In what’s being billed as its biggest season yet, OzAsia Festival can again boast of an enviable line-up for 2018. With Belgian dancer and choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui returning to perform in his groundbreaking Sutra, a contemporary opera featuring the Latvian Radio Choir, and immersive performance works, this year again presents an attractive tasting plate for all arts lovers.

OzAsia Artistic Director Joseph Mitchell. Photo courtesy of OzAsia Festival

“We’re really continuing our vision of being Australia’s leading international arts festival engaging with Asia,” says Artistic Director Joseph Mitchell. “The emphasis on the program this year is to really showcase as diverse a range as possible of outstanding contemporary arts and practice from right across Asia, as well as how artists across the world are engaging with Asia through the performing arts and in a 21st century context.”

One of the most intriguing offerings this year is a contemporary opera from Hotel Pro Forma, War Sum Up. Taking three archetypal characters from classical Noh Theatre texts – The Soldier, The Warrior and The Spy – it explores the theme of war, destruction and loss in this visually striking production by director Kirsten Dehlholm. Performed in Japanese by the Latvian Radio Choir, it’s a visually striking production with manga drawings by Hikaru Hayashi that fuses classical music with chamber pop and electronica.

War Sum Up. Photo courtesy of OzAsia Festival 

“This is an excellent piece of work and a wonderful demonstration of how opera can function in a contemporary environment,” says Mitchell. “It’s an outstanding production and again I love how they play around with the form – there’s no orchestra in this, it’s an electronic score with multiple composers and even though they’ve got one of the best choirs in the world onstage, they use microphones to distort voice because they’re looking for different ways to progress the voice in new and interesting ways.”

“One of the things that I think is really important for OzAsia is that this is a production that’s not trying to be defined by any border or country. It’s a Danish director, it’s the Latvian Radio Choir, it’s a Japanese designer and libretto, based on traditional Noh Theatre texts. I think this is how we should be looking at and thinking about the impact of the artforms that come out of Japan, and how that influence spreads all around the globe. Many of these traditions are being reinterpreted and brought out in new and innovative ways through contemporary arts practice.”

Equally fascinating is Speak Percussion’s Assembly Operation, which had its premiere in Melbourne last year. Composed by Eugene Ughetti and inspired by the one Yuan note, it’s a sonic journey that explores three iconic representations of Chinese culture: paper, ceramics and low-fi electronics. An immersive multimedia experience, visual artists Cyrus Tang and Jia Jia Chen have provided video sequences and a minimalistic set that allows for an exploration of mass production.

Speak Percussion’s Assembly Operation. Photo © Damien Stephens

“We’ve been fans of their work for many years,” Mitchell says. “They’re global leaders in contemporary percussion so when Eugene told me about this new work, I had to check it out. Starting with the Yuan note, the ensemble went back and looked at the impact of cultural influences in China over time, and broke it down into those three categories – paper, porcelain and digital technology. These independent pieces are joined together, which shows you how some Australian musicians are using the traditions of China to create contemporary sounds. So, they play paper, they play porcelain and they play what Eugene likes to describe as digital, disposable hardware. Cheap electronica is probably the best way to put it.”

Among the works in this year’s substantial theatre offering, a new one-man-show about the independence of Timor-Leste stands out. Directed by Paulo Castro and starring Timorese-born actor Jose Da Costa, it uses text from English playwright and poet Edward Bond’s Choruses After the Assassination to reflect on the complex political situation of the country.

Jose Da Costa. Photo © Daniel Purvis

“This play was very much driven by the interest of the director, Paulo, and the actor Jose Da Costa,” says Mitchell. “They’ve known each other for several years and they really have their own dialogue. For quite some time Paulo has been very interested in Jose’s strong activist viewpoints around Timor-Leste and the struggles it’s had before and after independence. He shared some Edward Bond poetry with Jose from Choruses and while it wasn’t written for a particular place or thing, it very much represented the struggles of geopolitical turmoil and post-war situations, and together they really felt that the text was really appropriate for their views and beliefs. So they pitched it to us and we thought it was a great idea, two really fantastic artists, so I’m really excited to see what they’re going to do. They’ll rehearse for five weeks and get it out and we’re just really pleased to support and present it.”

Celebrating its tenth anniversary season, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s acclaimed dance work Sutra is sure to be one of the festival’s hottest tickets. Starring Cherkaoui himself in select performances with a troupe of 19 Shaolin monks, it’s a highly physical work combining kung fu, Buddhist philosophy and contemporary dance. Created in collaboration with the Shaolin temple in China, Sutra features stunning set design by Antony Gormley and live performed music composed by Szymon Brzóska.

Sutra. Photo courtesy of the OzAsia Festival

Sutra is just a masterwork of contemporary dance,” says Mitchell. “Larbi is so busy and he hasn’t danced this role very much in the last five or six years but he’s returning to it because it’s the ten-year anniversary. It’s such a career defining work for him, and a life changing one that saw him spend three months in the Shaolin temple in China. So it will be really wonderful for Adelaide audiences to see Larbi and the 19 Shaolin monks. The other great thing is that the young boy principal is now dancing the senior figure 10 years later, so it really feels like a moment and the marking of a period of time.”


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Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine