Artists sail into port
Fremantle Festival act Retouramont. Picture: Jean-Michel Coubart.

Fremantle is home to many things: an AFL footy team (though Cockburn beckons), fish and chips, Bon Scott's statue, a Japanese-owned microbrewery, wharfies, buskers outside the markets, Notre Dame University and until last week a professional theatre company.

Less well known is the fact that the historic port city also boasts Australia's longest-running festival. The Fremantle Festival, a two-week celebration of arts, culture and community, started life in 1905 to mark the arrival of electric light.

Now in its 107th year, the festival kicks off on Sunday, October 28, with the Blessing of the Fleet, an annual tradition of 64 years' standing which has been brought back under the festival's wing after a schism of 35 years.

The reasons for the split were lost in the sea-fog of time, according to festival director Alex Marshall, but a broad cultural celebration was certainly lacking something without the Blessing of the Fleet.

"Bringing the two together is really saying it's summer, it's time to get yourself outside and down to Fremantle. This is still a working port, an industrial town, but it has all these amazing artists so to have them connected through this tradition for me was essential in giving the festival some form and some shape."

After reaching the low point of being reduced to a single weekend several years ago, the festival is undergoing a renaissance, Marshall says.

"It's a community festival gone mad because apparently there are more artists per head of population in Fremantle than in any other city in Australia."

Visitors to the festival can thank Marshall's poor grasp of French and a wrong turn while scouting for acts at the Chalon dans la Rue Festival in France for one of the highlights - the Australian premiere of the aerial dance company Retouramont.

"I was running late on my way to see a particular show when I got a bit lost. In my rather poor French I asked a passer-by for directions," Marshall says. "He was most helpful but unfortunately I must have misunderstood as I ended up dashing into the venue and paying for my ticket only to find I was at the wrong show.

"My disappointment quickly turned to awe as the show began. I was going to see a show with mechanical wolves but what I saw instead was the most breathtaking and beautiful aerial dance I have ever seen.

"A dancer was gliding across a vertical wall with the most fantastic projections, visuals and music. I was transported."

Retouramont's free public spectacle Cette Immense Intimite will be performed for four nights against a 10m wall of the Halco Tackle building in Leak Street.

Among the other 90-odd events will be an extended program of theatre, comedy and cabaret in the 50-seat Black Box Theatre, an experiment from last year which returns upstairs in the Spare Parts Puppet Theatre.

"After going to the Adelaide Fringe and being excited by the theatre in all these small venues, I was very keen to get local people in there putting on shows," Marshall says. "I am really excited that all these independent theatre makers are seeing the Fremantle festival as another place to present work apart from at the Fringe and the Blue Room."

Spare Parts itself also will use the festival to branch out beyond its usual menu of children's theatre with the experimental adult puppetry show Point of View (P.O.V).

Sadly, the collapse of Deckchair Theatre at Victoria Hall last week has put a dent in the theatre program with the cancellation of Sketches of Freo, a four-part homage to the port from playwrights Kate Rice, Hellie Turner, David Milroy and Ingle Knight.

However, the nearby Fremantle Town Hall, with its fine acoustics, will be buzzing as a popular venue for classical music, Marshall says. "Classical musicians love playing in it so I am really keen to promote that as a venue and we have a strong classical music program."

The old light industrial area between Monument Hill and the golf course, dubbed the Knutsford Street Precinct, has become a mecca for artists who will host Sculptures on the Street, a graffiti art jam and a Steampunk Ball.

The Fremantle Festival runs from October 28 to November 11. Full details are available at: fremantle.wa.gov.au/festivals

FESTIVAL HIGHLIGHTS

Blessing of the Fleet/Seafood Festival (October 28): Colour and pageantry in and around the Fishing Boat Harbour concludes with a fireworks display to open the Fremantle Festival.

Cette Immense Intimite (November1- 4 at 7.30pm): A dancer from French aerial performance company Retouramont glides across a 10m high wall on Leak Street accompanied by music and video art.

Wardanji (November 3): This Noongar cultural festival celebrates indigenous music, dance, art and food at the Fremantle Arts Centre.

Children's Fiesta/Jazz in the Park (November 4): A day of free family entertainment before an evening of jazz under the stars.

Norfolk Lanes Youth Music Festival (November 10): Young Fremantle bands hit the stage hoping to follow the footsteps of past Norfolk Lane acts Tame Impala, San Cisco and Grace Woodroofe.

Street Parade (November 11): More than 1500 people parade down South Terrace in the festival finale.

Black Box Theatre (Thursday to Sundays during the festival): Theatre, comedy ripe for the picking upstairs at the Spare Parts Puppet Theatre.

Town Hall (October 28-November 11): Comedy, fashion, exhibitions and music, including concerts by the Fremantle Symphony Orchestra and WA Youth Jazz Orchestra.

Sculptures on the Street (October 28-November 4): Blinco Street, in the heart of the grungy, arty Knutsford Precinct, bursts forth with 3-D artworks.

The West Australian

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