Wesley Enoch sits back and thinks, carefully, before gathering together the various strands of this, his first Sydney Festival as artistic director. “I suppose my themes have come from what I’m seeing around the world,” he says. “One of them is the senses. Another is stories of fleeing, and ideas about where home is, how you believe in home, how you leave home. Also, the interaction between the cultures of the streets and what we think of as official cultures. And of course Indigenous stories.”

Sydney Festival Artistic Director Wesley Enoch

The latter is hardly surprising, coming from one of Australia’s most outspoken artists, one of Murri descent and a proud Noonuccal Nuugi man, but anyone expecting naval gazing should think again. For Enoch, Indigenous is a global term, a worldwide phenomenon, and an area wherein we can learn as much by looking abroad as we can by examining issues at home. “I found myself going to Canada several times, and the conversations they’re having are maybe 50 years ahead of the conversations we’re having in terms of colonial issues,” he gives as an example. “I’ve been going there over the last 15 years to talk about First Nations issues, but it just so happened that recently I’ve been able to see certain things that it felt important we should see here.”

Those conversations have led to eight homegrown Indigenous projects heading up his Festival – from a celebration of the 1967 referendum to explorations of Aboriginal culture and HIV – as well as six Canadian theatre and dance projects including a fascinating sounding collaboration between composer Nicole Lizée and the Australian Art Orchestra where turntablism will rub shoulders with a performance of her intriguingly entitled David Lynch Etudes.

While keen not to mimic his predecessors, and eschewing the term ‘headline’ act, the most obvious big-hitter on Enoch’s programme (aside from Nick Cave, that is) has to be Measure for Measure from British theatrical legends Cheek By Jowl in collaboration with Pushkin Theatre Moscow. Festivals are never immune from booking a turkey sight unseen – think The Perfect American, or Tabac Rouge – so bagging director Declan Donnellan’s hot-off-the-press production that received stunning reviews at this year’s Edinburgh Festival should be seen as a sign of Enoch’s sound artistic judgement.

“I’ve known Declan for almost 15 years, since I was at Sydney Theatre Company, and he said to me, ‘here are two works I want you to consider, Wesley: one is The Winter’s Tale…’ and I go, ‘I love Winter’s Tale, it’s a fantastic piece’. And then he mentions Measure for Measure, to which I go, ‘ugh, that’s a hard piece to do, Declan, why that piece?’ But when he said we were talking about the Pushkin Theatre and having a Russian theatre company comment on the Russian state, I said ‘oh…’ It pricked my interest in using a classic to talk about modern politics.”

Cheek By Jowl is a Sydney exclusive, but the other leading British company coming out is Complicite, who will go on to tour their show The Encounter to Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne. Based on the true story of a National Geographic photographer who travelled up the Amazon in pursuit of a ‘lost tribe’, the audience are provided with headphones for a unique sensory experience. “The Encounter will rewrite the book on how technology in live performance works,” says Enoch. “The equipment is part of how the storytelling happens. You don’t know what’s true and what’s not true, because it’s all been manipulated for you in the headphones. It’s extraordinary.”

Enoch is a fan of shared productions, but not simply as a budget saving exercise like some festival directors. “Those exclusives, I’m not a great fan of them,” he declares. “I think we have to stop this rubbish. We have to think about the audiences and about exposing the work to as many people as we can. If you’re going to spend the carbon to bring a company all this way, then it is beholden on you to think about where else and who else it should speak to. We’ve got to think about it as a nation, not just about my little patch of it.”

Einojuhani Rautavaara. Photo by Sakari Viika

Although his Festival is not overburdened with classical music, Enoch is setting the record straight in one respect with a retrospective concert honoring the great Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara who died earlier this year and whose music has been poorly represented in Australia in recent years. Along with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the Festival will present two of his iconic works: his Symphony No 7, Angel of Light, and the Cantus Arcticus, which is a concerto for birds (taped) and orchestra. “When Rautavaara died we were talking about what it meant and thought ‘why don’t we do something that supports his legacy?’ Enoch explains. “We talked to the SSO, and they got very excited about it as well. If anything, the Festival’s job is to go beyond the everyday, and maybe the SSO wouldn’t do this unless a Festival said how about it.”

Enoch is also comandeering Opera Australia’s production of Szymanowski’s King Roger, and Sydney Chamber Opera’s Biographica – a new opera by Mary Finsterer about Gerolamo Cardano, the Renaissance gambler, surgeon and philosopher who also happened to invent algebra. There’s also The Long String Instrument – a performance on a 25-metre musical behemoth in duet with a contemporary cellist. Then there’s Lubomyr Melnyk, the Ukranian pianist who has spent 40 years honing a unique technique and who has been lauded as the fastest fingers in the world, and Dalmatica: Chants of the Adriatic, medieval music from Croatia. “I was thinking about what actually makes good art,” says Enoch reflecting on the latter. “There’s beauty, skill, and meaning, and for me, this is one of those things where they all come together. It is songs of devotion too, which I find, by its very nature, lifts the soul.”

In the dance programme there’s Nude Live, a headline-grabbing exploration of the human body in conjunction with the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ Nude Art from the Tate exhibition. At the time of speaking, Enoch only knows that it will happen on certain nights, that the dancers will come from Sydney Dance Company, and that their Artistic Director Rafael Bonachela will be in charge of the choreography. “Sometimes you don’t ask contemporary dance to explain complex narrative,” Enoch admits. “You really want to create an emotional response, and I think that’s what Raf does very well.”

Rafael Bonachela and dancers in Nude Live. Photo by Peter Greig

Ilbijerri Theatre Company’s Blood on the Dance Floor sounds even more intriguing – a dance work created in collaboration with Aboriginal dancer and writer Jacob Boeme, who also appears as performer. To hear him talk about the work, it’s clearly a cornerstone of Enoch’s vision for his inaugural Festival. “Jacob was diagnosed with HIV 14 years ago,” Enoch explains. “As an Aboriginal man – and he’s a pale skinned Aboriginal man – there’s a conversation about his blood line and what his blood means. I saw this piece just a few months ago, came back to the office and went ‘we’ve got to find a place for this!’ It’s a part of the conversation about what identity means, and do you define yourself through the disease in your blood, or the heritage in your blood? In it, Jacob shows how his family dealt with it, so at one point he plays his father, and his father’s reaction, and his father’s love for him – again, heritage and blood line all the way through. As an Aboriginal work it has a new level of sophistication around narrative that I was very excited by.”

Other works that have aroused Enoch’s enthusiasm include Dimitris Papaioannou’s Still Life, a contemporary Greek work that fuses surrealist visuals with the myth of Sisyphus and a block of concrete. “We call it dance theatre because it’s not spoken word,” Enoch explains, “but there’s incredible beauty in what Papaioannou’s doing. He created the opening ceremony of the Athens Olympics and he’s one of those artists that have a very refined aesthetic. Even on video, you get drawn into a meditation on Greek classicism.”

He’s also looking forward to Bayala, the Indigenous Language Project, which aims to get a whole mob of Sydneysiders speaking the local Aboriginal language en masse, tutored by Eora and Darug language experts. Also the Myuran Sukumaran exhibition facilitated by Ben Quilty. “People may take a big stick to me and go ‘you can’t elevate a criminal to international artist’,” says Enoch discussing the convicted drug smuggler and painter who was executed last year, “but we’re also engaging in what ten years of rehabilitation in a prison means. Are we punishing people or are we helping people to understand the consequences of their actions? I have a feeling that Myuran went through this process and came out the other side as an artist.”

As an creative himself, Enoch has always challenged the conventional and questioned the received wisdoms. “Concerts in the Domain,” he says, “that may sound like a given, but what’s the next change? Why are they in the Domain, what were they trying to achieve for the SSO and Opera Australia? Because I don’t come from Sydney, I have a different relationship to the conversations and the history here. I’m much more interested in the Aboriginal history of the city, and I’m starting to connect with the city in that way.”

Blood on the Dancefloor. Photo by Bryony Jackson

“The issue with all progressive leadership, I’ve been told, is that they’re destined to disappoint,” he says with a wry smile. “However, I consider myself a progressive in the way that I see how art is developing, consider what’s new, and think about how we might shift things. My first Festival has a very strong Australian focus, which is just my experience I think. The things that I value, the stories and the conversations I want to have are often about this country. I don’t think that’s all that different from what other people are doing in other cities, it just manifests itself differently because of the personality of the artistic director.”

The Sydney Festival runs from January 7-29

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