The Entertainment Feast that is Sydney Festival

I’ve almost seen more shows within a two-week period than I’ve seen in the past two years. Almost. Yes, I have gorged on the entertainment feast that is Sydney Festival once again. But then again how else would we truly know another new year has rolled around?

When the proverbial starter’s gun blew I hopped on a train out to Parramatta and caught me some circus in the big theatre at Riverside with Kalabanté Productions’ Afrique en Cirque. This show was the perfect vehicle to initiate my twenty twenty-three festival experience as the work was joyously uplifting, a celebration of performance tradition of West Africa.

When I was younger I, like many other children, was always reminded to eat all of the vegetables on my plate, to “think of the starving children of Africa.” Sadly for many years afterward that is all I knew of that continent. I didn’t really learn about the complex, sophisticated and diverse cultures of Africa until I began training at NAISDA Dance College. Through the classes of two teachers, North American Aku Kadogo and South African graduate Cheryl Stone I was introduced to the live drumming that would always accompany their classes. While at NAISDA I learned some gum boot dances from internationally acclaimed South African choral singing group Ladysmith Black Mambazo who were performing with Paul Simon and Miriam Makeba on his Gracelands (‘Diamonds on The Souls of Her Shoes’) tour in the 1980’s. I remember my gauche curiosity upon asking them about apartheid and their evasive answers as their country was still under that oppressive rule.

It was through an unlikely meeting and burgeoning dance relationship with Ghanaian contemporary choreographer Lucky Lartey that my contact with African culture through dance would be rekindled. It was Lartey who introduced me to the griot of West Africa through his work Full Circle, which examined the link between African tradition and Urban American Hip Hop culture. Consequently, upon watching Afrique en Cirque I was surprised (and proud) to be able to recognise the show was led by griot Yamoussa Bangoura. It was when Bangoura asked us to join in a call and response that my hunch was confirmed. Subsequently, I also recognised the significance of the Kora, the double stringed instrument he played and the short, seemingly disjointed interlude whereby Bangoura told us a story without an end or resolution, as these are the roles of the griot who is part of the Jeli caste of the Nyamakala system, which also includes the Numu (carpenters, smiths), the Garanke (leather workers, weavers) and the Fune or Finah (singers specializing in Islamic praise).

As I bathed in the spectacle of the performance which included death defying acrobatic tumbles and balances and eye watering contortionist displays amidst equally virtuosic high energy dance ensemble sequences, I wondered how many people were aware of the underlying level at which this work was operating. Like many of the Indigenous contemporary works of entertainment, including mine, Bangoura is using the western stage as a vehicle to perpetuate his cultural traditions and to build stronger inter and cross-cultural literacies. In this respect Afrique en Cirque became the unofficial standard by which all of my subsequent festival experiences would be measured.

The next performance I attended was titled Neighbours performed in the Drama Theatre of the Sydney Opera House where there’s never a bad seat. This was a paired back double hander from Brigel Gjoka & Rauf “RubberLegz” Yasit in creative collaboration with Choreographer William Forsythe, of which the first half of the hour length performance, except for a short introduction, was performed in silence. This was a bold move and my capacity for endurance was duly challenged, so much so that when the music did kick in I was more than a little appreciative.

Albanian performer Brigel Gjoka’s language appeared to hail from the Occidental contemporary lineage with a mixture of balletically derivative vocabularies coupled with stylised gesture, whilst German born Kurdish Rauf “RubberLegz” Yasit’s idiosyncratic language was a mixture of hip hop, yoga and Latin dance, which is also heavily influenced by his visual arts practice. The extreme mobility of RubberLegz’ joints was matched by the quirky angularity of Gjoka’s limbs, and the subtle malleability of his facial expression in this true conversation piece.

Without the musical accompaniment I marveled at the hectic pace the couple built and then maintained throughout. If this was a conversation it was one that could only have occurred after several double espressos in a cafe somewhere in Italy. What could be considered merely a physical interaction without the haunting sounds produced by Turkish composer and musician Ruşan Filiztek, became a meeting of minds, a negotiation of neighbouring ideologies and emotive expressions with it. I can’t explain why my imagination was momentarily led to the wars currently occurring in many neighbouring territories throughout the globe through this performance. Perhaps because of the stark contrast being represented on stage, of a grassroots meeting place where difference is irrelevant, utilised instead as actions in meaningful interchange, I was led to think about the human face of the inevitable fallout in world conflict.

My favourite moment within this performance would have to be nearing the end, where Filiztek’s rhythmic drumming almost upstaged the visual splendour of the dance.

The perfect complement to Neighbours was Melbourne based Stephanie Lake’s Manifesto. Consisting of nine drummers and nine full drum kits playing with nine dancers, this show was so big it could only ever be staged in Bay 17 at Carriageworks. Where Neighbours was a paired back production proving less is sometimes more, Lake’s Manifesto proved the opposite can be equally true, whereby more is more. Definitely more chaotic. This work was an assault of the senses. At its climax, an array of big bold gymnastic sequences with big beats to match.

The drummers were playful, competitive and my focus was always shifting back and forth between both performative mediums. However, this was not a bad occurrence. For the presenters it meant there were many of us who would be tempted to see the performance more than once, to catch what we might’ve missed. For us, as audience members, it meant that we were actively engaged rather than passive consumers of the show. This is something I saw working at its best in the Chunky Move work Two Faced Bastard choreographed in partnership by Lucy Guerin and Gideon Obarzanek, of which Lake was a cast member (and from where her lineage definitely hails), whereby the audience were invited to change sides, on the double bookended seating banks, half way through each performance.

While Lake’s Manifesto is hugely accessible by its simple underlying quest, to celebrate the primal drive to move to rhythmic percussion, it is also representative of a western separation of art in everyday life. This work bore no social obligation above its role as portal of entertainment and of excellence, of which it met and superseded its brief. This closing remark is not intended as a slight but merely as an observation of how the Occidental and non-western art forms have evolved.

Friday night of the first week of my Sydney Festival experience I attended what could be described as something akin to hand held fireworks with Werk It. Attending Werk It was like getting up to the mischief you know you might regret afterwards, but do regardless, and are bloody thankfully you did. One word – infectious!

I think I saw the lurid coloured spandex in the marketing material and immediately assumed it was a kids show, and while the 90s themed cabaret circus blended production was a little racy at times it was a definite hit with the whole family demographic.

Werk It was a small-scale event punching well above its weight; from the cloudswing fashioned out of a beer barrel with the moniker of Bob Hawke emblazoned on its side, to the juggler who did in fact make his balls appear as if they were fireworks shooting skyward at variable speeds, varying heights and patterns, not to mention the grand entrance as the back up dancers to Ms Hula Hoop Extraordinaire who descended the aisles in homemade pointy braziers in an ode to Madonna’s 1990 Blonde Ambition tour (only these bras were filled with wine from which the other cast members supped). Each short vignette elicited alternating whoops of joy and gasps of wonderment. This show could’ve taken its pick really and if it hadn’t made the Sydney Festival lineup it only needed to wait a week or two for Mardi Gras. Maybe there’s still a chance.

The second week was repeated as the first with me traipsing to Parramatta. This time it was to the Football Leagues Club, where I was directed to the ten-pin bowling alley on the third floor, to see Guttered by Restless Dance Theatre. I was so jealous as I would’ve loved to have been a performer dancing, as well as bowling up a storm in the lanes.

Initially I was roped, or maybe duped, into thinking Guttered was a pretty dance work with the lanes providing a novelty factor. However, the work operated on many levels with the lanes serving as the perfect innocuous backdrop in which to highlight how easy it is to make assumptions about the ability or disability of others. Through the use of oversized cue cards we were directed in our response to the action occurring ‘on stage’. Consisting of guided prompts of laughter and applause, in support of the performers our unchecked actions demonstrated how easy it is to fall into patronising behavioral patterns. This represented a clever light touch, an insight into everyday situations between abled and dis or differently abled people.

Meryl Tankard’s Kairos had been much anticipated by me. Not only, because as official blogger, am I part of the FORM Dance Projects team, nor because my fellow judo enthusiast Cloé Fournier (whose characterisation and physicality felt like a veritable reembodiment of Tankard) was in it, but because I had seen the work in development a year previously and wondered how on earth Tankard would make meaning from the seemingly disparate, if not compelling, solos originally featured. I need not have had any doubts, as not only did Tankard make meaning in this iteration of Kairos it was also filled with gravitas. More so than many of the other works I had seen.

Through Tankard’s direction and choreographic manipulation, along with Régis Lansac’s video projections, each dancer was transformed doubly into the animated embodiment of the environment and the destructive anthropogenic forces wreaking havoc upon it. This element of destruction was extended to deeds of misanthropy captured in easily recognised tableaus, from the recreation of the U.S. police officer fatally restraining George Floyd with his knee to Floyd’s neck, to the image of Kim Phuc Phan Thi also known as ‘napalm girl’ when as a nine year old she was captured screaming in pain while running naked away from South Vietnamese bombing, and toward the camera’s lens.

When the show finished I did not rise to give a standing ovation and I questioned my behaviour afterwards. It was not that the work, like so many I had stood up for previously this season was not deserving, it was that I was afraid that my actions would somehow lessen the potency of the message, which was uncompromising in its aim to provoke us out of complacency. This was evident in the opening and closing which featured a small girl as the inheritor of today’s decisions and in/actions. This seated reaction prompted me to ponder whether, like me, others in the audience were mindful of the weight of the work or whether another more insidious motive might be afoot, that being compassion exhaustion.

This year’s festival came to a close for me with Holding Achilles and at two and a half hours it was epic. Since the introduction of the ‘About an Hour’ format by Fergus Linehan in 2006, I have reprogrammed my attention span to fit accordingly. Covid and TikTok haven’t helped either. Surprisingly, I found I could stay the distance. Not having read The Iliad and after the Hollywood version of the Trojan War featuring Brad Pitt as Achilles, my curiosity was piqued.

As a relative newcomer to both aerial work and my appointment to Legs On The Wall the company as Associate Artist, I am preoccupied with the parameters of the physical theatre discipline. I can also openly claim my bias in relation to the choreography which, as I watched, I was mentally gauging whether I a. – possess the physicality to execute the trick or feat and b. – whether I would possess the gumption to give it a go, if given the opportunity to try. As a performer for movement director/ choreographer Josh Thomson, I recognised his preferred movement paths, overarching ensemble shapes and manipulation of properties and at times my body had an involuntary twitch as the appropriate muscles fired in sympathy.

As a dance artist who utilises text often and increasingly with each successive work, I am always surprised and more than a little disappointed when the spoken word employed is both didactic and unadventurous in comparison to the abstract poetics employed in the visual component. This prompted me to ponder whether this production could’ve been created without text in this instance. Surely then the fabulous live singing element performed by art pop vocalist Montaigne would’ve had more weight, driving the narrative rather than serving as a decorative adjunct to it.

In the mix, I would see Tracker, choreographed by Daniel Riley in his new appointment as Artistic Director of Australian Dance Theatre. I was excited and curious as to the direction he intends to take the company. From what I witnessed he will be drawing heavily upon the narratives and the interdisciplinary dance theatre treatment inherent to the Australian Indigenous performative canon. The movement language drew heavily upon his long-standing tenure with Bangarra Dance Theatre which was realised by former company dancers Rika Hamaguchi, Kaine Sultan-Babij and Tyrel Dulvarie.

Because Tracker featured a Wiradjuri narrative, and I had taught both Sultan-Babij and Hamaguchi I had great expectations, mixed with an emotional bias, which makes it difficult to regard this work without any residual attachment. Although, much like Holding Achilles, I was disappointed with the text element, which while acknowledging it was compromised due to a last minute cast replacement, I found remained staid and unadventurous in its composition and cadence in comparison to the considerations being made in the set design and in the round performative delivery. This show is relatively new and with tweaking will improve with each new season.

Tyrel Dulvarie was an outstanding presence in this work adding dimension to every scene in which he featured.

That brings this mammoth blog to a close. Apologies for the sparse accreditation. You might have to read this in increments with a glass or two of vino at hand.

Vicki Van Hout
FORM Dance Projects
Blogger in Residence