Familiar and strange, the culture of Australia is on display in D.C.

October 09, 1994|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Special to The Sun

Culture from the land down under is coming up here as the Kennedy Center features a festival of Australian culture in the week ahead.

Intent on solidifying its mission as a national and international cultural center, the Kennedy Center has in recent years presented cultural festivals focused on Germany, France, Texas and San Francisco. Now it's Australia's turn.

"It's really part of a continuum," explains James D. Wolfensohn, chairman of the Kennedy Center, who is himself Australian-born. "We've been interested in presenting works of quality from other nations and states."

Kicking off with an open house today from noon to 6 p.m., the festival goes on to present such attractions as the Australian Ballet, Tjapukai Aboriginal Dance Theatre, Circus Oz, a one-woman show by Zoe Caldwell, a recital by pianist Michael Kieran Harvey, a National Symphony Orchestra concert featuring Australian composers and pianist Sara Wolfensohn (Mr. Wolfensohn's daughter), the aboriginal rock band Yothu Yindi, the Chamber Made Opera production of "Medea," film series at the American Film Institute and the Library of Congress, a "talk and draw" session with political cartoonist Pat Oliphant, and readings by Australian authors.

"It's intended as a cross section of Australian cultural life," Mr. Wolfensohn says. "We wanted to present innovative work from companies like Circus Oz and Chamber Made Opera, some more standard repertory with the Australian ballet and also some groups representing the aboriginal cultures."

He adds that while American audiences are familiar with individual Australian talents, such as Zoe Caldwell, they may not be familiar with other aspects of Australian culture.

"The interesting thing about Australian culture is that it has been exposed to a lot of immigrant cultures and has developed in a rather different way -- 10,000 miles away from Europe," Mr. Wolfensohn says.

Certainly Australian-born Pat Oliphant, the Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist, is in a good position to note differences between American and Australian societies.

The 59-year-old cartoonist recalls that since emigrating to America 30 years ago, "I've always felt there remains a certain 'outside' feeling in me because I grew up there and not here. Of course, your culture was familiar from TV and newspapers. And Americans and Australians are about the same shape and size. Even so, when I first came over, many Americans were quite surprised to find I spoke English. And they had certain blind spots, like [simplistic] notions, about kangaroos and aborigines. But there is less of that today.

"There are still some differences. Take the language. In Australia you might say you were going to knock somebody up in the morning, meaning you were going to wake them up. Of course, knocking somebody up means something else here."

Mr. Oliphant's wit will be on display when he does a "talk and draw" session Oct. 16. His drawings and bronze sculptures are also on display, at the Susan Conway Gallery in Washington, through Oct. 29.

Another participant in the Australian festival is novelist Peter Carey. Mr. Carey, who reads from his fiction Saturday, won the Booker Prize for "Oscar and Lucinda." That book was listed as one of the five best novels of 1988 by Time magazine.

The 51-year-old novelist teaches writing at New York University. He says Australian culture isn't as well known as it should be in the United States, and he sees real differences between the countries' superficially similar cultures. His new novel, "The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith," just published in England and slated for American publication early next year, treats the relations between two made-up, metaphorical countries in such a way that one gets a feeling for how Australians and Americans perceive each other.

As an Aussie who has lived in America since 1989, Mr. Carey says Americans don't always realize the extent to which U.S. popular culture has reached that distant continent's shores.

"It rarely occurs to some in the U.S. that people in Australian society also grow up seeing TV shows like 'I Love Lucy.' When Americans and Australians do meet as visitors in each other's countries, much does seem familiar because of that exposure to popular culture. We both speak English and look the same and so on.

"But these are superficial similarities, because there are profound differences in our histories. America had some convicts [during its Colonial period] but was founded more by religious dissenters. Australia is a country that really does begin as a penal colony. So in reference to religion, there are differences. It is unthinkable that you'd have an American president who didn't believe in God. We can."

Other differences? "You share some things with us in terms of the size of that country and going west, but unlike your American optimism, our sense of the frontier is a feeling of loss and defeat going back to our origins as a penal colony.

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