Something for everyone, and more

Jeremy Eccles on Lyndon Terracini’s big picture Brisbane Festival

Mabou Mines, Dollhouse

Mabou Mines, Dollhouse

Mabou Mines, Dollhouse

“Ideally a festival like Brisbane’s offers something for everyone.” For a moment, first time Brisbane Festival Director, Lyndon Terracini, sounds dangerously like the men who used to run such events as Brisbane’s Warana, Melbourne’s Moomba or the early Sydney Festivals. But the man who has sung more avant garde music than he’s had hot dinners, as well as founding the radical regional NORPA Festival and taking Queensland’s Biennial Music Festival to new levels of engagement from Barky to Thuringoa, quickly qualified his remark: “For me, accessibility is about great variety rather than simply dumbing down.”

So, there is a central arts core to the July event which will look and feel comfortingly familiar—Strauss’ great opera Salome in a concert performance starring local Lisa Gasteen, conducted by her friend Simone Young; Johnno, the great Brisbane novel by David Malouf, staged by Brisbane Powerhouse in a version by English theatre man, Stephen Edwards, who’ll take it on to Derby; a new QTC play by RealTime contributor Stephen Carleton, set in pioneering days on Cape York, Constance Drinkwater and the Final Days of Somerset; Cirque Eloize, probably the best of those Canadian companies that modelled themselves on Circus Oz; and Cloudgate Dance Theatre from Taiwan, masters of contemporary Orientalism.

But on either side of that comfort zone there’s the challenging material you might expect from Lyndon Terracini—or maybe not. Who’d have thought he’d roll one of those trendy festivals of ideas into an arts event? But the Artshub website headlines its story about the festival, “Mikhail Gorbachev to appear at Brisbane Festival.” Terracini seems to have tapped into the zeitgeist. Gorby (plus Beattie and sundry Nobel prizewinners) sold out in a day! “It was like a pop concert”, recounts an amazed director, “selling out the first of the ‘Earth Dialogues’ before the festival brochure even hit the streets. The subject of resource management has just grabbed people—the latest Vanity Fair has 12 pages on it, for heaven’s sake—and they really want to talk about it.”

It helps that the man who invented Perestroika, who cost $1000 a ticket to hear when he was last in Brisbane in 1999, comes free this time thanks to his role as chair of Green Cross International—described as “a Red Cross for the environment.” Terracini believes that artists need to take more responsibility for issues of such moment: “Verdi used to in operas like Nabucco; and what about Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, encouraging the French Revolution? People like Sting in the pop world do it; perhaps at the high end we’re too arty-farty?”

Well, one answer is to match the pop world in the size of your ambition, your use of technology and, dare I say it, in the truculant use of the title, Winners. This one-off world premiere brings the words and musics of survivors of great tragedies together on screen in Brisbane, directed by Terracini. 9/11’s Ground Zero was just yesterday compared to Ayuthaya’s 18th Century destruction in Thailand. Dresden was incinerated in 1944, Maralinga atomised in the 50s and Sharpville shot down in the 60s. But the experience of survival produces common cause, it would seem, epitomised by blind Yami Lester, interviewed by Terracini in the blinding desert, declaring his happy acceptance of all that happened. “How much more important is that than our jingoistic joy when we beat the Solomons in the Commonwealth Games”, says Terracini. And his challenge has been taken up by the Pompidou Centre in Paris, who’ve bought Winners for next October.

Another answer is to get down a bit. And just as Terracini was determined to prove that “every city has its own culture” in the Queensland Music Biennial: “first identify it, then bring in professionals to help illuminate it.” He’s now trying the same for Brisbane’s suburbs. “I’d like to have done something in every ward, but we can only afford uniquely chosen events in 10 of them. It’s a really interesting question for me as to why people live in a particular suburb, why it’s right to have opera in Brookfield and a skateboard musical in Coorparoo? And I don’t think that reflecting these differences is ghettoising cultures as the old Shell Folkloric events tended to. People can always go from one to another.”

Interestingly, Energex, which used to be the naming rights sponsor of the whole Brisbane event in previous director Tony Gould’s day, has now accepted Terracini’s decision not to sell the festival’s name but to put its name to the “Positive Energy Across Brisbane” program rather than either the high or experimental arts.

It’s in the latter area that we find proof of Lyndon Terracini’s assertion that “I haven’t gone out of my way to soothe the audience. Tony Gould set up the festival brilliantly. But society has changed in response to what he offered, and it’s time to move on.” Most notably, Brisbane’s education system has changed in creating the Queensland University of Technology’s Creative Industries hub. The festival brings its graduates back on campus to give focus to its ongoing work.

For instance, Deep Blue is an actual ARC research project in which Professor Andy Arthurs is trying to create a sustainable orchestra for the 21st century. This one contains a fifth electronics section, a big coordinated light show on screens, previews at which the audience can help to develop the performance and the prospect that the resulting band could play the world like Arthurs’ similarly crafted and superbly marketed Ten Tenors.

Cheryl Stock’s Accented Body is yet another event with screens as she goes live in 3 different countries to see whether dancing bodies can interact virtually as well as live. “It’s a fascinating use of technology to watch a body from a huge distance away,” says Terracini, “just making patterns of movement like a chessboard; and then bring it right up to touching distance.” Somehow this is a promenade event as well as online.

But then you can get right down and virtually dirty with Intimate Transactions, where you go one to one in hyperspace with someone else in Cairns, and every action of theirs has an effect on you in Brisbane.

The final two QUT works were both created elsewhere by graduates, and Terracini is delighted to bring them back to reflect the institution to the community. Unspoken has won a heap of awards in Sydney for Rebecca Clarke’s poignant solo text and performance about growing up with a severely disabled brother; and Clare Dyson’s dance about depression, Churchill’s Black Dog, made in Canberra, is so gorgeous visually, according to Terracini, that the terrifying isolation caused by depression somehow becomes an uplifting experience.

But perhaps the major event that’s challenging stereotypes is Mabou Mines’ Dollhouse, an even more radical take on Ibsen’s original than the Adelaide Festival version from Berlin. Somehow Lee Breuer, who’s been reconceiving the classics in New York since 1970 has never been to Australia. Now he comes with a cast of male dwarfs to reflect both the stunted condition of the patriarchy and the infantilisation of men that women don’t seem able to resist. Apparently there’s even a line or two in Ibsen to justify such extreme casting and the production wowed them even in Ibsen’s homeland of Oslo.

From even further back in time, Sophocles’ Oedipus plays have been mined by the much younger American Anonymous Ensemble to satirise the Iraq War and the society of Homeland that’s been created to support it by the Neo-Cons. “An Orwellian American Idol” is how Terracini describes this upbeat MTV take on Weimar cabaret.

Can the local avant garde compete? It will be interesting to see how the Elision Ensemble fares as they celebrate their 20th birthday (see page 35). They’re Brisbane natives these days, but they’ve never played their opera, Moon Spirit Feasting at home before, while taking it all round the world. Magic-realist writer Beth Yahp and composer Liza Lim pooled their Chinese genes over a story about which no two Chinese are ever said to totally agree: how Chang-O became the Woman in the Moon.

Adventurous Brisbane media artist Craig Walsh (his Cross-reference, currently touring to the UK, is the cover image for this edition of RealTime), features twice in the festival, providing visual design for Johnno and taking those images and transforming them in Aloof, a major installation at the entrance to the Brisbane Powerhouse. “By pushing out of the theatre like that”, explains Terracini, “I hope he’ll give people a way into the piece.”

Finally, in respect of Indigenous presence, the Brisbane Festival ‘06 appears to have but a token smoking ceremony, leaving the field to Rhoda Roberts’s Dreaming Festival, up the road at Woodford. Of course, Lyndon Terracini was able to disabuse me: the Maralinga episode of Winners involves Yami Lester and family. But he was also keen to reveal the development of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Festival and Indigenous Australia which he hopes will lead to significant contributions in 2 years time. “There were problems between the Festival and the community”, he admits. “But I’d involved Cherbourg (the notorious dumping place for Queensland’s Aborigines) in the Music Biennial, so I knew it was possible, if I put myself on the line, to get them to feed a lot back in so that we can work things out together.”

Brisbane Festival, July 14-30 www.brisbanefestival.com.au

RealTime issue #73 June-July 2006 pg. 6

© Jeremy Eccles; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2006