When I heard Brisbane Festival was doing a sky show featuring four hundred drones I thought – be afraid, be very afraid. There have been a few disasters with drones in Australia recently.

“What could go wrong?” I asked Brisbane festival artistic director Louise Bezzina. “Nothing,” she replied. And she was right.

Nieergoo: Spirit of the Whale is a sublime, enchanting and utterly beautiful experience presented over the festival’s opening weekend in partnership with The Star Entertainment Group which seems appropriate since the spectacular Queen’s Wharf Brisbane was the backdrop for this drone spectacular.

Tribal Experience and Skyshows were behind the creative and technical aspects and traditional owner Shannon Ruska’s evocative tones told us the dreamtime Yuggera and Toorabul story, journeying through Brisbane-Meanjin’s 65,000 year past. This story of the creation of the islands in Moreton Bay was brought to life with stunning visuals and an original score by local Guy Webster.

The drones created a gorgeous whale and other forms way above the river and a full moon helped add atmosphere. It was entrancing, enchanting, breathtaking and quite poetic. It banished all my visions of disaster with drones plummeting into the river in front of a horrified crowd.

It’s just a shame this show is now over and we may have to wait until next year to see another. But it will be worth the wait.

For my money it was so much more special than Riverfire with its noisy polluting fireworks and its war machines flying menacingly overhead. Of course, drones are also being used in war nowadays, particularly on the fringe of Europe. It was lovely to see them being used for such a beautiful and positive purpose at Brisbane Festival and they eclipsed the fireworks and fly overs, for me at least.

But people obviously love Riverfire which is now presented by Australian Retirement Trust and we found ourselves on a packed train heading to QPAC Saturday night to see Yuldea by Bangarra Dance Theatre.

It all started Friday night with Jarrah, also by Tribal Experiences, a smoking ceremony and Indigenous welcome which was very special this year welcoming people from the Pacific Islands as well as our own Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Shannon Ruska was the perfect master of ceremonies and the event, held in the Australian Retirement Trust Festival Garden (a beautiful spot), was the perfect beginning.

The big-ticket items on the weekend in theatres were The Little Red Company’s There’s Something About Music and Strut & Fret’s saucy show The Party in the South Bank Piazza while Bangarra Dance Theatre’s latest production Yuldea opened at the Playhouse.

Meanwhile Salamander started its practice run in a giant shed at Northshore Hamilton. More about Salamander soon, after it finishes previews and has been bedded down in its warehouse where I will be reporting from this week.

Salamander is an art installation dance and theatre work commissioned specially for Brisbane Festival. It was conceived by British creatives Maxine Doyle and Es Devlin and is performed by our own Australasian Dance Collective. It’s a very special collaboration, a thought-provoking piece about facing an uncertain future with some sort of sense of hope.

And that’s perhaps one of the themes of this year’s festival.

This is Louise Bezzina’s fourth Brisbane festival and it is, like her others, driven by her Boldly Brisbane vision “to create a festival for Brisbane one that invites the international community to participate but, more importantly shows the rest of the world how amazing this city is”.

The funny thing is that if you went back a few decades the very idea of a Brisbane festival would have seemed an anachronism. In the bad old days Queensland was regarded as culturally bereft. It was never actually true but it was a perception that has taken decades to shake off but we have done it.

Despite the late great Barry Humphries once declaring that “Australia is the Brisbane of the world” (think about it) we have hit our straps. Humphries actually grew to love Brisbane and thought our cultural infrastructure the country’s best.

Then, on the weekend, I heard internationally renowned artist Lindy Lee, a Brisbane girl herself, declare that Brisbane is now an exciting city rivalling New York. Yes, you heard right.

Lee has a major sculpture being constructed here in Brisbane by Urban Art Projects for Queen’s Wharf Brisbane’s public art precinct and she seems to have fallen back in love with her former hometown.

Standing in the gorgeous surrounds of the Australian Retirement Trust Festival Garden on Friday night amongst the excited crowd watching Niergoo: Spirit of the Whale play out against the backdrop of the cityscape with the new Neville Bonner Bridge towering nearby I felt as excited as Lindy Lee.

And on Saturday night the hordes gathered for Riverfire would have felt the same.

Of course, Riverfire now marks the beginning of the festival rather than the end which is a great innovation by Louise Bezzina who says that “the best part about having Riverfire by Australian Retirement Trust kick off our Festival is that it does not stop there”.

“From here Brisbane across the month of September will be filled with moments of pure joy and celebration, profound performances, opportunities for gathering, connection and unification with events and productions that shine a spotlight on our dazzling city,” she says.

Now the opening weekend is done it’s time to focus on the performances and across 23 days we will see 19 world premieres, 11 Queensland premieres and more than 1000 performances, arts experiences and signature events including a new Brisbane Festival installation Lightscape which illuminates the canopy of the City’s Botanical Gardens with a soundtrack by Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall whose musical Bananaland is also one of the big shows of this year’s festival.

After Jarrah on Friday night, we enjoyed There’s Something About Music in the South Bank Piazza, a show that stars some of our favorite singers – Naomi Price, Luke Kennedy, Irena Lysiuk and Marcus Corowa, backed by the hottest band in Brisbane.

I love the Piazza as a venue despite it being, as Naomi Price pointed out, something of a “concrete bunker”. It is spacious and has a relaxed feel and you can get up and boogie if you’re that way inclined and There’s Something About Music, which presents all your favorite romcom hits, does get people on their feet.

I’ve seen the show before and loved seeing it again and while I’m not known for getting up and boogying, I was dancing on the inside. It’s on until September 10.

The slightly later show in the Piazza, The Party, I have yet to experience but I know Strut & Fret entertains and outrages in equal measure and I can’t wait to be confronted by that. I love the promotional line … “If you’ve ever been to a wilder party – you‘re under arrest!”

The man behind these shows is the globetrotting Scott Maidment, a boy from Brisbane’s northside who is a creative genius with a devilish sense of humor. Music, acrobatics, burlesque, comedy, it’s all in Strut & Fret’s shows.

As the fireworks faded, we settled into our seats to watch Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Yuldea, a moving and beautiful story about the Anangu people of the Great Victorian desert and the travails wrought by colonialism and the nuclear testing that wreaked such havoc in the 1950s. Can you believe we allowed the Poms to set off nukes here, displacing our First Australians in the process? It beggars belief but it’s true and that’s part of the drama in this creation by Bangarra’s new artistic director Frances Rings.

Bangarra Dance Theatre’s work is always stunning and this show is on until September 9 which gives you time to catch it at the Playhouse at QPAC. Take the time to read the program to get the story behind this extraordinary production.

There’s so much on over the next few weeks that the only way you could really do justice to the program would be to take the next three weeks off. Which is not a bad idea.


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