Continental shift

March 15, 1995

By Jorge Sotirios

Tasmania's innovative IHOS Opera returns to Sydney with its much acclaimed production of To Traverse Water. Like its piece of three years ago, Days and Nights with Christ, which dealt with schizophrenia, this production engages us with the schizoid world of cultural displacement.

To leave the old world and start anew in another unknown one, a process so many migrants had to endure, is to have two distinct realities in a constant tension not truly resolved. To Traverse Water portrays the symbolic journey of a Greek woman whose journey across the vast waters to Australia is the thread that unites this continental shift.

Composer Constantine Koukias, designer Ann Wulff and choreographer Christos Linou have collaborated to create a mesmerising world where the psychological journey of exile into suburbia is depicted with the aid of music, movement and heavy industrial materials. It is a world dynamic and fluid, where even such cumbersome objects as a boat with oars can ascend as light as a bird to the skies above.

How is this possible? This effect, amongst other startling images that incorporate movement, video and pyrotechnics, is left for Koukias to explain by way of Albert Einstein: "There's nothing more beautiful in the world than the mysterious".

Mysterious it definitely is. For it is the collage of elements that generates its strange poetry:

"... it's a whole combination of really different styles, but what is wonderful about this type of music theatre is that it is the form that will enable the beautiful to prevail."

Inspired by his mother's immigration from her Greek village to suburban Australia, Koukias has composed a score that unites Orthodox Byzantine chants with traditional Greek folk music, prerecorded tape of acoustic instruments and live performers.

But if you're expecting this to be staged as conventionally as it is in the Opera House, then you're going to be disappointed. To Traverse Water owes more to environmental theatre. A vast warehouse acts as the site where performers navigate amongst the installations, a technique that La Fura dels Baus, whom the composer acknowledges as an influence, perfected some years ago.

The imaginative use of a large space, with the audience enveloped within the drama, produces an effect not too dissimilar to that produced by ancient tragedy. The emphasis on music and dance is not accidental. In a sense IHOS is reclaiming early Greek drama far from the way it is normally presented in our subsidised theatres:

"... the use of the chorus is what changes it totally. Music was as much important, if not more so, to the Athenian audience of that period." Perhaps this is why his music is able to unite such disparate traditions — pagan, religious, folk and modern — that language cannot transcend. IHOS is certainly not one for text-based theatre.

To Traverse Water enables the composer to reclaim the continuity of his Greek culture whilst experimenting with it, a tradition that is very earthy, direct, emotional and with definite Eastern traces, without the abstractions normally associated with ancient tragedy. You know the sort: heavy-handed and plodding representations of Penguin edition classics — a theatre as petrified as the classical columns that are invariably used as background decor.

Perhaps the sentiments of North America's premier director Peter Sellars, who advocates the Gesamtkunstwerk — the total theatre event which incorporates every art form into a complete vision of culture, are at the core of IHOS' experimentation:

"I don't think theatre exists independently of music. It is no accident that all Greek drama was opera. And particularly in the light of the way new technologies are transforming everything we know as performance, the theatre of the future is necessarily this type."

IHOS Opera takes this cue to heart. You could say To Traverse Water is the film negative of Homer's Odyssey. Modern rather than classical, antipodean not European, a female perspective instead of a male one, and although its underlying premise is of exile, nevertheless to create a synthesis between two contrasting realities is something of a homecoming.

To Traverse Water will be playing as part of the 13th Greek Festival of Sydney, March 15-25 at Wharf 8, Pyrmont (adjacent to the Maritime Museum).

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