By KIERAN FINNANE
After a year’s break and a name change, Alice Springs’ festival is back, henceforth known as the Desert Festival. But the focus is unashamedly on Alice Springs, the largest of Australia’s desert towns, arguably the best known and, after all, home to this particular festival.
Right: A H-o-T flavour was evident in this pirate ‘ship’ in the 2014 festival parade. Photo from our archive.
In a program running over three weeks from 18 August, the eve of Henley-onTodd, the town’s setting in the desert is at the forefront in a number of events.
The desert as provider (if you know how) is celebrated in a series of workshops about food and healing plants, offered in partnership by the Akeyulerre Healing Centre and Kungkas Can Cook.
The desert as a cultural construct is explored in Inland, a live film (‘VJ’) event by David Nixon, whose film-making artistry is one of Alice’s best-kept secrets. He’ll bring together artwork selected by the Watch This Space curatorial committee with archival films and photographs, which he’s been amassing over many years.
The desert as an environment under threat is the focus of an event by Franca Barraclough, partnering with the Arid Lands Environment Centre, challenging the local community to be part of “the biggest buffel-bust ever”. There are a number of preparatory events leading up to the finale on September 3, a “world-record length buffel weeding line photo shoot”.
Other events build on time-honoured Alice ‘cultural artefacts’, the most prominent being the 55-year-old Henley-on-Todd. The festival has partnered with the H-o-T to create a whole new event preceding regatta day, billed as a Mermaids’ Picnic, a “family-friendly” event. With live performance and music into the evening, it will be held in Snow Kenna Park, on the banks of the Todd. In keeping with the H-o-T’s ‘illusory water’ theme, it will feature a playground that creates a “feeling of diving underwater” and people are invited to come dressed in “a costume for immersion”.
The next day the festival will add flair to the H-o-T Parade, with artists in the lead-up working with schools on their parade participation. The festival traditionally opened with a parade of its own, but both participation and audience have dropped away in recent years. This collaboration with the H-o-T may be a win-win – an outlet for youthful creativity, revitalising the somewhat formulaic H-o-T, substantially extending what it offers, and perhaps also drawing H-o-T audiences to other festival events.
A theatrical production at the Totem responds to Alice’s tourism culture – the “walking tours, guide books, and air-conditioned excursions” – suggesting that the stories that get told are often “from above”. It proposes instead to tell “narratives of ourselves”, which explains its somewhat unwieldy title: Historical tales by people that don’t write history. The producer is Franca Barraclough, who is known for her seemingly light-hearted, humorous, at times zany take on often substantial subjects. The performer is Betty Sweetlove.
Other humorists will present their own take on Alice’s frequent billing as “iconic” in a series of shows called A Town Not Like Alice, blending local and interstate performers, in genres including cabaret, comedy, poetry, interpretative dance, storytelling, skits, role playing, musical parody, even a game show.
A different part of town will be activated as the festival Hub this year, combining Monte’s and, on the face of it, a not very promising carpark-by-default, one of several in the town centre cleared ahead of hoped-for development, but left standing vacant for years. This one is the long narrow area sandwiched between KFC and the building housing Western Diagnostic Pathology, which Yeperenye Pty Ltd has made available to the festival.
As we saw earlier this year when the Something Somewhere Film Festival took over the vacant Westpac Bank premises, the results of temporary re-purposing can be surprisingly excellent (above). As the festival Hub, the area will host a performance and exhibition space, a workshop space, as well as a separate bar area with a stage and meals available for sale.
In a new audience-reaching move, the Yeperenye Shopping Centre will also host a lunchtime performance of Cube, a dance and physical theatre event by a muscular quartet know as [ZØGMA].
The Alice Springs Cinemas will host one of the festival’s most interesting local drawcards, a screening of short films created inside the Correctional Centre by inmates working with italk Studios. This is an Alice-based media production company founded by Christopher Brocklebank, specialising in communicating across language barriers.
Brocklebank is also an accomplished classical guitarist and will perform his own compositions, Six Musical Meditations, in two nocturnal sessions in the bed of the Todd.
Other musical events include a line-up of women singer-songwriters under the banner of She Sings: A Red Home. All from Central Australia, they are Bec Matthews, Emma Stuart, Beth Uhe, Camille Bernardino, Steph Harrison, Xavia Nou, Jacinta Price, Katelnd Griffin and Candice McLeod.
Tjupi Band, from Papunya, with their reinvigorated brand of desert reggae, singing in Luritja as well as English, are also bound to pull a crowd at the festival Hub. (Photo above of their recent performance at the Alice NAIDOC event.)
Hip-hop fans will be treated to KnD, a duo from Alice Springs who have been writing and performing since 2008. Karnage (Tristrum Watkins) is a Western Arrernte man from Hermannsburg and one of the first pioneers of hip-hop in Alice Springs. Darknis (Corinna Hall) is a Ngarrindjera/Kokatha woman from Raukkan and Ceduna in South Australia. Their lyrics often involve Aboriginal land rights, social issues and everyday struggle.
Community participation events include Alice Sings Pop Choir, where everyone is welcome to learn a pop song from scratch under the guidance of local musicians Dave Crowe and Edward Gould.
There’ll also be a series of Expression Sessions, for performing artists across genres in 10 to 15 minute slots, with four standouts invited to perform at the Expression Sessions Showcase. From among them, one will be chosen to receive a 12-month performance development package.
An all-ages performance but specially mindful of little children (aged seven and under), Open! is produced by the multi-talented Katelnd Griffin (at left in a photo from our archive) . Presented at 67 Bath St – The Studio, formerly known as the Red Hot Arts space, the show uses puppetry, physical theatre, animation, a few well-chosen words and a picture book to tell the story of a young child receiving a mysterious box and exploring the wild and wonderful possibilities contained within it.
With older children in mind, The School of Dusty Heroes offers a series of workshops where children spend time with local artists Bianca Gonos, Steph Harrison, Katlnd Griffin, and Alan Bethune, learning a range of theatre-making skills over two hour sessions with a 15-minute presentation at the end.
Artistic director of the festival, Ben Fox, has tagged the festival as “a fleeting utopia, a glimpse into possible futures for Central Australia”. He hopes people will get involved and be inspired by this opportunity to exchange ideas and have new experiences in Australia’s inland capital.
The full program is now online at the Desert Festival site and the printed guide will soon be available.
Desert Festival launches with Henley-on-Todd
By KIERAN FINNANE