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Features/Opinion/Multi-arts

Dipping into our home-grown Festival

18 November 2020

To celebrate the 2021 Perth Festival programme launch, Seesaw’s Nina Levy shares her top picks from the line-up.

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As one of the managing editors of a publication dedicated to covering the arts in Western Australia, I don’t need to be convinced about the depth of artistic talent in this state.

It’s the reason we founded Seesaw Magazine; I’m constantly banging on to whoever will listen about the depth of artistic talent in WA.

So when Perth Festival Artistic Director Iain Grandage announced that the 2021 Perth Festival line-up would be almost entirely local, I shared his belief that this pandemic-induced situation is not a limitation but an opportunity for WA audiences and artists.

Listen to Iain Grandage talking to Nina Levy about the 2021 Perth Festival programme.

Listening to Grandage tell me about the 2021 programme only reinforces that belief. As I do every year, I feel that pre-Festival sense of heart-lifting exhilaration and anticipation as I page through the 2021 brochure. And as always, it’s hard to choose my top Festival picks for 2021, but I’ve given it my best shot.

Disclaimer: This is a non-exhaustive list.

City of Lights
In keeping with this year’s Festival theme “bilya” (river), the Perth Cultural Centre will be transformed into an aquatic underworld, when the City of Lights festival hub moves into the space. Entitled Bilya Beneath, light projections will wash away the modern world into one of watery tranquillity once an hour, on the hour. It sounds magical.

Tim Minchin sits on a lit stage, at a grand piano, with a wicked grin on his face.
Tim Minchin will be performing his new album ‘Apart/Together’. Photo: Kevin Patrick Robbins

Tim Minchin with WASO… plus exhibition
If you’re a Tim Minchin fan like me, you’ll know that he’s just about to release a new album, Apart/Together and you’ll be even more excited to learn that he’ll be visiting his home town to perform that album live, with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra in Kings Park.

While Minchin himself will only be with us briefly, his image will stick around for a bit longer. It will be part of an exhibition at the Art Gallery of WA by Perth-based artist, filmmaker and designer Tee Ken Ng, based on his animated music video for Minchin’s recent release “Leaving LA”. Those who are familiar with the video will know that it uses handmade zoetropes; in the exhibition, video projections of the zoetropes are used to create the illusion of being inside the animation. Cool.

Waterside shows
I’m a big fan of outdoor site-specific works, especially those near the water. Witness Stand, by Melbourne artists Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey (Five Blasts) and local First Nations artists Barry McGuire and Kylie Bracknell, will see audiences gather at various locations along the Derbarl Yerrigan (Swan River) to listen to a series of sound works that pay homage to ancient Whadjuk country stories, acknowledging the impact of colonisation.

Read Seesaw’s review of Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey’s Five Blasts, at the 2019 Perth Festival.

In WA Youth Theatre Company’s BESIDE a team of emerging and professional artists that includes senior Noongar artists will invite audiences to explore Baigup’s (Mayland’s) Peninsula Farm and its riverside history. Head west to Galup (West Leederville), and Noongar performer Ian Wilkes will take audience on an interactive walking performance to explore the little-known history of Lake Monger. As someone who not only lives nearby but has a borderline obsession with sunset walks, this one is definitely on my to-do list.

Five figures stand along the edge of the Swan River at sunset.
Cast members of WA Youth Theatre Company’s ‘Beside’. Photo: David Cox.

Shows that move
About a year ago I took part in a workshop to make a bird out of a piece of old black clothing. That bird will be part of a flock of 1001 that form the set of Archives of Humanity, a new work by Raewyn Hill by Co3 Contemporary Dance, WA’s state flagship contemporary dance company.

“You enter Archives of Humanity through this installation with these thousand one birds above you,” explains Grandage. “These black birds are representative of migrations of people have made it here to WA. The Bird Makers Project has travelled into prisons, it’s travelled into remote communities, there’s international birds coming in. People make a bird, as you did, out of a piece of their black clothing and it comes with its own story. What we’re doing … is not only telling the story of dance in Western Australia, but … the story of community and what it means to be an arrival in this place, … to belong in this place.”

There are also several works by independent local choreographers on the programme, all of which I recommend (Emma Fishwick’s Slow Burn, Together, Steamworks Arts’ Feminism Has No Borders, mixed bill MoveMoveMove), but I’m particularly excited to see the inclusion of Brooke Leeder & Dancers Structural Dependency because I’ve been avidly following its development over the last few years. In Grandage’s words, Structural Dependency is “a visceral work”; a work for those who love their dance both athletic and intricate.

Rachael Dease leans against a wooden post, her eyes cast down. Her red hair is offset by the white of the building behind her and her black outfit with splashes of red, blue and white at collar and sleeves.
Rachael Dease will perform her new album with WASO. Photo: Supplied by Perth Festival

Shows that sing
When it comes to music the human voice is my favourite instrument, and this Festival has plenty of vocal treats on offer.

As with dance, it’s hard to pick and choose but I can’t go past the experience of a concert underneath the prized Blue Whale skeleton, inside the new Boola Bardip museum.

“It’s our thrill to have this chamber music series called ‘One and Many’ inside the West Australian Museum,” says Grandage. “This series has taken the idea that we’ve been through the solitude of 2020 and now we join as a community.”

In keeping with that theme, both concerts feature a soloist and an ensemble; internationally-renowned Perth violinist Shaun Lee-Chen is joined by St George’s Cathedral Consort in the first, in the second, Sara Macliver, one of Australia’s best loved sopranos, performs with wind and percussion ensemble Wind Quartet Plus.

I’m also looking forward to catching Gina Williams and Guy Ghouse perform the second instalment of their four-part song cycle, the follow up to last year’s Koorlangka, that takes audiences on a journey through Williams’ journey as a child of the Stolen Generations. “Gina Williams … sings in Noongar language in a project called Koort, which means heart. It’s just Gina and Guy in a very tender, gentle experience under the stars … inside Government House Gardens,” says Grandage.

For those readers who read my interview with Rachael Dease earlier this year, it won’t be a surprise to learn that I’m keen to catch her performance of her soon-to-be released album Hymns For End Times with West Australian Symphony Orchestra. I can’t wait to hear Dease’s sweeping vocals and lush string and percussion blends played live in the velvety surrounds of His Majesty’s Theatre.

Read “Songs from the ashes”, Nina Levy’s interview with Rachael Dease

Shows with a twist
Local theatre collective The Last Great Hunt (TLGH) has an almost cult-like following. I’m one of the cult members and I’m guessing their 2021 Perth Festival show, Whistleblower, will sell out fast.

The thing about Whistleblower, says Grandage, is that even though TLGH are the darlings of the Perth theatre scene, you don’t need to be a theatre buff to enjoy this show. “Think of The Truman Show meets Escape Room. So [it’s] for those people who aren’t necessarily familiar with the theatre but they’re familiar with gaming, or they’re familiar with virtual reality experiences, or they’re familiar with film, it’s as much a film experience as it is a theatre experience.”

I’m also partial to a one-on-one show or, in the case of I’ll Tell You In Person, two on two. This new work by local theatre makers Jeffrey Jay Hunt (one of The Last Great Hunters, operating independently here) and Sarah Reuben tells the story of the ups and downs of a friendship, presented as an audio show, through headphones. The twist? You see it with a friend, you each hear one side of the story… the rest is up to you to unravel afterwards.

A scene from Whistleblower shows a person sitting in an office set, surrounded by film crew.
‘The Truman Show’ meets ‘Escape Room’: The Last Great Hunt’s ‘Whistleblower’. Photo supplied by Perth Festival

Art Feast
I gave a shout out to The Rechabite last festival season, for being my favourite Fringe venue, so I’m delighted to see that the 2021 Perth Festival includes a two-week Rechabite-based program entitled “Art Feast”, described as “a smorgasbord of cabaret delights served up alongside a sumptuous meal”. Yum.

And a feast of visual arts
The visual arts exhibitions are often the unsung heroes of Perth Festival, perhaps because they are generally free and run for several months, and so don’t have the same limited-time-only, book-now-or-miss-out, energy. The 2021 collection of exhibitions, however, could be presented as a festival in its own right, with no less than twelve shows, from presenters ranging from the Art Gallery of Western Australia, to one of Perth’s newest artist-run-initiatives, Cool Change Contemporary.

Abdul-Rahman Abdullah's work of  three black dog sculptures bounding through a gallery.
Abdul-Rahman Abdullah’s sculptures reference animal archetypes. Photo: Supplied by Perth Festival

As with the rest of the Festival program, it’s hard to pick highlights, and with long, free seasons, there’s no need to pick and choose what you see, but “Everything Is True” at John Curtin Gallery, a retrospective of sculptural work by celebrated Perth artist Abdul-Rahman Abdullah, appeals, with its references to animal archetypes and magic realism.

Another show that catches my eye is “Alluvial Gold”, a performance-installation at Goolugatup Heathcote Gallery by percussionist Louise Devenish, composer Stuart James and visual artist Erin Coates (NB: You will need to book for the live performance, although the exhibition is free). Bringing together sculptural percussion instruments modelled on aquatic creatures, vibraphone and electronics, and a video projection design featuring underwater footage and sound recordings captured in the Derbarl Yerrigan (Swan River), this performance and accompanying exhibition sound like marine magic.

Read more about Erin Coates in our review of Moore Contemporary’s ‘Hyper Leisure’.

Reflecting on the histories of, and realities for, First Peoples artists from Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, “the gathering”, curated by Glenn Iseger-Pilkington and presented at PICA, is another exhibition that catches my eye. It also promises opportunities to hear from guest speakers and participate in conversations.

And remember, this is just a taster. For the full Perth Festival 2021 programme, which includes the Literature and Ideas program and Lotterywest Films head to www.perthfestival.com.au. The contemporary music program will be announced January 21.

Perth Festival 2021 takes place 5-28 February.

FYI: Seesaw will also be publishing an article about the 2021 programmes of our major performing arts companies, Black Swan State Theatre Company, West Australian Ballet, West Australian Opera and West Australian Symphony Orchestra, which include various Perth Festival shows. Coming soon, stay tuned!

Listen to Iain Grandage talk to Nina Levy about his 2021 Perth Festival programme, for more details about Perth Festival 2021.

Pictured top: Brooke Leeder & Dancers performing ‘Structural Dependency’. Photo supplied by Perth Festival

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked for over a decade as an arts writer and critic. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. Nina was co-editor of Dance Australia magazine from 2016 to 2019. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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