Getting Back into the Habit in Sydney

Getting Back into the Habit in Sydney

A generous portrait of Wesley Enoch by Thea Anamara Perkins, one of a suite commissioned by the Sydney Festival

Posted by Jeremy Eccles | 02.12.20

Dates: 06.01.21 : 26.01.21

A plumply welcoming Wesley Enoch greeted me at the Sydney Festival offices, with just the hint of designer stubble on his chin. Or was he just too exhausted to shave that day? For it soon emerged that being the Director of the 2021 Sydney Festival – his last – has been pretty hellish. So much stress and uncertainty that he's put on 10 kgs and is now pre-diabetic, a sadly all-too-common First Nations problem in Australia.

Of course Enoch's fifth and last festival was going to be huge in his mind. Projects built up over 2/3 years were coming to fruition – but will now, hopefully, end up on his successor Olivia Ansell's plate in 2022. Cruel.

But, with a March election in West Australia, no one felt that that border would definitely open to the rest of the country. No one could predict house densities – 50% was planned for, though the bigger venues can now go to 75% in January. Surely it should be a festival for free performances? Not actually – for even free places have to be allocated this time, and if a third fail to turn up (weather/change of mind?) they can't be reallocated. A miserable house for the artists.

So even the 1700-seat open-air Headland stage at Barangaroo Park, where much action happens, will cost you $25 – even if it's raining. You do get a poncho, though, and the stage is dry for the performers.

And what about ethics relating to them? Do those coming to Sydney and requiring quarantine time have to be paid for not working???

A minefield – which makes comprehending the program quite tricky – especially as all the uncertainty means there's no nice printed brochure with all the details this year. Go online!
But not for performances. As Enoch thinks of it, this festival has to be about “getting people back into the habit” of theatre, dance, concert and visual art going – even film and literary outings, for the Sydney Film and Writers Festivals have both joined the party in January. “Everything's open for business”, he adds, “safely”.

Is there a theme emerging through all this confusion? “Themes are really only good for marketing”, pronounces the Director. “though I'm quite happy to impose a First Nations position on any event I run. But the consensus of the artists seems to have been an environmental theme – perhaps inevitably after last summer's bushfires”.

“In fact, I was talking about the fires to Steven Page at Bangarra (appearing in the Festival on both stage -'Spirit' – and prize-winning film doco – 'Firestarter'), and we reckoned that the loss of a billion native animals should lead to everyone choosing a totemic creature to identify with. We decided our's had to be the echidna because of all those spears that have been stuck in our backs!”. To which I reminded him that that the echidna's spines are pointed outwards!

Environmental shows on offer are headed by Sydney Chamber Opera at Carriageworks with 'Poem for a Dried up River', starring the wonderful Jane Sheldon. The soprano then gets together with artist Janet Lawrence to discuss 'The Art of Nature' at one of many forums and discussions in this festival. Bees have a big role to play at Vaucluse House with an apicultural circus, a buzzing installation and a Wiradjuri dance work that hopes to encourage primary-school kids to 'care for Country'. And then the Festival makes it's greatest geographical (and sociological) leap to Campbelltown Arts Centre for ex-Bangarra dancer Jasmine Sheppard's totemic appreciation of the lyrebird and its capacity for multiple identities.

Back in the CBD, the Town Hall turns into a tennis court to host 'Sunshine Supergirl' the Evonne Goolagong story, already reported on here after its Wiradjuri premiere. Two other productions feature the Indigenous – young Nathan Maynard's 'Hide the Dog', a return to Tasmania and its thylacine legends after his stunning debut with 'The Season'; and the Yellamundie Festival which features a plethora of new Indigenous playwriting.

It's not exactly the Blak Out that previous Enoch festivals have featured. But perhaps it's made up on the visual side of the arts – the Maritime Museum already featuring the amazing imagination of Zenadh Kes sorcerer, Alick Tipoti from the Torres Strait, and the somewhat ho-hum 'Defying Empire' exhibition, the National Gallery's third Quinquennial, dating from 2017; and Artspace stars two women First Nations artists in Judy Watson and Carol McGregor winding history through their contemporary work to emphasise Indigenous continuity.

Not all of the program has been announced for the Barangaroo Park stage, but there are already some pretty big things leading up to Wesley Enoch's greatest invention, 'The Vigil' on 25th January. This cultural night going through to the dawn's ceremonial 'Wugul Ora', celebrates the last day in 1788 before our First Nations were colonised, and is such a positive way of not denying whitefellars parties on 26th. “My role in the arts”, assesses Enoch,”has been to find the way forward, a way that's just as powerful and uncompromised. It's been a ten year effort – and I'm beginning to think it's time to jump!”.

“All that time I've been running non-Indigenous organisations, and I want to bring that experience to promoting First Nations culture directly. Meanwhile – back to Minjerribah, Stradbroke Island, where I have a lived history, a sense of place, family in the cemetery and I can sniff the weather and predict what it'll do for the rest of the day”.

Sounds a reasonable step for a proud Quandamooka man. Look out for the mozzies!


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Getting Back into the Habit in Sydney

Alick Tipoti's mighty two metre plus headmask from the Torres Strait, 'Kaygasiw Usul'

Getting Back into the Habit in Sydney

A scene from Bangarra Dance Theatre's 'Spirit : A Retrospective 2021' coming to Barangaroo in January.


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