Reflections with Artistic Director Iain Grandage
Words from Iain about his 2020 – 2024 tenure at Perth Festival
When I had the privilege of beginning this role at the Festival, I was eager to curate Festivals that began close to home. I wanted to celebrate the bedrock of Noongar culture, amplify the voices and stories of this place, and then spread these even wider into the world across the arc of the Festivals of my tenure.
And so began the thinking around how to manifest this in real terms, and the conversations turned to themes. Working alongside Noongar artist and linguist Kylie Bracknell, these ever expanding thematic circles of inclusion found Noongar names for their geographical manifestation, names which then lead to poetic, philosophical and cultural links.
A campfire, a hearth, a home fire, an expression of belonging – this was fire (Karla) in 2020. We then travelled down a river (Bilya) in 2021, with its links to bily the umbilical cord. Then onto the ocean (Wardan) in 2022 and out into the stars (Djinda) in 2023.
At the end of that first Festival, however, we were faced with the arrival of COVID and a need to recalibrate. I was keen to keep the themes as imagined – there wasn’t a lot else in terms of planning to hold on to.
But isolation necessitated a change from what was initially conceived as a celebration of river cultures from around the world to becoming a deeper and more focussed celebration of Derbarl Yerrigan, the Swan River. What was a Festival that began as 'one ocean that connects us all' transformed into a more focussed celebration on our own stretch of Indian Ocean.
These Festival changes were reflective of what happened to many of us across those years – a deepening appreciation of this place and all that it offers. Focussing on the many small miracles of botanical wonder and geographical splendour, the multitude of imaginative sparks carried within the artists of this place and a continued appreciation for the depth of holistic wisdom in Noongar cultural practice.
On a personal level, having spent a lifetime before this job composing music and being faced with a blank page of endless possibility, the imagining of a Festival program felt all the more manageable and focussed with the embracing of themes. It held the edges of that blank page a little closer to home.
I have found myself in the most treasured position across these past years. Entrusted with amplifying the voices of so many extraordinary local artists and custodians, forging collaborative partnerships between their voices and international colleagues.
The themes have been part of the glue that binds – we hope they have made you feel closer to this place, and to each other.
My first Perth Festival program – a celebration of our place, our home. The theme of Karla (fire) marked the Festival as a campfire for sharing stories and inviting belonging.
Perth Festival 2023 was a thrilling three weeks of illumination, entertainment and immense hospitality.
- Bunggul – a glorious celebration of great Australian Songman Gurrumul’s Yolngu culture
- Hecate – the world’s first Noongar-language Shakespeare play
- Bran Nue Dae and Cloudstreet – two of the finest WA theatre works to have emerged from Festivals past, brought back home!
- Black Ties – a hilarious and heart-warming ILBIJERRI Theatre Perth Festival commission
- Highway to Hell – when 10km of Canning Highway became the world’s longest stage to honour local legend Bon Scott
Bilya (river) in 2021 featured a program brimmed with West Australian works that celebrated our community and the inner and outer journeys we had taken since 2020. Whadjuk Noongar custodians call the Swan River Derbarl Yerrigan and it is deeply entwined with the creation story of this place through the presence of the Wargl, the embodiment of all freshwater sources.
Just as the river is a source of revival, play and reflection, Perth Festival 2021 was both celebratory and contemplative, focusing on local brilliance in a program that featured a huge number of commissions.
- Bilya Beneath – a sound, light and music spectacular built around an immersive projection experience at Perth Cultural Centre
- Witness Stand, BESIDE and The Cherry Orchard – theatre works that all happened on the banks on the Derbarl Yerrigan/Swan River
- Galup – Ian Wilke’s interactive performance walk around Lake Monger at sunset to hear, watch and participate in retelling of some of its largely unknown stories
- Koort [Heart] – Gina Williams sang to us in Noongar about her story and her life, alongside a beautiful group of musicians, including her most trusted musical colleague Guy Ghouse
- The Sum of Us – a tale of a strong family bond, ageing, queerness and searching for love.
Bilya. River. Nestled into boodjar, mother earth.
Bilya is a network of cords going from one place to another, bringing life, giving water, feeding the land. In Noongar language and life, the word bilya begins at bily, meaning navel or belly button, becoming bilya the cord of life.
Without rivers what would we have? As we rest beside it and ponder upon its continual nourishing we connect deeper to our existence and the true meaning of bilya.
Roma Yibiyung Winmar and Kylie Bracknell [Kaarljilba Kaardn]
In our city between the desert and the sea, we are transfixed by the ocean and the worlds of wonder out there to the west. In the Noongar belief systems that ground us here, constellations sink into the ocean as life and souls enter the world. These are the beginnings. And as the sun sets into the ocean, as the river releases into the sea, as souls leave the world – these are the endings.
Perth Festival 2022 invited you to celebrate our turbulent ocean, the calming seas, the journeys made across water and the joy we have beside it.
- Noongar Wonderland – Perry Lakes became a fantastical environment of storytelling and dance within an immersive light installation
- The Ninth Wave – right on the ocean at City Beach audiences were wowed by The Farm’s electric dance
- Patch’s Lighthouse and The Smallest Stage – theatre offering magic and wonder for audiences of all ages
- JALI – an extraordinary tale of survival across continents
- And The Earth Will Swallow Them Whole – an achingly tender new commission putting Perth on the rest of the world’s horizon
We saw them first.
They came along the sea, beyond the horizon
Moving upon the water, closer and closer.
Big white sails and strange white men
We saw them, thinking the spirits
of our ancestors are returning.
Our lives changed forever.
Now we are here. Today. Together still.
Wardan is where it all began for us.
It is dangerous and powerful,
a mysterious and spiritual place
Ted Wilkes and Ian Wilkes
As we sought to reconnect with the world, Perth Festival 2023 celebrated 70 years by looking upwards and outwards. It spoke to the stars above and the shining lights within.
Distilling meaning and direction for our terrestrial lives from the stars above is central to cultures around the globe. For Noongar custodians, a multitude of stories connect Djinda (stars) to Country and central to many of them is Djoondal – the old spirit woman travelling across Noongar Boodjar collecting children (stars) in her white hair, before launching into the sky to create the Milky Way.
- Djoondal kicked off our Festival with lights and lasers at a free, Noongar-led event under the stars at Lake Joondalup
- Bjork’s Cornucopia – immense star power, an extraordinary theatrical extravaganza and an Australian exclusive right here in Perth
- Bikutsi 3000 – Blik Bassy lent his star power to this exuberant dance show about Africa reimagined
- Seven Sisters, Between Us, Bon Iver – theatre, art and music all performed under the stars
We as Noongar people were the first astronomers – the cosmos was like an almanac of the connection between the stars and us.
We didn’t need a map to navigate – the stars, moon and tides were our signposts that guided us for 65,000 years.
But our young people today looking up at the cosmos polluted with white light, will they see the stars to guide them?
We hope that our future generations will look towards the stars with the gaze of our ancestors, embracing our sacred boodjar in all its glory both celestial and earthly.
Dr Lynette Narkle and Bobbi Henry
The sun is our mother, our star. Each day we revolve and wake to her. Each day she arcs across the sky. Each evening she takes her fire into the twilight and leaves the sky to other stars – the children, and the moon.
Under the same sun we exist as one connected humanity, reliant on her warmth to bring life to us all. We see her effect on the earth and the botanical marvels that climb ever closer to the sky, fed by her rays.
That sun is also a danger that can burn and destroy, but whose energy can also be harnessed and used to exist here in a more considered and sustainable way, our footprints ever lighter.
Perth Festival 2024 will warm us in light like our nearest star and leave us celebrating our lives in the sun.
- Under the Same Sun – incredible Australian and international artists coming together on one stage
- Mutiara – transformative and unwavering storytelling of the unsung bonds between First Peoples of the Kimberley and workers of the Malay diaspora
- Angélique Kidjo– her powerhouse voice and boundless creative spirit will light up the Perth Concert Hall stage
- Are we not drawn onward to new erA – like its title, this performance is a palindrome. A powerful visual metaphor that asks: are our actions irreversible or can we undo them?
- Jungle Book reimagined – an utterly compelling and vital piece of storytelling about respecting our natural world at its heart
Morning star calls out dawn is coming.
Through the darkness firelight.
Moving through distant time and space, Mother sun has arrived radiating firelight energy to heal and warm mother earth, our Boodjar.
Mother Sun – Ngaangk – creates the dawn, daybreak, morning, noon and late afternoon slowly surrendering her light to sunset.
Evening star calls out night has come.
Ngaangk moves through the moordang – the darkness – shining her firelight – karla – to the east to rise again ...
Alta Winmar and Roma Yibiyung Winmar