Olivia Ansell has been appointed as the new Director of Sydney Festival. The Australian curator, producer and former dancer, who is currently Head of Contemporary Performance at the Sydney Opera House, will commence her three-year contract in November and present her first festival in January 2022.

Ansell said she is “beyond thrilled” at her appointment. “Truthfully there are two jobs I’ve always wanted – and it’s the one I have now and the one I’ve just accepted, so I cannot believe that that’s happened to me, that I’ve had that strike rate. I adore my job at the Opera House and I always thought one day I’d love to direct the Sydney Festival. I thought I might get approached in many years to come, and all of a sudden here we are,” she told Limelight.

Olivia Ansell. Photograph © Daniel Boud

Ansell took up her current position at the Sydney Opera House in January 2018, where she has curated a program including the musical SIX, Hofesh Shechter’s  acclaimed dance work Grand Finale, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical In the Heights, A O Lang Pho by Cirque Nouveau du Vietnam, Natalia Osipova and David Hallberg’s Pure Dance, and Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby’s latest hit show Douglas.

Her previous positions include Co-Executive Producer of the immersive performance Hidden Sydney, presented at The World Bar in Kings Cross (formerly the Nevada brothel); Artistic Director of Sydney Comedy Festival at Sydney Town Hall; Curator of Kings Bloody Cross for Vivid Ideas; producer of Richard Walley OAM and Nigel Jamieson’s large-scale concert spectacular HOME for Perth International Arts Festival; Consultant Executive Producer for OzAsia Festival Adelaide; and inaugural Executive Producer of Shaun Parker & Company.

Discussing her vision for Sydney Festival, Ansell says that she plans to program big international masterworks, work from major companies as well as small to medium companies, and new Australian commissions.

“I am so passionate about so many facets of culture and I have a real love of Sydney,” says Ansell. “As one of the touchstones, I want to unlock more Sydney stories and work in atypical spaces, and find those brilliant places of architecture and those places of history, known history, not-known history, underbelly history, charismatic history and tell those stories.”

“Sydney’s night-time economy has been really hard hit. We had lockout laws and then we’ve had the [coronavirus] lockdown so from a tourism and night-time economy perspective there is a lot of restoration to be done, and I think where I can make a difference is marrying my love of curating shows in atypical spaces with those needs for the creative sector and the tourism sector at the moment. At least in my very first festival there will be a focus on how we can we can get our nighttime economy and our creative industry and tourism industry back on their feet after this pandemic and everything else that’s happened,” she says.

Wesley Enoch, who will presenting his final festival as Director in January 2021, has said that his program will focus mainly on local work, given the travel restrictions introduced because of COVID-19.

Those travel restrictions will presumably impact on Ansell’s ability to travel next year in order to see international work, but she says: “I’m fortunate that I’ve travelled a lot in the last 12 years because of the previous roles that I’ve had. And in my current role I’ve done a lot of travel, I’ve attended a lot of arts markets, and I’ve got great contacts internationally.”

“What the world has done in this pandemic is move their catalogues online in very sophisticated ways so there wouldn’t be too many companies out there that aren’t thinking about their digital platforms. [Capturing] every piece of theatre they do in a high def shoot is now going to be the way of the future,” says Ansell.

“In terms of whether we can get them into the country or not, and when the borders reopen, that’s a matter for government to advise. We’ll have to have agile programming depending on social distancing, and the borders lifting, and the quarantine that would exist on either side of that. You couldn’t bring a massive company here if they had to go into quarantine for two weeks because they can’t rehearse. But I think we’re going to be reinventing the process here.”

Nonetheless, Ansell is adamant that international work will be a key component of her programming. “We are an island. If the Sydney Festival doesn’t bring international works, how are we going to see all these companies that exist around the world? We can’t just get on a train and go to Paris or Berlin, we rely on these arts festival to introduce us to some of the most cutting edge companies internationally so that is a really important role that we have to play,” she says.

“And equally in tandem with that, we have got a very important role  to commission Australian works so those artists and small to medium companies can take their works throughout the globe and tour them. So our job is to bring artists in but also to [commission] Australian works which are mobile and can be seen in other parts of the world; it’s a two-way street.”

Ansell grew up in an artistic family. Her parents met on Channel Nine’s Bandstand. Her father Tony was a jazz musician, arranger and composer who performed with Galapagos Duck and Don Burrows. Her mother Joanne was a dancer. Ansell grew up with musicians rehearsing at their home “and lots of experimental dance and theatre happening in sheds in the back of Chippendale and at the south end of Newtown. That’s my memory of Sydney as a young person,” she says.

“Down at the Wharf there were no stylish apartments, it was just the Pier [4/5] and the Sydney Dance Company and it was a real community. It was edgy because it wasn’t finessed. Our architecture is so finessed now, which is good, but obviously gentrification happened and artists had to move further out and that hasn’t helped our night-time culture and economy, so I want to help make a difference and I want to see January as the month you can’t miss because of Sydney Festival.”

At one time, Sydney Festival was one of the few arts events happening in Sydney in January. Now there is a lot more competition with festival-like programming from arts organisations including the Sydney Opera House.

Asked whether that makes it harder for Sydney Festival to make its mark, Ansell says: “In other states some of the big arts festivals have the film festival and the writers festival and the fringe as part of the bigger festival and they are all on at the same time. With Sydney there are loads of festivals [during the year] so you’ve got Sydney festival going first, and the Writers’ Festival, the Film Festival and Vivid so absolutely there is more competition and, yes, all of our arts organisations also have robust programs,” she says.

“But we are the biggest city in the country and I think there is loads of opportunity for Sydney Festival each January to make it so appealing and so engaging that no Sydneysider will want to leave town. And Sydney Opera House is a partner to the Festival and I’m looking forward – especially given my background – in strengthening the relationship so that we do more exciting commissions together.”