Season Preview: Your guide to the arts in 2021

Wesley Enoch has unveiled his fifth and final program for the Sydney Festival, which runs 6 – 26 January. Like festivals around the country, the program has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We went ‘all Australian made’ back in March,” Enoch tells Limelight.

Wesley EnochWesley Enoch. Photo © Darren Thomas

While the practical reasons of border closures were part of the decision, “we thought that would be the right thing to do,” he says. “To focus on what our artistic community needs.”

“How can the festival play a role in helping both the industry out, but also inviting the people of Sydney back into the city, back into owning their city in a safe way?”

Planning for the Festival has been challenging on a number of levels. There will be no Spiegel Tent this year in order to adhere to health restrictions, but the economic uncertainty across 2020 has also made things more difficult. “It’s been a hard slog for sponsors, to be honest,” Enoch admits, but “it’s been amazing to watch philanthropists really step up. We’ve actually reached and exceeded our philanthropy target.”

But despite the challenges, the Festival isn’t scaling back. “We’ve got over 140 different shows and activities, which is almost 20 more than we would normally have. So instead of having less, we have more,” Enoch says.

The Headland

The HeadlandThe Headland. Photo courtesy of Sydney Festival

A new outdoor stage will appear at Barangaroo, with views encompassing the Sydney Harbour Bridge and – with COVID-Safe spacing – a capacity of 1500. “As you can imagine, it’s hard to find a space that can fit 1500 people in it these days in a COVID-Safe environment,” Enoch says. “A lot of the people we’re talking to, our audiences and stakeholders, everyone’s more confident about being outdoors in large numbers than they are being indoors, and so this will be a centrepiece for us in that way.”

The Uncertain Four Seasons

Among the highlights on The Headland will be a performance by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra of “a popular work but actually also a commentary on climate change” in The [Uncertain] Four Seasons, which sees Vivaldi’s famous music rearranged based on climate data. The project – which builds on methodologies presented in the retrospective For Seasons, which was composed and performed by the NDR Elbphilharmonic Orchestra in November last year – is a collaboration between the SSO, Melbourne composer and arranger Hugh Crosthwaite, Monash University’s Climate Change Communication Research Hub, digital design company AKQA, and German advertising agency Jung von Matt. It seeks to highlight how the world we inhabit now no longer reflects the climate in which Vivaldi was writing, almost 300 years ago.

Other artists to appear on The Headland will include Bangarra Dance Theatre – doing a five-show show season of the retrospective Spirit – Katie Noonan doing the music of Don Walker, Paul Capsis and iOTA, and The Pulse by Gravity and Other Myths – who took advantage of having their touring troupes grounded to create a massive new work featuring 38 acrobats and a 30-piece choir.

The Headland will also be host to The Vigil, which takes place on 25 January and has become a tradition at the Sydney Festival.

Sunshine Super Girl

Sunshine Super Girl. Photo © Jamie James

Yorta Yorta Gunnakurnai playwright and director Andrea James’s Sunshine Super Girl, celebrating the life of tennis legend Evonne Goolagong will play in the Sydney Town Hall following its premiere in Griffith this year. “We’re going to build a tennis court in Sydney Town Hall,” says Enoch.

“I went up to Griffith to see it, and it’s just brilliant and it’s got real heart,” he says. “It’s also the 50th anniversary of Evonne Goolagong winning Wimbledon next year, so a lovely thing. Evonne has been part of the making of the show, but she couldn’t see it in Griffith because of border closures – she’s in Queensland – and so hopefully Sydney will be the first time she gets to see herself performed on stage.”

Other theatre highlights include the world premiere of Hide the Dog, co-written by Tasmanian playwright Nathan Maynard and Aotearoa writer Jamie McCaskill, about the world’s last Tasmanian Tiger, and the return of Kate Gaul’s production of H.M.S. Pinafore, which premiered at the Hayes Theatre in 2019, playing at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta.

Poem for a Dried Up River. Photo © Gretchen Robinette

Poem for a Dried Up River and Future Remains

Jane Sheldon premiered Poem for a Dried Up River – setting poetry by Alice Oswald – at the Resonant Bodies Festival in New York in 2019, singing as she unrolled some 10 metres of clay. “As she sings she slides and leaves her impression in this dried river bed,” Enoch says.

The New York Times’ Zachary Woolfe described it as “a riveting study in breath, it was heavy on rhythmic exhalations as an ensemble quietly, droningly evoked a summer night: the low blow of a conch shell, soft bell-like ringing, gentle sliding sounds.”

Sydney Chamber Opera will also present Leoš Janácek’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared following the success of its online version as part of the Sydney Opera House’s From Our House to Yours digital season, as well as the world premiere of Huw Belling’s Fumeblind Oracle, with libretto by Pierce Wilcox.


Percussionist Matthias Schack-Arnott will be creating a piece that audiences will be able to experience out the front of Customs House. “He wanted to make a massive performance piece for the general public,” Enoch says of Groundswell. “It’s a six-metre-wide disc that has a pivot point in the centre, a fulcrum, if you like, and when you walk on it, it just pivots and roles and moves around. There’s a hundred thousand ball bearings in it, and as you roll around it makes this thunderous noise. And the more you collaborate and work together, the more nuance you can make in the sound.”

Other musical offerings at the Sydney Festival will include performances by Sydney Chamber Choir, Ensemble Offspring, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra – doing the music of Hildegaard von Bingen in the Crypt of St Mary’s Cathedral – a concert featuring six pianists on six grand pianos in the Town Hall thanks to the Sydney International Piano Competition, William Barton and Véronique Serret, Jeremy Rose and the Earshift Orchestra in Disruption! The Voice of Drums, and Afternoon Tea at Six which sees the Eishan Ensemble fuse Persian classical music with Western jazz and improvisation, with vocals by Dharawal woman, Sonya Holowell. The SSO will also return to Parramatta Park for Sydney Symphony Under The Stars.

Véronique Serret and William Barton. Photo courtesy of Sydney Festival

The more intimate Salon Series returns, with artists including Daniel Rojas and the Ensemble Apex strings, the Orava Quartet, violinist Emily Sun and pianist Andrea Lam, Duo Histoire and Zela Margossian and her Quintet.

The Festival will also incorporate a digital offering, SydFest at Home, which will include works like Pleasuredome, an interactive art project by Griffin Theatre Company, and Sydney Dance Company’s virtual community dance party, I Want to Dance with Somebody.

“The program is huge. I’m actually quite surprised – God knows, the staff are quite surprised!” says Enoch with a laugh. “But in a year of COVID, we haven’t found ourselves compromised.”

Sydney Festival runs 6 – 26 January, 2021

The Full Program

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