1. in which the world is very small
A bleached blonde head of hair and a quietly enthusiastic smile appeared behind a frantically waving hand. “What are you doing in Brussels?” Nana exclaimed. “You must be here for Kunsten?”
“I used to live in Brussels. I’m just visiting friends,” the Critic replied, caught off guard. “What are you doing here?”
The world of theatre was small: sometimes it appeared there might be no more than the same fifty people, criss-crossing the globe at frantic speed. Nana was doing a residency straight out of her victory at Keir Choreographic Awards that year, where her performance piece had caught the eye of someone in the jury, someone European, someone who lined her up work across the continent, that also included having to see every show at Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Belgium’s premier arts festival. The Critic... well, the Critic was literally just visiting Cécile, but when she realised that her visit overlapped with Kunsten, she dropped in. Of course one would.
“Chloe is here as well,” Nana said, enthusiastically. “She is living here now.” She pointed at a woman in relaxed black clothing who was standing by the wall, observing the performance with the peaceful attention of someone who didn’t have anywhere to be later. Chloe Chignell, one of Australia’s most promising young choreographers, recognised the Critic and moved across. “You’re here for Kunsten?” were her first words.
“Not really, I...” the Critic started. It suddenly seemed rude to be in Brussels for any other reason.
“Please no,” Cécile had said earlier that day, rolling her eyes, when the Critic had told her she had two tickets for an Eszter Salamon one-off performance. “You go alone, and I will stay back at work and meet you later.”
“Eszter Salamon is amazing,” the Critic tried. “It’s a celebrated piece that has toured the world. She is a feminist superstar. The piece reclaims tribal dancing from around the globe and re-inserts it into the Western canon of contemp—”
“Sweetie,” Cécile interrupted, patiently, putting her arms on the Critic’s shoulders, “that show is four hours long. You and your people are insane. I would rather file my receipts.”
So there they were, only Theatre People®1, wandering inside the basement of an art foundation on a milky Brussels afternoon, watching Salamon’s dancers from four continents perform fragments of war dances gleaned from everywhere but Europe, and re-present them as echoes, as fragments, of sometimes individual, sometimes group movement. Like many contemporary European choreographies, Monument 0.4: Lores & Praxes is a promenade piece, spreading languidly across the many spacious rooms and white corridors in the well-lit underground gallery space (or was it underground? One of the particularities of Brussels was its gardens appearing below street level, the product of a century of oddly subdivided three-storey terrace houses). The audience moves through the space and between dancers, sitting on the floor, by the wall, walking around, trying to anticipate where the dancing formation might move next, sometimes unexpectedly ending up face to face with a dancer. And sometimes, it seemed that a dancer was seeking out contact on purpose, inching in and out of the narrow space between them, or suddenly breaking out of group movement to walk across and collapse on the floor just in front of them. Chloe, who had been there for hours longer, led them through to the room in which four dancers were moving through the space with steady soft hopping and chest beating, creating a rhythmic percussive sound that made them feel light, animated.
“I had no idea Brussels was such an interesting place,” Nana said, quietly. “I always imagined it as boring, grey, dull, bureaucratic.”
“Brussels is phenomenal,” the Critic answered, just as quietly. “A very underrated city.” She had wanted to live there, in another life, back when she was still with Kieran, before the bombings and before Karen and before Donald Trump,2 when it seemed like every answer to life’s problems was to move to a place with cheaper housing and more money for the arts.
A dancer broke off from the group and fell to her knees right in front of them, rhythmically convulsing while beating her chest, thighs, foot. Other dancers followed, each with a four-beat lag in a four-by-four measure, creating a pleasant sense of momentum. They stopped talking; it seemed inappropriate. The dancers got up and left, one by one, same four-beat lag. The other spectators followed, and the room emptied. Eszter was there, they suddenly noticed, dressed in simple black jeans and T-shirt, quite different from the formal outfits she wore at Keir in Melbourne, earlier that year, and looking more relaxed. The piece was being performed with such a level of mastery; the dancers filling up this casually highbrow concrete-y, marble-y space with just the right amount of nonchalant skill. The show had been criticised in Toronto earlier for cultural appropriation, for white people remixing their favourite bits of non-Western cultures without a care for provenance and interrelation. Here, in Brussels, it seemed fresh and irreverent.
We often make the mistake of thinking that the social meaning of gestures is set in stone. Even something as rigidly choreographed as a dance piece comes across very differently in different geographical and cultural contexts. What to say, then, of ordinary people’s words, behaviours, outfits?
2. in which we are mean to men
Cécile relented and agreed to one — but one only, she insisted — show at Kunsten. Looking for something likely to be palatable and fun, the Critic chose actor/ dancer/puppeteer/ventriloquist Jonathan Capdevielle’s Á nous deux maintenant, an adaptation of a detective novel by early twentieth century writer Georges Bernanos. However, as it sometimes happens, even to the most experienced of critics, it was a disastrous choice. The piece overran by a large margin, going for almost three hours, during which time an incomprehensible plot was drawn and quartered by a vast arsenal of theatre weapons, as per above. There was a crime story, indeed, but it was either never resolved, or resolved in a way too convoluted to follow. What was there for sure, though, were neurotic young men, paranoid old men, shifty widows, a possibly paedophiliac love story, a hint of a lesbian affair, interminable monologues, jokes that weren’t funny, surtitles in multiple languages, all self-indulgent, and needing, by the Critic’s professional estimate, a trim of at least an hour. Cécile walked out looking weakened and prematurely aged.
Every European theatre festival had one of these: an overlong, self-indulgent, pseudo-experimental piece by an up-and-coming young man who saw no issue with cornering his audience and demanding they submit themselves to hours of crap. Infallibly, like a dedicated slot in the programming, there always was one. And infallibly, it was never a woman artist who produced these interminable, eye-stabbingly boring works. It was tempting to see in it just a dick-wielding metaphor for the likes of Harvey Weinstein, the Critic thought, but what of the good arts administrators at Kunsten — and other festivals — who programmed these torture pieces with clockwork-like reliability? Was their demand not feeding the oversupply of these pot-plant-ejaculate numbers? Either way, Cécile was no more a theatre-goer afterwards than she had been before. She seemed to regard Critic’s world with a gentle pity — and this was good, it was healthy. How much crap did the art world tolerate purely on the assumption that everything that happened therein belonged to a higher realm of importance? Cécile’s gentle detachment served as a kind of immunisation for the Critic, a reminder not to take her world too seriously.
3. in which a man in his prime is offering a trip to Hawaii to an eligible bachelorette
As one hashtag invokes another, some time in 2018, Jackie Fox’s story from 2015 appeared on the Critic’s internet under ‘related content’. In 2015, not yet the #MeToo era, but already the time of Bill Cosby and Steubenville, Huffington Post had published a well-researched article about the experiences of one of the Runaways — Joan Jett’s band, the one that had just featured in a movie with Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning as a kind of seventies, rock’n’rollier version of Spice Girls — who was sexually assaulted by the band’s manager. This hadn’t been in the movie. It hadn’t been in the band’s narrative canon. Yet it was self-evidently true, glaringly obvious in that way that some surprises surprise no-one. The Runaways, a band of fifteen-year-old girls marketed as rock’n’roll jailbait, were so obviously a product put together by someone with a keen eye for their underage sex appeal. The manager, Kim Fowley, was a typical seventies sleazy man in an orange suit, with a penchant for Quaaludes, whose interest in sex with young girls was well documented.
In 1975, the year The Runaways were formed, Fowley posted a personal ad in a local zine that offered:
WIN!! LOVE AND PERMANENT SECURITY!
WIN!! A CHANCE TO DEVELOP YOUR OWN IDENTITY!!
WIN!! AN ALL EXPENSE PAID ROUND-TRIP TO HAWAII!!!!!
The ad, addressed “to the girl of my dreams” began with:
If you are eighteen and like it or if you are under 18 and legally emancipated (with paper work) then you may have just stumbled upon the opportunity of a lifetime.
In short, that this man would rape teenage girls in his managerial care would not come as an unimaginable surprise. Anybody who has worked in theatre for more than a minute knows this type of predator: blatantly obvious in any other sector, yet able to fly low in the over-the-top environment of the performing arts; aided by the total lack of workplace oversight that comes with poor pay, constant touring, and late work hours; and always telling the story about how anything goes in art, because art is a special kind of workplace, one in which libido and experimentation and pure unbridled want override things such as the rule of law, duty of care, and fundamental decency. Men like Fowley are an enduring cliché, as well as a mainstay of the performing arts in the broadest sense, which includes everything from opera to morning television. In that world, they are considered almost an inevitable workplace hazard, easy to avoid once you know what to look for.3 Except that, when silence accrues around a topic, sometimes the only way to learn about it is through direct experience.
Reading Jackie Fox’s account felt uncannily like reading a fanfic: there they were, characters we were all familiar with, in a story clearly anchored in known places and moments, but this time with a new plot. Instead of a narrative of five young women giving their all to music and having an adventure along the way, it was one of loss and irreparable damage. As is common in fanfiction, the two stories were irreconcilable, running as parallel lines. Joan Jett, Cherie Currie, and Sandy West could be feminist gods, irreverent and fearless touchpoints in Herstory; or they could be bystanders who sat around snickering while their bandmate was drugged and raped at a party. There was no middle ground, only one could be canon. The Critic, who had crushed on Joan Jett and formed much of her sense of identity in reference to the girlful camaraderie of The Runaways, experienced something akin to grief as she began to understand that this story, so formative to her sense of what she was, women were, and life was, was not a true story.
This is what Hannah Gadsby means in Nanette when she says: “You learn from the part of the story you focus on. I need to tell my story properly.”
Nanette finally arrived on Netflix around that time, giving the Critic the opportunity to see the local comedy star’s swansong after the entire world had seen it first. It had been lauded worldwide by then, and this too was good, it was timely recognition. Gadsby’s work builds on years of innovation in Melbourne’s queer performance: Zoe Coombs-Marr’s stand-up that meets live art; Josh Thomas’s indie comedy; as well as a particularly Australian stage writing that builds vertiginous tension without adequate release — think Tom Holloway’s And No More Shall We Part or Red Sky Morning, or suicide-themed vaudeville by Martin White. This kind of writing functions like a corkscrew, twisting deeper and deeper into the topic, gripping tighter with each turn. At the end, the problem is exhausted, yet there is no way out. The exhaustion that comes with that full immersion into a problem without solution is something akin to the particular fatigue that one feels after crying. It’s closer to black magic than to catharsis, to exorcism.
Gadsby, who has a degree in art history, spends most of Nanette circling around the vile old men of the arts, and the cognitive dissonance that results from keeping silent about them. Her targets are Roman Polanski, Woody Allen — men whose antics form part of that same tapestry of the seventies that made Kim Fowley seem just an everyday music manager — as well as Picasso. In fact, as Gadsby points out, much of the mythology of Picasso centres on his virility, his Spanish insatiability for life in its extremes. As she reminds us, Picasso once said that he wanted to burn all women once he was done with them, saying that destroying them would allow him to destroy the past. How is this forgiven? Oh yes, he gave us Cubism. At the age of forty-five, she recounts, Picasso had an affair with then seventeen-year-old Marie-Thérèse Walter. “She was in her prime,” is how he explained it, “and so was I.” This was the age difference between The Runaways and their manager, the age difference between Polanski and Allen and their alleged victims. We are not talking about ancient history here; we are talking about people who have only just begun talking about the damage done to them, whose stories are yet to be told properly. Gadsby, a woman in her forties who was assaulted at seventeen, squints with rage at this point in her show:
“A seventeen-year-old girl is just never ever in her prime. Ever. I am in my prime. Would you test your strength out on me?”
It is a pindrop moment.
1 We’ve been here before. See ‘The Critic’ 12, in which we meet at La Mama.
2 See ‘The Critic’, episodes 7–11.
3 This type of predator, hiding in bright light, is often termed ‘the missing stair’. The ‘missing stair’ is a rapist in a community that many people know can’t be trusted, but instead of excluding the rapist, they attempt to work around his social presence by quietly warning people, so that ‘everyone knows’ to avoid the rapist, or babysit him and keep him from being alone with a potential victim. In essence, it results in community-aided rape, since there is always that one newbie whom nobody informed of the missing stair in the house.
This is an excerpt of a piece that originally appeared in The Lifted Brow #39. Get your copy here.
Jana Perković is a theatre nerd. Her writings on theatre and dance appear in The Guardian, RealTime, The Conversation and on guerrillasemiotics.com