David Berthold has announced his fifth and final program as Artistic Director of the Brisbane Festival, and it is, he says, the biggest and most ambitious of the lot.

“This year’s Brisbane Festival is without doubt, the most adventurous we’ve ever undertaken. The Festival has matured enormously in recent years, and we thought the time had come to shift the goalposts,” said Berthold.

Last year, in the Festival brochure, he divided the program into Acts One, Two and Three as a way for visitors to sift through the shows on offer. This year he has used the themes Revels, Revelations and Romances as a way to shape the program – and there are plenty of events to pore over within the three umbrella titles. Over 900 artists from around the world will descend on Brisbane to perform in 454 performances of 83 shows between September 6 and 28.

Yang Liping’s Rite of Spring. Photograph © Qiansheng Zhao

Highlights include the multi-artform Invisible Cities, Yang Liping’s Rite of Spring, an expanded Symphony For Me from Queensland Symphony Orchestra, two productions from South Africa’s acclaimed Isango Ensemble including its St Matthew Passion, and Dancenorth’s new work Communal Table.

Among the numerous other productions are Blanc de Blanc Encore by Strut & Fret Production House, four Riverstage – 30 Years of Music concerts, the Emerson String Quartet, a recital by British pianist Paul Lewis, and a concert by Kate Miller-Heide. In a fiery outdoor event, France’s Compagnie Carabosse will put its beautiful spectacle Fire Gardens in the City Botanic Gardens (after thrilling audiences at last year’s Melbourne International Arts Festival),  Something for everyone, as they say. But here are Limelight’s top picks.

INVISIBLE CITIES

Loosely based on the 1972 novel by Italian writer Italo Calvino, this multi-artform spectacle will be staged at a new pop-up venue in a cavernous warehouse in Yeerongpilly. When audiences enter the space, it will look like there’s nothing much there, but images of different civilisations will be conjured using theatre, choreography, water, sand, projection mapping and other technical magic. The production is directed by Leo Warner, with digital projections by 59 Productions, choreography by renowned Belgian dance-maker Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, writing by Lolita Chakrabarti, and a score by Canadian musicians A Winged Victory for the Sullen. It will be performed by the full company of Rambert, the renowned British dance company, while two actors will play 13th-century Mongol conqueror and Emperor Kubla Khan (Danny Sapani) and Venetian explorer Marco Polo (Matthew Leonhart). Brisbane Festival has co-commissioned the work with international arts organisations in London, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Kuwait, presenting the exclusive Australian season following the world premiere at Manchester International Festival in July.

Invisible Cities. Photograph courtesy of Brisbane Festival

RITE OF SPRING

China’s celebrated choreographer and dancer Yang Liping stunned audiences at the 2017 Brisbane Festival and Melbourne International Arts Festival with Under Siege, her visual interpretation of Farewell My Concubine. Now she returns with her interpretation of Stravinsky’s revolutionary ballet, Rite of Spring, in a production which blends Chinese aesthetics with modern expression, using her distinctive physical movement vocabulary. Chinese composer He Xuntian has written a new score influenced by traditional Tibetan music, which will top and tail Stravinsky’s famous music. Yang Liping collaborates with Oscar-winning designer Tim Yip (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and 15 dancers. The production premiered at Sadler’s Wells in London in May. Critics praised it as visually ravishing though some felt it lacked conceptual depth.

ST MATTHEW PASSION and SS MENDI: DANCING THE DEATH DRILL

South African company the Isango Ensemble performs its own retelling of Bach’s magnificent choral work, using some of Bach’s music set alongside South African traditional songs and laments performed by a full marimba orchestra. Directed by Mark Dornford-May, with musical direction by Mandisi Dyantyis, the semi-staged concert deals with the political and spiritual battles Christ faces as he struggles to teach and inspire people in an occupied state. Isango has an international reputation for its own interpretations of Western plays and music; this is their newest creation, which had its world premiere at the Bergen International Festival in May this year.

Isango Ensemble and Nuffield Southampton Theatre will also perform SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill, which tells the true story of the so-called ‘Black Titanic’. Based on the book by Fred Khuwald, the powerful music theatre production tells the tragic tale of the SS Mendi which set sail from Cape Town in January 1917, taking hundreds of black South African volunteers to support Allied forces fighting in France. On February 21, 1917, it collided with a cargo ship and sank, killing 646. Directed by Dornford-May, the production received 5 stars in The Guardian when it was performed in Southampton in July 2018, with the reviewer saying: “…the  South African theatre company Isango Ensemble transfigure the idea of lament, turning grief into something poignantly beautiful, darkly funny and, at times, sharply angry.”

Isango Ensemble’s SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill. Photograph © Richard Davenport/The Other Richard

SYMPHONY FOR ME

Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s free concert Symphony For Me has been a huge success at previous Brisbane Festivals, with tickets disappearing fast, so this year, for the first time, it will be performed on the huge, outdoor Riverstage. People are invited beforehand to nominate their favourite piece of music and what it means to them personally. Five or six pieces are then selected and performed by the orchestra, with the person nominating it invited on stage to tell their story. Guy Noble conducts.

Communal Table

Australia’s Dancenorth (which has performed Attractor and Dust at previous Brisbane Festivals) presents the world premiere of Communal Table, which brings together food, wine, conversation and dancing. Created by Dancenorth’s Artistic Director Kyle Page and Associate Artistic Director Amber Haines, it features choreography by eight Australian dancemakers. The multi-sensorial work is make in collaboration with John Armstrong, Global Philosopher-in-Chief of The School of Life.


The full Brisbane Festival program