Interview: Paul Grabowsky ~ theatre notes

Friday, October 28, 2011

Interview: Paul Grabowsky

Curating an international arts festival, says Adelaide Festival artistic director Paul Grabowsky, isn't simply a matter of assembling a shopping list. And it's complicated. "With something like the Adelaide Festival, there are so many areas to cover," he says. "The performing arts, literature, visual art, film, public outdoor events... they're all things which people rightly expect..." And all this has to be made into a coherent event, a narrative that gives the public a sense of a journey. A daunting task, one might think.

Grabowsky has structured the 2012 Adelaide Festival loosely on the idea of Heaven and Hell, which he said represent the extremes, the best and the worst of earthly endeavours. In this, he's calling on art's transcendent possibilities. "The arts aren't subject to time and space, they're in denial of the three dimensional," he says. "And they gain importance beyond the times in which they're created. Art isn't ignited until it's experienced: it's a contained latency that's released by its audience. It's a way of making graspable moments out of the large movements of history."

In accessing these possibilities, Grabowsky says that a festival needs to be the result of a meaningful process that includes the local arts community, and which results in the public experiencing the kind of work that they haven't seen before. "Why else would governments spend so much money on them?" he asks rhetorically. "What else are they for?"

This has always been the remit of Australian arts festivals, of which the Adelaide Festival is one of the oldest. (The oldest is in fact the Perth Festival). The Australian arts festival experience was originally driven by the tyranny of distance: festivals injected into our culture influences and experiences that otherwise were only available to those with the resources to travel. A famous example is the Pina Bausch tours in the 1980s, which had an electrifying and on-going influence on performing arts here.

Grabowsky says this emphasis has subtly shifted, with energies now driving both ways in a decentred global culture. "In the 20th century, the idea was that we were distant from the world, whereas in the 21st century we are now celebrating our place in the world." As the recent Melbourne Festival has demonstrated, local art stands comfortably with its international peers. What hasn't changed is the notion that festivals can provide a space for artistically significant works that otherwise would be too risky for local companies to present.

For his final Adelaide Festival - not so much, he says, the first of the annual festivals as the last of the biennials - Grabowsky has taken care of the performing arts. "Nobody has the expertise to cover all areas: I prefer to work collaboratively with people in the different arts, who have the expertise I don't possess." For 2012, for example, Victoria Lynn is curating the visual arts, whereas Sophia Brous is taking care of the contemporary music program.

There are certainly some treats coming up on Adelaide stages, especially in the international programming. One of the highlights is Hard To Be A God from Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó. This definitely from the polarity of Hell. "It's a tough piece, a documentary style work on human trafficking and the sex trade. Sexual violence is implicit in every moment. It's Brechtian in how it has distancing narratives - it's also interspersed with popular songs. I believe it's a really important piece."

He's also bringing out Isabelle Huppert in a controversial adaption of A Streetcar Named Desire from the Paris Odeon by avant garde director Krzysztof Warlikowski. "It divided Paris," says Grabowsky. "I really loved it, and wanted to see what happened when it was brought out of the hothouse context of France." For contrast, he's programmed a celebrated production of Harold Pinter's The Caretaker from Liverpool Everyman, featuring Jonathan Pryce, which he says is the epitome of well-made theatre.

Another international highlight is Raoul by French artist James Thiérrée, who practises the peculiarly French style of physical theatre, magic, acrobatics and poetry. "He's simply the greatest exemplar this kind of theatre," says Grabowsky. "He works on a grand scale - the festival centre has the deepest stage in Australia, and we need all of it to stage him." Thiérrée is in fact Charlie Chaplin's grandson - "he would hate me saying this" - and Grabowsky says that, although his work is very different from his grandfather's, it's also undeniably in that tradition, of the little man in a huge and bewildering world.

And then there's Gardenia from the unmissable Les Ballets C de la B, directed by Alain Platel and Frank van Laecke, which comes out of Belgium's amateur drag scene. "It's about metamorphosis really, how beauty is discovered within: the show itself is the transformation." This is show that Grabowsky describes as "redemptive".

Australian highlights include two shows from the Sydney Theatre Company, Stephen Page's Bloodland and a co-production with Force Majeure, Never Did Me Any Harm. "It's great to see the STC engaging like this," says Grabowsky. "It's a model for other major companies. After all, these companies are given funding to push the envelope, to push the artform forward. Quote me on that."

New works include The Border Project has a show at the Adelaide Zoo, I Am Not An Animal, and Windmill Theatre's School Dance, written by Matthew Whittet and directed by Rosemary Myers, a show which, as Grabowsky says, promises most interestingly. And Australian Dance Theatre presents interactive dance and video with Proximity.

Grabowsky is justly proud of his program. "No festival is going to be the ultimate experience," he says. "But whatever it is, it has to be the thin edge of the wedge."

More details on the Adelaide Festival 2012 program here.

Photos: from top: Paul Grabowsky; Hard To Be A God; Raoul; Bloodland.

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