A slice of life over 100 years in a Singapore hotel, a virtual opera star and a mysterious bathhouse are among the offerings.

Where in Australia might you find the latest in British-Asian dance alongside an eight-hour marathon exploring a century in the life of a Singaporean hotel, a virtual opera star and something that’s described as the Japanese theatrical equivalent of Mulholland Drive? The answer is at the OzAsia Festival, the Adelaide-based celebration of all things Asian, now in its 11th year.

OzAsia AD Joseph Mitchell

“We’re the only annual international arts festival focusing comprehensively on Asia, and so we are keen to grow and showcase what is the absolutely the best work from across the region,” says Festival Director Joseph Mitchell as we chat about what will be his third year at the helm. “Last year we had 35 Australian premieres and I think this year it’s 27. Nobody else is programming such comprehensive work from Asia.”

It may be an idea that has been picked up by others across Australia – most notably by this year’s Asia TOPA at Arts Centre Melbourne – but there’s no doubt that Adelaide is still the daddy of them all and that Mitchell was the man responsible for giving it a new lease of life after he revamped and rebooted things in 2016 with, along with a host of edgier, funkier programming ideas, a new twist on the popular Moon Lantern Festival and its giant Hong Kong dragon.

This year Mitchell, a former national swimmer, theatre director and one of Australia’s brightest and younger festival curators, has scored quite a coup with the Australian premiere of British choreographer Akram Khan’s latest work, Until the Lions. “It’s a very personal story for him [Khan] who featured in Peter Brook’s Mahabharata as a teenager and has since gone on to become one of the world’s most acclaimed choreographers,” Mitchell explains over Skype from his office at the Adelaide Festival Centre.

“He’s developed a close working relationship with Karthika Naïr who’s a well known dramaturg, poet and writer. They wanted to revisit the Mahabharata and think about how they could communicate aspects of this giant, inaccessible epic to modern dance audiences. And so they worked closely to mine one of those stories told from a very male perspective: warrior is jealous of beautiful woman so abducts her, ensuring she’s no longer appropriate for royal marriage. I think in the original story she commits suicide or is killed. In Khan’s reworking it’s very much told from her point of view and shows how through that transformational death she invokes the power of nature and animals and seeks revenge on this horrible general.”

Until The Lions. Photo © Jean Louis Fernandez

Khan, who cast himself in the role as the anti-hero in the UK and in its first year touring programme, won’t be in the Adelaide version. Instead, Indonesian dancer Rianto, who has featured at the last two OzAsia Festivals, will star alongside Christine Joy Ritter and Taiwanese dancer Ching-Ying Chien who won the 2016 National Dance Award for Outstanding Female Performance. “The show has received stunning reviews,” says Mitchell. “In my favourite, someone called it a firecracker of a show. This is dance theatre that tells an actual narrative, so to help, when you’re coming to watch there’s a synopsis on everyone’s seat so they can make sure that they get the narrative.”

Equally intriguing is Singaporean theatre company W!LD RICE’s Hotel, which comes in at five-and-a-half hours of theatre and is seen in two parts. Commissioned for Singapore’s 50-year anniversary, Mitchell describes it as probably one of the best works of the last three or four years. “I thought to kick start the first year of our second decade it’s time to do a major epic work as part of OzAsia’s identity,” he explains. “This is the one to do it, and to reward our audiences for coming on this journey with us. It is such a stunning piece of theatre that I think the entire arts industry should try and get a ticket, because of the storytelling structure and the way we can revisit history in new ways.”

Hotel. Photo © W!ILDRICE

The play ranges over 100 years in the same Singaporean hotel, is performed in nine languages no less (English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien, Malay, Tamil, Urdu, Tagalog and Japanese) with English surtitles, and explores ideas of colonialism, nationhood and migration. “If you’re good at math, there’s a different story in a different hotel room every decade over 100 years, which means 11 stories from 1915 to 2015,” says Mitchell. “The first story is about a mid-career British diplomat who’s excited that some coolie from down the street is about to be executed for stealing. He can’t wait to watch someone get shot. It’s appalling! From there we see a different story every ten years. The emotional punch comes when certain characters return and, of course, they’re drastically aged. It’s kind of like binge watching on TV. Each episode has to stand up on its own right, but if you watch the whole series, it’s more complex and more interesting.”

If you think that sounds original, try The End, billed as the world’s first virtual opera and performed by Hatsune Miku, a virtual singer who just happens to be one of the world’s biggest pop stars. “There are major stars – people who have millions and millions of fans – who have no profile here in Australia,” Mitchell enthuses. “If we put this on in Tokyo, it would be like Hamilton in New York. You just couldn’t get a ticket.”

Hatsune Miku – the name is a conflation of the Japanese words for first (hatsu), sound (ne) and future (miku) – in other words ‘the first sound from the future’ – appears as a diminutive 16-year-old girl with turquoise twintails voiced by Crypton Future Media’s singing synthesizer application. She often performs in concert as an animated projection, her voice modelled on Japanese voice actress Saki Fujita. Fans often mimic Miku’s hair and dress, frequently treating her as entirely real.

Mitchell relates the phenomenon to issues raised by last year’s Opera Review and the larger question of what is opera in the 21st century? Festivals should be bringing in different voices and sparking debate, he believes. “Australians won’t be familiar with that vocaloid singing style,” he says. “Probably from a musically critical ear, you might question it, but it’s clearly a valid form of entertainment being appropriated as contemporary opera.”

Hatsune Miku in The End. Photo © Kenshu Shinsubo

The End has been written by Keiichiro Shibuya, a prolific Japanese composer, who turned out to be a fan of Miku. “He loved the idea of thinking outside of the box and asking why can’t I create my own opera with one of the biggest stars in Japan?” Mitchell explains. “With the rights to use Miku, he engaged Toshiki Okada, one of the best known playwrights in Japan to do the libretto, and his wife, who unfortunately passed away, was able to get Marc Jacobs – Louis Vuitton’s artistic director – to do the costume design.”

“Because of the tragedy with his wife, Shibuya was thinking about life and death and a future when we might put all of our love and faith into virtual characters we perceive to be real. So this opera is about a girl questioning her own identity. Is she a human being, or is she not a human being? And is she mortal, or is she immortal? On the surface she’s a 16-year-old pop star, but behind all of that she’s a complex artificial intelligence that can potentially outlive all of us. There are so many grand operatic themes that sit within the framework of this piece, and Shibuya’s tapped into that.”

OzAsia contains many more intriguing productions, from dance to music (classical, electronic and experimental) to theatre and visual art, but one other stands out for its enigmatic aura and sheer sense of theatrical boldness. The Dark Inn comes from renowned Japanese theatre auteur Kuro Tanino and tells the tale of a puppeteer and his dwarf father who are summoned to perform at a bath house in the secluded mountains of northwest Japan. Mysteriously, when they arrive it no one can be found who made the booking. A cast of oddball characters who inhabit the lonely inn proceed to play out a mental game laden with meaning, metaphor and secret desires. The play, which features an acclaimed multi-level revolving set, won Japan’s important Kishida Prize for Drama.

The Dark Inn. Photo © Shinsuke Sugino

“If you like Twin Peaks and that type of world, then The Dark Inn is in that vein,” Mitchell admits. “Kuro Tanino is a true theatrical auteur. He writes, directs, and designs all of his shows and started his career by reconfiguring his apartment in Tokyo to create a little 25 to 30 seat auditorium. I’ve wanted to programme him since I was appointed here, but I thought I can’t do it straightaway. I have to build the audience, because his work is quite challenging.”

“Some of the early pieces are extremely distorted in their worldview. In the first I saw, everything onstage was shaped like a penis, which kind of reflected the highly disturbed, internal mindset of the principal character. The Dark Inn, I think, is his most mature work. It sets up a mysterious reality – a little bit like Mulholland Drive. You’re looking at LA, but is it really LA or not? You’re never sure. It’s very internal, alternate universe type work. The design is absolutely incredible. It’s a complete inn with four sides and two storeys and there’s a large spa bath in the set, so we get the traditional ritual of bathhouses, and the old servants who look after the customers.”

Right now, it seems, all eyes are on the Asian arts market, not to mention the Asian tourist dollar and the chance to parlay that with the Australian interstate cultural traveller. With many of the state symphony orchestras looking to tour regularly to China and Korea and Aussie theatre companies increasingly risking work that looks to our near neighbours, it looks the Asian century is already a reality as far as the fine arts are concerned. But what of our arts festivals who have traditionally looked to Europe and the Americas for content? “Any Festival has to be based somewhere, but we try and think with a national outlook,” says Mitchell who hopes OzAsia will lead to a bonanza in interstate visitors to South Australia. “There aren’t any other annual festivals that are really trying to engage so boldly and so comprehensively with a contemporary Asian identity. We’re trying to reach out and to make sure people are engaged at a national level.”

The OzAsia Festival runs from September 21 – October 8. Many international music events are free.

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