November 01, 1993


Songs with Mara
Meryl Tankard ADT

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

Without wanting to offend demarcation protocol with the Special Dance Correspondent I feel compelled to add some paragraphs on Meryl Tankard’s latest work, Songs With Mara, because quite simply it is one of the best theatre pieces we have seen in town for some time. ADT has had an impressive season – the quizzical wit of Court of Flora, the insistent afterimages of Nuti, the energy and invention of Furioso. But none of these prepares us for the clarity and pleasure of Songs With Mara.

Mara and Llew Kiek are musicians well known to ethnic music audiences and the wider Womad circuit. Their projects have frequently combined traditional Bulgarian music with jazz and choral forms but this collaboration with Meryl Tankard is especially creative and productive. The cycle of songs sung by Mara Kiek- and with creditable strength and accuracy by the ADT dancers- are set to bouzouki, baglama and tambura accompaniment by both Mara and Llew Kiek, the latter providing a number of expertly performed and evocative solos.

This work, first performed at the Baroosa Music Festival, relocated to the ADT’s Balcony headquarters for an all too brief city season. The venue has proven well-suited to the piece, unfortunately its small capacity has meant relatively few will have seen the show.

Designed by Tankard the walls of the Balcony have been streaked with lines of paint in earthy tones to match the mud floor of the performance space. There are benches for the musicians at the side and, along the back, romanesque-ish designs in keeping with the generally pre-industrial ambience.

The ten songs according to the summaries in the program have rustic themes of courtship and peasant atavism. There are animal totems and shepherd songs, worksongs, songs from the religious calendar, songs of rites and scandalous wrongs. In performance though, the translated meanings are subsumed into a work of music and movement which is no longer culturally or historically specific.

Particularised by Regis Lansac’s ravishing lighting the performance begins with the dancers seated with their backs to the audience. Throughout the work the human form is explored and pleasured – the line of the back, the hands, the crossing of legs, in erotic recline. In the moist loam of the setting the figures are as pale as delicate fungi. Or petals, as imagist Ezra once put it, on a wet black bough. The often minimal movement is beautifully controlled and almost unaccountably tender. The use of square pools of water casting bright reflected light on to the high ceiling is reminiscent of Sankei Juku but rescued from the postmodern whimsies of bhuto into an integrated theatrical intention.

The water energises the production – a stroke of the hand translates into a jet of droplets, a head rested beside the pool is transformed into whips of wet hair, moved in powerful sensuous chorus by all of the dancers. Sounds, gestures, textures, shadings are all amplified to the point of revelation and even when the action moves back to courtship or other social interaction it still carries the sense of rich inner worlds of self and psyche.

Songs With Mara might have been the kind of folk event that celebrates the regional and marginal precisely because it is archaic or denatured by nostalgia. Instead, the power of the Kieks’ music and the physical candour of Tankard’s choreography- splendidly evident in her own articulate performance- has created a deeply satisfying work. We rarely see productions of such beauty and intelligence. That it is occurring in our midst makes you want to kick your heels.

The Adelaide Review, November, 1993.

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