Melbourne Festival: When the mountain changed its clothing

“If you liked that show, I’m going to push you under a tram.” It could only be said in Melbourne, at an arts festival. It was said to me at the end of When the mountain changed its clothing.

When the mountain changed its clothing . Photo by Wonge Bergmann
Photo by Wonge Bergmann

I liked it.

Others didn’t.

My favourite bit was the cutting open of teddy bears to make clouds. And the throat singing choir of teenagers in coloured and patterned gum boots.

German composer and director Heiner Goebbals makes a form of music theatre that’s made to be an experience. Much closer to performance art than narrative theatre, he creates a strange and beautiful base for the audience to layer their own interpretation and emotions onto.

He was last at a Melbourne Festival with Stiflers Dinge in 2010. Without performers, stripped upright pianos were played by mechanical arms in a leafless and pond-filled forest. They moved, sound came from everywhere and there was lots of dry ice. It was mesmerising and weird and left people smiling without knowing why.

When the mountain changed its clothing has performers. Forty teenage girls and young women from Vocal Theatre Carmina Slovenica: a girls ensemble, directed by Karmina Silec, that searches for and explores new forms of music and vocal techniques. Their singing is exquisite. And their movement is as disciplined as their music. There isn’t a step or note out of place. While each is dressed individually, they work as one and none would dare to stand out. It’s also a bit creepy.

Without a safe or easy narrative, scenes have themes and as they build on each other, the intent of the previous scenes becomes clearer. The music and text is a mish-mash – music includes Schonberg, traditional Slovenian music and new work by Goebbals;  text includes Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Ian McEwan, Gertrude Stein and an excerpt from a tv show – that somehow sounds like it belongs together.

There’s logic and complete understanding of the work on the stage – it’s easy to see it’s about transitions – but seeing the understanding isn’t as easy. And this is how Goebbals’s work soars or plummets.

I saw it as a middle-aged look at teenage girls and how they have been, and continue to be, represented in literature and the arts. The choir of teens show attempts at capturing the experience of being between child and adult; a time when a girl thinks they are one thing while the world sees them as the other. A time when innocence means more than child or adult understands.

There’s an early scene when the girls sit in a line at the front of the stage and silently look at the audience. A middle-aged man two-people along from me whispered, “Show us your tits”. I wish I’d reached over and slapped him. I saw children in t-shirts and jeans. He saw tits. I hated him. I hope he reads this and for one fraction of a second feels what it must be like as a girl to have a man old enough to be your grandfather say that to you.

The girls and young women on stage are controlled, but there’s rebellion in the creepy consistency. I saw a show that celebrated the strength and power of young women and laughs at anyone who dares to only see tits.

It’s today’s $25 SwiftTix offer. For $25 it’s worth the risk to see what your feel at the end. Meanwhile, I’m staying a few metres away from tram lines.

Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

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