Lasers, fire and ice: An insider’s guide to Rising, Melbourne’s biggest arts festival

As artistic directors of Rising, Hannah Fox and Gideon Obarzanek set out to make a festival audiences would do rather than watch. Immersive events are the hallmark of the 12-day extravaganza which launches on Wednesday, across Melbourne locations where your night can begin and end, according to Obarzanek.

From Wednesday, the first night of winter, Melbourne’s public spaces – including parks and gardens, the river and even a city car park – will be focal points. , a fluoro church to capitalism and in the NGV are a few of the highlights. Along the Yarra, Robin Fox’s high-powered laser is almost a kilometre long and will activate at regular intervals with a synchronised sound show. It’s a beacon to the city, marking that the festival is – three years on from its inception – finally happening.

The Wilds is taking over the Kings Domain, a wonderland of massive, brightly coloured inflatables as well as soundscapes, light shows and performances. Created in partnership with the Arts Centre, it takes in the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, where the stage has been transformed into an ice-skating rink. Night Chorus, a choir of 120 people, has been put together specifically for the festival and will provide the soundtrack, singing tunes from the 1980s and ’90s at regular intervals.

The Lighthouse, a restaurant with chefs David Moyle and Jo Barrett at the helm, is a centrepiece of food offerings; there are also pop-ups by COVID-19 success story 1800-Lasagne, Smith & Daughters’ Shannon Martinez, and Argentinian barbecue by San Telmo.

It brings together performance, visual arts, food and music under one umbrella and brings it together in a transformative way, says Fox. Those big pillars really create a critical mass for the city. . . You’re not asking audiences to turn up at the theatre but it doesn’t mean they are not having a theatrical experience. It’s a doorway in.

Golden Square carpark in Chinatown plays host to incredible video, sculptural art installations, parades and performance. While traditionally the big festivals in Melbourne have created a festival hub for audience members and performers to unwind, this year the directors looked to capitalise on what was already a centre for nightlife. Chinatown – the oldest continual Chinatown in the western world – was the obvious choice.

Reimagining two of Melbourne’s biggest and most popular festivals, White Night and the Melbourne International Arts Festival, was always going to be a challenge but doing so in the aftermath of the pandemic proved heartbreaking: last year, before being felled by lockdowns.

This year’s program features 225 events, including 14 world premieres, and involves 801 local and international artists. It includes 22 commissions, which Obarzanek says prioritised local artists.

It’s so huge and it’s easy to forget the level of the investment by the artists, says Fox, who has relished getting out to see the hands-on finishing touches being put to various works.

When we started talking about what Rising could be and what role it could play, we were really conscious of making sure everything we do has a real point of difference from the year round, very busy cultural calendar, says Fox. She points to the piece 8/8/8: Work as a concept that is very much of the moment, a durational piece that explores the eight-hour day by Marcus McKenzie and Harriet Gillies. Performed over eight hours at the Schoolhouse Studios in Coburg, the show is one third of the total work.

Obarzanek cites Single Channel Video by Geelong’s Back to Back Theatre, which he describes as having an Antiques Roadshow, internet unboxing quality. For the show, the globally acclaimed theatre group will take up residence in the State Library, invite people to bring along an object that is close to them and to talk about why it matters to them. Because it uses cameras to look at people in close up talking about an object, you think it’s a film but then you walk behind a big screen and see that it’s real, he says.

Invisible Opera by Sophia Brous also takes place in a public space, this time Federation Square. The audience members wear headphones and the show can only be experienced by them; otherwise it just seems like the world going by, hence the title. It allows us to experience the city differently and do multiple things in one night, Obarzanek says. When these things are on it becomes a city that you can traverse through.

A cute addition this year is the Lucky Dip ticket, which sees you put your fate in the festival ’s hands – and they will curate a surprise program evening for two people.

Crowd favourites such as , a creation of the Hamer government in the late 1970s and then relaunched as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival in the 1990s, are back and can be seen around town on various routes.

Obarzanek is a choreographer, dancer and former artistic director of Chunky Move. Not surprisingly, Rising’s dance program is impressive, including international works by Danish dancer and choreographer Mette Ingvartsen and Uruguayan choreographer Tamara Cubas, and large-scale commissions by Stephanie Lake and Marrugeku.

For Fox, who was an associate director of the Melbourne Festival and a creative director at Dark Mofo, curating Rising has allowed great licence and freedom. As well as the big bang program highlights, there are much deeper dives for the more adventurous audience members.

And there are many of them here in Melbourne, it’s a joy to program here, she says. You know you can program an eight-hour work in a disused Coles and it will sell well.

runs from June 1-12. The Wilds season has been extended until June 19.

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