Art

Rising Festival review: New Melbourne festival had world-class arts, but it was the small moments that made the biggest impact

As we stand in the packed foyer of Melbourne Town Hall, waiting for Mette Ingvartsen’s The Dancing Public to start, Richard leans over to me. “You can tell who’s had COVID,” he says. We are both wearing N95s; most of the audience are not masked. It is a riotous crush of people, yelling and hugging.

In the main hall, the Danish choreographer tells us that tonight we will all be dancing. And we do, joining in with Ingvartsen’s dancing as she moves through the crowd, narrating our need to dance. It feels freeing to be moving together like this. Then, the tone shifts: continuously moving, Ingvartsen begins to narrate stories of mass hysteria, where whole villages started to uncontrollably, unstoppably dance together. No one quite knows how to react.

Rising reports there are 225 events over June 1-12 (and a couple extending beyond that date), in theaters and public spaces – but it’s the works taking place in public space that I find myself most drawn to. What is most interesting about this new festival is the ways it weaves itself into the fabric of Melbourne.

A white woman with blonde hair wears black top and shorts and stands before audience on a red-lit podium.
Mette Ingvartsen (pictured performing The Dancing Public) also presented her solo work 21 Pornographies at Melbourne’s Meat Market.(Supplied: Rising)

At times, this year’s Rising feels like a city exhaling. It was meant to be the third festival, a new offering combining the Melbourne International Arts Festival and White Night that was announced in 2019. The first festival was a casualty of 2020’s COVID restrictions; The second opened for one night before it, too, was shut down by COVID lockdowns.

But here we are in a foyer of mostly unmasked people getting ready to dance the night away.

Finally, after two false starts, Rising has fully risen.

Later in the festival, as I stand over The Hole at Birrarung Marr above the Yarra and watch audience members and artists dig a hole (they will refill it a few nights later), Dan smiles at me and says, “I’ve had a A few moments this week where I’ve looked around and asked: ‘Are we back?’

It does feel like the city and its arts are back.

A crowd of people stand in Melbourne's Federation Square on a gray, overcast day.  They are wearing headphones.
Rising co-artistic director Hannah Fox told ABC Arts: “I think it’s really important [for] festivals to have multiple doors into the program.” (Pictured: The Invisible Opera)(Supplied: Rising)

While the Melbourne International Comedy Festival this year was defined by COVID cancellations – half the shows I booked to see were canceled – Rising seems almost immune. Only one show I am scheduled to see is canceled; the rest all go on. One show I see asks the audience to wear masks; for the others, masks are optional — and the exception.

As is often the case at festivals, some of the most beautiful moments of Rising were the unexpected discoveries.

At Golden Square, a car park in the center of Chinatown that has been turned into a gallery of video works, I walk out of a room and come across opera singer Scotty So, slowly making their way through the space while singing an incongruously high soprano – I later read in the program notes that So is lip-sync. There is also a bombastic parade in celebration of the moon; At the end, someone reads to us a poem about the moon written by local year 3 students. And Paul Yore’s neon crush of bright lights and tacky ephemera grows richer the more time you spend staring at it: it feels like a shrine to Melbourne’s post-lockdown self.

Neon lights cover the walls of a domed venue.  The lights say things like Peace on Earth and Seeing Is Believing
Around 40 per cent of the 2021 Rising program has been incorporated into this year’s festival. (Pictured: Seeing Is Believing But Feeling Is the Truth by Paul Yore).(Supplied: Rising/Remi Chauvin)

As Becci and I make our way onto the roof of the car park, we see a snaking line heading towards a door, and a staff member asks if we want to join. We unexpectedly find ourselves among the crowd watching The White Waters, a thrilling immersive piece from Taiwanese choreographer Su Hui Yu, performed that night by Melbourne dancer Te Francesca. The crush of bodies moves around the space, as Francesca moves with a rage that gently simmers and then explodes.

I also find beauty in the unexpected discoveries I watch others stumble upon, as small interventions change the shape of the city.

It’s the crowds of people who gather along the bridges along the Yarra to see Robin Fox’s lightshow. It’s the children who excitedly yell “They’re burning a piano!” when they pass Annea Lockwood’s Piano Burning (there are several literally titled works in the festival) on their way to the football – and it’s the father who drolly says, “I guess they’re not classical music fans.”

A dancer in all white walks through a plume of smoke beside a checkered panel of projection screens.
The White Waters (pictured here performed by Jareen Wee) is based on the life of Tian Qiyuan, Taiwan’s first openly gay and HIV-positive student.(Supplied: Rising/Remi Chauvin)

It’s the five-year-old who peppers artist Malcolm Whittaker with questions at The Hole, unsatisfied with the central concept of digging a hole just to fill it in later. “But you’re digging a hole deeper,” she says. “Why are you digging a hole deeper now?” Her mum jumps in to dig, against her daughter’s protests.

It’s the people in the State Library working away at their laptops in the same room as Back to Back Theater’s Single Channel Video, a delightfully small work about the value of objects we hold on to; a mix between Antiques Roadshow and primary school show-and-tell.

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.

Play Audio.  Duration: 54 minutes 7 seconds

It’s even the drum-banging “Freedom” protesters whose march on a Saturday afternoon exactly coincides with the start of Sophia Brous’s public performance piece The Invisible Opera. We are sitting at stands in Federation Square as the sounds of the public space feed to us through headphones, a voice directing where we should look. Seeing an audience, the protesting drummers come up into the square and unwittingly become a thunderous part of this small and gentle show. In a work that asks us to sit and observe this public space, we watch but are also watched.

These moments are so small – and precious because they are small. But I am acutely aware that their smallness means they would have been missed by so many.

A large octopus-like sculpture made from bamboo is outside a live music venue, lit from below.
Filipino contemporary artist Leeroy New repurposed bamboo from his 2021 installation to create new sculptures for The Wilds (pictured).(Supplied: Rising/Eugene Hyland)

Unlike a festival such as White Night, which took over the city and its arts institutions, Rising seems to quietly fold itself into the gaps.

There are some missteps, possibly teething issues that would have been ironed out if this was, in fact, the third festival.

Still Lives, in which five Australian rules football players are to be strung up in the NGV re-creating an iconic mark, is scheduled in the program to run from 2pm to 6pm. As I walk towards the gallery at 4.45pm, I can tell the work is over by the waves of people walking up St Kilda Road.

Kaleidoscope is billed as an evolution of Keith Courtney’s House of Mirrors, a popular feature of the final Melbourne International Arts Festival in 2019. This new work is sold as taking the hall of mirrors and adding in a kaleidoscope of colours. When I attend on an overcast afternoon, you can see the colored lights strung above our heads – but they can’t compete with the bright white light from the clouds above, and they make no impact on the space below.

At The Wilds, we spend almost as much time arranging tickets and walking the long walk from the ticket booth to the entrance as we do inside. It is a cold, sparsely populated Friday night and it feels as if there are nearly as many bar staff as patrons; There are certainly more bars than artworks. The inflated aliens are underwhelming; When a choir appears above the ice-skaters, it is a nice divertissement but little else.

A large red sculpture is outside a live music venue, a sign reading RISING sits above its entrance and bar and food stalls
“We’ve tried to … create a festival to be explored and that’s interwoven into public space to create greater access and visibility for audiences,” Fox told ABC Arts.(Supplied: Rising/Eugene Hyland)

The Wilds has over-promised and underdelivered: a tricky place for one of the centerpieces of the program.

Rising is a festival smaller than its predecessors. Certainly, you can’t imagine White Night-level crowds now. And while Rising does have a smattering of international, they are no longer the artists focus. Instead, the biggest works in the program are from Australian artists.

The theater program is headlined by Eryn Jean Norvill’s tour de force in The Picture of Dorian Gray. The visual arts headliner is Patricia Piccinini, whose installation at the Flinders Street railway station was part of the 2021 festival and is still running. In the dance program there is Stephanie Lake’s exhilarating Manifesto, pairing nine drummers with nine dancers, and Marrugeku’s Jurrungu Ngan-ga (Straight Talk) which reportedly sold out after the rapturous response on opening night – I couldn’t get a ticket.

Nine dancers move across a smokey stage, some moving from a crouched position, others on tiptoe
Marrugeku’s Jurrungu Ngan-ga (pictured) translates to “straight talk” in Yawuru.(Supplied: Marrugeku/Abby Murray)

These brilliant headline shows would all stand up at the center of any international festival program, but even so, my experience is really dominated by the little moments of surprise and joy — moments that feel serendipitous. I feel conscious of how lucky we were to see The White Waters, which is easy to miss in the program online and wasn’t signposted at Golden Square; to coincide with the protesters at The Invisible Opera; cross paths with the five-year-old interrogator at The Hole.

Rising suffers, perhaps, because it sits in the shadows of White Night and Melbourne Festival, when it is really something entirely new. It is smaller than its previous counterparts, but also gentler. Perhaps this gentle cradling is what we need right now.

The Wilds, a centerpiece of Risingcloses on Sunday June 19. The Picture of Dorian Gray runs until July 31 at Arts Center Melbourne.

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