2. Searching for a Secular Byzantine World

Continuing from my previous post looking at the secular art in Byzantine ceramics of the 11th-14th centuries CE.. Perhaps a more appropriate title for this post would be Byzantines at play – hunter/falconer; a dancer; and a lady at sport.

The Hunter/Hawker

The Hunter Hawker ceramic bowl, From George and Nefeli Giabras Collection, The Bank of Cyprus Collection

Held in the Bank of Cyprus Collection, this 14th Century bowl from Cyprus depicts a young gallant in a field surrounded by birds. There is a zig-zag pattern of leaves around the rim of the bowl reinforcing the outdoors nature of the scene. The field is indicated by the flowers around him. The birds, we are told, are either his prey – falcons if he is at play, or scavengers eyeing out carrion. I lean towards the idea that he is hunting for sport – falconing? as there is no illustration of carrion anywhere in the image. He bares aloft his bardoukion – the Byzantine mace- and most likely a seistron in his other hand. The seistron would be rattled to attract the prey.

His clothing is sumptuous in its decoration and the birds surrounding him are similarly rendered. To me, the birds decorated so indicate a belonging with the male figure. They appear kept by him – likely trained for the hunt. I can’t help thinking of the sport of hawking. I imagine that the gallant attracted his game with the seistron, clobbered it with a fling of the bardoukion and awaited its retrieval by the birds. Perhaps my imagination is running amok in the field?

Dancing Figure An Athenian Ceramic reproduced with the kind permission of the Benaki Museum in Athens, Copyright, Benaki Museum, Athens

This Athenian bowl from 11th – 12th Century, held in the Benaki Museum, depicts a dancer mid performance. To my mind in her hands she clicks together pairs of metallic zills or wooden spoons that have been used in  Greek folkloric dancing like castanets. The ball on the other side of her is a prop that belly dancers today incorporate in their choreography. The patterning of her blouse is a standard motif that has been used in many of these ceramic illustrations that haven’t depicted dancers – e.g., wedding bowls. Regardless, it calls to my mind rows of coins that would shimmer when she shook. The flaring out of her skirt in both directions evokes the movement of her hips taking it there. Immodestly, her skirt falls just below her knees, like male attire in her world – something excused by her occupation. Perhaps she is dancing a precursor of today’s tsifteteli?

Byzantine sportswoman playing Erasmus' globorum?
Byzantine sportswoman playing Erasmus’ globorum? held by the Famagusta Museum, Cyprus. Image reproduced with the kind permission of Dr Michael J. Fuller


The third bowl is Cypriot. I came across it on the St Louis Community College website and am reproducing it with the kind permission of Professor of Anthropology, Dr Michael J Fuller. It fascinates me in that I can’t make out exactly what the woman is doing.

The floor length gown and restrictive coiffure define her sex. She holds a ball dangling on the end of a some kind of holding stand in one hand which she is poised to hit with a baton/bat in the other. What sort of sport is she playing? Did it involve any other players and if so how many? Two as in shuttlecock of perhaps more as in croquet? Perhaps it was something akin to Erasmus’ globurum – that she could have perhaps played alone, hitting a wooden ball and seeing how far it would go?

These have been my pick of three Byzantines at leisure. What I’ve found gratifying in trying to understand what’s being depicted here is that I’ve been able to refer to my  understanding of Western medieval history or my personal experience with Greek folk culture to try and get a connection to the past they represent. You may look at them and find something wholly individual in them. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Other posts in this short series:

1.Searching for a Secular Byzantine World

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Interview: Harmonlodies Cantonese Opera

It’s really easy to get excited about Chinese Opera. Not only does it delightwith its colourful costumes and idiosyncratic make-up but it fascinates with its unique sound, lyrical accompaniment, graceful nuanced delivery and energetic and irreverent clowns. After being thoroughly entertained by the Harmonlodies Cantonese Opera Studio at their recent performance at the George’s River Council’s Lunar New Year Festival I was very fortunate to have met their President, Sandy So Ping Chan, and have obtained an interview with her. Her Opera Studio is based in the southern suburbs of Sydney. Chinese Opera is a wonderful theatre form that I’m sad to say the general Australian public misses out on seeing because there is a ravine separating those who know and can access it and those who should know just what a theatrical gem they are missing out on and would be just as delighted as I am with it.

All of the photos are of the Harmonlodies Cantonese Opera Studio performing at the George’s River Council’s Lunar New Year Festival earlier this year.

1. How old is the Cantonese Opera? 粤剧有多长时间历史?

• 在明末清初起到今已有三,四百年歷史了。
There have been 3-400 years of history since the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644C.E.) to the present.

2. Has the Cantonese Opera arisen from any particular Province of China? 粤剧是从中国的哪个省份起源的?

• 在廣東廣州佛山珠江三角洲一帶開始,初是以木魚,龍舟粵謳在民間興起,後不斷及收劇種的東西,而發展型成今天之粵劇曲藝。
It started in the Pearl River Delta, Guangdong Province. It started with a wooden knocker from a Dragon Boat and slowly absorbed the other opera’s essence, becoming today’s Canton Opera.

3. How does it differ from the Opera of different regions or cities of China? Are the stories, or music, or costumes or backdrops different? 粤剧和其他中国剧种有什么区别?故事情节不同,音乐还是背景不同?

  • .同其它劇種都是兄弟劇種,互相及收學習慣共同進步,都是祖國的藝術奇葩。

The other genres, they are all brothers, in the same family. They advance each other and learn from each other.

4. Do the stories you tell with your performances originate in any particular mythology or composer and lyricists work? 你们表演的剧情有什么历史起源吗?台词有起源吗?

  • 台詞方面要都根據歷史歷代的人物過往的經歷,其中一段而編寫劇本(曲詞)表達的。

The scripts are usually based on the life of some famous people and historic stories, from the past.

5. I love the physical humour of the clowns. How important are they in full performances? 我 很喜欢粤剧里的丑角,他们在剧中有着多重要的位置?

  • 丑角方面,他們能曾加劇裡的情節氣氛,使劇情豐富,都是很重要的。

It is very important that they can add to the atmosphere of the drama and enrich the story, and make the show funny and attractive to the audience.

6. How long have Harmonlodies Cantonese Opera been together as a group? 你们的剧组成立有多长的历史了?

  • .我們成立在1996年4月17日,也曾參加過農曆新年的活動,慈善活動。例如:中國的華東水災,也得到Council的支持,免費提供場地給我們,當時籌到九千多元,交到紅十字會用來捐款振災。還有昆士蘭水災等等。

We were founded on 17 April, 1996. We participate in the Lunar New Year festivities and charity activities. We have had support from councils who have provided a free stage for us to perform. With our fundraising we have achieved over $9000 which we passed on to the Red Cross as a donation to support the flooded areas in East China and Queensland.

A real treat - St George area's own Harmonodies Cantonese Opera Studio

7. Is performing in Cantonese rather than Mandarin a barrier to a greater Chinese audience? 粤剧在中国国内其他省份的推广是否有障碍?

• .如果其他省是有廣東話的,應該沒有障礙的。
If they understand Cantonese, there are no barriers

8. Mei Lan Fang was a huge success bringing the Beiging Opera to the West in the early 20th Century. Have you considered extending the reach of your talents to the wider Australian Community with the use of English surtitles, like Opera Australia uses when they perform in Italian or French? 梅兰芳在20世纪初推广京剧发挥了很大的作用,你们有没有考虑在澳大利亚用英文字幕推广粤剧,像澳洲还有其他语种的戏剧的推广,如意大利语和法语等。

• 我們每年都會參加全球華人粵劇節的也曾參與法國巴黎的演出,加拿大多倫多的演出,廣西省,剛剛也參加了佛山,湛江的演出歸來。
Every year we attend the World Cantonese Opera Festival in Toronto, Canada and Paris, France. We just came back from Foshan and Zhanjiang, two cities in Guangdong.

I’d like to thank Sandy So Ping Chan, for allowing me to interview her and also her daughter Babor and Liya Lei Christianos for their help in translating backwards and forwards from English to Cantonese and then Cantonese back to English

Hopeless Heroes–interview with Stella Tarakson

Antipodean Odyssey

Last week I had the pleasure to meet Stella Tarakson, the author of the delightful Hopeless Heroes series.  They’re chapter books for primary school kids, and feature the adventures of a boy called Tim, who accidentally invokes the hero Heracles, when he breaks his mother’s favourite vase.  Mayhem and mischief ensue–Heracles is strong but needs direction, and Hera and Hermes are continually meddling.  (The first few books are written up in the Our Mythical Childhood survey …) 

Tarakson is from Sydney, Australia.  Her parents emigrated from Greece, and she talked with me about how the Greek myths resonated for her as a child, and now as a storyteller.  It was fascinating to hear her thoughts, and to think about the different ways that Greek myth travels around the world–to the Southern Hemisphere and back again.  Tarakson’s books are published by a British publisher, though I like to think a…

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Women in Orthodoxy

St Kassiani
St Kassiani (Cassia) who with a feminist’s mind challenged Emperor Theophilus assessment of women and lost his hand in marriage. Read her story at https://orthodoxwoman.wordpress.com/2012/04/09/hymn-of-st-kassiani-cassiani/

When I walk into an Orthodox Book Shop or up to the Church book stall I am faced with a diverse offering of spiritual aides in the form of the lives and teachings of the Holy Fathers of the Church. Beautiful books and uplifting.

When I began seriously to look into Orthodoxy as a faith and not a cultural imperative I was drawn to the writings of Russian writers, English, Scandinavian, basically anyone writing in English. There were Greek surnames amongst the limited offerings but I always suspected a cultural bias. A good portion of books written and offered in English were by writers on the Early Catholic Church, but again I suspected a bias.

Fast forward nearly 30 years and there a lot more books written in English on offer – colouring-in books, picture books for children, books on icons, saints lives, prayer books, service books, books on spirituality even an Orthodox Study Bible! There are books on every aspect of faith in Orthodoxy you can imagine but very few for guidance if you are not aspiring to life in a monastery or if you are looking to connect with the Orthodox Church as a woman.

As a woman I have my own issues with the Orthodox Church. I do not want to be a priest. I know of few, male or female, who would want this vocation but I have an issue with the Church for not allowing women this path if they have it in them. The way I see it, the Church cannot embrace women completely in its fold if it relegates our role, and greatest calling, to being good mothers. Being a good wife and mother is an incredibly lofty ideal, often a burden with late rewards – a toil through darkness where there is fear for what the light of day will reveal as the result of that labour. I do not disparage in any way the call of motherhood for many it is a heavy cross to bear, however, what of women who by circumstance or lack of calling cannot be mothers? Because they do not fulfil this obligation in the life of the Church, are they not completely members of that family? Are they just a pastel version of a full hue member? So, most men who don’t marry or form a family don’t choose to become priests but because the path is open to them if they shape their will towards it, they can never be pastel, or mere shadow members. In other words, because all men have the potential to fulfil the Church’s greatest earthly vocation and women do not, there is great disparity in the way that the Orthodox Church embraces its male and female members.

I have read books on Feminism and Christianity, and Woman and the Priesthood written from members of the Orthodox Church. I have understood the arguments. My eyebrows have been raised by some of the concerns – why would anyone want Aghios Oros to be open to women, it’s a sanctity and sacristy for men who are doing spiritual battle? My jaw has dropped – women can’t be priests because they can’t grow a beard to be a living icon of Christ? In the end I can ignore the argument because I am a wife and mother and because for all my concerns with my Orthodox Church when I participate in the liturgy I feel a calmness and I feel love washing over me and that there is a truth here that I cannot understand. But how much harder must it be for a single woman full of potential?

Tonight, the Troparion of St Kassiani will be chanted as a part of Holy Tuesday services. I am reminded that my Church doesn’t disparage women and it holds sacred the perspective of this holy and very human lady. Yes, I know and mention her now without sarcasm, the Holy, Blessed, Pure and Ever-Virgin Lady Theotokos graces the heights and altars of my church, but how much did she have to struggle in raising her perfect child? As a female member of the church, I feel there is a lack of female role models. Women who weren’t perfect, didn’t have perfect children and perfect husbands but women who struggled and are venerated and who spoke as prophets or perhaps as priests.

Photo Credit: St Kassiani the Hymnogragher

Review: Trojan Women

Trojan Women by Euripides

Hellenic Art Theatre

Director: Stavros Economidis

Euripides was a complex fellow. He wrote tragedies for the stage that garnered him a lot of negative criticism but also public acclaim. He revelled in women’s concerns, writing some of the strongest women in theatre history, however, he was accused of being a woman hater. Was he? He certainly parades a few outraged, noble heroines in this production but what of his fascination for the femme fatale? Admire them he did, but he couldn’t quite trust them or the beguiling power of their sexuality. In The Trojan Women he also takes on controversial subjects like the futility of war, raising the mirror to his own community’s faults, painting them the villains. Consequently he is considered a very modern playwright. 2500 years later we still relate to his messages.

Hellenic Art Theatre is presenting this Ancient Greek tragedy in Greek with English surtitles at their theatre space in the Addison Road Community Centre as part of the Greek Festival of Sydney. Directed by Stavros Economidis this production has all of the elements that you would expect from Ancient Greek Theatre: monologues; masks; an ever-present chorus and drama, drama, drama.

Publicity Poster for Trojan Women by Euripides

The Trojan Women looks at the devastation of war. Through the experiences of one family, the family singled out by the Greeks to receive the harshest treatment because they are the first family of Troy – Queen Hecuba, the princesses Polyxena, Cassandra and Andromache, Euripides highlights the plights of the losers, the prisoners, the enforced exiles. Hellenic Art Theatre invites its audience to relate to the women as refugees and boat people. Unlike the refugees of our day they are not leaving their homeland to start again but as captors of the killers of husband, father and son.

Mimika Valaris plays Ekave (Hecuba), Queen of Troy – the human embodiment of devastation, rage, loss, grief and helplessness with the chorus of Trojan Women in the background

Mimika Valaris as Hecuba, is Troy – its queen, its first mother, grandmother, shepherdess and widow. She carries the audience with her as she embodies the loss of home, community, family and order. She is Euripides first wailing woman, manifesting the pain, fear, uncertainty and rage of all of the women of her city. And her women – the women of Troy are the masked ladies of the chorus. They are the commentary on the events unfolding and the emotional thermometer. If this is your first Ancient Greek play the chorus will impress you in the interplay between the individual members and the group and the stylised use of space. The chorus remains the voice of the individual subsumed into the collective voice of a united community suffering together.

Astyanax and the Chorus
Astyanax (Deon Gama) and the Chorus


Talthybius (Nick Tsioukanis), the Greek’s messenger provides the book end of each monologue but he is also the one who moves along the action. Special mention must be made of child actor, Deon Gama who performed his silent role with maturity and focus beyond his years.

Talthybius (Nick Tsioukanis) the Messenger delivers the fate of the boy-prince Astyanax (Deon Gama) to his mother, Andromache (Evelyn Tsavalas)

Visually, it is an impressive production. The thrust stage with its apron seating closely approximates an ancient amphitheatre. The costumes glitter and contrast with the walls and fallen blocks of the city. The monologues are physicalized with big gestures helping to convey meaning to a non-Greek speaking audience.



Menelaus (Polyzois Patelis), the jilted husband of Beautiful Helen aka Helen of Troy (Gaelle Emvalomelos)


You can see this production, with its easily accessible English surtitles each weekend until the 7th April. With Greek Theatre not performed outside a University setting very often, it’s a good opportunity to see the work of one of the greatest Classical tragedians. Tickets can be booked online http://www.hellenicarttheatre.com.au/


This blog post first appeared on the St George and Sutherland Shire Leader website on March 20, 2019.

A Bunch of Amateurs – Review

A Bunch of Amateurs by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman

Arts Theatre Cronulla

6 Surf Rd, Cronulla

15th Feb – 27th March, 2019

Directed by Tom Richards

Nigel (Bill Ayers), Lauren (Jo Clark), Dorothy (Margareta Moir), Mary (Arianne Hough), Jefferson (Emmanuel Nicolaou), Denis (Ronny Couling), and Jessica (Louisa Panucci).

Nigel (Bill Ayers), Lauren (Jo Clark), Dorothy (Margareta Moir), Mary (Arianne Hough), Jefferson (Emmanuel Nicolaou), Denis (Ronny Couling), and Jessica (Louisa Panucci).

Amateur. Amateur! Hmpf! Who said amateur? Rather, a more amour of art, amour of theatre art. Arts Theatre Cronulla opens its 2019 season with a celebration of a bunch of lovers of theatre in Ian Hislop’s and Nick Newman’s satirical take on the trials of community theatre, A Bunch of Amateurs.

Dorothy (Margareta Moir) heads the Stratford Players, a small town troupe of actors from Stratford in Suffolk, as opposed to the other more famous Stratford in Warwickshire. Performing in a barn for its villagers, the group struggles to attract audiences and is financially dependent on the local brewery’s sponsorship. In a desperate attempt to turn things around Dorothy approaches a plethora of Hollywood celebrities to take the role of King Lear in their upcoming production. One agrees. He happens to be the aging action hero, Jefferson Steele (Emmanuel Nicolaou) who hopes to reinvigorate his flagging career with a run in a Royal Shakespeare Company production. Of course, the Stratford Players are no RSC.

Jefferson the Hollywood star (Emmanuel Nicolaou) and Dorothy the amateur theatre director (Margareta Moir)

Jefferson the Hollywood star (Emmanuel Nicolaou) and Dorothy the amateur theatre director (Margareta Moir)

The script is clever working on many levels. Steele has to overcome his ego not only to accept the role but to relearn his acting for the Shakespearean stage and when his daughter (Louisa Panucci) arrives, to repair his relationship with her as well. His emotional journey follows the arc of King Lear and gains for him the actor’s ultimate tool, empathy with his character. Unlike King Lear this show is very much a comedy.

Recognizable tropes of Hollywood celebrity – conceited, demanding and vacuous – capably portrayed by Nicolaou, go head to head with the homespun idealism and altruism of Dorothy and her troupe. The sincerity of Moir’s delivery captures our sympathies from the get go. We want her to win, but will the complications that arise from having a celebrity in their midst tear her little company apart?

Jefferson the Hollywood star (Emmanuel Nicolaou), Mary the star-struck hostess (Arianne Hough) and Dorothy the amateur theatre director (Magareta Moir)

Jefferson the Hollywood star (Emmanuel Nicolaou), Mary the star-struck hostess (Arianne Hough) and Dorothy the amateur theatre director (Magareta Moir)

The Stratford Players are made up of charming individuals vividly portrayed. Arianne Hough’s Mary steals the show with her over-enthused, gobsmacking adulation of Jefferson. Kudos to Jo Clark’s Lauren whose therapeutic overtures hold back nothing when eliciting laughs. The troupe is rounded out with Bill Ayer’s pompous, histrionic Nigel and the obliging plumber, Denis (Ronny Couling).

This charming production packs in the humour with its delivery, characterisation, running jokes and unabashed sight gags. Predictable? Yes, but oh, so funny. Director, Tom Richards, has left no opportunity to ring out a laugh.

You can join in the fun at Arts Theatre Cronulla – Season extended until 27th March.

www.artstheatrecronulla.com.au

Ph: 95232779

First published in the St George and Sutherland Shire Leader as, A no holds Bard comedy as Hollywood action hero meets King Lear

Lunar New Year Festival, 2019

 

On Saturday, February 3rd, the George’s River Council’s 16th annual Lunar New Year Festival celebrated the coming of the Year of the Pig, or Year of the Boar (if you happen to be Japanese). Hurstville bearing such a big Chinese community, it was easy to think of the celebrations as those for the Chinese New Year but to be part of the audience it was obvious that this is Asia’s celebration.

A parade down Forest Road was followed by speeches and an afternoon sojourn through the diverse performing arts of China and Asia in general. There were food stalls and rides and market stalls as well. The demonstration of the making of the Dragon Beard dessert was particularly popular. Nimble hands stretching long fine noodles from a coarse ring of dough was mesmerising and the culinary treat well worth the wait.

The performances drew and kept me by the stage for most of the afternoon. What was showcased just touched the traditional cultures of chiefly China but also reflected the varying levels of assimilation Chinese Australians enjoy. Performances ranged from the very Western, Kung Fu Panda Show to the very traditional, Harmonlodies Cantonese Opera Studio and then there was Chinese Pop/Variety Show culture in the energetic Wah Dee.

But Chinese culture was not the only one on show. The Japanese drumming group, Wadaiko Rindo Sydney were a visual and audio treat. Their energetic drumming  – the rhythmic rise and fall of each arm – the physical annunciation of each beat was a choreography of exact precision and an ecstasy of joy.

The MCC Dance Group of NSW provided a treat in the particular look and sound of their first dance number. Their recorded music arrested my attention immediately. The defining instrument was, unexpectedly, the clarinet. For me, if there is a type of music that the clarinet is idiosyncratic to, its the music of the Balkans, Turkey and the Middle East. I have never associated it with the music of the far East. After the Lunar Festival, I’m no longer sure.

The look of MCC’s all female performers also amazed me. Their costume had surprising similarities to the folkloric costumes of the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Over tall tunics the women wore long embroidered smocks, a flower behind the ear and a compact furlined cap. They looked a folkloric fusion of East and West. Asia being so broad it was difficult to guess where their culture sprang geographically. Was it a far western province of China?

Despite the rain the festival was a success. It offered a glimpse into various subcultures of Sydney that aren’t marketed to the general populace. If there is one thing that the organisers can improve on for next year it would have to be the programme. So much more could be gained from the experience if each performing group could be introduced within those pages. Of course there is an added benefit to having a larger programme – more space for advertising and therefore revenue raising.

My Fiction

Sci-fi, romance? No, fantasy. No, not really. Romantic – sort of – science fiction, fantasy with space travel but not with space ships, with sea shells – well, not quite. Ammonites, space travel with ammonites – fossils of prehistoric organisms. But they are more than just organisms. They are curious, adventurous and a wee bit unethical.

During the lead up to Christmas and New Year I’ll be posting four instalments of a novella that I’ve written that coincides with the holiday period and the major focus of this blog – the theatre. It’s set in the Sydney CBD and railway tunnels and, drum roll… Sydney’s subterranean, Theatre Royal.

It’s a work of fiction that I’ve drawn from my experiences working in stage blacks as well as taking in the sights, exhibitions and traffic of my city. I call it, Ghosting Europa, as in the moon orbiting Jupiter. As each new post is blogged out, I’ll be transferring each instalment to the tab in the horizontal bar above, Ghosting Europa. I hope you like it.

If not, no fear, the new year I’ll be questioning history and theatre with my usual appetite.

3. Community Theatre: The Turtle and The Empty Stage

Having a Set vs the Bare Stage

Capitol Theatre, Sydney
Capitol Theatre, Sydney

Putting up a stage show can be a costly operation. However, the time true motto – beg, borrow, steal, mightn’t be that necessary anymore. Who needs a set anyway? The emotion, the story, the talent will hold it together, will thrust a performance out of the darkness and into the hearts and minds of the audience. All of those extras are most needed by a performance that can’t stand on its own. Well, um…maybe not.

So, professional actors make it look easy. Who needs a prop – they can make a mime real. What to do with their hands when silence requires them to listen or swathes of text handled incorrectly deteriorates to clenched-handed newscasting? Professionals know the balance between not employing their limbs or looking like windmills in a storm. Where to stand and, whether and where to sit, slouch or recline when officious situations are required to bring about the power relationships within the drama or social status needs to be visually defined becomes a little more difficult.

For lovers of the craft who aren’t professional actors or professionally trained, not having something to define the setting, the social strictures or physical ones demanded by the text can be frustrating. Fancy costumes may look pretty but alone, they can’t describe the physical dynamic between characters. A couch, chair, column, raised floor, set of steps or rostrum, breaking up the space can help define status and setting.

Of course, if you are going to employ a set it has to be incorporated into the rehearsal process as early as possible – to best utilize it. The set doesn’t have to be meticulously realistic or overly dressed but practical. Sometimes it becomes a character of its own.

The set has a job to do that aids the performer in bringing off the page what the playwright has intended. It should support the performers so that they can fulfil their own potential. Today that potential may be limited, but in the future with greater stage time experience, that potential will grow.

This series of posts have been inspired by my more regular attendance at community theatres around the south of Sydney this year.

Other posts have been:

  1. Community Theatre: The Turtle and the Empty Stage –  Silence and Listening
  2. Community Theatre: The Turtle and the Empty Stage – Accents, Performing in a Second Language and Disabilities