Warm up with 18 days of hot art at Darwin Festival

Richard Watts

Instead of shivering through August, perhaps it’s time to embrace the thriving culture of the Top End?
Warm up with 18 days of hot art at Darwin Festival

Photo by Elise Derwin for Darwin Festival.

The best festivals respond to the temperament and tone of their cities and their people, and Darwin Festival is no exception. Running from 9-26 August, the Festival makes the most of the Northern Territory’s dry season – warm, temperate days and pleasant nights – with a program that reflects and celebrates the unique character and cultural mix of Australia’s northernmost capital city.

Across 18 days in August, while residents of the southern states will be shivering through the last weeks of winter, Territorians will be out and about across the city, embracing a festival program that’s found the sweet spot between community celebration and international arts festival.

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‘We think of Darwin Festival as an international arts festival with a local heart. Striking the right balance in Darwin between those two desires and getting that balance right creates a frisson that really makes Darwin Festival special,’ said Darwin Festival Artistic Director, Felix Preval.

Theatre, dance, music, comedy and cabaret, and First Nations performances from Australia, Aotearoa/New Zealand and Canada; this year’s Darwin Festival program speaks directly to the diverse population of the Top End, while also tempting them with artistic experiences which might otherwise never tour the Territory.

‘The Festival plays a really critical role in terms of bringing in contemporary performance to Darwin and the Northern Territory – and in striking that balance curatorially between what we know Darwin loves already, and what we think will push buttons and get the city to respond in another way. It’s all part of the fun,’ Preval explained.

Learn more about the 2018 Darwin Festival program

The festival also reflects Darwin’s geographic location at the northern edge of the continent, the city’s cultural diversity, and the Territory’s connection with South-East Asia and the Asia-Pacific, according to Darwin Festival CEO Emily Mann.

‘Darwin is a unique melting pot, and that enables our Festival to draw together the most incredibly culturally diverse program,’ she said.

‘We are very focused on our neighbours to the north; we draw heavily on the talents that come out of those regions and forging stronger cultural relations there. We have definitely steered well away from the Eurocentric model of programming, and a lot of that comes from listening to our community.

‘But then we also have that element of Darwin that just wants to laugh, and so we have a very strong comedy and cabaret program which audiences respond to enormously, because Territorians have a fantastic and wicked sense of humour,’ Mann said.

Singaporean comedian Sharul Channa. Image supplied.

BRINGING THE NATION TO DARWIN

Mann, who took up her role in February 2016, and Preval, who acted as Artistic Director in 2017 before being officially appointed to the position later that same year, are united in their belief that Darwin Festival is one of the nation’s premier cultural events – and they want more people to know about it.

‘There’s a strong festival circuit across the southern states and it’s time that people also made the trek north to come and see what the tropics have to offer – to see the amazing cultural talent coming out of the Top End. Darwin Festival is the only major international arts festival on in August in Australia. We want to build a focus on the Top End in August annually,’ Mann said.

Visitors to Darwin Festival have the opportunity to experience works they may not see anywhere else in the country, such as stand-up from Sharul Channa, Singapore’s only full-time female comedian; Gao Shan Liu Shui (High Mountain Flowing Water), an enchanting blend of opera, poetry and classical Chinese music; and In Your Blood by acclaimed local company Tracks Dance Company; a cross-cultural and inter-generational dance work choreographed by a range of Australian artists of Sri Lankan, Balinese and Northern Territory descent.

The program also features a significant number of keystone Indigenous arts events, Preval noted, including the 12th Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair, the 35th Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Awards and the 15th National Indigenous Music Awards, which all take place across Darwin Festival’s opening weekend.

‘Darwin Festival prides itself on being a leading presenter in Indigenous arts. We have been for a very long time and it’s still very much central to the character and the curatorial approach of the Festival,’ Preval told ArtsHub.

‘Visual arts events are a major drawcard for people coming to the festival. They create a critical mass, particularly across the opening weekend of the Festival, of Indigenous artists from around the country as well as Indigenous arts lovers. It’s a really special part of the festival.

‘The performing arts program brings another incredible raft of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders through the Festival, and the visual arts program expands that conversation much more so. It allows us to work with artists and organisations, some of whom are from the remotest communities of the Top End, and bring them to this single place of shared celebration and shared understanding. It’s also a critical point for the buying and selling of work.’

Yolngu performing artist Gawurra. Image supplied.

Programming significant Territory artists like Gawurra, Baker Boy, David Spry and Stevie Jean – ‘all of whom are fantastic music acts at the top of their game’ – offers such artists an important opportunity for national exposure, Preval continued.

‘For those artists who are locally based, the opportunities to travel are far fewer – the country is so big – and we know that people who come and look out for that local connection in the Festival program are often excited by the high quality and interesting character of those artists,’ he said.

While the dominant cultural narratives around the Northern Territory are often focused on Darwin’s frontier status, the rugged beauty of Kakadu, and – thanks to the irreverent tone of the NT News – crocodiles, Mann is keen to emphasise that there’s so much more to experience.

‘Darwin is a surprisingly sophisticated, creative and extremely multicultural place. It is small and it is remote, but it is beautiful – and it is gifted with a diverse population drawn from all over the world. We have strong Greek, Filipino, Chinese, Timorese, Indian, African and Indonesian communities,’ she said.

‘There’s a wealth of culture, a wealth of food and experiences. We’re definitely placing an emphasis on opening up the doors to the Northern Territory to the rest of the country and saying “Look what amazing cultural riches we have here. Come and visit us. Come for a weekend. It’s not that far away.”’

Darwin Festival runs from 9-26 August 2018. For the full program and ticketing details visit darwinfestival.org.au.

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's Performing Arts Editor and Team Leader, Editorial; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R.

The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Richard currently serves on the Committee of Management for La Mama Theatre, on the board of literary journal Going Down Swinging, and on the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel. He is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and in 2017 was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend.

Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardthewatts