Desert Island Dances- Melbourne Festival

I didn’t know what to expect from this solo performance by UK dance/physical theatre/performance artist Wendy Houstoun. I figured there would be some talking, some movement, maybe some character work, but I didn’t expect a dance work, as such.Funnily enough, Desert Island Dances is, among other things, a work about expectation, not necessarily just in a show, but in life. From the beginning, Houstoun plays with this concept, perhaps suggesting that very little is ever really as it seems. Nothing really lives up to expectation, anyway. She walks onto stage in very ordinary clothes – completely pedestrian, and draws a large palm tree with a piece of chalk. She picks up a boom box and turns on recorded sounds of a calm ocean.Is this all we are going to get? Is this our lush desert island? Houstoun describes this island, but she keeps changing her narrative. It’s a relaxed, peaceful, empty island….well, actually, there’s a low flying plane coming dangerously close. There are no clouds in the sky, but, wait….if there were…..Houstoun draws a chalk circle on the floor – the schoolyard, she tells us. Has our expectation shifted? Here she offers movement more than words, a strong sequence of straight-bodied falls to the ground, quick recoveries and rolling. Is this an interpretation of a hopscotch game?She wanders over to a video camera and watches back the performance thus far, charting an “expectation graph” with her chalk and comments on her own performance. The graph has peaks and troughs, much like a stock portfolio highlighting gains and losses.It takes an extremely experienced and clever performance maker to construct a show like Desert Island Dances. It wouldn’t work in lesser hands. Even though her scenarios and the whole structure of this solo are so contrived, there is something quite honest, and genuinely humourous in Houstoun’s performance. She truly succeeds in using both her body and her words to articulate the experience she is describing while simultaneously subverting the whole scenario by exposing to us all the ways it could have been better, different or more spectacular.She cuts everything right down – her boat is no luxury liner, but a wooden crate on wheels that she physically g ets into and pushes around with the force of her body. A 12 step plan becomes a 10 step plan and even the chalk she uses was supposed to be that cool, glow chalk. But alas it is not….In the end, we are left with Houstoun herself telling us about the show we were going to see. “You’d have loved it,” she says.But we did love it…just as it was.

THE AUSTRALIAN. DEBORAH JONES. MELBOURNE FEST. 2008. Wendy Houstoun’s Desert Island Dances is a little gem with an effect far beyond its means. Using the long-running and phenomenally popular British radio program Desert Island Discs as a starting point, Houstoun gently leads her audience on a funny and poignant journey. The world may be full of fears but there is reason for optimism. Houstoun creates a life-enhancing mood of wonder in our capacity to imagine, to love, laugh, remember and to appreciate the everyday. Just beautiful. THE AGE.

CHLOE SMETHURST. VIC ARTS. 2008.Wendy Houstoun’s performance style is disarmingly unconventional. With the house lights still up, she walks on and warmly says hello, chatting as she arranges items on the stage. Much of the piece is delivered in this conversational way, making direct eye contact with the audience, so that in the small Fairfax Studio it’s easy to feel involved in the performance.Dressed casually, with no makeup and few props, Houstoun presents a series of vignettes, like a collection of favourite songs. The first is a description of the island, an idyllic image of blue skies and golden sands which gradually descends into murderous violence. She goes on disrupting the expectations of the audience throughout the show. In her rambling, anarchic and occasionally very silly way, she comments on the performance and our reactions to it as she goes along, even graphing our response on the blackboard at the rear of the stage.Another section is set under an ultraviolet light, though Houstoun expresses her disappointment that nothing on stage was glowing as she had hoped it would. She goes on to explain all of the extraordinary and impossible things she would have done, and tells us, “you would have loved it.”There are occasional moments of pure movement, but for the most part, Houstoun combines speech and physicality in a very natural way. Her choreography reads as fragments of movement memories, suggestive of other people, other places. A particularly resonant image emerges of a woman doing the twist to a crackly piano recording, like an old home movie of your aunty in the lounge room.But the mood never stays serious for very long, as Houstoun gently makes fun of herself, the audience and performance tradition.In one cleverly constructed scene, her manner becomes vague as she starts to speak about being ‘present’ in the moment, while listening to an MP3 player. To cap it off, her voice is repeatedly overwhelmed by an instrumental version of the 1970’s ballad All By Myself.Desert Island Dances is a light hearted exploration of some complex ideas, including the nature of memory, expectation and performance. Yet whether shunting around the stage inside a large box or coaxing us through a guided relaxation to the sound of gunfire, Houstoun seems set on achieving very little. It’s oddly enjoyable, though often disconcerting theatre.

LONG SENTENCE. MARTIN WHITE. VIC ARTS. 2008. As I was seeping in the miasma that was fringe and stewing in my disappointment of ‘An Oak Tree’, ‘Desert Island Dances’ caressed my young, follicly blessed cheek like a cool, tropical breeze (to mix metaphors). Houstoun is incredible. Her presence is so disarmingly reachable and unassuming that she manages to bring so much in, without you necessarily even being conscious of it. And, bejesus, is she funny. In one of my favourite novels, Ondaatje’s ‘In the Skin of a Lion’, there is a line which seared into my brain the first time I read it. I quote it often, so apologies to anyone I know who may be reading this, but its the first time in memory I have quoted it in relation to theatre.It appears at about the midway point in the narrative, from memory, and it reaches out to you, it pulls itself through the (at that point) sticky layers of narrative and speaks clearly, honestly and humbly. It made me love Ondaatje. Trust me. There is order here, very faint, very human. Meander if you want to get to town. I’ve never forgotten it. Its like some of those great fourth wall breaking moments in Spike Lee’s movies, or Haneke’s. It has a definite point and utility, yet is done with such grace and intelligence. Startling and exhilarating in its honesty.Houstoun’s ‘Desert Island Dances’ is beyond what I was expecting which essentially is artful artlessness, de-constructing our notions of performance and the interface between us. The piece does somehow transcend its postmodern self-reflexive origins to encompass a whole lot. Her images are delivered. The movements are surprisingly often poignant and allowed to settle. And it is incredibly funny. The only moment that didn’t do it for me was when she turned a video camera, that had been recording the audience around and watched it and charted our enjoyment. I liked the charting, I liked what she was doing – I just got hung up on the fact that she wasn’t watching the video, or at least I didn’t think she was. And what she was saying wasn’t necessarily in regards to our image on the little screen she was looking at. I would have preferred it if it were. Or obviously not – a superfluous theatrical mechanism that fails. Like the hilarious moment of black-light with nothing glowing on stage at all (there was, however, a woman in the first row dressed entirely in white. I am strangely and prejudicially mistrusting of people who dress all in white, it doesn’t seem natural) and Houstoun describing what she intended to do.I’m going to throw in another quote here, its relevance compounded by the fact that its Tim Etchells, a frequent collaborator of Houstoun’s.Inside the theatre there are only the performers and the audience. Onstage the performers have some material items – flimsy or not so flimsy scenery, various props and costume stuff. The audience, for their part, have their coats and their handbags and the contents of their pockets. But that’s all. The whole of the rest of the world – its physical locations and landscapes, its entire population, its complete set of objects and its unfolding events – is invariably outside, emphatically absent. Theatre then must always (?) be: the summoning of presence in the context of absence. A bringing in of the world. Tim Etchells – Step Off the Stage, opening polemic of the SPILL Symposium This is exactly what Houstoun has achieved with ‘Desert Island Dances’. Something all about bringing the world in, giving context. Performing an annotated thank-you list. Its all so incredibly human.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008My review on Desert Island Dances THE CHILDREN OF FOOTSCRAY.Desert Island Dance is a mix of comedy, movement and good use of chalk. Wendy Houston’s movements are captivating while keeping the show lively by adding humour. Whether its a box containing Wendy Houston moving around the room or beautiful movements, Desert Island Dances proves to be a hit! Although humorous the one small criticism I have for Desert Island Dances is that after running around the room, standing on your head and whatnot you seem quite a bit tired which sort of adds to the effect at the end but otherwise makes it hard to understand and yes I do know its hard to not be tired after all that! Desert Island Dances is a entertaining and fulfilling way to have a night out! Thursday, October 9, 2008Desert Island Dances – Wendy Houston and The Big Game by Polyglot Theatre I’m going write quick descriptions of the show, avoiding my own opinions.Desert Island Dances was a solo performance by london-based Wendy Houston. She used chalk and words and dance to tell her story. It was a complex story that imagined us on an lovely island, but the island was very slippery, always becoming something else. It’s hard show to describe. At a mid-way point she evaluated the audiences response so far, graphing it along a back wall, contributing to a chalk mural that was accumulating. There were small vague stories illustrated with an intense physicality. Many people laughed including many of the jury. They also squirmed. I, too, laughed and squirmed but it was late and I’m still jet-lagged.

SIAN PRIOR. BLOG.MELBOURNE FEST. 2008. Wendy Houston’s Desert Island Dances put the ‘playful’ back into ‘post-modern’ with a funny, low-key and self-refllexive one-woman dance work about… about… oh, everything, really. There was a chalk board on which the English performer traced an imaginary graph of her audience’s emotional response to the show, a giant wooden box with wheels in which she rolled around the small stage, and lots of talking. I loved this performance, and i’d love to see anything else she does, quite frankly.