The Melbourne International Arts Festival is off and away. For Artistic Director Jonathan Holloway, watching a line-up that he has programmed finally take physical shape is like falling in love, he tells Limelight. And as the opening weekend unfolds, that’s exactly how he is feeling.

Jonathan Holloway. Photograph © Sarah Walker

“I find every year that I have to fall out of love with the previous festival and into love with this one, which actually doesn’t happen until we open. It’s not until I see an audience going to things that I think ‘now I understand it’. It’s been a beautiful two days,” he said chatting to Limelight yesterday.

“We had Tanderrum [the Indigenous celebratory opening ceremony by groups from the East Kulin Nation] which was absolutely exquisite. The clocks go back a week later this year so it was dark, and also they invited First Nations people from around the world into the circle at one point and it was so moving, it was the most moving I’ve seen it,” says Holloway.

Other shows to have opened include the circus piece Lexicon, theatre pieces Flight, Trustees, Watt and My Name is Jimi, as well as the Renaissance choral work Lagrime di San Pietro. Meanwhile, there are queues to get into 1000 Doors, created by the team behind last year’s House of Mirrors, which sits on the forecourt outside Arts Centre Melbourne.

Flight. Photograph © Mikhail Bodlovic

“I’m really pleased with the mix this year. It’s quite a broad festival and there’s lots of really appealing things for the public like Lexicon or 1000 Doors or Fire Gardens and then sublime exquisite works like Watt and Lagrime. It feels a really nice balance,” says Holloway.

Audiences also seem to be excited by the line-up. Fire Gardens (October 12 – 13) is sold out, and ticket sales generally are going gangbusters. “Audiences are very good this year. We will break all box office records again, which is very nice. We are absolutely on target to do that. It’s really nice when work that you have seen elsewhere and have fallen for, that audiences respond in a similar way,” says Holloway.

“We hope to release more tickets but 20,000 people will see that over four nights,” says Holloway of Fire Gardens, which feature fire sculptures in a one and a half kilometre square of the Royal Botanic Gardens. Holloway agrees that popular events are important in a festival, but says he is also interested in representing communities  who aren’t often heard. “Whilst I adore classical music and opera and classical theatre, and have done a lot of it and continue to, the things I find almost the most interesting in festivals are those that give voice to those who never get that. So Flight does that and so does Watt. It’s giving a voice to the voiceless. It’s a really important element at festivals. For me there should be something either surprising or confounding or unusual about every piece in the program. There should just be something about it that makes a difference to the day-to-day that makes it a festival event.”

Still to come are events such as Layla & Majnun by the Mark Morris Group and Silkroad Ensemble, and William Forsythe’s A Quiet Evening of Dance among other highlights.

Next year is Holloway’s final Melbourne Festival, after which he will then return to the UK. He says that quite a lot of the 2019 program is already locked in. “I am really pleased with the way it is looking already, which is strange because I shouldn’t be looking beyond the one I am doing at the time but it is looking strong,” he says.

“It will be a strange moment [when his final festival finishes]. I will have done eight festivals in Australia – four in Perth and four here. It’s not the time to talk about it yet but I do feel a sense of incredible pride and joy that I have been able to work in such amazing spaces for such amazing audiences and to bring artists to places that really care.”

The Melbourne International Arts Festival runs until October 21