Natimuk is an odd town. About 300 kilometres outside of Melbourne, you'd expect its population to be mostly farmers, with a few folks travelling to Horsham for work. But outside forces have triggered a kind of mutation there, transforming its community of 500 to a small town densely populated with artists.
The reason is geological. Mount Arapiles – 15 minutes from Natimuk – is one of the planet's premier rock-climbing locations. Every year, climbers from around the world flock to scale its cliff faces. Naturally, some stick around. The influx of these peripatetic adventurers has changed Natimuk's make-up, making it a touch more eclectic than your standard rural township.
"It draws people here that want to climb, and also, I suppose, live a little differently," says local Jillian Pearce, who's lived in Natimuk for two decades. "People make the sea change – or the tree change. Well, we make the rock change."
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Pearce is a climber and an accomplished dancer. She trained at the Victorian College of the Arts and is the former artistic director of Dance Compass Melbourne and Big Fish Dance. She founded the company Y Space when she moved out bush. Under the influence of the rock, her dance slowly changed, integrating elements of climbing into increasingly complex performances.
"One of our earliest works was a commission for Next Wave Festival, back in 2002, where we lived for 10 days on top of the Victorian Arts Centre spire," she says. "Here in Natimuk, our art practice is really shaped by where we live. Our relationship to the rock is a big part of it."
Pearce is by no means the only boundary-pushing artist living in the village. Dave Jones of the company Transience is a celebrated animator and video artist, Russell Goldsmith is a gun sound designer, Tom Willis is a celebrated lighting designer, and Mary French and Greg Pritchard are (among other things) shadow puppeteers.
"It's not a standard sort of small country town,” says Pritchard. “There's a fairly cosmopolitan feel here. I'd say out of 600 people about 60 of them are rock climbers from all over the world. Accidentally, a bunch of us turned out to be artists."
Resident artists worked with the local amateur theatre company Arapiles Community Theatre and turned it into ACT Natimuk, a progressive touring arts company that creates enormous interactive performances on coal dredgers, church spires, wheat silos, cliff faces and high-rise buildings in Hong Kong. They have range.
The latest ambitious project from ACT Natimuk will take place in Bendigo, and has been commissioned by Creative Victoria in celebration of the Regional Centre for Culture. For 10 months, ACT has been creating a performance on the iconic poppet head lookout in Rosalind Park (a poppet head, for the few of you who aren't mining nerds, is the top bit of a mine shaft that supports the ropes to hoist stuff from below). By October 20, the poppet head will be transformed by a dazzling light show, with hypnotic animations, large-scale puppets and aerial performers flying all over it.
"Something we love to do is reinterpret iconic structure as a performance space," says Pearce. "The poppet is an iconic structure in Bendigo. It speaks to Bendigo's history and heritage, but what's really interesting about it, is it conveys different meanings to different groups of people."
The company's model doesn't allow artists to just rock up in the town and put on a show, though. Over the long production period, ACT Natimuk has been collaborating with local groups such as the Dja Dja Wurrung Clans, the Golden Dragon Museum, the Bendigo Historical Society, CreateAbility, Camp Hill Primary School, Hip Hop Youth, Z Fit and the Bendigo Field Naturalists.
"These partners we're working with have different ideas and relationships to that iconic structure," says Pearce. "The Dja Dja Wurrung have a different view of what a poppet means to them, as does the Chinese community, as does the Historical Society. It's really rich material to play with."
There are currently around 100 Bendigo community members to ACT Natimuk's dozen taking part in the performance. The enormous consultative responsibilities of the project can be daunting. "We have too many ideas," says Pritchard, who's acting as the creative producer on the project.
The local community of Bendigo is really getting involved: they're not just making sandwiches, they're training to be aerial acrobats. "This is the first time we've actually done this – working with a community that will become the aerial performers," says Pearce. "That's an exciting development."
How the event will actually look on the evening of October 20 is, admittedly, still a little hard to imagine. But Pritchard is confident audiences are going to dig it. "We had some local guys watching one of our very first silo shows who were being kind of complacent,” he says. “They were just partying in the back and sitting in their cars. But after the show, one of them came up to me and said, ‘Well, that was better than the tractor pull’.”
ACT Natimuk's Poppet Project will be performed on Saturday October 20, 8pm at Rosalind Park, Bendigo. The performance is free and family friendly.
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with the Regional Centre for Culture.