MIAF 2008 ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

MIAF 2008

ASK Kristy Edmunds what is most exciting about the 2008 Melbourne Festival program - her fourth and, sadly for many of us, her last - and she pauses. “What some people don’t realise is that over the past few years, despite the economic whinging of certain newspaper columnists, the festival budget has grown,” she says. “And that leads to certain choices. Do we make the festival bigger? Or do we make the choice to invest more deeply in artists? And we decided to go for the second option, to invest in artists, and to invest particularly in Australian artists.

“And that,” she adds, with a touch of irony, “is not an easy sell. Yes, we have the headline acts, and that’s exciting, don’t get me wrong. But two years ago, we were able to instigate some commissioning which is now coming to fruition. And under the gaze of my international colleagues, who have been looking hard at what we’ve been doing here, we’ll be able to give a number of Australian artists a different calibre of world visibility.”

A quick leaf through the program bears out Edmunds’ words. MIAF 2008, launched with a lot of fanfare and champagne at the Meat Market Arts House last night, is the most Australian – maybe the most Melburnian – festival that I can remember. It has the expected menu of fascinating international fare, and the usual quota of events that make me punch my fist in the air (Patti Smith! Yeah!) But what's very clear is that MIAF 2008 is the culmination of long-term nurturing of relationships with local and international artists. The number of commissions and world premieres alone shows how seriously Edmunds has taken her role as a cultural catalyst.

As we have come to expect from Edmunds, it’s a program with a lot of depth: just as with Merce Cunningham last year, Patti Smith isn’t merely jetting in to do a concert appearance or two. Her residency permits a good look at this multifacted artist, and includes an exhibition of her photography, an installation, the screening of a documentary and a not-to-be-missed tribute to Allen Ginsberg in tandem with fellow festival attraction Philip Glass.

There's a huge range of work. International acts include the Batsheva Dance Company from Israel, with two recent programs of work; the Interpreti Vezensiani Baroque Ensemble, Philip Glass's and Leonard Cohen’s The Book of Longing (for those who, like me, missed it at the Adelaide Festival); the acclaimed OKT/Vilnius City Theatre's production of Romeo and Juliet and turbo-folk master Goran Bregovic from the Balkans, whom some of us might have seen sending out the Eurovision Song Contest in style earlier this year. There’s DJ Spooky, with a festival commission on Antarctica, the Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes from Mexico, and an intriguing collaboration between Tim Etchells (Forced Entertainment) and Belgian company Victoria.

But these rub elbows with an extremely strong program of local work. MIAF 2008 features premieres from some of our most significant artists, some of whom have considerable reputations overseas but are relatively unknown in their homeland. They include an opera, The Navigator, by Liza Lim, directed by Barrie Kosky; Two-Faced Bastard from Chunky Move and Jenny Kemp's new show Kitten, co-commissioned by the Malthouse. Back to Back Theatre are back with Food Court, which follows up their international hit small metal objects, which itself premiered at MIAF 2005, and there's a new dance work from Lucy Guerin, Corridor.

There's an intriguing new work from David Pledger, The Meaning of Moorabbin Is Open For Inspection. And the Black Arm Band (another festival premiere who were all over London when I was there) are making a big return concert with the MSO. Even the Schönberg Ensemble, one of the headline international acts winging our way, is bringing the locals back home. Among the major composers featured across two programs – heavyweights such as Mauricio Kagel, Louis Andriessen, John Adams and Schönberg himself – is Sydney composer (and long-time collaborator of Ms TN’s) Michael Smetanin.

But more, this festival is a celebration of Melbourne itself. New York artist Chris Doyle has been working on a large-scale outdoor work, Ecstatic City, which is inspired by the street life of our fair city. Echolocation, a collaboration between Melbourne musicians Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphries and US sound artist Alex Stahl, will be an electro-acoustic installation drawing on urban sounds. Melbourne photographer Matthew Sleeth’s work will be all over the city on billboards and posters. And a collaboration between those wild young men Suitcase Royale and the UK artists Lone Twin will bring back the newsboys of only a few decades past.

All this, and I’ve scarcely mentioned the half of it. I’ll leave you to discover the other tasty morsels yourself. There are plenty of them. Suffice to say that Little Alison has been doing some complicated mathematics, wondering how to get to everything she wants to see while at the same time fitting in eating and sleeping. We’re in for a helluva ride come October. Edmunds hasn’t chosen to go out with fireworks, she’s gone for real substance, and the more you look into this program, the more there is to see.

Edmunds says she is feeling a sense of bitter-sweetness in farewelling her role as artistic director. “It’s kind of weird doing my last festival,” she says. “I would be completely disingenuous if I didn’t say that on some levels it’s kind of a relief, a release. This kind of position is a robust responsibility.

“At the same time, I am an artist. I made a deliberate choice when I took on this position that I wouldn’t be doing any of my own work, and a number of projects – curatorial projects, commissions and so on – have been on hold. It will good to go and reclaim that part of my identity. But at the same time, it’s been brilliant to be in a position where I could see projects that needed support, and to be a kind of lightning rod for their work.”

For Edmunds, MIAF has never been simply about getting artistic product on stage. Rather, it’s been about nourishing systems of relationship, digging out a rich seedbed where work can cross fertilise and grow. The cheap tickets for artists and the Artists’ Lounge, where people can kick back after shows and just talk, have been an important – and vital – part of her vision. And while she was careful not to set these things in stone, feeling it would be unfair to any of her successors, she is fearful that these aspects of the festival, which have been so intrinsic to the excited conversations of the past four years, might disappear.

Certainly, when he takes over the reins later this year, incoming AD Brett Sheehy has a formidable act to follow. Edmunds hasn’t merely nurtured a phalanx of Australian artists: she has created an enthusiastic audience, which now expects the unexpected, and who love seeing their city transformed into a mini-metropolis through October. If Sheehy offers anything less exciting, the howls might well be as loud as those of the conservatives who have lambasted every Edmunds festival with the predictability of the rain bucketing down on the opening night celebrations. But we can count ourselves lucky that, to the astonishment of her international peers, Edmunds has decided to remain in Melbourne, as Head, Performing Arts at the Victorian College of the Arts. We’re not losing her yet.

Melbourne International Arts Festival 2008 program

Pictures: from top: MIAF artistic director Kristy Edmunds; Patti Smith; Liza Lim's Navigator; Back to Back Theatre's Food Court; Lucy Geurin's Corridor.


Anonymous said...

Wow. What a festival. Looks like it'll up there with Kristy's first in 2005. So much to get excited about. An incredibly well-thought out mix of local, national and international. Lone Twin and Suitcase Royale? Inspired. Panther's international festival debut - great vision. Back to Back back in a theatre!? Helen Herbertson, David Pledger, local shows which have benefited from lengthy development, such as Chunky Move and Jenny Kemp's new shows.
Alsion - I agree with your observations of Kristy's "nourishiing systems of relationship."

Internationally, we have a Tim Crouch mini-festival, STO Union, OKT, Wendy Houston (remember her twisted cheerleader in Bloody Mess?), Kartik Seshadri and Arup Chattopadhyay, Schonberg Ensemble - it's all too much! But I'll be happy to give all the Patti Smith East Village baby boomer vibe stuff a miss.

Very happy to see Goran Bregovic coming, especially after the disappointment of Emir Kusturica and the No Smoking Orchestra visiting Sydney this year and skipping Melbourne.

I was lucky enough to see Tim Etchells' collaboration with Victoria, That Night Follows Day, last year. I had unreasonably high expectations for this show, and they were thoroughly surpassed. See it.

Congrats Kristy. Your sophisticated and varied programming is the best argument against unsophisticated, reactionary culture guardians. You've managed to keep delivering the festival that Melbourne deserves, not the one that a few stuffy people would like to own.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Chris - Yep, it's something. Don't be too hasty to dismiss the "babyboomer" East Village stuff though, it traces a noble lineage from Rimbaud on. And I just this hour listened to a recording of Ginsberg reading Kaddish, my favourite poem of his and surely one of the great acts of grace of the past century, and am still shaken. Whatever is made of it now, that 50s and 60s surge of creative energy was not an empty style or a function of fashion, and frankly I reckon you'd be mad to miss Patti! But then, I've adored her stuff since I was 15. Maybe it's a poet thing. But each to his/her own. There's plenty to choose from.

Anonymous said...

I'm just hungover from a combination of a lacklustre support spot for the still lustrous Bob Dylan at the Rod Laver Arena a few years ago, and some bad experiences at the HOWL! festival in 2004. But you never know. I'd love to see her kick arse.


Anonymous said...

Alison - for fascinating Ginsberg-listening experiences I'd also recommend his recordings of the Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience, if you haven't heard already. The whole recording's online at http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Ginsberg-Blake.html

It does look like a really exciting festival! Too much to take in at once...


Anonymous said...

CK- I thought her performance opening for Bob in Melbourne at least was great. And I didn't go in there a huge fan of Ms Smith.