Glass, Lepage and some Canadian ice-skaters help Jonathan Holloway blur borders in his inaugural programme.

Jonathan Holloway, the new artistic director of the Melbourne Festival, has unveiled his first programme, which runs across 18 days in October. From an outdoor spectacle that will take over the city streets to a one-on-one theatre experience, from iconoclastic ice-skaters to one of the most influential music-makers of the 20th and 21st centuries, the Festival will present 62 works and 207 performances by artists and companies from around the world.

The work will explore a vast array of forms and styles across genres from the idiosyncratic to the immersive to the ecstatic. “This year’s Festival is full of events that freely and inquisitively traverse borders in all their forms. We shine a spotlight on the ever-shifting borders between childhood and adulthood, between life and death, between dreams and reality. We puncture the creative borders between artforms, and between the arts and society. We have sought every opportunity to blur the borders between artists and audiences,” says Holloway.

Le Patin Libre. Photo by Alicia Clarke

Speaking to Limelight ahead of the launch, Holloway says: “We’ve hit narrative saturation. If you want narrative then HBO, Netflix and the ABC can give it to you in such massive measure, so where festivals were about narrative and telling a story of the world change, actually I think the live experience now becomes about the experience: ‘what will I do that will make me feel differently, or see something or experience something differently?’… I’m a massive believer of ‘give them what they want but not what they expect.’”

Born in the UK, Holloway comes to the Melbourne Festival from the Perth International Arts Festival where he was artistic director for four years from 2012, expanding the scale and budget of the Festival and enlivening its programme. His final festival in Perth in 2015 opened with an outdoor spectacle by French troupe Royal de Luxe called The Giants. Featuring two giant puppets, a six-metre tall little girl and an 11-metre deep sea diver who roamed the city streets over three days, the event proved wildly successful, attracting crowds of around 1.4 million.

The Melbourne Festival will also open with a major, free, outdoor spectacle called Les Tambours De Feu from Catalan’s Deabru Beltzak. Exclusive to Melbourne, a group of percussionists in devilish guise will parade through the CBD for three nights across the opening weekend to cause a “disruption” with an extravaganza of live music, pyrotechnics and special effects. The event has thrilled crowds around the world and is expected to attract thousands.

Les Tambours De Feu. Photo by Rafael Helle

The Giants was an unbelievable practical coming together of a city,” Holloway tells Limelight. “I wanted this festival here in Melbourne to basically pull back and start with, ‘Who are we? What is the Festival? What is the city here? What do we want? If we’re talking filmically I wanted to reboot the franchise… So I wanted to almost pull it right back to the basics. And that’s exciting, but actually Les Tambours De Feu will probably be one of the largest outdoor works we’ve done in the Festival for quite a few years.”

The dance programme ranges from contemporary dance on skates to flamenco. Highlights include inventive Montreal-based company Le Patin Libre, a group of former championship skaters who have created a new form of ice dancing. They will showcase their signature mix of speed, grace and wit in a double bill called Vertical Influences. Also from Montreal comes Les 7 Doigts de la main (The 7 Fingers) known for their thrilling marriage of circus and contemporary dance who will present Triptyque, a triple bill playing with gravity, hand balancing and circus arts.

Les 7 Doigts de la main in Triptyquye. Photo by Alexandre Galilez

New York’s Faye Driscoll brings the first part of her acclaimed trilogy Thank You For Coming: Attendance, which explores the relationship between performers and their audiences. Expect to feel involved from the moment you pick up your ticket. Other dance highlights include Spain’s reigning flamenco queen Sara Baras in Voces and a new work by Melbourne’s Lucy Guerin called The Dark Chorus which promises to “enfold Festival goers in the embrace of darkness.”

The theatre programme sees the internationally renowned National Theatre of Scotland making its Melbourne debut with Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, which sold out when it premiered at the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and on a UK tour. A blisteringly funny musical play about six Catholic school girls on the cusp of adulthood who represent their school in a choral competition, the play was described in the UK as being “about losing your virginity and finding yourself”. The music includes everything from Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah to the reggae classic No Worries, No Cry

Legendary French Canadian theatre maker Robert Lepage performs his most personal story yet in 887, an autobiographical work inspired by his memories of growing up in Quebec in the 1960s when the Front de Libération du Quebec was trying to establish an independent French-speaking workers’ state. Using film, projection and miniature scale models, The Guardian described the production as having “plenty to make you gasp with pleasure”.

Robert Lepage in 887. Photo by E. Labbe

From Barcelona comes Teatro de los Sentidos with their production The Echo of the Shadow, a theatrical game performed for just one person at a time based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Shadow. Meanwhile, Australia’s Back to Back Theatre from Geelong presents its largest work to date, Lady Eats Apple about human nature and the search for immortality.

“We are home, in Victoria, to one of the greatest theatre companies in the world, and certainly the greatest company working with people with perceived learning difficulties,” says Holloway. “That’s wonderful and pretty much the first thing I did was have a conversation with Back to Back (who said), ‘We have a couple of ideas, one of them is normal sized but one is really big.’ And the answer was ‘go for it’. The festival should be the place where people can do their biggest, best, boldest work.”

Other theatre highlights include the Australian debut of Touretteshero in a comedy about Tourette Syndrome, notorious Berlin-based theatre renegades Gob Squad in War and Peace and the National Theatre of China’s celebrated production Two Dogs.

In the classical music programme, revered and highly influential composer Philip Glass presents his 1994 operatic score for four singers and ensemble inspired by Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film La Belle et La Bête. The Philip Glass Ensemble will play Glass’s original score live to a synchronised screening of Cocteau’s masterpiece.

La Belle et la Bête. Photo by Robbie Jack

Describing it as “unlike all (Glass’s) other works”, Holloway considers La Belle et La Bête “a perfect festival work. I programmed an opera that works with film, which has never been to Australia and was described by one colleague as one of the most ecstatic experiences of his musical life when he saw it 22 years ago. That was it. I want the Festival to have an operatic element. It would upset me to present a festival without there being opera in it.”

 The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra will embrace pop culture with Star Trek: The Ultimate Voyage, 50th Anniversary Concert Tour, while Le Terrible Orchestre De Belleville will perform Benoit Charest’s Oscar-nominated score from the French movie The Triplets of Belleville.

In the contemporary music programme, Australian singer-songwriter Paul Kelly and Irish-French chanteuse Camille O’Sullivan celebrate the words of W.B. Yeats and other Irish poets of the past century with Ancient Rain. Other highlights include jazz luminaries, saxophonist Joshua Redman and pianist Brad Mehidau, performing tracks from their new album Nearness, and Australian singer-songwriter Lisa Gerrard performing material from her latest album Blank Page.

As a centrepiece of the visual arts program, Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota’s bewitching large-scale installation The Home Within will be shown at various locations during the Festival. The Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACM) presents Collisions by acclaimed Australian filmmaker and artist Lynette Wallworth, which is described as “a deeply poetic and thought-provoking virtual reality film experience”.

The Melbourne Festival runs from October 6th – 23rd. Tickets go on sale at 9am on Friday August 5th.

Interview with Jonathan Holloway conducted by Maxim Boon