The NisThe Nis is one of the strangest performance pieces I’ve ever seen. That shouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing of course. Except in this case, it was. I walked away with questions about whether music (particularly contemporary music) can be heard as pure sound, or whether an understanding of context is needed to fully enjoy or enhance a musical performance. After last night, I discovered that I need context for enjoyment. Obviously not everyone is going to feel the same way, and I did have a few sneak peeks around the audience throughout the performance - it was hard to gauge how others were reacting. A woman near me was struggling to stay awake, but many people were straining to see what was going on. I did a whole lot of neck craning throughout the show, too.

But was all this strain born out of excitement for the performance and a keen desire not to miss a moment or because, in general, the audience couldn’t see much and wondered what on earth they were supposed to be looking at and comprehending? Herein lays the biggest problem with The Nis. The seating, staging, and lighting was such that I actually couldn’t really see anything. When you add that to the fact that the piece is extremely contemporary and hard to fathom in general, it made for a frustrating experience overall.  

Here’s where I’m supposed to briefly tell you what the show is about; I’m very sorry, but I have little idea. An article in The Mail newspaper (city of Maribyrnong) states that the show ‘is about exploring life experiences that can’t be explained’. Perhaps that will go some way to explaining why I can’t explain it – because I’m not supposed to. Maybe I did get it after all…

The Nis is a multimedia show that employs a large ensemble of both able-bodied and disabled artists from the sound group The Amplified Elephants and the movement-based artistic group Integrate Stretch. Director James Hullick explains in the program notes that one of the aims for the show is to avoid telling a story from the point of view of disability; that a shared experience of all peoples runs deeper than that. He mentions the shared experience of loneliness, the magic of new life, death, community, politics, ‘the great wide ocean’.

If I was to try and pick a theme for the whole show, which, more than likely isn’t the point, then I’d say it was about tolerance and loneliness. The animation in The Nis is predominantly done in the Indigenous colours of yellow, red, and black, and includes images of deities from various cultures (including Buddha, Jesus, Ganesh, Egyptian and Hawaiian Goddesses), as well as images of doves and communities of people. There is also video footage of a man being interviewed about what he thinks about President Obama, the global economic crisis, and global warming. But then there are people in dark masks making scary chopping motions at the audience and a woman beating a punching bag with a stick. The show ends with projected footage of a baby and so, in the end, it just seems to be a message about the mess we’re leaving our children and how dire and miserable the world is. I can’t say I felt uplifted, enlightened, or inspired by the end of it. I was glad it was over, truth be told. For me, the audience’s subdued (or maybe just confused) applause said it all.

The disappointing thing about The Nis is the potential that isn’t realised. If the audience were given the opportunity to be engaged I think the experience would be vastly different. The performers themselves seem so emotionally distanced from the work that they don’t make any offers of engagement to the audience (this is also visually underscored by the fact that most remain in shadow throughout the piece). But isn’t the whole reason they’re there is for us, the audience? It really felt like we were superfluous to the entire show; that it might as well have been performed to no-one, for the enjoyment of the performers themselves. For me, this is the worse crime a theatrical production can commit. If they know what they are on about (and one can only assume that they do because the musical talent is extraordinary and clearly a lot of work went into this show), then why on earth wouldn’t they want to share it with their audience? In this sense, The Nis is one of the most self-indulgent shows I have ever seen.

The crying shame is that once the production is over, the audience  is invited onto the stage to look at the amazing robotic musical instruments that are used throughout the show. Um, there were amazing robotic instruments in the show?

The seating plan is such that I had no idea there were these amazing robots involved. Yes, I’m vertically challenged, but my significant other is over 1.9m and he missed half of them too. The robots are fascinating and incredibly sophisticated. I felt jipped; I wanted to see it again. Okay, no, I really didn’t want to sit through it again, but I wanted to sit through it with this new context in mind. The lighting is too dark and the performers and instruments are poorly placed (and lit) in the space, preventing The Nis from really showcasing what it has to offer. The musicians are clearly incredibly talented and neither they, nor the remarkable robotic instruments, are featured at all. The punching bag I mentioned? It was a robotic instrument… I had no idea. It’s such a shame because, despite this form of contemporary music not being my cup of tea, I think it will be for others, and too much of what could really make this show extraordinary is completely lost. I think less would be more in the case of The Nis: less animation, less movement work, simpler lighting, and live video projection of the musicians and the instruments would make a vast difference.

Footscray Community Arts Centre and JOLT Arts present

Venue: fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Dates: Wednesday 4 – Saturday 7 March
Tickets: $25 full and $15 concession, Access Card $12
Bookings: 9662 9966,

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