A little over two weeks ago, Melbournians were treated to a world-class performance hosted at the Meat Market by Rubiks Collective, and directed by Australian percussion-wizard Eugene Ughetti. A tour-de-force of core members and guests pulled together an astounding Australian premiere of the mammoth work Sideshow by American-Japanese composer Steven Kazuo Takasugi; a work that captures the mania, mystery and melancholy of the Coney Island carnivals of the late 19th and early 20th century.
Captured in a chamber of octophonic-electronics that seemingly swooped around the space, the ensemble displayed poise in presenting the jaunty array of techniques and musical gestures. These however are only one thread in the greater fabric of the work, as the performers are seen to be morphing between fits of grotesque giggling, wrathful writhing and a smattering of highly-effective tutti activities. The hybrid form of performance, combining the theatre and the sound, as well as the veil of the electronics seemingly cloaking much of the staged commotion, made for a bizarrely entertaining evening. As Takasugi puts it, the work is filled with “strange doubling” that sets in motion a constant question of “who’s doing that?”.
I had been anticipating this show from the moment that Rubiks announced it. In previous performances, they present intimate and often gentler programmes which challenge the audience to engage with New Music from all sides. In Sideshow however, Rubiks have certainly proven to be a formidable force in the Melbourne scene, having taken their music-making to a new level in this performance. Their all-star cast provided a generational perspective of the incoming crew of musicians, most of whom impressed with highly characterised performances of each role played, from Giants and Sword-Swallowers to Spider-Human fusions, and all their shadowy doppelgangers, there were only a few moments where one did not believe the performers indeed had gone insane!
A definite highlight was the opening scene after the tension of a deepened silence and the revealing of that unnerving ‘Tillie’ smile, the symbol that we recognise as that of the Amusement Parks. An outbreak of scoffing and glittering textures brings us into the absurdity of what conjures as amalgams of classic German Neo-expressionism, the very theatre the work responds to. Leading this display, the Proprietor, performed by percussionist Kaylie Melville, a sinister unease is met with moments of pause, only punctuated with irregular jibes from the Proprietor and its Sidekick, performed by cellist Tim Hennessy, leading a cacophony of communication throughout the octet; though it was noticeable that the visible energy between Proprietor and Sidekick were not always matched. The final screeches of piscatory-transfiguration from the Proprietor truly drew some empathy, and Melville’s screams and ‘glubbs’ truly incited the despondencies of the inner stories. Overall Melville, cast as lead, stole the show. The synergic actions performed throughout were another great memory, from leaning forward and miming page-turns, to the eerie rabbit-handed gestures with the equally sinister smiles to match.
One could not help notice the displaced Spider-double on the left side of the stage represented by pianist Jacob Abela and flautist Eliza Shepherd were in the trickiest position to engage, but nonetheless overcame this with knock-out performances of their unsettling characters. As did the Giant, saxophonist Luke Carbon, and his Accomplice, clarinettist Harrison McEwan, whose pairing excelled. The two Sword Swallowers, presented by Aaron Wyatt on viola and Isabel Hede on violin, formed an unlikely duet of strange intimacy, though they were the furthest apart on stage. Overall, the performance was very strong, and was held together by a generally keen sense of placement from all performers.
My impression of Takasugi’s work is of awe. The feat of taking on a work such as Sideshow is not one for the fainthearted, for both performer and audience. I found the experience of the work to be enthralling; as though placed in a roller-coaster with one direction – forward, although there are moments of elongated inaction, some of which lacked some momentum. These did add to the suspense of the various outbursts of hysteria, which seemed to become less frequent as each event played out. My memory, as vivid as it is from the virtuosity of the performers, seems to haze towards the end of the work, which is perhaps a product of my humanity. Albeit a sensational work, its length does test the listener’s ability to engage with a single line of thought, something that we must ponder, but not bow to, for upcoming generations of listeners.
The shadows and thresholds of contemporary music and theatre that are fused, broken and surpassed in the almighty experience that is Sideshow proved no challenge for the Rubiks and co team. Where will they go next? It appears that only the sky is the limit for what these guys are capable of! Rubiks is a powerhouse of vibrance, versatility and vigorous virtuosity. They are certainly making the Melbourne scene one of opportunity to engage with the quiet quirks and quintessentially avant-garde of today.
– Sean Quinn
(guest reviewer Sean Quinn is a composer and writer based in Melbourne, Australia. He is currently a student at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music)
Photo credit – Cameron Jamieson Photography