Date: January 01 2013
T he term "site-specific" gets bandied around a fair bit in the performing arts but more often than not it's a misnomer.
Coined from the late 1980s, "site-specific" was originally a term to describe work generated from, and performed in, a landscape, a building, an alleyway or even a single room. The site and the work emerging from it are bound at the molecular level.
Now, though, it has become a shorthand term for any performance that takes place in a non-traditional environment, such as a Shakespeare play staged in an abandoned factory or under a tree in a park. Harold Pinter's The Caretaker played in a derelict boarding house.
Performances in non-traditional spaces can have a very powerful effect on an audience. Expectations can be jolted and comfort zones challenged.
But once the novelty of the experience has worn off, the conventional power relations of theatre-based production are often revealed to be more or less intact (though with worse sightlines, dodgy acoustics and harder seats). In the end, the specific site is being occupied or exploited, not negotiated with.
The Sydney Festival offers a rare opportunity to see two genuinely site specific works, however: Concrete and Bone Sessions, created by the physical theatre company Branch Nebula and performed in the Dulwich Hill Skate Park; and Micro Parks, short works created for tiny municipal playgrounds dotted across Sydney's inner west.
"Just using a particular site doesn't make it site-specific at all," says Lee Wilson, who is co-creating Concrete and Bone Sessions with Mirabelle Wouters. "Yes, it needs to relate to the space, but it also has to form some kind of relationship with it."
The space in this instance is the irregularly shaped concrete bowl in a triangle of parkland bounded by three railway lines in Dulwich Hill.
"We're pushing all the boundaries about what a skate park is really for and what it means to the people who come here," Wilson says as the production's cast of skaters, BMX riders and parkourists warm up on top of the public toilet block that also serves as the company's production office. "It's quite anarchic what normally goes on in here, but in many ways it's quite strictly coded as well. We want to explore it and let it inform us."
Wilson and Wouters arrived with big plans: using the concrete walls for video projection, building seating stands, importing a big PA system. All that has dropped away.
"This is a public space and we've become very conscious about the way in which we use it," Wilson says. "You have such a great natural venue here. It's perfect for what it needs to do. And you have everything else going on here, too - the freight trains going past, the light changing as the sun sets. We've made the interplay of the elements all part of the experience. We want to show how the park actually works and not turn it into a theatre by stealth.''
For Julie-Ann Long, site-specific work is about negotiation, not exploitation. In Micro Parks, Long will perform with fellow dancer-choreographer Martin Del Amo in a tiny playground in backstreet Erskineville.
"We'll be inserting ourselves into the park," Long says. "It will be like we've taken up residence. Our challenge is to create something that not only responds to that little park - which is only about the width of a regular terrace house - but also is a development of work I've already done, so that this piece isn't isolated from everything that's gone before it."
Long imagines her audience will be split into two groups: those in the know, who will seek the work out, and those who come across it.
"I think the people who find us accidentally will have the most intriguing time of it," Long says. "The park we are working in is on a very quiet street so a lot of people who see it will be the neighbours or people who use the park day-to-day.
''When you're doing this kind of work, you're not only negotiating the space but with its community. It's quite a delicate thing to explore."
Concrete and Bone Sessions runs from January 9 to 13 at Dulwich Hill Skate Park, Jack Shanahan Reserve. Micro Parks is in four inner west parks from 2pm to 7pm on January 11 to 13, free. Map available at Carriageworks. For more, see sydneyfestival.org.au.
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