Londoner Akram Khan performs in DESH. Click for more photos

The best of the fest: Guide to the Melbourne Festival 2012

Londoner Akram Khan performs in DESH. Photo: Richard Haughton

Every so often, some Melburnians will lament the sheer number of festivals the city offers up, but the complaint gets one thing wrong: the reason there are so many of the dang things is that there's such a variety of audiences. Nobody's expected to care about every festival, but it's likely there's one for whatever does tickle your fancy.

Festivals are one of the ways we navigate the oceans between culture, but we don't have to stop off at every island. It helps to have someone trustworthy steering the ship.

Blessed are the tastemakers, then, for they shall be called upon to guide us.

Appropriately, one of the films screening in this year's Melbourne Festival charts the life of style icon Diana Vreeland, who ''wasn't just a tastemaker'', according to the blurb, but ''created the whole idea of tastemaking''.

It's a job that might seem familiar to festival director Brett Sheehy, whose business it is to shape a program from the raw, messy stuff of culture, selecting works that are both representative of the best from around the world and diverse enough to appeal to a multitude of interests.

Which means your ideal festival is unlikely to be your neighbour's. So, in a festive spirit, here's M's guide to the 2012 Melbourne Festival, organised around audiences instead of art forms. Choose your seats.


IT ALL SOUNDS THE SAME

If you reckon you've plumbed every depth of music today and think you've heard everything humanity has to offer, turn to the robots.

This year, the festival's club will include performances by New Zealand trio the Trons, a rock outfit staffed entirely by automatons forged from old parts found in things such as printers and vending machines. They might not take requests, but they're probably cool with hecklers.

Opera buffs looking to challenge themselves should also grab a ticket to Chamber Made Opera's extraordinary and ambitious The Minotaur Trilogy, a three-part monster that tackles Greek mythology with a modern fearlessness. Chamber Made has long been a unique outpost on Australia's performance landscape, and after several years of increasingly prolific work, this may well be the company's most striking production so far.

 

SECOND DATE

If you're looking to impress a would-be amour with your cutting-edge cred, Brooklyn-based Young Jean Lee will tick all the boxes.

Her We're Gonna Die mixes stand-up, cabaret and pop concert as she takes her audience through an autobiographical tale of heartbreak, humiliation and family mayhem in a manner that raises the big questions about the little things - perfect conversation starters for post-show drinks. The New York Times said of the work: ''Its forthright acknowledgment that life can be a rough business is bracing, funny and, yes, consoling.'' She's backed by a live band, Future Wife.


MY KID COULD DO THAT

Crybaby sessions at cinemas are a blessing for new parents, but Melbourne's Polyglot Theatre has gone one further: How High the Sky is a show specifically designed for babies. In an intimate, gently shifting installation of soft lights and drifting balloons, participants (under one-year-olds only, please) will interact with an environment designed to respond to their own developing imaginations. Parents will be able to observe the unfolding play.

Arena Theatre Company's The House of Dreaming ups the age bracket (five- to eight-year-olds) with an interactive installation that's like a pop-up book from the inside out - a house in which kids can wander and be surprised at every turn by the secrets it contains. The installation employs robotics and live performers, along with projections and common household objects given their own inner life.


MELBOURNE FOODIES

We love to be the first to track down that hard-to-find new eatery, so it's likely the city's streets will soon be invaded by hungry swarms eager to find the Indonesian food carts arriving as part of the Grobak Padi event. Along with dance, installations and video art, the carts will travel around the central business district serving up the kinds of meals you'd find on the ground in Yogyakarta and, like some of the best events, will probably find more than a few customers who wouldn't otherwise have known the festival is even on. Taking art to the people, and all that.


THOSE WERE THE DAYS …

If you're reaching the age at which your own teenage years are taking on a fuzzy-edged quality, get a booster shot with Before Your Very Eyes, in which seven teens present the lived experiences of kids today, in all their chaotic glory.

The last time the German/British company Gob Squad were in town, they produced a ''live film'' on the streets of Melbourne in which passers-by were roped into a drama of romance and rejection that was beamed to an audience at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image - expect the same kind of all-too-human playfulness here.


LET'S DO LUNCH

CBD workers with a busy calendar can squeeze in any number of lunchtime culture fixes this year, from sacred songs to contemporary visual art.

Membra Jesu Nostri is a choral re-imagining of Dietrich Buxtehude's 1680 cycle of cantatas, performed in the august setting of St Paul's Cathedral. The performance by young vocalists the Consort of Melbourne will be accompanied by projections by German visual designer Christian Herrnbeck.

American singer Antony Hegarty is best known for his expansive yet brittle compositions as Antony and the Johnsons, but the breadth of his art is not as well known.

In addition to an elaborate concert production, Swanlights, he has a film, Turning, screening at this year's festival, while those with daytime minutes can drop in to see his exhibition Paradise at the Arts Centre.

Paradise features works that have been washed, burnt and sewn and which explore our relationship with the natural world and our passage through time.

Fans of the spoken word will also want to head to Fed Square during their lunch break - over two days, Square Poets will feature leading Australian poets performing on the main stage, with discussions following.


A SEAT BY THE AISLE

If the whole world of contemporary performance is a little strange to you and you're nervous about dipping your toes in, there are plenty of events that offer a safe introduction to the festival. The popular La Soiree nights are a rapid-fire spectacular of music, circus, burlesque and acrobatics designed for cheering on, not chin-stroking.

Going by his past works, London's Akram Khan is another performer who's virtually guaranteed to impress and stir audiences. This year he's bringing us DESH, a solo work of dance exploring his relationship with his parents' homeland of Bangladesh, and with a set by the guy who worked as production designer on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it'll be a visual treat.


WORKERS OF THE WORLD

Billy Bragg's name is synonymous with both politics and pop, and for decades he's been rousing the rabble with progressive anthems encouraging us to question the system in which we live. This year he's bringing a tribute concert to iconic American songwriter Woody Guthrie, but he's also playing one night of his own tunes from across the years. It's protest with a catchy hook.

Another look at the history of the left comes in the form of The Miners' Hymns, a film pieced from footage from Britain's mining past and unearthing the astounding spirit of communities held together by honest toil. That might sound about as exciting as reading a BHP prospectus, but it's nothing of the sort. The soundtrack, by Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson, is a sweeping epic of contemporary classical music and rises with the same dignity and grace found on the faces of those captured by the camera. An Injury to One Is the Concern of All, as one song title puts it, and the film, too, is a potent reminder of a culture of working-class solidarity that's all but disappeared in our age of mining magnates.


THE OUTDOOR TYPE

If sitting in a stuffy auditorium is your idea of hell, there are plenty of alfresco alternatives this year. Spanish artist Santiago Sierra will present the fiery conclusion to his world tour of demolition, Destroyed World, in the forecourt of Southbank's Australian Centre for Contemporary Art.

Sierra has been travelling the globe, building and then spectacularly obliterating a series of massive letters, and when the last is set ablaze here the secret word that has been driving the project will be made clear.

Light years from the office booze cruise, Bermuda Float will have audiences experiencing sunset from a boat made over by local artists and set ablaze by Californian dream-pop band Puro Instinct and Australian favourites NO ZU.

The four-hour-plus voyage promises a ''tropically inclined odyssey'' with more than enough inspiration to keep you on board the whole ride.


EXTREME THRILL-SEEKERS

NZ artist David Cross's Hold comes with a swag of warnings - it's dangerous for those with heart or respiratory problems and requires a ''high level of physical mobility and personal responsibility''. Fair enough, for what sounds like the artistic equivalent of skydiving.

Audiences (one at a time) will navigate a giant inflatable installation while hovering on blasts of projected air, interacting with an unseen performer and trying to make sense of the bewildering physics of the space around them. Think a bouncy castle designed by M.C. Escher.

Less physically perilous but just as disorienting is Impasse, another work in which a sole audience member must try to make his or her way through a space in which conventional modes of orientation have gone out the window. Light becomes solid, matter loses its materiality and your own senses might become your worst enemy.


HIPSTER NANS

Any indie kid worth their salt will already have snapped up a ticket to Grandma Lo-Fi, a documentary tracking the late career of a muso who can probably hold the title for most underground artist ever: Sigridur Nielsdottir, an Icelandic gran who began making music at the age of 70 using a Casio keyboard, recording kitchen utensils and the sounds of nature. More than 600 songs later, she's apparently become something of a cult figure at home, and this equally low-fi documentary has been spreading her fame further afield recently. It's the debut feature from director Kristin Kristjansdottir, whose eight years in the company of his subject proved revelatory - ''It's mind-blowing to see a person's spirit wake up. [Sigridur] did things her own way. She just went for it.''

The Melbourne Festival opens on October 11.