This is What’s Happening
Head down, an old man shuffles with the assistance of a wheeled walking frame past the ghostly blue façade of a building. Unbeknownst to him, his dog is tangled in his own lead and is being dragged on his back through the grey streets. In the background, a traditional jazz band plays.
A man in his lounge room practices his sousaphone. A half drunk glass of beer on the table beside him. Unbeknownst to him, his playing is driving his wife to despair. She enters the room through the doorway behind him, raises her hands to her head and screams. Moments later, somewhere off camera, she slams a door causing a picture frame to fall into the fish tank below. The man keeps playing.
This pair of black-humoured vignettes of ‘ordinary people doing ordinary things’[i] are from Roy Andersson’s 2007 film, You, the Living, but equally, they could be from Alice Dixon, Caroline Meaden and William McBride’s recent performance, This is What’s Happening, winner of this year’s Melbourne Fringe Festival's Best Dance.
“In a caravan. In a caravan park”, standing side by side, facing forward, a couple recount the mundane moments of their holiday: cleaning spilled chicken noodle soup off the floor, and an unremarkable meal shared when they “ate out, once”. Delivered with deadpan assurance, the staccato chit-chat (to the audience) of Meaden and McBride, as the underwhelmed beige pairing, encapsulated all that it is to be human. Twiddle thumbs. Talk about the traffic. The weather. Alone. Together. Viewed in this way, the small, unfiltered trifles actually revealed the whole picture.
Absurdist tragicomedies of the trivialities of everyday life; one told through the medium of film, the other through dance and spoken word. Both with controlled aesthetics, bleached of colour, albeit the second, to be fair to the dark and meticulous genius of the Swedish film director, Andersson (who received a Gold Lion for Best Film for his recent work, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014)), presented with less refinement.
But still, seated in the Oratory of the Abbotsford Convent, the connection to Andersson's work for me remained. From the light timber panelling on the back wall, the stained glass windows to my left and right, and the muted palette of a soft smudged sage green, I could well have been within my own Andersson hand-built tableau the other day. Presented by KAGE as part of their curated dance series for the Convent’s Open Spaces festival, alongside Amy Macpherson’s meditative piece, SOMA, the leap from my reality to imagined film set was small. Encompassed by Andersson’s hallmark hues: the pale washed-out green of a bathtub in which a woman soaks, singing a Russian folksong full of sorrow; the bilious yellow of boiled potatoes; and the steel blue of the Louisiana Brass Band playing Mozart's lullaby, ‘Sleep My Little Prince, Fall Asleep’, throughout a thunderstorm. Flanked by the dreary grey of rainfall during the peak hour commute, and finding no shelter at the crowded bus stop; the ashen pallor of a carpet salesman weeping: “A lot of things are going wrong today; It’s just not my day.”; and the trench coat beige of a worn out doctor’s despair brought on my bemoaning patients, the effect was absolute for Andersson’s reduced palette is also that of the beige long john-like pants worn by McBride and the bloomer-like shorts of Dixon. In costumes designed by Margaret O’Donohue, the emphasis was upon the bruised form beneath it. The emphasis: the smallness of your very existence.
Owing to the temporary nature of the former oratory/rented-space, when strongly lit so as to obliterate shadow, I was afforded a little of Andersson’s “light without mercy”. The stark mise en scène laid bare the flaws and vulnerabilities of the human condition. The minimalist staging empathised the loneliness and weakness of each character[ii]. The natural depth of the performance space, thrice that of the seated area, echoed Andersson’s favoured deep-focus shots. Throughout the performance, I became Andersson’s static camera, but my characters, Dixon, Meaden and McBride, moved without my control. Their often tilted, outward movements suggested the inner states of their minds as they grappled with the “peculiar, slippery.... logic amidst the chaos — the permission to not know what is happening.”[iii] Breaking the stillness by leaning to the side, almost about to tip, greater weight was given not just to the supporting leg, but to how the subsequent movement was read. With its salient movements and familiar elliptical dialogue, delivered facing the audience, the performance was a mirror. Quite literally in the sense that as I watched all three performers stand with their hands clasped before them, quietly, contentedly, twiddling their thumbs, I realised I, too, was holding my hands in the same way (though I resisted the urge to join in the liberation of the letting my thumbs encircle one another lest it was read as mockery or boredom, which neither it was).
Where Andersson has given us the poems of César Vellejo spoken aloud[iv], This is What’s Happening gave us the all-too-brief yet perfectly timed high-pitched heartache and jubilation of a Cajun two-step. What better way to reference the mundane 9 to 5 world than with a few Cajun tears to oil your fiddle and squeeze box? The beautiful oral poetry of the everyday life, where ‘la maison’ is a metaphor for love, marriage and fidelity, a perfect near-wail to the woman who rises at 4.30am and eats “because she really should have something” and packs some fruit and a muesli bar for her morning commute. Think: Iry LeJeune ‘Lacassine Special’ or Joseph and Cléoma Falcon ‘Allons a Lafayette’. The timeless poetry and true beauty of the commonplace unifies us all. With one short musical interlude, the importance of comic timing and expression was confirmed in their dancehall pas de trois.
In continued link to Andersson’s self-contained, self-called “trivialism” films, movement in this work performed a comic function as well as an expressive or symbolic function. It was found in the playful fingers that sought out another’s nose to poke, and in the brilliant wriggly worm vibrations and (the impression of) inflatable buttocks in the opening vignette. It was found in the borrowed hand gestures of everyday characters plucked from t.v. programmes (BBC’s Gavin and Stacey, and the Australian ‘70s soap, Number 96), which shown in a new context took on an entirely different meaning. Dixon, who I have previously seen perform in Reckless Sleepers’ A String Section and Nat Cursio’s (work in development) Tiny Slopes, was fantastically poker-faced. All three were characterised by a mordant humour and a humanist ethos encased within a fumbling banality, and it was refreshing to see a performance in which the expressions of the face were given equal weight to the expressions of the body. Humour, good, black, abstracted, and just how I like it, requires a great face to deliver it. Moreover, it must be tempered by tragedy to leave one a little unsure.
This is What’s Happening erred on the lighter side of dark, but it (like You, the Living) hinted at Goethe’s Roman Elegies (1790): “Be pleased then, you, the living, in your delightfully warmed bed, before Lethe’s ice-cold wave will lick your escaping foot.” It formed the inescapable undercurrent to McBride’s: “Okay then. Love you all. And stay well.”
[i] “An ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions — trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday....” Virginia Woolf, ‘Modern Fiction’ (1919) in The Common Reader, (University of Adelaide ebook, accessed 9th November, 2015), chap. 13.
[ii] “For Roy Andersson what makes a scene interesting has to do with a character’s relation to the space around them.... According to Andersson, this effect is achieved by emphasizing the room, by placing ‘the human being in an environment that (...) helps depict human beings as unaware of their own behavior. They are positioned in the room in a way that brings out the subconscious in the dialogues, and the human condition is exposed, so to speak: A small individual — comic, tragicomic, tragic — in this big world during her short time on this earth, with all her ... dreams, and so on’.” Julianne Qiuling Ma Yang, ‘Towards a cinema of contemplation: Roy Andersson’s aesthetics and ethics’, PhD diss. (University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, March 2013), p. 99.
[iii] Alice Dixon, Caroline Meaden and William McBride, This is What’s Happening artists’ statement, Dance Series Curated by KAGE, Abbotsford Convent, single page programme, 8th November 2015.
[iv] “Beloved be the one who sleeps on his back. The one who wears a torn shoe in the rain. Beloved be the bald man without hat. The one who catches a finger in the door.” César Vallejo (1892–1938), ‘Stumble Between Two Stars,’ as recited in Roy Andersson’s Songs from the Second Floor, 2000.