Melbourne Festival: The Wrap ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Melbourne Festival: The Wrap

After several thousand words and a couple of days ruminating, what else is there to say about MIAF 2010? There it was. Here we are. We've had, as some commentators have put it, "solid festival fare": when you look at what was offered, there was little low-quality work, but equally, not a lot that set the mind on fire. The stand-outs - and for once, everyone agrees - were Stifter's Dinge, Heiner Goebbel's beautiful and mysterious automaton, and Bill Viola's installations. The Raft (which remains at ACMI until February) is a stunningly powerful work on human fragility, while Tristan's Ascension and Fire Woman, displayed at a little church in Parkville, were visceral imaginings of transcendence, first created in 2005 for Peter Sellars's production of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. I'm so glad I saw them.

I feel like I'm playing catch-up, because I was being a poet in October last year and so missed Brett Sheehy's first festival. I've been looking back through the blog, checking out my reports on previous festivals, and I rather feel my comments on MIAF 2008, Kristy Edmunds' last, bear a revisit:

The Melbourne Festival this year had a surreal edge. As capitalism crashed about our ears amid headlines of financial doom, it had the air of a dance at the edge of the abyss. I kept feeling that we were standing in the etched light of an oncoming storm, with long shadows streaming behind us. A little voice kept saying to me, This won’t happen again.

As we all know, it’s the last of Kristy Edmunds’ festivals, and boy, has she given us a party for the past four years. From 2005, her first festival and still one of the best this city has seen, she’s changed the main stage aspirations of this city. People started going to events with intense curiosity and emerging to have fierce arguments (I still remember the couple having a stand-up fight over asylum seekers after Ariane Mnouchkine’s Le Dernier Caravansérail). They were festivals of passion, excitement, artistic depth and, often, controversy. Her programming attracted some of the most vicious and sustained media attacks I’ve seen on an artistic director - first for being too “elitist” and then – when it was clear people were going – for being too “populist”.

Despite the attacks, she steadily continued to follow her nose, attracting a younger demographic with programming that reached into both popular culture and high art, and which unobstrusively demonstrated the humane and complex politics of art. Most importantly of all, she brought us great work, from Peter Brook to Jérôme Bel, from Romeo Castellucci to Diamanda Galas. This year has been no different: looking over what I’ve seen, the quality has been just as high. Possibly higher: festivals can be cut in an infinity of ways, but I’ve had a brilliant time. As in previous years, there have been some disappointments. But what would a festival be without something to argue about?

I also noted that in 2008, I saw 21 events. Naturally, I focus on dance and theatre, and 2010 was slanted towards visual art and music: but this year, even including the Viola installations as performance, I only saw 15 events. Of those, two thirds clocked in as "good" on the Croggon-meter, one third as excellent and maybe one fifth as mind-blowing. That's hardly a dreadful festival from my point of view, but there's no arguing that the bit that interests stage-dwellers was significantly reduced this year. In a city with such a rich dance culture as Melbourne, it seemed particularly bizarre to have only three dance works - and none of them local - in the program.

It's more a question of ignition. While individual events might have been interesting in themselves, their context lacked the sense of invitation and discovery that has animated the best arts festivals of the past - John Truscott's and Robyn Archer's as well as Edmunds. The slogan for MIAF 2006 was "Be Curious": for 2010, it might have been "Consume". We were offered art to consume, and we consumed it. Some of it was good, even very good; but there was little in the context around it that mitigated the problem of its merely becoming a commodity. And, as always when all one has done is consume, the result is that one feels a little ill. Hence the relief in week three, the most substantial of the program, when there began to be some sense of engagement, some sense of argument, some sense of communal commitment. This, the least measurable aspect of a festival, is actually the most crucial: a successful festival is about much more than selling tickets. Even if selling tickets is a side effect of this non-measurable feeling of cultural engagement.

There's no denying that any festival is, in essence, a huge marketing exercise, and that, given our institutional structures, we're limited to more or less interesting engagements with a central necessity of commodification. That's contemporary arts for you, a dilemma which is leading to all sorts of interesting subversions in unexpected places, including a rebirth of art as political radicalism. Here in Australia, sadly, we're nowhere near such a rebirth, and our cultural commentaries for the most part are teeth-achingly conservative. But all the same, over tables in every sort of room and in every sort of bar and cafe, Melbourne offers a possible site of resistance to the emptiness of consumption. It's the invitation that exceeds the commodifiable, this intangible sense of common weal.

Under the imaginative creative production of Emily Sexton, this year's record-breaking Melbourne Fringe generated that common weal much more successfully than MIAF. This difference is symbolised in the Malthouse Theatre's offerings for both festivals: the Fringe threw up (quite literally) one of the shows of the year, Hayloft's coruscating Thyestes, while for the Melbourne Festival, we had the mildly charming Intimacy. In a real sense, and perhaps rightly, the Fringe is picking up the vitality that MIAF created in this city through the noughties: a sense of cultural transformation at work.

Picture: Tristan's Ascension, Bill Viola.


Anonymous said...

Hi Alison, long time listener, first time caller.
I always enjoy your commentary, but I'm afraid that you've missed a major part of this year's festival - the music program at the Forum.
The Boredoms show there was possibly one of the most significant (and certainly one of the most exhausting) music events that Melbourne has seen in the last decade.
It seems to me that this program provided a festival experience to an audience perhaps less acquainted with the arts centre or the malthouse but with all the rigour and intelligence that one would expect - or at least hope for - from an institution such as MIAF.

Alison Croggon said...

Fair comment; although this is a theatre blog, as I say above, and so theatre/dance is where I focus what time and attention I have. I did hear that the Boredoms concert was amazing, fwiw. And, yes, perhaps changing the mix slightly might have shifted my perception of the festival as a whole - although, as I also said above, I don't think there was a problem with the programming per se, and my questions are more about the context.

the scorpion said...

The Becks Festival Bar?
Sorry, these days I am struggling to attend anything named after an alcohol brand.

And "the most significant music event" is a big call...

... the sound of my personal dutch oven sometimes is a significant music event :)