When Arts Centre Melbourne asked Stephen Armstrong to run its Asian arts program, Armstrong decided it needed a completely new approach. He brought producer Kate Ben-Tovim on board and they put together Asia TOPA (Triennial of Performing Art), a sprawling festival designed to introduce the world of Asia-Pacific performance art to Melbourne’s anglo-centric art scene.

“There’s just a huge amount of contemporary Asian art that we just don’t see,” says Armstrong. “We’re trying to change the status quo, to make it easier to talk about.”

Armstrong says we usually only see the traditional side of Asian art. “But a lot of this stuff is focusing on living in the contemporary world. The work itself is mostly vivacious, dynamic, colourful and optimistic.”

The program is huge, and it’s taking over Melbourne. There are 63 events across 22 venues, from the Arts Centre to the Botanic Gardens to Federation Square. Asian performance art is an enormous field. So where do you start?

Armstrong and Ben-Tovim gave us a crash course.

Exhibition: Political Acts
Performance art doesn’t just exist in the moment of performance. For a lot of artists, documentation is just as big a part of their practice as the performance itself. Political Acts is the festival’s flagship exhibition. It’s a broad collection of films, photographs and installations from across Asia, and from across decades. “It acknowledges that this art has a history, and how broad it can be,” says Armstrong.

Political Acts is at the Arts Centre Melbourne from February 11 to May 21. More information here.

Exhibition: Bombay Talkies
How did ACMI come to be in possession of a treasure trove of archival material from one of Bollywood’s greatest studios? A few years back, Melburnian Peter Dietze discovered that he’s the estranged grandson of Himansu Rai, famed Bollywood actor and producer, and co-founder of the innovative and influential Bombay Talkies film studio. He found himself in possession of an extensive archive of posters, documents and film materials from the studio’s glory days, and worked with ACMI to put this show together.

“It’s one of those amazing stories connecting Melbourne to the region,” says Ben-Tovim. “And there’s not really a tradition of keeping Indian cinema history preserved, so this is a really special exhibition.”

Bombay Talkies is at ACMI until July 2. More information here.

Music: The Music of AR Rahman
While we’re talking about Bollywood, it’s hard to go past the music of film composer AR Rahman. Rahman’s music mixes traditional Indian instruments with electronica and orchestras. Since the '90s, he’s scored countless films in India, and in the last decade he’s moved into English-language films too, notably Slumdog Millionaire, which won him two Academy Awards. A true legend of modern Indian cinema.

The Music of AR Rahman is at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl on February 16. More information here.

Performance: XO State
Want to see something unexpected? XO State is a nightly performance club featuring music, dance and other performance art. Chunky Move founding director Gideon Obarzanek and Filipino choreographer-dancer Eisa Jocson have curated XO State, focusing on the ecstatic and the eclectic. In the early evening, see some dance. After 9pm there are short performances by a range of Asian and Asian-Australian artists, with various headline bands – and here’s where the interesting stuff happens. See Port Moresby’s finest hip-hop artist Airileke or Japanese acid punks Bo Ningen or Taiwanese ethereal-electronica-poetry-hybrid Aristophanes. There’s a new sound to discover every night, and you’ll never have heard of any of it.

XO State runs at the Arts Centre Melbourne February 22–26. More information here.

Dance: Dancing With Death
Award-winning Thai choreographer Pichet Klunchun leads this dance performance, which explores the Phi Ta Khon ghost festival, a three-day period in northern Thailand in which the living and dead co-exist and commune through ritual, ceremony and performance. “Klunchun’s an outstanding choreographer of contemporary dance, and he’s created a contemporary dance work which brings this traditional festival into a modern theatre,” says Armstrong. “It’s a difficult feat but he’s pulled it off amazingly.”

Dancing With Death is at the Arts Centre Melbourne from March 2–4. More information here.

Asia TOPA runs at Arts Centre Melbourne and various other venues until April.

asiatopa.com.au