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


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.

Melbourne’s shadow
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.

It was in the Spiegeltent that I saw Amanda Palmer, a US entertainer who is billed as a punk but is, in fact, not to be categorised at all. Wearing a satin, skin-tight gown as a nod to the cabaret act she builds into her show, she offers one hour of entertainment – part Sally Bowles, part stand-up – that includes two of the most poignant songs about identity I have ever heard, with actors playing an integral role in both.

The Spiegeltent is in Hyde Park, Sydney’s family-friendly festival village where, on a warm summer’s evening and under a moonlit sky, the city meets to have fun, eat, hang out and play. In previous years the festival opened with a huge free multi-act party but those days have gone. “The free party was too expensive,” says Bertels.

So, although his budget is smaller, he has increased the number of free events. How? “Reshuffle,” he says simply.

Aboriginal heroes
While Bertels might be remembered mainly for his innovative opera, it is another world premiere, Black Diggers, that will be the closing of the circle – one of them – for Bertels.

Back home in Flanders, in the village next to his, is a first World War grave with an Aboriginal name on one of the stones. Rufus Rigney, a young Aborigine, enrolled in the Australian army at 16 and was dead with a year. Some 1,000 Aboriginal men joined up to fight in Gallipoli, Palestine and Flanders, but on their return to Australia, they were treated as before: not allowed to marry, own property or to travel.

Black Diggers has a cast of all-male indigenous actors, and it portrays men such as Rufus, who fought in an imperial war for a country that refused to recognise them as Australian citizens. Director Wesley Enoch mounted a huge programme of research and has based the play on a composite picture of the many people he interviewed. “Reconciliation is a people’s movement,” he has said, “not a political one.” This is a view shared by Bertels. “If we don’t have the history,” he says, “how can we have the future?”

Which brings us back to the mainspring of this festival: Sydney’s emerging identity as a city looking eastwards into the future, rather than over its shoulder at its colonial past. The Aboriginal people finally achieved recognition as citizens of Australia in a 1967 referendum. Black Diggers, which was premiered at Sydney Opera House, will take that recognition into new territory both historically and dramatically and will shine as a star in Australia’s continuing story. Interesting that it took an outsider to make it happen.

Sydney Festival 2014 runs until January 26,

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