Although he still bounces around with as much dash and drive as he did four years ago, in his otherwise enthusiastic launch of the Melbourne Festival, artistic director Brett Sheehy betrayed the faint undernote of melancholy. This is his fourth and final program as artistic director, but it's also his tenth and, he says, final festival anywhere in Australia.
The program itself doesn't suggest melancholy, but it is a less spectacular menu than previous years, with fewer new faces and little that is likely to shock audiences. Instead, for 2012, Sheehy has invited back a series of his favourite artists from festivals past, both in Melbourne and around Australia, aiming to deepen and extend our relationship with their work. Across the 77 shows, events and projects, there are officially 18 world premiers and 34 Australian premieres, though those numbers include a couple of co-commissions which have already played elsewhere but are still honoured here as "premieres".
The dance program is probably the highlight, boasting the most original and exciting work of the festival, while there are also a number of fascinating guests in the visual arts program. The theatre spread seems comparatively thin, although the many hybrid and multi-media works do also strengthen the dramatic content. The music program, at least, can't be accused of being too quiet, being headlined by a handful of rockstars, but even there the names suggest a more autumnal palette, with a middle-aged, nostalgic bias. Indeed, most of the younger faces will be actually playing classical music.
A new festival hub will be officially launched in September, and promises to provide a true centre to the festival. "Some of you may be of the opinion that I've never really cracked a festival hub," declares Sheehy. "I'm certainly of that view. But I aim to crack it this year." It will apparently be a purpose-built, standalone venue in the heart of the festival precinct, close to the Yarra.
Contemporary dance in Melbourne is colossal at the moment, and it's no surprise that local productions are at the top of the festival bill. Chunky Move's passionate new artistic director Anouk Van Dijk makes her company debut with An Act of Now at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, while Lucy Guerin presents an atmospheric study of the elements, Weather. Over at Dancehouse, two young Swiss choreographers will be paired with two young Australian choreographers in Dance Territories. The dance-theatre collaboration between Kate Champion and Force Majeure, Never Did Me Any Harm, based on Christos Tsiolkas's The Slap, also makes its Melbourne debut.
Of the internationals, legendary German choreographer William Forsythe will return with one of his newer works, I don't believe in outer of space, while another highlight from past Sheehy festivals, Akram Khan, is back with DESH, an acclaimed solo work. There's also an unusual though topical collaboration called Fault Lines between choreographers from China and New Zealand about survival in the aftermath of an earthquake.
For the Kids
It's a demographic too often neglected by arts festivals, but two of the works programmed specifically for kids in this year's festival are standouts in their own right. Arena Theatre Company have done some early previews for their interactive House of Dreaming and it has already been getting some jubilant responses, while there's a big buzz around Polyglot Theatre's piece for toddlers, How High the Sky.
The Festival's contemporary music program continues to veer toward the icon-hunting formula of the more financially successful summer music festivals with pop-rock-punk veterans Billy Brag, Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo and Steve Albini's Shellac all touring.
Antony and the Johnsons go all lushly spectacularly with Swanlights, which sees Antony backed by a 44-piece orchestra in an epic visual meditation on light and fragility in Hamer Hall, THEESatisfaction and Big Freedia & the Divas bring a sweaty double-bill of jazz, funk and hip hop, and there's also a kind of booze-cruise down the Yarra with the Bermuda Float, which includes US psychedelic-pop sisters Puro Instinct.
Though perhaps not as varied as previous Melbourne Festival programs, the classical music options are at least more youthful. It's headlined by Michael van der Aa's After Life, a multi-media autobiographical monodrama and a fine example what can be done with opera in the twenty-first century. As is The Minotaur Trilogy from local artisans Chamber Made Opera, who will be premiering parts two and three of their trilogy as well as re-staging part one at the Recital Centre.
The festival will also be hosting two brash young virtuoso violists, one famous for his work on Natalie Portman's Black Swan (Tim Fain) and the other famous for his masquerade costumes (Hahn-Bin). Duo Amal pairs an Israeli pianist and a Palestinian pianist, both just 28 years old. While Schoenberg's beautifully bizarre Pierrot Lunaire, first performed 100 years ago, will be presented by the Syzygy Ensemble and Songmakers Australia.
Sheehy's friends at Schaubühne Berlin are back, this time with the world premiere of Thomas Ostermeier's version of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People (pictured). The UK's Luke Wright performs his spoken-word ballads at two events around the city. CAMPO, responsible for 2010's Anthology of Optimism, co-present Before Your Very Eyes with Gob Squad, a kind of fake 7 Up documentary, but in fast-forward, as a box bull of fourteen year olds play out their projected lives.
La Soirée do their infamous burlesque circus thing, Tim Draxl returns to Melbourne with a Chet Baker bio-musical, and Grobak Padi is a kind of multimedia food-cart experience at Fed Square. It's free to watch, but you have pay for the food.
There are also two solo shows coming from the US. Young Jean Lee's We're Gonna Die is an off-the-wall autobiographical musical, while No Child ..., from Nilaja Sun, is a monologue about the American school system.
Of the locals, The Rabble will be tearing into Virginia Woolf's Orlando in the relative intimacy of the Malthouse Tower.
In its ongoing quest to be all things to all people, the Festival has also expanded into cinema, and now includes a mini film festival dedicated to films about art, Art Matters ..., curated by Richard Moore, director of the Brisbane International Film Festival.
One of the definite highlights of the festival will be an exhibition of Gregory Crewdson's elaborately composed, cinematic photographs, In a Lonely Place.
Over at ACCA you can catch Ourselves, an exhibition exploring ideas of biography, bringing together a fascinating array of contemporary artists.
Last year's official attendance numbers – 912,000, if you don't mind – were padded significantly by the large sculptural installations along Swanston Street. If you want to force people to look at something, that's a good place leave it. With the funding of festivals apparently beholden to bean counters and their economic impact statements, such free public spectacles, it seems, are essential. So the trick will be repeated again this year, though not so blatantly, with Destroyed Word, by the Spanish-based conceptual artist Santiago Sierra. Sierra has been traipsing around the world creating then destroying sculptures of the letters of a word, one letter for each city that he sets up in. Melbourne is the tenth and final city. When he burns down the last letter, displayed in the ACCA forecourt, then the full word will be revealed in a documentation exhibition at the NGV. So far the letters have been _APITALISM. What could be next? Oh, cruel anticipation.