Melbourne Festival: When The Mountain Changed Its Clothing
Alison Croggon considers Heiner Goebbels’ breathtaking work When The Mountain Changed Its Clothing, a piece of theatre that refuses to cast young women as shallow, narcissistic, morally shonky human beings.
Is there a demographic that generates such consistent bile as girls and young women? If they’re not demonstrating their girly taste by reading books such as Twilight (note bene, young women are voracious readers and read many things besides), they are shallow and narcissistic because they like selfies, or they drink and get raped, or they are too pretty or not pretty enough.
Girls are lightning rods for judgment. And no wonder. To call a politician “girly” means he hasn’t got the guts. To shout “you girl!” at a footballer is to call into question his entire integrity as a human being. Girls are the epitome of incapacity, weakness, moral shonkiness, falsity and dubious sexuality. They are at once the apex of sexual desirability – their unblemished youth is what all women must aim for – and the receptacles of disgust and loathing. Every girl knows what it’s like to have some lout shout filth at her from a passing car.
In When the Mountain Changed Its Clothing, which is performed by 40 girls and young women aged between 10 and 20, there’s a scene when the performers sit, very still and very silent, right at the front of the stage. At first they smile brightly and falsely, as if asking for our approval. Gradually, in the silence, their smiles fall away. Their gaze becomes a challenge: we realise they are not seeking our approval, as girls are supposed to do. These young women are all merely there, each in her own casual clothing, her own face, each ordinary and individual.
Fellow critic Anne-Marie Peard reported at the premiere that in response to this scene, a man a seat away from her muttered “Show us your tits”. A joke, of course. And as a joke, it is (of course) the traditional means of putting a woman in her place. Show us your tits, love. It means: I have the right to demean you. My gaze has the right to demand your body. You are nothing except this body that I have a right to look at however I please. I can rape you if I want. I will rape you with my eyes.
If nothing else, the sheer defensive inappropriateness of this comment indicates, in a negative fashion, the power of what was happening on stage. The gaze of these young people was a refusal of so many things. Perhaps what I liked best about When the Mountain Changed Its Clothing was its refusal of incapacity. All these girls and young women were staggeringly capable.
They were present, first of all, as artists: not only as singers, but as performers who literally built the show in front of our eyes, from objects scattered about on a bare stage. I don’t know how they managed the precision of their complex choral work without a conductor to keep them in time. They generated a dizzyingly beautiful choreography of bodies and furniture; they literally winched up a heavy bank of lights and constructed a miniature stage. And they sang. How they sang.
When the Mountain Changed Its Clothing is a collaboration between the German director, composer and thinker Heiner Goebbels, who brought Stifter’s Dinge to the 2010 Melbourne Festival, and the Vocal Theatre Carmina Slovenica, which is directed by Karmina Silec. Like Stifter’s Dinge, it’s a three-dimensional theatrical composition that, as with collage, transforms its constituent elements into something entirely unexpected.
Instead of pianos, Goebbels is using a choir of young girls to explore notions of transformation. This is, in some ways, as chilly as it sounds. What’s arresting is what happens as a result: suddenly we are looking at a large group of young women in an entirely different way to those we are used to. They are not seeking our approval. There is nothing apologetic in how they approach us: they are entirely self-possessed and autonomous. We are aware of them both as individuals and as a group working together. They make not one concession to expectations about their sexuality. And they are utterly vital.
Before our eyes they create, with astonishing vocal and physical skills, a riveting work of theatre. The general expectation of young people in art is, in many ways, an infantile one: they are there not to make, but to be helped to “express themselves”. In the light of this, there’s a temptation to claim that such astounding collective discipline is itself a model of oppressive control. It seemed to me, rather, that there’s a huge respect paid in the autonomy of the performers, in the trust that is shown their skills. The result is the opposite of repression: it’s a release from an over-written identity, the identities of “girl” or “young woman”, into the paradoxical freedoms of art.
Its eclectic collage of texts ranges from Alain Robbe-Grillet to Ian McEwan to Gertrude Stein to Marina Abramovic. None of them has anything specifically to do with girlhood: one is even a reactionary text on poverty by Gertrude Stein (and her later, perhaps regretful, meditation on it). All of them are, however, about acts of transition: from life to death, from youth to old age, from stasis to revolution, from summer to winter.
As in Stifter’s Dinge, Goebbels also references visual art, in this case the naïve art of Henri Rousseau or Ferenc Pakati. The music is wide-ranging, from Goebbels’s own composition to Brahms, traditional folk songs and clapping games to Schönberg. Each scene folds into the next, in an impeccable choreography that seems to follow the logic of chaos theory, an unpredictability that resolves into a higher order and breaks again. It’s unexpectedly light, even liberating, and it’s breathtaking theatre.
ABC Arts (AU), 27 October 2014