Perth International Arts Festival’s 2016 offering celebrates homegrown talent alongside imported works.

On the cusp of entering its 64th year, the Perth International Arts Festival is the longest running of Australia’s major annual cultural celebrations. Old it may be, but it is by no means tired, as 2016’s offering, announced this evening, opens the latest chapter in the annals of PIAF’s six-decade history. This is the first of four programmes, from 2016 to 2019, that will be curated by the Festival’s latest steward, Wendy Martin, who succeeded Jonathan Holloway as Director earlier this year.

Unlike her predecessor, but in step with a trend that has extended to all but one other of Australia’s international arts festivals in the past year, Martin is Australian. Yet her personal legend offers a unique perspective on curating this West Australian event. Originally from Sydney, Davis was formerly the Head of Theatre and Dance at the Sydney Opera House before relocating to London to curate the Southbank Centre’s dance offering.  As an Australian but still a relative newcomer to Perth, bringing prestigious credentials acquired both at home and abroad, Martin is both connected to this city’s culture and yet an outsider, able to tap into the familiar while also attracting that which is more exotic.

Wendy Martin

This duality is writ large across Martin’s inaugural festival, which is as much about celebrating the cultural riches on Perth’s doorstep as it is about inviting the world’s great artists to cross its threshold. “Like any arts festival, artists are the heroes. It’s through the lens of their imagination that we get to see and understand and reimagine our world,” Martin shares. “But the thing that really distinguishes any festival is the place in which it happens.” Describing herself as a “detective,” Martin has spent the past nine months since she relocated from London to Perth exploring and immersing herself in her new city. “I’ve spent this year discovering clues and trying to understand what makes this place tick,” she says of her time in the West Australian capital. “It was important that my four festivals be inspired by a sense of place.”

To that end, Martin’s 2016 selection does not merely reflect the cultural tastes of this city, but mirrors in its scale and ambition the very fabric of Western Australian society. “Perth is the most remote capital city in the world, but it’s situated rather wonderfully in the centre of the rest of Australia and the Indian Ocean rim,” Martin observes as I speak to her on the eve of the unveiling of her debut programme. “Perth, and in fact Western Australia, is made up of a collection of really diverse communities: one in three people were not born here; there’s an incredibly rich indigenous history here; the south-west of Western Australia is one of the most biodiverse places in the world.”

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Apocrifu

This cultural, natural and historical vibrancy has inspired an epic opening event, that unlike previous years isn’t about exhibiting an imported spectacle, but about celebrating the creative fertility of the Festival’s host city. Home, a free event staged in Langley Park, aims to examine the concept of ‘home’ through the prism of its most treasured native talents. The roll call of contributors is gold plated, featuring some of West Australia’s finest artists such as Helpmann and APRA Award-winning composer Iain Grandage, Oscar-winning filmmaker and artist Shaun Tan, visionary author Tim Winton, revered Aboriginal actor, musician and artist Richard Walley, and director Nigel Jamieson, to name just a handful. Home is also about making PIAF accessible to all, and will draw on Perth’s impressive stable of rock and indie legends, such as The Panics, The Triffids, The Waifs and the Pigram Brothers. Together this collection of Perth’s best and brightest will inhabit a three storey, 60-meter wide purpose built house acting as both the stage for this event and an art installation-style focal point during the rest of the festival.

If home truly is where the heart is, as the proverb tells us, then surely this Home is the heart of Martin’s first PIAF. However, there is one artform that Martin admits is particularly close to her own heart. Dance and physical theatre have been a central element of Martin’s career, through her curatorial work for the Sydney Opera House and London’s Southbank Centre. So unsurprisingly Martin has chosen some of the world’s most radical theatre-makers on the bleeding edge of contemporary choreography to headline her festival. “It’s the kind of work that I love,” Martin explains. “Work that is indefinable, but also unforgettable. When you’ve been as fortunate as I have to be exposed to the work of the world’s great choreographers, you realise that in the hands of these artists the language of the body is just as articulate as words.”

Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Apocrifu is a nexus of physical expression and spiritual belief. Cherkaoui’s lyrical, fluid, emotionally supercharged movement is arrestingly dynamic and yet meditative in its poetry. One of the world’s most in-demand dance-makers, this piece is typical of his work which intermingles narrative gestures, pure dance and profoundly cerebral concepts.

Aditi Mangaldas’ Within

Aditi Mangaldas is a virtuoso of the classical Indian dance form of Kathak, which combines percussive, rhythmic stamping and lightning fast movement with mime driven storytelling. Within places this superb dancer at the centre of an exploration of this Indian tradition’s past and the possibilities of its future.

Joining the festival from the United Kingdom, Martin has invited dancer and choreographer Claire Cunningham to be 2016’s Artist in Residence. Cunningham’s thought-provoking output flies in the face of our expectations of both choreography and the human body. An artist with a disability, Cunningham incorporates the crutches that have been part of her life since the age of 14 into her unique body of work. For Martin including “disability arts” into her first PIAF was essential to establishing an important legacy for the Festival. “What I love about Claire’s work is that she embraces difference,” Martin says. “What she does with her body is absolutely virtuosic, but also defies notions of limitations and offers us new perspectives on the body: how they move and what their beauty is.”

Also, present on Martin’s programme are works that aren’t content to push against a single boundary, but rather break new ground across multiple art forms simultaneously. South African firebrand artist and theatremaker William Kentridge is an artist who doesn’t just think outside the box; he blows it completely apart. Refuse the Hour is a kaleidoscope of artistic expression, fusing opera, dance, installation and theatre into one dense, indefinable mass. Yet within this vibrant crucible, Kentridge threads a guiding line of narrative that draws the audience on a journey through this bizarre but beautiful world.

William Kentridge’s Refuse the Hour

Aurélien Bory’s collaboration with Japanese dance artist Kaori Ito, Plexus, is an astonishing collision between movement, sound and installation. Trapped in a forest of 5000 taut cords, Ito both manipulates and is manipulated by her environment in an experience which is as sonic as it is choreographic.

While the name of this festival, specifically the “international” part of it, might superficially suggest that this programme should consist of exclusively foreign fare, Martin has also sought to champion the best work from the rest of Australia in 2016. Among the home-grown productions on offer is the work of the enfant terrible of the Australian theatre scene, 31-year-old playwright and director Simon Stone, unquestionably one of the most exciting young theatre-makers produced by Australia in recent years. Martin recalls seeing Stone’s The Wild Duck, which premiered at Sydney’s Belvoir Theatre, for the first time in London in 2014. “I didn’t yet have this job when I saw it, but pretty much my first phone call when I found out I was the new director was to Belvoir to say, “This show has got to come to Perth!” Without question, it’s one of the greatest pieces of theatre I’ve seen in a very long time.”

In total over 800 artists will converge on Perth for Martin’s first PIAF, and the significance of bringing that collective talent to Western Australia isn’t lost on the new Festival Director. “Festivals should be a moment when art brings energy and ideas to a city. It’s an intense burst of creative exploration and an opportunity for shared experiences.” For Martin, the Festival also offers a rare, but valuable moment when the people of Perth – and the thousands who come from across Western Australia and interstate for the event – can disengage and decompress from the hyperlinked, sensory bombardment of our tech-driven lives. “We lead so much of our lives in front of screens, on our own” Martin observes. “Art gives us an impetus to connect again, in a way I miss a lot. It’s an opportunity for people to sit in the darkness together and discover big ideas. This is why it’s so important: this is what the arts can do.”

Full details of the 2016 Perth International Arts Festival is available now.

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