Humans and machines merge at PuSh fest

Hailing from Australia, the shows MEETING and Endings run on everything from old record players to robotic percussion

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      Wielding everything from old-school record players to percussion bots, two very different Australian shows are bringing human and machine together in radical new ways at the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.

      Speaking of her intimate meditation on mortality, Endings, Melbourne performance artist Tamara Saulwick says the vintage record players and reel-to-reel tape players she orchestrates live on-stage are as much a part of the work as the human performers—Saulwick herself, with soulful folksinger Paddy Mann, and sound artist Peter Knight.

      “We’ve come to love these crazy machines I’ve collected for this show,” she tells the Straight over the phone from the Aussie arts capital before heading here for PuSh. “Each one has its own idiosyncrasies. And they immediately create a sound world that’s quite nostalgic.”

      In the piece she describes as falling “somewhere between a concert and theatre work”, Saulwick refracts interviews with people about loss, death, and dying through the static of the analogue technology.

      Saulwick says the piece had its genesis in a simple image: that of a stylus at the end of a vinyl record, in its repeating, slightly hissing cycle. It made her think of endings in general, and the end of life—in large part because her father (who becomes a throughline in the piece) was dying during the creation process.

      “Though the work is about death, it’s really about relationships and connection and the desire to maintain a connection with someone beyond that threshold,” Saulwick says.

      As she started experimenting with her recordings on retro devices, they began revealing their huge metaphorical relevance to the subject matter. “They’re redundant, almost like they’re being exhumed for this piece. There’s also a fragility and precariousness that working with these machines brings—and that gives the show a very palpable feel of liveness.”

      The fact is, if her reel-to-reel tape player stops working while she’s on the road, there’s only one backup. “There’s something about that that resonates,” she says and then adds with a laugh: “It’s terrifying, but it resonates.”

      Whereas Saulwick’s Endings looks back to bygone technology, choreographer Antony Hamilton and instrument designer and dancer Alisdair Macindoe’s MEETING uses state-of-the-art digital tricks—not that you’d know by looking at the Stonehenge-like circle of 64 robotic percussion instruments, from tappers to chimes, that dictate the meticulously detailed movement.

      “There’s a clear aesthetic decision to make them not appear technical,” Hamilton explains over the phone from Down Under. “Something about the primitive appearance of the machines…makes them look like they could have been made in the last 30,000 years.”

      The bots become the perfect mechanical match for Hamilton’s mathematically precise movement language of increasingly complicated sequences—a technique he’s developed after years of training in ballet, hip-hop, and contemporary forms.

      Performing the work and responding to the complex patterns of sound send him and Macindoe into a trancelike state, he admits: “All you’re thinking of are these numbers and where they transmit to a point in your body.”

      Not that it ever becomes easy or secondhand for the performers of this 2017 Bessie Award–winning “meeting” between biology and technology.

      “The biggest challenge we faced was to match our ability to the machines’,” Hamilton recalls. “They’re able to spit out these rhythms that, for humans to play them… It just wouldn’t be possible.” He adds the creation process was especially gruelling because Macindoe was coding throughout.

      The result is a kind of race to keep up—the instruments dictating ever more difficult mechanical patterns for the men to follow. In the process, the metaphors about how our wired world has started dictating everything we do become striking and inescapable.

      But Hamilton insists that’s not how the creation started out, with him and Macindoe playing with their bodies and machines in the studio.

      “We lay all these threads and meaning on very much after the fact,” the articulate artist says. “And I love that we do that.”