Close Encounters: PAH - Carol Brown, Dame Gillian Whitehead & Star Gossage
10-15 March 2015, Pah Homestead - Auckland
Reviewed by Raewyn Whyte
Close Encounters: PAH, a collaboration between choreographer Carol Brown, composer Dame Gillian Whitehead, and visual artist Star Gossage, as part of Auckland Arts Festival 2015, promised to reveal “hidden histories and forgotten secrets” of one of Auckland’s iconic mansions, The Pah Homestead, now extensively renovated and home to the leading art gallery and residency space, The TSB Bank Wallace Arts Centre
There are plentiful opportunities for the audience to come to terms with the site as they traverse its spaces, read the plaques referring to its history, observe symbolic objects scattered about, and feast their eyes on contemporary art works. And during the hour-long performance of PAH, there is even more to absorb. Whitehead’s evocative, out the window breath bone feather (2013) is beautifully played live by musicians Katherine Hebley (cello), Andrew Uren (bass clarinet) and Luca Manghi (flute) , who move around the site with the dancers, and there are three small rooms which have specially commissioned art works – black and white silver gelatin photographic portraits by Solomon Mortimer, video footage by Mortimer, and huge, richly colourful painted banners by Gossage.
Dance and text are delivered by five performers, Kelly Nash, Nancy Wijohn, Emilia Rubio and Zahra Killeen-Chance and actor Haanz Fa’avae Jackson, a uniformly strong, in-your-face presence throughout the work. They deliver modified country dances in the entrance way, appear in many rooms of the gallery, interact with the musicians on the upstairs landing, rush up and down the stairs overseeing invisible battalions of children, tea dance in the former chapel, play in the garden, hang sheets on the washing line, and wheel like flocks of birds.. With the space between dancers and audience often reduced to touching distance, the persona-sustaining demeanour of the dancers is most impressive. They also deliver fragments of text – shouts, snatches of song, occasional sentences, always in clear voices. Jackson tells us the land was traded by Maori to Pakeha for “a horse, a pair of trousers and two pairs of leather boots”, and sketches out the building’s history.
The performers constitute something akin to time-shifting, moment-by-moment persona-morphing entities, too fully present to be accepted as equivalents of the ghosts in many of the Star Gossage paintings hanging on the walls. They flicker between orphans, nuns, homeless women, colonial masters and their servants, teachers, pupils, and those with hopes of a better life. Rapid changes of clothing and movement styling indicate the different eras in the building’s human habitation, but the fragmentary, spliced nature of the movement vocabulary which intermixes gestural reference, literal and figurative movement, and lyrical responses to musical phrases, becomes a barrier to anything beyond glimpses of their lives. The only” individual story” delivered is about a young man who “arrived at 5 and was sent away at 16 with a suitcase and a change of clothes to work for the Railways.’
The richness of these combined inputs packed into just one hour is curiously disengaging, and frustrating – more time is needed to absorb the performance elements and the artworks on the walls.