It’s time for Sydney to go out and play


If positivity and optimism could be bottled, there’s a good chance Olivia Ansell’s name is on the label.

Sydney Festival’s new artistic director has precisely the vision, intelligence and energy to bring together an army of talent from around the world for 25 days of music, dance, theater, art and everything in between .

The fact that she managed to compile her first program, which includes 33 world premieres and 52 new commissions, amid the rapid chaos of a global pandemic is a testament to her tenacity as a seasoned artistic producer and programmer.

Prior to taking charge of the annual Sydney summer shindig, Ansell was responsible for contemporary performance at the Sydney Opera House – and before that, artistic director of the Sydney Comedy Festival.

So she knows a thing or two about the cultural tastes of the port city.

In fact, given that his grandparents included a circus master, an opera singer and a violinist, and his mother was a dancer and choreographer and his father was a jazz musician and arranger, Ansell is kind of blue blood in matter of art. .

More on that later.

But first, what if his first festival was a billboard, what would he read?

“Sydney, you did it,” Ansell exclaimed over Zoom one recent afternoon.

“Your efforts to keep our city safe has paid off this summer. “

Things weren’t so rosy in August.

“We could not lock the program until the public health order fell in September,” she reveals.

“Normally that would happen in July.”

Gradual state border closures haven’t helped either.

“It’s rare these days for a dance or theater company to have all of its members living in the same city or even in the same state,” she says.

“But we’re here now with a program of 133 events that are a mix of outdoor, indoor and online – we’re up for all levels of consumer confidence.

“There’s a home entertainment program with on-demand and live-streamed content, lots of outdoor events and free experiences, and then of course the big indoor theater moments.

“We hope to reach 430,000 people in January and we feel ready for anything.”

Like a 2.6-ton piece of ice, sculpted to resemble an iceberg, suspended from a 15-meter-high crane above Sydney Harbor.

“Legs on the Wall’s Thaw is a free public art installation that runs from 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. January 14-16, with four dancers taking turns performing solo at the top of the iceberg as it slowly melts.” , explains Ansell.

Dancers will wear wetsuits, crampons, and plenty of sunscreen.

“Thaw is making a statement on the urgent need to act on climate change, and there is a climax happening every night at 7.15pm, but I can’t say too much,” she teases of the world premiere.

“What’s interesting about this work is that it features a new score by Alaskan composer Matthew Burtner, who specializes in music that deals with climate change – he wrote three operas on climate change. Burtner and Legs on the Wall have collaborated in a mainland cross-track. “

The ice will be carved on the central coast of NSW and transported to Sydney in a refrigerated truck.

“It’s very high-tech – the rig is actually frozen in ice,” says Ansell.

Don’t feel like walking to the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House? No problem.

“On Saturday January 15th we’re doing Thaw-cam, so you can log on anytime of the day and watch the dancer on the ice.”

For those fondly remembering Sydney’s dance party culture in the late ’80s and’ 90s, Qween Lear at the Hordern Pavilion, January 7-16, might just be the trip down memory lane you need right now. .

“Over the years we have lost a lot of the things that made Sydney so authentic, quirky and great nightlife,” Ansell said.

“King Lear is about loyalty and family, and Qween Lear brings characters from Shakespeare’s tragedy – Regan, Goneril, Cordelia, Gloucester, Albany and Kent – through the lens of queer Sydney history.

“The characters will be portrayed by iconic artists from Sydney’s queer community, including Minnie Cooper, who plays Qween Lear, singer Seann Miley Moore and Etcetera Etcetera from Ru Paul’s Drag Race Down Under.”

Expect a critique of Sydney’s gentrification amid the glitter and mirror balls in what promises to be a 75-minute blast of immersive theater and cabaret with the exhilarating energy of a party at the house with smiling faces.

“Qween Lear says we need to take care of our culture, that we shouldn’t continually erase our architecture and our histories,” says Ansell.

Is it more your thing to have fun in the boats? From January 20-23, Big Hart’s Acoustic Life of Boatsheds will send you on a three-hour round-trip trip on the Rosman Wood Ferry visiting working boathouses in and around Balmain, Birchgrove and White Bay.

At each location, audiences will witness a musical performance inspired by the workshops and harbor waterways, featuring some of the country’s leading representatives of classical and world music, including percussionist Claire Edwardes of the Offspring Ensemble, the harpist Emily Granger and composer and sound artist Bree van Reyk.

The event highlights Ansell’s drive to activate different parts of the city in which she was born and raised.

“That’s what really makes it a festival, in my opinion, when you can discover, or rediscover, your city in a different way,” she says.

Do you like BMX, skateboard or parkour, or know a little person who is? Meet at Parramatta Centennial Square Jan. 13-16 for Branch Nebula’s gravity-defying performance, Demo.

“This breathtaking 30-minute free event is perfect for families,” said Ansell.

“The demo brings together BMX riders, skateboarders and parkourists on an electro-acoustic score by Lucy Cliche,” she says, adding that it will also be broadcast live.

Elsewhere, there is Airship Orchestra at Tumbalong Park in Darling Harbor, with a choir of 16 inflatable creatures that can reach six meters in height.

“These mystical beings are colored black, white and red by day, but at night they glow in purple, mauve, pink and white,” says Ansell.

“Each creature has sensors, so when you walk past one it makes a sound. When a lot of people are walking around, what you hear is a digital orchestra of sounds composed by the crowd.”

In Barangaroo, in the semi-outdoor sandstone and concrete space that is The Cutaway, prepare to pass out – literally.

“Performed by the chamber singers of the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, Night of the Soul is truly a night for the soul,” Ansell says, adding that the audience will be invited to take off their shoes and lie down on yoga mats. ” very soft”.

Hosted and conducted over two nights (January 20-21) by Brett Weymark, the fully acoustic concert will feature 30 backing singers, a string quartet and a pianist in a calming program including a world premiere by Deborah Cheetham and Matthew Doyle, as well as works by Tarik O’Regan, Arvo Part and Samuel Barber.

“It will be a calming and meditative way to welcome into 2022 with themes of hope, change and healing,” she says.

Growing up in a family of artists – her mother worked as a choreographer on Bandstand and her father co-composed the ABC News musical theme – Ansell had the kind of childhood most people would dream of.

“I spent a lot of my early years shopping for sequins at Photios Bros. and fabric at E&M Greenfield with either family member,” she laughs.

“The arts were everyday – that’s what my whole family had been doing for years.”

As such, her parents decided that she and her brother would have “exciting” careers – “something like law, science or accounting,” she says.

“They were curious what it would be like to have children who take up a profession they know nothing about.

“But of course, you can’t grow up in a house full of dancing and music and not take care of it.”

Ansell trained as a dancer, first at the legendary Bodenwieser Dance Center in Chippendale, before continuing her studies in New York and, finally, at QUT in Brisbane.

She performed until the age of 30, when she had so much side effort in production and curating that she had to make a decision.

“I realized it would be a lot less stressful if I only did one thing. I had to be on stage or backstage because trying to do everything was pulling my brain in different directions.”

Now 43, she recognizes her unusual upbringing by preparing her for the challenges of running a leading arts festival.

“From my background, I have knowledge of circus, jazz, dance and theater. I also understand the business side of things, as well as the experimental and independent world of performance.

“But until I got into programming, I didn’t know what to do with all the loves.

“Now I can communicate with the artists and be part of the creative process from start to finish.

“I can exercise all of these passions.”

The Sydney Festival runs from January 6 to 30. For tickets and information, visit


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