Interview: Joseph Mitchell – OzAsia, the necessary festival

Keith Gallasch

From Asia, with passion and daring
Adelaide’s OzAsia Festival is soon to burst into new life with a thrilling program of contemporary performance, film and visual art from China, Taiwan, Japan and, above all, Indonesia, in a welcome move that will reveal some of the cultural scale and complexity of that nation.

The festival’s Artistic Director Joseph Mitchell—former Executive Producer at the Brisbane Festival and Senior Director and Producer at Luminato and the Toronto Festival—recalls being surprised, challenged and awed by Asian performance that breaks with tradition while, curiously, sustaining it.

This is the OzAsia Festival many of us have been waiting for, to see work we’ve only ever read about, glimpsed while travelling or, eager to learn, have never heard of, such is the paucity of contemporary Asian performance reaching Australia despite the dedication of a handful of producers. I met with the exuberant and passionate Mitchell in Sydney shortly after the Adelaide launch of his program.

What drove the choices you made?
As the only international arts festival in Australia focused on Asia there’s a great responsibility to ask serious questions about the landscape of contemporary performance across the region and who the artists are breaking new ground. We’re not aligned to any aspect of tradition, like Chinese New Year celebrations; OzAsia is an arts festival in which we get a better sense of contemporary Asia. The festival brief is enormous; we’re talking about two-thirds of the world’s population.

What does Japan’s Miss Revolutionary Idol Berserker exemplify about your program?
They’re a group of 30 young artists living around Shinjuku in Tokyo. They’re not interested in traditional performance or text-based performance or replicating performing art practices from the West They’re exploring the boundaries of art on their own terms, which is what OzAsia is about. It’s a complete amalgam of audience immersion, multimedia projection, theatricality and fast-pace choreographed movement. But if you said it was dance or theatre to a dance or theatre person they’d get upset. It’s not like anything you’ve seen before. They have a cult following in Japan and play in dingey 100-150 seat venues. I’ve seen them twice in Japan with audiences that might include a 50-year old businessman curious enough to go on his own or young uni students who’ve heard about a show where anything can happen.

They perform with such self-confidence that you take the show on as it is. You have to take your shoes off, wear a raincoat and you get pummelled with seaweed and tofu—the stereotypes of Japanese culture thrown in your face. They dance precisely with fluoro lights but at the same time it’s chaotic, with a lot of video projection and spoken word harking back to the young Japanese of the 1970s dissociating themselves from the culture of American occupation as well as from Japanese tradition and finding their own sense of identity. You can read all that in the work or just enter the madness for 45 minutes and say Wow!

Indonesia features strongly in your program. Tell ne about Teater Garasi?
[See p 20 for an interview with Yudi Ahmad Tajudin.]

Teater Garasi have built a body of work not from text or improvisation or dance, but fusing styles in a process of their own involving history and politics and issues of wealth and poverty, the rural and the urban and asking ‘are we ready to be a democracy?’ Again, like Miss Revolutionary their work is immersive, someone will give you beer or beg or ask you for identification. The Streets is dance theatre interspersed with monologues and statements about Indonesian culture now. Where else in the world does on an angle grinder cutting corrugated iron cut across a monologue in a dance theatre work? It’s what Jakarta is like.

Move Theatre’s John Cage appears to be an unusual choice.
Move Theatre’s Dear John features a dancer, a composer, a bowed piano player and installation and sound artists from Taiwan who’ve set up a black studio space with an installation of components that can be played by the artists and the audience. As a tribute to John Cage the work makes the audience hyper-aware of the sounds in the space around it. It’s not recreating or mimicking a Cage work but asks how he inspires us to play at the boundaries of music and contemporary performance-making in an immersive environment—it’s a living work of art that needs an audience that feels permitted to make it. It’s also a stunning, empowering work that comes from research, collaborating and thinking outside of the box.

You have included some explicitly traditional performance in your program.
The 600-year old Indonesian Topang mask dance from the Cirebon province on the northern tip of Java has rarely been seen in Australia. It’s traditional dance but absolutely hypnotic and you can see how influential it’s been on contemporary performance makers with its commitment to dropping into character, letting go of the self, gesturing to the gods.

Performance art has a special place in the festival as well as contemporary theatre. Does it connect with traditional performance?
The Indonesian artist Melati Suryodamo trained with Marina Abramovic, absorbed postmodern culture in visual and performance art and now, as a mature artist, she’s connecting with her Javanese roots with depth and rigour. She’s a world leader in performance art, but with a sense of it as 800 years old—the tradition that includes shamanism, the loss of control of the body and then the body itself as art. We’re building a special performance space next to the Festival Centre Gallery for Melati’s two-day durational performance, 24,901 Miles, on OzAsia’s opening weekend.

I saw work by Eko Supriyanto’s in Jakarta in 2010 and was impressed by its vibrant patterning and its deep connections with traditional dance while still looking very modern.

Eko’s Cry Jalilolo is probably my pick of the festival. He’s working with a group of young men, not professional dancers in a Western sense, who come from a village in Jailolo Bay in north Maluku (the Moluccas, east of Borneo), The regent of that area invited Eko to create a dance work as part of their summer festival. It’s a village with its whole culture built around fishing and coconuts. Eko watched the boys perform their island’s traditional dance, learned who they were, what their passions in life were and their concerns—destruction of their reef, dynamite fishing, rubbish and pollution in the ocean. He reconfigured the movement into contemporary dance in a perfect fusion and with respect for tradition. Tradition and the contemporary aren’t as separate as we sometimes think and artists like Eko are held in great respect. These young men are touring the work for the next two years.

Eko wanted to give something back to the community. I went to Jailolo with him where he taught the whole work to 200 children over two months and then they and the seven dancers performed the work to the whole population of the island.

From China you’ve chosen a significant theatrical production; is this another boundary breaker?
Amber [premiered Hong Kong, 2005] is a conventional play—but with singing, dancing and projections—from probably the leading Chinese theatre director, Meng Jinghu [director of the National Theater of China]. He doesn’t direct Western plays. His wife Liao Yimei is the playwright. He’s prolific, making fun, fluent shows about young people on his own terms. Rhinoceros in Love has been in repertoire since 1999. His shows touch a nerve about contemporary culture and are packed with under–40 audiences. There’s an inherent through-line of absurdity in his work, but with more of a narrative thread in Amber than Rhinoceros, [In Amber the heart of a man who is killed in an accident is transplanted into the body of a decadent character. The dead man’s girlfriend believes she can redeem the rogue redeem his soul. Eds]. It’s a love story, if not a straight narrative—he makes the audience work. It’s about finding your own path in the new China: is sex for fun or love, with whom can you have it, is it taboo?

Of a number of visual arts show, Alhamdulillah, We Made It appears to me the most intriguing.
We commissioned this from Indonesia’s Mess56, 20 people who have a studio in Yogjakarta and sometimes band together to do projects as a collective. They’ve turned the immigration issue on its head. Refugee detention camps are off the radar for most Indonesians. The idea was to get some sense of the people in this purgatory, why they’re there and where they think they’re going. The artists conducted it like a documentary research project with interviews and taking photographs. Then they digitally ‘migrated’ the people by superimposing images of them onto where they’d like to be, say in Australia. It’s not about the base level Asian-Indonesian debate over refugees but a fundamental questioning about detention camps in Indonesia and the feelings of the refugees.

With its boundary breakers, cross-artform and cross-cultural collaborators and inventive inheritors of tradition what does this OzAsia Festival add up to do you think?
A festival of strong contemporary art, not a festival of otherness. At the same time it will show Australians how young artists in Asia see themselves, their culture and their art.

OzAsia 2015 also includes Ryoji Ikeda’s large-scale performative digital media work, Superposition, and Play, a constantly evolving work featuring Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Indian Kuchipudi dancer Shantala Shivalingapp.

Adelaide Festival Centre, OzAsia 2015 Festival, Adelaide, 24 Sept-4 Oct

11 June 2016