Hot in the Centre: Alice Desert Festival

The multi-arts Alice Desert Festival celebrates the diversity of the Red Centre.
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Artwork by Tamara Burlando. Subject: Narile Nakamarra. Image location: Papunya community.

The Alice Desert Festival, taking place this year from 27 August to 6 September, is Alice Springs’ major Arts festival and Central Australia’s largest multi-arts festival. Whether you’re an Alice Springs local ready to celebrate the diversity of your community, or an interstate visitor looking to discover what the Red Centre has to offer, the Alice Desert Festival invites you to take up this ideal opportunity to explore this unique part of our country. 

The Festival is organised by Red Hot Arts Central Australia, a non-profit organisation that exists to ignite creativity and foster the development of arts, culture and creative industries in Alice Springs and across Central Australia. As Festival and Events Manager Mary-Jane Reynolds explained, ‘We provide and respond to the needs of local artists in their career development, and the community in their exposure to the arts. We try to be responsive to what is going on in our community and its very dynamic and fluctuating population, which creates quite an energy that we like to tap into and celebrate.’ 

The Alice Desert Festival, now in its 15th year, began as a community-driven festival and has grown into a multi-arts festival that attracts audiences from all over Australia. Reynolds described the festival’s programming as ‘deliberately very broad, to attract a wide audience but also to reflect the community we exist in and the eclectic and exciting place that Alice Springs is, in terms of different cultures and age groups.’ 

Visitors can choose to experience events from a huge variety of art forms, including dance, circus, comedy, film, side shows, music, and visual arts. One Festival highlight is Bunna Lawrie & Coloured Stone. The Indigenous band have been touring since 1978, and will perform at a free opening concert ​at the culmination of a community lantern parade, the centrepiece of which will be a huge glowing caterpillar called The Illuminated Yeperenye, built by members of the local community. ‘Caterpillars are very sacred animals in Alice Springs,’ Reynolds explained. ‘We have consulted with elders to come up with a theme that the whole community can be involved in.’ 

Another project which will engage local participation is Cypher by Nick Power, a breakdancing project that is coming to Central Australia via the Footscray Community Arts Centre in Melbourne. Reynolds revealed that ‘we’ve extended the experience of that project by going into the local middle school (years seven, eight and nine), where some of the students will be selected to be trained up in breakdancing and perform with the b-boys as part of the festival. We try to engage targeted groups so that they feel invited, and feel some ownership over their town’s art festival.’ 

Team of Life promises to be another Festival highlight. The large-scale, physical theatre-dance-sport fusion premiered at the Melbourne Festival and will be shown at the Araluen Arts Centre. ‘It is particularly relevant to Alice Springs with its focus on AFL, Indigenous and African cultures, war, trauma and healing,’ Reynolds said. 

For a change of pace, festival-goers can relax at the end of a jam-packed day at the Tiki Bar, a Tiki-themed lounge bar featuring all sorts of free local music, from metal to folk, on Thursday to Sunday evenings over the two weekends of the Festival. Reynolds said that ‘each night will feature a different subculture of the region. I’d encourage visitors to pop in during the Festival to witness the juicy variety of artistic talent that is available in Alice Springs.’ 

The all-ages Festival is bookended by activities for kids and families. The opening will feature an exciting street theatre event at the Night Markets in conjunction with the Alice Springs Town Council. On the following day, Friday 28th August, children and families can join in by making lanterns and being part of the parade. At the other end of the festival, on the last day, is Kids Day, featuring partnerships with the South Australian Museum, Alice Springs Library, a circus troupe, and a palaeontology project. ‘Kids Day is always interesting, with lots of different contributors.’ 

Relationships like these are an important part of the festival. ‘Most of the events have some kind of partnership relationship with an organisation locally, often non-arts organisations. There’s a strength in Alice Springs from non-arts organisations wanting to partner with an arts organisations,’ Reynolds said. 

The community is further connected and strengthened through the other events taking place at this time of year. The Alice Desert Festival has strong relationships with Indigenous events Bush Band Bash and Desert Mob, and together they bring the whole region alive with culture, providing the ideal excuse for your first visit to the Red Centre. 

‘Interstate visitors can expect to be surprised by how eclectic and exciting Alice Springs is as an arts community,’ Reynolds enthused. ‘When I moved here a couple of years ago I was overwhelmed by the number and variety of artists there are for a small town.’ 

If you haven’t yet discovered Alice Springs for yourself, there’s no better time. Tickets are available for ticketed events from the Alice Desert Festival website. Other events are free, with no need to book – check the program for details.

Chloe Wolifson
About the Author
Chloe Wolifson is a Sydney-based independent art writer and curator who works across artist-run, commercial and public domains.
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