A necessary shift
The Asia TOPA festival is unique for its focus on contemporary Asian culture
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I once quipped, not entirely unfairly, that arts festivals are what Australia has instead of a culture. We love them. In the first months of every year, most of our high-profile festivals unfold across the continent: Sydney in January, Perth in February, Adelaide in March.
In Melbourne this year it’s wall-to-wall fiesta. The queer arts festival Midsumma ran through January and February. The Melbourne International Comedy Festival, the largest cultural event in Australia, with more than 800,000 attendances, opened in March, as did the biennial Dance Massive. You would think that the last thing Melbourne needs is another arts festival.
But this year there’s a new kid on the block, an initiative of Arts Centre Melbourne and the Sidney Myer Fund. Asia TOPA, the Asia-Pacific Triennial of Performing Arts, spans 60 events across 30 venues. It’s imaginatively structured, breaking the rules on several fronts. The most obvious departure from convention is its length: rather than the usual densely programmed two or three weeks, it runs from January to April.
The timing, and perhaps the very nature, of Asia TOPA means that it has been rather overshadowed by its glamorous interstate cousins, but on the strength of this first showing it bids fair to be among the most exciting events on our calendar.
Contemporary Asian culture is the default context: it’s not an exotic extension of Eurocentric international programming, or some worthy aspect of “multiculturalism”. The festival foregrounds Asia as a crucial influence on our own culture: a significant feature is its commissioning of cross-cultural collaborations between Australian and Asian artists.
Big-budget imports include the National Ballet of China’s production of the iconic 1964 communist ballet The Red Detachment of Women and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s performance of music by Indian film composer AR Rahman. The Melbourne Writers Festival offered a two-day program of South Asian writing from the Jaipur Literature Festival. The Australian Centre for the Moving Image offers the Bombay Talkies exhibition, and works from Filipino and South Korean artists. There are countless smaller events in independent venues and a comprehensive program of talks.
Asia TOPA springs from a premise that ought to be obvious: geographically, economically and socially, Australia has profound links to Asia. In a time of increasing instability in the Asia-Pacific region, Australia is caught between its alliance with an unpredictable US government and its trading and strategic ties with Asian governments, in particular that of China. Asian Australians make up 12% of our total population.
As a nation we labour under an astonishing ignorance about the many complex and various cultures that comprise so much of our present and future. At a time when it has never been more urgent to understand our geopolitical context, there is a tide of populist xenophobia – the return of One Nation being only the most obvious symptom.
Culture has a crucial role to play in broadening our understandings not only of one another but also of ourselves. It’s not a solution: for all the hot air about “soft diplomacy”, or the endless essays on the necessity for empathy, art can’t resolve complex social problems. Art’s influences are more subtle, working subtextually to transform, sometimes radically, unconsidered attitudes and assumptions.
Art raises questions and illuminates experience, both individual and social, and creates enduring relationships within and between cultures. One of the interesting aspects of Asia TOPA is how it steps between art as a function of nationalistic public relations, and the more complex refusals and critiques of art itself.
This is an opportunity not often taken up on our main stages, which, like our mainstream culture, are overwhelmingly Anglocentric. Anyone who goes to subscriber theatre can see it: audiences are white, ageing and well heeled, in striking contrast to the demographics we see in our city streets.
There are a number of reasons for this, not least ticket prices that, due to poor government subsidy, are out of reach for many people. The Sydney Theatre Company, for example, is subsidised to just 7% of its total budget, meaning a full-price night out for two at the STC will set each of you back $99 plus booking fee. European subsidies remain much higher. Full price for most shows at Paris’ Théâtre de la Ville or Berlin’s Volksbühne is about €30 ($40).
Cultural barriers are equally forbidding. Asia encompasses some of the oldest and most sophisticated cultures on the planet, and yet it’s too often explicitly and implicitly marginalised in our performance culture. Yellowface is still commonplace: Opera Australia’s production of The King and I in 2014 and Anthony Minghella’s production of Madama Butterfly at the Perth International Arts Festival in 2015 are two recent examples.
Even when non-white cultures are represented on Australian stages, they tend to be filtered through European consciousness. A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald pointed out that in March three different plays in three different cities centred on Asian stories and performers: Michelle Law’s Single Asian Female in Brisbane, Lachlan Philpott’s Little Emperors in Melbourne (part of Asia TOPA) and Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica in Sydney. Although this is a welcome move, only one of them, Single Asian Female, was written by an Asian Australian.
Minorities, or even majorities (in the case of women), still too often find themselves to be interesting adornments to cultures where the default is white, male and mostly Anglo-Saxon. Without the imprimatur of these legitimising mechanisms, the art is, by definition, considered non-mainstream. But with those imprimaturs too often there come mediations that compromise the work.
Asia TOPA doesn’t entirely escape this framing, but it’s definitely a big step forward. Its structure is generous, its mood notably eclectic. Perhaps as a result, it comes with considerable cool factor. The XO State program turned the stage of the State Theatre, the epitome of red-velvet mainstream culture, into a surreal nightclub. There you could hang out, drink and snack, and view a bunch of fascinating acts – a master Japanese biwa player, the acid-punk band Bo Ningen – co-programmed by Gideon Obarzanek, former artistic director of Chunky Move, and Eisa Jocson, the extraordinary Filipino performance artist.
The festival bears the stamp of creative director Stephen Armstrong, who in partnership with Michael Kantor took over the jejune Playbox Theatre in 2005 and relaunched it as Malthouse Theatre. Over the next five years Malthouse was a major force behind the renaissance in Australian theatre. Armstrong was also one of the brains behind Dance Massive, a modest but clever collaboration between three Melbourne venues that, since its inception in 2009, has become one of the major dance festivals in Australia.
Armstrong brings a similar willingness to rethink structure and focus to Asia TOPA. A program comparable in scope to the major festivals around the country was brought together on a relatively tiny budget: $250,000 from the Victorian state government and a further $2 million from the Sidney Myer Fund. (In 2016, the Perth International Arts Festival’s budget, the most generous in Australia, was $17.6 million, and the Melbourne Festival’s was around $11 million.)
This trick was performed by a process of outsourcing inspired by Dance Massive’s model: distribute seed funding to selected companies and venues that would then produce selected works under the umbrella of Asia TOPA. It permitted Asia TOPA to infiltrate every level of Melbourne’s performance culture, with events held in venues ranging from the 2400-seat Hamer Hall to the intimate space of La Mama Courthouse.
But what of the art itself? As with all festivals, it has its wow moments, its failures and its controversies. I’ve seen 17 shows in a variety of venues, and colour me impressed. My highlights so far, perhaps predictably, have mostly been in dance.
Tao Dance Theater’s 6 and 8, two astonishing works of austere minimalism by Chinese choreographer Tao Ye, were revelations. Tao’s dancers, locked in a straight line, perform a series of identical movements to scores by Chinese indie folk-rock composer Xiao He. The almost brutal constraints have unexpected effects: 6 is ecstatic and joyous, reaching into a sense of mysticism, whereas 8, in which the dancers are further confined to the floor, is at once maddening and hypnotically fascinating.
Dancehouse gave us About Kazuo Ohno by Takao Kawaguchi, a re-creation of Ohno’s most famous Butoh works. Butoh is a form of postwar Japanese dance strongly influenced by Western traditions, including French mime, and Ohno is one of its most legendary performers. This was powerful and unexpectedly moving. Ohno’s works are so deeply personal and yet so passionately rendered by Kawaguchi that their execution in another body becomes a layered evocation of the dead: those Ohno summons in his own choreography and Ohno himself.
Eisa Jocson’s solo piece Macho Dancer, part of XO State, was a knockout. Jocson draws on the eroticism of male Filipino club dancers to create a devastatingly intelligent and moving work that explores the commodification of both male and female bodies under neoliberalism. By incorporating the eroticised tropes of masculinity into a female body, she exposes both the vulnerability of masculinity and the limits of feminine sexuality, creating a performance that’s at once challenging, to our gaze as consumers, and surprisingly gentle.
Dancing with Death is a strange and compelling foray into contemporary dance by Thai choreographer and classical Khon dancer Pichet Klunchun. The struggle to break free of traditional Khon movement becomes a metaphor for the hope of cultural and political rebirth in Thai society. And I also liked Cry Jailolo and Balabala from Indonesian choreographer Eko Supriyanto, performed by non-professional dancers from the town of Jailolo in eastern Indonesia. This was thrilling physical performance with a message: Cry Jailolo protested the savage industrialisation that is destroying the coastal way of life, and in Balabala women performed a war dance against stifling patriarchal mores.
Another standout was Satan Jawa. This sumptuous black-and-white silent film by Indonesian director Garin Nugroho reaches into Javanese folktale, mysticism and dance to tell a parable of colonialism. It was screened with a score co-written by Rahayu Supanggah and Iain Grandage, performed respectively by the Gamelan Garasi Seni Benawa orchestra and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. This was a thoughtful collaboration, with each element reflecting the larger meanings and intertwining histories: the Western orchestral music, for example, was the motif for the demon Satan Jawa, a vengeful spirit created by the cruelties of Dutch colonialism.
Other collaborations illustrated the perils of working across cultures. Circa’s One Beautiful Thing featured a troupe performing mallakhamb, an Indian art of pole acrobatics that dates back to the 12th century. It showed little sign of being a collaboration, with the Indian artists showcased, rather than imbricated in the various acts. The effect was to exoticise their presence in a frame of Western encounter with the “other”. Director Yaron Lifschitz’s sense of stage dynamics is often arrestingly fine, and the mallakhamb, when it was finally revealed, was thrilling, but at two and a half hours, the banality of the ideas – East meets West, tension between worlds – became obvious.
Little Emperors, a play that looked at China’s one-child policy, was also disappointing. The Malthouse Theatre production had a top design team – set and sound alike were striking – and Wang Chong’s direction, drawing on video to create dislocating spaces of alienation and intimacy, was potentially interesting. But Lachlan Philpott’s script wasn’t equal to its dress, reaching towards the bathetic and shallow. Far more satisfying, if more humble, was The Age of Bones at La Mama, a collaboration between Australian playwright Sandra Thibodeaux, her Satu Bulan theatre company and Indonesian company Teater Satu, in which the imprisonment of underage Indonesian boys as people smugglers by the Australian government was rendered as a surreal fairytale.
The biggest storm was provoked by the National Ballet of China’s The Red Detachment of Women, which dates from the lead-up to the Cultural Revolution. Its performance sparked protests from the local Chinese community, many of whom have traumatic memories of the Red Army. One critic gave it one star, castigating the Arts Centre for mounting propaganda and ignoring the millions who died under Chinese communism.
This is a tricky and, I think, unresolvable question. It recurs through art. Should we publish the work of Ezra Pound, fascist propagandist and notorious anti-Semite? What about Edward Elgar, British imperialist and composer of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’? Winston Churchill deliberately blocked food relief for India during the Bengal Famine of the 1940s, which killed up to three million people. Applied across the board, banning work for its complicity with government crime would erase a lot of art, including the blockbuster Hollywood movies that are underwritten by the US military.
Watching The Red Detachment of Women, I found myself suspended between disturbance at its frank political didacticism and astonishment that it remains, despite its age and propagandist purpose, a fresh and lively work of art. I was expecting a dusty piece of communist kitsch, and while there’s no denying its kitschness – the day-glo colours of the set remind you how Mao badges have become fashion accessories – the ballet is absorbing and surprising.
It is, in many ways, very odd, with a score that recalls Aaron Copland and choreography inspired equally by classical ballet and martial arts. But the action is carefully elucidated with plain storytelling, reminding us that this is a ballet in which the trappings of high art are directed consciously towards the “masses”. And the portrayal of women as machine gun–toting soldiers, rather than delicate ballerinas, is still, 50 years on, a radical sight.
Beyond the virtues or otherwise of particular works, Asia TOPA is deeply interesting, and perhaps signals the beginning of a necessary shift in our cultural alignments. The festival says early indications are that it has succeeded in attracting new and diverse audiences, which confirms my casual observations in the Arts Centre and elsewhere. It certainly seemed that the entirety of Melbourne’s Indian community trekked to the Sidney Myer Music Bowl to see AR Rahman.
Another triennial has already been confirmed. The question is whether the next iteration will expand the spaces the first has opened or whether it will fall into being merely a glorified showcase for tourism and soft diplomacy. That, as always, depends on the art.