There are a number of things Festival Director Lieven Bertels learned from coordinating Sydney Festival 2013 in January. The first was that it’s possible to attend 42 events over 23 days of festivities. “And you want to,” he says. “The secret is careful planning and rushing from one venue to another.” The second was learning how to make the most of a festival, while on a budget.
“The funding reality is that the NSW Government perhaps isn’t as cashed up as some of its neighbours,” says Bertels. But for the Sydney Festival 2014 program, which has just launched, Bertels and his team have devised a means to overcome this hurdle. “Rather than aiming for one big opening party, where you get this ‘cannonball’ out on the first day, we’ve decided to shift more attention to having lots of free events, and a big party every day of the festival.
“A big difference is the introduction of the Festival Village. This is going to be triple [the size of 2013’s] Festival Garden in Hyde Park,” says Bertels. This ‘circus in the park’ will include two performance tents – The Spiegeltent and the Circus Ronaldo Tent – whose acts, including Amanda Palmer and Sydney Festival returnees Scotch and Soda, will run alternately to allow for continual evening-long entertainment.
What was the inspiration behind this circus/village concept? “I come from a country of circus. I’m originally from Belgium,” he says. “We were looking at the acts performing, like Circus Ronaldo Brothers, who are six generations of circus travellers, and thought, ‘Well, this space [Hyde Park] is awesome for a lot of things, not just the circus but for music, family and cabaret.’
“So we asked ourselves, ‘What if we see it as a real village?’ Where the pathways are streets? We made a map of Hyde Park and drew in food tents, like Messino Gelato.” Bertels stops here. This is a guilty pleasure he’s included in the festival. But it’s not the only one. Open day and night, the Festival Village will also play host to Turner prize-winning artist, Jeremy Deller’s Sacrilege, a to-scale inflatable jumping castle of Stonehenge. “Kids, parents, there’s even wheelchair access,” he says, proving that no-one will be excluded from this much fun. “The only condition is: you must take off your shoes.”
Shipping a jumping castle from across the pond is a tough task, but not the most difficult Bertels was faced with. “The most challenging part of my job is the opening concert at The Domain,” he says. “This year we’re excited to feature Chaka Khan. It’s always a very last minute and interesting puzzle to find that headliner, because the date is fixed and you need an artist that appeals to a crowd. We give this concert for free, which is pretty unique in the world – a big star in a big park. And to give it away for free?” Amazing. If previous years are anything to go by, 60,000 punters are expected to turn up for that night alone.
But if you’re unable to secure your spot, there are plenty other festivities to attend.
For example, Paradiso at Town Hall. “It’s a beautiful venue,” says Bertels. “One of my personal highlights, and one of the most surprising acts is, Orquesta Tipica Fernandez Fierro. They are these crazy, young, tango kids from Buenos Aires. There are 12 of them. So it’s a big tango orchestra. And they’ll be space for dancing as well.”
A dark horse according to Bertels is La Voix Humaine. “It’s played in Dutch with subtitles, so that might deter people,” he says. Based on Jean Cocteau’s self-destructive play of the same name, it’s an unassuming and beautiful “suicide monologue, with one woman on the stage in her apartment. The audience watches her through a window. We see her calling her ex-lover and trying to repair the relationship. What’s surprising is you never hear the voice on the other side. It’s really special.”
There’s no doubt diversity is synonymous with the Sydney Festival. “It’s interesting to see how we all come from somewhere and how that defines us. Sydney Festival is across most continents,” he says. “We’ve got [acts from] Latin America, Africa, with a beautiful act from Mali (Amadou & Mariam), and Asia (including Lao Qiang from China’s Shaanxi Province).
“[From the US] I’m really excited about concert, Big Star’s Third. Big Star was a cult band, who was quoted by many important American bands, including REM. There’s only one surviving member, who will team up with members of REM and people like Kurt Vile to recreate that famous third album, augmented with strings and a horn section. It’s going to be exciting to hear that album live,” says Bertel.
Finally, if Bertel could pinpoint one show punters shouldn’t miss, what would it be? “That’s impossible,” he says, shocked. Although months away, the Festival Director’s already got a game plan to see as many acts as possible. “Bring it on!” But if you’re not as organised, he does have a standout. “I’m really proud of Dido & Aeneas. It has beautiful live music, amazing singing, beautiful costumes… There’s this amazing opening scene where 7.5 tonnes of water is wheeled onstage in a giant aquarium and dancers jump in to perform a whole underwater choreography. It’s completely crazy, but it’s a beautiful image.”
Well, that, or Florentijn Hofman’s Giant Rubber Duck that will be swimming alongside live ducks on Parramatta River in Parramatta Park during the Festival. Whatever floats your boat.
BY STEPHANIE YIP
*Photo by Prudence Upton.
Sydney Festival 2014 kicks off on Thursday January 9 and runs until Sunday January 26.