For its 2010 program, The Melbourne Festival has myriad platforms for the presentation of artworks spanning classical and traditional – but particularly contemporary. With its focus on advancing art forms and pushing boundaries for its audience, it attempts to cater for everybody, bringing them cultural experiences with which they can connect. This may be a somewhat utopian ideal, but it’s one that brings to Melbourne a celebration of great art.
This year there are 908 artists presenting their work; 658 are Australian. As Artistic Director Brett Sheehy mentions “it is frequently impossible to describe the works in the program exclusively as drama, opera, dance, music concert or art exhibition” but it is an attempt to appeal to a wide-ranging audience. "This results in works which are celebratory, intense, challenging, entertaining, inspiring, confronting and enlightening," he notes.
Conscious to create entry points for this diverse audience, free events bookending the festival include aerial acrobatics to rock music by K@osmos in Alexandra Gardens on opening weekend, and a concert in the Myer Music Bowl with Sinead O’Connor, John Cale and Rickie Lee Jones – Seven Songs to Leave Behind – on closing night. In between there’s the music of David Bowie in British dancer/choreographer Michael Clark’s Come, Been and Gone; the notion of spirituality is explored in the visual arts program; familiar and favourite Melbourne bands teemed with unfamiliar international bands at the Beck’s Festival Bar; an engagement with technology in the sonic perfomance landscape Stifters Dinge and pop-opera Tomorrow in a Year. There’s also a growing consciousness of China’s impact on the world in stage production The Blue Dragon.
I am intrigued by that fact that often people will only attend such performances if they are on festival program, but these same people might never reach for this outside the realms of the festival wall. Sheehy explains that there are two reasons for this. "The first is that one expects to be culturally stretched by a festival program – that is one of the key roles of festivals: to present work which would not otherwise happen in the normal course of a city’s cultural activities.
“The second is the issue of trust. One needs to earn an audience’s trust, and once you prove that you care about them and their artistic experience, once you stake your reputation on a vision of excellence and innovation, you find that even if they don’t like elements of your program, they will come along on the journey with you."
Sheehy is keen to take advantage of his audiences' trust. "I love that the audiences of my festivals plunge into the unknown with me. This is what has enabled me to debut for Australia so many previously unheard of artists."
Now in his second year as Melbourne Festival Director, Sheehy sees himself as a facilitator, giving audiences an opportunity to experience what the great creative minds of our generation are conceiving. "Frequently, the best of them are innovatively dismantling the art form silos of old, taking art in directions undreamt of even five to 10 years ago," he comments.
This is also the way that they gauge the success of an event. Part of the job for Sheehy is to identify works that, in 50 years time, will declare the festival was “truly breaking new ground”. Though Sheehy notes that this phrase is an arts-world cliché and so rarely the case, he suggests several pieces in this league. "Heiner Goebbels’ Stifters Dinge, The Knife’s Tomorrow in a Year and Ivo van Hove’s Opening Nigh will be among the landmark productions at this year's festival."
With a solid history of festival direction under his belt (both in Sydney and Adelaide), Sheehy values the fact that "each city uniquely brings a marriage of its own personality, taste and style with those of its festival". With Melbourne’s physical topography, cultural landscape (the artists practicing in this city) and festival history along with his own directorial vision, the result, he promises, is something unique and quintessentially Melbourne.
The Melbourne Festival runs from October 8–23.