Epic, apocalyptic visions on horizon for city's 2021 Rising festival

Scene: Three huge cruise ships dock in Melbourne and disgorge a horde of pristinely clad but virulent tourists.

"Everyone gets infected, everyone dies," says award-winning director and playwright David Woods in a two-minute video pitch. "The whole thing's set in mud," he says, adding ironically, "it's hilarious".

It is the seed for a project likely to be a highlight of Rising, Melbourne's new winter arts festival that will debut next year.

Woods describes a gigantic, epic "durational performance" that will immerse audiences in apocalyptic chaos inspired by the intricate, nightmarish art of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel. He's engaged a team of writers to come up with ideas for the sprawling show that "should be fast, dirty and take nine hours… and take a while to clean up".

Rising's co-artistic director Hannah Fox said Woods' pitch was "just extraordinary – incredibly funny and bent".

But it was one of many that impressed her and Gideon Obarzanek, and their creative panel, in an initial call for applications for the festival from Victoria's artistic community.

Hannah Fox and Gideon Obarzanek, co-artistic directors of Melbourne's new major arts festival Rising, coming next year.

Hannah Fox and Gideon Obarzanek, co-artistic directors of Melbourne's new major arts festival Rising, coming next year.Credit:Darrian Traynor

From 1130 submissions they shortlisted 102, across music, theatre, dance, visual art and other media, whose creators got $2000 to expand on their ideas. Twenty-six have since been funded for further creative development.

"We got to see a snapshot of what 1000 artists were thinking about," Fox said. "The generosity of spirit was really clear – and the ambition. It certainly shifted our thinking on how to program the festival."

The artists came up with brilliant ideas on how to deal with potential social distancing practicalities, Fox and Obarzanek said, with long performance works outside traditional theatre spaces where people could come and go without the impact being compromised.

Digital online art will also be a highlight. Another major work under way for Rising is by Reko Rennie. It's a video that is "really cinematic and absolutely ambitious in its scope", said Fox, in which the Indigenous artist works for the first time with star Victorian soprano and composer Deborah Cheetham.

Artist Reko Rennie is creating a video work for next year's Rising festival.

Artist Reko Rennie is creating a video work for next year's Rising festival.Credit:Chris Hopkins

And rising star South Sudanese artist Atong Atem is making a film exploring place, migration and coloniality in Australia and reflecting on her part in it.

In recruiting a panel of seven curators and artistic advisers, Fox said they wanted to shift from a "singular unicorn artistic director rolling out a vision" to "something akin to an artistic Trojan horse", allowing "brilliant minds" to debate and create the festival.

Atem is working with Rising's latest addition to the team, Kimberley Moulton – who is moonlighting from Museums Victoria, saying she was inspired by the festival's artistic vision and excited to be mentoring Atem.

Artist Atong Atem and curator Kimberley Moulton.

Artist Atong Atem and curator Kimberley Moulton.Credit:Simon Schluter

The festival is also rolling out a monthly musical series by local artists, thematically tied to the festival. The first is a cover of Canned Heat's Poor Moon by The Green Child (aka Raven Mahon and Mikey Young).


The directors warn all work is in development – a lot can change between now and the rise of the full moon (and its eclipse) on May 26 next year when the festival begins.

Rising is a state government-funded replacement for the 34-year-old Melbourne International Arts Festival and White Night and had been due to run in the second half of August this year, but was put on ice when the pandemic hit.

It will "open up" Melbourne next year, Obarzanek said. "There will be a sense of discovering or rediscovering the city. There is a big focus on the content and what makes it compelling – to get you out of your bedroom and go towards those towers in the distance."

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