OzAsia Festival 2019 program

Artistic Director Joseph Mitchell talks about this year’s OzAsia line-up with Murray Bramwell.

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Adelaide’s OzAsia Festival has come a long way since its inception in 2006. Initiated by Adelaide Festival Centre CEO Douglas Gautier, who brought his extensive list of contacts from the Hong Kong Arts Festival, the program remained in the capable hands of Artistic Director Jacinta Thompson until 2015, when Joseph Mitchell began his stint.

This is now Mitchell’s fifth festival and he has done much to consolidate and extend OzAsia’s scope and ambition. While maintaining the popular community elements such as The Moon Lantern Parade, Dragon Boat racing and the scrumptious Lucky Dumpling Market, he has enthusiastically pushed the geopolitical boundaries of the program to include works not only from China, Japan, India, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines, but also from Timor Leste, Iran and Syria.

The collaborations have also extended to Europe with co-productions involving Denmark, Belgium, the UK and Latvia. In short, the festival now reflects the way in which Asian culture, and especially the Asian avant-garde, is invigorating new work internationally in all the performing art forms.

In short, the festival now reflects the way in which Asian culture, and especially the Asian avant-garde, is invigorating new work internationally in all the performing art forms.

Mitchell has brought some exceptional work to the festival in the past few years. In 2017 we saw works from Japanese composer Keiichiro Shibuya: the virtual opera The End, featuring manga vocaloid superstar Hatsune Miku, and Scary Beauty, the haunting joint venture between the Australian Art Orchestra and Skeleton, the self-vocalising AI Robot.

Last year’s highlights included the splendid chamber opera War Sum Up, presented by the innovative Danish company Hotel Pro Forma, directed by Kristen Dehlholm, along with the memorable Syrian theatre work While I Was Waiting. The cult Chinese bedroom cosplay installation Here is the Message You Asked For…Don’t Tell Anyone Else ;) involved performers exchanging phone texts via WeChat with an intrigued and sometimes bemused audience.

Launching the 2019 program, an enthusiastic Joseph Mitchell greets an audience of political officials, arts heavies, community leaders, and random OzAsia fans. South Australia’s Governor Hieu Van Le again warmly supports the festival and its mission, Douglas Gautier acknowledges sponsors, patrons and the army of volunteers, and Mitchell begins his pitch:

“We think hard about what makes a good festival and what connects with the audiences of the day. OzAsia is the last major international festival in Australia this year, which marks the end of the second decade of the 20th century. A lot of arts institutions talk about the 21st century but where are we – two decades in? What has happened in the last 20 years? Who are the artists who have made a difference? What have we done in the OzAsia Festival? How have our audiences responded in that time?

“So, in wrapping up this second decade I have had the idea of generations. We have had two generations of artists who have come through to maturity in the past 20 years – those in the late 90’s, early 2000’s such as Nitin Sawhney, Akram Khan, Anish Kapoor, all at the forefront of contemporary multicultural heritage.

“Underneath that is a new generation pushing boundaries. Doing dance that has no dance in it, doing theatre that has no script in it. And I love the idea of looking at those two generations side by side.”

“Underneath that is a new generation pushing boundaries. Doing dance that has no dance in it, doing theatre that has no script in it. And I love the idea of looking at those two generations side by side.

“This is my fifth year as artistic director and five is a nice number to look at these generations and do two things at the same time. We have always taken a lot of pride in presenting artists no-one has presented in this country before, and it’s been our trademark. We have had some very significant artists come through and it is important to revisit some of those artists audiences have responded well to.

“So this festival is a balance between some very recognisable names you’ve seen in the last five years and a whole new generation of artists who’ve never been to Australia and are probably going to mess things up!”

Among the significant returns this year is the acclaimed dancer and choreographer Akram Khan. Some of us recall him as the thirteen-year-old actor in Peter Brook’s production of The Mahabharata in the Adelaide Festival in 1988. He has had an extraordinary dance career since then and, after presenting Until the Lions in 2017, he returns to OzAsia this year with an Australian premiere of a new work, Outwitting the Devil.

Inspired by the newly discovered fragment of the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, Khan returns his attention to interpreting classical masterpieces of Asian literature. No longer a solo performer, his focus is now on choreography.

“I have awakened to a new way of dancing,” Khan has written, “and that is to dance my ideas through the bodies of others, including older dancers who carry their history and the complex emotional experiences within them. But what remains unchanged is my passion for exploring old and new myths in the context of our times.”

Outwitting the Devil Jean Louis Fernandez

Outwitting the Devil. PIC: Jean-Louis Fernandez/supplied.

Among the other strong selections Mitchell has made for the dance program include the French Algerian Compagnie Herve Koubi with What the Day Owes to the Night, featuring twelve male dancers combining Sufi whirling, ballet and gymnastics, the hyperkinetic Kata from the par Terre/Anne Nguyen Dance Company, and the visually astonishing Vessel, combining the choreography of Belgian artist Damien Jalet, with Japanese visual designer Kohei Nawa and a musical score by Marihiko Hara, with the legendary Ryuichi Sakamoto.

The theatre list also features some happy returns. Taiwanese-Chinese director and playwright Stan Lai and his Performance Workshop captivated OzAsia audiences last year and drew many Chinese fans from interstate with Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land, a zany and poignant mash-up of two plays – one comic, the other melancholy – performed simultaneously.

This time The Village is a multi-generational epic of the upheaval in 1949, when the Nationalist army, defeated by the Communists, fled to safety – and perpetual exile – in Taiwan. Lai’s theatre thrives on an expansive canvas with spectacular staging and intersecting narratives. It will be an opportunity to see another theatre work by a major, and widely popular, Chinese director.

The Dark Inn, written and directed by Kuro Tanino for his Japanese Niwa Gekidan Penino company was an intriguing dramatic highlight of the 2017 OzAsia program and, this time, Tanino is presenting The Dark Master (Mitchell drolly insists that not all the plays have Dark in their title!).

In The Dark Inn, the setting was a secluded health spa in mountainous North Western Japan where a puppeteer and his dwarf father arrive to discover, in a Beckettian series of events, that they do not have a booking to perform after all. The Dark Master is located in Osaka, in a dingy restaurant where a hitchhiker, with no cooking experience, finds himself compelled by the irascible chef to prepare the menu for a procession of arrivals.

Tanino’s productions are noted for their intricately detailed sets and the dreamlike weirdness of his characters’ predicaments. Audiences in the Space Theatre will be connected by headphone to the chef’s remonstrations and the aroma of cooking is a sensory trigger in what promises to be a tantalising and memorable experience.

Also on the culinary theme is Indian-born, Amsterdam-based playwright Abhishek Thapar, presenting Surpassing the Beeline (appropriately in the Festival Centre Banquet Room) where audiences sit around tables sharing six stories, six courses of food and six cultures in an edible celebration of migration and change.

Also on the culinary theme is Indian-born, Amsterdam-based playwright Abhishek Thapar, presenting Surpassing the Beeline (appropriately in the Festival Centre Banquet Room) where audiences sit around tables sharing six stories, six courses of food and six cultures in an edible celebration of migration and change.

Cuckoo is the most popular brand of rice cooker in South Korea, so widely known that the brand has become a generic. Devised by Jaha Koo and his Campo company, Cuckoo uses three “telerobotic” rice cookers to transmit by spoken narrative and documentary montage an account of the accelerating stresses for Korean citizens since the 1997 economic crisis. It borrows surreal comedy to delve serious issues not readily discussed in Korean society. Someone has already noted that this production offers food for thought.

OzAsia, Mitchell notes, has 60 events, 35 of which are exclusive to Adelaide. Some 22 are Australian premieres and five are world premieres. Light is a brand-new work, commissioned by the festival three years ago. Written by Thomas Henning (The Black Lung) and designed by innovative KL-based Malaysian duo TerryandtheCuz, this bold production examines the life and times of William Light, founder and architect of the city of Adelaide.

Light is a study of three historical figures: William Light, his father, Francis Light and mother, Martina Rozells. A joint venture with the George Town Festival in Penang, this production features three Malaysian actors, directed by Thomas Henning with design by TerryandtheCuz.

Mitchell describes the development of the project which began in 2016, in his second year at the festival. He recalls the Adelaide/Penang sister city connection as a spur for a theatre work linking Francis Light, a figure in Penang’s history, with William in Adelaide.

“We wanted to do this show but it needed to be more than monologues retelling history. How do we make it fly? We realised that Martina Rozells had been written out of history. And in Adelaide we don’t think of William as having Eurasian heritage. Who were these people?

“It is an intimate show for an audience of a hundred. It is not a costume drama. It is not in the time frame and the characters are not trying to look and speak like the originals. People who want to connect with the time and place will feel a bit jolted. “

The music in OzAsia also reflects Mitchell’s interest in diversity and new territory. A strong drawcard for international patrons is Malaysian mega-pop star Siti Nurhaliza, whose single Festival Theatre performance has already drawn heavy bookings from fans in Kuala Lumpur and interstate. And, with the most outlandish title in the festival program, Totes Adorbs Heart Hurricane – featuring Miss Revolutionary Idol Berserker –  is a frenzied tribute to superfandom and celebrity in Japanese pop.

The QBE Outdoor Music Sessions will showcase free performances each night in the Lucky Dumpling Market, featuring Australian musicians as well as from Malaysia, Lebanon, Taiwan and Japan.

British Indian musician and composer Nitin Sawhney, noted for his Asian, jazz, electronica fusion projects (and numerous film scores) will play, in full, Beyond Skin, his 1997 breakthrough album in a celebration of his music and a reminder of political issues as current now as when the recording was first released.

Two physical theatre projects, also strongly featuring new music, are Techno Circus, the Japanese high-tech blast from Siro-A, and Stuck in the Narrowest Path, a collaboration between Osaka-based performance collective Contact Gonzo and local music mavericks Zephyr Quartet.

Mitchell concludes our chat with his personal tip for the festival: £¥€$ (LIES). An immersive theatre show from inventive Belgian company Ontroerend Goed, it requires the audience to sit around tables stacked with currency where each player becomes their own bank, able to invest, set priorities, make the world better, or rake it all back for personal gain. He is all enthusiasm about this clever production’s wit and satiric impact. Relishing his task as programmer, as he genuinely does, Mitchell was so taken with the show he went back and saw it again.

OzAsia Festival runs from October 17 to November 3.

Feature image: Vessel (Yoshikazu Inoue/supplied)

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