September 2006

Arts & Letters

Interrogation dances

By Caroline Baum
The making of ‘Honour Bound’

In the first week of August, two shows opened in Sydney: an arena-scale production of the hit musical The Boy from Oz, and Honour Bound, a new work from director Nigel Jamieson, in partnership with choreographer Garry Stewart and physical-theatre company Legs on the Wall. Both shows are all-dancing extravaganzas, but there are no hummable tunes in Honour Bound, which is about that other boy from Oz, David Hicks.

Tickets to The Boy from Oz - 12,000 seats per night, each costing around $250 - sold at the speed of a Brazilian samba. The 6000 tickets for the entire Sydney season of Honour Bound - around $50 each - were harder to shift. After meeting with media resistance, an anxious Opera House marketing department took the plunge and decided to promote the show using the "Other Boy from Oz" line. They considered offering father-and-son discounts, and soon announced free post-performance talks by Terry Hicks, who appears on film in the show, and Major Michael Mori, David Hicks's US military lawyer.

It was after seeing Curtis Levy's documentary The President Versus David Hicks that Jamieson, a mild-mannered but passionately political director responsible for The Theft of Sita, about the struggle for democracy in Indonesia, came up with the concept for Honour Bound. The project began in March this year with a two-week workshop at Legs on the Wall's rehearsal space, The Red Box. Set in an industrial Sydney wasteland, the 20-metre-high cube is where the company develops the aerial work that has earned it an international reputation.

More than 200 dancers auditioned for a part in Honour Bound. (Finalists were asked to improvise on the theme of panic.) Among the six chosen performers is DJ Garner, who has no experience as a dancer, though he is one of only three men in Australia specialising in Chinese strapwork. He relaxes by doing handstands. Marnie Palomares has danced with Kate Champion and British choreographer Akram Khan; Brendan Shelper is a specialist acrobat who worked on Star Wars: Episode II. Paul White returned especially for the project from the UK, where he'd been working with the brutally challenging DV8 Physical Theatre company.

On my first visit to rehearsals, I am confronted by the sight of a man suspended upside down, writhing and convulsing on a rope like a fish on a hook. Yet all the performers seem completely at home in the eight-metre welded steel cage that forms the set. Its sculptural quality makes it seem almost beautiful, like a large-scale Biennale installation, until you remember that it is a replica of a jail cell.

The mood is upbeat and dynamic. Jamieson, fuelled by seemingly endless reserves of adrenaline and urgency, is always moving. He does a sort of dance with Garry Stewart. When one steps back to talk to Grant Fletcher, the rigging consultant who climbs the outside of the cage, hoisting performers through space (he has worked on the Matrix films), the other steps in to rehearse a sequence. The rest of the creative team sit at trestle tables gazing, as if in a trance, at laptops. There's enough technology on the set to launch a rocket.

During the workshop, Jamieson feels disgusted by what he's doing, making dances - making entertainment - out of the Hicks story. To counter his malaise, a radical measure is employed: an intensive session with the cast, focusing on sensory deprivation. They work with eyes shut before watching 150 images of torture in the Abu Ghraib prison, then go straight into rehearsal. The tactic works, renewing Jamieson's purpose, yet in the process he develops an alter ego, a persona that is less caring, less considerate. He becomes a shouter, subjugating his performers, barking at and bossing them. It works best in the morning warm-up, at speed, when he drives them relentlessly, as if they're captive animals.

In Stewart, Jamieson has found a choreographer who takes the exploration of body and soul to the extreme. The results are performers not acting anguish, but rather pushing their bodies to the limit, crashing through the pain. Someone is going to get hurt doing this show, but the production budget of $300,000 does not allow for understudies, and this keeps Jamieson awake at night.

At this stage, he still has no idea how the show will end. To the exasperation of some collaborators, Jamieson likes to cut it fine: he's been known to continue work on the final moments of a piece when patrons are already waiting in the theatre foyer.

On the walls of the studio there is a gallery of images: Picasso's Guernica, a shot of Colin Powell, photos from the Abu Ghraib scandal. There's also a small, well-thumbed library of reading material, including some Chomsky, the Guantánamo testimony of chaplain James Yee, and a book on the work of the British sculptor Antony Gormley, whose solitary figures in barren landscapes have inspired Jamieson. The whiteboard at the back of the rehearsal space lists the sequences devised so far:

Rendition - audio assault
Leash dance
Interrogation dances
Dance of the damned

The place looks like an extreme-sports gym, with ropes and mountaineering equipment hanging from the bars of the cage and discarded kneepads scattered everywhere. The performers' orange overalls have been slashed at the arse to allow them to hook on to the set from behind. Walking around strapped into their harnesses, they look like a bunch of men on their way to a bondage party. Jamieson frets about how they will change out of the cumbersome harnesses, which are required for the aerial work but impede the floor-based dances.

Jamieson has to produce five minutes of the show each day. The cast members, who work six days a week, are so tired that during their lunchbreak they curl up on the floor in the foetal position to sleep for an hour.

By early July, relationships within the creative team are fraught. Jamieson, full of intensity, spits out new ideas that no one can keep up with, while Stewart prefers to work at a slower, more contemplative pace. Robotics are part of Stewart's signature style, but Jamieson worries that some of the sequences look too much like techno breakdancing. Meanwhile, composer Paul Charlier, responsible for a sinister soundscape punctuated by helicopter rotors and the noises of surveillance equipment, is frustrated by the need for constant rewrites. Conversations are clipped, frustrations simmer, time is running out. Jamieson is not always clear about what he wants, and often meets with resistance from the others.

Later in the month, during the final rehearsals, Opera House publicist Claire Vince tells me that David Hicks has surprised his father by suggesting a sequence for the show: he described being interrogated while lying naked on a cement floor, blinded by a bright spotlight. Terry Hicks said he had never heard his son, who complained of severe back pain that was limiting his ability to walk, sound so aggressive, so near the end of his tether.

Scott Otto Anderson, who normally creates TV commercials and video clips for indie bands, has collated a spectacular montage of images, words and effects for the performance: in one scene, for example, the Declaration of Human Rights scrolls over the performers' bodies as they pivot on the back wall of their cage. Then, at the dress rehearsal, his computer crashes, jeopardising crucial elements of the show. The performers carry on, but files are corrupted and material lost, requiring Otto Anderson to stay up all night to recover what he can. He salvages the basics just five minutes before the first preview of Honour Bound begins.

Jamieson, as genial as a scout leader, addresses the matinee audience, explaining that there have been problems - and that there may be more through the evening. A ripple of sympathy and excitement greets his speech: perhaps something unexpected will happen.

It does. Within two minutes of starting, the show comes to a halt. "I hoped we would get further in than this," says Jamieson cheerfully. When the performance resumes, the visuals are fuzzy and stage cues are loose. Otto Anderson is so exhausted and tense that his finger accidentally presses a wrong key, triggering an image prematurely, but no one notices.

On opening night, a partisan audience of human-rights activists, film-makers and lawyers mingles in the foyer. There's a sense of apprehension as well as anticipation: people know that they're about to undergo an ordeal. A few wear touches of orange - a scarf, a jumper, a hat - but it's an unforgiving colour that does not flatter many complexions.

The show proceeds flawlessly. Some audience members leave; I hear one man behind me gulping. I wonder how Terry and Bev Hicks can stand to watch, knowing what they know. At the end of the performance, there is, predictably, a standing ovation, but Jamieson and Stewart frustrate the charged audience's desire to acknowledge them, refusing to take a curtain call.

In the foyer, Jamieson says that David Hicks has recently been stripped of his overalls, to prevent him hanging himself. Hicks is now naked, and back in solitary confinement. After this dark message is delivered, Terry Hicks steps up to the podium and relieves the tension: "When I saw the bruises on those dancers, I thought Stewart had been talking to Major Miller," he jokes, referring to the recently retired head of the Guantánamo Bay facility.

Across town, Hugh Jackman's stamina is also being tested by a punishing schedule of physically demanding performances. But at least he gets to sing ‘I Still Call Australia Home'.

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