Jonathan Holloway looks to “the bigger picture” with Taylor Mac, Under Siege and a Requiem for Cambodia on the bill.

Jonathan Holloway has unveiled the programme for his second Melbourne Festival saying that he has chosen a number of works that look to “the bigger picture”. Writing in the Festival brochure, he says: “Speaking on behalf of civilisation for a moment (if I may), the last couple of years – globally – have not been our best.”

“There has never been a more important time for us to rise above the day-to-day, to look up and take in the horizon and the skies, to remember and celebrate where we all are on this massive journey…. This year’s Melbourne Festival brings together works of scale and intensity that encourage us to see all of humanity, where we have come from, and what incredible things we are capable of.”

Taylor Mac: A 24-Decade History of Popular Music. Photograph © Teddy Wolff

Among the large-scale works on the programme are Taylor Mac: A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, which unfolds over six concerts and 24 hours, Chinese dance spectacular Under Siege (brought to Australia in association with Brisbane Festival), Bangsokol: A Requiem for Cambodia, and the already announced Tree of Codes – a stunning collaboration between choreographer Wayne McGregor, visual artist Olafur Eliasson, musician Jamie xx and the Paris Opera Ballet.

The Festival begins on October 4 with Tanderrum – a Welcome to Country and opening ceremony performed by members of the five clans of the Kulin nation – and closes with a concert called Our Place, Our Home featuring musicians who have recently arrived in Australia as refugees. “So, we start with people who have been here more than 40,000 years and we finish with people who’ve been here a few months – both of whom are proud to call this place home. And between those two things we can do pretty much anything,” says Holloway.

One of the centrepieces of the Festival is the epic concert event by New York performance artist Taylor Mac, which explores 24 decades of American history – from 1776 to 2016 – through 246 songs. Described by the New York Times reviewer as “one of the greatest experiences of my life”, it features more than 100 special guests. The extraordinary magnum opus was awarded the 2017 Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History (won the year before by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton) and was a finalist in the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The Kennedy Prize jury called it “a vast, immersive, subversive, audacious and outrageous experience”.

“Taylor performs the songs starting with 24 performers on stage, losing a performer every hour until eventually it’s just him solo,” says Holloway. “Those songs explore the Civil Rights struggles, the Suffragette movement, temperance, slavery, the right to vote, marriage rights, the queer and gay community and every form of inclusiveness. He first performed them over a series of eight three-hour theatrical concerts.  Eventually he put them into one 24-hour block – which he said he’d never do again.”

Here, it will be performed over six four-hour concerts. There is also a two-hour unplugged, whistle-stop taster called The Inauguration on October 5 prior to the main event, which takes place over the following two weeks.

Under Siege. Photograph © Ding Yi Jie

Under Siege, which plays over the opening weekend of the Festival, is a spectacular dance piece from China, which tells the epic story of a battle between Chu and Han armies using a fusion of ballet, hip-hop, kung-fu and Peking Opera. Choreographed and directed by Yang Liping, and designed by Tim Yip (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) it is performed under hundreds of hanging pairs of scissors. “Like the barber’s shop of Damacles!” quips Holloway.

Other dance events include 7 Pleasures by Danish choreographer/dancer Metta Ingvartsen, which is performed by 12 naked dancers. “This was the single best piece of dance I saw last year,” enthuses Holloway. “It’s about sex and sexuality, but also about bodies in space and the ecstatic experience. It’s beautiful. After about five minutes you forget that they are naked.”

7 Pleasures. Photograph © Marc Coudrais

Australia’s Phillip Adams BalletLab presents the world premiere of EVER, an immersive choreographic experience using two iconic 20th century chamber works, John Adams’ Shaker Loops and Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen. From Israel comes We Love Arabs by Hillel Kogan – the satirical, political story of a Jewish choreographer who enlists an Arab dancer (Adi Boutrous) to help create a work to overcome stereotypes and fears. “It’s shocking and brilliant and funny,” says Holloway.

On the music programme, the lauded London-based choir Tenebrae will perform in Australia for the first time. Celebrating their 15th anniversary season, the concert will include Joby Talbot’s The Path of Miracles and a new choral work called Footsteps by Owain Park.

Bangsokol: A Requiem for Cambodia is the first orchestral performance to address the traumas that occurred in Cambodia. A collaboration between film director Rithy Panh and composer Him Sophy, it features song, film and dance. “It’s basically a response to The Killing Fields and the Khmer Rouge, and it’s the first time there’s been a requiem of this type for the Cambodian community. It’s one of those pieces that’s going to be gorgeous but it’s also really important. It matters,” says Holloway. Commissioned by the Melbourne Festival and a number of American producers, Australians will see the world premiere. The production then goes to New York and London.

Bangsokol: A Requiem for Cambodia. Photograph © Tey Tat Keng

More classical music includes the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra playing live to a screening of Terrence Malick’s long-anticipated documentary Life’s Journey Voyage of Time, which takes us on a journey through the history of the universe, with narration by Cate Blanchett. A recital programme includes Italian pianist Emanuele Arcuili paying tribute to Thelonious Monk’s Round Midnight, Melbourne-based pianist Peter de Jager in an all-Xenakis concert, and Dutch pianist and recording phenomenon Joep Beving. A vocal highlight should be American coloratura soprano Brenda Rae who will join the AANAM Orchestra for a concert of suites and arias by Jean-Philippe Rameau.

The Victorian Opera/Malthouse Theatre co-production of William S. Burroughs’ and Tom Waits’ Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets will play as part of the Festival. Directed by Matthew Lutton, the colourful cast includes Meow Meow, Kanen Breen, Jacqui Dark, Paul Capsis and Le Grand Chocolat among others.

Among the theatre on offer is Please Continue, Hamlet from Switzerland. A young man called Hamlet is accused of murdering his girlfriend’s father, Polonius. Real life legal professionals from Melbourne will try his case each night, while 12 members of the audience will be co-opted as the jury. Australian plays include The Season by Nathan Maynard, and the premiere of Caravan by Susie Dee and Nicci Wilks, who recently collaborated on Patricia Cornelius’s shattering play SHITCaravan is a darkly comic look at family, the modern world and the need for love.

Germinal. Photograph © Alain Rico

Then there’s a French play called Germinal, by Halory Goerger and Antoine Defoort, which turns the theory of evolution on its head and certainly ties into Holloway’s “big picture” theme. Four performers walk onto an empty stage and start to create the world from scratch, inventing language, questioning physics and constructing new rules. “It is genuinely impossible to describe”, says Holloway, while the New York Times found it “a whole lot of fun and deeply affecting”.

Tree of Codes – launched in June and already a hot ticket – promises to be a thrilling highlight. Described by Holloway as “miraculous”, it is a collaboration between British choreographer Wayne McGregor, Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson and UK musician Jamie xx, and is performed by dancers from the Paris Opera Ballet and Company Wayne McGregor.

Inspired by Jonathan Safran Foer’s enigmatic book-sculpture of hte same name, which he famously created by carving up Bruno Schulz’s book The Street of Crocodiles, McGregor choreographed a dance for each of the book’s 134 pages. Jamie xx composed music using an algorithm to turn shapes and spaces from the book into melodies, while Eliasson designed breathtaking lighting and visual effects.

Tree of Codes. Photograph © Stephanie Berger

Tree of Codes is the perfect festival event,” says Holloway who booked it immediately after seeing it in Manchester two year ago. “[It’s] massively more than the sum of its parts, beautiful and uplifting, appealing to all audiences, and delivered with the energy that can only be released by the creative collision of incredible forces. It was one of those moments where you sit there and think, ‘this is a phenomenon.'”

The Melbourne Festival runs October 4 – 22