Over the Top, Down under - Adelaide's Awesome Festival

By Henkin, Stephen | The World and I, June 2000 | Go to article overview

Over the Top, Down under - Adelaide's Awesome Festival


Henkin, Stephen, The World and I


Every two years the quiet, sunny capital of South Australia becomes a vibrant, world-class arts venue, challenging those who attend to rethink old notions. This year's Festival was no exception.

Every even year in March, when sunny South Australia is drifting into autumn, the serene seaside city of Adelaide is transformed into a dynamic showcase for the arts. Just as New Orleans is characterized internationally by its Mardi Gras, Rio its Carnival, Salzburg its Mozart, and Bayreuth its Wagner, Adelaide is known for its beloved Telstra Adelaide Festival.

In what began as a faithful copy of the Edinburgh Festival in 1960, the Adelaide Festival is now acknowledged as one of the top three multi- arts festivals in the world, along with Edinburgh and Avignon. However, the Adelaide Festival has gone on to establish its own particular style, one that reflects just as much the region's Mediterranean-like climate and the rapid development of Australian artists and companies as it does its renowned international attractions.

"The Telstra Adelaide Festival is a celebration of first performances, new international collaborations, and artists from every continent creating work for this moment," says Robyn Archer, artistic director for the last two festivals. "Of course, there are always things that cannot get done in a festival," says Archer, who is quick to add that this year's format includes seventeen regional venues (a first).

Besides speaking with a wide-ranging authority on the arts that comes from years of handling every genre from vaudeville to opera, Archer also has a keen eye for promotion, evidenced by her coinage of the festival's slogan: "Danger, Art Inside!" which says it all.

Indeed, the real danger may actually have stemmed from any fatigue experienced in attempting to sample many of the seventy productions staged day and night, including an unprecedented thirty-seven world premieres--more than double those of any previous festival. In this seemingly nonstop artistic melange, two thousand performers, writers, and artists from around the globe hosted myriad performances, exhibitions, and symposia at more than forty venues in and around the city. Adding to the plethora of events was the concurrent Adelaide Fringe Festival, an arts amalgam ranging from high-brow theater to jaded comedy and seemingly everything in between.

Yet it was the sheer variety of performances--encompassing dance, theater, music, and the visual arts (experimental through classical)-- that pushed the festival over the top, challenging audiences to experience the new, the innovative, and sometimes even the absurd.

A sampling of this artistic smorgasbord tells the tale. Internationally, there was work by the daring Italian theater maker Romeo Castellucci; contemporary dance by Belgian innovator Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker; a mesmerizing, hip-hop/tap-dance, American--French Guyanese fusion group called Cool Heat, Urban Beat; and Ensemble 415, which featured Geneva-based Chiara Banchini, one of the world's most remarkable early-music violinists.

But to fully experience this year's festival, one had to attend some new Australian work--and they were plentiful. To name but a few, these were:Ecstatic Bible, an epic, eight-hour theatrical event of love and lust (with a mealtime break) coproduced by Adelaide's Brink Company and playwright Howard Baker's London-based company the Wrestling School; Yue Ling Jie (Moon Spirit Feasting), a Chinese ritual street opera by young Brisbane composer Liza Lim, writer Beth Yahp, and Melbourne director Michael Kantor; and in dance there were works by Melbourne- based choreographer Lucy Guerin, Heavy and Robbery Waitress on Bail, "inspired," the program informed us, "by the blood and guts tabloids."

Indigenous events proved among the most popular. Two Aboriginal storytellers in Ochre and Dust captivated audiences with their tales-- spoken through a translator--of eviction from and eventual return to native lands. …

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