Black-clad visitors and curious locals alike swarmed the streets of an unseasonably warm Hobart for the second week of Tasmania’s alluring and unpredictable Dark Mofo – the final festival from outgoing Artistic Director Leigh Carmichael, who will shortly hand over the reins to experienced creative director, curator and producer Chris Twite (although Carmichael will be staying on to oversee DarkLab, the festival’s parent body).
While festivals such as RISING and Illuminate Adelaide have raised the stakes with competing winter festivals of their own, Dark Mofo remains a singular and striking event, its reputation so well-established that interstate visitors regularly book flights and accommodation the moment festival dates are announced – without even knowing what events are on offer.
While the eclectic program clearly plays a key role in the festival’s distinctive attractions, Hobart itself – its size and compact nature, being sandwiched between the River Derwent and kunanyi/Mount Wellington, and easily navigable on foot – also plays a key role in making the festival unique.
Certainly it bears repeating that the best festivals take place in smaller cities, where their transformative nature is instantly apparent, as opposed to festivals in larger cities, which are easily subsumed and lost amid the noise.
Here, our Performing Arts Editor Richard Watts offers up his take on a range of Dark Mofo events, including the provocative and powerful A Divine Comedy, collaborative drone choir Nyx and more, having previously covered Max Richter’s eight-hour concert Sleep in a separate, stand-alone review.
Look for other coverage of Dark Mofo, including Celina Lei’s Week One highlights, elsewhere on ArtsHub.
A Divine Comedy
Is the 21st century’s version of Hell the military-industrial complex, with its harsh and repetitive machinations that have ensnared the modern world? Is life a race or a just a warm-up before death, a series of hurdles to be negotiated before we pass beyond the veil?
These are some of potentially dozens of readings arising from Florentina Holzinger’s visceral and compelling A Divine Comedy, a dance-theatre work presented in the unlikely surrounds of Glenorchy’s MyState Bank Arena (a stadium more generally associated with basketball games and touring rock bands than bleeding edge contemporary dance).
As Holzinger has previously described the stage as a laboratory where she can ‘maybe teach people about what forms of shame are necessary and which are not,’ it was no surprise to see some of her signature elements – the female body, nudity and various bodily fluids and excretions – prominently featured in A Divine Comedy. The piece draws on Dante Alighieri’s epic poem The Divine Comedy for inspiration, but in a way that places Heaven, Hell and Purgatory on the same stage virtually simultaneously.
Here, Dante’s muse Beatrice was portrayed by Beatrice Cordua, an 80-year-old retired dancer with Parkinson’s disease who used a wheelchair for much of the performance. As Cordua poignantly told us, ‘Dancers die twice. Once when they retire and again when they actually die.’ As the work neared its conclusion, Cordua, lying in a hospital bed, experienced a third death – la petite mort, an orgasm, thanks to a strap-on wearing fellow dancer – but not before she had spoken to the tensions of life as a dancer, saying, ‘Is the dancer an artist or just someone who needs to listen?’
Elsewhere A Divine Comedy featured synchronised defecation at the front of the stage, blood drawn from a dancer’s veins and used as paint for a tombstone in an orgiastic explosion of colour and joy, a live chainsaw wielded so closely to one of the performers that a misstep would have spelled catastrophe, wood-chopping challenges as featured in agricultural shows nationwide, stuntwomen rolling painfully down two stairways to Heaven, a roaring motorbike threading its way through the dancing ensemble at speed and two cars suspended threateningly above the stage.
The sense of risk engendered in such sequences was remarkable, though at other times Holzinger shifted so swiftly and effortlessly to slapstick and vaudeville that the gear change was almost dizzying.
The second of the Austrian director-choreographer’s works to be staged in Australia recently (following hot on the heels of the divisive TANZ at RISING earlier in the month), A Divine Comedy was transgressive and beautiful in equal measure – a remarkably controlled, often exhilarating work that never outstayed its welcome. Stagecraft was effective and thrilling, the performers were tireless, and the use of hand-held video projected live to the sides of the stage provided sometimes eye-popping close-ups of some of the action.
While elements of A Divine Comedy may have shocked some audience members (such as the older gentleman seated near me who loudly proclaimed ‘Good grief!’ on more than one occasion), it would be a mistake to think that Holzinger’s primary aim is confrontation. There is a keen intelligence at play here, a sense of liberation and celebration created by her alchemical transformation of the abject into joy, and a startlingly concise directorial eye that ensured not a flat moment was detectable across the production’s action-packed and unique two-hour running time.
A Divine Comedy was art that made you feel thrillingly alive.
Florentina Holzinger’s A Divine Comedy
MyState Bank Arena, Glenorchy, Tasmania
16-18 June 2023
Night Mass: Exstasia IV
A bacchanalian carnival held across several DarkLab venues – the Odeon, In the Hanging Garden and Altar, as well as neighbouring buildings, and the laneways and streets connecting them – Night Mass saw a cavalcade of DJs, bands and roving performers entertaining an eclectic late-night crowd.
Here flames flickered out of the windows of parked cars; there a giant teddy bear filmed punters from a camera hidden in its nose, streaming the footage live onto the web. Big Ted was watching you.
Bird-skull-headed stilt walkers moved eerily down the street, white wings flapping in the wind. A moody soundtrack provided by Melbourne DJ/producer Brixx pumped down a laneway that resembled something out of Blade Runner. The theatre had a Berlin vibe provided by Simona Castricum and friends, while on another stage, an Ocker-accented rapper shouted ‘I like your sheets!’, prompting the question: is ‘outsider hip-hop’ a thing?
Night Mass was debauched, chaotic, overwhelming and wild – a hedonistic festival highlight for the young and young at heart.
Night Mass: Exstasia IV
District X, Hobart
Friday 16 June 2023
One of the delights of Dark Mofo is the sense of creative risk embraced by punters every year, who will regularly and routinely attend a gig by a band they’ve never heard of simply because it sounds cool.
In the case of Nyx, billed as a ‘collaborative drone choir [moving] between ecstatic sound, noise music, Celtic folk song and atmospheric drum sequences,’ while they doubtless had some devotees in the audience, my brief post-performance vox pops demonstrated that no one I spoke with had any real idea what they were in for before the gig started – me included.
Initially reminiscent of the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir fused with abrasive and heavy distortion, the performance started out almost confrontationally before signalling – with the addition of violin and accordion – a softer, more folk-like tone.
The band deserves praise for opening with a musical provocation rather than trying to win us over with more accessible music before voyaging into more experimental realms but, overall, while the performance was striking, it was never moving – at no time did I feel an emotional connection to the music.
Too, there was a sense of unnecessary complication to some of the songs, as if the members of Nyx never quite trusted the purity and simplicity of their instruments and melodies. An enjoyable enough performance, but never a thrilling one.
Odeon Theatre, Hobart
Thursday 15 June 2013
Held in DarkLab’s outdoor chapel of live music, In the Hanging Garden, Borderlands was a series of boundary-pushing musical performances held over multiple nights of the festival.
Two musicians performed on the night I attended: Australian-born, Berlin-based Julia Reidy and US artist Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth) backed by video art created by his partner Leah Singer.
Reidy’s contemplative sonic textures and soft vocals were an unexpectedly warm counterpoint to Ranaldo’s more abrasive experimental guitar-scapes later in the evening. Their inventive, idiosyncratic plucking, fed through an array of loops and pedals on the table in front of them, shimmered and chimed, softly underscored by Reidy’s gentle voice.
In contrast, Ranaldo failed to impress. One moment playing his guitar with a violin bow, the next swinging it wildly around in the air to the accompanying whine of feedback, the resulting soundscape suffered in comparison to Singer’s stark and striking video accompaniment. To paraphrase a friend’s partner afterwards: ‘Another middle-aged white guy swinging his dick around like a guitar, or a guitar around like his dick – who can tell the difference?’
Julia Reidy: ★★★
Lee Ranaldo and Leah Singer: ★★1/2
In the Hanging Garden, Hobart
Thursday 15 June 2023
The writer travelled to Hobart as a guest of Dark Mofo and Tourism Tasmania.