Monday, November 24, 2014

A Dramatic Look at China-Australia Relations

State Theatre Company - Kryptonite
Space Theatre, Fri Oct 24

In the space of my lifetime China has changed from a being pariah state to one that Australia relies on heavily for its economic well-being. The recent death of Gough Whitlam reminded us all that the change began in the seventies when he had the wisdom to open relations with China. China itself has changed a great deal and Beijing has become a modern metropolis. Outwardly it has become much like any other modern city. But as Kryptonite reveals, what goes on behind the scenes or under the surface of the apparent changes in China can still leave the rest of the world mystified about what really drives this vast nation.

Lian, played by Ursula Mills, was one of the very first Chinese students to grace our shores in the 1980s. She meets Dylan (Tim Walter), a fellow student on campus and they are immediately intrigued by each other. What follows is a series of meetings over the years as their lives change radically and they attempt to reconcile the feelings they have for each other. These meetings are set against a backdrop of changing relations between China and Australia.

The infamous events of Tiananmen Square are a watershed for their own relationship and that of their respective countries, and is the first in a series of hiccups that both draws them together and pushes them apart. This tension is central to the play. No matter how much they are attracted to each other cultural differences always manage to render an ongoing relationship difficult.

The scenes early in the play where the young students make fun of each other as they explore their different backgrounds are quite endearing, and more importantly, this mutual fascination is authentic and believable. We  want them to be together.  Mills' accent is cute and fetching and contributes to an air of naivete about her new land, and Walter is appropriately awkward as the young student. Lian makes fun of Dylan's lack of ideals and he tries to get her to lighten up. But try as she might her ties with family back in China work against that. Dylan however, inspired by Lian's search for meaning and blessed with the freedom of being Australian plunges into a life where he strives to realise his ideals about the environment and he  enters politics.

In time he finds that politics is a grubby world of self-interest and muck-raking that drags up innocent details of your past to make you look unfit for office. Did Lian (China) engineer the sharing of confidential information for her own gain? Has Dylan (Australia) been caught in a honey trap? Kryptonite is a complex work, and it feels important. It could easily be used as a text book for an entire course on intercultural relations or international politics. It is rich with cultural nuance and political intrigue.

Both  Mills' and Walters' performances are quite wonderful. They quickly had the audience on side, feeling their pain, and caring about what happens to them. By the time we reach the present day Dylan's future is squarely in Lian's hands. Her destiny however is constrained by loyalty to a set of traditional values that conflict with those that might bring them and their two countries closer together. Sadly, after decades of close contact they and their countries are still dancing around the cultural chasm that yawns between them, and are no closer to knowing what values really drive their respective cultures.

Well written, great set, and clever direction. Instructive, enlightening, entertaining, important, and also quite funny in parts.

(also published at The Clothesline)

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Sleeping at Dubai Airport

On a recent return trip from Australia to Europe via Dubai I discovered quite a bit about sleeping options in Dubai airport. On the way over I decided to try a Snoozecube. It was a reasonably long trek to gate C22 in terminal 1 but I found the Snoozecube people friendly and efficient. The room and bed were clean and within minutes I was out like a light. I got 4 hours solid sleep (@$36/hr), then made my way back to the lounge feeling quite refreshed and ready for my next flight.

The return journey was not quite so smooth sailing.  If you're flying with Qantas or Emirates and your wait time in Dubai between flights is more than 8 hours you are eligible for what is called 'Dubai Connect' on the Qantas site. This may depend on your frequent flyer status - I'm not sure - but as a Gold member this meant was I eligible for free accommodation in a hotel at the airport 'subject to availability.' No one at Qantas or Emirates seemed to know exactly what this 'subject to availability' meant in practice. On boarding the Dubai flight in Amsterdam I was given an accommodation voucher for a hotel outside the airport.

I landed in Dubai 90 minutes late partly because there was an abnormal amount of air traffic around the airport. That it, it was busy! Immigration queues in Dubai can be exceedingly long at the best of times and I figured I would lose at least 30 minutes getting through customs and getting to my 'Dubai connect' hotel outside the airport. Ditto in reverse. So with the late arrival and exiting and re-entering the airport my 8 hours was now down to 5 and a half. I explained all this to the staff at the Emirates lounge and they thought I'd probably be better off just finding a quiet corner of the lounge and sleeping on their kind of recliner seats but they were too high and slippery so I made myself comfortable on the floor and enjoyed another sound 4 hours sleep.

So next time round I'll either make use of Snoozecube or sleep in the lounge. And now I know that the 'Dubai Connect' option involves exiting the airport and immigration, etc I'll only use this if I have a layover for 10 hours or more.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

In the fields of eastern Ukraine......

When I see images of the recent Malaysia Airlines disaster I cry. I felt even more moved today when I saw the cavalcade of hearses taking the bodies to somewhere in Holland to be identified. I didn't know anyone on this flight, nor am I connected or related to those who lost their lives in any way. So why am I feeling like this?
Is it because I've been to Holland many times, have lived there, have many friends there, my son lives there?
Is it because I'm a traveller and frequently use planes to get around?
Is it because there were so many Australians among the dead?
Is it because I have flown Malaysia Airlines many times and they fly into my home city of Adelaide?

It's probably all of these things on some sub-conscious level, but from the outset of this disaster I have been quite frankly gob-smacked at the stupidity and callousness of those who shot this plane down, and patrolled the fields of death in eastern Ukraine like cowboys. Keeping those with authority and expertise from properly investigating the site, picking through the ruins, standing on  the tail of the downed plane, removing parts of the plane from the scene, displaying souvenirs of the dead passengers, looting their belongings, and most offensively of all leaving bodies out in the elements and then dragging them around when it finally occurred to them that they should do something about it. 

I just find this whole litany of ignorant activity beyond the pale for the 'civilised world' of 2014. This is Europe for heaven's sake. Where is the respect for the dead? Where's the sorrow? Or an apology even? It doesn't matter who did it - Russian backed separatists or other Ukrainians - no one involved has expressed sorrow or regret for the death of 300 innocent people who had nothing to do with this conflict. But I guess I'm not surprised at that. What has amazed and shocked me is the fact that the guns weren't buried and disagreements put aside immediately to take proper care of the dead. Instead both sides maintained a stand-off, played the blame game, rifled through the possessions of those they'd killed, and left bodies to rot in the sun. The world watched (well I did anyway) in disbelief and tears.

But today we saw a different story. Each survivor was taken off a plane in Eindhoven by people in uniform in dignified and solemn fashion, and each of them rode alone in their own hearse through streets lined with people marking their passing in silence, shedding tears, and strewing flowers on the passing hearses. It didn't matter who they were or where they came from - they could have been Dutch or Australian or Malaysian.  What mattered is they were human; they were like us, and this is how the dead should be treated. 

Holland showed its class today. On behalf of the civil side of humanity they enacted a ceremony of great respect that showed that human lives are valued in a way they were not as they were left lying in the fields of eastern Ukraine. 

So, as I watched the cavalcade carrying the unknown dead through the streets of Holland, I cried for a different reason. I cried because at last someone had realised how important these last rites are for all of us, not just for the families involved, and acted on it with dignity and grace. Bedankt Nederland (thanks Holland) for restoring some dignity to the world today. 

A Stunning Night of Strings

Adelaide International Guitar Festival Gala - Australian String Quartet with Pepe Romero, Maximo Pujol Trio, and Slava Grigoryan plus special guests: The Aurora Guitar Ensemble

Festival Theatre, Sat Jul 19

This was a case of the support act nearly stealing the show. The curtain opened on the glorious sight of 26 guitarists in brightly coloured shirts seated and ready to play. Their composer and musical director, Paul Svoboda, raised his arms for quiet, waited a few appropriate seconds, then launched the Aurora Ensemble. What a beautiful sound. Svoboda himself is mesmerising as he choreographs his players with precision and grace. If I closed my eyes I could hear an orchestral string section. At times I heard wind instruments, and a piano. But I'd open my eyes again and there were just guitars. Beautifully played guitars and superb arrangements. Quite simply some of the most uplifting music I've heard in years.

Enter the Australian String Quartet (ASQ) and Slava Grigoryan to play a piece by Australian composer Shaun Rigney. Modern and experimental, it took some getting used to. It seems a difficult piece to play, and I imagine it might be one of those pieces that is more fun to play than to listen to. ASQ were not so much playing together on this disjointed and occasionally discordant piece as keeping out of each other's way. As violin one swapped parts with violin two who handed over to cello who had its lines completed by viola it bounced around quite frenetically at times, and in the quieter moments or gaps there was the guitar holding it all together. Fascinating to watch and enjoyable to listen to, but more music for the head than the heart perhaps.

Spain's classical guitar superstar, Pepe Romero, joined ASQ next and treated us to Luigi Boccherini's 'Fandango' from the late 18th century. In contrast this was a much brighter and more harmonic interlude with the guitar parts more integrated into the composition. There were also fine moments that showcased the difference between bowed strings (violin, cello) and plucked (guitar), and how deliciously complementary they are.  

The Maximo Pujol Trio from Argentina were the final featured act and delivered sensuous moments of tango. The interplay here between Pujol on guitar and Eleonora Ferreyra on bandoneon, a type of concertina, was a joy to behold and listen to. It was just like the instruments were talking to each other. It also felt European, but it was actually music from the 'Paris of the south' - Buenos Aires.

A wonderful evening's entertainment.

(also published on The Clothesline)

Monday, July 21, 2014

Adelaide International Guitar Festival - Late Night Session

Cam Blokland, Marcel Yammouni, Simon Hosford
Space Theatre, Thursday July 17

Who would have thought that wild and untamed electric guitar from the rock gods of the seventies and eighties would still be with us in 2014 (my mother told me it would never last), and would even be featured at a high profile cultural event in the city's premiere theatre?  But so it was last night at the Late Night Session of the Adelaide International Guitar Festival.

Three guitar shredders took  the stage in turn to demonstrate the power of the electric form of guitar. Whether you like it or not, the electric guitar is a remarkable instrument. As  well as being able to weep (George Harrison) , talk (Bruce Springsteen, Thunder Road), Cam Blokland, Marcel Yammouni,  and Simon Hosford got their guitars to wail, scream, screech and soar in a powerhouse display of guitar wizardry.

Local lad, Cam Blokland was up first. Looking every bit the rock star with long hair and sunnies (he's  the guy in sunglasses on the festival's promo poster) he reeled off a number of original 'songs' with occasional glimpses of melody (I liked the one his Mum liked), that were mostly showcases for his incredibly nimble fingers. His self-deprecating send-ups of the body language of rock guitarists was a nice touch too. Marcel Yammouni followed with a slightly less frenetic  performance that involved less notes and more space, more moments of what might be called melody, and indeed some subtlety. He dedicated one of his songs to Johnny Winter, the legendary Albino Blues guitarist who had sadly died earlier in the day. But then Simon Hosford  blew all notions of melody and subtlety out of the water with an onslaught of speed and a percussive style that was not so much music as an exploration into the power of electricity.

Seeing guitar played by these three maestros of this genre was an assault on the senses, and one can't escape the fact that guitar played like this is an extension of ego - how can one person make so much noise/be so loud? But as Simon Hosford said, "this is about as much fun as you can have standing up!"  I really enjoyed the show, but it was strange to see and hear this kind of music where no one was dancing (there was barely even any discernible rocking of torsos as I looked around the room), there was no superstar hype surrounding the personas of the guitarists, and no screaming fans. It was all very serious and studied. It seems wild metal shredding guitar has come of age.

And kudos to the fantastic band members supporting the guitar tyros - they were a show in their own right. Keyboard and bass and drums all got to do solos, but it was the drum solo that took me back - vintage!

Now for a little classical baroque at the other end of the guitar spectrum.......

(also published at The Clothesline)

Sunday, June 22, 2014

What is cabaret?

Till now I've ignored the annual Adelaide Cabaret festival. I figured it was something beyond my sphere of enjoyment and would feature music that I have difficulty relating to - principally jazz. But this year I took the plunge and learned a great deal, and have seen some awesome shows. Cabaret it seems is an all embracing genre that does not have a set format. I thought there'd be a lot of singer standing by the piano singing type acts. There was some of this, but there was plenty else besides.

Wikipedia defines cabaret as "a form of entertainment featuring music, song, dance, recitation or drama. It is mainly distinguished by the performance venue (also called a cabaret), such as in a restaurant, pub, or nightclub with a stage for performances. The audience, often dining or drinking, does not typically dance but usually sits at tables." So it doesn't really matter what's happening on stage. As long as people are seated around tables it can be cabaret. It's the type of venue that matters, not what's happening on stage. I have seen funk, pop, rock, blues, jazz, comedy and burlesque this week, and most of it has been brilliant.

Something else which seems to be de rigeur for cabaret, based on what I've seen over the last two weeks, is that there must be significant interaction with the audience. This may be jokes or humour, narration of a story or context that pieces together the musical interludes, wandering among the tables singing to or having fun with people, or getting people to sing along. So it's not just about playing the music. More is expected. You have to be an entertainer. I saw one show which fell down in this regard. Musically the show was wonderful. It would have been perfect as just a concert. But in this case the performer's entertainment skills were week. In a couple of others the entertainment aspect was great, but I didn't like the music! Not to say that the music wasn't any good - I just didn't like it. In fact it must be said that the standard of musicianship was outstanding.

Every show featured a lead performer, and they typically had brought a pianist with them, who was often the musical director, or other key musician. The remainder of their musical ensemble was made up of local musicians who may have had just one or two rehearsals before going live. This made the standard of musical performances even more impressive, but also resulted in some shows where the local musicians seemed a little disengaged from the stage act. They didn't laugh at jokes, or even look at the star act between songs. They were only concerned with making sure they had the right page of the score ready for the next song. And this is a bit weird when the entertainer is being very funny or outrageous and the reaction from the support musicians is zilch!

I learned along the way that this semi-impromptu method of doing live shows is quite normal for cabaret. The main act is often imported from out of town, and has to go live with a band they barely know, and vice versa. So there is always an element of uncertainty about the quality of the show. And some performers switch from other forms of theatre when you have practised being in character, and rehearsed everything down to the last detail, over months in the lead up to a live show. So cabaret always has this edge of the unexpected and unrehearsed. This was sometimes evident on the technical side of things too. The technical crew are always local, and have had precious little time to rehearse lighting, audio cues and the like. It all sounds a little stressful, but probably contributes to cabaret being a dynamic genre that is always evolving. But it also assumes an extremely high level of professional skill where participating musicians and technical crews need to execute their skills with minimal preparation.

With my minimal exposure to cabaret thus far I'm not sure how applicable this is to cabaret in general, but there seems to be a leaning towards the risque. I saw several very suggestive performers, and one who was outright erotic. But it's an intriguing genre where sexual or other bohemian behaviour is showcased in quite subtle, classy fashion. It can occasionally be crude, but generally this kind of behaviour from the edge of acceptability was suggestive, or naughty, or implied. It was not explicit or cheap. As Sven Ratzke said, cabaret is about sex with class, and where you don't need to be naked with a wrecking ball to be sexy!

Sven Ratzke's show, Divas Diva's, is one of two I'd like to mention as the highlights of what I've seen these two past weeks. You can read my full review of it here, but it was camp, sexy, a little outrageous, funny, reflective and musically outstanding. The other was Rocket Man by Rod Davies. Again, the review here tells the fuller story, but this was a masterpiece of entertainment combining music and narrated stories of Rod's life journey through music. The man should be regarded, and maybe already is by some, as a national treasure.

So now I know a little about cabaret. I know it is classy, that the standard of music is exceptional, and that it can vary widely in format and style. Each new show brought a different way of being cabaret, and from an audience point of view this is quite exciting because you're not quite sure what to expect. But I'm sure of one thing, if it's on the Adelaide Cabaret Festival program it will be very good. I may not like it, but it will be very good.

(PS Thank you Catherine :) 

Lots more Cabaret Festival reviews at Adelaide's newest online arts magazine:

Thursday, June 05, 2014


Some notes on a day of legendary speakers.

Sugata  Mitra - From a hole in the wall to the cloud: engaging your students to fulfil their sense of wonder and passion for learning 

Most people will know of Sugata Mitra because of his now famous hole in the wall experiments with computers in India. I knew of these experiments but more recently latched on to his work when I came across this quote that he offered to explain how education globally has come to be in such dire straits:

He maintains that the old (and still current) educational system was designed to produce people who obeyed orders;  people who could, read, write and count, but it was not designed to produce people who were creative or think for  themselves ie it is now obsolete

Is KNOWING (not Knowledge) obsolete?

He revisited this idea of asking whether we actually need to know/remember things anymore,  given that the Internet is constantly at our finger tips, and that the more important skill may be knowing where to find information when you need to know it. I was intrigued by Larry Sanger's refutation of this proposition some years ago, and offered my own comments in this article.

Mitra referred to the Reptilian part of the human brain that is concerned with threat and punishment and is the state of mind in which you learn least effectively; this is how we feel when we are tested in exams!

A new model of learning: 
  • SOLE: self organised learning environment = broadband Internet + collaboration + helpful adult (guide/facilitator)
  • Self Organising systems > the edge of chaos > emergence (RIP Marie Jasinksi - a former colleague who was well ahead of her time in identifying chaos theory as a explanation of how creativity and innovation come about.)

Mitra has funding to build 'schools in the cloud' (5 in India; 2 in the UK)

This was an inspiring presentation from someone who is daring to challenge traditional thinking about how students learn, and is refreshingly humble about his achievements. Several times during his presentation he said "I'm not sure" or "I don't know" but I think he's right about a great deal.

PANEL SESSION  Higher Ed Congress

Just caught the tail end of this session. It was great to hear the renowned Elliot Masie talk in person. A few snippets:

·       unis don't necessarily meet the needs of industry; degrees aren't all that valuable (echos what employers often say about TAFE qualifications in Australia)
·       corporations want continuous learners, and more emphasis on evidence than ritual (eg PPT is a ritual and does not promote cognitive transfer)
·       wants 'aggressive learners'
·       the world does not present 'disciplinary problems'; so we need cross-disciplinary experts. (A theme Ken Robinson has often addressed. If we want to solve complex problems like climate change our education systems need to produce people who can contemplate such problems from multiple perspectives - scientific, sociological, economic, etc)

John Daniel and Stamenka Uvalic-Trumbic -
Post traditional Tertiary Education: Exploring the challenges of diversity and quality

Wonderful to see another legendary educator talk in person! But as you can see from my notes below this session presented several questions that need further exploration.

·         just 25% of uni students are recent school leavers
·         Aust youth unemployment currently 12% (one of the world's lowest)
·         OER came to be via UNESCO in 2002
·         only one uni getting ROI from MOOCS and open content: Open University UK (need to find out more on how they do this)
·         MOOCS are like battle suicide - only a few students survive/reach the end
·         MOOCS may be increasing gap in access to education (how???) and degrees
·         [see for slides - but out of date. Nothing from later than 2012 there.]

David Barnett (Pearson) - Higher Ed at the Crossroads

In the US the salaries of degree holders has decreased 14% while at the same time the cost of a degree has risen 72%. (The same is likely to happen in Australia if the current government's planned deregulation goes ahead.)

Ken Robinson  - the usual :) Creativity, the Future, Innovation, Education etc. Or more precisely: Learning to be creative: how to teach and lead innovation, identify talents and revolutionise education

He spoke for more than an hour so it was great value for money. It was entertaining - as are all his talks that many of the audience would have been familiar with via his TedTalks, but in truth it was a little light on substance. That often seems to be the way with keynote speakers these days. They are there more to entertain than inform. Sir Ken did both certainly, and much of the audience showed their appreciation with a standing ovation but I had the feeling that it was just as much about acknowledging his contribution to educational debate over the years as it was showing appreciation for his address.

His book Out of Our Minds has been virtually rewritten.

New Technologies:

·         tools (technology) are neutral
·         but new tools and technologies allow you to conceive of things in new ways
·         there are always unintended consequences

In relation to the use of new technologies he made the point that
"If we can, we will." My explorations into cutting edge (and controversial) technologies has led me to the same conclusion. (See Where is the Internet Taking Us?) Consider drones, implanted technologies...

  • 10% of all humanity that has ever lived is alive right now. Most of the population explosion has occurred in the developing world. And for the first time in history the majority of the world now live in urban settings.

He bemoans the fact that contemporary educational administrators and policy makers are stuck on measuring outcomes to the exclusion of all else: "It's all about yield." Elsewhere he wrote:

"The dominant culture of education has come to focus not on teaching 
and learning, but testing...this...leads to a culture of compliance rather than creativity.“

Principles of Organic Farming:

·         culture
·         ecology
·         fairness
·         care

In organic farming the primary focus is on the soil. The educational equivalent for this metaphor is culture.

Children are borne as learning organisms eg witness the way they learn language. This can't be taught.

Cultural Filters:
When presented with a picture of a tiger in the jungle people from  Western cultures see a tiger (focus on individuals). People from Asian cultures see jungle (focus on relationship)

"The power is within our hands; we need to push back against those who wish to just measure yield."

He concluded with a wonderful short video of people in Paraguay creating musical instruments from rubbish.

Lovely to witness such a fine speaker ply his trade!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

It's Raining in Suva....

... something which apparently happens on average 300 days a year. It's late afternoon and it's gloomy - almost dark. I'm nestled in the corner of the Air Cafe at a tiny airport. It seems despite the rain the planes will fly and I'll be in Nadi this evening.

Other passengers on this short flight are slowly filtering in so Nasouri airport almost feels busy. There's probably no more than 50 people here. Fiji changes the scale of things. The population of the whole country fits comfortably into Adelaide. It's never really crowded here. It's one of the few places I've visited where it would relatively easy to be alone. It's another of those 'they don't know how lucky they are' situations. It's an island paradise with a gentle climate, ridiculously lush vegetation (courtesy of the around 300 days of rain per year), where people shuffle around in sandals or thongs (or barefoot), wearing sulus and bright flowery clothing en route to somewhere in 'Fiji time.'

'Fiji time' takes some getting used to. It's great that people here are relaxed, but through another cultural lens it can seem rude. Why agree to meet at 4.00 when you have absolutely no intention of being ready at 4.00? It's probably going to be closer to 4.30. So why not just make it 4.30? Because it wouldn't happen till 5.00! So it goes...but it does give people the chance to relax about meeting deadlines, and an excuse to be lazy and inefficient. Your culture will decide :)

Despite the rain (in Suva); despite the low standard living for many - no electricity or running water - everyone seems to have a home and food to eat. Much like Sri Lanka. There's not much fat on the average budget, but people seem generally well and content. There is a percentage of drunken young men (the 18 - 25 year olds again) hanging out on Suva streets with nothing else to do but threaten violence but it doesn't feel too pernicious.

When I was last here about 18 years ago there was another noticeable tension which seems to have dissipated - that between indigenous Fijians and the Indian interlopers. Back then it was being constantly talked about and reported in the media. Such division seems to be a thing of the past for now - the two majority ethnic groups seem more intent on being Fijian rather than for example, Indo-Fijian. They're to be commended for that I say. I wonder if Afro-Americans might ever adopt this approach and just announce themselves as 'American'?

And today I learned about Rotuma. It's an island way off to the north about 500 kilometres away. Pasirio, who I've worked with the last few days, hails from there. He hasn't been there since 2009. It's apparently very hard to reach by air or sea. There's no other speck of land in any direction for 300 kms..And the people are Polynesian. That's all I know. I'm going to go hunting on Google for more information. I'm intrigued. Though he may not have not have been home to Rotuma for 5 years he has a calm about him. An island calm maybe, and an easy personal warmth.

And maybe that sums up Fiji - calm and warm. Though the fake bula smiles/greetings drive me nuts. Most of these greetings are genuine, but you get a few 'bulas' with a fake smile and no eye contact. Please Fiji folks - if you don't want to greet me and say hello that's absolutely fine by me. Ignore me. That's much nicer than a forced fake smile.