Birthday extravaganza

2 August 2021

Edith Cowan University turns 30 this year, and Rosalind Appleby says the WA Academy of Performing Arts celebrated in style with a performing arts party that looked both backwards and forwards.

‘Celebrate’, West Australian Academy of Performing Arts ·
Perth Concert Hall, 31 July 2021 ·

There was not an empty seat in the Concert Hall on Friday night as the WA Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) marked the 30th anniversary of Edith Cowan University (ECU). There was precious little breathing space on the stage either, as students from music, dance, theatre, fashion, film and Aboriginal performance courses showcased the University’s creative beating heart.

WAAPA is unique in Australia for housing multiple artforms under one roof and the evening’s director Brendan Hanson, (who made his debut on the same stage as a student thirty years earlier) had the challenging job of integrating all 350 performers into a coherent form.

Dr Roma Yibiyung Winmar (Elder-in-Residence at ECU) opened proceedings with a welcome to country and an unpretentious performance of Noongar song “Waalawaliny” by Clint Bracknell. Winmar has worked significantly in education and the arts and it was fitting in this showcase – which looked both backwards and forwards – to acknowledge her alongside the university’s namesake Edith Cowan, also a driving force for education and social reform and whose maiden speech to parliament was performed (and adapted) by Bachelor of Performing Arts students.

Lines of musicians from the WAAPA Symphony Orchestra filled the rear of the stage, under the direction of Jessica Gethin. Their reliable and attentive playing provided the adhesive between the different performances, often supplemented by the WAAPA Chorus and Gospel Choir.

Black-clad dancers dip forward with hands outstretched behind, lit by thin shards of white light
LINK Dance Company perform Brooke Leeder’s ‘The Resistance’ as part of ECU’s 30th birthday celebrations. Photo: Stephen Heath

Defying Gravity’s arresting performance of the percussion piece Celebrate by Marcus Perrozzi was matched by the sizzling energy of the Contemporary Music students’ performance of “Gone Under” by Snarky Puppy. Various incarnations of the jazz band (sadly squashed into a dimly lit corner) showcased the world class jazz for which WAAPA is renowned.

Two short excerpts from LINK Dance Company, and a thrilling student performance of Brooke Leeder’s The Resistance (those synchronised lines of dancers, weaving among the slanting stripes of white light) showcased the dance course. The Contemporary Fashion Showcase was just as striking: 30 models wearing 30 designs representing 30 years of ECU, walking with nonchalant grace to Troy Roberts’ “The Mind Melder”.

Aboriginal Performance students gave an immersive performance of Bracknell’s Break Loose, playing out on the screen and the stage, while “I’ve got rhythm” from the music theatre students was all sparkle and sass. As well as the parliament speech by Edith Cowan, theatre students performed a movement piece and a selection of Shakespeare scenes, while a Short Film Commission Shift (Helen Searle and Andrew Lewis) brought a further change of pace.

Woven through it all were (video) cameos from WAAPA luminaries such as Meow Meow and Hugh Jackman. Music theatre star Amy Manford swept onstage in a breathtaking white gown and her performance of Lloyd-Webber’s “Wishing you were somehow here again” was given deeper poignancy with photo tributes in memory of past teachers Geoff Gibbs, John Milson, Lucette Aldous, Lisle Jones and Richard Gill.

A woman in white princess dress and long golden hair sings in front of an orchestra
Amy Manford sings with the WAAPA Orchestra in tribute to WAAPA’s past teachers. Photo: Stephen Heath

Other moments were less successful; the orchestra’s intricate playing in composition student Jonathon Jie Hong Yang’s Brave the Wave was somewhat lost in the distraction of enormous white balls bouncing around the stage – I couldn’t make the audio-visual connection here. Opera singers Emma Matthews, Paul O’Neill, Nicole Youl and Michael Lewis gave a live performance of a quartet from Rigoletto, which was beautifully sung but may have meant more with subtitles or at least a brief introduction.

But there was no time for extraneous words in these seamlessly segued performances. Even the dignitary speeches were delivered as videos (albeit with artistic licence: vice-chancellor Steve Chapman’s Wolverine claws!).

A new commission Be Transformed by Alice Humphries made a hefty finale, the composer incorporating a myriad of styles in a journey from mystical atonality to a festive finale of epic proportions. The warmth, energy and professionalism projecting from the stage lingered with me long after leaving the concert.

In many ways the overlapping art forms, styles and technologies offered a glimpse of the future, in particular the new Bachelor of music course launching in 2022 and designed around the increasingly collaborative industry of modern music. And then of course there is the new city campus, and the injection of energy this has given to the institution’s future planning. As the lights went out on this extravagant birthday party, there is every evidence to suggest the Academy will continue to achieve extraordinary success.

Pictured top: WAAPA’s various ensembles converge on stage to perform Alice Humphries finale ‘Be Transformed’. Photo Stephen Heath.

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Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind Appleby is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She is co-editor of Seesaw Magazine, author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine. She loves the percussion instruments which can be found in the uber cool parks.

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