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Performance down under

Described as somewhere between epic poem and music concert, Melbourne's art festival gets underway

Published on October 11, 2007

 An international feast of contemporary dance, music and theatre that aims to entertain and inspire audiences of all ages, tastes and budgets is just nine hours away by plane.

Melbourne International Arts Festival is one of Australia's leading celebrations of culture and has an outstanding reputation for presenting unique events indoors and outdoors - rain or shine.

In her welcome speech in the festival's programme, artistic director Kristy Edmunds writes: "Melbourne 2007 brings together the work of artists who have fundamentally changed the possibilities of their art form, and whose individual legacies continue to expand and astound."

In a phone interview with The Nation, general manager Vivia Hickman adds her observations on the development of the festival over the past 21 years.

"The programme is broader than it used to be because we want it to appeal to a wider audience. For example, this year we have more contemporary music performances. In fact, the whole [festival's] programme is more contemporary than in the past. That's our main direction."

A new artistic director is appointed every three years, something, says Hickman, that encourages the constant evolution of the event.

"Each new director brings fresh energy and visions… The director before Edmunds focused one festival on music, one on dance, and the other on theatre, though the overall programme has always been multi-arts. But we do have to use certain venues and reach audiences so directors need to operate within the broad festival perimeter."

As for the programme selection criteria, Hickman says, "We look for people who are making interesting works. Actually, it's a little bit of a mosaic and it's hard to look at it in isolation because the artistic director will choose a particular company that makes sense alongside a very different company so that the audience can see the link and get a richer experience."

Of course, an international performing arts festival of this magnitude cannot be successful without immense financial and administrative support from governmental and private agencies - both local and international.

"The festival has been generously supported by the [Victoria] state government and the City of Melbourne. We've got great funding. It gives us a lot of stability and opportunity to plan ahead," Hickman explains.

"Also, we have a team of staff who look after private sponsorships for us. Getting support from businesses is always a challenge, but we do quite well. We get both cash and alliance sponsors such as those from hotels, which allows us to accommodate artists in great venues."

While famous dance, theatre, and music artists are the main draws, the organisers are committed to promoting local artists.

"The festival has a responsibility to look at local works and present them alongside international acts. We also try to bring national and international [performing arts] festival directors to see the works, which brings them touring opportunities beyond Melbourne."

Among this year's highlights is the opening act, a free concert by Dan Zanes, who's been described by Vanity Fair as  "Pre-teen America's hootenanny master". Inspired by the text of Gustave Flaubert's 19th-century novel, the must-see "The Temptation of Saint Anthony" is a musical theatre collaboration of visionary stage director and designer Robert Wilson and Bernice Johnson Reagon, leader of the world-renowned a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Another highlight for theatre buffs is legendary British director Peter Brook's staging of South African playwright Athol Fugard's "Siswe Banzi Is Dead".

In addition, Merce Cun-ningham, a pillar of modernism and the greatest living choreographer, will be in residence at the festival. Apart from a free site-specific performance, "The Melbourne Event", his company will perform "Program A" and "Program B". Festival audiences will also have a chance to listen to his discussion on life in dance, offer thoughts and ideas for new choreography and watch a film on his collaborations with John Cage.

"We get a lot of tourists who happen to be in Melbourne [during the festival]," says Hickman. "Australians come from all over the country as they are unable to see these works anywhere else. More and more New Zealanders are coming as well."

Our phone interview ends with perhaps the main concern for most tourists, the weather. Hickman reports, "It's lovely. It's spring and the temperature is 22 degrees Celsius. Usually, we get a lot of rain in October but we're in the midst of a drought."

With good weather and great international performing arts guaranteed, this reporter will be in Melbourne next week to watch eight theatre productions in five days - my personal dramatic boot camp during university's semester break.

Keep tuned for more interviews and reviews of what's going on in the contemporary performing arts.

"Melbourne International Arts Festival 2007" runs from today through to October 27  at various venues in Melbourne. Admission charges range from free to A$97.50 (B2,900).

For information, visit Melbourneinternational.com.au.

Special thanks to Lior Albeck-Ripka of Prue Bassett Publicity for helping to arrange this interview.

 Pawit Mahasarinand

 The Nation

The writer can be contacted at Pawit.M@chula.ac.th.

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