September 01, 2014

Programming the Asian Century

OzAsia Festival, Adelaide, 2014.

Murray Bramwell

Now in its eighth year, OzAsia opens its 2014 program this week and it is an engaging mix of spectacle and hybrid innovation. Initiated by Douglas Gauthier in 2006 when he became Adelaide Festival Centre CEO (after a stint directing the Hong Kong Arts Festival) OzAsia has steadily gained ground.

For seven years, in the capable hands of highly-regarded director, Jacinta Thompson, OzAsia has presented programs incorporating nearly all countries in the Asia Pacific, consolidated its partnerships with a bunch of interesting performance companies and formed strong links with local communities.

This year Jacinta Thompson resigned to take up her new position as Executive Director of the University of South Australia’s Hawke Centre and new director, Joseph Mitchell arrived – just as the 2014 program was being announced.

The affable and enthusiastic Mitchell, at 38, has a background in theatre production with Queensland Theatre Company, as executive producer at the Brisbane Festival and most recently as a Senior Director of Toronto’s highly regarded Luminato Festival. He doesn’t get his mitts on his own OzAsia program until 2015 but, in the meantime he is a keen spruiker for the present program and an admirer of its many and various participants.

Each year OzAsia has a national theme – last time it was Malaysia, this year the focus is on Shandong Province in north-eastern China.
“China is represented in OzAsia every year but often we think of Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong,” Mitchell observes, “But this time we have chosen a province which does not immediately come to mind for Australians, and yet Shandong has a population of almost 100 million people – so there is a massive range of arts and activity going on there. It is an interesting strategic move for OzAsia to broaden our audience’s knowledge, perspective and engagement with various parts of Asia.”

Shandong is the home of Confucianism (the venerated philosopher, Confucius was born in 551 BC in the city of Qufu). It is also the home of Mo Yan, Nobel prize-winning author of the classic novel, Red Sorghum which has been adapted for the stage by the Qingdao Song and Dance Theatre, and will be presented, in all its spectacle, as the festival’s opening event this Wednesday night (September 3).

This production has already won the 2014 Wenhua Grand Prize, China’s Ministry of Culture’s highest arts award although staging this production has been a logistical challenge. “It’s massive in scale,“ effuses Mitchell, “there are 50 people on stage. It has a touring party bigger than Cirque du Soleil. It is great that OzAsia can form partnerships with governments and arts organisations on this scale. It is not a commercial production. In its combination of dance and theatre, it is a major festival piece.”

As a coda to this production, in OzAsia’s diverse film program at the Mercury Cinema, curated by Matthew Kesting, the break-through 1987 film of Red Sorghum, from acclaimed Shangdon director, Zhang Yimou, will be screened on September 14.

When I asked Joseph Mitchell why he was drawn to the OzAsia job he replied: “I am a young festival director, I’m from Australia and I’m in a position where I can think about the role of festivals, ask: what is the future of interesting contemporary performance going to look like ? I am interested in what things will look like in ten or twenty years’ time. Where is Australia’s position in the world ? What is the direction the world is taking ? And clearly it is no secret that this is the Asian century .”

“For me some of the most interesting work at the moment is coming from the developed countries in Asia. For instance Beijing’s Tao Dance Theatre is one of the most exciting dance companies to have emerged anywhere in the world in the last five years.”

“ In 6 and 7 (named for the number of dancers and the serial number of the work) choreographer Tao Ye is drawing on aspects of classical Chinese training – precision, detail, uniformity – but also adding elements of free-form movement from contemporary dance that comes from outside China. It is a company that doesn’t come from traditional China or contemporary Europe. Tao Ye has formed his own language. What attracts me about OzAsia is to be able to showcase these very clever artists creating wonderful fusions.”

Similarly the multimedia theatre work from director Wang Chong and his Theatre du Reve Experimental, Ibsen in One Take re-frames European classic theatre and locates it in a Chinese setting. In previous festivals the Yohangza Theatre Company from South Korea, has presented brilliant adaptations (by director Jung-Ung Yang) of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet and Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, incorporating Korean shamanism and refreshing our perspectives on Shakespeare. This time Wang Chong has taken Ibsen’s works and created a 70 minute mash-up about a man alienated from friends and family.

Ibsen in One Take, says Mitchell, “ is another example of the reinvigoration of cultures drawing on Western themes and techniques and sparking something new. Wang Chong is a popular but controversial director because he often pushes the line of what is acceptable according to the Chinese Government. He has taken a whole series of writings from Ibsen, not just one play, and he uses Ibsen’s words to reflect his views on present day China. In different parts of the world a work of art has a different context. To watch the work in Beijing itself is very different from other places. The Beijing audience recognises that Ibsen is being appropriated to make sly, intelligent comments on Chinese society.”

The OzAsia program also features performances of Dream of the Ghost Story by the Shandong Acrobatic Troupe, the Australian produced work Yasukichi Murakami – Through a Distant Lens, an imagined dialogue between photographer Mayu Kanamori and a Darwin based photographer from the 1930’s, and the return of composer Tan Dun to conduct the Adelaide Symphony in his work about the ancient secret language, Nu Shu.

There is a symposium on the writings of Confucius, a screen program including the Action Women of Hong Kong, two films about Japanese pop culture, visual arts exhibitions, Infusion – all about tea ceremonies and, not be missed – Nova Heart, featuring Beijing pop star Helen Feng, the self-declared Blondie of China.

But it is also the community events, in particular the Moon Lantern festival which draws Mitchell’s admiration for his predecessor Jacinta Thompson and her team. “OzAsia has been very proactive in its foundation years in going out and starting a dialogue with audiences, cultures and communities all around Adelaide – so there is a sense of ownership of the festival.”

“Just in the four weeks I have been in the office I see emails from all the people actively engaged with the festival, participating in the Moon Lantern ceremony but also buying tickets for 6 and 7 and supporting the program.”

“We think about festivals as being about the ‘now’ in our lives but the mid-autumn Moon Lantern festival celebrations in China and Vietnam go back to 1000 years before Christ. That’s more than two and a half thousand years of tradition – celebrated every single year.”

“So there’s a lot to learn from that. From day one it was about celebration, the gathering of friends and community and creative expression. To have that as the core of our festival reminds me, and communicates to our Adelaide audience, that this is fundamental to our lives. In that regard I think of the Moon Lantern festival as OzAsia’s halo.”

OzAsia runs from September 3 – 20.
Bookings: or BASS 131 246

Published as “Programming the Asian Century”, online Daily Review, September 1, 2014.

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