Singaporean experimental music legend Margaret Leng Tan teams with local avant-garde theatre mavericks Chamber Made for Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep, a hybrid of spoken and recorded text, video projections, and music for toy piano and percussion.
Acclaimed Balinese artist Kamila Andini will adapt her award-winning film The Seen and Unseen to the stage, with the assistance of one of our most stylish independent theatre directors, Adena Jacobs, and designer Eugyeene Teh.
And Armstrong is proud Asia TOPA has supported an international alliance between First Nations artists. Artistic director of Ilbijerri Theatre Rachael Maza spent years exploring indigenous performance from Japan, Taiwan and New Zealand. The result, Black Ties, portrays cultural collision at an Aboriginal/Maori wedding, and pairs a trailblazing Indigenous theatre company with Te Rehia Theatre from across the ditch.
Of course, the Asia-Pacific is a region marked by geopolitical turbulence as well as creative ferment. Dealing with government can be a tricky proposition for artists and programmers alike. The NGV was recently accused of deferring to Chinese authorities over its refusal to host a Hong Kong pro-democracy forum during an exhibition of the famed Terracotta Warriors.
How do Armstrong and Ben-Tovim see their role in navigating the politics of international collaboration?
“The first thing to say,” Armstrong says, “is that we program artists and works. We don’t go to governments seeking support. That comes after. We’re not chasing an agenda, and we’re not in the business of staging or producing political activism that is not expressed through the medium of art.”
That said, many works in the program have a political dimension. “The embedded sense of politics in [Asian performance] can be really strong,” Ben-Tovim says. “And often in placid forms we wouldn’t associate with that – dance for instance.
“Politics is everywhere, and particularly in contemporary works. If there weren’t politics in the program you could say we weren’t doing our job, because there is so much flux in the region.”
One work with political undertones is high-octane dance theatre from the Philippines, Are You Ready To Take The Law Into Your Own Hands?, which tells the story of a kidnapped pop star and a ragtag crew of superfans and misfits on a manic mission to rescue her.
The program pointedly notes the piece has “zero political relevance to current events”, and Armstrong is acutely conscious the festival has a duty of care to artists not to put them in jeopardy. But the piece emerges from a portrait of life under President Rodrigo Duterte, and underneath the manic dancing and Pinoy power ballads lies a courageous spirit of resistance.
Asia TOPA seeks to challenge the status quo here in Australia, too. It has the explicit aim of shifting conservative, and often Anglocentric, programming at major performing arts institutions, and to encourage them to take inspiration from Asia.
With the MTC staging its first production to be performed in English and Mandarin last year, and K-Box – a play featuring a pop star from South Korea – to appear at the Malthouse in May, it may already be having an impact.
Certainly, Melbourne’s liberal embrace of multiculturalism and its now formidable arts precinct at Southbank make it a natural home for the festival.
“It’s no coincidence Asia TOPA is happening in Melbourne,” Armstrong says. “We couldn’t have done it anywhere else.”