Season Preview: Your guide to the arts in 2021

In response to the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, Iain Grandage, the Artistic Director of the Perth Festival, has announced a program for 2021 performed entirely by West Australian artists and companies, with a strong Indigenous component.

“It’s a love song to Perth, it’s a love song to the artists of this place, and the stories of this place,” says Grandage.

Discussing the WA focus, Grandage tells Limelight: “We made this commitment because we are aware that in order to deliver work of international quality from inside the local context, we need to not only support the artists but give them the psychological time to build shows that they know to be of festival quality. So we are thrilled to be able to deliver this in a festival about the river and about this place.”

“We maintain a very strong connection to Whadjuk Noongar people, believing that the act of having performances is an act of ceremony, and acts of ceremony are by their very nature connected to the earth on which they are performed, and so from our point of view it’s a thrill to have a series of strong Indigenous works featured once again inside the Perth Festival 2021.”

Iain Grandage. Photograph © Jessica Wyld

The Festival will feature plenty of new work with 14 world premieres on stage, including 10 commissions, four new classical music works, and over 30 visual arts commissions. It will also tackle a range of social and political issues among them colonialism, asylum seeking, the preservation of Indigenous language, the Stolen Generations, and queer identity.

The theme for this year’s Perth Festival is Bilya – the Noongar word for river, a word also linked to umbilical cord.

The Derbarl Yerrigan, or Swan River, is deeply entwined with the creation stories of the place, says Grandage. “Everybody here, certainly during isolation, had this relationship with the river. Everyone was drawn to it as a place of contemplation and a place of solace, a place to go and find oneself as we were all inside various forms of isolation. You will see various elements of these things come through in the performance program.”

The Festival opens with City of Lights at the Perth Cultural Centre, where a project called Bilya Beneath will run for 22 nights as a free family event. Comparing it to Vivid in Sydney and White Night in Melbourne, Grandage says that the area will come to life with spectacular projections that light up the building, giving audiences “thrilling new ways of seeing them”.

Every hour, on the hour, there will be an immersive 360-degree projection. “This miracle happens inside the City of Lights and the entire river [appears to] rise up from beneath and wash everything away. It’s a big rebirth, a big cleansing of where we are at in COVID recovery. It is emblematic of starting some of these stories anew. On the quarter hours there are other little beautiful things that this environment does. It is largely silent but in these moments there are musical elements. So it becomes this massive clock that is telling the time, and telling the stories of this time,” explains Grandage.

On the opening night of the festival Tim Minchin performs his new album Apart Together with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jessica Gethin.

“This will be a world premiere. He will stream the album in the coming weeks but this is the first live performance of this album anywhere in the world with brand new orchestral arrangements,” says Grandage.

Tim Minchin. Photograph © Kevin Patrick Robbins

Kylie Bracknell, who is a Noongar woman and is Associate Artist at the Festival, pitched the idea of a dubbed version of the 1971 Bruce Lee film Fist of Fury as an inventive way to introduce the Noongar language to audiences.

“When Kylie shared this with members of our Noongar advisory circle a number of them, their eyes lit up and said ‘Ah! It’s Kung Fu Noongar!’” says Grandage with a laugh. “Apparently Kung Fu Noongar is a thing. When [Noongar elder] Barry McGuire grew up in the wheatbelt he had a gang of martial arts experts. Who knew? Amongst the Indigenous communities of Australia Bruce Lee is a touchstone.”

“It’s lovely to be able to share 90 plus minutes of only Noongar language. It gives us the opportunity to celebrate the senior Noongar language speakers in the community but it also gives access points to people who are in the early stages of learning the language. What I love about it is that there’s a wry humour at the core of it, but it doesn’t take away from the seriousness of the need for this language to be broadly known and celebrated.”

Bracknell and McGuire have collaborated with Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey on a new commission called Witness Stand for which they have chosen six sites along the Derbarl Yerrigan (Swan River) that speak to points of contested history. They will ask people to gather there. “You will hear not only Noongar stories but more recent stories as well, side by side,” says Grandage.

In other works featuring Noongar artists, Ian Wilkes (who performed in Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company’s Hecate at the 2020 Perth Festival) will take audiences on an interactive walking performance called Galup and teach them some language, singing, dancing and spear throwing. “He speaks about the mission experience and then tells the story of the massacre that happened. He tells you what it is to have a living, present culture and then what it might feel like to have that denied,” says Grandage.

In 2021, Yirra Yaakin will perform its first queer work – a new version of the Off-Broadway hit and award-winning film The Sum of Us with an all First Nations cast.

Whistleblower. Photograph supplied

The theatre program also includes the world premiere of Whistleblower by The Last Great Hunt, a piece described by Grandage as “The Truman Show meets Escape Room”. Whistleblower is a theatrical role-playing game in which the central protagonist wakes up in hospital with amnesia and needs to make their way through a make-your-own adventure. There are two types of tickets – participatory tickets for audience members who will play various roles, including the central part, and observers tickets.

“The joy of watching people create the best night of somebody’s life inside this context is going to be a very beautiful thing,” says Grandage. “Not only that, but I like the philosophical aspect of what a whistleblower stands for; a whistleblower being someone who makes deep personal sacrifice for the benefit of the greater good. This idea of the greater good feels like it’s under tension at the moment with certain political leaders around the globe. The act of wearing a mask is a personal sacrifice on behalf of the greater public health safety and those ideas are all being unpacked. It’s a beautiful and humorous way of dealing with some serious issues.”

Other theatre includes HOUSE from Barking Gecko Theatre in which the loneliest child in the world gets picked up by a flying house, Whale Fall by Iain Sinclair, which has a trans child at its centre played by a trans actor, and Children of the Sea by Jay Emmanuel about four unaccompanied children attempting to get to Australia by boat.

Written after two years of research during which Emmanuel spoke to human rights lawyers, refugees and children of refugees, Children of the Sea features actors of African and Middle Eastern descent, musicians and a vocal ensemble. “It’s part verbatim theatre, part song cycle for the sea,” says Grandage.

Children of the Sea, Abimanjou Mathivannan, Satchen Lucido, Happyness Yasini, Maniya Amin-Dheghan and Harry Hamzat. Photograph © Cam Campbell

The music program includes a chamber music series called One & Many performed at the WA Museum. Violinist Shaun Lee-Chen, the concertmaster of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, will play Bach’s Violin Partita No 2 in D Minor. Joined by St George’s Cathedral Consort under the direction of Joseph Nolan, the solo violin work is perform with entwined choral melodies in a reinvention by German musicologist Helga Thoene.

“When she researched the chaconne from the end of the violin partita, she found that inside it there was a whole series of Bach chorale melodies that together spelt out Bach’s grief on the death of his first wife. You always think of Bach as this titan of abstract music but actually there’s all of this emotion that sits inside there. So Sean plays the first 20 minutes of the partita by himself and then he is joined for the last 10 minutes by this gorgeous cathedral consort, and then we hear works by Arvo Pärt and a new commission from WA composer Lydia Gardiner,” says Grandage.

Soprano Sara Macliver will perform with Wind Quintet Plus in a program featuring Hildegard von Bingen, Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne, a selection of Richard Strauss lieder, Schumann’s Dichterliebe, some of Mozart’s Wind Serenades, and a new work by WA composer Rebecca Erin Smith.

West Australian Symphony Orchestra and Western Australian Youth Orchestra will collaborate on Dreams of Place, performing Sibelius, Copland and Stravinsky’s Firebird. They will also join forces with local Noongar singers on two new commissions by Noongar composers including Della Rae Morrison.

Freeze Frame Opera will perform The Little Mermaid, adapted from Dvořák’s Rusalka. The family work will be performed in the Ballroom at Government House which will be transformed into a fairytale world as a way of introducing the next generation to opera.

West Australian Opera will present Opera in the Park with an impressive line up of their principal artists, as well as the WAO Chorus and some Perth singers who have returned from high-profile international engagements because of COVID-19 including Emma Matthews, Sara Macliver, Caitlin Cassidy and Paul O’Neill.

Archives of Humanity. Photograph supplied

The dance program includes West Australian Ballet in Ballet at the Quarry, Emma Fishwick’s meditative Slow Burn, Together, a promenade performance called MoveMoveMove curated by choreographer and dancer Tyrone Earl Lraé Robinson, and the world premiere of Archives of Humanity by Co3 Contemporary Dance Artistic Director Raewyn Hill.

Archives of Humanity begins with a tactile journey through a flock of 1001 birds, each made from a piece of black cloth by a member of the public, who has shared a story associated with that piece of clothing.

“They become part of this large-scale art installation that connects humanity and makes us feel more connected in these times of isolation,” says Grandage.

Archives of Humanity features a stunning score by New Zealand composer Eden Mulholland. “The quality of the music is one of the preeminent reasons I chose to support the work,” says Grandage. “I am often saddened by the quality of the writing for contemporary dance but this has everything that is wondrous about classical music while using the electronic medium. It has organic development and this sense of building tension and release. [Mulholland] has amazing harmonic control as a composer.”


Perth Festival plays 5 – 28 February, 2021

The full program

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