Assured city: bright new world for Sydney Festival
The festival marks the city’s emerging identity as it leaves Melbourne’s cultural shadow and looks eastwards into the future, rather than over its shoulder at its colonial past
Amanda Palmer, a US entertainer who is billed as a punk but is not to be categorised at all
Festival director Lieven Bertels: ‘The old world is still there but it’s losing some of its shine’
An Aboriginal soldier who fought in the first World War, the subject of Black Diggers
Sydney Opera House, where many festival events take place
Sydney is sweltering in the heat of a summer like no other – but hotter still is the city’s 2014 Theatre Festival. Down at the festival office, located in the lovely maritime buildings in The Rocks, festival director Lieven Bertels relaxes into a chair, glass of water to hand, showing no sign of stress despite the fact this is the opening week and some €12.5 million have been sunk into it. But then, why should he be stressed when this festival has all the signs of being a stunner?
Bertels comes from Flanders, where people need all the language skills they can get in order to survive, he tells me. This makes global networking simpler, and perhaps explains why he has brought into the festival acts from some 17 countries, including Niger, Mali, China and India.
What he found, when he came to Sydney in 2013 to direct the first of three festivals, was a city influenced by its closeness to Asia and the Pacific. “The old world is still there but it’s losing some of its shine,” he says. Nevertheless, he proceeded to surprise the city by offering Purcell’s opera, Dido and Aeneas, as the festival’s centrepiece. How old world is that?
Bertels smiles. “We’re expecting people to come to this who would never ordinarily come to an opera,” he says. “After all, they came last year when we had Vivienne Westwood do the costumes.”
He’s probably right. For the first 15 minutes of this year’s opera, dancers from choreographer Sasha Waltz’s troupe will perform underwater in a giant aquarium. Interestingly, the only storm in this aquatic love story is that the specially trained dancers, who come from all over Europe, have been unable to agree on a level of water temperature acceptable to everyone.
Opera criticism leaves Bertels untouched largely because, as a musicologist (he studied composition at Durham University in England), he exudes confidence in himself and his co-workers.
“The prologue was missing, so we decided to make our own,” he says. Hence the 15 minutes of swimmer/dancers performing underwater. Simple as that.
For those festivalgoers who might be perturbed by opera, there are countless other events to compensate. They include a rapping Othello, three circuses, our own Pan Pan Theatre Company, a show of shadow puppets from China, an Aboriginal take on King Lear, more free events than ever before and – not to be missed – another world premiere from the choreographer, Sean Parker, whose Am I is an exploration of origin and identity.
In fact, this is a recurring theme in Bertels’s work and, perhaps, a reflection of his idea that Sydney is emerging from Melbourne’s cultural shad
ow. “ Melbourne is great,” he says “but it’s still provincial.” Oops – they’re not going to like that down there.
Bertels merely smiles. Coming from a country with an area of 30,000sq km (Ireland is 84,000sq km), he is certain he is right. His country, after all, has given us the saxophone and the magical mirrored Spiegeltent – a 1920s Belgian travelling tent where you paid to do each dance, and boys and girls could mingle, for want of a better word, and where his grandfather met his grandmother.