Festival

For his penultimate Perth Festival, artistic director Iain Grandage continues his focus on local and First Nations culture with some thrilling international highlights. By Humphrey Bower.

Perth Festival

A group of performers on stage. Two hold microphones while several others hold LED lights, which they have raised above their heads.
Scenes from ​​Western Australian Youth Theatre Company’s production of Seven Sisters.
Credit: Jess Wyld

The theme of artistic director Iain Grandage’s 2023 Perth Festival is Djinda, the Noongar word for stars. This follows his three previous festivals – Karla (fire), Bilya (river) and Wardan (ocean). Back in 2020, the announcement of Noongar themes signalled a new focus on First Nations work and a closer sense of place and connection with Noongar Boodja (Country) and Perth (Boorloo) itself.

The Karla festival got through the gate just before interstate and international borders closed at the start of the pandemic. It was a ripsnorter, with a central strand of Indigenous work that included a groundbreaking Noongar-language adaptation of Macbeth called Hecate, a festival hub that hosted an international cabaret program curated by and starring Meow Meow, and a closing event, Highway to Hell, that commemorated the immortal AC/DC album with a live rock’n’roll road caravan driven along a closed-off section of the Canning Highway.

Now the city is enjoying its fourth fling with Grandage and the spirit of cultural democracy that’s inspired his tenure.

British theatre show Happy Meal by Tabby Lamb is on at The Rechabite in Northbridge, just up the road from the State Theatre Centre. It’s a rom-com about two Millennial kids who meet online in the ’90s and gradually reveal to each other – and/or discover for themselves – that they’re both trans and then fall in love over the following decade.

Their online texts are all spoken live. The performers inhabit two adjacent booths with open windows, which they sit behind, perch on or occasionally dart in and out of as if reflecting their fear of the world and its judgements. They grow up and transition in front of us with the aid of colourful costume changes – they begin the show in penguin onesies. The social media platforms they use also grow up and change, from Club Penguin and Myspace to Facebook and Twitter, and the sound design has a lot of fun shifting from dial-up to the various alerts, beeps, dings and whooshes associated with being online.

It’s a cute concept. The overall tone is bright and breezy, like a kids’ television show morphing into a teen movie, but the script and performances don’t shy away from the fear and pain involved in growing up, coming out and falling in love, especially if you’re trans in a gender-normative world. The rapport between the two performers is infectious. Does it have anything to do with stars? Who cares?

Western Australian Youth Theatre Company’s (WAYTCo) Seven Sisters explicitly invokes a specific constellation – also known as the Pleiades – and the Noongar Dreaming story associated with it, but it does so tangentially. In fact the constellation and story are really departure points for a wide-ranging reflection on storytelling, stars, country, growing up, identity, exclusion and belonging, that in many ways has much in common with Happy Meal.

Co-directed by the company’s artistic director James Berlyn and emerging Noongar/Greek theatre-maker Cezera Critti-Schnaars, and made in collaboration with Noongar elder Roma Yibiyung Winmar, the production is a group-devised work featuring an ensemble of 12 young Perth performers. It’s staged at a different outdoor venue each week. I saw it at the New Fortune Theatre, a brutalist brick-and-concrete courtyard surrounded by tiered balconies in the heart of the University of Western Australia’s arts faculty, which is supposedly modelled on an Elizabethan playhouse.

While it’s not exactly site-specific – unlike previous WAYTC0 productions that have featured in Grandage’s festivals – there’s still a strong sense that this is a work made and performed in Perth, by young artists growing up under the vast WA skies. Their preoccupations are those of young people everywhere, especially in today’s uncertain yet polarised world, where those in marginalised communities particularly – which in this cast includes racial and sexual minorities, the uprooted, the dispossessed, the disabled and the bereaved – feel more hypervisible yet paradoxically more isolated than ever.

The form and staging of the work and the script are simple. Essentially it’s a confessional theatre piece in which the cast take turns to tell their stories as if around a camp fire under the stars while the others listen and occasionally participate. There are lovely additional elements, such as the gentle guitar music written and played by one of the cast members. Wreaths of fairy lights are variously worn over their heads and faces like masks or crowns of stars, or piled up to make a camp fire, or extended across the stage like skipping ropes or undulating waves. By the end of the evening we feel as if we’ve been out camping with them under the stars, and that under the gaze of those distant and perhaps long-extinguished fires, we’re all equal.

There’s only a passing reference to the stars in Bikutsi 3000, but it’s significant: according to this narrative, the citizens of the region of Africa now called Namibia stopped everything for a month so that the community could gaze at the stars. It’s not a bad description of a festival, and its importance for collective contemplation and renewal.

Cameroonian musician, director and activist Blick Bassy’s feminist Afrofuturist multimedia dance-theatre work premiered in 2021 at the musée du quai Branly in Paris. The title refers to a traditional form of dance and music performed by women in Cameroon as a healing ritual. In Bassy’s work the form is harnessed to the work of resistance against the twin oppressions of colonialism and patriarchy.

The work is grounded in a narrative that, in Afrofuturist fashion, fuses history with speculative fiction using music, dance, costumes, video and text that draw on the past and create a utopian vision. This is mixed with a strong dose of psychedelia and funk that harks back to the ’60s and ’70s when this genre of music, fiction and speculation took off, before it experienced a reflowering in the ’90s.

The show begins with astounding archival colour footage of tribal Cameroonian people dancing, singing, making music and cutting down trees to make traditional drums. The footage is projected onto huge banners hanging from the lighting grid and accompanied by an amplified soundtrack. This gives way to video narration performed by Hermine Yollo, who tells the story (in French with English surtitles) of how the queen of the country now called Cameroon enlists her sister queens in what are now Namibia, Togo, Tanzania and Rwanda-Burundi to lead a dance of artistic resistance against their European colonisers.

Four women – who are also choreographers from various African cultural and artistic backgrounds, and who each choreograph their own dance – are appointed in turn as “captains” to lead the four resistance dances, to pounding music by Bassy. The dance and music both mix traditional and contemporary elements and are so thrilling it’s almost impossible to stay still.

The dances are interspersed with more video narration as well as archival and other footage that’s dazzlingly rendered in pop-art style. The show ends when Mintaba (Africa) is liberated; after which four more dancers – including two local First Nations women – join the four captains in a final round of dances celebrating female victory and solidarity.

How to describe the effect of this show, or its impact, especially on the women in the audience and in particular First Nations women and other women of colour? Bikutsi 3000 presents dance as a form of healing as well as resistance, pointing into the past and into the future. It feels like an ideal standard-bearer for the opening weekend of Grandage’s penultimate festival. Having reached for the stars, we wonder what Grandage will aim for in his final Perth Festival next year. 

The Perth Festival continues until March 5.

 

ARTS DIARY

CULTURE Mona Foma

Venues throughout Tasmania, until February 26

LITERATURE Cairns Tropical Writers Festival

Pullman Cairns International, February 24-26

EXHIBITION O: HOSSEI

UTS Gallery, Sydney, until April 14

MULTIMEDIA Haunting

National Museum of Australia, Canberra, February 23–April 30

THEATRE The Wharf Review: Looking for Albanese

Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, February 21-25

LAST CHANCE

MULTIMEDIA How I See It: Blak Art and Film

ACMI, Melbourne, until February 19

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 18, 2023 as "Celestial visions".

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