Review by Naomi Cardwell
Duré Dara’s list of honours is as impressive and varied as her performance art. Recipient of an Order of Australia Medal for her services to the community and work with women’s groups, she is also a respected Melbourne restauranteur, and a renowned percussionist in our improvisational jazz scene. Percussion, Conversation, Degustation weaves these three lifetimes’ worth of living into a true feast for the senses.
It’s all in the title – but there’s so much more. Dara’s improvised percussion performance is accompanied by courses of finger food from some of her favourite Melbourne haunts, and as she plays, she interjects with stories from her life and experiences. Entering La Mama’s Courthouse theatre, we are immediately enveloped by Dara’s warmth and sincerity, as she greets us, barefoot, clasping our hands, saying “Thank you for coming. It’s an honour.” This is Dara’s space, and we are her welcome guests.
We begin with dessert: heavy chunks of golden baklava scattered with flower petals, rich and sweet and flaky. Bells tinkle, and a glockenspiel and xylophone begin to call and respond to one another from across the room. In the centre, tiny Dara reaches high to hold an instrument to an overhead microphone, dwarfed by cymbals, drums, and tables laden with tools from her various trades. With sensitive and dynamic sound engineering by Michael Hewes, each instrument’s own moment is as large or as small as the percussionist intends it to be – and Dara’s use of instruments surprises and delights. When the bells and baklava begin to overwhelm, she produces a kitchen knife, dragging it across her guiro to cut through the sweetness, and a new batch of sound emerges.
She pauses occasionally, sharing an anecdote or warmly reminding the audience they are welcome to join in or interrupt. We come to understand that Dara’s kitchen and her soundscape are inseparably mingled, in constant dialogue with one another. By the end of this performance, it seems completely natural that improvised percussion, languid conversation and good, honest food should share space in this way. I’m afraid I’ll be ruined next time I encounter any of the three on their own.
What this performance doesn’t offer is structured rhythm - at least not as a lay person like me can understand it. “I don’t keep time for anyone,” Dara declares in an interview, and as her work unfolds I find that time is elastic in this experience, which compels my eyes to close, and to let the sounds intermingle and wash over me. Under John Collopy’s warm and intimate lighting it feels safe to simply let the performance and the food be, and enjoy watching as Dara’s unhurried hands wander over the instruments before her, exploring, playing, and allowing the new sounds to evolve and swell to fill La Mama’s Courthouse space.
Percussionists Eugene Ughetti and Kaylie Melville flank Dara, elegantly moving between instruments to work up themes and build layers and texture into the piece. Ughetti is adroit and responsive, drawing moods out of his instruments and introducing change thoughtfully and with skill. Melville is nimble, almost dancing as she moves from instrument to instrument, experimenting with sound and lingering over favourite notes and new discoveries. This kind of improvisation is playful, curious, and admirably fearless - but courage, Dara reminds us, is fear running in the right direction.
Heaping trays of fragrant curry puffs are served for the next course - and while the audience munches, Dara shares another story, and another. It’s a shame that dietary limitations leave some of the audience out of this experience, because the act of eating together brings a kind of intimacy into the space that relaxes us all out of the usual codes of theatre. One person calls out, asking for seconds - another admonishes Dara to get back to her music. Someone pops out for a smoke. None of this performance is conventional, but all of it is alive with a kind of indescribable La Mama-ness, where as Dara puts it, “mad, indulgent witches and wankers” have shared generously with one another for decades now.
Performance art and great food share a common tragedy: neither can ever be repeated. We can scrutinise scripts and recipes, we can (and do!) become regulars who return week after week to our favourite haunts, but no plate or play is truly the same as its predecessor. Percussion, Conversation, Degustation is a festival during which the food and the friends who join Dara on stage will change every evening, offering four radically different experiences. These performances close Dara’s first year as Creative Director in residence for Speak Percussion, and it’s clearly a collaboration filled with warmth, love, and Dara’s characteristic generosity of spirit. Percussion, Conversation, Degustation is food for the soul, ending all too soon and leaving us craving more.