Nina Levy ·
It’s November 1, 2018 and the Perth Concert Hall is packed for Wendy Martin’s final Perth Festival programme launch. Anyone who has paid attention to Martin’s programming over the last four years will know that the Festival’s artistic director is a passionate advocate for contemporary dance. When the banner for STRUT Dance’s Sunset opens her 2019 line-up, however, the ripple of excitement is about more than dance.
It’s a historical moment. A local show is leading the charge.
Martin’s decision to open her final Festival launch with a home-grown show is part of a greater plan to showcase local work in this year’s programme. Alongside a terrific selection of international and interstate works, there are numerous shows and events by local artists and companies that are appearing this year under the newly-created banner, “Made in WA”. That list includes six Festival commissions.
Martin is immensely proud of the 2019 Festival’s local content. “It’s important to have a fantastically curated international programme, but it’s also important that, whichever place you’re in, the artists of that place are seen on the same platform,” she explains.
From the outset Martin’s vision was inextricably linked with WA. “When I [started at Perth Festival, four years ago] I said, ‘There are festivals in cities all over world. The thing that makes a difference is the place in which the festival happens.’ So when I arrived here, I saw myself as a detective, looking for clues and stories and threads to figure out, how I make a festival that really belongs in this place,” she explains.
Martin was immediately struck by what she describes as “the unbelievable list of artists who come from this place, both historically and now“. Her immediate response was to commission “Home” as the opening event of her first Festival, a free, one-night-only celebration of West Australian talent that included the likes of Tim Minchin, the John Butler Trio, Shaun Tan, The Drones, The Triffids and The Waifs.
The opening event of her second festival, Boorna Waanginy: The Trees Speak, was another home-grown special, and one which returns to this year’s Festival. Bringing together the talents of Noongar elder and director Richard Walley, and designers Zoë Atkinson and Sohan Ariel Hayes, under the direction of Nigel Jamieson, Boorna Waanginy sees one of Perth’s most treasured landmarks, Kings Park, transformed by light and sound.
Thus the seeds for the Made in WA programme were sown… but it was an idea that needed time to germinate. “As a curator, you have to know artists and they have to know you, and there needs to be a certain level of trust to be able to work on projects together,” reflects Martin. “So it’s taken this much time, three years living in Perth, to be able to commission all this new work.”
When it came to choosing which shows to commission under the new Made in WA banner, one company caught Martin’s eye early on. “From the time I began [at Perth Festival] I could not believe that The Last Great Hunt, who had toured the world, had never been in Perth Festival,” she remarks.
Martin wasn’t going to rush into anything though. “I had so many meetings, across the years, with Tim [Watts] from The Last Great Hunt. I kept saying, ‘Come on, give me something, I’d love to have you guys in the Festival…’ and then I saw New Owner [by The Last Great Hunt, commissioned by the Awesome Festival] and I loved it. If I’d have known about that show I would have loved to have had it in Perth Festival… but of course, it’s fantastic that it was in Awesome, which is an amazing Festival.
“[Tim and I] met about three times. He wanted to experiment with form and what I didn’t understand – because at that point I didn’t know him well enough – is that Tim is a wonderful storyteller, but he doesn’t start with the idea, he starts with the form of the production.”
And then The Last Great Hunt pitched the idea for Le Nor, a work that weaves together film and live performance, so that audiences witness both an on-screen story and behind-the-scenes action. “When Tim did his pitch for Le Nor I was almost crying, because I thought it was so magic, such a beautiful idea, funny and poetic,” Martin recalls. “Tim’s work, at its core has big heart … and as a programmer that’s one of the things I care about most.”
Another commissioned work that is close to Martin’s heart is STRUT Dance’s Sunset. Created in collaboration with UK choreographer and director Maxine Doyle (associate director and choreographer, Punchdrunk), in association with Tura New Music, Sunset is an immersive dance theatre work that takes audiences on a walking tour of Dalkeith’s Sunset Heritage Precinct. “Sunset is like a dream in terms of my programming aims,” she explains. “It’s a collaboration between a great international artist and local artists, it speaks to the history of this place, it’s a collaboration with more than one [local] artist and company – as well as STRUT and Tura New Music, Rachael Dease is the composer and doing the sound design, and Bruce McKinven is doing the set. It’s also a fantastic opportunity for the artists here to work with an absolute game changer. UK dance theatre company Punchdrunk have created whole new form of immersive theatre … to have someone like [Punchdrunk’s associate director and choreographer] Maxine Doyle in our midst, excited by this place… you couldn’t really ask for more.”
WA’s Tura New Music is involved in a second 2019 Festival commission, producing Cat Hope’s new opera, Speechless. In the case of Speechless, a response to the issue of children in detention that combines four soloists, a 30-voice choir, the Australian Bass Orchestra and Decibel new music ensemble, it was the motivation behind the work that appealed to Martin. “I love that Cat is an activist and a great humanitarian,” she reflects. “She was so disturbed by the decisions that the government was making in our name. So she felt the best thing that she could do is make a personal, artistic response. She read the Gillian Triggs report into children in detention and then figured out this beautiful concept which is her graphic score. The music she has written has kind of been written over the photographs and drawings that the children have done. In a way she’s giving these kids a voice by responding so directly to their art work. There are no words because those people have no voice. Cat is a really important Australian artist.”
Like The Last Great Hunt, Lost and Found Opera was on Martin’s radar from early on. Renowned for presenting unusual operas in unexpected but effective spaces, Lost and Found will be presenting its first commissioned opera, Ned Kelly, in a Jarrahdale saw mill. “Lost and Found Opera have been doing super exciting work,” enthuses Martin. “I think they have a brilliant concept and the fact that they now want to create a work from scratch – they have such a track record that you just have to trust that they’ll deliver. They’ve also got a great following… but I think the platform of the Festival will make it more recognisable.”
Much-loved local company Barking Gecko Theatre also has an established following but stands to broaden its reach by being commissioned to appear on the Festival programme. In terms of Martin’s aims, it was the cross-cultural nature of the work that caught her eye. “When Matt Edgerton proposed adapting A Ghost in My Suitcase for the stage I was immediately attracted to the possibilities that Gabrielle Wang’s award winning YA novel offers up,” she remembers. “I was excited that Matt wanted to create the production out of deep cross cultural collaboration. It’s a rip-roaring yarn – a great adventure story of a young girl who goes to China and discovers her grandmother is a ghost hunter. It seemed to have all the right ingredients to be a perfect family show for the festival.”
Kwongkan is another Festival commission that is a cross-cultural work, and one that has fascinated Martin as she has watched it evolve. A collaboration between WA’s Ochre Contemporary Dance Company and India’s Daksha Sheth Dance Company, the work brings together Indigenous Australian and Indian performers in a ritual of dance theatre, live music, aerial acrobatics and film. “When the artists pitched the idea to me, they intended to explore the similarities between these two ancient cultures, both of whom dance barefoot, but over the course of three years … the thing that sat at the forefront of their concerns, was climate change,” she explains. “They realised that if we don’t do something now, there will be no trace, not just of ancient cultures, but of anything. So in a funny way, ‘Sand’, which was about touching the earth has now become, ‘Well if we don’t do something, sand is all we’re going to have’. To see the evolution of an idea has been exciting.”
It’s clear that witnessing the germination and blossoming of ideas intrigues and inspires Martin. “As a curator and commissioner of work, that’s the really exhilarating thing,” she remarks, “hearing an idea and being able to play some kind of role in those artists realising their vision by offering the platform of the festival.”
That platform offers greater visibility to the home crowd, but also, potentially, further afield. “I’m hoping that we’ll have international presenters and national presenters coming over to see that work, to consider it for their venues and festivals,” she concludes. “I think that’s a really important role that the Festival can play.
– Nina Levy
Perth Festival opens February 8 and runs until March 3. Head to the Perth Festival website to view the full program, including the six commissioned works from Western Australian artists and companies, and the rest of the Made in WA program.
Pictured top: Ian Wilkes and Isha Sharvani in Tjuntjuntjara, a remote WA Aboriginal community, during the final development of ‘Kwongkan’. Photo: Mark Howett.