The Influence

When he travelled in India as a young man, director Nigel Jamieson encountered Kathakali classical dance and drama – an experience that has informed his entire career. By Kate Holden.

Director Nigel Jamieson on Kathakali classical dance

An Indian Kathakali artist performs.
An Indian Kathakali artist performs at a festival in Chennai, and theatre and event director Nigel Jamieson (below).
Credit: Arun Sanker / AFP (above), supplied

Nigel Jamieson is a legend of Australian and international theatre, having worked on stage productions, festivals and opening and closing ceremonies including the Commonwealth Games, World Expo, the Pacific Games and part of the Sydney 2000 Olympics. He is well known for his festival direction, film work, impressive public spectacles and innovative staging but also for thoughtful theatre such as Honour Bound (2006), his work about David Hicks and Guantanamo Bay, and the multimedia show Ngurrumilmarrmiriyu (Wrong Skin) (2010) with the Chooky Dancers of Elcho Island (Galiwin’ku), as well as community theatre projects and opera productions. This month he is collaborating with the Australian Chamber Orchestra to present Total Immersion, a unique musical experience running October 27-28 at Sydney’s Pier 2/3.

Jamieson spoke about the impact of seeing a production in the ancient Kathakali tradition of Indian classical dance and drama, in which folk stories, religious epics and social dramas are expressed by elaborately costumed performers in ritual movements.

Tell us about the Kathakali show.

When I was in my early 20s I spent nearly a year in India. It was a very formative time for me. I ended up in the south where they have this incredible host of performance traditions. It’s a Hindu dance form, Kathakali, but also very much a theatre form, part of the ritual of the year there. It’s danced, but it’s spoken and it’s sung; it’s highly emotive storytelling, rapturous in its colours and its form, and this amazing music.

It’s a confluence of all these traditions of the storytellers. They’re acting the story; they’re telling the story from mudra – that’s the hand gestures [and] their faces, it’s very powerful learning they do on how to control their face emotionally. And the colours on their face, those tell a story, of even all the characters’ pasts and all their qualities – the make-up takes five hours to put on. So it’s a sort of rapturously sensuous form, and I think, me having come from a rather dry English tradition of sitting in the theatre watching a text-based theatre, the assault that night on my senses was something that I found so powerful. And, whether it was the quality of the music or the quality of the vision – so someone who didn’t understand Sanskrit could understand it – that quality of the storytelling, not being dependent entirely on naturalistic dialogue: that really, really inspired me.

But I think the most moving thing of all was that we were sitting in a village. The performance started at sunset and the whole village was there – the kids, the adults, the old people. There was food being cooked down the back, there was this highly stylised, beautiful, ritualised sacred dance, there were dogs, hopping up onstage occasionally. And the performance lasted all night. It kind of became embedded in your dreams: you’d nod off and the music would be playing in your head, and then you’d come to and see this other world of spirits and demons. Then finally the dawn came and as the thing finished the sun rose and everybody rose up and had been through this all-night experience together and had shared this wondrous thing. It wasn’t based on class, it wasn’t based on age or locality – which is so different from so much of our theatre traditions. That I found really moving – the reach of that work.

It sounds stunning. Did it matter if you didn’t understand everything?

When Rama gets an arrow in him, as one the audience holds its breath – you feel that collective compassion, it’s like our emotions and our humanity. There’s something about our mass compassion and our mass humanity that rises and falls.

When the ACO rang me about this particular Total Immersion project I thought, Oh my god, I can do something that is innovative in terms of form. To me, it’s the best string orchestra in the world playing in one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, the new wharf. It’s about the discovery of that unbelievably beautiful new space. A door opens and you don’t know where you’re going – you go through and it’s a small space and then you walk down these avenues, it’s a bit mysterious, you walk in and there are these musicians all around you playing – they’re behind you, they’re in front of you… You come down into a darkened space and then you’re in it and, “My god, there’s the harbour! There’s the bridge!” It invites a certain kind of surrender which you don’t get in the safety of the stalls where you’re behind a thousand people delineated in rows. That’s what made me think of the Kathakali show. I thought, When did I feel immersed?

You’ve done so much, especially in this tradition of open-access art and wildly enthralling visions. The Kathakali experience wasn’t just immersive, it seems galvanising.

The totality and the expanse of that audience in Kerala was really fantastic. The show I’m doing here now in Perth [Boorna Waanginy: The Trees Speak], it’s free, it’s outside, it’s an attempt to tell a serious story. We work with the community, it’s about climate change, what’s happening to the land here, and I think we’ve had something like 350,000 people through that show over the years.

I do a lot of opening ceremonies, you know. For all the tiresomeness of it, that’s why I do them. You get to work with a cast of 5000 who are not professionals, they’re from the community. You get whip-crackers and dog handlers and steelworkers and surfers and Morris Minor drivers … and that engagement, for the cast and for a really wide audience, means that theatrical storytelling becomes part of everybody’s lives and it’s embedded in the culture. It’s not something that’s just there to go out to dinner after. I yearn for something that has a wider reach, that is more sensuous, that is more immersive, and is embedded into a wider world than that tiresome black box where we all gather.

It’s partly why I loved India so. You step into the beauty, the smell: I’ve always loved that world of somewhere new, somewhere I don’t know the rules. It is that sense of moving out of the everyday, into a space that catapults you into a kind of heightened awareness. I travelled India as a magician, that was one of my earlier jobs, I did that for many years. Now I do lots of work with big buildings and people hanging off lines and wires and turning performances upside down, or on a stage that lifts up into the air: you look up and your heart opens up. If you combine that with the story of a refugee who’s hanging from a thin line in the sky, then you’ve got that physical action to open up your emotions, you’ve got that gasp, holding your breath – what’s going to happen next? – and it refreshes your senses in that way we seek when we go travelling. Which I suppose is, to me, the central capacity of art in any form: to reawaken us, to re-feel something, to feel a colour, to understand a story, to understand something new.

It’s such a total miracle, the world we live in. Innocence and wonder, those are the things we try to recapture. It’s a really important principle, to all gather together in a joyous occasion and all experience something together and feel our shared humanity.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 21, 2023 as "Nigel Jamieson".

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