When is a play a ballet?

Recently, I went with my daughter and her family to the Queensland Ballet Company’s performance of Romeo and Juliet. Last year, we went ‘en famille’ to The Nutcracker Suite, and enjoyed it so much, I decided to make it a yearly event to go to the ballet together. We are so lucky to have a world class ballet company in Brisbane, led by the artistic director, Li Cunxin, whose life has become a legend through his autobiography, Mao’s Last Dancer, and the splendid film made from his story. Li, born in bitter poverty in rural China, was selected to study ballet at Madame Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy. He was 11 when he left home, and entered a harsh 7 year training regime. He graduated ‘cum laude’ and was allowed to go to America to study ballet. Subsequently, he defected, which created a standoff between the American and Chinese governments, and he was allowed to stay in the US. He danced with the Houston ballet for 16 years, becoming a world star. He fell in love in London with an Australian born ballerina, and moved in 1995 to Melbourne with her and their two children. Here, he became a principal dancer with the Australian ballet.

As we all know, because of the extreme physical demands of ballet, most ballerinas retire in their 30s. Forget footballers and athletes, there is no more physically demanding occupation than ballet dancing (speaking as a total desk potato, but also as an admirer of the extreme and beautiful art of ballet).

Li became a a highly successful stockbroker, and recently returned to his first passion, and took up directorship of the Queensland Ballet.

From which time, the company has gone from strength to strength.

Romeo and Juliet may seem an unlikely choice to take a 9-year-old and a 5-year-old too. We would have liked to take them to Cinderella, but it was booked out. Surprisingly, they sat through a near 3 hour long performance (with two intervals) without complaints, just a bit of wriggling and chewing. The 9 year old was very focused on the story, and his little sister was in love with the ballerinas and the costumes, (she learns ballet) and followed the story with help from her parents.

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Romeo and Juliet is such a powerful, romantic and tragic story, it has caught the world’s imagination and been recreated in many versions, on stage and in film, too numerous to mention. My son-in-law spoke with great admiration of Franco Zeffirelli’s film of it (1968), which he saw in Japanese. I haven’t seen it, I confess, but will make sure I do. I’ve seen a couple of stage versions. But I came to this ballet fairly uncluttered by memories of the text or of performances of it. So it was fascinating to see how a complex plot, a romance complicated by a feud between two families, was translated into ballet.

A brief resume of the plot: The Capulets and the Montagues, two wealthy Veronese families, are sworn enemies. Romeo, a Montague, and his friends arrive at a Capulet ball, disguised in masks. Romeo is entranced by Juliet, a Capulet, who is (by her parents’ will) betrothed to Paris. After the ball, Juliet comes out on her balcony and Romeo appears in the garden. They confess their love to each other.

Juliet’s parents insist that she marry Paris. But Juliet and Romeo follow their hearts and are married secretly by Friar Laurence.

I won’t reveal the rest of the plot, in case you are not familiar with the story. Suffice it to say, it ends in tragedy, caused by the deadly rivalries of the two families, and the failed plan of the Friar and the young lovers to escape the net of forced marriage and family feud.

The ballet was very moving and beautiful, superbly danced, with delightful, colourful crowd scenes, and touching love scenes. The orchestra was superb in their rendition of Prokofiev’s stirring music. In the tragic ending,  the passion and the despair of the young lovers moved me to tears.

What didn’t fully work, for me, was the translation of a complicated romance/tragedy into ballet without text. The intricacies of the plot depend on the exchange of words, both orally and in writing, and it’s not possible to convey this in dance. If you did not know the story, or had not read the program’s summary of it beforehand, you would not fully understand the essence of the tragedy, which consists in misunderstanding and the consequent loss of two young lives and their love.

But I am awed by the artistry and commitment of this troupe of dancers comprising  both local and international guest artists, and of the artistic director and supporting crew, and the Queensland Symphony orchestra. This is world class ballet. I was also amazed by the crowd. The Lyric Theatre at the Performing Arts Centre is huge; we were sitting up in the gods, and the house was packed. There must have been about 700 people there, of all ages.

Ballet lives!

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When is a memoir a novel?

 

9780857387127My dear friend Marian returned recently from her trip to London and France, and loaned me a little book she had bought in a bookshop in Chelsea: The Life of Rebecca Jones, by Angharad Price. Several things mark this as memoir/biography: first and foremost, Price is the great niece of Rebecca Jones, and as much as it is Rebecca’s life, told in her voice, it is the life of the Welsh family who live in  Maesglasau Valley in rural Wales, as their ancestors have done for 1,000 years. It is also the life of the valley itself, and of the stream which “begins her journey high on the crag above Maesglasau, rising from an underground seam up to the peaty uplands” and continues her silvery dance through the valley, transforming herself in many moods through the changing seasons.

It is also the life of the family, from the marriage of Rebecca’s parents and Rebecca’s birth in 1905  to her last days in her old age. It is classified as a novel, yet it is also a history of the Jones family, with photographs of family members and of the countryside. Several children are born to the farming couple, and not all survive. Of those who do, two boys are born blind, and one, Lewis, became blind by the age of six. He was to go away to a special school for the blind, like his brothers. He went missing, and was found by his family lying on a ledge above the house, face down among the bluebells. He had  been crying.

I lay by his side, asking what was wrong. He pressed the flowers against his eyes, inhaling their blue scent. He said that this was his last chance to see the bluebells. Next year he’d be at school, and his sight would go.

Rebecca and the oldest boy born to the family, Bob, continue to live on the farm. Bob wanted to be a doctor, but destiny and his father decreed he would carry on the family farm. Rebecca was  a seamstress, and had longings which were never fulfilled in reality; she wanted to travel, and made do by reading library books and imagining herself in the great cities of Europe and Scandinavia:

But it was in Rome that I lingered longest. I saw the cruel Coliseum and the beautiful square on the Capitoline Hill. I threw pennies into baroque fountains, and walked to the Vatican, submitting to the cold embrace of St Peter’s colonnades and placing my hand on St Peter’s foot. I would see the Popes’ tombs, before rushing back to daylight.

Rebecca’s imaginary travels are told so vividly, I found myself believing she had been there. Her other reality, the valley (cwm) is equally vividly evoked, and has a life of its own, interlaced with the life of the farm.

As winter loosened its grip we’d climb the mountain again, this time to drive the sheep down to the farm’s lowland meadows, so that they could be docked, washed, sheared and marked with pitch. We’d start our trek in the small hours, as the sky took on shades of blue, pink, yellow and white, and the night’s bruise was on the mend.

As much as this is a novel and a memoir, it is a love song to the valley and the way of life that it contained, and the family who inhabited it.

Yet, along with these lyrical passages, there are many prosaic ones, which jolted me at times out of the magical world created, and made me a little sceptical of all the rave responses to the novel, quoted in its fore and after pages, using words like ‘numinous’, ‘bardic’, ‘classic’, and more. Passages that tell the minutiae of daily life and the history of the family read more like memoir and less like a novel, and yet, I want to say, memoir does not have to be prosaic and mundane. For me, in my after-response when I closed the book, and quite often as I read it (short as it is) I felt detached and thought it could have been polished more. In the end I felt it is neither novel nor memoir, something in between. What marks it as novel is a twist which I will not reveal, and which, if you want to read and enjoy the book, you should veil your eyes from until you reach the brief epilogue.

What I enjoyed most in the book was the lyrical evocation of the Welsh countryside, seasons and way of life, and the rituals of farming, so close to my own childhood in a much harsher place in outback New South Wales.

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Art and Life

As the governor of North Carolina said to the governor of South Carolina, it’s a long time between drinks! I’ve not posted for over 6 weeks. I had a very busy period for editing, then a lull, as usually happens. I’ve used the lull time to do some more paintings, a series of beach scenes. Yesterday I had the wonderful news that the latest one I’ve had framed has been selected to be hung in the Tweed River Art Gallery, as a contender for the Border Art Prize. I don’t expect to get a prize, as this is a big competition which attracts many entries, including accomplished artists. But I’m delighted to be hung in this lovely gallery, which has now made its mark on the world map of galleries with the opening of the fabulous Margaret Olley wing.

The process of doing a painting is like yet unlike that of writing for me. When I write, it comes naturally; I’ve been doing it most of my life, and I had a very good start, with a literate, highly educated mother. And I’ve refined it through several stints of study/research/writing, and thousands of words worth of editing others’ work. So it’s second nature. Sometimes, of course, when I push myself and take risks, it feels hard, but mostly not. Perhaps that is why I’m no longer as interested in writing as I am in painting, where I risk myself every time I start a new painting; I begin with the feeling  “I can’t do this”; then half way through I think “maybe it will work”; this doesn’t last, as I attempt a new facet of it, and I think “oh no, this is a mess”; then if I persevere, I start to think “it’s going to be all right”; then, after the finishing touches, I feel surprise: “Oh, perhaps I did it; wow! How did this happen?”

I don’t know if all artists go through this, but for me I think it’s because I haven’t been trained in the visual arts, as I have in writing, and I don’t have a visual imagination, though I can appreciate and critique what I see. So it’s like driving in the dark without any lights. And now I’ve shucked off the external critic (my teacher) I don’t have that severe voice that says “this isn’t good enough; do it again!” So I just keep going, and surprise myself. Though I have discarded a few efforts, mostly ones where I step away from my chosen themes of wildlife and nature.

More risks to take, and more surprises in store. here is my Border entry: Sunset at Sawtell Beach, Coffs Harbour, NSW.

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Diaspora stories

Over the last couple of years, I’ve had the great pleasure of editing a book just published, by Audrey Fernandes-Satar. It is a moving and beautiful story of the journey away from the homeland, Goa, and the dispossession that three generations of women and their families have suffered.

The work is poetic and deeply polemical, and ultimately, it is a story of witnessing and healing from loss and displacement. Audrey’s stunning art works illustrate the chapters.  Once I receive my review copy, I will write an appreciation of it — not a review, since as its editor, I am too close to it to do that. Below I’ve pasted the blurb from the cover, and below that, the cover image. It is published by Peter Lang.

“After the Last Ship defies categorization: it is autobiography, history, poetry, art … Yet it is so much more than the sum of its parts: it is a journey that takes us into the heart of diaspora; it takes us into the lived experience of women who felt the pain of dispossession deep within their bones, whose bodies bled and whose families were torn asunder. It is also a story of hope, of survival and of healing. Above all it is a story of resistance, of the Other talking back, not only on her own behalf but also on behalf of countless women whose stories have not yet been told.” Senior Lecturer Nado Aveling (PhD), School of Education Murdoch University, Australia

“After the Last Ship, in evoking a particular diasporic experience, speaks to the displaced, the exiled, the oppressed, everywhere. Its achievement lies in its intelligent artistic vision which pro- foundly reconfigures abjection, transforming despair into hope. Beautifully constructed, illustrated and written, this is a moving and challenging work. Its gift to the reader is the spiritual enrichment that only the “examined life” can offer.” Associate Professor Jenny De Reuck (PhD), English and Creative Arts, Murdoch University, Australia.

Audrey Fernandes-Satar is a Western Australian academic, researcher and visual artist. Her body of work involves the investigation of the politics of identity, transnationality and the border. Audrey has exhibited nationally and internationally. She traces her heritage to the people of Gaunco Vaddo, who left Goa during the nineteenth century.

 

 

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West Australian Writers

Several years ago, I was co-compiler and editor of an anthology of contemporary Australian women’s writing: Hidden Desires: Australian Women Writing, published by Ginninderra Press (2006). The process of getting the collection published took three years, and uncounted hours of work by me and my co-editor, Jenna Woodhouse. It was a labour of love. The book had a modest print run, and received very favourable reviews (see link on the title above) and sold out. But it was bloody hard work, and what I learnt was that the publishing industry is not interested in emerging writers (which most of our authors were, though we had a few established ones as well). Nor, it seems, is “the public” interested in collections of short stories. Our collection was mostly fiction, with some memoirs and a few poems. One thing that impressed me was that a high proportion of our authors were West Australian, and I can honestly say they were selected for relevance to the theme and for quality of writing alone. We had a huge number of entries (250, as I recall) and out of those we selected 43, and 14 of those were from WA.

So hold onto these three facts: emerging writers are not very marketable, nor are short stories, and nevertheless, emerging Australian writers, and particularly West Australian writers  are producing high quality work.

It’s a dilemma for a writer or a compiling editor, to be up against these contradictory hard facts. Not only in Western Australia, but throughout our country, and no doubt in others, there are budding writers on every branch, longing for their creative works to be read and appreciated, and constantly facing the disappointments of the hard commercial market, if they choose to venture into it.

One way of solving this dilemma is being bravely addressed by many writers’ centres, who not only run sponsored competitions, but offer master classes and workshops in writing, and publish the edited works of the participants. Many writers have started off their publishing career this way. I know, from having been writer in residence for a month at Peter Cowan Writers Centre in Perth in 2012, how much hard  and dedicated work is put in by volunteers to make this happen.

So I’m very happy to have  been invited to review Other Voices: a Collection of Short Stories, published in 2013 by the Advanced Writers’ Group at Peter Cowan Writers’ Centre, Perth, WA.

There are 10 short stories in this collection. Many of them are closer to memoir than to fiction, but as I often say, it’s a thin line between the two. I actually think it’s an important line, as the criteria for a good memoir are a little different from those for a good short fiction, event though they share many of the same characteristics. Some say that all writing is autobiographical. But it’s about the degree of fictionalisation in  a story. Some memoirs are written very straight, and this can work if you have a story that ties in with many people’s fears and desires, or (I hate to say) if you are a celebrity of some sort. Others are written in a more literary style, using fictional techniques, but still respecting the inner truth of the story, though facts, names, locations, events, may be played with and invented to some extent. This is my favourite sub-genre, though I’ve read many memoirs of the first kind that I respect and am glad were published.

There are 10 stories in this collection. I can’t talk about each one in a short blog, so I”ll just give snippets. They range from a moral fable, in Amanda Gardiner’s Lessons, and magic realism in Hannah van Didden’s The Gift, to real life stories of abuse, accidental encounters with difficult consequences, loss — of connection, of love, of understanding — to two biographically based stories of triumph over abuse, abandonment, and disempowerment.

I’ll give a brief snippet of two stories that stay in my mind from this collection. That Hand, by Josephine Taylor, is about a woman who had what is now known as Vulvodynia, a chronic condition where the outer female genital organs — the vulva, the labia, clitoris and vaginal opening — are painful  and hypersensitive to touch or pressure. Imagine the impact of that on a woman’s reproductive and sexual life! This story cleverly counterpoints two women, one in the 19th century, one present day, who have this condition and are being treated for it. The 19th century treatment was in effect a clitoridectomy, or female circumcision, which is now regarded as a crime in the Western world. In the story, the current treatment is for the doctor to put his fingers —his hand? into her vagina, pushing and stretching:

Contracting with the inhalation and releasing with the exhalation — you know. So  I’m breathing out, and he’s pushing and stretching at the same time and — that barrier? I can feel it relaxing!

She’s talking to her husband, who reacts defensively and wants her to try harder, or their relationship without sex won’t last.

How many women have been there?

The other story that stays in my mind is Sue Braghieri’s The Long Goodbye. The scene is a train station — where? with a train about to depart for Milan. Gerard, an elderly man, watches the crowd, and reflects that there is no-one there for him. As he turns to board the train, he sees her. She is lovely, still unbelievably young, and as they board the train together and sit down, it emerges that she is not who he believes her to be.

Loss of the past through ageing and memory loss are the theme of this story. When goodbye no longer has any meaning to the person you say it to.

I won’t attempt a critique of these stories, as I feel that’s not my role. I just want to introduce to you some fresh new voices, and to celebrate the fact that writing is alive and well, outside of mainstream publishing, thanks to writers centres and the many dedicated people who give their time and commitment to nurturing, supporting and mentoring emerging writers.

PS: Sue Braghieri has just sent me this note:

I have the Amazon link now for people to source our e-book.  It will also be appearing on other ebook sites in coming weeks (Kobo, iBook etc, and as an epub) – it can take two to six weeks for the distributor to upload into other formats and with other e-tailers.

 The Amazon link is:

 http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00JOHVT82

 Pricing is $3.76 on Amazon.com but will be $3.99 on Amazon.com.au once it goes onto the Australian site.

 

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Art and nature

I”ve created a new blog, greetingsfromnature.net

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I’ve created a series of greeting cards from my original pastel paintings of wildlife in the region I live in. My mission is to build on this beginning, painting a series of natural scenes, and more wildlife series.

I”ve started  a painting of a lovely dawn scene at Rainbow Bay, taken by my friend Marian. Here’s the photo. It will be a wedding present for my son, so the one I’m working on is a small pilot one, then I will do a larger one for him and his wife-to-be.

Rainbow Bay at Dawn. Photo by Marian Edmunds 2014.

Rainbow Bay at Dawn. Copyright Photo by Marian Edmunds 2014.

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Love and War

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Love stories intertwined with war are a strong genre, bringing together two universal themes: love and sacrifice. By sacrifice, I mean what for me is the dominant theme of war: individual and mass sacrifice of  of youth, of life, of family, of property, of a future, in defence of what is seen as a nation’s existence. I know it is far more complex than this. There are all sorts of different ways of looking at war, from the victim or the victor’s point of view, but for me, the most deeply human and passionate theme  forces us to confront the cost of war, not in monetary or property terms, but of lives, loves, family, freedom,  youth, health, ideals,  futures. When love and war intertwine, the conflict is especially sharp and painful and poignant.

One of my favourite books is Atonement by Iain McEwen,  published in 2001. I will revisit this book soon and write a review of it. Another favourite is The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. Both these great books  about the first world war have been made into films, which I enjoyed very much, but as always, I think the books are better. Another story of the first world war, which I read many years ago, is the autobiographical trilogy by Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth. It is a very powerful memoir, a cry of outrage from a young upper-class English woman who lost her fiance, brother and two close male friends in the war. Vera was a Volunteer Aid Detachment nurse during the war, and saw action at first hand. As I write, this famous book is being made into a BBC film mini-series. I can’t wait!

The one I want to talk about today is Birdsong, by Sebastian Faulks, published in 1993. I hadn’t read this book till recently, though I did see the BBC  TV series of it last year. It stayed in my mind at a subliminal level, and I recalled it when my friend lent me a copy of the book. I have to say, though I’d almost forgotten the series, I’ll never forget the book. It is extraordinary.

Where have I been, I wonder, that I’ve missed reading this great book till now? Why weren’t there trumpets and fanfares to wake me up to it? Why have I not read any other of his books? I must have been like Rumpelstiltskin, asleep. I’ll remedy that, and read his books one by one.  For the record, his website says:

Faulks’s fourth novel and the second in his French trilogy has become a classic of modern English literature. It is taught at school and university on both English and History syllabuses; it has sold more than two million copies in the United Kingdom and three million worldwide; in polls it is regularly voted one of the nation’s all-time favourite books.

Where to start, after such a long sleep?

I won’t summarise the plot; you can read plenty of reviews that do this. I just want to pick out a few things I love about it.

First, the title and the theme of birdsong; this is so subtly woven through you could easily miss it. It comes from the practice of miners using a canary in the coal mine to test for bad air. This signals one of the major scenes of action and drama in the book, the tunnels the British are helping to build under the trenches in France. Faulks does these scenes brilliantly, conveying the appalling conditions these men worked, lived and died in. But back to birdsong; every now and then, a real bird’s song reminds us of the greater creation outside the trenches and tunnels. For instance, when Stephen, the central character, who survives four years in the war, is sent on home leave to England (against his will) where he has no-one of his own, he takes a train into the country, and finds an inn called The Blackbird, homely and comfortable, where he takes a room and lies down to rest, falling into a trance-like state filled with lurid memories of men he’s known who have been shattered and killed. He starts up in delayed shock, shaking, in this tranquil English village. He goes for a walk:

The hedgerows were deep and ragged where he walked, covered with the lace of cow parsley. The air had a feeling of purity as if it had never been breathed; it was just starting to be  cool with the first breeze of evening. From the tall elms he could see at the end of the field there was a sound of rooks, and a gentler calling of wood pigeons close at hand. He stopped, and leaned against a gate. The quietness of the world about him seemed to stand outside time; there was no human voice to place it.

From the horror he has been living and reliving, he steps into this quiet world, and finds himself overtaken by passionate affinity for this creation. He is brought back from the living and un-living dead to a sense of oneness with creation, and forgiveness and desire to be forgiven.

His body shook with the passion of the love that had found him, from which he had been exiled in the blood and flesh of long killing.

But, of course, he has to go back to war, and is immersed in the long last struggle, which he survives through sheer determination against almost impossible odds. It’s hard to write about it in this summarised way without making it sound melodramatic. Well, it is, but in the pure sense of the word. Melos means song or melody. A melodrama was originally a sensational, romantic drama interspersed with song and orchestral music. Birdsong is this (minus the orchestral music, unless it’s the guns of war), but it is tragedy too, and it even has comedy, in some of the scenes with the soldiers, a rich range of characters, mostly from working class backgrounds, whose stoical service in action is counterpointed with sharp and poignant memories of  their loved ones and letters from home, and whose interactions are Shakespearean in their realism and humour.

There’s much more to say about the book but no space here except for the briefest mentions. It begins in Amiens, where Stephen has a passionate affair with a young unhappily married woman. It moves to Flanders, and then to the Somme. The war scenes are far the biggest, and for me, the best part of the book. There is a sub-plot (aside from the romance) which leaps two generations, to Stephen’s granddaughter, Elizabeth, in the 1970s. This complicated sub-plot hinges on her finding Stephen’s diary, realising he was her grandfather (he didn’t know he and his lover from Amiens had had a child) and taking on a quest to recover his story. The book closes on a note of redemption. I found this sub-plot complex and intrusive into what was for me the far more convincing and compelling main story. I would have preferred the granddaughter’s story to be another book, and for this book to end after Stephen has been liberated from the tunnel he was trapped in, by a German soldier on the morning of the day the war ended. The two men find a common bond in this act of deliverance, and Stephen returns to his battalion.

He felt the dry, turned earth beneath his boots as he picked his way back towards the British lines. A lark was singing in the unharmed air above him. His body and his mind were tired beyond speech and beyond repair, but nothing could check the low exaltation of his soul.

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