Enquiry Through Art: Looking Forward to PIAF 2017

Wednesday 2 November 2016


The US presidential election is upon us, and I mean that literally. It has barged into our daily conversations, our children’s classrooms, our economies and local politics. It has saturated our news and social media, energised our satirists and essayists and provided, in the misogynist mangling of democratic rights and responsibilities by Donald Trump, the stuff of our worst nightmares.

Of course, what happens in America does not, in today’s global society, stay in America. And so this is a time for all of us to ask ourselves those questions that, according to American essayist Roy Scranton, have always been at the heart of humanistic enquiry – ‘What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to live? What is truth? What is good?’1

The urgent and contested issues of what it means to be human, how to live, and how to live together, lie at the heart of PIAF in 2017. They’re addressed at many levels of scale, within diverse cultural and political contexts, and expressed in a multiplicity of forms.

The works also – perhaps most importantly – demonstrate and celebrate the transformative capacities of art. From the giant natural avenue of animation in which Noongar and scientific perspectives converge in the opening event, Boorna Waanginy: The Trees Speak, to the metamorphosis of bamboo canes by Nouveau Cirque du Vietnam. From the analogue technologies of Lola Arias’ The Year I Was Born – in which lives under Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile are recovered and replayed – to the tiny motion sensor robots in dialogue with dancers in Antony Hamilton’s MEETING, PIAF’s artists invite us into an array of vividly-realised environments and possible worlds, and ask us to look beyond our differences towards our common destiny.

In the Festival’s longest show – Richard Nelson’s three-play marathon The Gabriels – the American presidential election is the actual subject, only refracted through the intimate and intense lens of family life, through the rituals and rhythms of the preparing and sharing of food. Between the shows, audiences can purchase those dishes cooked in the plays, dissolving the boundary between art and life and bringing us all to the same table.


Questions of what is true and what is good also find form in work that addresses their opposite – grief, violence and trauma. The astonishing Betroffenheit by Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young unearths the dark roots of bereavement in its choreography and Opus No. 7 offers a requiem for Eastern Europe’s Jews and a portrait of the suffering of Shostakovich under Stalin.

South African choreographer Gregory Maqoma too finds new forms of articulation for the reality of social injustice. In Exit/Exist Maqoma embodies the decline of his Xhosa forebear Chief Maqoma. In Martin Green’s Flit, movement and migration inspire poignant music and animation.

Wanderings feature too in Netia Jones’ striking Weimar cabaret-style production of Schubert’s Winterreise, orchestrated by Hans Zender and sung by leading tenor Ian Bostridge. And journeying is at the heart of Simon McBurney’s The Encounter, the landmark Complicité production that plays out, via binaural technology, in the mind of its audience.

Art and its empathetic world-making can awaken and inspire us in bewildering times, and ultimately transform our lives through illuminating and humane acts. In the week before the presidential election, it’s both exciting and deeply reassuring to know that PIAF 2017 will be creating opportunities for us to come together to investigate and reflect on the most urgent questions of our lives and times.

1 Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2015), 20

Header image credit: Street art in Washington DC. Ted Eytan/Flickr

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Written By Ruth Little

Theatre and dance dramaturg, teacher, writer, and PIAF’s unofficial philosopher-in-residence, Ruth Little has spent much of her life curating, developing and writing about art and live performance across the world. Join Ruth in her role as Festival Navigator as she explores our program in all its multi-faceted glory.   

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