Neil Coppen

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2011: Highlights Package

January9

I thought I might take a minute of two to highlight a few experiences which stood out for me in the year of 2011.

My criteria for the below choices was originality, audacity and craftsmanship. In short an experience (or cultural product) that challenged and pushed the boundaries of the medium it was created within. My list is of course entirely subjective and I’m certain to have omitted some real gems along the way but here it is…

Album

Ex Durbanite Chris Letcher’s Spectroscope takes top spot followed closely by PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake. Letcher is an uncompromising musical genius and Spectroscope is a journey which enriches and unfolds with each concentrated listen. I’ve had this album on repeat for a few months and am yet to tire of this lush cinematic/schizophrenic soundscape.

Live Gig

It had been a tough Grahamstown festival, exhausted beyond the telling, I ambled in and out of theatres mostly unmoved by the work I was seeing. Perhaps my indifference could be attributed to my own post-project fatigue but catching Guy Buttery at the Rhodes Chapel managed to instantly restore my every frazzled fibre.

Perched on a stool, Buttery, messiah-like (How he must tire of this comparison) bathed in red light, the Virgin Mary painted on the back wall seeming to hover maternally over him, offered the nearest thing to a religious experience an atheist is capable of having. True to form, Buttery’s virtuoso combo of digits and strings warmed the icy cathedral, and kept the capacity crowd leaning in as if trying to get closer to the bonfire that was blazing up before them.

If Buttery doesn’t win the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for music in the next year or two I vow to outdo Werner Hertzog (who infamously ate his boot) and devour an entire ukulele instead.

Similarly Simphiwe Dana at the Sibiya Casino theatre earlier this year was majestic. Despite embarrassingly low attendance figures(the gig was terribly advertised) a gracious Dana and her band of accomplished muso’s took to the stage and indulged us with an intimate and passionate two and a half hour set– where artists of similar renown might have well taken one look at the meagre crowd and slunk from the stage after a few songs.

Film

Both applauded and derided Tree of Life tops of my list. Sure Mr Malick doesn’t always know when to stop (The concluding syrupy beach scene re-union was a step too far) but Tree Of Life is a beautifully shot, unapologetically cinematic/operatic experiment that for the most part works and often awes. Detractors– and there are many– complained that nothing much seems to happen (bar the glorious formation of the universe mid-section) yet I savoured Malick’s gentle narrative, his profound observations on childhood and Emmanuel Lubezki’s breathtaking cinematography.  A deep experience and I mean that in both the poetic and pretentious sense.

 Wim Wenders Pina 3D, which I was fortunate to have caught at the opening night of the JOMBA festival, offered a cinematic experience unlike any other. I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t know much about Bausch and her company Tanztheater Wippertal , so Wenders film provided me with a suitably visceral and inspired introduction. Wenders was born with cameras for eyes, and his immortalising of Bausch’s dancers gliding through time, architecture and space was nothing short of masterful.

In the way of unadulterated pleasures Gore Verbinki’s Rango (which a reviewer aptly claimed was like watching Looney Tunes on mescaline) served up a surreal and irreverent treat. John Logan is a fine writer and Verbinski– away from the money mitts of producer Jerry Bruckheimer—harbours an irrepressible imagination. The product of their twisted imaginings is a bizarre take on wild-west lore which has more ideas in its opening sequence then the combined duration of Hollywood’s insipid annual output.

Theatre

The recent staging of Philip Glass’s opera Satraygrha (Staged at the Met and screened at cinema Noveau) was a wondrous to behold. The opera was the perfect union of Glass’s dizzying compositions and theatre Improbable’s ingenious staging and design. Improbable found mind boggling solutions to theatrically flogged (Do you Hear the people sing!) images of oppression, protest and emancipation. For what not to do, see the overly literal staging of the Cape Town Operas Mandela Trilogy which toured earlier this year.

Throughout Satyagraha wicker-baskets, reels of newspapers –and at one point– kilometres of sticky tape were utilised to create a series of striking metaphors. Exhibit A: Ghandi vanishing into a seething mass of newspaper print.

I am a fan of Danish performing artist Jori Snell. I caught her production of Inua for a second time this year at the Grahamstown fest and it confirmed my awe. Inua is an effervescent tonic against the creatively wrung one man/woman physical theatre formulae which litters many a theatre festival programme. Snell served up an icy vision part art installation/part performance piece that had me captivated from start to finish. I’ve grown increasingly weary with seeing the same thing played on stages: recycled narratives, over wordy diatribes (of which I am perhaps responsible) and theatrical quirks which I reckon even the likes of Jacques Lecoq –were he still alive and miming—would roll his eyes at.

Inua is like nothing I have seen before which is why it demanded (and was rewarded with) a second viewing. Those looking for paint-by-numbers, A to B entertainment, stumbled out of the show exasperated ,some even angered, by the whole affair but I relished the simplicity and commitment with which Snell constructs each of her strange images and characters. To my mind sitting through her productions is the closest one can get to free-falling down Alice’s rabbit hole. Folks looking to use AV or projection (a slide projector in this instance) on stage could learn much from her simple yet ingenious use of the medium.

Admittedly being stranded in a glacial dreamscape for an hour (or finding oneself trapped in a loopy Bjork music video) is not everyone’s cup of tea, but after enduring so much of the same thing year in and year out, I couldn’t imagine of a more refreshing way to spend an evening.

I was also briefly glimpsed the work of Cape Town actress Nicola Hanekom. While I have yet to see a full production of hers, Hanekom appears to be the ballsy visionary our stages are in dire need of.  In the space of fifteen minutes (She was re-interpreting a scene from Fugard’s Boesman & Lena for the GIPCA Directors and Directing Conference) she had me enthralled. I’m looking really forward to catching more of her work in the near future.

 Books

Researching several historic projects this year I wasn’t able to delve into as much new fiction as I would have liked. I did however find Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending a fantastic read (with a concluding chapter likely to cause as much speculation as James’s The Turn of the Screw has over the last century.) while in the way of non- fiction I savoured each interview found in the pages of The Paris Review Box Set - the most invaluable Birthday present (courtesy of Colwyn Thomas) I have ever received. The interviews with some of the greatest writers, poets and playwrights of our time was the equivalent of a University education  as was Richard Dawkins The Greatest Show on Earth which has enabled me to grapple with scientific concepts I’ve always imagined myself too dof to ever understand.

Clear, succinct and conversational, Dawkins sets out to debunk the myths while never losing sight of where the real majesty lies. A new pair of the lenses on (or into) the world is always welcome so here’s to seeing things a little differently in 2012.

On a Bum Note

I will not indulge in a lowlights list (too often it’s mediocrity seems to garner the most attention throughout the year) but perhaps one of my biggest disappointments was The Playhouse Companies mega- budget musical Cinderella. Despite the considerable talent concerned, the Durban public was served up a dated, humourless and grossly unimaginative Christmas turkey. Were this a private theatre company investing in such shabby spectacle I would have less room for complaint, but this is a well-funded Government arts institution that could (and should) have channelled such finances into funding hundreds of relevant and very necessary local initiatives throughout the year.

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