MIAF: Hotel Pro Forma

MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL ARTS FESTIVAL: Hotel Pro Forma’s ‘Tomorrow, in a year’ attempts to create an experience of evolution, not a narrative or an emotional reaction but a view of the entire expanse of earthly creation – in the form of an electro dance opera.
MIAF: Hotel Pro Forma
Hotel Pro Forma’s ‘Tomorrow, in a year’ attempts to create an experience of evolution, not a narrative or an emotional reaction but a view of the entire expanse of earthly creation – in the form of an electro dance opera. If you think about it too hard that does seem like an odd choice of form to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, but it is the sort of thing that Hotel Pro Forma like to do. That is to say, they like to blend ‘conceptual, visual and musical art forms, with inter and trans disciplinary study to produce non-traditional theatrical structures. ‘It will change your view of opera forever’, we are told, with it’s stunning visuals, experimental and exploratory electronic compositions which include natural sounds sampled from the Amazonian jungles and Icelandic landscapes. ‘This is ultra contemporary opera’ and it has the popping and strobing and twitching dancers to prove it. Well, yes, but it's a bit of a big ask, isn’t it? Some no doubt call it visionary. For an opera, Tomorrow, in a year, has surprising little singing in it and only one of the three performers would traditionally be called an opera singer. Maybe, this doesn’t matter. They are outnumbered by the chorus of six dancers, anyway. The score, a collaboration of anti-pop electro Swedish duo The Knife with Planningtorock and Mt Sim is sweeping and extraordinary. And the bareness of the enormous set consisting only of a rectangle and a screen on which projections and colours can be displayed has a certain monolithic grandeur. The work is structured into four parts, roughly taking us on a journey through Darwin’s concepts of evolutionary epochs and his personal reflections, thoughts and letters. The directors Kirsten Dehlholm and Ralf Richardt Strøbech are literarily trying to get us into Darwin’s brain. It’s a narrative of evolution, made far more complex than Walt Disney’s Fantasia version to Igor Stokowski’s The Rite of Spring. We look at the world firstly in geological time, at lava flows and water. The second part looks at Darwin’s letters, text and his grief over the death of his daughter Annie who died of scarlet fever. The third part focuses on Darwin’s reclusive theorising then in the fourth part it is all pulled together surprisingly effectively with two big theme songs that sets us in the present day yet with a powerful sense of eternity. Swedish mezzo-soprano Kristina Wahlin voice was superlative even though the lyrics made little sense (‘epochs collected here’) and were ‘translated’ high above the stage despite it being sung in English. In Annie’s Box, a lament to Darwin’s daughter the emotional power was incredible. Wahlin stands at height above, sea cliffs and fencing projected behind her. Seen but unseen she crouches holding a soccer ball at a dancer below, a celestial figure above. It seemed a shame her voice was so scantly used. Jonathan Johansson, 80s pop sound (I kept wanting to call him Feargal Sharkey) carried some of the most blank of blank verse lyrics such as in Part 1’s ‘examine..frame of mind…in following.. fall of sea…’. He also had to carry around buckets of dry ice and shaving mirrors and look at them meaningful, while singing about seeds in salt water, 10 currents in the Atlantic, 14,100 miles in 420 days, transoceanic pods and capsules.. – as a dancer strobed and animated across the stage. The third performer Laerk Winther Andersen, is more of an actor and was relegated to a lot of staring about into the middle-distance in her garb that made her look like a night-club door bitch. She sang mostly staccato dot points, yet when she harmonised with Wahlin the whole work soared, such as in Variation of Birds. It was something that as an audience member I yearned for the entire time, for all these interesting but disparate musical and conceptual threads to come together, and be entwined. When it did happen it was fleeting and slipped away, and seemed to always have more dramatic potential than it reached. In the final part, there was a sense of beauty and poetic meaning - the theme tune if you like Tomorrow, in a year, cries tomorrow in a million years, tomorrow in a day, ages in a tree ring, fossils in a forest, think of the time it takes to build, lava, mountains, fossils. Life is the soil in the palm of a hand. And from that I will look at the soil in hand next time I do some gardening differently, and that’s pretty transcendent. Perhaps part of my cynism with the broo-ha-ha of the blurb is that the blank verse quality of the libratto, the esoteric imagery and the atmospheric soundscape didn’t feel that modern, rather more like a trip back to 50s avant garde composition, absurdist theatre or 70s concept albums. Sometimes I felt stuck in the sort of late 80s video clips Rage puts on late on a Friday night, thankfully there were no white doves released from a black box – maybe that shouldn’t be suggested. Even rap, pop and lock moves don’t feel that ‘new’. So is my concept of opera changed forever, not really. It seemed at times another Melbourne Festival offering of far too much thinky-ness. And though the audience seemed entranced throughout the performance, other than the man a few seats away from us who snored though most of the show, the applause for the required encores seemed perfunctory. It takes time for it all to sink in. Tomorrow In A Year Hotel Pro Forma Music by The Knife the arts centre, state theatre Wed 20 – Sat 23 Oct at 7.30pm 1hr 20min no interval Warning: Smoke & Laser Effects www.hotelproforma.dk www.theknife.net www.melbournefestival.com.au

Fiona Mackrell

Friday 22 October, 2010

About the author

Fiona Mackrell is a Melbourne based freelancer. You can follow her at @McFifi or check out www.fionamackrell.com