The 'backwater' sends a cultural tide to foreign shores

Sometimes tagged a "cultural desert," Australia today is abloom with artistic activity. Fading is the vision of down under as an isolated chunk of Sahara populated mostly with kangaroos, surfers, and soccer fanatics. Instead, the world is getting more of a taste of Australia through its films, paintings, and literature.

In the process, the Aussies are chipping away at their national character -- "emerging," as Sir Keith Hancock once wrote in his book "Australia," "as from a sculptor's unfinished marble."

"We're very much in a period of reflection and self-analysis," says Dr. Michael Costigan, director of the Literature Board of the Australia Council, an administrative agency for the arts. "We're beginning to recognize a sense of nationalism -- a national pride and consciousness."

Perhaps the biggest overseas splash of late has been the "new wave" of Australian films. Aided like other Australian arts by government subsidies, the country's small but thriving movie industry is turning out footage by the mile. And a number of the results -- including "Breaker Morant," "My Brilliant Career, " "The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith," and "Picnic at hanging Rock" -- are catching the eye of more and more overseas viewers.

Yet the overseas ripples don't stop with films. Increasingly, Australian poets, short-story writers, and novelists are finding audiences and publishers in the United States and Canada. Many students in Europe are now enrolling in purely Australian literature courses.

A new crop of young Australian writers is also springing up, following in the wake of Patrick White, winner of the 1973 Nobel Prize for Literature, and Colleen McCullough, author of the best-selling book "The Thorn Birds."

Indeed, Patrick White's Nobel Prize, Mr. Costigan says, has "helped to focus attention on the fact that literature is being written in the English language in places other than the United States and Britain."

Theater, too, is blossoming.While a few years ago it was hard to get an Australian play into the theater, today many houses down under are hungry for them. The dramatists, led by the talented David Williamson, are helping to mold a distinctly Australian theater.

In ballet, the Sydney Dance Company recently performed in New York as part of its first trip to the United States. And last year the country's national troupe, the Australian Ballet, journeyed to China to put on Australia's first major cultural program there.

Looming in the middle of this growing international recognition is the Sydney Opera House -- itself a symbol of the country's artistic vibrancy. The spinnaker-spined edifice sits triumphantly in Sydney Harbor in the shadow of the famous harbor bridge. Its ceramic-skinned arches, glistening in an afternoon sun, express as much poetry as architecture.

Yet even some 24 years after its conception and 11 years after its opening, the building still draws a fusillade of criticism: One of the orchestra pits is too small, and there are too few seats in some theaters, to name just two.

Few, however, doubt the international recognition the center has brought, nor its impact on the local arts scene. From his 15th-floor executive perch in downtown Sydney, Patrick Veitch, general manager of the Australian Opera, has a panoramic view of the harbor. Leaning back in his chair, he points over his shoulder at the Opera House and almost tumbles over backward describing its significance.

"The biggest thing that has happened in the arts here is that thing," he says glancing toward the harbor. "To me it's the most beautiful building built in the 20th century."

The house is one of the country's chief tourist attractions and must rank as one of the world's busiest performing-arts centers.It features four main performing halls, including a 2,690-seat concert hall and 1,500-seat opera theater. The center hosted an average of nine events a day in fiscal 1979-80, ranging from jazz concerts to body-building contests.

"It's got a reputation now like the Met [New York's Metropolitan Opera]," a local arts official says. "There is a certain cachet about saying that you are playing at the Opera House." Other arts complexes are going up as well.

One of them is the Victoria Arts Center in Melbourne. Although years behind schedule and millions of dollars over cost, it could one day rival the Opera House, some Melbourne enthusiasts think -- if not architecturally, then at least as a performing-arts center. Another multimillion-dollar complex is going up in Brisbane, the capital of Queensland.

In the end, the country's current cultural revival reflects a maturing sense of Australian nationalism. "It is," says Maria Prerauer, arts editor of the Australian, a national newspaper, "a desire to express a growing feeling of self-discovery -- a sense of identity."

Still, the Aussies may have a way to go before they completely shirk their backwater stereotype. One businessman tells the story of calling a relative in London shortly after he moved to Melbourne, a cosmopolitan hub of some 2.5 million people. He phoned from a downtown location and had three friends "baa" in the background like sheep.

When the Londoner asked what all the commotion was, he simply explained that it was a flock of sheep milling through the center of the city. The woman on the other end went on talking as if it were normal.

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