Perth Festival director Wendy Martin seals legacy with return of opening night spectacular Boorna Waanginy

Updated February 11, 2019 14:48:20

It can be risky — even unheard of — to repeat the curtain-raiser event for a major arts festival just two years after its first outing.

But Perth Festival’s decision to restage its monumental sound and light projection extravaganza on the tree canopy of Perth’s oldest park was validated when audiences for the first two nights of Boorna Waanginy: The Trees Speak eclipsed the 110,000 who turned out to see it over four nights in 2017.

Audiences can see the final showing on Monday February 11 from 8:00pm-11:00pm.

The 1.5-kilometre walk through the avenues and glades of Kings Park, which takes a little under an hour, evokes the six seasons experienced by south-west Australia and is firmly rooted in local Noongar culture.

Created by Olympic opening ceremony maestro Nigel Jamieson in conjunction with Noongar artist Richard Walley, it is spectacular entertainment with a message.

The light show and myriad programs associated with it, including those involving children from 47 Perth schools, urge greater use of Aboriginal land care traditions and warn of Australia’s diminishing biodiversity.

Imagine Sydney’s Vivid neon light festival on an intimate scale with not only heart and soul, but embellished with the smell of fresh eucalyptus.

The Boorna Waanginy repeat was a pragmatic decision by festival artistic director Wendy Martin in her final year. She wanted to stage a new outdoor extravaganza with Jamieson for each of her four festivals.

She said the cost of devising and managing street closures and crowd control rendered that plan prohibitive. Now she is working towards turning Boorna Waanginy into an “annual event during wildflower season”.

As Martin wraps her four-year stint in WA, Boorna Waanginy exemplifies her festival vision: it is specific to a site and unashamedly local, it has a nod to science and is a collaboration between a leading West Australian artist and an international artist at the top of their field.

Boorna Waanginy will be her legacy, especially if it returns annually.

Local excellence centre stage

Perth Festival is Australia’s oldest arts jamboree. It was inaugurated 66 years ago and Martin is one of only two Australians to have run it.

Perth Festival directors have traditionally strived to stage the best international work for local audiences each summer.

Last year Martin simplified what was known as the Perth International Arts Festival to Perth Festival, to signify a stronger celebration of place.

Her programming has increasingly favoured domestic productions, culminating this year in seven world premieres from local artists.

This tilt sets the stage for composer Iain Grandage to take over as director from 2020, the first WA-native to take on the job.

Heavy local programming at Australian arts festivals is usually interpreted as a cost-saving measure, but Perth remains Australia’s richest per-capita arts festival due in part to its receipt of mandated lottery funds, which this year amounted to $7 million.

Income from grants, sponsorship, philanthropy and box office (target $4.2 million) amounts to $17 million annual turnover for a population of 1.9 million.

By comparison, Sydney Festival last reported its turnover as $21 million in 2017, for a population of just under 5 million.

On opening weekend, the standout local world premiere was an enchanting physical theatre piece titled Sunset, a collaboration between Perth’s Strut Dance and renowned UK choreographer Maxine Doyle (associate director for immersive theatre company Punchdrunk), who devised the New York theatrical institution Sleep No More.

Three years in development and a must-see for dance enthusiasts, Sunset is staged in a long-abandoned former old men’s home located in a comfortable suburb on the banks of the city’s Swan River.

State theatre company Black Swan also sought to make a splash on opening weekend with its 2019 season curtain-raiser, a reinvention of Our Town, Thornton Wilder’s 100-year-old classic of American theatre.

In her second season as Black Swan artistic director, Clare Watson upended convention and staged the play in an outdoor amphitheatre at the State Theatre Centre.

On a purpose-build stage with stadium seating, the audience wore headphones to hear mic’ed actors and to block the waves of noise rolling through Perth’s cultural precinct, which is populated at this time of year with buskers galore and revellers attracted to Fringe World events.

The biggest flaw of Our Town is that the actors aren’t. In another experimental twist, Watson left the outdated script untouched but populated the play with a roster of actual priests, professors, newspaper editors.

This community outreach caused consternation in a theatrical community disappointed to see such prized and rare roles going to non-professionals, and resulted in a one-note performance that seemed to run much longer than its two hours.

Successful local indie collective make Perth Festival debut

Another of the new WA works will premiere this week: Le Nor, from Perth’s most successful independent theatre collective, The Last Great Hunt.

Billed as a faux foreign film in a made-up language being made live on stage, it has an eight-performance run from Wednesday February 13.

The Last Great Hunt is a smell-of-an-oily-rag collective of half-a-dozen theatre makers that recently secured state funding. Its members graduated from Perth’s acclaimed West Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), which also turned out Eddie Perfect, Tim Minchin and Lisa McCune.

Unlike those artists, and many others besides, who have pursued careers outside WA, The Last Great Hunt players chose to stay home, and while this is their Perth Festival debut, their touring shows are in constant demand nationally and internationally.

Collaborator Adriane Daff said creativity was the key to being able to build a career in an isolated city with a limited population.

“When you make your own work, you can really be the author of [your career] — you’re never out of a job,” she said.

“We’re never at a loss for ideas; if anything we have so much we want to get out there into the world. Really clear touring pathways and relationships with venues internationally [such as] Edinburgh Festival [have been] hugely important.”

The success of The Last Great Hunt is cause for celebration in a city with renewed cultural ambitions but which witnessed two long-running theatre companies fold in recent years: Fremantle’s Deckchair Theatre and Perth Theatre Company.

High-level moves are afoot to institute a second theatre company, akin to Belvoir in Sydney and Malthouse in Melbourne, which are both members of the Australia Council-funded 28 major performing arts companies group (MPAG), which shares the bulk of Australia’s federal arts funding.

Helpfully, a review of those companies is underway, and former Rio Tinto boss and veteran arts supporter and Perth resident Sam Walsh took over last year as chairman of the Australia Council.

International hits and misses

Festivals are occasions for artists and audiences to take risks in the pursuit of a next-level experience. Those risks were certainly evident on the opening weekend, though the rewards were more difficult to come by.

Beyond the homegrown fare, how did Perth Festival opening weekend unfold?

Brit cabaret diva Ursula Martinez was commissioned to revisit her landmark 1998 play A Family Outing, in which she worked alongside the parents, exposing their warts-and-all family dynamics. Her father has since died but her mother joins her onstage, despite being beset with early dementia.

This dangerous material sets the audience on edge, doubly so because Martinez does not appear to have fully reconciled her decision to expose her mother’s frailty to an audience of strangers.

Dimitris Papaioannou, director of the 2004 Athens Olympics opening ceremony, is obviously adept at creating large spectacles, but his wordless physical theatre piece The Great Tamer is far more intimate.

Inspired by the idea of antiquity excavation The Great Tamer features such a high level of nudity that a gentleman sitting within earshot asked his companion, “What have you brought me to?”.

Nouveau Cirque du Vietnam returned to Perth after a two-year hiatus with Lang Toi, a rustic circus performance that is delightful in its ability to combine simplicity with exquisite acrobatics.

A one-night-only outing from trans performance artist Cassils involved audience members standing shoulder to shoulder in stifling heat and complete darkness, while occasional flashes revealed the artists pummelling a mound of clay.

Fringe World complements Festival proper

Where festivals tend to at least part-fund the shows on their program, fringe festivals act as an umbrella and each production carries the financial risk.

So it is difficult to see how with the play Rest is viable, given that it is populated with more performers than the 20 visitors accommodated at each performance.

The viscerally-thrilling after-dark experiential tour of the long-closed historic east Perth cemetery is the break-out hit from Fringe World’s bumper program.

Nine years ago there was no Fringe World running alongside the festival. Modelled on the pervasive Adelaide Fringe, and forming a touring circuit that takes in Adelaide and the Melbourne Comedy Festival, it draws thousands each night into various pockets around Perth, imbuing with electricity the city’s already steamy temperature.

From a cool start, Perth Festival and Fringe World now sit comfortably side by side, with Fringe claiming the title of the world’s third biggest Fringe after Edinburgh and Adelaide.

The sum of these parts is an invigorated creative industry in Western Australia with an eye to a future where its cultural output holds its own alongside its natural assets.

Perth Festival runs until March 3. Fringe World runs until February 17.

Tune in from 10am on February 12 to hear ABC RN’s The Stage Show broadcast from Perth Festival with special guests.

Topics: arts-and-entertainment, theatre, opera-and-musical-theatre, community-and-society, indigenous-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander, carnivals-and-festivals, events, contemporary-art, performance-art, australia, wa, perth-6000, sydney-2000

First posted February 11, 2019 13:20:41

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