The ever illuminating OzAsia Festival


OzAsia Festival artistic director Joseph Mitchell has a brilliant task on his hands: he’s bringing together diverse cultures from across the Asian continent and turning them into a cohesive package for Australian audiences.

Bunny © Bernie
Bunny © Bernie

‘Phare Circus is really shining light on a collective that got together only 20 years ago and had a very strong vision to establish artists in a meaningful way. It has ambitions to educate people, portray relationships and find a way to tell the recent story of Cambodia’ – artistic director Joseph Mitchell

It is easy from the outside to think of Asia as a single entity, with a single culture. But of course this could not be further from the truth – it is a continent of huge diversity that encompasses everything from the rich thronging classical music of India to the J-Pop of Japan, the traditional Khmer dance of Cambodia to the contemporary companies of Australia and much more besides. This year’s OzAsia Festival, which marks its 10th anniversary, brings together artists from Hong Kong, Cambodia, Japan, India, Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and more. Increasing in popularity, more than 230,000 attended in 2015, the last edition set an attendance record for the most people ever at a single event in Adelaide’s iconic Elder Park. Now artistic director Joseph Mitchell has plans to make it even bigger and more inclusive than ever before.

This is your second OzAsia Festival. What did you learn from last year and what changes have you made for 2016?
Last year was my first festival and the programme then was very much about shifting the focus to OzAsia Festival’s position as one of the only arts festivals in Australia dedicated to showcasing work about contemporary Asia. For 2016, we’re not changing course in any drastic way but really introducing more inspiring contemporary work coming out of Asia.

Often what I find in Australia and in many other countries is that a lot of people look back to the traditional icons that make up Asia, like dragons and so on, but Asia is actually at the cutting edge of visual arts and performing arts.

The performing and visual arts have to draw from somewhere: if you look at inspiring architecture in cities, fashion-driven culture in places like Jakarta, or underground subculture scenes in Tokyo or Seoul you see this reflected in the work produced.

There’s some really inspiring stuff coming out of Asia. Young people are in a phase where, especially in the case of China, they kind of need to reinvent how to socially engage with what is now a capitalist society, make their own rules, and manage the influence of social media.

All of this comes together when we look at putting together a contemporary festival from Asia.

How do you combine such a vast selection of Asian cultures into a single festival?
Obviously every country has a different cultural background and a different aesthetic no matter where in the world you look. As I pulled together this programme, which is very much focused on Asia, I looked for the links within those countries that are about the younger generation of artists making work in this contemporary society and what that means in terms of relevance to their country.

If you look at Cambodia, there is not a huge contemporary arts scene. There isn’t the same degree of government support for the arts as there is in Australia, and the country is recovering from the genocide that only ended some 20 years ago.

Phare Circus is really shining light on a collective that got together only 20 years ago and had a very strong vision to establish artists in a meaningful way. It has ambitions to educate people, portray relationships and find a way to tell the recent story of Cambodia.

In this way the arts are bringing people together. The work from Cambodia is fundamentally very interesting. It links into the broader contemporary arts and culture theme seen across the entire programme and fits into the genres of both physical theatre and circus.

I’ve seen a lot of circus and physical theatre around the world and this is of a world-class standard: some of the stuff they do is phenomenal and I haven’t seen anything quite like this before.

The programme also includes Cosmic Cambodia, which celebrates Khmer Dance, Khmer pop and mixes East with West. So there is room for two very different things, and that is just from one country.

Cosmic Cambodia: Photo courtesy of OzAsia Festival
Cosmic Cambodia: Photo courtesy of OzAsia Festival

How do you go about curating a festival that covers such a huge geographical area and includes so many cultures?
The programme essentially comes from my interest in contemporary performance art: I travel and research different regions to see who is creating exciting work and put feelers out across the networks of people that I know.

With Cambodia, however, I was proactive about seeking out work. Often when you are talking about contemporary performance culture, it’s really easy to look to Korea, China, Japan or even Indonesia. I didn’t want to take those large developed countries for granted and instead wanted to incorporate places like Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines into the programme.

That said, there is still a lot of work from Japan: theatre shows like God Bless Baseball, dance from Hiroaki Umeda, Kenta Hayashi’s incredible one-man-band, as well as other nations well known for their performing arts scenes.

‘The bondage in Bunny draws on a combination of Macramé and Chinese knot-tying styles as well as ideas around contemporary bondage and partnership as different ways for people to explore their relationships together’  – artistic director Joseph Mitchell.

Have different countries collaborated to make new works?
Bunny [pictured top]  is a good example of this – it’s a partnership between Australia’s Luke George and Singapore’s Daniel Kok. What is really exciting about this production is how these two artists have worked together: they’re both highly regarded in their own right in the performance and contemporary dance scenes of their own countries and this collaborative work has been supported by numerous producers.

I saw the Bunny premiere in Japan at the start of the year and I thought, ‘This has to be in the festival.’ The bondage in Bunny draws on a combination of Macramé and Chinese knot-tying styles as well as ideas around contemporary bondage and partnership as different ways for people to explore their relationships together.

Everyone will have a different idea of what this show is about. Before they see it for themselves they may have some nervousness around the world of bondage as something that is masochistic.

What this show does for me personally is demonstrate how two people can engage in techniques, such as rope tying or bondage, in a beautiful and inventive way that brings people together.

It doesn’t just bring the two performers together. You can see, as an audience member, that the performers already have a close relationship. What it does is actually bring the audience into the experience of bondage and disarms any kind of prejudice and any fear we have about it.

By the time you get to the end of this experience, which lasts two hours, the people are very much kind of ‘tied up’ together, sometimes literally and sometimes emotionally.

What’s great for our festival is that there’s a kind of literal and metaphorical tying together of Asian, Australian and Singaporean cultures. There are so many layers to OzAsia Festival. Bondage can sometimes make people anxious and Bunny breaks these preconceptions down – you leave the show with a very warm feeling.

Lantern parade  © Claudio Raschella
Lantern parade © Claudio Raschella

Your programming last year put community cohesion at its centre, has this produced results?
As artistic director my view is that there should be something for everybody and that the festival is about community. On another level, it’s very much about introducing contemporary arts and facilitating community participation at our multicultural events. My view, as artistic director, is that there should be something for everybody and that the festival is about community.’

Some of our most attended events are the free and outdoor events: one such event is the Moon Lantern Festival, the largest lantern parade in Australia. Around 1,200 people carry lanterns through this giant parade that stands at around a kilometre long. Last year, 50,000 spectators turned up, which broke records for attendance here in South Australia for an event in Elder Park.

We’ve taken our community strand a little bit further this year because we are celebrating our 10th anniversary. We wanted to do something to bring the community programming alongside our contemporary arts programming, so more people cross that bridge [of attending arts events].

With support from the federal and state governments we programmed 10 nights of free music for the general public in Elder Park, the most popular outdoor location in Adelaide. Here we’ve got 23 international acts coming on stage, we are presenting world premieres, work from Indonesia, contemporary performances from places like Taiwan and Korea, and some East and West fusion music with traditional Chinese instruments, pop stars, and jazz from Hong Kong – it’s a really big mix of genres.

Everyone is welcome to come and watch major concerts for free with community performances being presented on stage before the main acts. You can participate and hang out at the Good Fortune Markets every night during the 10-day festival period.

Does that mean free and affordable events are crucial to the success of the festival? Are there some events where it is necessary that you charge more?
Affordability is so important at OzAsia Festival because outside of the free events, which obviously speak for themselves, a lot of our contemporary arts programming has never been to Australia before. So if you are rolling out Robert Wilson for the 20th time, yes you can charge AUD100-AUD200 (€70-€140) because of the track record of that particular artist.

But when you are talking about directors such as Meng Jinghui, who is arguably the most prolific contemporary theatre director in China, you have to price accordingly for an Australian audience less familiar with his profile.

If you have a coffee with him in Beijing there will almost always be people beside you asking for his autograph – he is absolutely huge there, and his shows sell out theatres across China. Few people in Australia know who is, but in China fans are paying upwards of AUD200 a ticket to see his work.

So we have to be careful that artists with very high profiles in their own country are priced correctly. When we are introducing existing artists for the first time to our existing Australian audiences we keep the price low, and then grow the market for them so that ten years from now, when they’ve been back year on year, their profile has stature. Then from the economies of scale within the existing arts market, you can reflect ticket prices accurately.

During my tenure at OzAsia Festival my interest is in introducing this talent to the Australian market so that in future years and generations they become as established as Robert Lepage or Robert Wilson or any of those regular European or North American artists or arts companies that do the circuits around festivals.

Is Australia particularly suited to large-scale free outdoor events?
Australia is a large country with big open spaces – outdoor events are very much part of the Australian identity. The arts should be for everybody and you can address that need that by looking at existing arts crowds with ticketed theatres and performances and servicing that, but also growing arts audiences for the future.

I think that there’s a collective belief in Australia that making the arts accessible to all through free or outdoor events and programming is an entry point for growing audiences for the future. That includes making sure we programme work to suit changing demographics.

Over the last 20 to 30 years we have experienced increases in migration and so the arts should reflect that: now second and third generation migrants, like my own family, are settled here (I grew up in Newcastle, New South Wales). For migrant communities there is a personal need to focus on education and work as a priority – the arts in this context are considered to be something of a luxury in any country.

Therefore, ensuring we have accessible and free events sets the tone for the future of arts. As generations move on, I think Australian festivals in particular, will have that at the forefront of their minds.

What about audiences: who attends OzAsia Festival?
We can look at the data to monitor the demographic but I think it is more important to stand at the front of house and look around you. By being physically present you can see who is sitting in the audience in the park and at the venues.

Whilst OzAsia Festival has a very strong arts programme, we want to be very sure that it’s not just the established arts crowd attending OzAsia Festival events. I’m proud to say that we have a very broad audience.