Time for Sydney to come out and play

Time for Sydney to come out and play

If positivity and optimism could be bottled, there's a fair chance Olivia Ansell's name would be on the label.

Sydney Festival's new artistic director has precisely the vision, smarts and energy required to marshal an army of talent from all corners of the globe for 25 days of music, dance, theatre, art and everything between.

That she's managed to compile her first program, which includes 33 world premieres and 52 new commissions, amid the fast-moving chaos of a global pandemic speaks to her tenacity as a seasoned producer and arts programmer.

Before taking on Sydney's annual summer shindig, Ansell was head of 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 Harbour City.

In fact, given her grandparents included a circus master, an opera singer and a violinist, and that her mother was a dancer and choreographer and her father a jazz musician and arranger, Ansell is something of a blue-blood when it comes to the arts.

More on that later.

But first things first, and if her debut festival were a billboard, what would it read?

“Sydney, you did it,” Ansell exclaims by Zoom one recent afternoon.

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

Things weren't looking so rosy back in August.

“We couldn't lock in the program until the public health order dropped in September,” she reveals.

“Normally, that would happen in July.”

Rolling state border closures haven't helped either.

“These days, it's rare for a dance or theatre company to have its people all live in the same city or even 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 ready for all levels of confidence with consumers.

“There's an at-home program featuring on-demand and live-streamed content, a lot of outdoor events and free experiences, and then of course the indoor big-theatre moments.

“We hope to reach 430,000 people this January and we feel like we're ready for anything.”

Like a 2.6 tonne chunk of ice, carved to look like an iceberg, suspended from a 15-metre-tall crane out over Sydney Harbour.

“Legs on the Wall's Thaw is a free public art installation occurring from 11am to 7.30pm on January 14-16, with four dancers taking turns to perform solo on top of the iceberg while it slowly melts,” Ansell says.

The dancers will be wearing wetsuits, shoes with spikes and lots of sunscreen.

“Thaw is making a statement about the urgent need for action on climate change, and there is a climax that happens each night at 7.15pm, but I can't give too much away,” 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 specialises in music that deals with climate change – he's written three climate-change operas. So Burtner and Legs on the Wall have been collaborating in a cross-continent way.”

The ice will be carved on NSW's Central Coast and transported to Sydney in a refrigerated truck.

“It's very high-tech – the rigging is actually frozen into the ice,” Ansell says.

Don't feel like trekking down to the Sydney Opera House forecourt? No worries.

“On Saturday, January 15 we're doing Thaw-cam, so you can go online at any point during the day and watch the dancer on the ice.”

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

“Over the years we've lost many of the things that made up Sydney's authenticity, eccentricity and nightlife,” Ansell says.

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

“The characters will be played by iconic performers from Sydney's queer community, including Minnie Cooper, who takes on the role of 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 sequins and mirrorballs in what promises to be a 75-minute blast of immersive theatre-meets-cabaret with the uplifting energy of a smiley-face house party.

“Qween Lear is saying we need to look after our culture, that we shouldn't be continually erasing our architecture and our stories,” Ansell explains.

Messing about in boats more your thing? From January 20-23, Big Hart's Acoustic Life of Boatsheds will send you on a three-hour round trip by Rosman wooden ferry visiting working boatsheds in and around Balmain, Birchgrove and White Bay.

At each location, the audience will be treated to a musical performance inspired by the harbour's workshops and waterways, featuring some of the country's leading exponents of classical and world music, including percussionist Claire Edwardes from Ensemble Offspring, harpist Emily Granger and composer and sound artist Bree van Reyk.

The event underscores Ansell's drive to activate different parts of the city she was born and grew up in.

“That's what makes it truly a festival, in my opinion, when you can discover, or rediscover, your city differently,” she says.

Into BMX, skateboarding or parkour, or know a little person who is? Make for Parramatta's Centenary Square on January 13-16 for Branch Nebula's gravity-defying performance, Demo.

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

“Demo interweaves BMX riders, skaters and parkourists performing to an electro-acoustic score by Lucy Cliche,” she says, adding that it will also be live-streamed.

Elsewhere, there's Airship Orchestra at Darling Harbour's Tumbalong Park, boasting a 16-strong chorus of inflatable creatures up to six metres in height.

“These mystical beings are coloured black, white and red in the daytime, but at night they glow crimson, mauve, pink and white,” Ansell says.

“Each creature has sensors, so when you pass by one of them, it emits a sound. When lots of people are walking around, what you hear is a digital orchestra of crowd-composed sound.”

Over at Barangaroo, in the semi-outdoor sandstone and concrete space that is The Cutaway, prepare to swoon – literally.

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

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

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

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

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

“The arts was the everyday – that's what my whole family had done for years.”

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

“They were curious about what it would be like to have children that took on a profession they didn't know anything about.

“But of course you can't grow up in a household full of dance and music and not take it on yourself.”

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

She performed until age 30, by which time she had so much side-hustle in producing and curating she had to make a decision.

“I realised it would be much less stressful if I just did one thing. I had to be either onstage or behind-the-scenes because trying to do everything was pulling my brain in different directions.”

Now 43, she acknowledges her unusual upbringing in preparing her for the challenges of helming a top-line arts festival.

“Because of my background, I have a knowledge of circus, jazz, dance and theatre. I also understand the commercial side of things, as well as the experimental, independent world of performance.

“But until I moved into programming, I didn't know what to do with all those loves.

“Now I get to communicate with artists and be part of the creative process from outset to outcome.

“I get to exercise all of those passions.”

Sydney Festival runs from January 6-30. For tickets and info, go to sydneyfestival.org.au

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