The past is ripped open and made anew in this wildly ambitious show

This wrap of shows around Melbourne includes a playful performance combining contemporary jazz with Indian musical traditions, an operetta that still rings true despite a significant change in both setting and era, a vibrant ensemble performance that centres women’s storytelling, and a tantalising glimpse of what the Comedy Festival has to offer.

DANCE | Frame Festival
NEWRETRO, Lucy Guerin Inc ★★★★
Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Southbank, until April 2

NEWRETRO is a work with no beginning or end. Rather, it has a sense of continuous motion outside its three-hour running time. It seems to exist independently of the gaze of its audience. Composed of the exploded fragments of 21 of Lucy Guerin Inc’s choreographic works, NEWRETRO is concerned with exhuming the bodies of the past. In the possibilities offered by repetition and iteration. In things ripped open and remade anew.

Performers from NEWRETRO.Credit:Gregory Lorenzutti

Removed from the black box setting of the theatre and staged across four rooms in the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, there is little delineation between stage and audience: no seats to mark a perimeter, no stage lighting to cloak viewers in darkness. The meat of the performance occurs in Gallery 1: a stark, white space lit by a series of thin fluorescent lights. Its expansiveness is essential to the mood of the program – it must contain 21 dancers executing 21 separate works, which continually collide, duplicate, separate and converge with dizzying complexity. There are so many different choreographies condensed into the same temporal and physical space that the work feels almost overstimulating, like watching a television set tuned to all stations at once.

In Gallery 2, screens have been installed which play footage of past performances on continuous loop; while in Gallery 3, dancers rewind, skip over and replay segments of video footage, matching their movements to what occurs on screen in a kind of choreographic transference. The Duet Room, in Gallery 4, is a kind of palate cleanser. This space is smaller, darker, more intimate. Here, dancers perform duets from the company’s back catalogue. Lifted from full-length works and restaged as standalone pieces, these duets – all of them between two women – provide a much-needed counterpoint to the everything, everywhere, all at once approach of the other spaces.

NEWRETRO is a demanding work – of both its dancers and its audience. For the dancers, it is a demand on body and memory. For the audience, it is one of time and attention. Instead of showing us a director’s singular vision, it stages past, present and future as simultaneous and equal, upending the idea of linear narrative and collapsing boundaries between spectator and performer. It requires of its audience a particularly rigorous kind of immersion. Those who take up its challenge will be rewarded.
Reviewed by Nadia Bailey

The Three Seas ★★★★½
The Jazzlab, March 24

The Three Seas is by no means the first group to combine contemporary jazz with Indian musical traditions. But while amalgams of jazz and classical Indian music aren’t hard to find, The Three Seas’ blend of jazz with West Bengali and Nepalese folk, funk and rock gives them a strikingly unusual sound.

The Three Seas are plauyful and deliciously groovy.

It’s been 14 years since the members of this Australian-Indian ensemble first came together, resulting in a deeply considered collaboration rather than a superficial cross-cultural experiment. Sydney saxophonist Matt Keegan leads the band, but has worked closely with the three north Indian musicians to create music that radiates authenticity.

Yet it can also be playful, infectious and deliciously groovy. On Friday night at Jazzlab, Keegan’s baritone sax often moved in syncopated lockstep with Brendan Clark’s electric bass, while drummer Gaurab Chatterjee conjured soulful backbeats that could veer into rock or even disco territory. Chatterjee was also a masterful dupki (frame drum) player, and even sang lead vocals on the night’s final folk number.

At Friday night’s gig, The Three Seas’ songs bustled with urban grooves or hummed with noirish mystery.

Indeed, all three Indian musicians were remarkably versatile. Himalayan multi-instrumentalist Deo Ashish Mothey opened the evening on the sitar-like esraj; switched to dotora (fretless banjo) to accompany himself as he sang and chanted in Nepalese, Bengali or Sanskrit; and added a percussive twang with his murchunga (jaw harp).

Raju Das Baul – a charismatic singer from the Baul tradition of West Bengal – brought not only his marvellously resonant voice to the mix, but the expressive thrum of his khamak: a drum with pitch-bending qualities that added to the group’s beguiling instrumental palette.

Traditional songs bustled with urban grooves (as on the irresistible Rongmohol) or hummed with noirish mystery (accentuated by Cameron Deyell’s reverberant electric guitar). The band’s original tunes were equally alluring, ranging from the sinuous Murano to the funky Real World – both from a yet-to-be-released album, confirming the continuing evolution of this fascinating and spirited ensemble.
Reviewed by Jessica Nicholas

Melbourne, Cheremushki ★★★★

Victorian Opera, Playhouse Theatre, until March 25

What a marvellous all-round effort from Victorian Opera, its creative team and a fine group of emerging singers, but above all from artistic director Richard Mills for staging this witty and sardonic 1958 work by Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich about a crisis in public housing in Moscow.

Melbourne, Cheremushki is energetic, irreverent, and pulsating good fun.Credit:Charlie Kinross

Director Constantine Costi moved the action to 2020s Melbourne (the parallels are surprisingly strong) and rewrote the libretto, allowing tons of Melbourne references and in-jokes while underscoring social problems in this city.

Various couples are trying to find public housing but are thwarted by corrupt officials, until proper Soviet-style collective unity wins the day. Meanwhile, we watch their social and love lives progress.

Soviet-style collective unity wins the day in Melbourne, Cheremushki.Credit:Charlie Kinross

Melbourne, Cheremushki is more like a musical than an operetta, emphasised by the constant action, frequent scene changes and usually frantic pace both on stage and in the pit, where Shostakovich’s orchestra was replaced by an eclectic group of 14 (including banjo and saxophones). Young Simon Bruckard was a masterly conductor, and Costi beautifully captured the spikey surrealism.

In summary, it was energetic, irreverent and pulsating good fun.

The 10 soloists were miked, which is a mixed blessing – it means they don’t have to sing out as much, which could be hard as they are so often in swift motion, and improves clarity for the audience, but it also highlights every vocal flaw, of which there were many. Again, this doesn’t matter nearly as much as in a traditional opera; the audience seemed too busy laughing to notice.

I can’t list everyone who deserves notice, but all the singers – Douglas Kelly, Teresa Ingrilli, Matan Franco, Syrah Torii, Eamon Dooley, Michael Dimovski, Leah Phillips, Amanda Windred, Nicholas Beecher and Alastair Cooper-Golec – had really fine moments; most also had a couple of rough ones. The chorus was a fraction under-powered in comparison.

One important warning: this production is definitely not one for children.
Reviewed by Barney Zwartz

Yiddish Divas: Into the Red Tent ★★★½
Kadimah Yiddish Theatre, March 23

In synagogues, women have traditionally been separated from men – and most of the liturgical action – by a partition (often a curtain) called a mechitzah. The cabaret Yiddish Divas: Into the Red Tent subverts this practice before the performance begins, inviting male-identifying audience members to sit at the back, while women are encouraged to step through a gauzy red curtain towards the stage, which channels boudoir-ish, Weimar-era energy with red fabrics, Edison lightbulbs and sensuously lolling performers awaiting their cues.

From left to right: Deidre Rubenstein, Freydi Mrocki, Karen Feldman and Noa Coates perform in Yiddish Divas.Credit:Shayne Hare

The seating is a suggestion rather than a rule, but, combined with Harry Gill’s clever set design and the title of the show – a nod to Anita Diamant’s 1997 novel, which reimagines the story of Dinah from the bible – it signals what is to come: a vibrant, warm ensemble performance that centres women’s storytelling, experiences and art in Yiddish (with English surtitles).

The 60-minute show is divided into six segments – Bereyshis (In the Beginning), Blut (Blood), Vakkhanalie (Bacchanalia), Geburt (Birth), Bgide (Betrayal) and Farbindung (Bonding) – that evoke both the stages of a woman’s life and the arc of Jewish mythology and history. Each segment features thematically linked songs and poems, ranging from Yiddish classics to translated mid-century hits (Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell’s Fever becomes Der Yidisher Fiber), to original compositions (including two poems by Melbourne Yiddishist Hinde Ena Burstin, with music by Tomi Kalinski).

Freya Boltman and Joshua Reuben in Yiddish Divas.Credit:Shayne Hare

This is the third instalment of Yiddish Divas, and it’s a more polished production than the 2018 and 2019 iterations, with assured performances from all the actors, who range in age from their early 20s to mid-70s. Deidre Rubenstein, who recently excelled as Roberta in MTC’s Admissions, brings gravitas and sly humour to her gravelly rendition of Neyn, Keyn Kharotez Nito (Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien), while Joshua Reuben – the sole male performer – infuses Shayn vi di levone (As beautiful as the moon), a classic ode to feminine charms, with confusion, longing and bewilderment. Freydi Mrocki’s expression – honed thanks to decades as a klezmer singer – is supple and emotive.

This show is a babushka doll of sorts, containing references within references – to biblical matriarchs, the Holocaust, Yiddish theatre, popular culture and politics. This creates a sense of richness, but also moments of disjointedness. Some of the famous quotes that precede each of the segments felt cliched (Eleanor Roosevelt) or tonally off (Dr Seuss). But the performers’ chemistry and charm bubbles along through the weaker moments, sustaining the momentum and generating a sense of intimacy and playfulness with the audience.

The final song, Ale Brider (We Are All Brothers), is a spirited Bundist anthem that has been popular with Jewish activists for over a century. At the Kadimah Theatre, the Yiddish divas’ rendition emphasised the importance of unity between all brothers, all sisters and all people – transcending gender and difference – to defeat those who would seek to oppress us. Just days after neo-Nazis incited violence on the steps of Parliament House, I was moved anew by this song I’ve heard so many times. It’s worth going to hear it for the first (or thousandth) time in this city where Yiddish culture flourishes, despite – or perhaps because of – its many brushes with fascism.
Reviewed by Elissa Goldstein

The Gala
Palais Theatre, March 22

“There are 2900 people here. To put it in context, 38 came to my 21st,” uttered the gloriously awkward Luke McGregor, as he hosted his first Melbourne International Comedy Festival Gala. “I’m very nervous.”

Luke McGregor hosts the 2023 Comedy Festival Gala.Credit:Jim Lee

McGregor’s rickety charm set the scene nicely for 28 comedians to take the stage for four minutes apiece, a very short time to have to win over audiences and raise money to end the injustice of poverty. The majority succeeded, half a dozen excelled, and a couple struggled to land a knock-out punch.

Lizzy Hoo kicked things off smoothly with a “drive-by” on Anh Do, then Blake Freeman had us howling like drains at his face tattoo bit; he remains the comedian most likely to follow in Hughesy’s footsteps if he gets a fresh hour together.

Lizzy Hoo kicked things off smoothly.Credit:Jim Lee

Another newbie, Scout Boxall, did well with her takedown of polyamory: “I can’t wait to be your second priority.”

Thematically, the cost of living, raising kids, vaping and identifying as non-binary all came up, as UK comic titans Josie Long and Mark Watson spoke about their child-rearing woes and the awkward moment Watson’s son Googled “Mark Watson net worth”. This led to a pocket-money renegotiation.

The original voices of Luke Heggie and Sam Campbell continued their respective ascendance, the former with a scathing, burn-the-roof-of-your-mouth anecdote on a fast-food delivery experience, the latter describing all the depressed commuters zipping through traffic each day: “I’m scootin’, but I’m not happy.” Campbell’s face is in permanent state of gnarled bliss, the same could be said of the crowd 30 seconds into his riotous performance.

Everyone stayed until the end, much to McGregor’s delight.

Sammy J is another to never put a foot wrong on stage, this time singing a wonderfully nostalgic song about the ’90s that included a sneering line about that dreaded paper clip that always wanted to “help” you write a letter. I heard a few punters singing the chorus “And everyone was cool with that” on their way out into the St Kilda night.

Jason Leong detonated a “do your own research” punchline, which gained him a well-deserved applause break, Geraldine Hickey slayed ’em in the aisles with acerbic country vernacular (“Capitalist pig dog!“), David Quirk’s NT News gear was as snappy as a croc’s mouth, Michael Hing’s satirical homicidal suggestions were both daring and brilliant and Lloyd Langford let the good times lol with his booming Welsh accent declaring Australia as “Satan’s petting zoo”.

Everyone stayed until the end, much to McGregor’s delight, seeing as he’d earlier read out the entirety of his wedding vows: “Please don’t leave me.”
Reviewed by Mikey Cahill

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