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The 10 best things we saw at the Melbourne Festival

Rose Johnstone

From 24-hour epics to plays performed inside caravans, this year's Melbourne Festival was a feast for lovers of bold, boundary-breaking works, visual spectacles and new perspectives. Here, in no particular order, are our our highlights. 

1. Taylor Mac: A 24-Decade History of Popular Music

Photograph: Sarah Walker

Taylor Mac is a New York performance artist, drag queen and playwright. But for 24 hours – performed over four six-hour chapters – Taylor Mac was also the leader of a “radical faerie realness ritual sacrifice”. The ritual: a 24-hour, queer retelling of American history. The sacrifice: the audience.

Nothing could have prepared Time Out for a work as moving, spectacular, hilarious, enlightening and validating as this. Where to begin with a work that smashes the dominant historical and social narrative, unearths the pain and defiance of those who have been oppressed, and heals them – in a performative sense – with acts of audience participation? There was the time when Mac asked all white audience members in the centre block of seats to move to the sides, and give up their seats for people of colour. There was the time when we were asked to slow dance with a same-gendered partner in a ‘Wiccan ceremony’ to (metaphorically) kill homophobic songwriter Ted Nugent.

“You have to honour the past, and then deconstruct the shit of out the present,” quipped Mac at one point, in characteristically wry fashion. ‘Deconstruct’ doesn’t feel adequate: in 24 hours, it was as if we glimpsed a new present and a shining future, one in which there is freedom, equality and glitter for all. Rose Johnstone

2. Caravan

This darkly comic double-hander is the work of a team of Melbourne’s most powerful theatre-makers – among them long-time collaborators Susie Dee and Patricia Cornelius. We meet bedridden and stubborn mother Judy (Dee) and her rough, fiery daughter Donna (Nicci Wilks), who have been living for decades in a caravan. In what might be one of the last nights of Judy’s life, the two women laugh, reminisce, reveal secrets and exchange bitter barbs accumulated over years of co-dependence.

The masterstroke of this play is its setting: a real caravan parked on the Malthouse forecourt. It’s as if there’s a tacit understanding that the women in this caravan do not belong in the theatre itself, and must exist on the fringes, looking in. Caravan represents a sector of society that is so often forgotten – particularly on Australia’s stages – and it’s no small feat to create a piece of work that’s harsh and full of pain, and yet deeply empathic. Like Dee and Cornelius’ previous works Shit and Animal, Caravan feels raw, bold and vital. Rose Johnstone

3. Tree of Codes

Has Melbourne ever seen so much hype around a piece of contemporary dance? Expectations were extraordinarily high for Tree of Codes: a collaboration between British ballet choreographer Wayne McGregor, Danish-Icelandic visual artist Olafur Eliasson, and British producer and musician Jamie xx. The story behind the work is complex and fascinating; the trio’s source material was Jonathan Safran Foer’s postmodernist novel, which is made up of cut-up phrases from a 1934 short story collection by Polish author Bruno Schulz.

References to the work’s origin story fade into the background of the performance itself, which eschews narrative and dramatic structure in favour of sublime spectacle. Tree of Codes begins in total darkness, with Paris Opera Ballet dancers lit only by button-sized white lights attached to their bodies, creating the illusion of a constellation of stars. From there, the piece opens up into a celestial alignment of movement, ever-changing installation pieces by Eliasson and compositions by Jamie xx, which oscillate from vocal-led melodies to heavy electronic beats that wouldn’t be out of place in a Berlin nightclub. While this machine-like precision makes it difficult for the piece to strike an emotional chord, Tree of Codes is a largely successful exercise in creating something almost impossibly beautiful. Rose Johnstone

4.Voyage of Time

Works of enormous scale and unbridled ambition defined this year’s Melbourne Festival program. We had Taylor Mac’s 24-hour “radical faerie realness ritual”; a dance piece by a creative supergroup in Tree of Codes; one of China’s most famous epics choreographed by a Chinese celebrity; and – in the case of Voyage of Time – a film about the entire history of the universe.

Taking on this lofty theme is veteran filmmaker Terrence Malick. The film is narrated by Cate Blanchett, and its soaring score played live on the Hamer Hall stage by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, accompanied by a choir. Supposedly the culmination of three decades’ work, the film was philosophical rather than educational; a slow, visually rich meditation on the indefinable spark of life that connects all living things – from ancient organisms to modern humans. Rose Johnstone

5. Under Siege

Furious battles, rival warlords, duplicitous advisors, tragic love stories: the ancient tale of China’s Chu-Han Contention is more epic than Game of Thrones. This four-year war is also one of the most famous pieces of Chinese history; and given that this dance retelling is created by Chinese dance icon Yang Liping, it’s no surprise that this show was a smash hit in its home country. That said, coming to Under Siege without these cultural references is hardly a disadvantage. The first thing that audiences encounter is a ceiling adorned by thousands of pairs of scissors, hanging ominously above the stage as if they might fall at any moment. This sense of foreboding pervades the entire piece, as the story careens towards the inevitable final Battle of Gaixia, and the showdown between warlords Xiang Yu and Liu Bang. On an aesthetic level, the work is a flurry of breathtaking dance scenes (the finale, where dancers fling themselves through a bed of blood-red feathers, is a dizzying highlight), punctuated by short reams of narration by Liu’s follower Xiao He (Guo Yi). Choreographer Yang Liping is in tight control of the pacing of the work, and a welcome break from the frenzy comes in the form of a emotionally powerful solo by the talented Hu Shenyuan, playing the emperor’s ill-fated concubine Yu Ji. Rose Johnstone

6. All of My Friends Were There

It’s impossible to know what to expect from Melbourne-based live art collective Guerrilla Museum. Their works are shrouded in secrecy, and aim to create experiences incorporating audience members in a way that makes every performance unique, and moments unrepeatable. Like last year’s work Funeral, All of My Friends Were There focuses on a collective, yet extremely personal ritual: birthday parties. Immediately, the audience (or more accurately, the participants) is divided into two groups. At the risk of giving too much away (the show really does rely on the element of surprise), the two experiences are vastly different; one of them involves preparing for a birthday party (yes: there is fairy bread involved) and the other incorporates surprise gigs, carnival rides and book clubs. A flaw in this structure is that members from the first group may begin to feel jealous of the others; but when the two groups unite in show’s dazzling final act, the core of the work becomes apparent. This whole time, participants have been preparing to celebrate the life of one special person; and the real joy of the experience comes from celebrating a life. Rose Johnstone

7. Tanderrum

Once you experience Melbourne Festival’s welcome ceremony, you’ll wonder why every arts festival in Australia isn’t following their cue. Basically, it brings representatives of the five different Kulin clans of the Melbourne area together in something that feels a bit like a Welcome to Country mixed with an Olympic Games opening ceremony. Each group showcases stories and dances unique to them, before coming together to welcome officials and guests of the Melbourne Festival to Kulin country and give them permission to tell stories. It ends with an agreement to do no harm – to land or people – while they are on the land. The large, diverse, and entirely rapt crowd in Federation Square is testament to the desire for this kind of cultural rapprochement. Dee Jefferson

8. 7 Pleasures

Against expectations, this show left Time Out smiling and euphoric. Essentially, choreographer Mette Invgartsen shows her audience a different kind of sexuality and sexual behavior; one that is freed from the accrued glut of images, movies, ‘typical behaviours’ and expectations. Following a three-act structure, 7 Pleasures deploys 12 dancers in various states of undress. In the first two acts, she shows us a spectacle of naked bodies engaged in sensual pleasure without penetration or any kind of domination, or even the hint of aggression. It’s as if everything on stage is equal. The third act is the sting in the tail: half the dancers put on clothes, the other half remain naked. The mood changes, and the behaviors are entirely different. Everything is oppositional; physical coercion and domination have entered the physical language; power relationships exist. It soon becomes clear that the clothed dancers have the edge: their ability to cover another naked body with their clothing items, or to expose their own bodies by choice, gives them a certain power. One definition of art is that it changes your perception of either the world or yourself. 7 Pleasures over-delivered, offering nothing less than a paradigm shift. Dee Jefferson

9. Germinal

The marvel of this twisting creation by Halory Goerger and Antoine Defoort is how it takes complex ideas about the creation of worlds and societies and crafts a play so accessible and funny. Starting with a blank stage and darkness, elements of light, image, action and sound are gradually added. The audience builds as the world builds: in the silence, when thoughts are only projected words, the laughter is thin and pocketed. As the possibilities of sound on stage grow, so too does the volume and mass of the audience’s laughter, until we roar as one. Characters revel in their love of discovery, they are swept away by each new turn they take – and this investment makes us invest. Each time they start to understand their world in a new way we also start to understand ours in a new way. Germinal is joyous – but it carries this joy over a story with emotional and philosophical depth. Jane Howard

10. All the Sex I've Ever Had

The premise for this show by Canada’s Mammalian Diving Reflex is simple: six Melburnians over the age of 65 (three women and three men) sit next to each other on stage, press conference-style. Each takes turns recounting their sexual history, arranged in chronological order, year by year – as prompted by a millennial sound designer, 20-year-old Moses Carr. It almost seems wrong to be writing about the resulting show, considering how at the start of the show producers made everyone in the audience swear an oath that “what happens at All the Sex I’ve Ever Had, stays in All the Sex I’ve Ever Had”. But simply put, we learned: that people can be very forthcoming about their sex lives in a room full of strangers; that we shouldn’t take our sexual freedoms for granted; and that age is no arbiter of sexual activity. Read our full review here. Delima Shanti

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