Exit pursued by a bear, leaving a legacy of changing lives


Alan Hope Kirk

16/10/1930 – 3/4/2014

Alan in white

Alan Hope Kirk was one of the most theatrical people you could ever meet. He dressed dramatically in black, spoke effusively with enthusiasm and moved with bristling energy. This was entirely natural to a man for whom the world was a stage and life a grand performance. Yet, for someone who struck you as a character from a Hoffmann fairytale, he was extremely worldly. In fact, Kirk was a man of extremes: he was extremely intelligent, extremely resourceful, extremely generous, extremely genuine and extremely engaged with the world.

Although he was a graduate of accounting, Kirk spent the first half of his long life as a dancer and performing artist. In the second half, he embraced an additional, most extraordinary career in education and also, in a small way, turned to business. Thanks to his action-packed, globetrotting life, Kirk met countless people and made many friends. When an opportunity presented itself, he seized it, eagerly. That was Alan Hope Kirk and it was his way.

Alan's Christmas card, 2012

Alan’s Christmas card, 2012

Despite an extremely varied international dance career that saw Kirk performing into his late 70s, it is not as a dancer that Kirk made his most memorable contribution to performing arts. His greatest claim to fame is his artistic alter ego: Cynthia Bear, whose naughty tendencies were always foiled by her niggling conscience. Kirk created and performed this tutu-wearing children’s character for The Tarax Show, shown on GTV-9, Melbourne, Australia. Cynthia is widely and most fondly remembered by viewers who were children or had children in the late 1960s.

Kirk, who was born in San Diego in 1930, came to Australia in 1966, having met and married Australian ballerina, Lynne Golding, in New York in the 1950s.

Although they separated in the early 1970s and Kirk returned to live in America, the couple shared an unbreakable bond that formed both the emotional and practical background of their lives and kept Kirk coming back to Australia for the rest of his life, even after Golding’s’s death in 2008.

I met Alan in the early 1980s, at Lynne Golding’s ballet studio, when he taught the evening classical class that I took regularly in those days. He wore black practice clothes and a red patterned bandana, tied pirate-style to hold his hair in place. His movement was brisk and breezy, sketched out by flying limbs that left the impression of an animator’s pad being flipped. By contrast, Lynne was painstakingly methodical and precise. In fact, his free and easy approach was the diametric opposite of Lynne’s steely classical discipline and, in the Temple of Ballet, almost a little blasphemous. He gave no corrections at all.

Normally, this would be a very bad thing, implying that our efforts were beyond hope but Kirk was someone for whom the norm was an irrelevant standard. As an artist, he was more of a ‘dancer’ than a danseur. Though his balletic competence extended to traditional pas de deux partnering, including roles such as James (the Scotsman) in La Sylphide, he made a career of show dancing, and in later life, character roles such as Coppélius (Coppélia) and Drosselmyer (The Nutcracker). Lauding his performance of the latter, as a guest artist for San Diego Chamber Ballet, the critic of the San Diego Union, wrote: “Alan Kirk’s amusing Drosselmeyer was a cross between Fred Astaire and Dracula.”

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Alan Hope Kirk as Coppelius, for Susan Robinson School of Ballet, McGaw Theatre, Woking, England

Kirk, the son of a Brigadier-General in the Marines, took up dance in high school and never stopped, taking class and performing to the end of his life.

He was an avid student of a wide range of dance and movement arts and learned from many teachers, among them Ernest Belcher (who specialised in teaching dancers for Hollywood film, his students including Mary Pickford and Shirley Temple), Etienne Decraux (mime teacher of Marcel Marceau), and Pierre Vladimiroff, legendary stalwart classical teacher at the School of American Ballet.

As a lifelong student of dance and movement, Kirk was always picking up something new. Earlier this century, on one of his many visits to Australia, he was very keen to gain some insight into Wing Chun Kung Fu, of which I had become an avid student, so he accompanied me to a class. My teacher, Sifu Dana Wong, rewarded Alan’s interest by spending most of the class with him, giving him a first hand taste of this subtle and highly effective Chinese martial art. It was at a classical ballet summer school in St Petersburg that Kirk met fellow American, Edith Pillsbury, ballet teacher-turned-writer. Before the event was over, he commissioned her to write Lynne Golding’s biography.

Kirk’s idea of a holiday was to travel, learning and watching dance. His global roamings gave him the chance to see many leading companies and dancers. His favourite character dancer in the world was The Australian Ballet’s Colin Peasley, about whom he raved. Because Kirk was normally so grandly theatrical, when he ‘raved,’ he lowered his voice, spoke more softly and intently.

As a young man, Kirk turned his back on the military career that had been mapped out for him and compromised by completing a degree in accounting with a sub-major in economics, graduating from San Diego State College with a BA in 1954. As an undergraduate, in San Diego, Kirk supported himself by dancing. His work spanned tapping at the Hollywood Burlesque Theatre and ballet, as a principal of the San Diego Starlight Opera.

On being drafted into the US Army, he was posted to Germany, where he worked as an army auditor and simultaneously studied dance in Frankfurt and Munich. After discharge in 1956, army funds for ex-G.I.s enabled him to enrol in the London School of Economics. This phase saw him dance with Ballet Rambert and subsequently with Ballet de Paque, in Monte Carlo, under John Taras.

In Armstadt, mid 1950s

In Armstadt, mid 1950s

When Kirk returned to America, he went to New York and settled into what turned out to be his Golden Age of freelance dance performance. It coincided with his marriage to Golding and they lived an ideal existence of developing their art as dancers and working in the field. Kirk’s work ranged from classical ballet to Broadway runs of shows. His plum gigs included Song of Norway, an Ed Sullivan show appearance with the Chicago Opera Ballet, with which Kirk worked for two seasons, and Do Re Mi, the 1965 revival with the original stars, Phil Silvers and Nancy Walker. Kirk fondly referred to the latter as, “My longest Broadway run – over a year.”

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Lynne Golding and Alan Hope Kirk, La Sylphide

When Golding returned to Australia because her beloved mother had had a stroke, Kirk followed, after honouring his work commitments.

As luck would have it, Kirk waltzed into the tail-end of Australia’s Golden Age of local television. It was a can-do era of homemade shows, thrown together by the progeny of vaudeville, the masters of live radio and their enthusiastic apprentices. The shows were often taped before live audiences and, sometimes, even employed dancers.

Initially, Kirk worked for the Australian Broadcasting Commission in World of Song and in specialised dance programmes choreographed by Rex Reid, Joe Latona and Betty Pounder. He even wrote and produced and danced in a documentary on the life of Lynne Golding.

In 1967, Kirk joined Melbourne’s GTV-9 Ballet, a troupe of six male and six female dancers. Their main gig, but not only work, was In Melbourne Tonight, a local version of the US equivalents. IMT featured a personality host, off-siders and guests, in a variety format. For the dancers, it was a merry-go-round of class, learning new numbers and performing them for the camera.

When GTV-9 decided that it needed a bear on its flagship children’s programme, The Tarax Show, it looked no further than the ballet troupe, already on payroll. Kirk, who jokingly referred to himself in later life as, “this old chorus boy,” gladly took up the artistic challenge.

It was a time of bearmania in Australian children’s TV, thanks to the national popularity of Adelaide’s NWS-9 Humphrey B. Bear, who was mute, in the authentic style of the walkaround character genre, but extremely agile, expansive and expressive in his movements thanks to the dancer in the costume, Edwin Duryea, the original creator and performer of the characterisation. Melbourne’s ATV-0 had the huge and hugely popular Fredd Bear, performed by costume designer, Tedd Dunn, on its Magic Circle Club, one of the Tarax Show’s competitors in the cut-throat world of childrens TV ratings.

Kirk was charged with producing, writing and performing the Cynthia segments. He created a very distinctive bear. If Humphrey was the bounciest and Fredd, the biggest, Cynthia was definitely the daintiest. She bobbed her head in many different ways to show her thoughts and feelings, she moved lightly and stood prettily. Adding another string to Cynthia’s lovely bow, Kirk made each of her antics a morality tale.

The head of the Cynthia Bear costume, 1967, B&W photograph, Museum Victoria collection

The head of the Cynthia Bear costume, 1967, B&W photograph, Museum Victoria collection

Although this work was never publicly credited, Kirk enjoyed every minute in the Cynthia spotlight.

Referring to it, his CV from early this century states:

Working with three great Australian comics, Norman Swain, Joff Allen and Ernie Carroll, Alan Hope Kirk received invaluable on-the-job training in pure comedy…I was indeed fortunate to have this unique, highly theatrical activity in addition to dance, choreographic and teaching responsibilities during the week. Yes! I was Cynthia…My un-Australian, American voiceover accent, as Cynthia’s conscience, pleading with her, each week, not to drink too much honey, not spend money foolishly, never go out alone, always do her homework, obey her Mommy and Daddy and in general to be a good girl. Each week, Cynthia had a new battle with her conscience. GTV-9 had no idea that Alan Kirk was spending two hours a week in the audio department, utilising their top technician, Hilton Prideaux. Tapes from the GTV-9 Orchestra and sound effects enhanced my cloying script.”

Cynthia proved a hit and Kirk hired Caroline Hanrahan, whom he knew through dance and who was in stage management, as his personal and creative assistant. Hanrahan worked on the storylines with Kirk. She says, “We really wanted the kids to get something out of it.”

The fan mail started pouring in. Ernie Carroll was handling it, with Hanrahan tackling the overflow and follow-up, as well as managing Cynthia’s live appearances outside of The Tarax Show.

True to form, even during these heady days of TV work, Kirk never strayed too far from live theatre, also appearing in pantomimes, like Snow White and Aladdin, at Her Majesty’s Theatre and dancing Franz (male lead, Coppélia) more than 100 times, as a principal with Ballet Victoria, under the direction of Laurel Martyn.

In 1971, when the live TV dried up for Kirk, he turned to teaching: ballet and jazz at Audrey Nicholls – Eve King School of Ballet in the evenings and Economics at Melbourne High School, a most prestigiously successful, selective-entry institution, during the day.

This rekindled Kirk’s love of academic pursuits. Returning to America, he also went back to study, gaining an MA in Education (San Diego State University, 1975) and a LifetimeReading Specialist Credential from the State of California. While continuing to perform, study and teach dance, for the next 25 years, Kirk also devoted himself to his vocation as a teacher.

Having enjoyed the life-enriching benefits of extensive and broad formal and informal learning, Kirk was a passionate believer in the value of education. His philosophical commitment found true expression in practice as a high school teacher in South Central Los Angeles, at Thomas Edison Junior High School and South Gate Senior High School, specialising in language education and working with students from the most socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

I had not known Alan Kirk, the dancer, long when I also became acquainted with Alan Kirk, the educationalist. Being as interested in other people, as he was, Alan found out that I had a day job teaching school to support my career as a dance journalist. He quizzed me about my work and my employer school. Familiar with the Victorian school system from past experience, he was fascinated to hear that I was working at McNab House, the innovative year 11 and 12 campus of Penleigh and Essendon Grammar School. Before our chat was over, Alan had organised to spend a day at the school, following me around to my English classes. Although this was a high fee-paying school, the students came from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds and an equally wide range of academic ability.

Had my colleagues – most of the staff were only young adults – and I known that we had Cynthia Bear in our midst, the excitement of Alan’s celebrity would not have allowed him to glide around the school, as discretely as he did. In fact, by the end of the day, Alan could have written a treaties on all he explored. By the end of the day, he had also teed up a visit to another school, where I had good contacts – Flemington High School, whose students were drawn from some of Melbourne’s most disadvantaged backgrounds.

In thanks, for these school visits, Alan sent me a copy of Confederacy of Dunces, at that time a relatively new publication – certainly before it had reached the public consciousness in Australia. That he loved such rollicking comedy was another indication of his fun side. However, the novel also embraced the profound and for me, it was an introduction to the gloomy world of Boethius, the medieval scholar whom the main character studied.

Inscription-WP Along side his teaching in the classroom, Kirk also began mentoring students in the hope of motivating them to take advantage of the education on offer.

But Kirk was encouraging others to learn and develop their talents long before he became a school teacher, as Australian television designer, Colin Gersch remembers. He met Kirk in his early days at Channel 9, when Kirk came into the scenic department, where Gersch was working as an artist. Gersch had been a student at the Gallery School, Melbourne’s most distinguished art school for much of the 20thC, and was struggling to support himself on scholarship subsistence, when he was recommended for the job. On their first encounter, Kirk commissioned an artwork from Gersch and their mutual interest in art forged the friendship between them. Kirk also encouraged Gersch to do ballet, giving him classes, after work and taking him to the Ballet Victoria School. Gersch, who chose to stay in television design but is still painting, valued this supportive interest. He says, “In those days, you learnt on the job and it became a life career.” The two remained good friends and Gersch speaks with particular admiration of Kirk’s work with his high school students in America. When Kirk died, at home, in LA, it was Gersch who was charged with looking after his burial in Australia.

Alan Kirk was a delightful show-off, a preening peacock as a performer. As someone in the body-beautiful business of dance, he also had his little vanities. He kept in excellent trim and was given to discreet surgical cosmetic procedures. He would tell you how fantastic you look and express great surprise when you denied having had ‘any work’ done. It was all fun and games, in this respect, with Alan. However, he was extremely humble about his efforts and achievements in helping others. Despite our friendship of over 30 years, I had no idea of the phenomenal extent and depth of Alan’s mentoring work.

Caroline Hanrahan witnessed it first hand, when she visited Kirk in LA. She says, “I sat in on some of his classes and he would visit the families of children who were struggling, even though people said don’t go there. He was one of those people who do terrific things and no-one knows about it.”Alan&male students-WP

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Alan Hope Kirk with students in Los Angeles (photos from “Lynne Golding Australian Ballerina”)

Alan ventured into neighbourhoods where initiation into street gangs was by killing, often just a random murder. By establishing contact with his students’ families, he gained order in the classroom. Sometimes, he was even able to foster high academic success. One of the most-able students mentored by Alan, Jesus Rocha, accompanied him on the home visits, acting as a neighbourhood passport and often as a translator in Hispanic households. Rocha, who in those days lived in a garage with his mother and six siblings, is today an assistant principal and continues Alan’s mentoring legacy.

Edith Pillsbury fills in some details, “After graduating from a humanities magnet school in Los Angeles, Jesus went to California State University, Northridge (in Los Angeles) He graduated in 1995 with a B.A. in Math, and got his Master’s Degree in Secondary Math Education at the same campus in 2002. Jesus began teaching math at John Adams Middle School, in 1995. At the beginning of the school year 2013, he became an assistant principal at John Adams. Adams, like Edison, is an inner city school–mostly Hispanic, lots of poverty, most of the children are on the free-lunch program, and many have parents who speak no English.

“Jesus married his high school sweetheart, Olivia, and they have two children–Natalie, who graduated from UC Berkeley with a double degree in Spanish and Social Welfare. She has completed her Master’s Degree through Teach America and is a teacher. His son, Jesus, a recent college grad, is a chemist. Jesus has several former students in college. He has one former student who has just completed her second year at the Cate School, an extremely prestigious college-prep secondary boarding school in Santa Barbara. She got a full scholarship there. Another former student of Jesus was just accepted there for next year. Although the scholarship is all-inclusive,, the school does require the student’s family to pay a small amount (I think $1200) as sort of a sign of dedication to their child’s education. Neither of the families of these two girls had even that modest amount of money, so Alan made those payments for the families.”

Pillsbury has just completed a biography of Kirk’s fascinating life: Alan Hope Kirk – A Life Well Lived. It includes an evocatively written and very moving account of Kirk’s extreme dedication to his imaginative and tireless efforts to help students. It will receive a private publication, later this year, for his many friends.

Paying tribute to Alan Hope Kirk, Jesus Rocha said, “Mr. Kirk was an inspiring teacher who without hesitation became my mentor, role model, and father. He shaped me to be the person who will follow forever in his footsteps, touching the lives of many, one at a time.”

While the magnitude of Kirk’s work with school students may not have been known to all his friends in Australia, they could easily witness the extraordinary care he lavished on and facilitated for Lynne Golding as age took its toll and she succumbed to debilitating osteoporosis. At his own expense, he placed her at an excellent aged care home, Hawthorn’s Victoria Gardens. He personally decorated her room with tasteful furnishings and artfully hung pictures of Lynne Golding, the ballerina. It was a pleasure to visit Lynne in this beautiful, personalised environment, which was much more like a good private hotel than a care facility. If you were visiting at morning tea time, you would also receive a cup, accompanied by freshly baked biscuits. Lynne called it her “retirement,” and after a life of hard work, enjoyed this new phase of indulged comfort and service. Lynne adored Alan, always talking about him as, “my wonderful husband.” When I wrote an article about Lynne, in which she refered to her husband, Alan Kirk, from whom she was only separated by ‘time and geography,’ (Dance Australia, Issue 13, Sept-Nov, 1983), Alan must have read it because, subsequently, he told me, sotto voce, “Lynne and I are divorced.”


Alan Hope Kirk and Lynne Golding, at the 85th birthday party he organised for her, in Melbourne. Also, (L to R) 20th C historical ballet identities, Martin Rubenstein, Barry Kitcher and the late Paul Hammond (photo Blazenka Brysha)

Married? Divorced? It made no difference because they were soul mates and what better way to show your feelings for another than by helping when help is needed! If Alan lavished every possible care on Lynne when she was too frail to fend for herself, it was Lynne who raided her life’s savings to fund the deposit for Alan’s first property purchase, when he made LA his permanent residence. Until then he had lived the life of an itinerant performer, what he called ‘a gypsy’ – traditionally, a seasoned performer, a showbiz survivor. Having embarked on a school teaching career, Alan bought a multi-dwelling, that he could also sublet. Thus began his business career. He described his tenants as ‘mostly artists and gypsies,” passing through, often to continued obscurity but sometimes to greater things. His most famous former tenants are the Coen brothers, the celebrated film makers.

It is entirely due to Kirk that Golding’s biography, Lynne Golding, Australian Ballerina (Allegro Publishing, 2009) was produced. Although it only came out after Golding’s death, she was involved in the writing of it, with author, Edith Pillsbury conducting her extensive research in Australia. Considering that a professional dancer’s reward usually consists only of having the opportunity to perform and to share the joy of dancing with an appreciative audience, this would have given Golding an especially gratifying sense of recognition for her life’s work. The book is also important because it documents significant Australian dance history, providing a chapter that would otherwise have only remained a footnote.


Alan Hope Kirk and Edith Pillsbury

Where Lynne was narrow – in the best sense of the word, focused on the minute, in which the quality of a tiny detail perfected the texture of the whole – Alan was broad, embracing the wide-ranging, over-arching totality. This contrast of extremes was probably the secret of their harmonious and deeply-committed relationship that spanned continents and decades, till death them parted. But even in death, they have been reunited in the one grave. After a life of such mutual devotion, it seems absolutely right that they should be buried together.

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Alan Hope Kirk and Lynne Golding, at home in New York (photo from “Lynne Golding Australian Ballerina”)

Although Alan had a heart pacemaker, he lived his life actively to the very end. The week before he died, he went to Oregon to visit Edith Pillsbury. According to her, “He spent the weekend with me and Martin Horn (he designed Lynne’s book), choosing pictures for his book. We had a lovely time together–Alan was in great spirits and, of course, making plans for travel to Europe and Australia this year.”

He is survived by Daisy, his beloved cat and many friends and colleagues, with one of whom Daisy was living part-time, thanks to Alan’s frequent travel, and where she now has a permanent home.


Christmas card 2011: Daisy doing her diva thing and Alan dancing on a wharf in Stockholm

Alan was a star of Life, the Greatest Show on Earth and we can only hope to be worthy understudies. “Oh, darling,” I can hear Alan laughing, “What fabulous bullshit!”

For his many friends, Alan lives on in the legacy he left by the generous way he shared all he had: as a practical benefactor, an inspirational teacher and artist, an entertaining companion and, above all, as a much-loved friend.

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The grave of Lynne Golding and Alan Hope Kirk, Springvale Cemetery (Row BN, Grave 134, Callistamon Drive), Melbourne


Doing it big, doing it right and doing it with style! Some of Alan’s favourite quotes, included with one of his exuberant handmade cards

Alan 74-WP

Thanks to Caroline Hanrahan, Colin Gersch, Jesus Rocha and, especially Edith Pillsbury for their invaluable help in the preparation of this piece. 


Alan Hope Kirk and Blazenka Brysha, Melbourne, 2006


Alan Hope Kirk Postscript

Additional biographical note:

Since the above was published, it has come to light that Alan Hope Kirk is also survived by an estranged son, Paul Leonard Kirk, born 1980, Lynnwood L.A. to Ana M. Pitti. According to Paul Kirk, the estrangement was broken only for a fortnight, in 1994, when the photo, shown below, was taken. Paul Kirk remembers it as the only happy time in what was for him a deeply unhappy and troubled relationship.

He says, “I want to let it be known that he was a great man, just not perfect and that I, his son, always tried to amend the relationship.”

Alan and Paul Kirk, 14, (1994, Panama)

Alan and Paul Kirk, 14, (1994, Panama)

Blazenka Brysha, 8/8/2014


Letter to the Prime Minister of Australia


Monday, 27 June, 2011

The Hon Julia Gillard MP

Prime Minister

Parliament House


Re: Ban on Live Export of Australian Animals for slaughter

Dear Ms Gillard,

If you have ever driven behind a truck carrying livestock, while heading from your home in Altona to your office in Werribee, you would be aware that the animals endure a good deal of suffering on their trips to Australian abattoirs, although Australian standards are rigorous in the protection of animals from as much suffering as possible. As a meat-consuming society, we do our best to minimise the pain endured by livestock.

However, the horror of live export in itself, together with some of the barbaric things that are done to Australian livestock in other countries cannot be tolerated by any humane society.

Please do everything to ban the live export of Australian animals.

Yours sincerely,


(contact details supplied, sent by Australia Post 27/6/2011)

Dance Creation 2010 – Review

After the AICD’s Dance Creation 2010 opening night performance, the audience left the theatre smiling, talking and walking briskly. No doubt, the quality and variety of works and dance styles on show satisfied a wide range of tastes and certainly gave people something to talk about. No-one mentioned there was not a pointe shoe in sight but some noted that not all on offer was in the classical style.

The AICD’s Dance Creation 2010 took a long time to produce – fourteen years, in fact. That is how long this national, biennial choreographic showcase has been running and this year’s three-performance season was the culmination of the intentions and results of that first Dance Creation, held in 1996. Three of the six works in Dance Creation 2010 were by choreographers who got their start as winners of various awards made during the event’s original incarnation as a competition and the shift from pure classical style actually occurred at the very outset.

One of the great things about Dance Creation is the total artistic freedom given to the choreographers and this has really paid off. What a joy it has been to see the unfettered artistic evolution of a Timothy Brown, Lucas Jervies and Timothy O’Donnell.

Under the current format, participating choreographers are selected by AICD Victoria on the basis of nominations from the artistic directors of major Australian dance companies and institutions. Dance Creation 2010, held at The National Theatre, St Kilda, 20-21 August, featured new works by Timothy Brown (nominated by Natalie Weir, Artistic Director, Expressions Dance Company), Robert Curran (nominated by David McAllister AM, Artistic Director, The Australian Ballet) Deon Hastie (nominated by Leigh Warren, Artistic Director, Leigh Warren and Dancers) Lucas Jervies (nominated by Marilyn Rowe OBE, Director, The Australian Ballet School) Timothy O’Donnell (nominated by Ivan Cavallari, Artistic Director, West Australian Ballet) and Ludwig (nominated by Ivan Cavallari, Artistic Director, West Australian Ballet).

The works were performed by dancers from The Australian Ballet, The Australian Ballet School, NAISDA College of Dance, QUT Faculty of Creative Arts (Dance) and Ludwig, the recently-formed, Perth-based ensemble, whose work embraces performance, choreography, photography and film.

The program opened with Timothy Brown’s When Cherry Blossom Falls, set to Ludovico Einaudi’s Divenire spliced with nature sounds, the latter unacknowledged in the printed program and presumably the choreographer’s own addition. Using an ensemble of one male and six female QUT dancers, Brown matched the lushness of Einaudi’s piano score by a continuous flow of movement of a low muscle-tension, contemporary style. Bodies fell to the floor and tumbled, rising individually and grouping into sculptural formations, giving the work shifting perspectives from above and below. Despite all the floor work, the overall impression was one of lightness. The random geometry of the ensemble work, presented with such naturalness and simplicity, imbued the piece with lyrical feeling. This is definitely a work that would suit a range of dance bodies and styles of interpretation and, as such, would sit very nicely on a company that prides itself on versatility.

We didn’t get too long to reflect on the evanescence of blossom before Timothy O’Donnell hijacked the audience with Trust Me on the Sunscreen, in which he also performed, with his partners in art, Emma Sandall and Cass Mortimer Eipper. The trio are Ludwig. The work, set to Baz Lurhmann’s monologue Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen, is a witty, energetic romp in classical style, revved up to underline the rousingly positive advice on offer, which includes statements such as: “You are not as fat as you imagine…” This got a big laugh of recognition from the audience, most of whom were young dancers. The expansiveness of the choreography is given a punchy delivery by the dancing, which gets a big leg-up – literally – from Emma Sandall’s virtuosity. She is a stunningly extended dancer who understands sensitive articulation, which should be the aim of any classical dancer who wants to take a move all the way but not cross into acrobatics.

Deon Hastie’s Caught is “an exploration into the power of mussing, an aboriginal technique that involves capturing someone’s affection by using a special root of a tree and rubbing it into the skin.” It was performed by dancers from NAISDA and used a contemporary style, combining 20th C non-classical with more recent influences of street styles and some indigenous moves. This was Hastie’s – and NAISDA’s – first Dance Creation and what a revelation it was. At the risk of sacrilege, if you needed an antidote to classical overdose, this was it. The ensemble of three men and four women threaded their way through the intricacies of physical encounters while the bassy, infectious beat of the electro score, (from Book Shade’s Movements) made for an appropriately thematic hypnotic effect. The spell-mixing motif, of one hand cupped and the other stirring around in it, repeated by the men, was especially memorable and one good, original move is worth dozens that you’ve seen before. Deon Hastie is definitely a choreographer to watch and Caught, along with When Cherry Blossom Falls, is the work I would most like to see again.

Cass Mortimer Eipper, representing Ludwig’s nomination, showed an excerpt from Le Chat Noir, a larger work that he is creating on Link Dance Company, the graduate company based at WAAPA. This was a rhythmic, fun piece featuring five women and relying on isolated body part moves for its effect. Set to the infectious beats of Der Ditter Raum’s Swing Bop and the Benny Goodman standard Benny Rides Again, on this occasion by Big Band Remixed and Reinvented, it evoked the atmosphere of a cabaret, a suggestion also offered by the work’s name, which harks back to the legendary venue of late 19th C Paris. It was difficult to gauge whether the excerpt was an isolated piece of whimsey or something more substantial in the context of the work as a whole. Nevertheless, it was performed with verve and charm and indicated that Ludwig can produce more than one type of choreography. Between that and the company’s ability to deliver gob-smackingly good dance, they should go a long way, if they can stay highly productive and keep clutching any lifelines they can grasp in the daily battle for survival faced by any genuinely artistic venture. The company’s website is light on disclosure of the business end of things, merely acknowledging a few private companies as ‘supporters’, which indicates that it receives no funding.

Robert Curran’s that for which I live and die is a duet for his fellow members of The Australian Ballet, Brett Chynoweth and Sarah Thompson. Set to Eugene Ughetti’s Intermezzo and James Newton Howard’s Snow Falling on Cedars, it was described by the choreographer as “an abstract exploration of existentialism, based on the writings of Soren Kierkegaard and focuses on one man’s experience/understanding/struggle with the meaning of his existence at an unspecified time in his life.” That’s a lot to tackle in the ten or so minutes of the work’s running time. What Curran does offer is a hardcore classical ballet duet fragmented into solos for both dancers, allowing them to interact at certain moments. A highlight of inventiveness has the man handling the woman by her hip, with one body slipping around the other in an agonised relationship of connecting awkwardly, which is contrasted with incidents of paralysing isolation. Chynoweth and Thompson made their own contribution to the work with their stellar performance of it. Whether the depth of choreographic talent evidenced here goes anywhere, is entirely up to Curran and depends on how productive he can be, which is the knife edge for any creative artist.

The most sophisticated work on the program was Lucas Jervies’ from home far from, using an ensemble of 14 dancers from The Australian Ballet School. Although we should never judge a choreographer by the size of his ensemble, the ability to manoeuvre and manipulate numbers of bodies is a core skill that any aspiring choreographer needs to develop because any repertory or commissioning dance company is likely to have ten or more dancers. Jervies shores up his efforts by enlisting the muscle of Beethoven as back-up, using Piano Sonata #32 (youtube offers a magnificent selection of renditions, including from Barenboim, Arrau and Richter) as his score. The piece is part homage, part thank you to Balanchine, Beethoven, Bournonville, Bob Fosse, Marco Goecke, Michael Jackson, Stephen Page and Georg Reischl for their inspiration to Jervies.

The word homage implies reference but in Jervies’ case the influences are so filtered through his own interpretative vision that the only overt link I detected was to Goecke in some of the arm movements. This is only fleeting, as Jervies focuses on a combination of hand gestures and flagrant shoulder rotations, often with only slight body turns and minimal simultaneous movement of feet. Except for the fact that everything springs from classical technique, it looks like the biggest influence comes from the use of shoulder joints in street styles like hip hop. But the dancers don’t just wear out their shoulders and flap their hands. They are also challenged to move as an ensemble that morphs numerically into patterns and combinations that keep the piece moving satisfyingly. Jervies is a 21st C ballet choreographer, which is exactly what the artform desperately needs now because if it is not constantly renewing itself with new works and new challenges, it runs the risk of what befell the dinosaurs. For the last 20 years ballet has been dominated by “kerpow” athleticism and astonishing physical feats but little meaningful content and feeling. It’s time to turn the tables and a Lucas Jervies should be a number 1 recruit to the cause. As one of the adjudicators of the 1996 Dance Creation panel that awarded him the Edouard Borovansky Award for Student Choreographers, I am particularly pleased to see the show of promise pay off because more often than not, dance is as ephemeral as cherry blossom, so well observed by Timothy Brown.

It is to be hoped that all the participating choreographers will be proactive in mounting at least excerpts of their Dance Creation 2010 vids on youtube – the dance artist’s new best friend. For one thing, all the performers could be tagged and given some ongoing credit for their wonderful contributions. Cultivating a presence, sharing your work, exchanging with other creative people and exposing yourself to new influences can only improve your art. Worry about “giving it away” and intellectual property rights are not an issue if you use the quotation approach. Furthermore, as everything on the web is dated, you have proof of primacy of origin. It’s time to get feral. Art has no business being safe.

Dance Creation relies exclusively on sponsorship: some corporate, a lot from a few private sources and a huge amount in kind from the many interested parties, especially the AICD and the dance institutions, both company and educational that provide the material, the infrastructure and the enthusiasm to make Dance Creation happen. The unsung hero of this glorious quest is Dame Margaret Scott AC DBE, Founding Director of The Australian Ballet School and one of the major figures of Australian dance history. Her vision and tenacity have enabled the practical survival of this on-going venture. It was Dame Margaret who rescued Dance Creation from imploding as a competition by steering it towards its current format.

Dance Creation survives on a wing and a prayer and the boundless generosity and naïve optimism of a disparate cross-section of the dance community and their efforts to do the little bit they can by inspiring, begging and nudging others into doing as much. There is an old saying that when you can do very little, the worst thing you can do is nothing. Well, that’s one thing of which you cannot accuse this mob.

Blazenka Brysha


Footnote: The Australian Institute of Classical Dance was formed in 1991 by Marilyn Jones OBE following her receipt of a Creative Artists Fellowship from the Australian Government.
The Institute is a non-profit organisation with a board composed of eminent members of the dance profession. It was set up to oversee and encourage the development of Australian classical ballet.
Marilyn Jones, a celebrated 20th C ballerina, is the Artistic Director of the AICD. Garth Welch AM is Chair of the National Committee and Steven Heathcote AM is the national patron.

Dance Creation is steered by an Executive Committee, whose membership is: Dame Margaret Scott AC, DBE (Chair), Annie Denton, Charles Heathcote, Colin Peasley OAM, and Jill Rivers.
David McAllister, Artistic Director of The Australian Ballet, is patron of Dance Creation.

Dance Creation 2010 Donors and Sponsors
Dame Elisabeth Murdoch AC DBE
Mrs Elizabeth Albert and Mr Robert Albert AO RFD RD
The Tania Liedtke Foundation
Mr Glen Robertson
Miss Jean Stewart
Professor John Rose and Mrs Rose
The National Theatre
Ms Ann Ryan
AICD National Council
AICD Western Australia

Dance Creation 2010 also gratefully acknowledged the assistance received from
The Australian Ballet
The Australian Ballet Society
Dance Australia Magazine
Easy Stay, St Kilda
Margaret Mercer
Seagull Press, Belgrave

World’s Fastest Coffin On Water

World’s Fastest Coffin on Water – the first-ever biography of Ken Warby
Bill Tuckey (Bas Publishing, 2009)

Unless you are a follower of sporting achievement statistics, you have probably never heard of Ken Warby. That’s even if you were around in Australia on November 20, 1977, when Warby set the world water speed record, which he then increased in 1978 and still holds, in a home-made boat, at Blowering Dam, NSW.

World’s Fastest Coffin on Water – the first-ever biography of Ken Warby (Bas Publishing, 2009) has all the ingredients of a riveting, multi-faceted read, encompassing an eccentric chapter of Australian sporting history, and author Bill Tuckey, himself a legend of Australian motoring journalism, makes the most it.

The Warby story is told in two strands. One focuses on his personal history: his working-class background, his family life in industrial Newcastle, NSW, in the mid-20th century and the forces that shaped him, socially and psychologically. The other strand tables his phenomenal sporting achievement and what that entails, including the historical, statistical and mechanical background against which Warby’s story played out. The result is a fascinating mix of social history with lashings of Australiana, psychological exposition and everything anyone could ever want to know about water speed records and what it takes, in terms of human and mechanical resources, to break them. It is also a quintessentially Australian story about a battler obsessed by an idea and maniacally fixed on fulfilling his goal. The story is comic and tragic in equal parts: there is the heady joy of Warby and his team of 162 unpaid helpers breaking the world record, not once but twice, and then there is the bitterness that engulfed Warby, subsequently, when his achievement failed to bestow great glory and riches upon him.

Warby didn’t even get the chance to be a tall poppy so that he could be cut down. Failing to get the recognition and the subsequent opportunities that he felt he deserved, Warby moved to the US in the early 1980s, building jet drag cars, monster quarter-mile trucks and small-capacity concrete mixers, which Tuckey points out, are an Australian invention.

It is not hard to work out what went wrong for Warby because Tuckey packs the story with factual information and direct quotes from many primary sources. With so much evidence, readers can draw their own conclusions. Ultimately the ‘why’ of things fascinated me more than the factual details from which the story is built.

When it comes to land and water speed records, a basic knowledge of 20th century popular history inevitably throws up the name Campbell and, indeed, Sir Malcolm Campbell and later, his son Donald, both held both records. Warby was, in fact, obsessed by the Campbells, both their achievement and their glory, but what he tragically failed to see was the huge charisma that the Campbells brought to everything they did and the spectacular theatre they created. They really gave the fans everything; in Donald’s case, even his life. In 1967, on Coniston Water, in the Lake District of England, when Donald Campbell, accompanied by his lucky teddy, Mr Whoppitt, attempted to break his own water speed record, which he had previously set seven times, his boat cartwheeled for a kilometre. “They found Mr Whoppitt but never Campbell,” the author tells us at the beginning of the book (p20). At the end, we learn that the headless body was recovered in 2001 (p157).

Throughout the book we get a big dose of Warby: cocky, confident, realistic, able to recruit helpers to his grand vision despite his personality, which is not endearing. It’s not only that Warby had no sense of PR, which is an understatement. Just going by the quotes from him, you get the impression that while he “can never, ever suffer that essentially Australian curse of being called a bullshit artist,” (p165) he is, what we might call, a bit of a pain, who definitely had tickets on himself.

My interest in reading this book was to see how one Australian legend would write about another and in this, his 22nd book, Bill Tuckey does not disappoint. He was there both times when Warby took his boat, the Spirit of Australia to a place in sporting history. The level of research is exhaustive.

To understand the significance of the thoroughly-detailed technical information, you need a rudimentary grasp of mechanics and the physics of moving a mechanically-powered object from point A to point B. You also need to be bewitched by the love of speed; slow and steady might win the race but only if the fast and furious wipe themselves out before reaching the finish line. In that sense, this is definitely a blokes’ book.

However, this is also a story for general readership, packed with thrills and spills. It even includes a prediction, received by Warby, after his achievement, from the ghost of Donald Campbell, “’It’s OK. Three will die before the record’s broken once.’” So far, two have died and there’s one to go before Warby is dethroned.

Tuckey makes it clear that Warby’s design and build, together with the seemingly endless tweaking, finessing and rejigging of the boat’s parts, plus his unerring sensitivity to handling the craft, is what resulted in the still-unbroken water speed record.

The record breaking runs are reported as witnessed first-hand. The first one is especially colourful, replete with tasty quotes encapsulating the mood of the moment and the patois of the heroes and the villains of the piece. (p.110) On that fateful day, Warby drove angry because an irate speedboat driver had roughed up the water to foil him. But Warby’s quotes are best: “At 600 feet a second, you’re dead, minced…” Warby-speak is in imperial – partly due to his generation and partly because he went on to live and work in America, so there’s quite a bit of metric conversion featured in the text but not always. At times this is confusing but doesn’t detract from the story because if you are not into the statistics, you do get the general idea of slow, faster, fastest and suicidal. Warby was never suicidal, which is why he has lived to tell his story. The first record he set was at 288.60 mph(464 km/h) and the second at 317.60 mph (511km/h). He is the only one ever to survive at over 300 mph. Anyone who has read this book, will now be waiting for that next death before someone else sets a new record. Will the ghost of Donald Campbell be proved correct?

The World’s Fastest Coffin on Water would make a great movie, whether you wanted an intense drama or an action-comedy. It would make a very good electronic game with many key characters. They could include resurrected former record holders and those who died in the quest of it, the swearing, evil speedboat driver and other sabotaging villains, the crack supporting-team headed by Professor Tom Fink and super mechanic Leo Villa, not to mention all the others from cook, John McInerney to ABC film maker, Rob McCauley. And then there’s Warby, himself, an equivocal anti-hero. Come on gamers, where’s your imagination?

The book’s detailed documentation of the engineering, mechanics and physics of the venture is impressive and would no doubt be of value and interest to readers who can understand such things as, presumably, most who would choose to pick up this book, could.

I liked it for the writing and the wildly free-range sentences, from:

He was quite mad, of course.


Just before midday on November 20, 1977, on a long, dark, echoing lake created by man’s desire for a dam to provide irrigation, lined by clay walls and reeds and chick-chucking red-bill swamp hens and a gypsy caravan of tents and trailers and little heaps of dead ashes and crushed beer cans and discarded Kodak packets, the private lunatic sat like a Mogadonned mouse in the jet fighter cockpit as the boat he built under the cotton-easter trees in the backyard of his Sydney home blammed through the corrugations still left on the water from the ski boat on hour before, turning the surface into a cold tin roof.

And that’s just on the first page.

Blazenka Brysha


Thanks to the work of Rob McCauley, there is footage of both record runs, complete with cheesy 70s action music.

On the subject of recognition for the achievement of such a feat as Warby’s, it is interesting to note that the above film had 166,700 views at the time this review was posted, while the world violin speed record had 2,666,188 views. It does make the point that the public is essentially after entertainment. While contests have been popular since the ancient times, attempting to break a record by merely competing with a statistic, does not hold the same public appeal as confronting a live lion in an amphitheatre. The latter would get many more views than the fastest fiddler in the universe.

Karate Kid (2010) Review

Karate Kid (directed by Harald Swartz, 2010) is an excruciatingly violent film. It features boys of early adolescent years in full-contact fights delivering hard body blows, back-breaking throws and countless kicks to the head. That a film should show such things as going on in back lanes, out of view of adults, is distressing enough but to portray them as fare in public tournaments for minors, officiated by adults and watched by friends and family, is disgusting. In fact, it is a perverse fantasy, which, ironically, as such, is in keeping with almost everything else about this film.

Take the story, for one. Black American widow, Sherry Parker (Taraji P. Henson), migrates to Beijing with her 12 year-old son, Dre (Jaden Smith), because Detroit has nothing to offer them any more. That’s Beijing in mainland China. To say the least, this is contrary to typical immigration patterns but, as this is a children’s movie, we can let it ride.

There Dre’s life becomes much worse as he finds himself viciously and repeatedly bashed by a gang of boys, whose leader has a crush on a girl, who has taken a shine to Dre. As everyone knows, males thrive on exerting power over each other and the most basic way to do this is through a physical fight. A female is as good a provocation as any. Karate Kid peels off thousands of years of civilising evolution and reveals man in his primeval state of bloodlust. Thump or be thumped. There’s no suggestion that perhaps violent bashing is not the best or the right way to settle disputes. No, the answer is to train hard and smash up your opponent. That’s The Karate Kid way, except that the kid is in China, so he learns Chinese martial art, popularly but erroneously, called kung fu.

This is where Mr Han (Jackie Chan) comes in. He is the maintenance man at Dre’s apartment block and has good martial arts skills. As a fighter, he has “kung fu,” which means “great skill acquired through training.” Mr Han is 100% anti-fighting but the plot is engineered so that he has no choice, which is a classic kung fu movie ruse. Dre trains hard as Mr Han takes him through a hybrid style of wushu, hung gar and wing chun kung fu. Chan spends most of his screen time shuffling around with dropped shoulders and a crushed spine because Mr Han has a sad backstory. However, in the skills demo scenes, he rises as a master, gliding through the moves and employing classic blocks while using the opponent’s energy to defeat him. These vignettes are the only positive contribution that the film makes to the understanding of martial arts. There are moves to be learned with understanding and they need to be practised.

However, the film also dishes up dollops of mumbo jumbo that seriously challenge credibility. The scene in the mountain temple, which has Hong Kong action movie legend, Michelle Yeoh, balancing on a dangling ledge, holding a cobra enthralled by the power of her chi, is nonsense. Likewise, Mr Han’s ability to repair serious human soft tissue damage by the use of what looks like a flaming cotton ball is an insult to our intelligence and an aspersion on the genuine healing powers of traditional Chinese medicine. If someone bashes any part of your body hard and repeatedly, they will cause you grievous harm that even the most powerful, scientific medicine cannot repair instantly. To make a seemingly realistic film for young adolescents and to suggest otherwise is grossly misleading.

The film’s biggest lie, is, unfortunately, one to which males are most susceptible – if you train long and hard enough, you will be able to annihilate your enemies with your powerful blows. Facts are that to excel at any accomplishment – even beating someone to a pulp – requires an innate talent or predisposition and then, when two opponents of equal skill meet, the bigger one will always win in a physical fight. In a physical contest, size does matter, which is why in most officially-staged fighting bouts, contestants are divided, in categories, by weight.

The most disappointing thing about Karate Kid is that it has nothing to say about the use of your most powerful weapon in the battle for survival: your brain. When making Enter the Dragon (1972), Bruce Lee took great pains to ensure that Chinese martial art was intelligently represented, so, in one of the early scenes, he demonstrates “the art of fighting without fighting.”

Karate Kid does a great disservice to the practice of traditional martial arts as they are taught by any properly-trained, responsible martial arts teacher. The thug boys all learn kung fu form an evil teacher, Master Li (Yu Rongguang), whose huge school appears to be training a good percentage of Bejing’s children. This teacher orders his students to crush all opponents mercilessly and completely. The overwhelming emphasis on aggressive assault is far removed from what goes on in your typical martial arts school, anywhere in the world, and especially one that offers children’s classes. There, the emphasis is on simple skill development, a bit of self-defence, a bit of exercise, a bit of healthy socialising and cultivating some understanding of the mastery of the self that is the objective of the training. Training requires co-operation with and respect for others. If there are tournaments, they are highly controlled by endless safety rules and are tightly supervised to ensure that no harm comes to anyone. For example, the Australian Kung-Fu (Wu Shu) Federation is bound by the rules of its parent body, the International Wu Shu Federation in Beijing. Full contact tournament junior division entrants cannot be under 16 or over 18, they are grouped according to weight, kicks to the head are banned, as are any repeated punches to the head. Put one body part wrong and you are out.

In view of this, the tournament scene at the end of Karate Kid, which features the film’s most violent fight sequences, with Master Li urging his student to break Dre’s leg, is really pushing it. That Dre’s mother should be cheering him on, as he sustains and delivers punishing blows, is utterly unbelievable. Most mothers would be on the phone to the police and the child protection authorities if they so much as heard about something like this event, let alone condoned their children’s participation in it.

As someone who has been a serious student of wing chun kung fu since 1996, after seeing Jackie Chan hit the wooden dummy in Rumble in the Bronx (directed by Stanley Tong, 1995), I rushed off to see Jackie in this latest offering. Although he doesn’t disappoint, nor does any of the acting from the children or Yu Rongguang, everything else does. It is the extreme violence with which I take issue. I would just as soon show Enter the Dragon and Road House (1989) – both R rated but possibly because they also include drug themes – to children, as this film, because at least they show that violence has painful and potentially deadly consequences. Ironically, children are more likely to try delivering a kick to someone’s head – as we see often in Karate Kid – than to twist someone’s head and break the spine, as we see in Enter the Dragon. It would also be better for children to see Dalton (Patrick Swayze), in Road House, stitching up his own wound than Mr Han miraculously repairing Dre’s crushed leg so that he can continue belting his enemies in the tournament.

In 1996, I took my nine year-old daughter to Rumble in the Bronx, which had an M rating, because the violence is cartoonish nonsense but the display of physical skill is dazzling. The bad guys are easily vanquished by the good guys. Normally, I would not recommend such a film for kids under 12 but my daughter was a child raised on the performing arts, who knew from 18 months of age that Lambert the Sheepish Lion would always save his mama by scaring the big bad wolf off the cliff. I also made her do wing chun for a year before she was allowed to go alone on the bus to school because I wanted her to be able to defend herself and have a healthy awareness of how to maximise personal safety.

When I went to see Karate Kid, I knew it had no karate in it and that probably should have prepared me for all the other lies that this film spreads. That the lies should be directed at children is a gross negligence of responsibility. The film should have an M rating. And why doesn’t Jackie Chan make a proper martial arts movie that the whole family can enjoy? If anyone can do that, Jackie is the man.

Blazenka Brysha

The Quiet Revolution: Literary Life Online and a Favourite Book

While the print media is so terrified of the internet that it takes every opportunity, however illogical or irrelevant, for an attack on the evils of the internet, a quiet revolution, lead by the tapping of computer keyboard keys, is taking place as writers migrate to cyberspace. Day by day, word by word, writers around the globe are building literary communities and now we have them in Australia. Ironically, I have found them through Facebook, the internet’s currently most successful social network, and therefore the most vilified as Mephistophelean, by the daily press.

What surprises me is how effective the print media’s blackballing of the internet has been in keeping highly intelligent and educated people away from anything but email, ebay – my euphemism for all commercial transactions – and some googling of fact. They will tell you how busy they are, how their lives are too full already but if you push them hard enough, you will discover that they do not “get” how it all works. Partly, it is the intimidating technology with its incomprehensible jargon, and partly, it’s the age demographic. Most of the people in question are over 40 years old. They do not understand how they can use it easily, quickly and safely to pursue their interests, cultivate new ones and participate in this mind-boggling technology, undreamt of by the likes of Aldous Huxley, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and more recently, even the creators of Dr Who.

Now, thanks to this cyberphobia, we are also facing the possibility of having the internet censored because that is a much easier gesture towards controlling child abuse (especially through pornography) and other seriously undesirable impacts on the young, than doing this with tools that already exist and, alternately, devising new, more user-friendly ones.

Ironically again, my introduction to using cyberspace was courtesy of the daily press, when I was able to file overnight copy by modem, instead of reading material over the phone to copytakers at 6 am, after writing a review of a performance that I saw just hours before. Luckily, I had a lot of help and although I did not start sending copy on my own until the advent of everyday email, I have always understood the value of trying to use the digital/cyberspace technology as it evolved. I was painfully aware that mere children seemed right at home with computers and the internet. I waded into cyberspace, cussing and hissing, “Every moron can do this!” and thereby implying, “Why can’t I?” Little by little, menu by menu – and as I write this, I finally realise what a “pop-up” menu might be – I got somewhere. Here, in fact.

Never before has the written word had such a life. From carving text in stone and laboriously writing by hand, from primitive printing and the Chinese invention of moveable type, to Gutenberg and the advent of what we know as the printed book, to digital technology and automated presses, we have arrived at the currently and rapidly evolving, printless, paperless digital media. While hardcopy publishers scramble about trying to work out how they can transfer their business – and most hard copy publishing is, first and foremost, about business because, if you can’t sell, you can’t survive – many writers are posting and publishing online.

Those of us for whom writing and serious involvement in creative pursuits is an intrinsic part of our lives, have nothing to lose. Depending on the kind of writing you do, financial considerations can be a very low priority because it’s not something you do primarily for the money and it is true that many writers will write and creative people will create, whether they are paid or not. And, while some writers, especially those with a journalistic background are even managing to make money from cyber publishing, poets, for example, are yet to crack the secrets of making money anywhere, let alone cyberspace.

The arrival of the Group Online Magazine, known as “Groupmag,” last year, was a boon for anyone interested in Australian literary art today. Using the free technology offered by Facebook, this quarterly magazine is organised, edited and published by a diverse group of very active writers. It uses a public blog site as its home and offers the magazine as an introductory index page, with an editorial forward, that in turn links the reader to the contents, which lives on the sites of the individual contributors.

While many online publications just attempt to replicate hardcopy, with rigid formats and print-style word limits, Groupmag format is simple, ingenious and excitingly flexible, allowing for text and visual matter of all kinds. The practical constraints of the physical world do not apply. A poem, a video, a poem on video, an interview, a report, fiction, fact, photograph, visual art and everything in between can come together in one edition of Groupmag, which is now in its fifth issue. Groupmag is free and, while it can be read by anyone, membership of The Group is only through Facebook because it relies on the technology offered by that platform, not just as a way of putting the magazine together as an online entity but also for recruiting membership, generating readership and soliciting submissions.

In a country like Australia, with its physical vastness and tiny, widely-dispersed population, a literary publishing venture that can overcome the problems of distance and financially nonviable per capita markets, is something that has never been possible before. That in itself is exciting. It’s local, it’s new, and uncontaminated by the fiddling of fiscal fingers. Money might make the world go round but as a criterion or condition for creative endeavour, it is a carcinogen. The renegade nature of Groupmag, with its inclusiveness and freeform structure is very appealing. The current issue leads with Pioneers in the Digital Snow, an essay by Mark Mordue, based on a speech he made at the Sydney Writers Festival last May, where he was announced the winner of the 2010 Pascall Prize for Critical Writing. Mordue argues that “great critics are among the pioneers of ‘content’ out there in the digital snow.” His article illustrates that the internet is an ideal medium for extended, serious writing.

Meeting other creative and literary people through a venture like Groupmag and enjoying exchanges with them, is a fantastic and inspiring luxury. A comment or a shared link can lead to new intellectual and creative adventures.

Just last week, one of my literary Facebook friends put up a link, to be shared, for The Australian Literature Review. I took a look at the linked material and on the About page, it said:

The Australian Literature Review is dedicated to revitalising Australian literature and promoting vibrant and original Australian literary writing. Literature is used here as an inclusive term which embraces fictional writing in general.”

This struck me as a very worthy aim, so I posted the link to my profile, with the intention of trawling through the site later, when I had more time. I paid little attention to the small, pale grey text accompanying the link:

Facebook Share or Tweet a link to this post before 2pm today for a chance to win a copy of After America by John Birmingham or Silk Chaser by Peter Klein.”

Then I win. Me, who never gambles or enters competitions in the hope of winning prizes. This calls for some jubilant status update posts. “Un – flamin’-real. I’ve just won a contest through Australian Literature Review and hope to receive John Birmingham’s After America as my prize.”

Literary FBFs are warmly congratulatory; we all agree a book is a good prize.

On a coin toss, I get the John Birmingham book, my first preference. One of the FBFs is keen to know about which book I wrote to win the prize. Puzzled by her comment, I soon discover that there were several competitions going and one had asked entrants to write 300-500 words on a favourite book. The FBF had found it too hard to choose which book to write about, after producing 500 words just trying to narrow down the choice.

As soon as you ponder this, you can see the problem. First, which book do you select from what would inevitably be a long list of favourites and secondly, what and how do you write about it in so few words? Even when you eliminate most of the books that are closest to your deepest, word-addled self – the ones that made you: the Grendel’s mothers and Dr Frankensteins of the writer that you have become – you still need to set up some parameters to enable a workable choice. Since it was the Australian Literature Review running the competition, and given the Review’s aim to revitalise Australian literature, it would be appropriate to narrow the field to an Australian book.

With my preference for first-person narratives – on my bookshelves they stand, spine to spine: Conrad, Defoe, Dickens…Gorky, Grass, Greene…Hemingway, Hesse, Huxley…Melville, Nabokov, Oakley…Proust on its own with the poetry – and multi-layered ironies, I can choose no other than My Brother Jack by George Johnston.

It’s a moving tale of a boy called David Meredith, born into a pre-WW1 Melbourne working class family, who squirms in the shadow of his tough, magnificent older brother. Enduring unprovoked beatings from a brutal, war-battered father, he manages to build himself a career as a writer and become a celebrated WW2 correspondent. Along the way, as he rises in the world, he sees his brother diminish into insignificance, in a sort of “good guys come last” vein. That’s the essence of the key points of the storyline, the surface.

A little below it is a thick layer of Australian history, from the descriptions of vernacular architecture, embracing the Edwardian and Between the Wars periods, to the recording of daily life in particular social and geographic settings of that era. My favourite part of the book deals with David’s time at The National Gallery School, housed in the Melbourne Museum. Nearly half a century later, in the Melbourne of my youth, much of that world still existed. Subsequently when it vanished, it was doubly heartening to know that it survived in Johnston’s book.

For me, the arts have always been the most engaging and significant record of history, from the paintings on the pyramid walls and Australian outback caves to the contemporary output of visual artists across the globe, and from the anonymous Peasant’s Song of prehistoric China to the disaffected pulsation of latter day western rap.

Scrape away a little more at My Brother Jack and you get a morality tale of human frailty, enough data for a text book on the psychology of families and a profound study of the nature of individual success as it came to be known in the 20th century.

But I like it for the plaintive irony under the swagger of the prose, whether in decrying the monotony of Melbourne’s flatness and attacking the city’s social fabric, or in the exploration of the narrator’s relationships with the different people, including love interests, in his life. While David Meredith tells us his story, I am not convinced that Johnston, the author, really knows what that is, which in itself fascinates me.

It is heartening to think that a book like this is a long term best seller and that it often makes it into “Australia’s favourite novel” lists. Another novel, whose prose I admire even more, that regularly appears in these lists is Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children. My huge problem with it is that Stead set it in America, when the storyline is drawn from her childhood in Sydney and, valuing verisimilitude, I find the transposition deeply unconvincing. That, of course, brings us to all the vexing and fascinating questions about the nature of autobiographical novels, of which Australian literature has plenty.

And any venture that wants to promote vibrant and original Australian literary writing has my full support because literature is the best part of our rich, local artistic culture. That the venture is online, shows a serious interest in the future.

Blazenka Brysha


Sweet Revenge

A Story by Blazenka Brysha

“Did you or did you not say: ‘Piss off, you little shit!’?” the magistrate asked, repeating his question.

From his vantage point as the accused, Trevor could see everyone in the courtroom. He looked at the six year-old child to whom he was supposed to have said this. The kid sat there with a bag of sweets in his lap, stuffing one lolly after another into his mouth and entertaining himself by surreptitiously kicking and punching the little girl who sat beside him. She was hitting him straight back. Their mothers were too engrossed in the proceedings to notice the children’s antics.

“I might have said that,” Trevor replied after some thought.

The magistrate went straight on, “And did you lift up that same child, Bradley Ecks, who is here in this court, and hold him over your head near the railing on the second level at Southland Shopping Centre and say, ‘Does action man want to take a shortcut to the lower level?’?”

“Yes,” answered Trevor, getting a bit flustered, “but only if he didn’t stop poking me with that sharp toy, the action figure thing, which is what I wanted to throw downstairs.”

When he was charged, Trevor hadn’t bothered to get Legal Aid because he thought he would not need it. He assumed that he would get justice by just sticking to the truth.

Yes, he had spoken, perhaps a little strongly, to the child who had persecuted him; and yes, he had threatened that same child, but it was done in self defence, after the child had repeatedly assaulted him. Trevor had already attempted to tell the court the whole story, so he resented the way the magistrate concentrated only on the bits that supported the charges.

When Trevor first started as a walkaround character with Henry’s CharactersTM, he liked the work better than he had expected. Dressing up as a chook, rabbit or bush animal and going about in public was closer to his training, as a dancer, than any other paid employment that necessity and Centrelink had forced him into, up to now. Donning the padded suits even inspired a new project, Outer Space, Inner Self, in which he combined various street styles of dance to examine human insignificance in the digitized age. It was a collaboration with a VJ friend who was good at getting small grants. They performed it in a dilapidated dance space, mainly to their friends, who really liked it, some even joining in.

After only six months with Henry’s, Trev was promoted to solo operator, when the company’s resources were stretched to the limit in fulfilling the promotion contract for the “Poss Possum” chocolate bar.

Trev liked the idea of spreading fun and chocolates. In practice, it was a tough gig appearing daily at four different shopping centres, for an hour at each. Although there was no Worksafe ruling on how long the stifling, cumbersome suit could be worn at one time, it was generally accepted in the trade that anything over 90 minutes could be seriously harmful.

But the work was not just hard, it was also thankless. So Trev found as he wobbled his big, foam-padded possum self towards a stroller, holding out a “Poss” bar for the little occupant, who unexpectedly shrieked in fear. As if that wasn’t enough, the mother would start screaming, “Get away from my baby! Can’t you see you’re making her cry?”

Mostly, the mothers apologised for their babies’ wailing.

“I’m sorry but he’s afraid of dogs,” one mother told him.

So much for all the effort he had put into developing his possum persona. He abandoned his marsupial head movements, which consisted of turning his neck sharply, then freezing in a stare. It had looked so good in the mirror at home, especially as the costume had high quality glass eyes. The wearer looked through concealed slits, positioned for human eyes.

By the time Trev got into his scrape at Southland, he had been doing “Poss” for nearly a month.

The combined effect of the school holidays and the mid-year sales, put both the shoppers and retailers on edge.

“Everyone just pushed and shoved,” Trevor had told the court. “It was hard going, I can tell you.”

But even at a quiet time Trev would not have been comfortable in a shopping mall. He was not a consumer and despised the religion of shopping, its places of worship and seasonal rituals. Trev didn’t mention any of this, just in case it cut across the magistrate’s beliefs.

He also didn’t mention the bit about nearly incinerating himself, which really added to his stress on that day.

He had wanted a smoke but couldn’t go outside because a walkaround character was never allowed to take off the costume head in public. It was one of the unbreakable rules of this commercial performance genre. Trev’s only option for privacy was the loos, although they were also part of the smoke-free complex. To his credit, Trev had considered trying to squeeze himself into his car in the carpark but he knew he wouldn’t fit without removing the suit. So, he had no choice.

Seated in a cubicle, his possum head on the floor beside his basket of chocolates, Trev puffed away peacefully. He didn’t notice a lumpy, burning bit of tobacco drop from the tip of his rollie. Suddenly the cubicle was full of smoke and Trevor was on his feet belting his smouldering sleeve with his bare hand. The sprinklers came on just as he reached down for his head and his basket. Hurried on by the ringing fire alarm, he brushed down his wet fur, which now stank, straightened his false head and made his way back into the crowd.

The costume was just singed over a large area but his nerves had been fried to a crisp. Although he wanted to get out of the place, he still had a lot of bars to give away. Experience had taught him that the best way to get rid of them, apart from dumping them at intersections when the lights changed, was to mooch along, ignoring everyone. That way he was never confused with collectors from the Wilderness Society, who dressed as koalas and carried buckets for donations.

The fear of being asked for donations blinded people to the difference between the limp, daggy koala suits whose hooded headpieces did not even hide the face of the wearer, and a state of the art, fully-sculptured costume like Trevor’s.

As he ambled along the walkways surrounding the cavernous atrium, children dipped their hands into his basket. His heavy suit was getting hotter and hotter.

It was from this point that Trev picked up his story for the magistrate. “I was nearly finished, so, I started heading off in the direction of an exit. I felt a sharp jab in my leg. I looked down and I saw that boy.”

He indicated the child, who was now sprawled across two seats and swinging his legs to kick the backrest of the seats in front of him.

“You mean Bradley Ecks?”

“Yes,” Trevor answered. “So I gave him some chocolates and some to that girl, too.”

Once again, the magistrate spoke, “You mean Cantrella Timms?”

Trevor turned his eyes to the girl. She was upside down on her seat, her legs against the backrest.

“Yes.” Trev was doing his best to play along. “Anyway, I tried to go but the boy just kept jabbing me with his hard plastic toy. As I gave him even more chocolates, the girl poured her drink on my foot.

“Then, as I looked around to see who was with these kids, the boy tried to set my tail on fire. He had taken my lighter from my pocket and was lighting it. I grabbed my lighter and tried to walk away but the kid jabbed me again. That’s when I told him off, which I shouldn’t have done because a proper walkaround character must never speak.”

“Why not?” asked the magistrate, intrigued by this legally gratuitous detail.

“It’s one of the rules. Speaking breaks the illusion.”

Trevor found it impossible to go on about the rest of what happened. He didn’t remember anything except the boy’s face as he held him up beside the railing. Having spent many hours hoisting dance partners into the air, Trev was used to hurling much bigger bodies about; picking up the child took no effort and it certainly got the kid’s respectful attention. Then someone screamed. Trev put the boy back on the ground and was nearly out the door when the security guard caught him.

Although the children’s mothers had not seen the disturbance because they were trying on clothes in an adjacent shop, there were more than a dozen witnesses statements against Trevor.

He was glad to have his boss, Libby Henry, vouch for him in person. She was highly groomed and wore a suit instead of her usual jeans. Trevor also dressed more formally for his day in court, donning a jacket that he bought specially the day before at the op shop. At the last minute he had decided against wearing his silk tie because it had The Cat in the Hat on it, which may have given the wrong impression. Libby had not removed the over-sized spider ring that she usually wore on the index finger of her right hand. She also did not tone down her bright lipstick. Although she was twenty years Trevor’s senior, she had retained a lithe body. No one would have been surprised to learn that she had been a Vegas showgirl and was a veteran of Disneyland.

She told the court, “Trevor was a reliable member of our Bush Friends troupe, especially as Barry, the Tasmanian Devil. I had been thinking of training him as The Count, one of our most popular children’s party characters. When all this fuss occurred, I had to suspend him from public appearances.

“But I think he’d been through a lot. The possum costume was ruined. It cost about $2,000; it’s very high quality. Going by the singe mark on it, Trevor would have been badly burnt, if it wasn’t made from fire-retardant fibre. However, between the burn mark and the soaking, it was quite wrecked. I had to make an insurance claim.

“I find it impossible to believe he meant the child any harm. He gets on very well with my dog, Petal, and Petal is never wrong about people.”

Hearing this, Bradley’s mother rolled her eyes and Cantrella’s mother stopped chewing her gum momentarily.

Under the circumstances, Trevor was grateful for Petal’s good opinion, especially since he had inadvertently nearly killed the dog by feeding it chocolate during the “Poss Possum” training programme. Boxes and boxes of “Poss” bars had been delivered for the promotion and everyone was getting into them. Trevor was having one after another and Petal sat transfixed in front of him. It made Trevor feel bad, knowing that the dog really wanted some. Petal was a small, hairy male and the only silly thing about him was his name. Trevor soon broke under the dog’s gaze and he gave him some of the chocolate. Then he gave him a little more and before long they were going fifty-fifty. It gave Trev a gut-ache and probably one to Petal, as well, since the dog vomited a litre of chocolate sludge on the carpet in Libby’s office. It made her very angry and she marched about demanding to know who fed Petal the chocolate and didn’t they know that chocolate can kill a dog? Trevor said nothing but felt, at the time, that it could kill him, too.

The magistrate glanced over his notes, preparing to finish the case.

He addressed Trevor, “Has it occurred to you how traumatic it must have been for a child to be lifted up like that?”

Trevor could imagine that it could be for some children but in little Brad’s case, it was merely enough to bring him to reason. However, Trev tried to appear as if he could suddenly see the magistrate’s point. He cast his eyes down, he stiffened his lips, he glanced up to make eye contact with the magistrate, for a second packed with remorse. All those years of dance training to become physically articulate now paid off. And Trevor was actually sorry: he was sorry to be caught up in this; he was sorry that he had to work in a ridiculous job that found him in settings he despised, surrounded by people he loathed. Yes, he was sorry.

“Nevertheless,” continued the magistrate, “I can see that you were put under extreme pressure. You reacted impulsively but without malicious intent.”

He put Trevor on a six-month good behaviour bond, with the condition that he was to get counselling for stress management.

Winding up the session, the magistrate spoke directly to the children, “You will pick up all those lolly wrappers on the floor before you go.”

The children ignored the order, leaving the clean-up to their mothers, who only picked up the biggest bits of rubbish.

On her way to the bin, the boy’s mother managed to tell Trevor, “You should have been put away!”

Outside, he caught up with Libby and thanked her. She pressed her lips together and nodded.

“Did you really want to train me as The Count?”

The question surprised her.

“Get real! You can’t handle six year-olds at Southland. The kids that want The Count at their parties would wash down their sushi with your blood.”

In the distance, Bradley and Cantrella bashed each other as their mothers talked beside their four-wheel drives.

“So there’s no work for me?” Trevor asked, to cover up his embarrassment at his naivety. He realised that Libby’s motive was to protect her business name.

“Not where children are involved. I’m sorry. But I might have something else,” she went on, guardedly. “I’m developing a Fred and Ginger thing with a show band for big functions. A couple of the girls would be good – Jenni, Lauren.”

“Jenni was my pas de deux partner at college!” Trevor blurted out.

“Also, I thought we could bring it up to date and go into a street thing…”

Now Trevor was excited, “Oh, cool. You haven’t even seen my street side!”

“I think I have. You mean that hip hop shuffle routine you were doing when you should have been cleaning out the store room?

“Need a lift?” she asked. Parking was tight and very expensive in that area. Trevor had trammed it. “Petal’s in the car. Don’t feed him anything, OK!”


Jack Feldstein Interviewed

Jack Feldstein (photo Madeleine Maguire 2008)

Portrait of the Artist as an Artist

Jack Feldstein makes the most delightful animated films: writing the scripts, constructing the visuals, narrating the stories and even composing the soundtracks. With running times spanning from a few minutes to approximately half an hour, Feldstein films cover some very serious topics on the life and death continuum, including love and religion. They also contain quite a bit of nonsense, as befits any observation of daily life, and that makes them funny. They are multi-layered with irony, which sometimes also makes them funny and always thought-provoking. Feldstein is equally comfortable with a bizarre romp through classical Greek territory (Rescuing Oedipus Rex 2007, 19 min 24 sec), or a contemporary morality tale in a mundane setting (Rock Hard 2003, 2005, 6 min 44 sec). If you are not entertained by the diverting observations, you will be amused by the dancing skeletons (The Psychology of Script Writing 2009, 14min 40 sec). A Jack Feldstein film is a unique visual, aural and intellectual experience. It looks like a cartoon drawn in bright outlines on a black background. The images are a mix of original graphics and live action video mixed with filmed and graphic elements including cartoons from the public domain.

As creator of what is now known as neon films, Jack Feldstein is a new type of artist, whose emergence has been wholly enabled by the advent of digital technology. While he is a word artist who specialises in narrative fiction, using script writing as his primary medium, he has been able to harness digital technology to create a secondary medium through which he can realise his art in its totality, on his own. Although he still writes both plays and film scripts for others to stage and film, through his neon films, he can create whole works by himself. The films have found success internationally through various film festivals, opening up opportunities for Feldstein overseas. At the end of March he is moving to live and work in New York. I only came across his work last year through The Group Online Magazine (current issue features Feldstein’s The Ectasy of Gary Green 2005, 15 min 9 sec), and finding it intriguing, I was keen to discuss it with him while he was still here in Australia.

Jack Feldstein is an upbeat sort of guy and yet he has submitted to psychoanalysis. He ruminates intellectually but loves an easy laugh. A self-confessed talker, he is a sharp listener, wanting to ensure that he is answering the question being asked. This turns into an amiable wrestle as he throws questions back for clarification in an effort to pin down what is really being asked. He turned his back on his day job as a pharmacist – an area of very exacting, quantifiable measures and precise scientific formulas – for the giddy uncertainty of pursuing artistic impulses. In this interview he talks frankly about his work and his methodology as a creative person. After the interview concludes, he goes on to say, “For anyone to make any thing, you have to be brave. You have to have courage and you have to be gutsy, I wish it to you and I wish it to everyone. Obviously, I don’t always have it but I can see I need it and if there’s any sort of qualities for an artist, these are the ones and they will keep you positive without becoming embittered. I don’t mean to sound all namby-pamby and up in the air but that’s what I believe.”

INTERVIEW – recorded on Tuesday, February 9, 2010.

In the documentary Rebels, Radicals and Renegades: Jack Feldstein, you say your work is driven by an explosive urge. What sort of things set it off and what is the fallout, in practical terms. In other words, how does the genesis of any work begin and how do you tackle its realization?

The genesis of any work is that a person has to have something to express. They have to be very clear about what they want to communicate to other people, an audience, then if they’ve got that impulse, they will execute it. I can only speak personally and I think it is different for everyone – and I’m quite analytical – it’s something, a feeling that has to be translated somehow.

Take an example of any one of your works. What sparked it? Let’s take The Great Oz Love Yarn (2006, 4 min 57 sec)...

The Great Oz Love Yarn is about unrequited love. It’s funny and it’s silly and it has wonderful Australianisms. This is how it happened: someone spoke to me. I just met some random guy and he said a funny Australianism, like, you know, ‘a handbreak on a Holden’ and he was only young. It was wonderful and I said ‘How come you say that? Where did you get it?’ And he said to me, that’s what his grandpa used to say. The guy was only maybe 19 and he was full of these sayings.

Was he speaking about unrequited love?


So, you just latched on to the expressions?

Yes and I love that they were uniquely Australian; it was marvellous, I felt. Then I did more research, I went and spoke to old diggers in pubs to get more. I went on a quest. As I spoke to them they would tell you a story and you’d have a beer and a bit of a yarn with them. One guy in particular told me a story, but not that particular story (ie The Great Oz Love Yarn), of unrequited love. I relate to that; I love unrequited love and resonate with it. That was the genesis.

Your first writing effort was a short story, followed by a play, then you became a script writer. You took that to a style of film making in which the script completely takes over, so that in effect, you are a writer who makes films. Why have you favoured script writing?

I’m born that way. I love scripts, I’m literary, I love literature. I truly believe a person is born who they’re born, with their own passions and their own likes and loves – and I have to say loves because I love it – and admire great scripts and plays, the writing of them and when someone does write them, I’m in awe.

Can I just jump in with a question related to this? You went through the first two decades of your life and became a pharmacist, then just turned around and became a writer. Why did your inner writer not come out before, or did he?

That is a perplexing question. I’m going to be very honest, I’m leaving the country now and I feel I have to be very honest. I duxed my school, so the curse of being bright, for a guy in particular, is that you’re pushed into the sciences and the maths. I was very good at maths and science, don’t get me wrong, and I love them but that was really the only option. It wasn’t presented that there might be other options that I could follow.

You were crippled by academic ability…

Absolutely, but I wouldn’t say ‘crippled’ that’s too harsh and I love the fact that I have that background.

Do you think that you will ever do a mad scientist animation? You’ve got a lot of information that you could tap into…

Probably. In the future I might use all that in a character; all that background could be really helpful.

In which year did you make your first neon film and what is it called? Was it Three Months with Pook, 2002?


You describe your production method as ‘a combination of rotoscoping, computer effects and flash.’ You also use a mix of original live action video and other filmed material from the public domain. How much did practical reasons influence your choice of style (eg neon films as opposed to drawn graphics or all live action)? For example if you were a graphics artist you might tell your story just in pictures but neon animation combines lots of different things. Was that a practical choice?

It was practical and theoretical. I’d just finished studying at COFA (the College of Fine Arts, Sydney). I’d done the Theory of Modern Art and the Theory of Post Modern Art. I’d done the theory because I was fascinated by it and didn’t know much about it. So, I spent two years doing those courses. At the culmination of that, it opened me up because post modernism is appropriation and postmodernism was – because it’s now post-postmodernism – wonderfully freeing.

I was greatly influenced by postmodernism and learning about it. I loved it; I found it freeing and enlightening.

You don’t access government grants, how do you fund your work?

I have managed to sell my work in North America to cable television, not all of it, but some.

How did you do that? What is the process?

OK. My stuff was shown in film festivals, like Rotterdam and it was nominated for an award; it was out there in the world. In the Lincoln Centre in New York, one of my films was chosen and that was a huge help. Because of that it got some recognition and because of that, distributors approached me.

Can I ask how lucrative has it been? In Australia the population is so small that the creative artist struggles for an income from creative work.

It’s far more lucrative, if you look outside Australia. And that’s the reason I’ve not concentrated on Australia in this way; maybe I’m not such a bad businessman! At the end of the day, I’m not interested in the nuts and bolts but my mind tells me that a market with so many people in it is greater than the market here. So, I’ve concentrated on overseas because I’ve found it more rewarding financially. Also, through that, I got a producer in New York to like my work and he gets me gigs. So, if someone likes what I do, they hire me to do some stuff for them.

At the end of March you are going to New York. For how long ?

For how long? I don’t know…

You told me you have a Green Card. How long does that go for?


Are you moving your whole household?

Yes, my partner is going with me.

Was it hard to organise everything?

What do you think (he laughs)? It is a huge, adventurous step but I look at it as an adventure. I’m a humanist, so I look at the world as one place; I don’t look at it as little nations. I love the idea of a cosmopolitan world. I know that it sounds like crap and that it’s ideologically ridiculous and naïve, even, but I can’t help it. I’ve studied in France and I’ve studied in New York and I can see like a big picture, like everyone is trying to do the same thing.

Yet your work is very distinctly Australian-flavoured…

Absolutely and which is as it has to be.

Judging by your work, your literary frame of reference is strongly highbrow, western cannon, Proust, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce. What else do you read?

I do read the Americans like Jack Kerouac…

But that’s considered highbrow, western canon…

Is it?

From a literary point of view, I’m afraid it is…

I read JD Salinger…What’s the question? Do I read crap? (he laughs good-naturedly) What’s the question?

Well, in my case, western cannon is my entire background but I also read what I call ‘trash journalism – for example in my childhood I read a lot of Women’s Weekly, Women’s Day, The Herald (a daily broadsheet).

Well, I’m not an exclusivist, a snob or an elitist at all. It’s just that I admire these people. I love the way these people write, they’re geniuses.

What about our own Australian geniuses, people like George Johnston, Katherine Susannah Pritchard…

Absolutely, as well.

But they’re western cannon highbrow, which is interesting…

Great musicians are to be admired. Anyone great in any area is to be admired. When I read something, or when I’m affected by something else that someone else has made, I’m in awe of it and I do my little bit to show that. I do it tongue in cheek as well, I’m humorous.

Going on from that, what films do you enjoy and which do you admire – are they the same? I ask that because I very much enjoy Hong Kong action movies (Jack: “Ouch!” roars laughing) and up to a point admire them but then there’s that whole ‘great films’ thing…

I enjoy animations, like all the Pixar ones. I enjoy them greatly and there’s a spate coming now that are not even Pixar, they’re Dreamworks, everyone’s trying to do it.

How do you regard a film like Avatar, which is lauded for its technical achievements and whose content has an anti-militaristic and environmentalist thrust? You obviously admire it technically…

I have no problem with the script, it was adequate, on a technical level it was absolutely fine, it served it’s purpose of hanging a marvellous, genius visual experience on it. Politically, you’re asking me? Politically, it was very interesting as a metaphor, it worked to get people to think. And it’s interesting because it got everyone to put their own interpretation into it, which shows me that it’s a very universal, classic piece. Like Oedipus Rex. It’s not just a story about Oedipus and his mother, it becomes universal from the specific.

Avatar is a populist triumph but at a serious critical level the concept of ‘populist’ is a very troubling and ambiguous one that now carries a pejorative overtone. You touch on this in your delicate treatment of religion in The Populist Adventures of Jesus (2007, 2 min 54 sec), in which Jesus, then Moses and Mohammad become Holywood celebs and inspire their followers to replace weaponry with consumer goods like fancy TVs. What’s your position in relation to all this? You say you use humour but that’s an interesting position because, for example, Jesus becomes a popular celebrity, which is something that you might question…

Well…OK…what’s my position? Clearly, it’s as in the film, in other words, it is an ironic situation because I see the irony behind all of it, behind celebrity…I try not to judge too much because, to be very honest, to judge is already to not be an artist. An artist accepts, accepts what the world is. To judge it, is already a little arrogant. Thus, perhaps to point out some ironies of situations, I’m gentler than a harsh political artist. However, there are huge ironies and absurdities…

That you do like to expose?

Yes, and that’s how I see the world as quite absurd. My political view of the world is: absurdity.

That takes us to the next question, which is about psychology. In The Psychology of Scriptwriting you identify various psychological profiles like autistic fantasy, narcissistic, id and empowerment theories that can be used to categorise script writers. When my sister saw the film she wondered where you would see yourself fitting?

I fit in all of them. I’ve got a little bit of all of it in me. My partner is a psychiatrist and I’ve had quite a lot of therapy and psychotherapy. I’m not averse to it and I’m not scared of it. It’s not taboo for me either.

Can I ask, why have you had a lot of psychoanalysis?

Because I think it’s a luxury to have been able to work things out that were perplexing me. And rather than continue to make the same mistakes, I wanted to make new mistakes. Psychotherapy seemed very helpful to me.

As an aid to personal development?

As an aid to understanding why one might perhaps do what one does and being able to change it. It’s an aid in changing.

In this day and age there’s a lot of so-called mental illness – I use the term to define things like depression, bi-polar condition – would you have suffered from any of those to a clinical level? Or have you gone in for psychoanalysis because you were just interested?

A clinical level? OK, you’re asking me a medical question and I’m going to answer it as a medical person. At a clinical level, let’s say, I would have had the odd bit on medication and in a…

In an institution, for want of a better word?

No, that’s not my background. However, I am disymic or cyclothymic, which means sub-clinical. Now everyone is on a spectrum of everything. Now cyclothymic, it’s not bi-polar – people can be moody, up and down but not manic and comatose. But I think that any creative person must face themselves, and back to the psychotherapy, it’s really facing oneself. It’s probably what every artist must do because you have to grapple with yourself, every time you sit down. Psychotherapy has helped me do that.

Were still on the feelings side, psychology – your films are irrepressibly positive, even Virginia Woolf snaps out of suicidal depression (The Adventures of Virginia Woolf, 2007, 3 min 29sec). Is this positivity something you deliberately engineer?

It is something I aim for. I try not to be a nihilist or to let the negative darkness…look you can always choose, even an existentialist can choose, where you go in life. The choice of positivity is, I believe, helpful to people.

Your work is also riddled with ambiguity and multi-layered with irony. You have Proust engaging with a Proustian memory sequence as he struggles to remember something important (The Adventures of Marcel Proust 2007, 3 min 47 sec). Your James Joyce is in a prosaic funk and offered as a purile whinger, slagging off Hemingway but quoting a few vindicating words from Ulysseys (The Adventures of James Joyce 2007, 2 min 51 sec, co-written with Daniel T Metz). How easily does this stuff come to you and how much do you have to work it into shape?

How does it come to me?

Yes, do you just start with a strand, does it come as a grand revelation? How easily does it come to you?

How easily does it come to me?

Are you ‘exploding’ all the time? Or, do you have big patches of no erruptions?

OK. Often I’m exploding. When I say I’m cyclothymic, obviously there is a time when I’m not – there is a cycle – but let’s say 75% of me is more of that explosive nature. Then there’s the 25% that is hopeless.

Then let’s get back to the idea of how you work it into shape. There’s the old adage that ‘genius is…


1% inspiration, 99% perspiration…

Yes, of course, and I believe that. How do I get it into shape? I just do it and then I re-do it.

Do you work long hours at a stretch?


So, you’ll stay up till ridiculous hours?

Yeah, all of that.

How does your storyline evolve: does it work towards a conclusion or is the conclusion the result of the way the story unfolds? Do you sometimes start with an idea for a conclusion and work up to it?

No. I try for a conclusion that is organic from the story.

In The Adventures of J.D. and the Rye Guy (2009, 4 min 52 sec), Mr Antolini, the possibly pedophillic and therefore controversial character from The Catcher in the Rye, is offered as a model in that the Rye Guy becomes like him. Tell me a bit about that?

That character is very strong and disturbing (in the novel).

From your animation, I thought I must have remembered it wrongly…

No you were correct in that he (the Rye Guy) turned into a possibly questionable character…

But your version is this happy chappy with a cocktail…

Well, I’m sure he was that because a ‘happy chappy with a cocktail’ could be fiddling about very easily.

So what is your position on him? Because you do say you find him creepy.

Of course, he’s creepy!

I found him creepy; kids don’t like someone touching them…

So did Holden! It’s an ironic situation. Sometimes a person becomes something creepy and I’m sure that a creepy fellow didn’t start off as a kid thinking he would be. He would be horrified to think that that’s what he would turn into.

All your animations are narrated. How much is the narrator you? The words and voice are yours but how much is the narrator a created character? I’m thinking specifically about Rock Hard because you presume that the narrator, who is telling the story about himself and has a peculiar fetish for female pubic topiary, is a creation.

It is a creation. It’s a creation that I understand. As someone who makes things – even the word artist is so weird now – I try not to judge. The more I can understand everybody – of course, that’s impossible and I’m setting myself an impossible task – but I’m trying to understand everybody and the more I understand all sorts of people, the better I’ll be at presenting them.

So, how much is the narrator Jack Feldstein and how much is the narrator a creation that morphs from animation to animation?

It’s a hybrid. It’s not me, you’re talking to me now, which I am similar to my animations and I do talk at a million miles a minute and I love ‘highbrow’ intellectual sort of stuff, and funniness and absurdity and all those things, as you can tell as we’re speaking. I’m a very playful person. Verbally.

However, do I have a schtick about (pubic topiary)? No. However, a friend of mine did.

The moral of this animation seems to be: “judge not lest ye, yourselves, be judged….”

That is exactly right.

So, there is a moral there but you’re not judging and yet it is about judgement. That’s what I’m talking about when I refer to the multi-layered irony…

And I do believe that – be careful with your judging, ‘lest ye yourself be judged.’ Just be careful when you’re being arrogant and judging and harsh because it could be that one minute you’re not that and the next minute you are. Like with drug addicts or whatever…

Boy George was like that, he proclaimed his love for a cup of tea and then he became a heroin addict…

It’s the same with everybody. It’s like The Bacchae. The Bacchae is one of my favourite plays because that is the moral of it. He (Pentheus) tries to stop all the dionysian cavorting but instead was consumed by it because he wanted to see it. He thought he could just see it and keep away but that’s not the truth because as soon as you look at something, you become it in a way. We’re not as compartmentalised as we think. The Bacchae is a very psychological play; it’s a genius play actually.

Your sound tracks, which have a whimsical digitised quality, are never credited so I presume that you create them yourself along the lines of your use of public domain image. Is that so?

Yes and I also compose my own music.

Do you have a formal musical background?

No, not at all.

Your work is better known overseas than in Australia. Does that bother you?

Does it bother me? It wasn’t my plan; I had no idea that that would have to be the way.

But does it bother you?

You see, I’m not answering the question. It would be nice (to be recognised here), it would have been easier for me, if it had worked out. But that forced me to look elsewhere, so, it’s a blessing and a curse. The curse is that it would have been nice; the blessing is that it’s forced me to look overseas, to go there and to sell myself there and to succeed there, which is not a bad thing. My rational mind tells me that I”m not the only one in this situation – there’s lots like me. My positivity tells me, look, you were forced to do this and you did it. But my heart, because I am Australian, would have liked it.

So, you still love a sunburnt country, despite everything?

How could you not?

What work are you hoping to produce in New York?

Well, I’m a film maker and a script writer as well. So I am going there a lot for my scripts and I hope to be working as a script writer as well, just a script writer because I do love it.

And scripts for films?

For films and theatre because I love theatre as well. So, I’m going to explore those areas; I’ve got a lot of scripts, that I’ve written, in my draw, that I have not sold or done anything with because they’re not for…the challenge is too much for me here but I know that overseas, it’s easier for me. I don’t know why and I can’t explain it.

The photograph of you to be used with this interview, you say ’emphasises your aesthetic.’ Tell me a little about how you relate to that photograph, which shows your back and shows you in front of the Warhol famous soup can work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

When I did that course of modern art, pop art really impressed me and I loved it. I’d always loved it but learning about it really made me love it more – really as an epiphany, as an explosion. I ‘get’ pop art and my films are time-based pop art.

When you say ‘time-based’ what do you mean?

Andy Warhol did visual art, which is stationary. Time-based is just a term for any sort of filmic work over the time axis – work that is not stationary. And I love it so much. When I love something, I appropriate it or I transform it with my own direction.

One question has just occurred to me in relation to time-based work. All artists, all creative people self-edit, deciding what they are putting in and what they’re not; I’ve come across an interview with you in which you talk about script writing and not being precious, about throwing stuff away. Now I’ve noticed that your films vary greatly in length. They can be only a few minutes or even half an hour. I guess I’m asking how long is a piece of string…

The story tells you how long. The narrative tells you if you’re open to it.

In A Wondrous Film About Emma Brooks (2006, 17 min 36 sec), the bird tells Emma that ‘the truth isn’t in words.’ Where is the truth for you?

It’s in actions. The truth is in actions, which is ironic as well because I’m full of words but I’m well aware that the truth is not in my words; it’s in my actions and not just me but everyone.

So, your art is not true?

No, the art is true because I did an action, I made the art.

Blazenka Brysha


Some other films by Jack Feldstein

Computer Games (2006 5 min 17 sec)

Headbin (2004, 12 min 51 sec)

The Loser Who Won (2006, 20 min 18 sec)

The Atomic Adventures of Jack Karouac (2007, 5 min 26 sec)

Fantastical World of Script Writing (2007, 32mins)

Dragon Dance Welcoming Year of the Tiger

Springvale Chinese New Year Festival, Sunday, 7 February, 2010

The best way to welcome a New Year is with a Dragon Dance. If you want to go all the way, include a Lion Dance. That’s the way the Chinese do it and when it comes to pageantry, colour and symbolism, they can’t be beaten. The dances not only add fun to the festivities but make double sure that the coming year will be a good one, filled with health, happiness and prosperity. Touching the dragon is considered particularly lucky, which must mean that taking part in a Dragon Dance is a fortunate opportunity, indeed.

As luck would have it, that’s exactly what happened to us when our martial arts teacher, Sifu Dana Wong, sent out a distress call for help with the dragon of the Federation of Chinese Associations (Vic) Inc., when regular members of the dragon dance team were unable to come and person power was needed for a gig at the Springvale Chinese New Year Festival last Sunday night. Big Bruce, as this dragon is affectionately known, was a gift to the Federation from the Chinese consulate and is intended for use both as a dynamic manifestation of living tradition and as a cultural artefact reaching out to the community at large.

Working Big Bruce, last Sunday, was a workout and a half as we stomped and lunged, twirled and plunged our serpentine way through streets and shops in Springvale. Big Bruce dived and rose through a sea of happy faces, delighting the crowds with energetic serpentine antics, propelled by the power of a big, beating drum, a banging gong and the crash of cymbals. This powerful dragon took his work of scaring away monsters and paving the way for good luck very seriously, indeed. Big Bruce may be made of cloth and hoops and sticks but it was us humans who were the props.

Big Bruce waiting for showtime.

Dragons come in many lengths. This three-stick dragon has impressive mobility.

The two-stick dragon shows that a little dragon is lots of fun.

Both Dragon Dance and Lion Dance belong to the realm of Chinese martial arts. Sifu Wong, who heads Qian Li Dao Academy, explains, “Dragon dancing is a multi-faceted gem that reveals an integral part of Chinese culture through physical expression. Twirled within its weave of movements are ancient traditions combined with fitness training and martial arts. The expression of age-old beliefs and customs is preserved through the generations via the dance, while also providing an opportunity for fitness and the development of martial skills. The dragon dance symbolises longevity, prosperity and the search for eternal knowledge. Through participation in dragon dancing, anyone can contribute to the community, get healthy and learn a bit of culture along the way, but FUN is the icing on the cake!”

While there’s a lot to understand and know, fun is the integral component that our rough and ready troupe had down pat. Unlike the western dragon, which is presented as a monster to be slain, the Chinese dragon is a sacred creature of great power and benevolence. Its appearance is as complex as the cultural depth that informs it. With its serpent body, fish scales, eagle claws, tiger paws, camel head, bovine ears, stag antlers, clam belly, monstrous goggle eyes and human whiskers, it is a composite of all creatures and can move through water and air, as easily as on land. This dragon is your most-valued friend. We got that message across, no worries.

Just as the dragon has nine different creature components – the whiskers are not counted, except in my personal observation – so Big Bruce needs nine handlers. However, many parade dragons are much much, longer – the Melbourne Millennium Dragon being the longest in the world – and some are quite short. At Springvale, Big Bruce performed with several other two and three-stick dragons. In one glorious sequence, all dragons came together, rising majestically in support of the Lion Dance victor, as it reached high to snatch the victor’s prize of lettuce and money dangling from the veranda roof of Walrus Seafood Restaurant. In a kung fu miracle, my wing chun skills enabled me to take a snap of this magnificent moment although I, too, was ramming a stick into the stratosphere.

Lion Dance is performed as a competition between two lions, each one worked by a team of two very acrobatic performers. The lions appearing with us were the Melbourne Quan Anh Lion Dance. The dancers received some last minute coaching from the dazzlingly athletic David Tang, who cross trains in various martial arts including Choy Li Fut and Hung Gar. He lead both lions and dragons, working the dragon’s pearl – the spherical, flame-edged object of the dragon’s pursuit, symbolising wisdom, prosperity and universal energy as expressed by the concept of chi (Qi). It was a merry, exuberant dance as David leapt, spun and dashed about, wielding a sceptre topped with the enticing pearl. Sometimes he would throw himself down onto one knee and make the dragons jump over the pearl.

David Tang demonstrates a move.

David Tang (left) and La Wren Wong watch as the lion dancers practice removing the prize of cash strapped to lettuce.

David Tang in action with the pearl.

Red Lion dancers at the end of their gig.

As with all dance performances, the big no-nos are tripping up and not staying in step. The first we managed; the second proved much more difficult. Keeping the serpentine undulations of the dragon’s body synchronised in canon sequence requires great skill and much practice. Our effort was more of a jolly wobble and a reckless sway. At one point, when we swooped to round a corner, I nearly decapitated a performer from another troupe. Then there was the thrillingly perilous stampede through restaurants, in which we had to duck through doorways and dodge overhead fans.

In the case of our dragon, as with most things, the middle bit is not nearly as important as the beginning and the end. Working the head and tail of a dragon require considerable expertise. Big Bruce’s head weighs at least 15 kg. Hoisting it about in a dance that requires aerodynamic manoeuvres is an enormous physical and aesthetic challenge. Fortunately, Steve Colebrook, a professional musician, long-time martial artist and practised dragon dancer, was able to draw on the appropriate range of skills to do Big Bruce justice. The tail, which needs to move horizontally and vertically at the same time, was handled by La Wren Wong, another senior martial artist of long-standing experience in a range of movement arts. Handling Bruce’s head or tail is so abrasive to the hands that it requires the wearing of protective gloves.

La Wren Wong (left), who worked the tail, adjusts her protective glove. Steve Colebrook holds steady the 15kg dragon head.

The Springvale Chinese New Year 2010 Festival closed in the dark of night with a spectacular performance from all the dragons in front of the community stage in one of the large carparks. Fired up by the banging accompaniment, the dragons charged into the bright light, weaving in and out, over and under each other, creating patterns of brilliant colour and an atmosphere of exploding energy. The new year would be a good one.

Happy Year of the Tiger.

Dragons going home.

Blazenka Brysha

Big Bruce’s next gig will be at the Glen Waverly Chinese New Year Parade on Febryary 28, then at Werribee annual festival’s Weerama Harmony Day parade, on March 14.

All the photos

It’s Only Words – Occasional Interviews

Throughout history, art has been the most interesting and meaningful record of humanity’s existence. Yet art not only reflects the world that produces it, but also taps into its time to invent the future. So Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year(1722), which offered fact in the form of a novel, becomes the precursor of serious modern journalism. Paradoxically, his fictional Robinson Crusoe (1719), the best-known book in English for a quarter of a millennium, was often regarded as fact. Much closer to our own time, we only need to consider the effect of Japanese manga cartoons on popular culture and how they have shaped the aesthetic consciousness and appearance of youth born into our post manga world. However you look at it, humanity’s consciousness is infiltrated.

What interests me is how artists interact with their time in history to create something new. In this series, I want to intercept the artist at the point of that interaction and discuss the work that has resulted from it.

When I spoke to film maker Jack Feldstein about the possibility of doing an interview with him, he said, “Oh, is it going to be a series?” His supportive ebullience caught me off-guard and I stammered my way out of it. But the artist in Jack is a bit psychic because, in fact, to interview Jack, who is moving to New York in March, I had to put off the interview I had pencilled in for February, with artist and sculptor, Darien Pullen about the sandstone studio he has built for himself. The building in question is a work of high art: pristinely aesthetic, puritanically functional and so environmentally friendly that it could be a blueprint for sustainable living beyond the pet-cage wheel of earn-spend-consume-earn-spend-consume.

The interviews I want to produce are made possible by digital media and the luxury of cyber space, a sprawling universe of technological possibility that allows comprehensive recording and automatic full illustration of the subject matter under discussion. So, it’s not really only words, but words are all I have to address something more that can now also be conveyed.

Blazenka Brysha
February, 2010

Jack Feldstein Interviewed will be on line March 1

Jack Feldstein (Madeleine Maguire, 2008)