MIAF 2009 ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

MIAF 2009

Brett Sheehy, the artistic director of the Melbourne Festival, freely admits that he's nervous about announcing his first program. "I know I've done it before," says Sheehy, who has directed both the Sydney and Adelaide festivals. "But you don't get any less nervous. Melbourne's status as the cultural capital is an additional pressure. But obviously, that's also why I wanted the job."

Certainly, Sheehy has reasons for feeling a little flighty. This time last year, he took over from Kristy Edmunds, whose four-year stint from 2005 produced much critical adulation, especially among younger audiences, and an unprecedented load of vitriolic commentary from the more conservative constituency of our cultural capital.

Sheehy was widely perceived to be a director who wouldn't frighten the horses, a steady pair of hands who would steer the ship into less stormy waters. On the other hand, Edmunds' tenure has generated a strong expectation among Melbourne arts fans that the festival will be challenging, exciting and full of the shock of the new. The depth and range of her festivals brought out stars like Ariane Mnouchkine and Peter Brook, created mini-events within the festival such as Merce Cunningham's 2007 residency and mixed the highbrow and the lowbrow in an intoxicating whirl.

Coming hard on her heels, Sheehy faces a tricky task: to generate a program that doesn't disappoint the keen audience built up through Edmunds' tenure, but which also doesn't bring down the wrath of those who think the main stage belongs to the MSO and the MSO alone. Certainly, Sheehy is anxious to differentiate his program from those which went before; but it looks to me more of an evolution than a revolution. And I think he's pulled it off: MIAF 2009 promises to be a really interesting festival, and will attract a wide range of people.

The feature of this festival is probably the visual arts program. "I've always been enamoured of the Melbourne pride in its built environment," says Sheehy. "And so from the beginning I was thinking of something structured around this great feature of this city." To this end, he galvanised the local boutique galleries, who have each curated their own exhibition around the theme. The centrepiece is Callum Morton's 2007 Venice Biennale piece Valhalla, a monumental sculpture that seems to be part biography, part reflection on modernity. There's also a free large scale video installation at Federation Square, The Living Room, which will intriguingly dress the square as an actual living room.

The performing arts are various, with an emphasis on exclusive international events. 90 per cent of the festival works are exclusive to Melbourne, so those interstaters who want to see them will have to come here. The centrepiece is Sasha Waltz, whom Sheehy describes as the most influential choreographer in Europe after Pina Bausch. Waltz is bringing out her production of Medea, with a score by Pascal Dusapin set to the play Medeamaterial by Heiner Müller, and also her her dance masterwork Körper. If I were you I'd be booking tickets now: these look to me like must-sees.

Other theatrical highlights include Deutsches Schaulspielhaus Hamburg's production of the British playwright Simon Stephens' (Motortown) play Pornography and a dance theatre piece, Le Salon by Belgian group Peeping Tom. And Ireland's Abbey Theatre is bringing a verse play called Terminus, a work on the darker aspects of Ireland written and directed by Mark O'Rowe, which was a hit at last year's Edinburgh Festival.

The Store Room Theatre is part of the local talent, with a new piece by theatre designer Anna Tregloan, The Dictionary of Imaginary Places. The MTC, which has been absent from the program for some time, is presenting two shows - Andrew Bovell's When the Rain Stops Falling, which Sheehy premiered at last year's Adelaide Festival, and Lally Katz's Apocalypse Bear Trilogy, which is sure to attract much interest in the Katz demographic.

As well as Sasha Waltz, the dance program includes British Israeli Hofesh Shechter, who is bringing two pieces - Uprising and In your rooms, and a new piece from Chunky Move which is not choreographed by Gideon Obarzanek but by two stars of the European scene - Erna Ómarsdóttir and Damien Jalet.

Film maker Peter Greenaway is the subject of several events, including an intriguing installation at North Melbourne Town Hall, Leonardo's Last Supper, a video exploration of the famous mural. He'll be giving a lecture about nine classic paintings and contemporary visual illiteracy, as well as showing two films he's made about Old Masters. And there's some Andy Warhol as well.

And I haven't even got to the music. Orchestra fans, who have been somewhat disgruntled over the past few years, won't be disappointed: the MSO will be performing a concert of music by Brenton Broadstock and Julian Yu, and the London Philharmonic will be playing pieces from Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Ravel and Beethoven. The Melbourne Town Hall's organ is a feature of one of the more impressive free events - a 16 hour marathon of the whole of Bach's repertoire, to be played by Calvin Bowman. And, in a clear sign of continuity with Edmunds' festivals, the Black Arm Band is back.

Another innovation is Beck's Rumpus Room at the Forum Theatre, a larger version of Beck's Bar at the Meat Market. It's basically a club where for $15 you can hear the hippest music from all corners of the globe - from a crowded program that includes a lot of Australian acts, you can hear the West Bank group Ramallah Underground (who recently did a piece for Kronos Quartet), the Cuban Brothers from Havana, Brain Failure from China, Fischerspooner from New York, and the noise band Melt Banana from Japan.

There's lots more, but I'm running out of puff. I'll leave you to trawl through the rest of it yourself. Sadly, I'm going to miss this year's festival - in October, I'm off to the northern hemisphere for a month, being an Ambassador for Australian poetry with Robert Gray. I think every poet in Australia applied for this one, which was offered by the Australian Poetry Centre, and I was pleased to be chosen; but there's enough in this festival program to make the prize of an overseas trip a mixed blessing.


Matthew said...

Seems there's plenty to pen into diaries. My ears immediately perked up at the mention of Greenaway, a personal favourite; and the fact that I'm still going to be in the country when the Katz is playing is good news, too. Yay. I will have to come down for a weekend.

(I suspect, though, that as I pore over the program, I will become frustrated that I won't be able to attend more, both during that first weekend and beyond...)

Caz said...

...a joy to see the illustrious Sasha Waltz on the program - she packs some punch as a dynamo choreographer and will be phenomenal to see her works - dance and opera!! Also keen to see Look Mummy I'm Dancing and Pornography - theatre that really speaks to the now and for the former, certainly speaks from the heart. There's a strong Warhol element too and can't wait to see the faces of passers by the visual arts work by Callum Morton - Valhalla set up on the Arts Forecourt...v intriguing. Bring on October (and the warmer weather!!)

Anonymous said...

speaking of the more conservative constituency of our cultural capital... Robin Usher has been quite this last month or so

Anonymous said...

sorry that should be 'quiet' this last month or so.

Ethel Malley gentlewoman in renewed distress said...

Can I be conservative constituent and ask, if Anon can't wait to see the faces of passers by, why s/he doesn't just look into the faces of passers by - as they... pass by... This really does nail "un certain tendance" of the festival.

Imagine if instead we had to sit through some unfamiliar Ibsen or Strindberg, or Kabuki? How boring would that be? No danger. (Light blue touch paper and stand back...)

ethel malley said...

Caz i mean... imagine being anonymous...

Anonymous said...

COME. ON. Please. Can we raise the critical bar just a tad and have a proper look at this very slim, very white program of only 62 events - the same size as the Next Wave Festival, only with 1000% more budget?

The notion of the 'exclusive' makes me feel ill. Melbourne is a city of collaborators. We make by sharing and talking. This is how the most exciting work occurs. An example proven only hours ago at BalletLab's MIRACLE, where David McAllister announced a new collaboration between Phillip Adams and the Aus Ballet, coming in early Oct.

Who is noting the conspicuous absentees? The Malthouse is producing nothing in this program.

Head over to Born Dancin's blog for something of a clear perspective.


richardwatts said...

MIAF 2009 promises to be a really interesting festival, and will attract a wide range of people.

With respect, Alison, I disagree. I think Sheehy's first MIAF program is safe, even conservative; it's certainly not exciting.

It's incredibly Euro-centric, dominated by 'high' artforms such as opera and orchestral music; and displays an elist and exclusionary approach to artmaking that honestly dismays me.

90% exclusive to Melbourne? So much for collaboration and cultural exchance between states and nations.

That said, Sheehy's debut festival may well attract a wide range of people, if only because what appears as diversity - such as the inclusion of Japanese and Palestinian bands in the tokenistic 'yoof' stream of the festival - is in fact a contrived and considered attempt at diversity.

I'll be blogging about this in more detail tomorrow, but for now I refer people to the piece I wrote on Arts Hub today - which strives, as much as I can, for journalistic impartiality.


For my blog, thankfully, I can be a bit more opinionated...

PS - Nice to see you at BalletLab tonight. What I wouldn't give to see them in MIAF!

Alison Croggon said...

Well - I think you're being a bit hard on Mr Sheehy, frankly. I read BD's response, and he has a point; but on the other hand, look at what is in the program... you can talk about what's not in it forever. Yes, there's events for the more conservative patrons; on the other hand, why shouldn't they be there, if things like Medea are too? It's a thoughtfully put together set of events, and to my surprise, it has some depth: I don't think it's just a shopping list. If it's white bread, it's not Tip Top but a beautifully baked baguette. But really, the Rumpus Room program is a bit large to be tokenistic, I reckon. And it's no more exclusive than Kristy's festivals - there are cheap tickets and a big number of free events. The bells thing looks great.

For another view, those young turks Carl Nilsson-Polias and Jana Perkovic have a very similar view to me. And have written an excellent preview of some depth at Spark Online.

And yes, BalletLab were awesome.

Alison Croggon said...

PS I asked the Malthouse why they weren't in the festival. They said they were invited but they had nothing they thought was festival fare. So no story there.

Alison Croggon said...

Wow Richard - you didn't headline Sasha Waltz's two works, which are the drawcard...she is after all one of the stars of the "global avant garde"... and to be fair, the music includes people like Brett Dean, Julian Yu and other distinguished New Music composers, who moreover are Australian. It's not just Wagner and Ravel.

richardwatts said...

Alison - headline Sasha Waltz? Not as such, no, but she does get two separate mentions in my Arts Hub article...

Alison Croggon said...

True - but she's counted as Eurocentric High Art as opposed to the "global avant garde"... which aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, of course. Kristy always an opera or two, and Medea (libretto by Heiner Mueller!) certainly isn't a typical example of your "older and established artform". Though the London Philharmonic, of course, does. Me, I have no problem with that, if it's top quality.

Anonymous said...

Richard - just to redress your comments regarding a tokenistic music program please see comments at the following forums -



Gilligan said...

Thanks for the great discussion everyone.

Just a question Alison:

If The Malthouse said they had nothing to offer the festival (which I find odd) what exactly do they mean by festival fair? Especially when Kantor has no directorial commitments for the rest of the year. Does anyone know what he's up to for the remainder of 2009?

Gilligan said...

pardon me, i meant fare...

Alison Croggon said...

I didn't pursue the question (maybe someone from the Malthouse can explain) but I assume they thought their big festival show - Optimism - was already sold to other festivals, and they didn't think they had anything else they wanted to risk in this context. Perhaps they felt a little burnt by Kitten last year, which certainly didn't show their work in its best light, and felt cautious about putting up untried work. I don't know.

The point is really that Sheehy isn't excluding the Malthouse out of some vengeful policy. It takes two to tango.

richardwatts said...

And it should be pointed out that the Malthouse is hosting some intriguing work as part of the MIAF visual arts program in both the Beckett & Tower Theatres:


SA said...

Stephen from Malthouse here.
Not all projects come to promise at the right time to be part of a Festival. And just as importantly, for the artists and the Festival Directors, Festival projects are best when conceived as such - projects unlikely to happen without the boosted capacity of a Festival behind it (whether cultural, artistic, financial etc.). We've had great conversations with Brett, and look forward to more. And quite right, Richard, we're delighted with curation of our spaces. Elsewhere, Brett's 2009 Fetival is engaging a host of favourite Malthouse collaborators in different contexts so we're pretty excited about that. Just for the record, last year's Malthouse/Festival production, Jenny Kemp's KITTEN, played to 96% houses across 19 performances - audiences were deeply affected by this work - and our research told us it was word of mouth, the experience of other audiences, that was prompting their choice. We would always hope that a Festival production was a new work, and as much of a risk for that. The openness and curiosity of Melbourne's audiences is much indebted to MIAF, and I think Brett's first Melbourne Festival is very likely to enthral. Gilligan, you might recall that in the last five Festivals we've had four different directors programmed during the Festival. But for your info, Michael is well and truly busy with projects - three seasons of his work are being remounted elsewhere and development of 2010 projects are well under way. Ciao.

Emily Sexton said...

Sooner or later, someone is going to have to call a spade a spade!

The only truly disappointing part of the MIAF program this year, for me, is that the lengthy bump-in of Peter Greenaway's Last Supper has meant that the Fringe Club will be a fantastic, but more 'intimate', operation this year. Our queues will, as always, wrap around Queensberry St, and our programming for the Supper Room will ensure artists and audiences have a great time.

We love the Town Hall, and we throw a great party. Our programming of this space as a multi-arts performance venue for the last four years has meant that it has become a bit of a home for the independent arts. The Melbourne scene is sprawling and large, and I think it's vital that as a community, we have a place to gather, converse, network and play. This space must also be freely available to anyone who feels they want to be part of it. You've also got to have a Club that's in close proximity to the 56 shows awesome curated into our Hub season this year - which is why we've chosen to go 'underground' into the Supper Room.

Fringe is about clambering out of our furious, busy bubbles, and looking across to witness who and what else is being made in this town. The Festival's connection to this town and its arts ecology is deep and wondrous - you'd know Stephen, I found an early 90s program the other day with your's and Michael's names on it!

It shouldn't however be forgotten that, comparatively, my organisation is small - only 5 full time staff, and a frankly minuscule budget when compared with MIAF.

I can make a promise that when we launch on September 1st, you'll be delighted with the important array of Australian contemporary arts represented.

If you buy me enough cocktails (alright, I'd settle for a house white), I might even let you in on a few programming secrets before that...

Cheers all,

Emily Sexton
Creative Producer
Melbourne Fringe

Emily Sexton said...

Oops, a few typos in there! Sorry, I'm a bit of a newbie to blog comments etc!

I should also say - I have no doubt that the Last Supper will be an interesting work.

SA said...

Emily, consider that cocktail ordered! The revelation of the Fringe program is always a gasp moment and is as revitalising - if not plain humbling - as any on the calendar. The Fringe's self-hood (on its own terms and respected according to its own needs) is a measure of the ecology itself. Stephen

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Stephen - your insight is much appreciated. And Emily, you might end up seriously intoxicated at this rate - how many cocktails can you consume?

richardwatts said...

As the Fringe Chair, it may be my duty to save Emily from public intoxication by helping her share that cocktail load... ;-)

Alison Croggon said...

Very public spirited of you, Richard!

Gilligan said...

Hi Stephen,

Thanks for your reply.

Good to know that Michael is busy, but also disappointing that we won't get to see more work from him for the remainder of the year, as he is certainly in fine form at the moment. Optimism and Happy Days have certainly been two of the years highlights for me.

Just wondering though, if the Malthouse feels that the MIAF is an opportunity to produce works that perhaps couldn't be done during the regular season, why would you pass up the opportunity to be involved if Sheehy invited you? Not necessarily a work from Kantor, but a production that you couldn't have done otherwise. Seems to me like an opportunity missed.

SA said...

Thanks Gilligan.
First, when I say the Festival "invited" Malthouse, of course I mean a conversation. Second, if there were the right piece certainly we would have hoped to interest the Festival, but there wasn't... simple as that. It is not (and should never be) a presumption. Furthermore, our program needs to be 90% locked in by August of the previous year. Such projects are usually slow boil. S

gilligan said...

Thanks for the insight Stephen. Cheers. :)