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2017 Sydney Festival: A Personal Guide

Keith Gallasch

Still Life, Dimitris Papaioannou Still Life, Dimitris Papaioannou
photo Nysos Vasilopoulos

The 2017 Sydney Festival is overflowing with art. What to see? How much time and money to spend? Artistic Director Wesley Enoch wants you to be adventurous, to break out of the internet-driven niches our culture is generating. But he's provided initial guidance, creating mini-programs around the senses, circus, Canadian performance and Indigenous culture. Beyond that, off you go into the maze of theatre, dance, music and Spiegeltent fare.

I've made a list of some 25 shows I'm eager to to see (will I even get to 10?) and think you might too, but not in every case—some niches are admittedly forbidding. I've seen previous work by some of the festival artists but, like you I'll be going mostly on what I've heard, read and seen on YouTube and Vimeo (valuable but can mislead). I promise nothing beyond what my art-tuned intuition tells me. And I've cited clues from Wesley Enoch and RealTime reviewers and supplied video links which grabbed my attention. Good choosing.

The Encounter, Complicite The Encounter, Complicite
photo Gianmarco Bresadola


In the festival's Senses program, Scent of Sydney (identify the city via memory and smell), Imagined Touch (enter the world of the deafblind), House of Mirrors (not the reflection you know) and The Encounter (get lost in a sonic Amazon rainforest) will appeal to those eager to experience the physical, emotional and aesthetic effects of sensory deprivation and amplification.

Complicite, The Encounter

Guided by an onstage performer-narrator and sound manipulator, UK performance company Complicite presents an intensely aural experience that recreates a journey up the Amazon via binaural recording (in which the microphones are ear-positioned), acutely reproducing the spatial experience of human hearing. "In 1969, National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre became lost in a remote part of the Brazilian rainforest while searching for the Mayoruna people. His encounter was to test his perception of the world..." [press release]. It's a work that has been described as sensorily and culturally disorienting. And it appears to be an ideal companion piece for Anthropologies Imaginaires.

Gabriel Dharmoo, Anthropologies Imaginaires

Canadian composer, scholar of song cultures and a physically vigorous vocal performer, Gabriel Dharmoo, has created Anthropologies Imaginaires, a live mockumentary in which the artist, with sound, video and audience vocal participation, conjures imaginary cultures—their folklore and vocal techniques—compelling us to reflect on how we impose Western culture on others. It's not part of Senses but makes a good lateral fit. I'm intrigued.

Balabala Balabala
photo David Fajar


Ekosdance Company, Cry Jalailo and Balalala

I first saw Eko Supriyanto's work in Jakarta, in the Indonesian Dance Festival of 2010 and was excited by the propulsive minimalism of a choreography rooted in local dance and other traditions. Cry Jailolo won praise at this year's Darwin and OzAsia Festivals, with its focus on young men and their Climate Change-endangered remote Javanese coastal town. Alongside Cry Jailolo, Supriyanto is premiering Balabala, a work for five women from the same town about role and gender and expressed through martial art-driven dance.

Spectra, Dancenorth Spectra, Dancenorth
photo Ash McLellan

Dancenorth, Spectra

Contrary to Enoch's intent, the Ekosdance double bill looks like a lone Asian presence in the festival, but the alert festival-goer will grab a ticket to Spectra, a dance work from that inventive powerhouse from Townsville, Dancenorth in their believe-it-or-not first appearance in Sydney. Read about Spectra, a collaboration with a Japanese designer, composer and Butoh performers, in Ben Brooker's interview with Artistic Director and choreographer Kyle Page.

Champions, FORM Dance Projects Champions, FORM Dance Projects
photo Heidrun Löhr

FORM Dance Projects, Champions

Created in consultation with Western Sydney Wanderers W-league, this work features 11 female performers enacting the drills, tactics and rituals of the game and expressing the joys of playing along with the frustrations of imposed gender limitations. Read Nikki Heywood's interview with choreographer Martin del Amo in next week's RealTime.

Trevor Jamieson, The Season, Sydney Festival 2017 Trevor Jamieson, The Season, Sydney Festival 2017
photo Simon Pynt

Nathan Maynard, The Season

Among the most striking photographs by Tasmanian photographer Ricky Maynard are those in his The Moonbird People (1985) series—images of mutton-birding, the capture and butchering of muttonbirds for food, oil and feathers, an ancient practice on the island. Now Nathan Maynard (a descendant of the chief of the Trawlwoolway Clan and of the North East Tasmanian Indigenous peoples), who has experienced this harvesting, has written a play around it, featuring powerful performers Trevor Jamieson and Tammy Anderson.

Jacob Boehme, Blood on the Dance Floor Jacob Boehme, Blood on the Dance Floor
photo Bryony Jackson

Jacob Boehme, Blood on the Dance Floor

Wesley Enoch regards Boehme's fusion of autobiography and dance as "aesthetically a real step on for Indigenous storytelling." The premiere performance, jointly presented with Melbourne's Ilbijerri Theatre impressed Andrew Fuhrmann (read the review "To live, dance and love with HIV").

Cliff Cardinal, Huff

See Wesley Enoch's account of this First Nations Canadian performance about traditional culture and the depredations of substance abuse in my interview with him in this E-dition.

1967 Music in the Key of Yes

A grand musical celebration of the 1967 Referendum at the Sydney Opera House—with superb singers Leah Flannagan, Yirrmal, Dan Sultan, Adalita, Stephen Pigram, Radical Son and Thelma Plum.

Nicole Lizée, Sex, Lynch and Video Games

One of North America's most inventive composers, Montreal musician Nicole Lizée draws on an armoury of instruments and forms with which to produce contemporary classical works, with the likes of the Kronos Quartet and music video creations, like her Hitchcock Etudes (sounds, scores and images wittily reconfigured against solo piano) and the recent (David) Lynch Etudes, which will be heard in Sydney. Also in the concert is 8-Bit Urbex, a "homage to 80s video games with retro video footage...employing traditional and electronic instruments along with old tape machines" (press release). Karappo Okesutura is "a messed-up karaoke performance of pop hits including The Bangles’ "Eternal Flame," Diana Ross and Lionel Ritchie’s "Endless Love," and Devo’s "Whip It." Lizée's taken with the wealth of creative possibilities to be found in the malfunctioning of antique electronic equipment.

Described as "an exploration of 90s screen culture," Sex, Lynch and Video Games, features Canadian pianist Eve Egoyan (playing to video projections) and the Australian Art Orchestra, renowned for their cross-cultural exchanges with Indian and Australian Indigenous performers, here moving into new territory under the direction of trumpeter Peter Knight.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith

Another North American in the program is Los Angeles-based Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, player, programmer and composer specialising in the rare analogue Buchla 100 Synthesiser, a generator of remarkably idiosyncratic sounds. She was mentored by synthesiser pioneer and Buchla composer Suzanne Ciani. You can watch a short, lovingly made video of Smith operating this beautiful instrument with its colourful knobs and plate keys and listen to a variety of her works on YouTube, ranging from contemplative to the pop-ish "Sundry". Her albums include Euclid (2015) and Ears (2016). Smith has toured the US and Europe and appeared this year in David Lynch's Festival of Disruption.

Ellen Fullman, Long String Instrument Ellen Fullman, Long String Instrument
photo Kjeldo

Ellen Fullman, Long String Instrument

Unlike Lizée and Smith, Ellen Fullman, another experimental American artist, operates entirely in the acoustic domain, playing the 25-metre instrument she's developed over some 30 years. Large spaces, like Sydney's Town Hall for this festival, become larger resonators for an already complexly resonating device such that audiences apparently feel like they're inside the instrument. Fullman walks between the strings, stroking them with rosin-covered hands. A YouTube sample of a performance reveals sitar-like sounds, drones and, as Fullman says, a chamber orchestra at a touch. Hear her talk about the evolution of the instrument. Definitely a concert for those ready to have their ears fine-tuned within a contemplative musical aura. Harbors is performed with cellist Theresa Wong.

Dimitris Papaioannou, Still Life

Greek experimental performance director Dimitris Papaioannou’s creations are remarkable, whether as theatre works, performative installations or the Opening Ceremony of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. He’s made excerpts of these available on Vimeo. You can watch a 17-minute version of Primal Matter (2012) in which Papaioannou directs, choreographs and performs—with eerie physical dexterity and more than a nod to surrealism. A 30-minute sampler, 2001-12 reveals the sheer range of his vision and talents. One European reviewer has called Still Life, a work inspired by the myth of Sisyphus, “philosophical dance” in which “life is both a lusty dance and a perpetual struggle....the whole work feels like a magic show, but with frightening existential tricks and nightmare images.”

Institute Institute
photo Richard Haughton

Gecko, Institute

Wesley Enoch tells me that Institute, by UK's Gecko, is “Kafka-ish physical theatre,” not least because it comprises a world of filing cabinets "in which are memories; triggers for what might be mental health episodes. The performers play out a failed date and what it means for one of them, and there's a re-playing of what I read as the death of a father figure—I’m reading into it all the things I want to read into it. It’s a beautiful work, ending with an almost euphoric sense of what I would call healing."

Prize Fighter Prize Fighter
photo Dylan Evans

Le Boite, Prize Fighter

Prize Fighter from Brisbane's La Bôite plays out as a convincing real time boxing match in its telling of the life of a Congolese child soldier relocated to Brisbane. It was written by Future D Fidel, himself a Congolese refugee. Reviewer Kathryn Kelly wrote that it "showcas[ed] the breadth of African-Australian talent in this country..."

Patricia Cornelius, SHIT

Leading Australian playwright Patricia Cornelius' creations are too rarely seen in Sydney. In his review for RealTime of the Melbourne premiere, John Bailey wrote, "SHIT opens with a monologue that elevates profanity to Beckett-like wordplay (I’ve never heard ‘fuck’ used as noun, verb and adjective in the same sentence). It’s an immediate reminder of Patricia Cornelius’ versatility as a writer, able to produce poetry from vulgar argots without sterilising their power along the way. It’s also a potent introduction to the three protagonists, a trio of women who are the subjects and agents of violence, who inhabit a cruel and complex social sphere but who will not be written off as either victim or monster."

post, Ich Nibber Dibber

Ich Nibber Dibber by those proud Westies and true artistic disrupters, post, features the astonishing trio reproducing excerpts of frank conversations about life and art conducted across their 10-year performance history. This will be a special treat for those familiar with the post repertoire and hopefully a revelation to those who haven't had the pleasure.

Urban Theatre Projects & Blacktown Arts Centre, Home Country

UTP and BAC come together to present Home Country, a work about intra- and cross-cultural tensions—Indigenous, Algerian and Greek—played out in a Blacktown car park. Guided from scene to scene, the audience will encounter performances scripted by Andrea James, Peter Polites and Gaele Sobott. Design is by Clare Britton, direction Rosie Dennis.

King Roger, Royal Opera House, London King Roger, Royal Opera House, London
photo Bill Cooper

Opera Australia, King Roger; Sydney Chamber opera, Biographica

One festival, two operas. That’s impressive, especially when one is a new Australian work and the other, a rarity from the early 20th century—the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski's King Roger (1926). It’s a co-production by London’s Royal Opera House and Opera Australia, looks great on DVD in Kasper Holten's production and should be even better live. Szymanowski’s distinctive late Romanticism, infused with orientalisms, is deeply engaging as is its strange tale of a mystical shepherd who releases the king from religion and jealousy in a Dionysian ritual.

Sydney Chamber Opera will premiere leading Australian composer Mary Finsterer’s Biographica, an account of Gerolamo Cardano (1501-76), a Renaissance wunderkind who excelled as mathematician (inventing algebra), physician, biologist, physicist, chemist, astrologer, astronomer, philosopher, writer and gambler. Add “flawed father, solitary, aggressive, peculiar [and one who] would listen to a guardian angel, swear by science, and dream of defeating time” (Sydney Chamber Opera website) and you have a fine specimen for an opera. Tom Wright, who has collaborated successfully with Michael Kantor and Barrie Kosky, is the librettist, Ensemble Offspring the musicians and Janice Muller the director. Jack Symonds conducts and Mitchell Butel plays Cardano.


The great Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928-2016) died in July this year. Once he’d abandoned serialism in the 1970s his style moved towards an immersive neo-romanticism, richly melodic without sounding archaic and often exuding a mystical aura. This festival concert focuses on Canticus Arcticus, a glorious snowscape poem that incorporates beautiful birdsong, Isle of Bliss (which has been described as “a grandchild of the Sibelius tone-poems”) and the 7th Symphony, Angel of Light, one of his most acclaimed major works and one of several inspired by an angel he thought he saw as a child. Not a concert for hard-nosed modernists and their diverse heirs, but for those open to music of great generosity and emotional power, this tribute event is more than welcome.

Myuran Sukumaran: Another Day in Paradise

While in Bali's Kerobokan gaol, awaiting execution for drug trafficking, Myuran Sukumaran realised his talent for painting under the tutelage of friend Ben Quilty. On show at Campbelltown Arts Centre will be many of his works alongside others, commissioned for the exhibition, by Abdul Rahman Abdullah, Safdar Ahmed, Megan Cope, Jagath Dheerasekara, Taloi Havini, Khaled Sabsabi and Matthew Sleeth. Curated by Quilty and CAC’s Michael Dagostino, the exhibition will reflect on the rehabilitative power of art, the nature of compassion and the limits of capital punishment. The multiple ironies of the show’s title already say so much.

Vernon Ah Kee, Not An Animal Or A Plant

Leading Australian visual artist Vernon Ah Kee, showing extant and new works in drawing and installation, will address the Referendum of 1967 which recognised Indigenous peoples as Australians; an event, says Wesley Enoch, too little acknowledged. His exhibition, aptly titled Not An Animal Or A Plant, will show at the National Art School.

EXIT installation EXIT installation
photo Diller Scofidio + Renfro

Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Exit

Based on an idea by philosopher-urbanist Paul Virilio, Exit is a 360-degree animated overview of “a planet in trouble,” mapped using extensive disaster, climate, wealth, population and migration data. Philip Brophy, who saw it in Paris, praised its formidable production values but criticised it for “ultimately smack[ing] of grandstanding, intimidation and the type of passive-aggressive address to which so much politically committed art succumbs despite its often laudable concerns.” A RealTime reader begged to differ, citing the immersivity of the work, created by artists/architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, architect-artist Laura Kurgan and statistician-artist Mark Hansen, and, too rare these days, the totality of its vision. Judge for yourself.


Retro Futurismus

I almost missed this one at the back of a crowded festival program, Retro Futurismus which John Bailey had praised back in July. He describes it as "a new kind of variety show based around the future as it was imagined by people in the past. Think Grace Jones, 2001: A Space Odyssey, 50s SF movies and 80s fashion." He also notes a level of seriousness: "There's great glee and energy in the romance of science fictions gone by, but also a painful realisation that this hope was let down by the reality in which we now find ourselves." Retro Futurismus features stellar performers Anni and Maude Davey, Gabi Barton, Anna Lumb and Teresa Blake.

Sydney Festival 2017, 7-29 Jan

RealTime issue #136 Dec-Jan 2016 pg.

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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