A naked disco. A temporary bamboo forest in the middle of the city. A 200-metre-long floating eel lit by lanterns.

When it launches on May 26, Rising promises to transform and invigorate Melbourne on a scale never before seen, and stake its claim as “Asia Pacific’s pre-eminent cultural festival”.

The inaugural program comprises 133 events and works by 750 Victorian artists, including 36 world-premiere commissions. It’ll take over rivers, the sky, streets, laneways, Sidney Myer Music Bowl, Melbourne Town Hall and a rooftop car park in Chinatown.

“The vision for Rising is centred on the idea that culture is a human right. This means really embedding art, music and ceremony in public spaces and creating opportunities for participation,” says co-artistic director Hannah Fox.

Rising has replaced White Night and Melbourne International Arts Festival. Its debut was postponed last year, which second co-artistic director Gideon Obarzanek told Broadsheet was a blessing in disguise.

“In an interesting way, it means we’re now able to redeploy $2 million of funds directly to Victorian artists for them to pick up great ideas for next year, when the public is more able to engage with them,” he said at the time.

Obarzanek founded the dance company Chunky Move in 1995, and later co-curated the Arts Centre’s Asia Topa, or Asia-Pacific Triennial of Performing Arts. Fox was previously associate creative director at Tasmanian arts festival Dark Mofo, and seems to have brought some of its freewheeling, hedonistic spirit with her.

Rising will unfold over 12 nights, across five main precincts, with a mix of free and ticketed events.

“Since the very beginning a strong sense of place has been central to our plans for Rising,” Obarzanek says. “We wanted to showcase work made specifically for this city that captures, celebrates and responds unambiguously to Melbourne now.”

The Birrarung
This precinct encompasses various parts of the Yarra and its banks, with a focus on Birrarung Marr.

Flow State, by sound artists Sarah Retallick and Amanda Roff, is an experiential “sonic bathing” piece on Herring Island, between Richmond and South Yarra. Several large baths have been installed on the island, with underwater speakers inside. Participants will strip naked and float under the stars, listening to sounds fed from microphones dotted around the island, and hydrophones submerged in the river.

Up the river, alongside Birrarung Marr, is Wandering Stars, a 200-metre-long eel sculpture adorned with lanterns created by various grassroots organisations. In Birrarung Marr itself, a number of informal kitchens will be grilling ’roo, emu and other native meats over open flames.

Throughout the festival, The Rivers Sing – a boat loaded with long-range speakers – will cruise the waterways at dawn and dusk, playing harmonised voices of First Nations and local artists. It’s a collaboration between soprano Deborah Cheetham AO, and artists Byron J Scullin and Thomas Supple.

Chinatown
This precinct is anchored by Lonsdale Street’s Golden Square car park, which is being converted into a rooftop art gallery and cocktail bar, with the ever-creative Fancy Free crew shaking and stirring drinks.

Artist Reko Rennie’s signature camouflage will adorn the rooftop’s floor, while a new video work he’s created will be projected onto the walls, along with several more by other artists. A total of nine people are presenting work at Golden Square, covering sculpture, performance and more.

Nearby, artist Stuart Ringholt presents Club Purple, a non-sexual, alcohol-free, over-18s naked disco. After guests have undressed, they’ll boogie alone or in private groups, under a mirror ball and by a jukebox loaded with 5000 songs.

Another highlight, The Nightline, kicked off last year with a dedicated late-night hotline that insomniac Melburnians could call to leave anonymous messages. Those messages have been collated and will now be presented at a “mysterious underground listening club”, filled with low-lit, single-seat tables fitted with rotary telephones, switchboards and lamps.

Renowned visual artist Atong Atem, meanwhile, is presenting Banksia, a free-to-view projection scored by Melbourne composer Petra Salsjö, that deals with the little-known history of early African settlers in Australia.

The Arts District
You’ve never seen Sidney Myer Music Bowl like this. For 12 days the site will be transformed into a sprawling bamboo forest titled The Wilds. There’ll be mirrored illusions, architectural tunnels and nooks, large sculptures, video art, food and more hiding in its twists and turns. Wandering through will take a couple of hours, at least.

The stage? It’ll become an ice-skating rink, with English artist Luke Jerram’s enormous scale model of the moon suspended above it.

Over the road, at the Arts Centre, Geelong-based company Back to Back Theatre will restage two of its most notable works, Food Court and the bizzaro Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, while Small Metal Objects will be performed at Queensbridge Square.

At Hamer Hall, Bunggul will see Dr Gurrumul Yunupingu’s posthumously released album, Djarimirri (Child of the Rainbow) celebrated by Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Yolngu dancers and songmen. Outside, artists Maree Clarke and Mitch Mahoney’s Ancestral Memory, a digital projection of the spirit eel, will swim across the building’s facade.

Further events will be staged at the Malthouse Theatre, the NGV, the Botanic Gardens and Melbourne Recital Centre.

Midtown
Midtown is Rising’s main hub for music, food and drink, with takeovers at Melbourne Town Hall, Max Watts, The Capitol Theatre and The Comedy Theatre.

Melbourne Town Hall will become Mess Hall for four nights, with a flagship four-course banquet, The Dinner Party. Dave Verheul (Embla, Lesa), Andreas Papadakis (Tipo 00, Osteria Ilaria), Rosheen Kaul (Etta) and Kay-Lene Tan (Coda, Tonka) have all signed on to present a course, the beginning of which will be heralded by the building’s awe-inspiring, 147-pipe organ.

Also at Mess Hall, chef and author Tony Tan will present Late-Night Yum Cha with help from four of Melbourne’s best Chinese restaurants. It’ll be a chance to try all their best dishes in one place.

Mess Hall’s third big event is the revival of Tjanabi, N’arweet Dr Carolyn Briggs AM’s former restaurant at Federation Square. Her multi-course dinner will showcase First Nations food culture, using ancient techniques and flavours from Melbourne and surrounds.

Out front, on Swanston Street, the cleverly named Stock Exchange will pour affordable soups, stocks and broths for those wandering down the strip, for the duration of the entire festival.

Rising’s music curator, Woody McDonald (Golden Plains, Meredith), meanwhile, has brought together an eclectic program that includes avant-garde jazz trio The Necks, Laughing Clowns and Saints co-founder and guitarist Ed Kuepper, Kiwi folk singer Marlon Williams, indie darling Julia Jacklin, Sydney rapper Barkaa and house producers Sleep D.

The biggest story in Midtown, though, might be the return of Patricia Piccinini and Flinders Street Station Ballroom. The Australian artist – best known for her hyperrealistic human-animal sculptures – is taking over the abandoned space (and 15 attached rooms) for what’s being billed as her first major Melbourne project in nearly two decades. A Miracle Constantly Repeated will combine sculpture, video, light and sound, bringing the French Renaissance-style ballroom to life like never before.

Satellite sites
Beyond the four main precincts are innumerable exciting projects at Trades Hall, North Melbourne’s Arts House, Newport’s Substation, and other sites, stretching as far afield as Dromana.

Around the city, six new Art Trams designed by First Nations artists will act as moving canvases, while floating high above, Museo Aero Solar, a hot-air balloon made from 400 upcycled plastic bags daubed by teachers and young climate activists, will encourage us to reflect on climate change and sustainability.

At a secret inner-city location, Chunky Move will present Yung Lung, a hybrid dance party and dance performance. It’ll see seven dancers navigate a huge Mount Rushmore-like sculpture (complete with the heads of 20th-century ideologues) built by Callum Morton, while frenetic video art from director Kris Moyes (the man behind The Presets’ Are You The One? clip) will dominate the backdrop. Italian-Australian techno producer Chiara Kickdrum has written an original score.

This., a wild, unclassifiable production by internationally renowned theatre-writer David Woods, will premiere at The Substation across three floors. It’s a direct response to the infuriating events of last year and involves lots of mud, we’re told.

Head to Dromana Drive-In for Deep Throat Drive-In, a project by queer cinematographer Sandi Sissel and proven-party throwers Willoh S Weiland and James Brennan (the duo behind Mona Foma’s infamous Faux Mo parties). The queer, feminist and erotic program celebrates classic cinema, while at the same time exposing its misogyny.

Rising will be held from May 26 to June 6, 2021. Tickets are on sale on March 31.

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