Brave new world
Yumi Umiumare's DasSHOKU SHAKE!
FOR anyone who lived in Fitzroy during the 1990s, the Fringe Festival parade down Brunswick Street was an annual highlight, an excuse to fill your apartment with friends and flagons of Piedimonte wine and beeline for Flowers Vasette at noon to watch the passing floats. It felt like a miniature Carnivale; a riot of colour, fun and bohemian extravagance. The final parade was held in 2001, but the festival continues unabated, each year providing a stage for emerging and established artists to experiment with wild ideas. It's a festival with its own anarchic spirit: why not visit a sex poetry booth before a stand-up show by a psychiatric nurse? That still leaves time to make the electro-rock musical on witchcraft, doesn't it?
In the 30 years since its inception, Fringe has presented the work of 50,000 artists. Last year, 3393 artists took part in 330 shows that played to an audience of 256,800. The 2012 program spans comedy, cabaret, performance, visual and live art, dance, circus and music; some juggle all eight.
This is my own mother who feared for her life.
One novel production is Diana Nguyen's Singing 5 Ways to Disappoint Your Vietnamese Mother, a karaoke adaptation of an essay published in Alice Pung's Growing Up Asian in Australia. An engaging tale of Nguyen's relationship with her mother during her teenage years, it raises questions that, five years later, she wants to address. ''Mum wanted me to be a doctor and wealthy and buy a couple of houses. I wanted to do something artistic. She just didn't understand.''
The show maps their severed bond piecing itself together again. Given her mother's love of karaoke, telling the story through the songs of Willie Nelson, the Spice Girls and ABBA was an obvious fit.
''[With karaoke] you can be anyone [singing] in your living room and it doesn't matter if you're bad or good, you're just doing it for yourself,'' Nguyen says. ''[My mother] doesn't have the greatest voice but she really sings from the heart. In the safety of [her living] room she could reveal herself.''
In the show, the audience is encouraged to sing and do the same.
Nguyen's parents are both Vietnamese; her mother was a refugee who arrived in Australia in 1992 and met her father at Springvale Enterprise Hostel. In 2010, Nguyen went back to Vietnam with her mother and ''one night in [my] grandmother's kitchen [I] learnt the story of why she left and what happened the night she said goodbye to her mother. I knew she'd got a boat … but this is my own mother who feared for her life and that's why she came here.''
Nguyen, whose performance credits span Miss Saigon and Underbelly, holds drama workshops in Melbourne's refugee communities to help youngsters identify ''who they are and help them build a sense of community''; precisely what she did herself.
The idea of finding your way in a new country also underpins the work of comedian Tilish Retta, whose The LijRetta Show tracks his journey from the small town of Ambassel, Ethiopia, to Melbourne.
Retta's gags are less rapid-fire one-liners than quiet observations: he grew up in a country where people routinely spoke six languages on a continent of 50-odd nations.
When he learnt of Australia, ''a continent with one country and one language'', he doubted such a place could exist. ''And then I came here and it did.''
Since arriving in Australia, he's completed degrees in philosophy and creative writing and worked as a mechanic and taxi driver.
His repertoire is based on observations of Australian sayings and gestures. ''When I first arrived I was so puzzled by language. So many expressions relating to black: Black Saturday, black market, blackout, blackmail, blacklist. Why does a bad day have a colour? I'm black, what does it mean for me?''
He's been inspired by the duo behind Fear of a Brown Planet and Extreme Rambling (Walking the Wall), British comic Mark Thomas' attempt to walk the length of the Israeli barrier in the West Bank.
There's a saying in the Ethiopian language Amharic, he says, about the ''wax and gold of language''; it's a comment that can be read as a compliment or an insult.
''In school, they give you an expression and ask you to find the wax and the gold,'' Retta says. In the Australian vernacular, he finds ''wax'' everywhere: ''People say, 'I know Europe like the back of my hand,' and I always think to myself: 'Do you really? The back of your hand is pretty complicated: so many muscles, bones, veins and skin. Do you really know them all?'''
A familiar face in this year's line-up is Yumi Umiumare, Melbourne's queen of butoh, whose DasSHOKU series began at Fringe in 1999 and continues with DasSHOKU SHAKE!, a collaboration with Osaka-based performance group Theatre Gumbo.
Inspired by the earthquakes that devastated Japan last year, it's as much a reflection on natural disasters as human frailty; a study of the parallels between ''nuclear-plant meltdown and personal, physical meltdown''. The show combines dance, cabaret and mythical storylines with Umiumare's passion for outlandish spectacle to produce ''earthquake butoh'' - no great stretch, she says, when you consider it's a dance of darkness to begin with, defined by playful and grotesque imagery that tackles taboo or absurd topics.
''I wasn't there in Japan [at the time of the earthquake] but I feel sometimes that in my life and in society, sometimes I'm shaking but the earth is not. There is a shake in joy, in difficulty. In Japan, the indigenous Ainu people say 'shaking the spirit' is thinking.''
■Melbourne Fringe Festival runs September 26-October 14.