How to Spell Love | Anisa Nandaula & Queensland Poetry Festival

Is it enough?

It’s my estimation that many people who saw How to Spell Love would be impressed. 

Many, I think, would be emotionally affected. 

In the first instance, it’s full of many impressive things. 

Even as just a developmental showing, the work spans free-jazz, electronic music production, live drumming, hip hop and contemporary dance, and, at the heart, deeply personal and political spoken-word poetry – any one of which has the capacity to fairly stun your average audience.  

In the second instance, Anisa Nandaula’s poetry (which, again, is the heart of the work) is deeply confronting and evocative – challenging and documenting the crimes of colonialism, toxic relationships, racism, capitalism and the many unpleasant intersections thereof.

Furthermore, it’s delivered with a complex intensity that cannot help but evoke an entire suite of emotions. In Nandaula’s renditions, there’s simultaneously roaring anger and dark resignation; triumph and terror, love and sadness. All at once.

So – it’s a work, it seems, that will leave most audiences both impressed and affected. 

Is it enough? 

The issue is, if I refrain from presuming how general audiences will respond to the work (or evaluating how the audience who saw the work reacted – i.e. effusively), I’m left with how I personally responded to the work. Which, at the risk of being glib, was not tremendously favourably.

To be clear, I’m no more immune to the impressive spectacle of a dancer in full flight or a jazz drummer’s swirling virtuosity than the average observer. Similarly, I’m far from unaffected by Nandaula’s words or delivery. But, the work is bigger than that. 

And, for now, it really feels like less than the sum of its parts. 

There are many reasons for this feeling, I think. Firstly, it’s reputedly a work that was developed under substantial duress at the last minute. So, it’s not entirely surprising the various components have yet to coalesce into something truly substantive. 

More concretely, it’s a work that seems to be driven by an ensemble of developing artists working in what is, to all of them, a (relatively) foreign form. There’s no denying the skill each of the artists in question have for crafting a moment. Building a sustained, integrated experience? Less so.

This is most evident in Nandaula’s work. Take any one of the poems or performances she delivers in How to Spell Love and it will hit like a sledgehammer. Place a handful of them in consistent sequence, one starts to see certain formulas. The intensity shifts from affecting to numbing. 

But, to be clear, that issue is not exclusive to Nandaula. Drummer Benjamin Shannon and musical director Alasdair Cannon tend to spend most of the performance filling every inch of sonic space that they can. And, again, it’s impressive in short bursts – but banal over a work’s full duration. 

There seems to be an idea in the work that merely placing performers of different disciplines next to each other is inherently interesting. Which is true, to an extent. Except, this specific configuration (drums/performance poetry/dance) is not actually a novel one, even just in the Brisbane context.

At the bare minimum, short-lived Brisbane performance collective Sexy Knickers delivered a near-identical premise as far back as 2009 – ten years ago. That’s just looking at Brisbane’s relatively recent history. It doesn’t encompass similar developments from earlier or further afield.

Hence – is it enough?

How to Spell Love is the kind of thing that could easily be enough for many, many audiences.

But, from my personal perspective, I think it can be better. 

By far, the most rewarding moments in the work come from the few moments where the members of the ensemble aren’t acting as support for one or another but are connecting and visibly feeding off each other’s energy – Nandaula and dancer Pru Wilson moving as one, for example. 

If How to Spell Love’s team can further articulate and sustain those moments in the work’s future incarnations, it isn’t difficult to imagine How to Spell Love growing into something as substantial and rewarding as it is presently evocative and impressive. 

MJ O’Neill saw a work in development showing of ‘How to Spell Love’ on 17 August 2019 at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts.

Words | Anisa Nandaula

Musical Director | Alasdair Cannon

Rhythm | Benjamin Shannon

Movement | Prue Wilson

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