Interview with Kristy Edmunds

On her last day in the office before taking a well-deserved overseas jaunt, I caught up with Kristy Edmunds, Artistic Director of the Melbourne International Arts Festival (MIAF), to talk about this year’s program from her perspective.

There is something wonderfully seasonal about Melbourne’s festival circuit. The winter solstice comes and goes and, even though the winter winds still chill everyone in their tight black jeans, the Arts Festival program launch and the Film Festival screenings get Melburnians out on the streets, all of them flipping the bird at the frost and the rain and looking ahead to the warmer, longer days to come.

My experience of MIAF has been limited to the two previous years that Edmunds has led but something that struck me as noticeably different about this year’s program announcements was the flurry of names familiar from last year’s festival—Robert Wilson, Dan Zanes, Jérôme Bel, William Yang and Daniel Bernard Roumain all return with fresh engagements. In an industry where festival spots can be vital career catalysts, there may well be artists feeling that they’ve been left out in the cold when others are getting a second go, but Edmunds’ reasoning for the decision is convincing. As she related to me, each artist is coming back for very specific reasons.

In the case of the Grammy-winning children’s musician Dan Zanes, Edmunds explained that, for the kids who went to see him last year, it would have been their first encounter with him. This year, the kids will be familiar with his songs and excited about the chance to see him again, instead of him just being a funny guy in a green suit that their parents thought they might enjoy.

Edmunds cites her curatorial responsibility to both audiences and artists. In bringing these performers, directors and choreographers back, she is able to develop an audience for their work and sustain their practice while also enriching the experience of audiences by giving them the opportunity to garner a broader and deeper understanding of an artist’s work. Edmunds suggested an analogy with visual artists whose work is constantly retrospectively surveyed and considered, whereas the performing arts have an inherently more ephemeral quality. As such, repeat appearances allow us to see the evolution of an artist’s style.

From a practical perspective, it would be impossible for MIAF to mount two Robert Wilson pieces in one festival, but the 12-month interval also allows for audiences to fully digest the epic I La Galigo in advance of seeing this year’s The Temptation of St Anthony. Where I La Galigo was an opera inspired by the story and musical tradition of the Bugis people of Indonesia, The Temptation pairs Wilson with Bernice Johnson Reagan (founding member of Sweet Honey in the Rock) for an African-American-meets-Flaubert musical.

In the case of Jérôme Bel, The Show Must Go On is a seminal work of contemporary dance that Edmunds has been working on getting across for the last two years. Last year, Bel was here with a delicately understated and hilarious piece of conversation-cum-dance-lesson with Pichet Klunchun that was one of my festival highlights. So, for those who witnessed that work, The Show Must Go On has already been contextualised by a sense of Bel’s aesthetic and sense of humour.

The program for this year’s Melbourne Interantional Arts Festival also brings to our shores a number of works by international artists with long-established reputations. Renowned theatre-maker Peter Brook, aleatory choreographer Merce Cunningham, butoh master Ushio Amagatsu and multimedia whiz Laurie Anderson are names that have been reverently honoured for decades. All of these artists have left an indelible mark on their artform in terms of their legacy, but Edmunds is quick to point out that they are still active practitioners, not taxidermies of a bygone era.

The Merce Cunningham residency, with its myriad offshoots into the intertwined worlds of John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg, is a festival within a festival. With exhibitions, installations, films, discussions, new works, old works and happenings, there’ll be plenty of opportunities for older generations to revisit a choreographer whose work they may have first seen half a century ago. For those of a more youthful disposition, who perhaps thought that Cunningham had already danced his last mazurka on this mortal coil, the old master’s form is still du jour, with iPod shuffling used as part of Program A, as well as hip, Sigur Rós perform live as part of Program B.

The inclusion of big-ticket international items like Cunningham is conversely also part of Edmunds’ focus on developing the local arts scene. By bringing important practitioners to town, she hopes to aid in the artistic edification of emerging creatives who have barely enough cash to pay their rent, let alone to catch a flight to New York for a premiere. Of course, she also wants to put Melbourne and Australian artists on show to the world. This year sees the return of wunderkind Barry Kosky with another show originally conceived in Vienna (his home away from home) that promises to follow up his sell-out success Boulevard Delirium. Edmunds also commissions local works for the festival and I asked her what it was she looked for in developing projects. The festival arena allows Edmunds to shine a beacon on artists ready to make the next step onto the international arts scene but she highlighted that the arts festival circuit “is not what I would call a hyper-nurturing environment for artists”. The investments are large, the criticisms quick and scathing, so Edmunds looks for artists whose vision is solid, like Lucy Guerin with last year’s Structure and Sadness and Shaun Parker with this year’s This Show is About People.

For those local artists who will simply be audience members come October, Edmunds has a treat for you too. Since coming to the festival, she has established the Artist Card initiative that provides practising artists with concession pricing, rush-ticket specials and Artist Lounge access in the hope that one’s professional research can afford to be broader and richer with this assistance.

With only a few moments left on the clock before Edmunds had to get to her next appointment, I asked her what was next for her (she departs after the 2008 festival). “Nothing” she said. She’s never considered herself career-driven but, though we joked about the possibility of her opening a very entertaining hot dog stand, her skills as a facilitator of artists will surely be snapped up by an appreciative body somewhere if she doesn’t decide to return to being a full-time artist herself. Indeed, it was because of a sense of responsibility to her fellow artists that she originally donned the cap of facilitator/artistic director/curator. Edmunds felt she could be a conduit between living artists and the impersonal monolith of institution that provided their livelihood, but she has never given up on being an artist herself and it would seem that there are still paths in her art that she has yet to explore and which we may yet be witness to.

For now, get hold of a MIAF program and book your tickets before all the decent concession seats are snapped up. For those interested in theatre, Edmunds couldn’t stress enough that Dood Paard and Teatre Lliure’s respective productions are must-sees for those wanting to see cutting-edge stuff.

The Melbourne International Arts Festival takes over the city October 11-27, 2007, with select shows touring regionally.