So that was our first Rising arts festival. Did it live up to the hype?

Melbourne’s Rising festival has drawn to a close. Did it rise to the occasion?

The event faced high expectations – it was supposed to merge our International Arts Festival with White Night. But it wasn’t hard to better what came immediately before: two years of lockdowns and online arts refuges.

Dance lovers had special reason to kick up their heels and celebrate. With Hannah Fox and the former artistic director of Chunky Move Gideon Obarzanek at the helm, Rising delivered an inspirational feast of dance from Australia and overseas.

Marrugeku’s Jurrungu Ngan-ga [Straight Talk], a moving and confronting encounter with structural disadvantage, touched on subjects including the mistreatment of refugees and Aboriginal deaths in custody. It was also a passionate embodiment of cultural resilience, merging movement styles – from Indigenous dance traditions to drag ball culture – into something new and powerfully representative of contemporary Australian diversity.

Local choreographic talent included Stephanie Lake’s Manifesto, a percussive frenzy of contemporary dance featuring nine drummers and nine dancers driving one another into ecstatic crescendos of rhythm.

International acts such as Indonesian dancer Rianto’s gender-bending Hijra’h, or Danish maverick Mette Ingvartsen’s 21 Pornographies and The Dancing Public – a stark critique of porn, and a piece inspired by strange eruptions of spontaneous dancing, known as choreomanias, recorded in medieval Europe, respectively – gave our artists and audiences the long-awaited chance to experience and to be inspired by leading practitioners from overseas.

An expansive live music program reinvigorated another industry decimated by the pandemic, and I wish I’d seen more of it. Failing to squeeze Sampa the Great into a tight schedule was probably my biggest festival regret.

Theatre programming was significantly thinner, though it was salvaged by Kip Williams’ marvellous production of The Picture of Dorian Gray starring Eryn Jean Norvill. This export-grade piece of cine-theatre would have come to Melbourne anyway, but theatregoers will be hard-pressed to feel dudded by Rising with such an extraordinary masterpiece in the program, and should race to see it before the season ends on July 31.

Other local theatre was a mixed bag. One compelling offering was Set Piece – an ultra-low temperature, fly-on-the-wall piece of comic realism from Nat Randall and Anna Breckon that turned the microscope on four queer women having a debauched night in. Woozy, erotic, drug-addled sapphic mumblecore lured us into a nearly obscene sense of voyeuristic intimacy, even if the live filming onto screens didn’t add much to the clever recursive script and acerbic hilarity of the performance style. With a fusion of cinema and theatre as perfect as The Picture of Dorian Gray in the program, you wondered if Set Piece mightn’t have been better off ditching cameras and reverting to a performance installation proper, with audiences moving freely in the round to observe.

The Invisible Opera gave us a quirky, site-specific audio theatre experience with the panorama of Federation Square and Flinders St Station used as a secret stage. Audiences wore headphones and had to scan the panorama before them in a Where’s Wally? kind of way to distinguish performers from ordinary crowds milling about in the public space. (An excellent conceit, though hardly novel: it was used to sublime effect in Back to Back Theatre’s Small Metal Objects more than a decade ago. )

There was also an admirably crafted solo show from Sydney, Maureen: Harbinger of Death, drawn from the life of an elderly woman in Kings Cross, and at the other end of the theatre scale, the ambitious 8/8/8 Work, which held a captive audience for eight hours of playful frustration, subliminal office satire and anti-capitalist pageantry.

Both had their points but might not have made the cut in an ordinary festival year. They did, one suspects, because international theatre was virtually non-existent – unless you count Julia Croft and Nisha Madhan’s Working on My Night Moves, a piece of feminist performance art so insistent on absence and abstraction that it was difficult not to view it as a nothingburger without the bun.

And how do you judge the merits of The Hole Project, a big round hole dug into the turf at Birrarung Marr throughout the fest, and filled in at the end? Well … it is what it is. Every festival has underwhelming moments, and they shouldn’t detract from the central achievement: Rising has demonstrated itself a capable successor to the Melbourne International Arts Festival at a challenging time.

As for the White Night side of the festival, that proved a doomed attempt to fix something that wasn’t broken. Terrible weather was a factor, but the cold and the wet weren’t entirely to blame. The final White Night in 2019 was staged in August, after all, and was still well-attended.

At least as responsible was the lack of a critical mass – of free public events, of spectacle, of an open-door policy at all our major cultural institutions – to get the party started. It was deflating to witness the green lasers of Robin Fox’s Monochord being casually ignored by passersby on Princes Bridge, and sad to see the outdoor hub at The Wilds so underpopulated.

Together with Golden Square, a Chinatown car park turned digital art gallery, Rising generated a Dark MOFO vibe that was never going to compensate for the loss of one of two arts events – the other being the Comedy Festival – that can attract Melburnians en masse into the CBD and enliven the cultural fabric of the city with broad public participation.

Rising is more than ready to carry the baton of the International Arts Festival. And yet, right when a White Night-sized crowd would be most welcome to restore the battered fortunes of our city centre, a chapter of Melbourne’s festival history seems to be over for good.

A cultural guide to going out and loving your city. .

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