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Am I

Sydney Festival and Sydney Opera House present AM I by Shaun Parker and Company. Music by Nick Wales. In the Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House.

AM I is a new work arising from the creative inspirations of Shaun Parker, Nick Wales and their artistic team. Mr Parker and Mr Wales have collaborated on numerous works, including SPILLS AND TROLLEYS for the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, HAPPY AS LARRY (with Bree van Reyk), THE YARD and THIS SHOW IS ABOUT PEOPLE. It is a collaboration that is maturing into great things and it was a wonderful to watch AM I, unfold:

A new music and dance collaboration investigating the notion of ‘I’ within the context of the modern-day global tribe.

It seems, to me, to be one of their best integrations of text, movement, dance, music and design to date.

The text, which is the spine of this work (Dramaturgy by Veronica Neave), talks of notions of the origins of life from ‘nothing’, to the explosion of a light-energy, to the creation of the universe and, then, particularly, to the wonder of the complex, and yet simple creation of the “universe” that is the human – its unique brain (the beauty of mathematics: the idea of Pi, as a perplexing, remarkable agent to all we know, is tantalisingly brought to the ‘table’ of discussion). It acknowledges the efforts of man in his attempts to solve his wonder, his curiosity, both, through science and religion, or, science or religion. Amusingly, in a latter speech, there is a listing of all the ‘historic’ deities from pagan to contemporary times spilling into, even, the influence of searching for ‘perceptions of a God’, perhaps, through agents such as: MDMA or caffeine (!), twitter, grinder (!); a post-modern joke-nod to the audience, that struck the right chords of collaborative effect from the startled and bemused ‘us’, in our seats, when we suddenly recognised some of the every day touchstones of our curiosity of this otherwise sober search for understanding, meaning, with a jolt of humour.

This dramaturgy began with the idea of our beginning as ‘nothing’ and took us with all our scientific and philosophical complexities to a finishing point of ‘nothing’. A circle of thought provocation was drawn, rewardingly, for us, as the light faded to a metaphoric theatrical ‘nothing’ after a mere, but intense, 75 minutes. Mr Parker in his notes, in the program, tells us; “AM I attempts to qualify what it means to identify ourselves as ‘I’. Am I my culture? Am I my faith? Am I my genetic material? Am I a random cosmological consequence? …” These questions, ideas, were also raised in another work, co-incidentally (or not), by a dance company: the Australian Dance Theatre (ADT), in 2012, in Garry Stewart’s, BE YOUR SELF.

Maybe, these creators/works have lead us to the next step of enquiry which, perforce may have us concede that the essential Platonic notion of the ‘inner self’ is misconceived.

“…There is no inner self. Looking in we have found nothing – nothing stable anyway, nothing enduring, nothing that we can agree upon, nothing conclusive – because there is nothing to find. We human beings are a part of nature and therefore we are more likely to find out about our ‘inner’ nature, to understand ourselves, by looking outside ourselves, at our role and place as animals.” 

In the words of John Gray: “A zoo is a better window from which to look out of the human world than a monastery.” [1].

Whoo hoo!

All this provoked, in me, by a music/ dance work? Yes, indeedy – that bus trip conversation, home, was heady!

And how did this happen? Well, by the text, delivered by an elegant Shantala Shivalingappa, accompanied by physical gesture from her with traditional South-Asian sensibility. In the form of a lecture/conversation to us, the audience, we are guided through a set of ideas, provocations that enlighten, amuse and enliven thought. It is clear and graspable and had no condescension, it respected our intelligence and focused our comprehensions in an easy and flattering manner. That Ms Shivalingappa has an Indian heritage and incisive edge and charm, triggered, in my memory, two other experiences that arose into my consciousness to resonate and support my journey in AM I: the Complicite’s, A DISAPPEARING NUMBER (2008) and the Ang Lee film THE LIFE OF PI (2012) based on the novel by Yann Martel (2001). AM I was contextualised by both these works, for me.

Further, to my observation of the marvellous integrations of the ‘artistic tools’ of this work: the verbal clarities were enhanced by an ingenious lighting design by Damien Cooper. A wall of light bulbs, spans the width of the back ‘wall’ of the dance space, behind the dancers, and has been programmed (Pat Smithers), like a computer screen, to support the language of ideas. We begin with a simple single bulb, pulsing in the dark, that ultimately dazzled us, blinded us with light , co-ordinated with Ms Shivalingappa’s apt text, that could represent the “Big Bang” at the beginning of it ALL- it literally blinded one in a sensational manner – an “oomph!”, like a physical blow, to which we all physically reacted and verbally responded to – we, too, were kind of dancing and singing (!) as if we were involved in a ‘contact-improv’ exercise. Throughout the rest of the work the dancers appear to interact with this “light-wall’ giving the appearance of ‘dancing’ with it – causing and affecting patterns of flexible impulses – it is, mightily, imaginatively, affective. Our imaginations were impelled to ‘dance’ too, to the musics of its time identifying with the tribal unity of the implied investigative ceremony that is AM I.

Cloaking and propelling all of the impulses of the artists is a truly beautiful score created, composed by Nick Wales, played live, on a platform hovering above the set at the back of the stage. Seven musicians/collaborators create this ingredient, which is the major instrument of integrated inducement for the audience to shift from the pragmatic phenomenal world of the theatre space, to enter another, that is sublime, in experiential terms.

 A vast range of instruments and three vocalists mesmerise the space that the sounds float in, to transport us, viscerally, emotionally and intellectually, through the demands of this work – and those ‘demands’ became pleasures in the collective conglomeration of the notes on the pages of Mr Wales’ score, translated kinetically into the air.

Nick Wales, in his program notes tells us:

I have tried to define a unique sound within the ensemble – imagining that the musicians are part of a tribe from a parallel world, pushing them to find new performance practices, singing and playing styles that could be exclusive signatures of that tribe. Ancient songs of Armenia have greatly influenced and informed the work.
I am attracted to their ethereal quality, which somehow sits between Western and Middle Eastern scales – a musical midpoint, which seemed fitting. I have deconstructed and re-contextualised fragments of melodic patterns to create new compositions, blending the percussive and devotional traditions of Indian music with Western harmonic progressions. Tribal rhythms of the Middle East and medieval drone music have also informed the musical process.

Winsome Evans and her ‘orchestra’, The Renaissance Players, one of Mr Wales’ mentors and foundation influences, was thanked in the program notes.

The musicians were Tunji Beler, Alyx Dennison, Jess Green, Jason Noble, Jessica O’Donoghue, Bree Van Reyk and Nick Wales, himself. Ms O’Donoghue in the higher voice, along with Ms Dennison in the lower voice, augmented sometimes with Ms Green’ s vocals, accompany themselves with the other musicians on a range of instruments that include: baglama, electric guitar, violin, viola, rebec, harmonium, melodicas, harmonicas, gatam, bass marimba, bugaraboos, mridangam, bass clarinet.

The Sound Design by Bob Scott balanced the surround sound effects in the auditorium in an enveloping expertise and inspired sensitivity. Totally embracing and  immersive.

Six movers/dancers: Josh Mu, Sophia Ndaba, Jessie Oshodi, Marnie Palomares, Melanie Palomares and Julian Wong have collaborated with Shaun Parker using contemporary dance languages across a wide spectrum of styles (e.g. locking and popping, martial arts) to fuse with complex ideas of science (for instance Dr Helen Johnson, Senior Lecturer in the School of Physics at Sydney University, involved in the study of neutron stars and black holes – how galaxies are formed – was involved with input to the ideas of this production). The patterns of movement in close packed forms, using shining metal ‘sticks’ (rods) – modelled from martial arts sticks – created what I, subjectively,  imagined were structures of molecules, atoms;  of explosions of  ‘divine’ matter across the universe. Many other allusions, illusions, projections, subjective imaginings were made by me at the instigation of these dancers and their ‘dance’; and with the introduction of a metal fan, exquisitely handled (danced) by Julian Wong, there was added a further aura of spiritual colour, for me, as it snapped open and shut, the sound as impactful as the moving image, reflecting the light of the grid as if it were a satellite in the bigger universe. It was alluring and created a world beyond the mere physical gesture of the dancers on the stage.

Truly, a magic of imaginative layering was invited by all the elements of this production, that inspired one to experience more than the normal, rather, a paranormal matrix, leading to a total theatrical (spiritual) immersion.

AM I became, as Dr Helen Johnson hoped, as Shaun Parker, Nick Wales and Company endeavoured, “a gateway to larger learning”, to assist us to understand our ‘tribal’ natures and its patterns. AM I becoming not just another physical entertainment or another dance piece, but an instrument of provocation and wonder about the miracle of our existence. Five years in the nurturing, AM I is palpable proof that artistic patience, and the value of that kind of long time practice, is what good art requires (and corporate regimens need to understand when it comes to demand for “output”) – and of the healthy and respectful collaboration between great talents: Mr Parker and Mr Wales. In this work there is a sort of oscillation between intellectualism, anti-intellectualism, between romanticism and enlightenment. There is an expression of a history of ideas going on: “… the history of philosophy, of science, of sociology, of language, of folklore and ethnography, of economics and politics, of literature, of societies.” [1].

The Sydney Festival season for AM I was short, and one hopes that this work, which had its world premiere here, will continue to refine and develop, and return for us, in Sydney to revisit, to be seen by a wider audience. It deserves one.

Congratulations to all.

P.S. One wishes that our Australian playwrights could write, at least, occasionally, on a platform of vision similar to Shaun Parker and Company, or Australian Dance Theatre; or the work of Michael Keegan-Dolan and his company Fabulous Beast (GISELLE); or Lloyd Newson’s DV8 (CAN WE TALK ABOUT THIS), other than that of the usual, pathetic sexual and personal politics of the man and woman next door in their bedroom or at the pub, in the grand Aussie tradition, drunk, under some pool table!

1. IDEAS. A History From Fire to Freud by Peter Watson. Phoenix – 2005.