Richard Watts | ArtsHub | Tuesday 4th August 2015

The 2015 program features increased opportunities for conversation and engagement, as well as the chance to reflect on the Festival’s history and influence.

First held in 1986 under the direction of composer Gian Carlo Menotti, Melbourne Festival this year celebrates its 30th anniversary with a program featuring five specially commissioned works, a range of international productions, and three key forums hosted by former Artistic Directors reflecting on the Festival’s contribution to the culture of Melbourne.

Presenting her third and final Festival program, Josephine Ridge said: ‘It is a special honour to be the Artistic Director of Melbourne Festival in its 30th year. Milestones such as this present the opportunity to reflect on the traditions that make this Festival great. They also give us pause to think about the present and our role as a contributor to contemporary Melbourne life.’

Ridge will introduce each of the three 30 Year Forums at this year’s Festival, which will explore three defining questions: What does it mean to be a festival of Melbourne? An international festival? And an arts festival? Previous Artistic Directors Robyn Archer AO, Sir Jonathan Mills AO, and Brett Sheehy AO, will explore these questions in the company of additional artistic and city leaders.

‘The thing about an anniversary is that I think they’re most interesting if you take the opportunity not only to look back but also look at the context in which you’re working now and to contemplate what might be in the  future,’ Ridge told ArtsHub.

‘And then, through those three topics, look at not only what we’ve done over 30 years but what’s happened in this city over 30 years. And then how the Festival might have responded to that, reflected that, even anticipated that, and so in some ways led our audiences to new places and contributed then to the city’s culture in that way.’

Other Festival highlights include an acclaimed UK adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece 1984Desdemona, a powerful reimagining of Shakespeare’s Othello written by Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison and directed by leading international director Peter Sellars: a celebration of the 40th anniversary of Patti Smith’s seminal Horses album, featuring Courtney Barnett and friends; and a spotlight on New York’s and Melbourne’s vibrant independent theatre sectors.

Ridge’s final Melbourne Festival program also provides greater opportunities for deeper engagement with the Festival, with an emphasis on debate and discussion. A range of talks and conversations have been programmed at MPavillion in the Queen Victoria Gardens; a live reading of Orwell’s 1984 will be held in the Legislative Assembly Chamber in Victoria’s Parliament House, with a range of special guests bringing the book to life; and the key work Desdemona will be explored in depth in a University of Melbourne forum, After Tragedy, Listening.

The opportunity to stimulate debate, and to encourage a deeper and longer-lasting engagement with the arts was one of the festival’s primary missions, said Ridge.

‘It’s bringing a work like 1984 from London – it’s something that we can do, but other producers could do that as well, though I’m very proud that we’re the ones who are bringing this really amazing production – but what the Festival can do is add all of those other dimensions, and offer audiences an opportunity to really engage with the ideas and the themes that are inherent in that work, as well as appreciate it as an amazing piece of theatre,’ she explained.

The 2015 Festival also features events familiar from Ridge’s first two programs, including the Indigenous opening ceremony Tanderrum, uniting the five clans of the Kulin nation: Wurrundjeri, Boonwurrung, Taunwurrung, Wadawurrung and the Dja Dja Wurrung; and the final Haydn for Everyone program.

‘One of our most sustained traditions, the Quartets at Sunset at the Collins Street Baptist Church, returns for the conclusion of the three year project, Haydn for Everyone. And one of our newest but vitally important traditions, Tanderrum, will open this 30th program,’ said Ridge.

‘Working with the Elders, their communities and Ilbijerri Theatre Company to support Tanderrum over the past three years has been a rewarding experience in so many ways. The older generations are invited to celebrate and pass on their culture, their history and their stories. In the months leading up to theTanderrum, the younger generations are given the opportunity to connect with and to learn about the heritage and living value of their culture and the people of Melbourne generally are invited to share in this rich ceremony; a privilege indeed.’

Dance highlights include Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company presenting two works by Ohad Naharin – one of the world’s pre-eminent dance makers – with the ever-evolving showcase Decadence and the Australian premiere of Last Work; a compelling dance-theatre work from Belgium’s 32 Rue Vandenbranden, Peeping Tom; and the world premiere of a new work by Melbourne choreographer Antony Hamilton, NYX, blending dance, voice and percussion.

Other local companies presenting works are Fraught Outfit with The Bacchae, performed by members of the St Martins teen ensemble; Speak Percussion’s A Wave and Waves, which places the audience among 100 percussionists; and Outer Urban Projects’ Grand DiVisions, an artistic response to cultural divisions of wealth, poverty, privilege and neglect which features beat boxing, Indian tabla, gospel, and a string orchestra, among other musical forms.

In addition to a strong visual arts program, and an array of contemporary music performances, Ridge’s final Festival also features an impressive line-up of family-friendly entertainment.

From Opera Australia and Barking Gecko Theatre Company comes The Rabbits, the Helpmann Award-winning production about first contact and colonialism based on John Marsden and Shaun Tan’s picture book of the same name. Riddles, puzzles and magic combine in Masquerade, as playwright and actor Kate Mulvany, and author of The Moon Falling in Love with the Sun, Kit Williams, join forces in an epic musical adventure about the love between a parent and child.

Adults, meanwhile, can give themselves over to nostalgia – and introduce a new generation to an old favourite – as Kim Carpenter’s Theatre of Image presents Monkey… Journey to the West, a blend of comedy, music and spectacular martial arts which demonstrates why this much-loved character’s story has endured through generations.

All three productions are co-commissions by Melbourne Festival under the Australian Government’s Major Festivals’ Initiative, as is a fourth work: The Experiment, by British playwright Mark Ravenhill and Australian composer David Chisholm.

‘The Major Festivals Initiative is really an unsung hero I think, because that program has brought to the stage so many extraordinary works which were only made possible by that partnership and collaboration that the Major Festivals Initiative represents,’ said Ridge.

‘And the work that’s been created has not only had a life here in Australia but  for example The Shadow King – which was a co-commission by no less than five of the festivals around the country – has now had a season announced at the Barbican Centre in London.

‘And there are other examples of that where really ambitious, high quality Australian work has been brought to life because of the [Major Festivals Initiative] partnerships, and then that very often has seen us being able to export that fantastic work overseas as well, so the world can see how good our artists are,’ she said.

The 30th Melbourne Festival takes place from 8-25 October 2015. See for full program details, and for a complete historyof the Festival to date.

IMAGE CREDITBatsheva Dance Company’s Last Work; photo by Gadi Dagon via ArtsHub