Of all the parts of our society which have been affected by Covid, none has been more ravaged than the Arts sector. It is a product of brilliant management by the Festival’s two directors, Rachel Healy and Neil Armfield, combined with just enough luck with the timing of the festival, early March, that it has taken place in all three years of the pandemic.
The Adelaide Festival is a cultural flagship of Australia. Modelled on the Edinburgh Festival, it has throughout its history staged works unfamiliar to Australian audiences. It has mounted the first performances in this country of both of Berg’s operas, of Britten’s Death in Venice, of Louis Andriessen’s Writing to Vermeer, of Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach, and many others. This year they are staging an even more unusual work, Rimsk-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel.
I have been in Adelaide for three days, and I have seen six shows, which, later today, I will write about individually. The oratorio Watershed: the death of Dr Duncan, and the play Juliet and Romeo are challenging and innovative; the three concerts by the Australian Haydn Ensemble, called collectively Haydn’s Solar Poetics, are at the cutting edge of historically informed performance practice of early music; and Pina Bausch’s electrifying choreography of The Rite of Spring is an apotheosis of Stravinsky’s colossal work, written just over a hundred years ago.
But what struck me most profoundly was not just how different all these performances are from each other, but how in different ways they all address the idea of difference itself. Most strikingly, of course, in Watershed, which is about the gradual process of integrating homosexuality into the consciousness of a predominantly heterosexaul world, a process prompted in Adelaide by the murder of Dr Duncan in 1972. But the theme of the reconciliation of difference is present in the production of The Rite of Spring, where the dancers are from West Africa, and trained in Senegal; in The Golden Cockerel, where the three principal singers are from the Ukraine and Russia; and even in Haydn’s Poetics, where the difference in all aspects of sound, performance style, and instruments from what we know from the mainstream modern Western performance practice is reconciled with modern audiences’ preconceptions.
This theme was showcased powerfully in the Festival’s opening show, Macro. Held in the open air at the Adelaide Oval, this combined the amazing talents of the acrobats of Gravity and Other Myths with the group Djuki Mala from Arnhem Land, the Aurora choir, and a small contingent from Scotland. (This entire show will go to the Edinburgh Festival later this year. In his introduction to the show Neil Armfield said that the organisers from Edinburgh had asked not only for the Australian performers but also some Australian weather. Neil replied, he said, that our prime minister was working on that, but that it might be a few years before Edinburgh had Australia’s climate…) The structure of Macro was parts of the spell-binding show Pulse, which Gravity and Other Myths staged at last year’s Festival. The ease with which the performers from Arnhem Land integrated themselves into the work of the acrobats, including going three-high, was jaw-dropping. And the moment of repose when Kathleen Macinnes sang a song in Scottish Gaelic blew a cold wind in from the North Atlantic - it was like walking into an air-conditioned room on a 35 degree day. In the context of the white and black performers on the stage, this song served as a reminder of a kinship Australia has with Scotland. Both our First Nations people and the Scots have been attacked, murdered, and appropriated by the English, but neither have been defeated.
At the beginning of the performance Karl Winder Telfer, a Kaurna elder, supported by performers from Yellaka, invoked the spirit fire, which all the many performers breathed in one by one during the ceremonial opening. Telfer spoke about the gradual re-establishment of indigenous culture in the Kaurna region, and by implication Australia in general. His voice, in its authority and power, connected all that took place upon the stage with the ground they were on, reminding us that many of the venues of the Adelaide Festival are on Country which has always had ceremony.
The Adelaide Festival acknowledges this, and draws strength and authenticity from this knowledge.
2022 Adelaide Festival
Venue: Various | Adelaide SA
Bookings: www.adelaidefestival.com.au | BASS 131 246