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In Conversation with Jonathon Holloway

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Melbourne Festival is just about here once more, and you may notice a subtle shift in this years program, thanks in part to the vision of Jonathon Holloway who recently stepped into the role of Artistic Director. Originally from the UK, he has spent the last four years leading the Perth International Arts Festival, but when the opportunity to resettle in Melbourne presented itself, he jumped at the opportunity, bringing with him a wealth of knowledge paired with a distinct love for his now found home, and a burning desire to understand every facet that makes Melbourne so unique.

Melbourne Festival has always been a time each year, where we can collectively embrace our city’s identity, culture and arts , celebrate our global reputation as the worlds most livable city. So working through the complexities of trying to curate three weeks of events and performances for such a diverse population, in a city that prides itself on being the cultural epicentre of Australia, is no mean feat.

Delivering upon the festival’s past successes, this year program is no exception, featuring a number of national and  international works presented alongside others that have been commissioned by the festival, and created by local artists including Lucy Guerin’s The Dark Chorus and Back to Back Theater’s Lady Eats Apple. This years program will also feature works that engage with the broader community, with Hair Cuts By Children giving youth a voice in a rather unusual way. In a nod to the popular even the 50th anniversary of Star Trek will be celebrated by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in concert at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl. TAGG spoke with Jonathon about what Melbourne can expect from this years program, the role in which major festivals play, and what the future may hold for Australian arts and culture moving forward.

Jonathon, lets start off, how did you come to be at the helm of Melbourne Festival, have you always been involved in the arts?

I trained as a theatre director a long time ago, and I was always around the arts as a kid, I was a cathedral choir boy and I was in youth theatre, I studied drama then directed theatre and programmed theatre and worked around the UK and ended up at The National Theatre in London where I headed a department running festivals and late night work, I then ended up directing a couple of things. After that, I went to a couple of festivals, and I fell in love with idea of what a festival can do for a city, and for a community so  I went and ran a festival in the east of England; then four and half years ago I went to Perth and ran the Perth festival.

Why Melbourne, what do you love about this city, what do you feel sets our city apart?

I absolutely adore Australia, but Melbourne is by far my favorite city, every time I visit I just end up having an amazing time. So as Perth was coming to an end, this was the one job in the world I wanted. I like the fact that the Australian festivals change directorship every few years, I really like that energy of change and freshness that this brings.

I think Melbourne Festival has a very specific relationship with this city because there is so much going on here, it’s a fearlessly independent city and it’s fiercely loyal to a huge number of things, but also by bipartisan. People get off the fence about what they like, they talk about what they believe in, but also they they go between sport and fashion and food and the arts really quickly and interchangeably.

It’s not about being this kind or that kind of person, Melbourne tends to be very dynamic in terms of the way it reacts to certain things. The festival has always had a relationship with both the arts community and also the broader population so actually what I really want to develop over the next few years is the breadth of community, and making a festival that is of, in, for and about Melbourne..

Yes it’s international and yes it’s about collaborations, creating links, and bringing people here, but it’s also really distinctly Melbourne, I wouldn’t want a festival that could have another name city name on it and have it still feel relevant.

In wanting to reflect upon Melbourne’s diversity, what where some of the difficulties that this brought to the table?

It makes it a very complex job, I’m not sure if difficulty is the right word. Of all the international arts festivals in the world, iMelbourne’s is the most complex because often what most people try and do with a festival is put in place the things that the city lacks. You often try and build twenty something days of intensity that makes it the centre of the world. You have festivals in beautiful but not necessarily as culturally dynamic cities, you know in Edinburgh, and even Perth, there, the festival is a time when the city incredibly comes alive. But actually Melbourne is alive three hundred and sixty five days a year and there is always a choice of two or three things to do.

It’s a different job, and I think the job is to try and to reflect back what this city is and explore those hidden gems, discover news things and also trying to work out who we are as a community, in a city that actually works really well. It’s about the welcome the city provides, the inclusiveness, the multiculturalism, the dynamism and diversity, that’s really what I want the festival to celebrate

So how is Melbourne’s diversity and culture reflected in this years program?

Well I’m really pleased that we are opening with Tanderrum which is the first people of Victoria welcoming us to their land, and also celebrating their own culture and their own stories. We are ending with Multicultural Arts Victoria, which is a celebration our new and emerging communities and our most recent arrivals, with their songs and dance, their food and their drink. I think it’s really nice to have that breadth across the program.

In each art form I have tried to put two or three things that are internationally excellent. Within theatre something like Two Dogs, from the National Theatre of China, Robert Lepage, or Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour alongside work from here that is of core brilliance, Lady Eats Apple by Back to Back or Funeral, those works kind of balance out beautifully what is coming from the rest of the world.

Then to have Sara Baras, who is the greatest flamenco dancer in the world at this moment, the Spanish community, the flamenco community and the dance community will go crazy. But to bring her here exclusively alongside a week earlier where we are presenting Lucy Guerin who is then going to take her work around the world.

It’s almost like a relationship we are building with Victoria arts community and the rest of the world, there’s no simplicity to it, it is complex.

Do you feel that our major festivals should play a greater role in the creation of new opportunities for local artists, both here and abroad?

So with something like Echo Of The Shadow, which is an intimate and immersive theatrical experience the company will come three weeks early and work with twenty artist from Victoria in a workshop and then select some of the artists to be in the show. it’s sort of remaking the work between Barcelona and Melbourne.

But then along side that we have things like the Melbourne Symphony orchestra with two big projects, the David Bowie tribute but also I’m really thrilled about the Star Trek event at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl. it’s not something that people would look at the festival to do, it’s accessible, it’s open and it’s affordable, but it leans towards the popular, the moment you listen to that music you remember how incredible the themes and music over fifty years of star trek have been.

If Mozart or Beethoven where composing today they would be composing for film and television, it’s really exciting to find where high art and accessible art meet and where our artist community meets the rest of the world.

So is it case of wanting to remove some of that perceived elitism surrounding the arts, in turn creating a festival which is more accessible?

I love the skills and expertise that goes into creating the very best food or performing, playing the very best AFL or going to the Olympics in Rio, i think there is something amazing about the skill and talent of what one things of as elite performers.

But actually accessibility is fantastically important as well, so I’m working with artists that are absolutely at the top of their game but finding new contexts, you wouldn’t expect to find their work the ice rink down at docklands, you wouldn’t necessary expect to find that sort of excellence in unusual spaces over in Footscray. I have nothing against trematodes expertise or skill, but our job has to be that we have to open it up to everyone and let everyone find their entry points.

Are you optimistic about the future of Australian arts and culture? What role do you feel major festivals play as we collectively move forward?

I think the arts in Australia is resilient and has always been resilient, unfortunately I don’t think it has ever been resourced to the level it should be and deserves to be, if anyone has got close it’s Victoria having several times really invested in the small to medium and the larger sector.

I think we need to make significant investments in our arts and cultures, given it’s one of our biggest industries. Given that it’s a significantly smaller subsidy that goes into arts and culture then for example what goes into farming or mining, as Robyn Archer said recently, “I could live without milk, but she couldn’t live without art.”
Artists here need to be supported, and the festivals need to play a role in commissioning art from here and also championing that work around the world, so when we go out and talk to other festivals we need to be championing about our own work.

I’m deeply proud that Lady Eats Apple by Back To Back, is a centerpiece of this years festival because it absolutely puts work from Australia alongside some of the best work from around the world. I would like to find new ways of commissioning, new ways of developing artists and new ways of presenting arts and culture in Victoria, which continue to be surprising and delightful.

We have an absolute duty to be engaging and surprising and uplifting as well as challenging and ambitious.

Melbourne Festival opens on the 6th of October, with such a diverse and unique program on offer this year, there is sure to be something that will capture your imagination. Copies of the festival program are available across Melbourne, but with some shows having all ready sold out, be sure to book your tickets soon, for more information click here

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