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OzAsia 2017 Opens up New Territory

Murray Bramwell talks with OzAsia Artistic Director, Joseph Mitchell, about some highlights of this year’s program.

The OzAsia festival which opens this Thursday is now in its 11th year. Initiated in 2006 by Adelaide Festival Centre CEO, Douglas Gautier, it has progressively consolidated its reputation as an adventurous and diverse event. It draws from all parts of the Asian and South East Asian sector – from China and Japan to Hong Kong and Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea to The Philippines and Indonesia. There are co-productions with Germany, the UK and Australia and in all art forms – theatre, dance, music, visual arts  and mixed media – the festival bristles with invention and cultural daring.

Artistic director, Joseph Mitchell, who took up his post after working at the Brisbane Festival, is now hosting his third program. He says his aim is “to present a major arts festival featuring the best contemporary performance from Asia”. Brimming with enthusiasm and a genuine commitment to his task, Mitchell pitches his festival highlights and favourites for 2017 with admirable optimism.

As we discuss the upcoming event – and last year’s model also – we have to also mention the elephant in the room. Or rather, the elephant in the thunderous sky. In recent years the unpredictability of Adelaide’s weather in the early spring season has brought problems. Twice, in 2013 and 2014, the popular Moon Lantern Festival, featuring a battalion of community participants, has been cancelled due to inclement conditions and, in 2016, the extensive Outdoor Music Program was severely curtailed for similar reasons.

Worse than that, South Australia’s state-wide blackout – caused (for the record…) not by the failure of renewables, but by extreme wind damage to the electricity grid – meant that even shows safely inside the Adelaide Festival Centre complex were cancelled due to power cuts and the generally wretched site conditions.

To his credit, Mitchell is unperturbed and uncomplaining. “There have been dramas in other festivals before,” he says philosophically, “But what upset me was that two works in particular were not seen. I programmed Split Flow and Holistic Strata, choreographed and performed by Japanese artist Hiroaki Umeda and Cabinet of Curiosities, devised by Singaporean performer Margaret Leng Tan, to coincide with a gathering in Adelaide of the Association of Performing Arts Centres. These shows were great and not overly expensive to present. Hiroaki’s production needed only a tour manager and a projector yet it looked the most expensive thing in the world. The Sydney Powerhouse could have staged it, or Riverside Paramatta. The same with Margaret Leng Tan. This would have been a great opportunity for more Australian audiences to see this work.”

Mitchell is right to be evangelical, and proud to be showcasing such inventive new productions. Split Flow and Holistic Strata was an extraordinary visual dance work and one of the most memorable works staged in Adelaide last year. Unfortunately it was only performed once, with a second show cancelled because of the blackout. Margaret Leng Tan didn’t perform at all.

2017 is a new prospect however and, we hope, one with blue skies. And this year Mitchell is looking to take a different tack in his programming.

“I asked myself after our tenth birthday last year : what do I do with number eleven? What I like about festivals are those big epic theatre shows – The Wars of the Roses in Sydney, The James Plays and Roman Tragedies here in Adelaide. And I thought OzAsia hasn‘t had one of those huge, grand multi-part theatre works. So I chose Hotel which is one of the best theatre experiences I have had in quite a while.”

Staged in two parts over two nights Hotel has five hours of stage time.

Commissioned for Singapore’s 50th year celebrations in 2015 and presented by Wild Rice Theatre Company, Hotel was written by Alfian Sa’at and Marcia Vanderstraaten and co-directed by Wild Rice founder Ivan Heng and Glen Goei. It was such a local success it ran an extended season with a further four week return. It has never toured until now.

“I thought it was an excellent work. It covers 100 years of Singaporean history. Set in an un-named hotel which most people assume is Raffles, it is a continuous narrative made up of eleven separate stories set in different hotel rooms. There are linking themes and cross-overs like watching a TV series. Staged in two parts over two nights it has five hours of stage time.”

Highlighting Singapore as a central focus geographically, historically and culturally over a century, the play explores its role as a colonial shipping port, a Japanese target in World War II and its separation from British rule.

“Those are the ‘straight’ parts of the history”, Mitchell notes, “but there is also a history of subversion in the queer and transgressive culture since the 1970s. It touches on so many ideas and themes from the past 100 years it is extremely inspiring. You become so heavily invested in the stories and the characters that you’d have to have a rock in your chest not to feel the emotional impact.”

Another production in the theatre program is The Dark Inn, written and directed by Kuro Tanino. “Tanino is a psychiatrist,” explains Mitchell warming to his subject, “He worked in hospitals for ten years treating patients who had a different perspective on the world. I first saw his work in North America and I thought he was a real auteur. He writes, directs and designs and he has a unique vision like Robert Lepage or Benedict Andrews.

A puppeteer and his dwarf father arrive at a mysterious bath house in a remote part of Northern Japan to perform their travelling show.

His work does not follow a normal narrative. He gets inside the heads of people who don’t think like you and I do.”

The story is intriguing. A puppeteer and his dwarf father arrive at a mysterious bath house in a remote part of Northern Japan to perform their travelling show – but no-one has made a booking. As various characters emerge from their rooms the boundaries blur between what is objective reality and what is interior consciousness.

“I’ve seen two or three of his works and this is his masterpiece. It is much more subtle in its world view and more layered. It is the right year to be doing it in the festival because we have the Australian Theatre Forum here and, if I am programming a signature theatre work, I want the national sector to have an opportunity to see it.”

OzAsia is also staging a Vocaloid Opera. Conceived and written by Japanese composer Keiichiro Shibuya, The End features the life and works of virtual girl pop star Hatsune Miku. In a mind-bogglingly zany mash-up between ephemeral machine pop and metaphysics, Shibuya presents Miku reflecting on her identity as a perpetually ageless 16 year old, asking fundamental Cartesian questions about identity and death.

Shibuya calls it the world’s first virtual pop opera with no orchestra and no singers.

The End is a favourite choice. There are so many different ways to think about it, you could spend half an hour discussing how to define it. You can call it theatre, multimedia, contemporary music. Shibuya calls it the world’s first virtual pop opera with no orchestra and no singers.

“But there is an inherently personal aspect to this composition. Shibuya went through a personal tragedy when his wife died and he spiralled into depression. She was very famous in the fashion world and he was a high profile composer. They were snapped by the paparazzi in Japan wherever they went. Like a lot of people in Japan he was also a Miku admirer. She’s a huge pop icon, a superstar with 100,000 songs and a huge fan following. Girls dress up like her, boys fantasise about her – and she’s a vocaloid (a word trademarked by the Yamaha Corporation) Australians don’t know much about this singing style and certainly no-one has seriously considered it.

“Shibuya became infatuated with the idea that Miku is an eternal character that cannot die. The libretto asks am I real or not real? and, while humans die, what’s going to  happen to me? Will I be stuck in an eternal void? I thought it was a great way to talk about technology and virtual reality and how it is embedded in our consciousness – because that’s where we might be going in the future. So here is a pop star who sings two minute songs about breaking up with your boyfriend, going on a huge existential journey – meanwhile being dressed by Louis Vuitton. And it is called an opera.

“In Australia where we have so much discussion about the future of opera and how difficult it is to break the shackles of the traditional repertoire, here we have the opportunity to turn to Asia of the 21st century – and someone like Keiichuro Shibuya, who has not grown up with the European operatic model. He has the confidence to say : this is what opera can be. And I applaud that. “

The OzAsia festival opens in Adelaide on September 21 and runs until October 8 

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