Dance, film, poetry: Sarah St Vincent Welch reviews ‘text messages from the universe’

text messages from the universe, directed by Richard James Allen was screened at the Arc Cinema, National Film and Sound Canberra, with a live reading by the director, on Saturday March 14 2020

TEXT MESSAGES FROM THE UNIVERSE – Trailer from The Physical TV Company on Vimeo.

text messages from the universe was the last live performance I was likely to see for some time. The experience has travelled well with me into the shutdown in response to COVID-19. As a film lover and live poetry reading tragic, I was keen to experience the effects of this hybrid creation. A dancefilm as well as a poetryfilm, with a live performance by the writer of the film, the poet, Richard James Allen, out the front, just to the right, under the big screen, ‘text messages from the universe’ was contemplative as well as visually stunning. Allen is also the choreographer and director (and one of the dancers). He elegantly describes the film as ‘a dancing book on screen.’

text messages from the universe explores big subjects – identity, time, reality, mortality, existence, consciousness, and spirituality. It is set over the 49 days of the ‘Bardo’, the time between dying and rebirth described in ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead’, which is a guide to this journey. In whatever belief system, artistic representations of what happens beyond death are enthralling. We think – ‘Just how are they going to do that?’ And ‘text messages …’ fulfilled this kind of anticipation well.

My inner voice was – I reflected as I took notes – quietened a little – and I touched my son’s hand (I forgot maybe we should not touch) as we realised together in this muted beginning of black and white and grey that this film is about death. We knew it but were still surprised – and also knew we both recalled, in our shared memories, the sorrow for the deaths and griefs we have felt and still feel. They were as raw as skin sheering asphalt, as impacting as the ankle hitting the curb that the poem described, as we listened and read and watched, for a poignant moment, and then fell into the marvel of this film.

The text overlay of poetry (a superimposition) is presented as we would often read poetry on a page, with line and stanza, but some subtle rhythmic cinematic fades in and out of lines. The text is also a kind of image, placed in relationship to the other images – like the dancers on the screen, or is it the other way around? Allen’s voice, his performance, the effect of his emphasis and dramatisation, added an intriguing layer. His voice, the textual voice of the poem on the screen, one’s own quieter internal reading voice, the interplay between reading and listening, the awareness of the author’s physical presence, the minute variations in timing between film text and spoken word, pulled my attention in a pleasing way, provided an added intimacy and edge. I wonder if it focused us more on the narrative? Allen was literally in the spotlight as well, with the screen enormous above him, he a small point of concentration below, his voice travelling through the cinema.

One of the achievements of this event was that the elements of dance, cinema, poetry, costume, music, and (in this viewing) Allen’s performance, converged to create its own language the audience experienced and came to feel they understood. We were mesmerised. The event was filled with gentle and profound surprises, the components of which are difficult to address separately. The dancers perhaps reflect the moods of the after life journey, spinning, faltering, being lost, wandering, they ‘glide’ and ‘slip’. We, like the narrator, ‘watch for clues’ in this mysterious yet often familiar place; the dancers seem like bursts of energy or feelings. The dance movements are often urgent and searching, and sometimes even humorous, and the dancers at times exit and enter the top and bottom of the frame, or dance upside down, they become free of gravity in the space of the Bardo, which is represented by hyperreal street images, intense close-ups, moody details, familiar and strange at the same time, eventually becoming more like abstract paintings. They dance in front of the images, or through them.

Thoughts appearing in the atmosphere around you.

The dancers always contrast with the setting. We fall in love with these bright lively humans, they could at times be fellow denizens of the Bardo. We don’t know. They don’t seem to be characters, or individuals, though we are so drawn to them. To me the dance also at times echoed mystic physical meditation practices, with whirling and repetitive patterns. The dance is choreographed through visual effects as well, the same dancer and movement replicated to multiply the one to be more … but the same. Rippling, unfolding. Dancing with, beside, and through themselves and together.

The costumes are part of the dance; fabric waves, pulls, sweeps, twirls, stretches. The changing colours of the costumes mark the stages of the experience through the Bardo and its different moods. (A call out here to Olivia Deur and Azure Susan Schofield, the costume designers – they are magnificent.) Each colour represents a ‘Chakra’, a Yogic concept of energy centres in the body. The audience does not need to know these exact references at all, but they are illuminating when discovered, and they work on many levels to help the audience have a sense of structure and progression without undermining the fluidity and out of body out of time and space experience. Though anchored in time, with the markers of days progressing, the rhythm of music, the patterns of the movements of bodies, we felt unhinged from time as well. All this exists in the inbetween.

The sheer, delicate, translucent fabric of time enwraps, entangles, enfolds.

The narrative holds us, providing the structure of story, but is told in the always unsettling second person. Who is the you of the story? Me, him, her, they, you, us? Whatever serves to place in this narrative, always has an aspect that also destabilises. We float. But we are safe. Maybe.

This film explores what we cannot know, in the hybrid language that emerges. It is fascinating to think that the choreographer is also the poet, that the impulse to explore and develop this preoccupation with the liminal is able to be expressed through all of Allen’s art practices together in this film, and also to think of how they speak to each other.

The poetry and narrative are clear, in a colloquial voice in the best sense, in that it is direct, authentic, intelligent, and approaches the necessarily philosophical territories with openness, wonder, and skill, and with many questions. We are so drawn in that we may just feel that we are that soul in the Bardo. And we may be. We certainly identify with them. The journey is not without pain, but it is also miraculous.

Perhaps up and down aren’t so much silly as three-dimensional.…..While you have the potential to float beyond the horizons of dimensionality altogether.…..Beyond the sunsets and sunrises.….. Sleeping and flying at the same time.

Ola Turkiewicz’s score stays with you too. The music lightly references many cultures in its rhythms and choice of instruments. Karen Pearlman’s ‘choreographic editing’ demonstrates a well-honed sensibility of dance in film, and works with editing’s role as the filmic tool that deals with time, to enhance passages of dramatic tension and release. It is great to see such high level Australian independent films being produced and continuing to have many lives and joining in conversations of universal interest. (Shout out to producers Richard James Allen, Marie-Stella McKinney and Executive Producers Karen Pearlman (Physical TV), Ben Ferris, Lhara Wetmore (Sydney Film Studios), and those 25 entrancing dancers of the Bardo.

It seems apt to reflect that a work of such scope can have many incarnations. I look forward to a stand-alone book one day, and to the possibility of it being screened again in a cinema for an audience, with or without the live performance. The best testament probably is that I eagerly returned for the second screening that day, in the National Film and Sound Archives Arc Cinema, at the Festival ‘Art, Not Apart’. That night the film appeared in another form at the famed after party ‘Sound and Fury’ with excerpts projected in Canberra’s beloved Albert Hall. How will we encounter ‘text messages from the universe’ next?

 – Sarah St Vincent Welch 

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Sarah St Vincent Welch is a Canberra-based writer, editor, writing teacher and image-maker. She is known for chalking her poetry on the footpath at arts festivals and then tweeting them to the skies, not knowing where they may land. Her #litchalk poetry will be in the upcoming Contour 556 biennial free public art festival beside Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra in October 2020. Her chapbook OPEN was published by Rochford Press in 2019 https://rochfordpress.com/open-by-sarah-st-vincent-welch/. She writes about time and place and reading and writing at sarahstvincentwelch.com

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Sarah St Vincent Welch is a Canberra based writer, editor, writing teacher, and image maker, known for her short fiction about the lives of women and girls, and for chalking her poetry on the footpaths at arts festivals. In 2016 she wrote a poem a day for Project 366, an international poem-centric online project by poets, visual artists and translators. She has worked with writers living with disability and mental illness and facilitates community creative writing projects. She has lectured and tutored at the University of Canberra. Her heart belongs to two cities, and she has worked on novels based in both Sydney and Canberra. Open is her first book

‘Open’, the verb and ‘open’, the adjective are both hard at work in this book as she engages with memory, myth and dream, while remaining tethered to life’s dailiness, in public libraries and private gardens, on beaches, in houses and among children at play. If you are new to her work you will be enchanted. If you are already a fan you will reminded all over again of what has delighted you in her spare, gorgeous lines and unique consciousness. Here ‘a furled child hides’, and waits, ready to root and bloom in your mind when you open yourself to these poems. .– Melinda Smith

“Sarah St Vincent Welch dangles you under ‘a conker sun,’ wears you like ‘a soft corpse on her shoulders,’ slides you ‘into a bird cry.’ In Open each poem is a world – sensuous, intimate, nostalgic. You feel the rhythmic push and shove of these worlds as the poet folds you into them”. . – Lizz Murphy

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