Peter M Howard ::

My Sydney Festival 2014

27Jan2014 [personal]

This Is My City In Summer

I always love that the Sydney Festival has such a wide variety of arts and events — means there’s always something new, and lets me discover some dance and music and theatre all at once. But this year it felt like the offering was even broader. It may have just been coincidence, but it feels like my deepest, richest, experience yet.

Parramatta Opening Party

I started off my Festival out in Parramatta. I always like heading out to the heart of the west (perhaps knowing I’m returning soon), and there’s a strong community feel to the opening party. Last year’s didn’t feel as strong, partly just let down by the rain. But this year the weather came out, and the scale was just a little smaller — for the better, as it meant all the action took place within a couple of blocks.

I wandered down the river first to visit the Rubber Duck who’d hung out in Darling Harbour last year. He looked quite at home in the idyllic river-and-willows setting.

Then in the centre of Parramatta, caught Ben Caplan & The Casual Smokers. A raucous folk quartet — Ben Caplan is mad, and energetic, and with a gravelly throaty voice; he’s supported by Jaron Freeman-Fox on electric violin, who I’ve since discovered makes some great new music (with bits of world/fusion thrown in).

Boxwars was another impressively weird display for such an ‘official’ event. It featured a whole array of people dressed in cardboard armour and wielding cardboard weapons, or steering massive cardboard war machines. They marched down Church St to wild music and fire crackers, before setting up in the park for an all-out battle.

But my opening night finished early; I had to get up early for...

The Calling

The main reason I’d gone out to Parramatta. The Information and Cultural Exchange (ICE) ran a mini-bus tour at the crack of dawn, repeated across the first couple of weekends of the festival.

The tour was an exploration of some of the expressions of faith in the local region. Intensely personal (and idiosyncratic, we were reminded repeatedly, as though to disclaim it), it wasn’t trying to explain or even compare the different faiths, but it was powerful in its closeness. Only twenty or so people went along on the bus tour, to four different stops, each selected by a different producer from the ICE team. At each site, we were spoken to by leaders of the relevant faith community, and while they can’t help but proselytise, it was primarily to hear about their particular practices and communities.

First stop was the Auburn Gallipoli Mosque, where the imam also made a private call to prayer. Then a Lebanese breakfast, and on to St Mark's (High) Anglican in Granville, with an a cappela gospel song by a Samoan-Australian tenor. Next to the Sydney Murugan Temple, and a Hindu devotional dance. And finally to a Tibetan Buddhist centre where we also meditated for ten minutes.

The blend of architecture and art and various forms of music or dance, all with at least partly recognisable ritual, made for a deeply spiritual experience. The commonalities in ritual were remarkable, as of course the personal meaning that each speaker wanted to impart — overwhelmingly a sense of self-discovery and -improvement enabled by their faith or practice.

At first I wondered at some comments: at times they seemed a bit too defensive; each had some particular misconception they were eager to disabuse us of. And they were seemingly minor things — the call to prayer isn’t sung, they insist; the Hindu divinities are just avatars of the one God. But I remembered some of the same qualifications we make of Catholic belief, like the insistence that we don’t actually worship Mary. There are all these practices and beliefs built up from centuries of tradition, with layers of nuance, and contemporary interpretations and understanding that give context to ancient (and in many cases, barbaric) pronouncements.

So it got me thinking about my own rituals and beliefs too, of their context, and of the meaning they impart. But more than that, these shared rituals are about community, and about a shared journey. There’s a great power in this shared experience (my own preference for hermitude even dampened on learning that mainstream Islam is very anti withdrawal from the world, a reminder of the import of engaging with one’s society).

Am I

Closing out the first weekend of the Festival, I went to the Sydney Opera House for Shaun Parker Company’s Am I. Perhaps I’d been primed for its themes, but it was a remarkable dance work.

The dance itself was fairly simplistic — all understated, a handful of dancers together at any one time. But when they did come together it was about unity and shared experience (again). The lead dancer narrated, or provided commentary at least, rarely actually dancing herself. The music was performed live, raised above the main stage such that we rarely even saw the performers. That, combined with a rear panel of LED lights, in constant animation, gave it a beautiful otherworldly feel, set against a starkly modernist design.

The dance and music shifted between primal sounds and movement through to contemporary hip-hop inspired breaks and beats. And the show’s commentary sought to tell the experience of humanity, or the experience of the Self amidst humanity.

I’m not sure I could say whether it succeeded in its objective, whatever it was trying to actually say. But in my own experience I found it powerfully moving.

About An Hour: Gudirr Gudirr, Forklift

For the middle weekend I made it to Carriageworks for two of their ‘About An Hour’ performances. And fell in love with the venue. I’d been out to Carriageworks for a few things before, but while I was there this time I really got a sense of the venue as a diverse contemporary arts centre. It’s helped along by a frankly insane installation called Chance — a massive set of reels and scaffolding invoking a newspaper printing production, with black-and-white headshots of new-borns, flanked by LED counters of worldwide births and deaths. A ridiculous work of art, but at a scale that it just has to be admired.

Gudirr Gudirr was a solo work from Dalisa Pigram, of the Carriageworks resident Marrugeku. Pigram is from an indigenous community in Broome, and in Gudirr Gudirr blended dance and projected images and spoken word to speak of the experience of her community. Some of it was confronting: a community disappearing, horrible suicide rates; some of it was uplifting in its humanity, or simply forced me to reconsider my conceptions. We tend to learn about indigenous history as a prelude to white invasion and settlement, with this crazy idea that Australia’s indigenous population was some amorphous mass, completely isolated from the rest of the world. But Pigram speaks of coming from a background that includes Malaysian and Filipino and the region’s Aboriginal nations. So eye-opening, and just a great form of personal storytelling.

Forklift was a dance piece from KAGE, and had a simple premise: three girls and a forklift. The women climb and writhe about while driving the forklift around the stage, to a variety of music and lighting, at one point changing into glowing neon costumes and performing in near darkness. It was crazy, hilariously sexy, with a driving beat and near constant danger, with acrobatics from a great height or just perilously close to too much moving metal. Not a lot of substance, but all combined it was gripping, too magically easy to get caught up in from start to finish.

Black Diggers

Closed the second weekend back at the Opera House. Black Diggers was a theatre piece about the experience of indigenous servicemen in World War I, and their return to the country after the war’s end. It consisted mostly of a series of vignettes — many characters we’d return to many times throughout the play, but it jumped around to different theatres of war and between different groups of soldiers.

At first this was too confusing — the piece is performed entirely by an indigenous cast, so I was thrown on realising that some of them were playing white characters. But once I got past that lazy identification, it was straightforward enough to figure out who was who just from the play’s context.

Although primarily about the indigenous experience, it was a really good piece about war more generally — about the experience of soldiers, of people caught up in fighting for their nation, without really knowing what it was they were fighting for. With that extra indigenous perspective, it became a powerful statement about land and country; I choked up at one moment when one soldier died, a younger boy realising that his spirit would wander, restless, unable to find his way home.

The play really got difficult in its final part, with the soldiers returning from war. “The day I got off the boat they painted the colour back on me,” one veteran observed. During the war, they’d talked up the change they expected to return home to, the acceptance they’d receive. Their disappointment after the war was a punch to the gut. At one point, a veteran gave a speech talking about the progress his people had made, and it was extra hard knowing how little progress has been made in the hundred years since the war.

Othello: The Remix

Had my expectations pegged high for this one, perhaps too much. If there’s going to be one dud amidst a series of this size, this is the one. Sitting outside the theatre before it started, I could here The Roots and Common being played to warm up the room, and I took that as a good sign. But as the theatre filled up and we got closer to the start, the rap got whiter and poppier — Eminem, Beastie Boys. On hearing the latter I remembered how much I dislike their style.

And then the cast came on stage and started rapping like the Beastie Boys. It didn’t get better.

It was fun enough, and funny. At times the raps were really clever, weaving various pop and hip hop references with Shakespeare. But as it dragged on they got more and more awkward, just trying to squeeze together the story and the rhymes.

But more than that, it made obvious just how creepy the actual story of Othello is. Sure, Iago as a manipulator is the Loki-esque bad guy, but Othello as someone who would actually kill for his dubious ‘honour’ is pretty messed up.

The Serpent’s Table

An incredible experience for my final weekend. Back at Carriageworks, this one featured a series of five short pieces, all around the themes of food and family, all told by Asian Australians, tinged with different mixes of immigrant experience.

This was a beautifully intimate work of theatre. The big warehouse space of a Carriageworks bay was darkened and divided up into smaller spaces with big hanging veils, doubling as projection screens. In each small space, one performer spoke directly to the audience of twenty-something.

Each had a unique experience and storytelling style, unified just thematically, and this added to the strength of the performance: always a new style, a different food. We started with Pauline Nguyen, preparing a soup, “of reconciliation”, while speaking of her refugee experience and her father’s violence. Then Anna Yen, supported by an acrobatic performance, discovering the dark history that came before her father’s yum cha restaurant. Both were incredibly emotional, the bitter smells and flavour of the soup lingering. To lighten things up, Jennifer Wong gave a very funny monologue about growing up in the suburbs, ashamed of her family’s food, while we munched on dumplings. Then Darren Yap, who also co-directed the piece, telling his story as a series of vignettes, diving in and out of his family history, his mother always there with her chicken and mushroom, until she was there no longer; to close he served us the chicken and mushroom he’d reinvented. And finally Indira Naidoo, speaking of growing up in different countries around the world, of taking flavours with her, of an ever-changing collection of scents and spices that come to signify home; we closed with a fragrant chicken curry, and sampled honey collected at the Wayside Chapel.

It was, quite literally, the most sensual work of theatre I could imagine — sights and sounds and touch and taste and scents all combining over an hour and a half, a journey through lives and stories and flavours. Totally not the sort of theatre that could ordinarily be sustained, but so glad I was able to experience it as part of the Festival!


Closed the Festival with a trip to the Spiegeltent, visiting the ‘Festival Village’ in Hyde Park only on its final day. The Village itself was a bit of a let-down, and perhaps it being Australia Day, the Spiegeltent was pretty empty, but Sinkane were excellent.

I had no real clue what I was getting myself into, and I couldn’t guess just looking at the band either — the lead on guitar, keys, and vocals, backed by another guitar and bass and a drummer. And they rocked out something fierce, but it wasn’t ordinary rock-n-roll. A curious blend of disco and alt-rock and trippy world/fusion and blues. They opened and closed especially strong — driving beats and guitar lines, but still so mellow, with songs content to just bang, for many minutes. The meandering in-between could’ve become tedious, but that mellow blues feel just rolled right through, with songs exploring different genres and sounds and singing styles, and always with a distinct voice.

Have since found a couple of old Sinkane LPs, and am eagerly awaiting more music — apparently much of what we heard was them trying out new things, which is a good sign.

And that’s what I love about the Festival — that even on a night that barely pulls a crowd I can still find something completely unexpectedly awesome.

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