw fit to bring out a new, modern, almost experimental approach to Shaw’s most popular play for its 100th birthday. To speak of the birth of a play, or any piece or performing art, is tricky. Shaw wrote the play in 1912, but the words on in the script are no more the play than those of a poem are the poem or a score the piece of music. Even in Shaw’s case where the sounds of the words are so important and the characters’ accents are all precisely set out — the drama depending almost as much on the raw sounds than their words’ meanings — not to mention Shaw’s preface to the play and his (I think purposefully prosaic) postscript-sequel, there is still room left for at least subtle variations in interpretation. With all these pieces of information specifying Shaw’s intentions and the precise and definite stage directions, the play is already especially alive on the page, but still much of the gestural and body language and movement, which is very important to language, is left open. For all this definiteness, the end is so ambiguous, and as a “romance”, itself a very broad term, it is more akin to, say, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s species of romance. From a character’s point of view it is almost easier to find oneself in a tragedy and leaving one’s problems behind at the end.
Parody as a technique of satire ought to suit theatrical dance well. Irish poets, known as some of the greatest masters of this form, in imitating and reversing the meter of their victim’s poems in order to devastate them are said to have used the same technique as Russian witches: “they walk quietly behind their victim, exactly mimicking his gate; then when in perfect sympathy with him suddenly stumble and fall, taking care to fall soft while he falls hard.”  Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet’s piece Babel (words) takes on the modern world, in a deliberate mixture of satire, serious avant-garde dance, science fiction, declamatory monologues and something bordering on a three-ring circus.
In the age of austerity that followed the Blitz, the University of London saw Warburg’s library as a jewel to be cherished. An ugly but efficient home for the institute was built in Bloomsbury, and for decades the university took pride in supporting its work. In the new age of austerity, by contrast, the university, which now controls the funds once earmarked for the institute, is doing its best to destroy what it once helped to save. In 2007, like a Dickensian villain, the university began self-parodically demanding enormous “economic” space charges for the Warburg’s building—charges so large that the institute cannot possibly pay them. The only way for the institute to avoid these charges would be to move into much smaller premises and close its stacks, a decision that would destroy its essential character.