Features/Perth Festival

Take a surf through Perth Festival

15 November 2021

Perth Festival’s 2022 line-up promises to submerge you in an ocean of arts. Nina Levy dives into the performing arts program with Festival Director Iain Grandage to fish out some of the highlights.

How do you make an international arts festival when no one from outside is allowed to enter your state?

That’s the question Perth Festival artistic director and his team faced last year and the result was an almost entirely homegrown program. Much has been made of pandemic silver linings, but the Festival that saw our local artists and companies rise to the challenge of providing us with world-standard works bears repetition.

Iain Grandage stands next to a red brick wall and white wooden framed window. He wears a blue suit and white shirt, and his smiling cutely.
Iain Grandage. Photo J Wyld

But, as we know, that wasn’t the end. Even the optimistic Grandage admits that 2021 has delivered even tougher challenges for the Perth Festival team. At the time of this interview no roadmap to opening had been announced for WA, and as we publish this article we still don’t have a specific re-opening date.

“We’ve had to pivot more aggressively for the 2022 program, than we had to for 2021,” comments Grandage. “The range and variety of scenarios at play has been wearing. There are many days when you feel like you’re seeking a rock on which to stand, rather than quicksand.”

It takes a lot to dampen Grandage’s spirits though.

“The sun’s shining and we’re feeling pretty excited about the ways that the 2022 program will be received, because the support from artists, audiences, and government and sponsors has been extraordinary,” he says.

“And we are trying to do our part in sewing us, as a group of humans, together.

“We’ve had the privilege, here in Western Australia, of consistently being able to be in theatres. That hasn’t been the case in many places around the world, and certainly not in Victoria and, to a lesser degree, in New South Wales.

“So it’s wearing, undoubtedly, but inside that is the knowledge that what we do is of benefit for many people, or that’s our hope, [in the face of] the psychological stress of what these times have been like in terms of separation from other humans, separation from beloved family members, having to cope with bereavements at a distance.

The arts remind us of the things that can help us maintain the “feel” aspect of living.

“The arts remind us of the things that can help us maintain the “feel” aspect of living.”

Grandage believes that the experience of programming two Festivals during a pandemic has shaped his artistic leadership in useful ways.

“There’s been the opportunity, inside this, to accelerate the process that I’ve been interested in a long time, which is about collegial leadership, about making decisions in a circular, a collaborative way.

“That’s one of the many teachings that Noongar leadership have shared, have taught us here and we continue to walk alongside that leadership in trying to share those aspirations.”

As with Grandage’s previous Festivals, that Noongar leadership frames the 2022 program both thematically and curatorially.

“We started with Karla (2020) – campfire, hearth, home; came down the river, Bilya (2021); and now we’re at Wardan, ocean.”

Oceanic stories: ‘The Ninth Wave’ by The Farm will be performed at the 2022 Perth Festival. Photo: Scott Belzner

It’s not just stories about the ocean that will be told, but stories about migration, about those who came here via the ocean.

“So we’ve got a lot of performances that happen close to the ocean, lots of performances about the ocean, to performances that speak to the long connection of Noongar custodians, but also stories that speak to more recent arrivals.”

Seesaw editor Nina’s picks from the
2022 Perth Festival performing arts program

Headshots of Carolyn Brazier and Kate Walsh
Caroline Brazier (left) and Kate Walsh (right). Photo (Kate Walsh): Stephen Busken for Boyfriend Perfume

Mary Stuart
Adapted by Kate Mulvany, after Friedrich Schiller

I can’t go past Mary Stuart‘s all-star line-up.

While the big name is Kate Walsh, I’ll be just as excited to see her co-star Caroline Brazier (I loved in her in Rake), plus who can resist an adaptation by Kate Mulvany (who, Grandage tells me, is currently in Prague filming Season Two of Hunters alongside Al Pacino), directed by our own Melissa Cantwell, designed by Bruce McKinven with a score from Rachael Dease?

“We’re building our own massive piece of theatre… with Kate Mulvany’s adaption of Mary Stewart, that great Schiller play, but reinvented so the two queens have primacy of not only power, but also conversation, revealing all of their inner workings,” says Grandage.

A group of 5 people stand on a red dirt road through the desert, dressed in 60s fashion. Four are First Nations people, one is white.
Brand new musical Panawathi Girl’. Photo: Daniel Carson

Panawathi Girl
by David Milroy

presented by Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company

As someone who emigrated to Australia in the 1980s I’m always seeking stories about WA from before that time and Panawathi Girl sounds like it’s going to deliver, both as education and entertainment.

Panawathi Girl, directed by Eva Grace Mullaley, is David Milroy’s brand new musical, Panawathi meaning “dream” in Palyku language, his mother’s tongue.” says Grandage. “It’s a musical set in the late 60s about a girl going back to the Pilbara to find her mother who was a member of the Stolen Generations.

“It has politicians who consistently make noise but are rarely enacting some of the changes requested by Indigenous communities; John Gordon and Gough Whitlam. There’s a bunch of hippies which gives us a link to a kind of a Bran Nue Dae vibe.

“Lots of joy in there.”

A man in an elaborate shiny costume, made of a textured silvery fabric that forms a space-suit style hood around his face. in one hand he holds a glowing orb.
Immersion and submersion: ‘Patch’s Lighthouse’. Photo: Matt Byrne

Patch’s Lighthouse
Patch Theatre

That oceanic theme of immersion and submersion is central to Patch’s Lighthouse, a work that’s designed for all ages. But what really appeals to me is that there’s a tunnel and we get to go inside it.

Patch’s Lighthouse is for all the family; for young kids because it contains so much wonder, for older kids because it contains so much science, and for adults because the experience is so immersive and beautiful,” says Grandage.

“There’s live music, a cellist, there’s live actors being everything from astronauts to clowns. We take over the Dolphin Theatre, the Octagon Theatre and the Bradley Studio, and join the Dolphin and the Octagon with a tunnel so that it becomes seven separate sites.”

And The Earth Will Swallow Them Whole
Rachel Arianne Ogle

As well as a writer I’m a dancer by training, so it goes without saying that I’m excited about the dance that’s in this program. And there’s a lot of it, from Queensland’s The Farm in association with our own Co3 Contemporary Dance, from marvellous Wiradjuri dancer, writer and performance maker Joel Bray, from the charismatic Amrita Hepi and, as always, from West Australian Ballet.

Emotional and literal turbulence in ‘And The Earth Will Swallow Them Whole’. Dancer: Yilin Kong. Photo: Peter Cheng

But my shoutout goes to And the Earth Will Swallow Them Whole, by local choreographer Rachel Arianne Ogle. Full disclosure, Rachel and I trained together as students at WAAPA – we know each other well. But if you saw her exhilarating 2014 work Precipice at either its premiere or its 2019 remount you’ll understand that it’s more than shared history that’s got me eagerly anticipating this one.

Grandage sets the scene.

“You’re in Studio Underground. The seats downstairs are completely removed and you’re upstairs on the balcony. And you’re staring down and there’s a silk that’s spread across the floor, which is activated by dancers, emblematic of the ocean and what that kind of turbulence looks like, both emotional and literal. The music’s live, by Gabriella Smart, with Luke Smiles manipulating.”

And that’s just the first half… but no spoilers, says Grandage, you’ll need to see the work to find out more.

Body of Knowledge
Samara Hersch & Company

in association with PICA and WA Youth Theatre Company

The older I get, the more I want to hear about the world from the perspective of those who aren’t adults yet, which is why I’m keen to check out Body of Knowledge by Melbourne/Rotterdam based artist Samara Hersch.

“You go into PICA,” says Grandage. “And around the table, there’s 15 of you as audience members, with a phone in front of each of you. Your phone rings and it’s a teenager in their bedroom. And they start to talk to you about their life, how they see the world, how they see their body, what gender means to them, what their interaction with the rest of the world looks like.

“And then they start to instruct you to do certain things inside the space. You draw out a tent, you draw out some lights, you build an entire wonderland, you start to swap that story with other people. You put it on speakerphone, and there’s this interaction between a whole series of actors in their own bedrooms.”

Emma Matthews. Photo: Carolyn Mackay

Sea Pictures
Emma Matthews

Anyone who had the pleasure of attending Perth Festival’s two concerts held underneath the famous whale skeleton in Hackett Hall at WA Museum Boola Bardip earlier this year knows what a fantastic venue it has proven to be for concert music. And what better place to perform “Sea Pictures”, a program of music about our fascination with the sea?

And this program features a star-studded line-up; the title work, Elgar’s Sea Pictures, has been arranged for acclaimed WA pianist Anna Sleptsova and WASO principals Andrew Nicholson on flute, Eve Silver on cello and Daniel Schmitt on viola.

Ta-ku will be turning the former Karrakatta Club ‘wild and glorious’. Photo: Ashlee Tough _ Cardin Farnham

“Emma will sing Sea Pictures, as well as the Embroidery Aria from Britten’s Peter Grimes, as well as something I’ve been dying to do for years – the George Crumb Vox Balaenae which means ‘the voice of the whale’,” enthuses Grandage. “This is underneath Otto the whale, a beautiful chamber music experience, featuring Emma’s coloratura soprano.”

Songs to Experience
Ta-ku and friends

I’m often attracted to work that crosses genres, and mostly those kinds of works happen because two or more artists from different disciplines collaborate. In the case of Ta-ku – aka Regan Matthews – however, there’s just one artist working across multiple areas.

“Ta-ku is a beats maker who’s also a visual artist working across both commercial and fine art media,” says Grandage. “And inside both commercial music and fine music he will be taking over eight rooms at the old home of the Karrakatta club in Songs to Experience, turning them into visual experiences matched to a track of his album. It’s going to be an amaaaazing kind of experience and reinvention of that space, which was once so conservative and is now going to be wild and glorious.”

Three Noongar artists sit under a tree lit in vibrant greens, purples and reds.  They are smiling and doing traditional dance gestures.
Stories will be told under a light installation that describes the ocean in ‘Noongar Wonderland’. Photo: Jon Green

Noongar Wonderland
Perth Festival free closing event

I can’t resist a show with the word “Wonderland” in the title and Grandage’s description of the Festival’s closing event at Perry Lakes makes it sound every bit as magical as that word promises.

“Associate Artist Ian Moopa Wilkes and his father have found a way to explain the Wardan story, which will be reflected by number of Noongar artists sharing the quietness, the serenity, the beauty of what it was to be under that million star [Noongar] hotel in Perry Lakes,” says Grandage.

“Those stories will be told through a light installation that describes the ocean, built by designer Mark Howett, but also through performance circles that are inside that light installation, led by dancers Trevor Ryan and Rubeun Yorkshire with songs by musician Clint Bracknell.

“In the daytimes there is that sense of the continuity of cultural practice that’s reflected inside emu egg carving, spear-making, weaving, various cultural and craft ways, yarning, storytelling.”

This list is just a taster of what’s on offer – in addition to the rest of the performing arts and music program, there’s also the visual arts program (stay tuned for more about that one), Lotterywest Films and the Literature and Ideas program. Head to the Perth Festival website to see the full program.

Pictured top is ‘And The Earth Will Swallow Them Whole” by Rachel Arianne Ogle, dancer: Yilin Kong. Photo: Peter Cheng

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked as an arts writer and critic since 2007. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. As a freelancer she has written extensively for The West Australian and Dance Australia magazine, co-editing the latter from 2016 to 2019. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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