I have never jumped to my feet so quickly as at the Adelaide Festival last month. William Barton had just given the world premiere of his composition The Motherland Uprising with CHINEKE! Bedroom set. The piece was commissioned by CHINEKE! director Chi-chi Nwanoku for the ensemble’s first tour of Australia on a grant from the Patrons Board of the UK/Australia Season. While the performance itself was magnificent, the moment also represented years of tenacity on the part of the festival teams and the company to see these great musicians on stage together.
A week earlier, MACRO premiered at Adelaide Oval to a crowd of 7,000, featuring Gravity & Other Myths and Djuki Mala with five Celtic musicians and a youth choir. It was also the very first work supported by the British Council for the UK/Australia season. Three years ago, when I spoke to Rob Brookman, then executive director of the Adelaide Festival, about our plans, he came back with an ambitious idea from artistic directors Neil Armfield, Rachel Healy and Fergus Linehan to combine British artists and Australians in residence to develop an Opening Night partnership. They didn’t know what was happening around the corner.
The fact that the UK/Australia season exists even in the context of the pandemic is extraordinary. Yet here we are, reaching out from opposite corners of the globe to share experiences, collaborate, reinvent. Adelaide Festival, Adelaide Fringe, Writers Week and partner institutions and companies offered nine collaborations in the UK and Australia this year, reaching more than 50,000 people.
It wasn’t just presentations of British work. There have been co-creations, such as the song of the sky collaboration between First Nations artists and UK drone designers, innovation partnerships like the Electric Dreams festival and the one-day event Climate Crisis in the Arts. These were among more than 150 events in Australia asking the central question of the UK/Australia season: Who are we now?
We have seen artists, producers, educators and festival directors show an unwavering tenacity to collaborate, explore our history, reflect on our present and imagine who we could be in the future. They reformed themselves time and time again in our ever-changing context to make this happen.
I am in awe of our sector.
In March, the British Council celebrated the end of the UK/Australia Season program in Australia. We’ve held 150 arts and higher education events across all states, and I’m proud to now pass the baton to my colleagues at DFAT, who will support Australian work across the UK until the end of 2022.
It was fitting that this transfer, and the success of the season so far, was celebrated this month at Government House in Adelaide. South Australia has been at the heart of the UK/Australia season, and the commitment from its government, institutions, businesses and artists has been extraordinary.
MACRO and CHINEKE! are now on their way to Scotland, at the heart of what could be the biggest Australian line-up ever in Fergus Linehan’s final program for the 75th Edinburgh International Festival, as part of DFAT’s UK/Australia Season program UK. Other works include Count and Crack by Belvoir and Co-Curious, You know we belong together of Black Swan, The pulse by Gravity & Other Myths, Brett Dean and the Hebrides Ensemble, and the Australian World Orchestra.
Alongside the Festival will be the first two-way cultural leadership dialogue of the UK/Australia season, as part of the International Culture Summit led by Sir Jonathan Mills, former EIF director and Australian composer. The second stage will bring together culture ministers and arts leaders in Australia in September.
We’ve also just seen an exciting duo move to Adelaide: former Edinburgh Fringe boss Kath Mainland as Managing Director alongside British Artistic Director Ruth Mackenzie, formerly Scottish Opera Director. But the Edinburgh/Adelaide relationship goes back much further than that.
The Adelaide International Festival and Adelaide Fringe were founded shortly after Edinburgh, their sister festivals. There is professional camaraderie and knowledge exchange, the movement of personnel, as well as a symbiotic relationship in the co-production of work. For 20 years, the British Council has brought a cohort of Australian festival and venue directors to our Edinburgh Festival Showcase, which has been designed to showcase work of particular interest to international programmers. During my tenure, Australia and China have always been the largest cohort, with Australian producers taking more work in the UK than any other country. Conversely, UK programmers flood the Adelaide Festival and Fringe’s Honey Pot programme.
The critical mass of activity around the Festival season is at the heart of the circulation of independent artists and companies between our two countries. British artist Briony Kimmings noted before the pandemic that a third of her income came from touring Australia.
We cannot underestimate the value of these connections, especially after the financial decimation of our sectors during COVID-19. Edinburgh is an established international hub for Australian artists, while Australia, despite its small population, is the third largest market for British arts and culture, after the US and EU, and the largest market in the Indo-Pacific.
Perhaps most important, however, is how artists, programmers and curators from Adelaide to Edinburgh continue to tell the story of who we are. The British artists we funded to come to Adelaide this year shared a contemporary experience that we don’t often see in this country. In fact, two-thirds of companies successful in the British Council’s EOI process had never worked in Australia before.
Likewise, the program for the Edinburgh Festival, announced this week, has the potential to challenge assumptions and facilitate difficult conversations. Like the British Council, the Edinburgh Festival was founded after the Second World War to deepen mutual understanding. We still have so much to hear and learn from each other, and I look forward to what will continue to emerge from this exchange.
Archived recordings of events from the past six months are available on UK/Australia Season.