Features/Multi-arts/Perth Festival

Stars align for Perth Festival’s world party

8 February 2023

With its theme of Djinda, the Noongar word for stars, Perth Festival celebrates its 70th anniversary by re-convening the conversation between local and international artists. Mark Naglazas previews Perth’s premiere summer arts event.

After two years of COVID-impacted outings, in which border restrictions kept out eastern states and international acts and state government guidelines cut deep into audience numbers, Perth Festival artistic director Iain Grandage is opening his arms to the world.

At the centre of the 2023 Grandage-curated cosmos is Cornucopia, an eye-popping theatrical extravaganza in which the iconoclastic Icelandic punk-pop visionary Bjork performs her environmentally themed 2017 album Utopia against a lush futuristic digital landscape accompanied by musicians (many playing flutes) and an 18-voice local choir. Bjork’s four concerts will be contained — barely, if reports are to be believed — in a 5000-seat purpose-built pavilion on Langley Park and will close next year’s festival.

The acclaimed ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ stars Freo-raised Ewan Leslie. Photo: Daniel Boud

The open borders also mean festival goers will at last experience the kind of world-class theatre routinely enjoyed by arts lovers on the east coast. The Sydney Theatre Company is bringing the acclaimed Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, starring Fremantle-raised powerhouse Ewen Leslie, in which director Kip Williams employs the same dazzling cine-theatre technique he used to mesmerise audiences with The Picture of Dorian Gray. 

The Melbourne Theatre Company and Black Swan State Theatre Company are presenting WAAPA-graduate Virginia Gay’s raved-about gender-swapping update of Edmond Rostand’s classic comedy-romance Cyrano

Gay’s queered reimaging of Rostand’s celebration of brains over brawn was heartbreakingly cancelled three hours before Melbourne went into its sixth lockdown. So it’s wonderfully appropriate that Perth Festival’s first post-COVID event is bringing a production that’s become a poster child for the role played by art in overcoming loneliness and adversity during the lockdown (here’s Gay performing a monologue from Cyrano on ‘Q&A’ on the night it should have closed).

Virginia Gay brings her gender-bending ‘Cyrano’ to Perth Festival. Photo supplied

International and east coast performers across all genres will return Perth Festival to the global arts community. From Africa comes Bikutsu 3000, an explosion of dance, music and video in which the story of colonialism, emancipation and female resistance are retold by young performers; from the United States comes the legendary Kronos Quartet, who are collaborating with Noongar composer Maatakitj (Dr Clint Bracknell), as well as performing works from their big back catalogue; and the Australian Dance Theatre and Victoria’s ILBIJERRI Theatre Company are bringing Tracker, the story of Wiradjuri elder Alec Riley who served as a NSW Police blacktracker for 40 years.

While the pandemic derailed the middle portion of his four-year tenure as Perth Festival artistic director (extended to five to make up for the disruption), Grandage believes the closing of the borders has been a silver lining for the local arts scene.

The restriction allowed Western Australian-based performers to step into the breach and strut their stuff on the state’s biggest arts stage, grabbing the attention of an audience whose focus tends toward the international, as well as take part in development, the fruits of which will see next year.

A First Nations man wearing a black top over painted denim sleeves crouches down, hand out as sharing something. Four people wearing similar splattered denims jackets standi behind him, their backs to the camera. This is a promotional shot from Tracker.
ILBIJERRI Theatre Company presents ‘Tracker’, the story of a police blacktracker. Photo: Jonathan VDK

Grandage also believes that the theme of his first festival, Karla (the Noongar word for fire and, by extension, home), meant he and his team had prepared the ground for the two home-grown COVID-era festivals that followed.

“It didn’t feel like there was a cognitive dissonance as we travelled from the pre-pandemic 2020 festival into one that was purely local,” Grandage tells Seesaw ahead of tonight’s 2023 Perth Festival launch.

Cloudstreet and Bran Nue Dae, the two greatest works to come from Western Australia, were featured in my first festival; Wendy Martin, my predecessor, had forged strong links with local artists; and people were already celebrating the strong presence of Noongar storytelling at the festival. So the narrative was already there. We just leaned deeper into to it,” he explains. 

“With the borders open we can now relish in the return of international and eastern states artists and facilitate and celebrate conversation between visitors and locals and, as a result, enrich the quality of art made here year-round,” says Grandage, the 10th festival director and the first to be born and raised in Perth.

Djoondal’ tells the story of a spirit woman who created the Milky Way. Image: Trevor Dobson, Louise Coghill and Jade Foo:

“In many instances local artists will share the stage with their international counterparts, such as the local singers performing with Bjork and Kronos Quartet teaming with students from UWA, WAAPA, and the Australian Youth Orchestra, and Clint Bracknell writing for strings for the first time. 

“This is the greatest gift you can offer local participants. To watch these international performers is one level of engagement; to work with these artists is the next level. To be inside the machinery of art being created will have a lasting impact.”

The theme for 2023 is Djinda, the Noongar word for stars, and the centrality of First Nations storytelling to Perth Festival will be signalled by the festival opener, Djoondal, a sound-and-light show that will take place above Lake Joondalup. Created by a team led by Perth Festival artistic associate Ian Wilkes, Djoondal will tell the Noongar story of a spirit woman whose long white hair created the Milky Way.

Other First Nations works featured in next year’s festival are Hide the Dog, a Yirra Yaakin-Tasmania Performs co-production centred on the last Tasmanian tiger; Seven Sisters from the WA Youth Theatre Company, an under-the-stars presentation whose subject is the very human urge to tell stories about the glittering canopy above; and a free City of Melville-sponsored outdoor concert that will bring the unique country sounds of the Pilbara to Point Walter. 

Grandage described First Nations work as the “bedrock” upon which the festival is built. “If the place where you stand feels solid and the people who conducted ceremonies for thousands of years are appropriately acknowledged and celebrated then everybody else feels comfortable in sharing their own stories. It grounds us all literally, emotionally and, in the end, aesthetically.”

Mia Wasikowska stars in ‘Blueback’, which is part of the Lotterywest Film Season. Photo: David Dare Parker

This year’s Lotterywest Film Season once again kicks off next month with another locally made movie, Robert Connolly’s adaptation of Tim Winton’s classic novella Blueback. It is the story of a young girl who befriends a magnificent wild blue groper and becomes a passionate advocate for Australia’s coral reefs.

Other highlights of the film season, which runs from 21 November to 9 April, include Reuben Ostlund’s Cannes-winning Triangle of Sadness, a searing satire on materialism and consumerism; Corsage, a subversive biopic in which Vicky Krieps’ charismatic Austrian Empress Elizabeth’s pushes against the restraining item of clothing she made fashionable; and five documentaries which, according to programmer Tom Vincent, Somerville audiences are craving. 

Perth Festival runs from 10 February to 5 March. Friends and music members priority access booking period opens at 12pm WST today. General public ticket sales open at 12pm WST on 3 November 2022. 

Pictured top: Bjork is closing the festival with the sumptuous Cornucopia. Photo: Santiago Felipe

This article was first published on 27 October 2022.

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Author —
Mark Naglazas

Mark Naglazas has interviewed many of the world’s most significant producers, writers, directors and actors while working as film editor for The West Australian. He now writes for STM, reviews films on 6PR and hosts the Luna Palace Q & A series Movies with Mark. Favourite playground equipment: monkey bars, where you can hung upside and see the world from a different perspective.

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