Sydney: Cross Tasman festivities

By Shandelle Battersby

If you're heading to Sydney this month prepare to party.

Many areas of Sydney's CBD were transformed into party zones during the Festival First Night event on Saturday. Photo / Supplied
Many areas of Sydney's CBD were transformed into party zones during the Festival First Night event on Saturday. Photo / Supplied

Sydney proved yet again that it knows how to throw one heck of a party at the opening night of its biggest, most spectacular annual event, the Sydney Festival.

More than 200,000 people began pouring into the central city from mid-afternoon on Saturday in gorgeous weather to make the most of Festival First Night, the free event that offers a taste of what the three-week festival of music, dance, opera, theatre and art has to offer.

City streets were blocked off as different areas of the CBD were turned into stages, offering a wide variety of entertainment from drag queens (natch), to puppets, to aerial acrobats in As the World Tipped.

The latter saw a fearless troupe perform breathtaking manoeuvres on a huge moving screen dangling from a crane which showed powerful images to illustrate its dramatic tale of eco-crisis and climate change.

Brit DJ Norman Jay parked his double decker party bus in Hyde Park and played an eight-hour set of summer sounds entertaining both the picnicking families in the afternoon, and the hordes of dancers after dark, while Jamiroquai frontman Jay Kay acted the goat and entertained the crowd by pole-dancing alongside him.

Over at The Domain, Brisbane-born singer/songwriter and current Australian It Girl Megan Washington took to the stage with her band as dusk fell and thousands of the city's bats circled overhead.

She was followed by French/Spanish world music pocket rocket Manu Chao who closed the event with his high energy set of Latin-infused reggae and Afropop which had the crowd bouncing up and down for close to two hours. Phew.

And this was only opening night.

Megan Washington popped up again on Sunday as one of the songwriters behind the new show from cheeky cabaret star Meow Meow at the Famous Spiegeltent in Hyde Park. The lavishly decorated, intimate pavilion, which is transported around the world in shipping containers, is the perfect setting for Meow's Little Match Girl, inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's bittersweet tale of poverty.

The artist, who arrives on stage in a shopping trolley wheeled by a young man clad only in white jockeys and singlet top with a piece of masking tape over his face, is not shy to shout abuse at the audience ("I find it's a lot more effective when you scream at people in German") and uses all areas of the tent as part of her act, including, at one point, disappearing its enormous chandelier centrepiece.

Sunday also saw the opening of the much anticipated Black Capital programme at Carriageworks in Redfern.

The gritty inner city suburb has been home to many of Sydney's Aboriginal people, so is an appropriate location for the festival's first significant indigenous programme, the centrepiece of which is I Am Eora. This multimedia dance, music and theatre work is performed by a cast of 50 and tells the story of three remarkable Aborigines who were a part of Sydney's early history.

For the duration of the festival, Carriageworks, the former Eveleigh Rail Yards built in the 1880s, is also home to Aboriginal artist Brook Andrew's Travelling Colony - a series of disused caravans hand-painted with his signature zigzag designs.

Each contains a television playing archival footage relaying the history and stories of the suburb.

For top-notch dining before or after catching a show at the venue, try John and Peter Canteen - a new fine dining Italian restaurant on site, which is dominated by strong black and white decor, including a messy white fringe around the lighting rigs.

Running alongside the Sydney Festival is the Sydney International Arts Series which features two excellent exhibitions.

The Museum of Contemporary Art at Circular Quay, which is currently undergoing a $53 million refit, is home to Rafael Lozano-Hemmer's Recorders.

This fully interactive show features exhibits which only work when the audience participates with them.

One is the Pulse Room, which is adorned with 100 hanging lightbulbs in a room of mirrors. You hold on to a sensor for a few seconds which records your pulse, then the last lightbulb in the series begins to pulse on and off to the beat of your heart. This replaces the first lightbulb. So the room is full of previous audiences' heartbeats pulsing at different rhythms. Very effective and totally cool.

The other major gallery event worth the trip across the Tasman by itself is a landmark exhibition of the work of Pablo Picasso featuring pieces from the Musee National Picasso in Paris. It is set up in chronological order from his early days in Spain in the late 1890s through to his last decade in the 1960s-70s, and is a tightly curated collection showcasing the progression of his art.

You gain a real understanding of the external influences which impacted his work, including his many lovers, and the two world wars, and Spanish Civil War which he lived through.

So if you fancy partaking in some of that culture, jump online and have a look at the festival's programme.

Highlights to come over the next three weeks include a performance by Brit singer PJ Harvey, who will play songs from her Mercury Prize-winning album Let England Shake at the State Theatre on January 18 and 19; former Faith No More front man Mike Patton's Mondo Cane show, also at the State Theatre on January 16 and 17 which sees him perform Italian pop hits of the 50s and 60s backed by a 25-piece orchestra, band and choir; and the latest version of classic musical West Side Story which is on at the Opera House on Jan 27 and 28.

Sydney shines in the summer time, and the festival is a great excuse for a quick trip across the Tasman to enjoy the world class entertainment, shopping, art, accommodation and dining the city has to offer.

* Shandelle Battersby was a guest of Destination NSW. Click on the link for more information about the Sydney Festival.


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