If pristine coastline and huddled streets packed with galleries and rooftop bars aren’t enough to get you on a plane across the country, then Perth Festival’s line-up of international artists, local dance groups and giant marionettes just might be. Perth Festival is the longest running international arts festival in Australia, and its 63rd year promises to be the most ambitious yet.
“In the past four years we’ve really tried to expand audiences and raise the bar in terms of the quality and scale of work we are producing,” explains Jonathan Holloway, who has helmed the festival over this time. “Every year we start with a blank slate and we think, what are the stories we want to tell this year? It’s very much about the stories of the epic and the intimate.”
The festival’s opening event, The Giants, sits at one end of this scale – a three-day saga of epic proportions created by the mythical theatre company, Royal De Luxe. The French company has become world famous for street performances, which began in 1979 and have morphed to include a troupe of giant marionettes that travel the world acting out histories. With attendance expected to total more than a million, there is no question The Giants is one of the biggest theatre events Australia has ever seen, with two 12 metre marionettes walking their story across Perth's CBD. In commemoration of the Anzac Centenary, The Giants performance will explore the history of Western Australia as a departure point for soldiers, and will also bring to life 40,000 years of land history. “The impact is like nothing you’ll ever read in a book. It’s a beautiful experience for everyone who sees it,” says Holloway.
Holloway’s other top picks include the festival’s biggest operatic production to date, Madama Butterfly, performed by the English National Opera, and The Rabbits, a new commission of a Shaun Tan and John Marsden book with songs composed by Kate Miller-Heidke. “At the other extreme is intimate experiences that will be transformational for small audiences who are thoroughly engaged with the festival,” adds Holloway. These will draw audiences into imaginary worlds of uniquely Western Australian stories.
Cut The Sky, a new dance production by Broome’s Marrugeku Theatre Company is one such event. “Cut The Sky is about land rights and land use, climate change and recourses, about all the things Western Australia needs to be talking about. Alongside that, The Rabbits is just a perfect allegory for colonisation in Australia,” he explains.
“The two areas that are really up there and pushing it are the contemporary music program and the visual-arts program,” says Holloway. An attraction in itself, the music line-up boasts big international names including London Grammar, Sinead O-Conner, Rufus Wainwright and Neneh Cherry. The formidable art program’s two main events are The Visitors + The End, a multimedia and performance work by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, and Rebirth, an exhibition of large-scale sculptures by internationally acclaimed artist, Mariko Mori. These will run alongside Perth Writers Festival talks and Loterrywest Festival Films screenings.
With such a diverse program, this year’s festival can be summed up as both a celebration of the childlike, and a more mature exploration of our accountability for social issues. “This (childlike element) is offset by work like The Truth Commission, which is about achieving reconciliation in South Africa, or by Bryan Stevenson talking about human rights and our place in the world,” says Holloway. “I do think those extremes are interesting because most of us spend our lives in the middle of those two, between looking forward to how we can transform the world and looking back to how we can just enjoy it.”
The Perth International Arts Festival runs from February 13 to March 17.