Festivals of the Arts are perforce festivals of ideas. As Director of the Melbourne International Arts Festival from 2002 to 2004, Robyn Archer has organised her tenure around three themes. Last year was text, next year it will be voice, and this time body, highlighting dance and movement. A theme need not be an idea. It can be little more than a bureaucrat’s box or a marketer’s mark. The transition from label to intellectual challenge depends on the artistry of the invitees.

The Festival opened at its zenith with the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan in Cursive II. Against projections of celadon ware or crackled porcelain along the rear wall, and using the minimum of effects in costumes of black or white, the company held its movements within the range between knees and crown of the head. There were but two brief moments of touching, no lifting, and almost no leaping. They did not fill the stage so much as control it as in a game of Go. The John Cage score reproduced the sparseness inscribed by Lin Hwai-min’s choreography as calligraphy.

The contrast with Japanese troupe Dumb Type’s Memorandum could not have been greater. The audience was issued with ear plugs. Rather than raw volume, the speakers gave out a depth of sound that could not conceal the shallow content. The tedium inherent in video, performance and installation art is intensified when the three are brought together. The reliance on technology to fill the space where talent and thinking should have been would recur across the Festival program.

But not in Nowhere Man from Melbourne’s Kage Physical Theatre. Director Kate Denborough called on the bodies of her troupe and the imaginations of her designers to conjure a tableau reminiscent of Fellini’s filmed fantasies. If her accounted topic of cloning got blurred in the kaleidoscope, the piece’s wicked wit delivered delights from a cast mutating from suspense to surprise.

In Tense Dave, Melbourne’s resident avant-garde firm, Chunky Moves, called on three choreographers to produce an hour with no moves and the chunks appearing as slabs of wood which divided the space as moveable walls. Any drive came from the revolving stage. From Marseilles, Kubilai Khan Investigations also fell victim to their technology. Routines stuck at Judo rolling falls cannot be rescued by invoking sympathy for refugees.

The contrast with the Adelaide’s Australian Dance Theatre’s The Age of Unbeauty was telling. Choreographer Garry Stewart responded to his working in New York just after September 11 by deciding that dance had to become more violent, hence the title. Yet the movements he directed never escaped from the ‘gentility principle’ that literary critic Al Alvarez, around 1960, blamed for the timidity of post-war British poetry. That Anglo-Saxon disease remains. Premiering in the same week as Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Stewart’s work was not in the race for unbeauty. Nonetheless, he devised striking forms from clusters of bodies growing around each other, notably in four naked corpses disposed along an operating table. Throughout, the company provided the energy that could have projected violence this side of kick-boxing.

For Plasticine Park in the Screen Gallery at the Centre for the Moving Image, Lucy Guerin directed performers in front of video clips. Only Create Grid, devised by Stephen Honegger and enacted by Brett Daffy, integrated the movements on screen with those of the dancer. The streetscape’s changing places and shapes gave the illusion of the human body’s changing size.

During a Melbourne Symphony concert of three Stravinsky ballets, the exactness and grace of Delia Silvan’s Firebird deserved more scope than given by Guerin’s choreography. The accompanying motion graphics by Michaela French served the story and mood in the finest of the projections at the Festival, a case where technology did its job because it was alert to meaning.

The other orchestral inspiration was three recorded versions of Ravel’s Bolero, for which Odile Duboc devised movements for her French company. None of the three conductors she chose brought out the viciousness of its repetitions. Their rise to raucousness would become identified as totalitarian. Although a century of warfare and dictatorship has confirmed the terror that Ravel projected, Duboc has not seen beyond subtle shifts in orchestral colour from the insipid to the decrepit. The insertion of storm sounds between the second and third interpretations was as far as the evening moved away from the soporific.

From Dance Works, five recent graduates presented Sandra Parker’s Symptomatic, a formalesque statement about the obstacles that their bodies present to their art. They strain to force their rigid arm joints into action, then are defied as those limbs turn gelatinousness; their bodies refuse to fly before the floor refuses to give way to their pressure. After a while, these exercises came closer to working-out than to working up to an emotion or through a concept.

For Im Goldenen Snitti, solo dancer Cesc Gelabert embodied understatement via an elaboration of fading powers, a preview of death, in intricate exercises equivalent to Bach’s accompanying keyboard technique but remote from his dance of god. The five stars of Acrobat operated at the opposite end of intensity in a triumph of muscle, wit and collaboration.

Archer’s separation of text from body and from voice can never be absolute. Several offerings that could have been promoted as text or as voice excelled as movement or dance.

Mario Priovano as the narrator in Dario Fo’s monologue Johan Padan and the Discovery of America was agile, verbally and physically, filling the stage with story as he sang and danced. Priovano worked with no technology, not even costume, scenery, lighting or off-stage music. His craft invited the imagination of the audience to travel with his character through time and space. More demanding still was Raimund Hoghe who, in Another Dream, challenged the audience to remember the 1960s by its popular music, through which he shuffled, lighting flickers of memory.

Marie Brassard’s Jimmy worked the changes on the themes that life is a dream from which we may yet wake. Her sometimes hilarious creation of multiple personalities in one body brought a novel dimension to the concept of a performer creating spaces on stage.

Ranters Theatre created a version of Sartre’s ‘hell is other people’ in The Wall. The six lost souls shift seating positions and conversational ploys to find a partner, for companionship or sex. Their deadly timing achieved the impact of ex tempore aggression and vulnerability. This verbal dexterity supplied a geometry of the emotions.

Barry Kosky’s The Lost Breath began life in three texts by Kafka. The opening sequence presented the escapologist Harry Houdini. The piece proceeded through a middle section of dance routines and stuttered to rest in a dismemberment of Schumann’s Dichterliebe. Those thirty minutes of stillness was the most violent at the Festival. Houdini’s apparatus for torture and disappearance had foreshadowed what would happen to art before the final curtain.

I Am Blood from Belgian director Jan Fabre filled the State Theatre stage with thrilling visuals of violence en masse at the start and the finish but left a hole in between when the representations of torture and blood-letting rarely got beyond gestured repetition. The details were not ritualised enough. Even the combination of armoured legs beneath wedding frocks was never more than briefly erotic. The call to escape from the Middle-Ages needed a narrative or more pictorial precision.

For Timothy Sexton’s scaled-down version of Akhaten by Philip Glass from the State Opera of South Australia, Leigh Warren choreographed the principals, chorus and six dancers in patterns as layered as the score becomes on the synthesisers. To worship the sun, the Pharaoh built a new city with roofless temples. The Malthouse venue was more like the recesses of a tomb, barely enough for a household deity. Singing in the Rain proved more Melbourne than any outdoor worship of the one true sun god.