The Sydney Festival is transforming Sydney, again

by Dan Raper

8 January 2009


The Sydney Festival 2009
Saturday January 10 – Saturday January 31

The Sydney Festival, a three-week overload of music, theatre, dance and the kind of large-scale cultural events that help define summer, is returning for its 31st season.

The Sydney Festival is transforming Sydney, again

Adidas ran a promotion here in Australia last year where you could go online and make up your ultimate music festival. It was cool to imagine, for a minute, a day of all your favourites gathered together, singing just for you. For Fergus Linehan and his team at , seems like that happens every year. It’s got to be a thrilling job – three weeks in January in which to curate a collection of music, theatre, film and large-scale events that, together, have a transforming effect on Sydney. Last year it was Brian Wilson, Bjork, Sufjan Stevens, and the National Theatre of Scotland. This year it’s Grace Jones, Bill Callahan, Matthew Herbert’s Big Band, and specially-composed live scored versions of films like Enter the Dragon.

The Sydney Festival has been around since 1977, but recently it’s grown into something more of the year’s cultural high water-mark. There are free events, big outdoor concerts in the Domain park in the centre of the city. Each Saturday during the festival, a 120-strong Philharmonia chorus will perform a capella at dawn, at one of Sydney’s beaches. Events like this, as well as those aimed at kids and at broadening the reach of the festival from Sydney’s CBD and inner suburbs west to Parramatta and Homebush, help give the Sydney Festival its particularly inclusive atmosphere.

This year, Linehan’s last as Director, things have the feeling of a homecoming. Linehan’s Irish, and a number of the acts are either from or about Ireland. There’s Glen Hansard (of the Frames) with Marketa Irglova performing songs from their Oscar-winning soundtrack to the film Once. There are three different productions by Brian Friel running simultaneously. And there’s traditional Irish music – a recapitulation of Irish town Bantry’s annual Masters of Tradition festival – at the Sydney Opera House.

But there’s also gypsy music, and Buraka Som Sistema, and Z Trip, and Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings. One event that’s particularly anticipated is Australia’s first All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, held in collaboration with the Sydney Festival, and curated by Nick Cave. The event will be held on a small island in Sydney Harbour, and Cave has corralled a rather daunting line-up of gritty, around-since-the-‘80s psych- and avant-rock.

The breadth of acts, from ballet to jazz to contemporary theatre, is a little staggering. The obvious cliché – that there’s something for everyone – isn’t as interesting as the post-modern way the Festival juxtaposes traditionally high and low, allowing, say, the National to perform in a chamber music recital hall, or Matthew Herbert at the Opera House. This gregarious spirit is not only a thrill for the performers themselves (who wouldn’t want to play at the Sydney Opera House?), but is a neat marketing strategy. Bringing different audiences to different venues raises awareness of the cultural events that are going on in the city throughout the year. It also gives the festival its “premium” tone.

If you had one of those weeks or weekends at college (ours was called “Arts First”), where everyone with a project or part-time band got the chance to perform in one celebratory mass of creativity, that’s sort of what Sydney feels like in January. You won’t see every one of the 80 events. You might not venture to the Hungarian production of Chekhov (with surtitles). But you might venture out for the two-part, 8-hour, Cate Blanchett-starring adaptation of all eight of Shakespeare’s history plays. You might skip Bon Iver but catch one of the surprise shows that feature a different artist each night.

It all kicks off on Saturday, with a close-down-the-streets, multi-stage event being called “Sydney Dances”. There’s a choreographed routine that, for ten minutes, we’ll all apparently be participating in from various spots across the city where events are being held. Given our collective need for escape about now, that might be an appealing option. What’s to come over the coming weeks, though, is surely enough to be dancing in the streets about.

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