Before Your Very Eyes. Click for more photos

Melbourne Festival 2012

Before Your Very Eyes. Photo: Phile Deprez

THE ARTIST formerly known as Hahn-Bin doesn't like to think of himself as a violinist. He prefers "storyteller on strings". When he plays — at the Louvre in Paris, MoMA in New York City or Melbourne Recital Centre as part of the coming Melbourne Festival — he imagines the stage as "my own magical universe". This conjuring of otherwordly realms begins with his appearance: black, raccoon-eye make-up, hair swept into a high mohawk, a wardrobe of Karl Lagerfeld-esque tuxedos, Dior kimonos and Givenchy leopard-print tights. He's been likened to "an apocalyptic Kewpie doll".

When he comes to Melbourne, he'll bring with him a new name and persona: Amadeus Leopold, a title that acknowledges his newly minted American citizenship and his greatest love: Mozart. "I grew up without many friends and without really having a sense of family or a community and I always found solace in [Mozart's music] because he was able to express every emotion. But, at the same time, [he] understood that life is all about the journey rather than the destination. There's always the sense of freedom and liberation [in his music] as well as perseverance."

Leopold refers to Mozart's father; the names together, he says, translate as "God's love as brave as a lion". It's a mantra that reminds him to be courageous, to use music to bring joy and substance to people's lives. The violinist isn't a fan of gimmickry. He rebuffs any suggestion his flamboyant gestures are contrived to grab attention. "I don't try to court controversy. I live in downtown New York. If I was from the era of David Bowie or Freddie Mercury [no one would raise an eyebrow]. I'm just being authentic to who I am. If it creates discussion I think that's a good thing. Classical music needs provoking to become progressive again. I am Viagra for classical music and aspirin for pop culture. [I want to make classical music] the new underground genre."

Themes of gender, identity and transgression underpin many shows in this year's festival, from the ethereal songs of Antony and the Johnsons and the lycra-clad antics of Le Gateau Chocolat's La Soiree to Boy George and Big Freedia, the six-foot transgender "sissy bounce" appearing with Seattle-based musicians THEESatisfaction. Revelling in ambiguity and uncertainty are events as diverse as Ourselves at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, I Don't Believe in Outer Space, an exploration of the nature of existence, and Orlando, a theatre work by Melbourne's the Rabble. Why walk the line, they seem to say, when it's more fun to find your own path?

They are themes Hahn-Bin has always sought to embrace: "[I want to make work] that allows people to feel comfortable in the uncertain, in the unknown, and to really enjoy every moment of our lives for what they are rather than what they have been defined as." In 2010 he staged The Five Poisons, the first of which was "ignorance". He said at the time: "Growing up, I've had to deal with people's poisons, and they always begin with ignorance. Ignorance about human sexuality, minorities, race, gender."

He sees his art as a means of enlightenment.

Born in Seoul in 1987, Hahn-Bin began playing when he was five and made his orchestral debut with the Seoul Philharmonic at 10. He moved to the US to study with Robert Lipsett at the Colburn School in Los Angeles a year later, made his international debut at the Grammy Awards aged 12, and graduated from the Juilliard School in 2009 after studying under Itzhak Perlman and Catherine Cho. Ever since, he's sought to persuade youngsters to choose "Bach over Britney Spears" through his music and posts on his website, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. When he's not performing at Carnegie Hall, he's modelling on catwalks at New York Fashion Week, creating installations for Louis Vuitton or performing in East Village shows curated by Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, among others. He augments his playing with dancing and singing and casts himself as a kind of "spiritual avatar" for his audiences: "In my role as an artist in this world I want to be the good toxin, I want to be the Botox to the wrinkles and dents in human heart."

On the phone from New York, Hahn-Bin is unexpectedly engaging and sincere. His love of performing stems "from the fact that I was not born into unconditional love or surrounded by friends who understood me in any way . . . so the stage is where I really try to create my own universe, my own island. I think if the audiences see that and are able to transform and grow from what I have created, that is the most meaningful aspect of being a musician for me."

He attributes his love of creating "worlds" to Edward Scissor-hands, Tim Burton's offbeat 1990 film in which Johnny Depp plays the creation of an eccentric inventor; in place of hands he has scissors (and an uncanny talent for topiary). The violinist saw the film when he was eight: "I was finding my way in society and [realising] people were really not OK with who I was, the way I was born, the way I talked, behaved and dressed. Boys at school bullied me mercilessly and I came home one day, turned on the TV and on came [the film]." He immediately thought: that's me. "I'm 'Edward Violin-hands' and what I really loved about that character [was his] innocence, purity and vulnerability. He was a true artist. At the end, he had to resort back to his castle where he created all those beautiful garden sculptures. The movie told me that it's OK to be Edward Violin-hands. I was born to create my own castle and when people come and see me [perform] I always treat [the show] as if they're coming to my castle. I tell the most authentic stories I can."

The show he'll perform in Melbourne, Till Dawn Sunday, represents the culmination of "everything I've been working on over the last two years. It is the ultimate classical recital, a living greatest-hits collection for classical music." While it traces the intimate story of the violinist's own renaissance, the "death of Hahn-Bin and [my] rebirth as Amadeus Leopold", the journey it maps is universal in its appeal. "It's about how one can go from the darkest hour of the night to the most incredible sunrise." It's about how composers from Schumann to Beethoven, who came from society's fringes, understood pain and solitude, and "struggled for joy to exist in their music and their lives".

He says pop singers habitually sing about Friday nights and parties at weekends, whereas his job as a classical musician is to tell the story of the entire week. He was inspired by a night in New York City when, after a week of turmoil and difficulty, he watched sunrise. "As the sun came up, I had this feeling that I survived, that I persevered, that I won that sunrise, I earned it.

''[With that realisation] came the most incredible and vibrant sense of joy that I have experienced and that moment [closes the show].''

His aspirations for his music are as grand and as timeless as that dawn: ''My role as an artist is to be the corner of the big room that is our world.

''If you're not mirroring the entire room, the entire universe, you're not doing your job. My job is to show people what the world can be, what it is.''


Top 10 picks

No Child …

Nilaja Sun was a teacher for eight years in New York, which explains the insights she brings to her portrayal of teachers and students in her one-woman show, No Child … But it does not explain the standing ovations she received in Edinburgh. The show's timely revelation about what happens when a system starts to fail is likely to be as relevant in Melbourne as in Scotland.

Tuesday, October 9, to Sunday, October 14.

I Don't Believe in Outer Space

William Forsythe's choreography was a revelation when he was last in Melbourne with the Frankfurt Ballet and now he is coming back with his own company for the first time in a decade with I Don't Believe in Outer Space. One change is the introduction of humour, which is likely to enhance his reputation as a leading choreographer.

Wednesday, October 10, to Tuesday, October 16.

An Enemy of the People

Schaubuhne Berlin is making its fourth visit to a festival under the direction of Brett Sheehy, and three of them have been to perform adaptations of Ibsen plays. But while the others were well-established productions in the company's repertoire, An Enemy of the People is in its premiere season, demonstrating the latest developments in the company's style.

Sunday, October 21, to Saturday, October 27.

Never Did Me Any Harm

Choreographer Kate Champion has enlisted actors Catherine McClements and Tracy Mann to join dancers in Never Did Me Any Harm by her company, Force Majeure. The Sydney-based company is seldom seen in Melbourne and this show is an opportunity to see one of Australia's most innovative dance-theatre groups.

Tuesday, October 9, to Saturday, October 13. Eligible for The Age critics award.

Orlando

Top international companies dominate the headlines of any festival program but any legacy will be carried on by Melbourne's own artists. One of the most striking of the city's independent companies, the Rabble, gets a chance to share the stage with the world's best with its hallucinatory adaptation of Virginia Woolf's gender-swapping Orlando.

Friday, October 12, to Thursday, October 25. Eligible for The Age critics award.

ROBIN USHER

Swanlights: Antony and the Johnsons

Love the plaintive falsetto or find it irksome, there's no doubting the creativity of Antony Hegarty, whose gender-bending aesthetic is just one string to his bow. With Swanlights, premiering through New York's Museum of Modern Art last January, Hegarty melds aching sounds with stunning stage design, a light show and a 44-piece orchestra. It's all about the beauty of the planet and what we stand to lose.

Friday, October 12, and Saturday, October 13.

Ourselves

This mini-history of video art explores and celebrates age-old subject matter: how we present ourselves to the world and how art can get behind the artifice. There are big names included here, but some of the work is refreshingly unpolished - yet vigorously insightful. Expect to look in mirrors and not always find it comfortable.

Thursday, October 11, to Sunday, November 25.

La Soiree

Burlesque's big revival in recent years has something to do with the global success of David Bates' Famous Spiegeltent - where La Soiree was born as La Clique in Edinburgh. There are old favourites among the troupe (hanky-waving Ursula Martinez, Bath Boy, contorting Captain Frodo) but also other splendid delights such as Mooky the (female) clown and the delicious lycra-clad Le Gateau Chocolat. Thrills and hilarity guaranteed.

Thursday, October 11, to Sunday, November 18.

Hold

Anything that comes with a serious medical warning has to be interesting: this is a sort of performance art piece in which visitors get a one-on-one engagement with an unseen performer as they navigate through the innards of what looks like an inflatable jumping castle. The word is some folk might find it a bit challenging - mentally and physically.

Friday, October 19, to Sunday, October 28.

Impasse

More for the claustrophobes: visitors are asked to press their bodies between huge foam blocks - it's an architecturally inspired work - and see where it takes them, spatially and psychologically. It could be exciting, it could be frightening - but hopefully not too smelly.

Friday, October 19, to Sunday, October 28.

ANDREW STEPHENS


AT A GLANCE

TICKETS
Ticketmaster 13 61 00, melbournefestival.com.au

FESTIVAL HUB
Riverside pop-up bar, performance space, art experience, cabaret, music, comedy, burlesque. Near Princes Bridge. Open until late. melbournefestival.com.au/hub

Till Dawn Sunday is at the Melbourne Recital Centre on October 17.

The Age is a festival sponsor.