Fickle winds fail to spoil Sheehy's fourth and final festival
The indoor-outdoor Festival Hub. Photo: Sarah Anderson
IT'S been a year of anxiety for the smorgasbord arts-festival model, with arts centres in Victoria and elsewhere increasingly importing the spectacular productions that were once strictly festival fare (War Horse, for example, comes to the State Theatre in December).
Meanwhile the crowded events calendar, complicated by interstate competition, doomed Brett Sheehy's attempt to move the festival to a time of year when mass outdoor events could be more reliably programmed.
So, how did his fourth and final Melbourne Festival come through these strong headwinds?
Critical consensus is that this was his finest, with a combination of local productions that showed the strength of Melbourne's independent performing arts scene - The Rabble, Chunky Move and Polyglot were singled out for particular praise, each mounting a work of an ambition that would be hard without festival support - and imports that found a warm, occasionally even ecstatic, welcome. There were five standing ovations in the first week alone.
Classical music lovers were not so well served, though, with contemporary opera After Life poorly received by many, and Age critic Clive O'Connell disappointed at the lack of big names, such as 2010's Thomas Ades.
Sheehy defends his programming of virtuoso violinists like oddball Amadeus Leopold (formerly Hahn-Bin Yoo) and multimedia artist Tim Fain, and says his music program should be judged over his four years at the festival's helm, which included touring artists such as Ades and the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
''It would be a very courageous person to say [After Life composer] Michel van der Aa is not a very significant 21st-century composer,'' he says.
''Am I interested in doing Beethoven and Mozart? No. Am I interested in … seeing where the boundaries are being pushed in art forms, including orchestral music? A resounding yes.''
One of the unexpected pleasures of the program dedicated to the well-worn themes of identity and place was its nuanced curatorial coherence, with its traces of Australian culture embedded in the imported works. Olivia Newton-John's Physical had a short but memorable appearance in the Forsythe Company's bonkers and brilliant I Don't Believe in Outer Space; Thomas Keneally's novel The Playmakers was a central strand of Nilaja Sun's No Child …; and Antony and the Johnsons' Antony Hegarty appeared dressed in an uncanny homage to Gina Rinehart when she met the Queen.
A memorable snapshot of contemporary politics in Australia was the opening night of Schaubuhne Berlin's sensational revisioning of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People. When the houselights came up mid-performance and the audience became the play's townspeople, asked to choose between principle and pragmatism, spin and sincerity, federal Arts Minister Simon Crean - prominently seated in the stalls, - declined to participate. As political theatre, it was electric. Q&A, eat your heart out.
Audience engagement in a broader sense - one that reflects the city's diversity - is another major challenge for festival directors. This year, there was nothing like Sheehy's explicit attempt to address Melbourne's Chinese and Indian populations in 2011 (with the Rajasthani musicians of The Manganiyar Seduction and the avant-garde Beijing drama Rhinoceros in Love). Nor was there general public-friendly outdoor events like the free opening night performance of 2009 and 2010 or last year's Angels and Demons installed along Swanston Street.
Instead, Sheehy attempted to engage audiences that reflected the city's diversity in another dimension: age. There were events for babies and children, and for hipster twenty- and thirty-somethings in the brightly coloured, three-storey Festival Hub; Gen X and boomer musos (Billy Bragg, Boy George) were alongside the more conventional main stage and arts venue fare, and a film program - a festival first.
The Hub, which could accommodate up to a thousand people, was popular throughout the festival. Visible from the street but only accessible via a laneway (trademark Melbourne), it had plenty of indoor and outdoor space (with heaters) that worked whether the city was bathed in gentle sunshine, biting cold or blow-a-dog-off-a-chain winds. This weather pattern cycled, typically, throughout the 17-day event, but the Hub was thronged throughout.
The festival office is predicting box office for the entire festival of $2.8 million when final figures are tallied in a week, on a par with last year.
''In a festival program owned by a city, that Melbourne's festival can potentially speak to every one of its 4 million citizens - I think this year there was something for everyone,'' he says. ''Whether they found it or not is a different matter.''
And popularity is not all. As he hands over to new artistic director Josephine Ridge - who took over yesterday - Sheehy defends the role of a festival to take risks, not just aim to please.
''It's incredibly important for festivals to hold on to their responsibility to do challenging, even tough and difficult works,'' he says.