Dionne Christian gives her picks for one of the world's most wonderful festivals.

The sun, the sea, the surf: actually, it leaves me cold or, to be more accurate, sweltering.

Give me an air-conditioned gallery, museum or theatre over scorching sands and possible sunburn any day. Which is why Sydney in January sings its siren song to me.

It's Sydney Festival time, when the city comes alive with must-see performing and visual arts. It calls itself one of the most wonderful festivals in the world and it truly is. If you're lucky enough to be there between January 6 and 28, here's a few suggestions:


Aquasonic: Danish company Between Music pushes the boundaries of human experience and they've pushed the boat out for this one. In fact, they've jumped right off it for an underwater concert performed by five musicians submerged in aquariums. Billing themselves as the world's first underwater band, they play custom-made instruments and pioneer a new singing style devised after nearly a decade of research involving deep-sea divers, scientists and instrument makers. The Little Mermaid will never be the same. (Aquasonic — Between Worlds, Carriageworks, January 6-9)

Circus City: Australia's circus history stretches back long before its present Parliament — all the way back to the early 1800s. Sydney Festival jumps through hoops to recognise and celebrate this heritage with a raft of events and activities, many at Parramatta's Prince Alfred Square. Here you'll find a festival precinct housing Circus Oz Big Top, Flying Trapeze, Legs on the Wall outdoor trampoline playground and high-octane performances at the Riverside Theatres. Best of all, you can soar, swing, bounce and balance or, for those of us who fear heights more than hot weather, watch — in workshops for all ages and abilities to learn cirque skills. (Circus City, various venues, January 2-28)

The Daisy Theatre: Who says puppet shows are for kids? Certainly not acclaimed puppeteer Canadian Ronnie Burkett. His marionettes have a grace and humanity which shines a light on our most mortal foibles and complexities as well as the beauty, pain, joy and absurdity of the times we live in. All manipulated by Burkett, 40 expressive characters come to life in a show with improvised satire, comedy and outrageous musical numbers. (The Daisy Theatre, Reginald Theatre at the Seymour Centre, January 13-26)

Ghost Train: If the (suggested) rule of festival-going is to pick one show or event that you're not sure about, this would be mine. It's variously described as a "multi-sensory journey", "an immersive art experience" and an "unforgettable ride" so I'll climb aboard this virtual reality-enhanced ghost train, put on the VR headset and head into a world which pushes me to think about existence and destiny. Ethereal imagery, haunting music and narrative adventure: it sounds like it could be an unforgettable ride, combining the talents of film-makers and electronic music-makers, and it's only 90 seconds long. (Ghost Train, Meriton Festival Village, January 5-28)

Join the Dots: They might be 8000km apart but kids in Australia and Japan will make digital art together in this real-time creative project using the walls of the Sydney Opera House and the Art Museum and Library, Ota, as their canvas. Using a live video link, it's a true 21st century and family-friendly collaboration designed for the digital generation. (Join the Dots, Sydney Opera House, January 16-21)

Jurassic Plastic: I do like a good contemporary immersive art experience (translation: you're involved) and this is meant to be a fun exercise in creativity and nostalgia where you'll join Japanese artist Hiroshi Fuji recycling and re-inventing unwanted plastic toys into colourful dinosaur sculptures and landscapes. But there's a serious intent: it's designed to get us thinking about mass consumerism and the havoc unwanted plastic toys can play. Definitely one I'll take Miss 8 to, plus there are workshops for 6-to-12-year-olds and Up Late sessions for those 18-plus. (Jurassic Plastic, Sydney Town Hall, January 5-28)

Lisa Reihana Cinemania: After the triumph of Venice, where New Zealand artist Lisa Reihana's Emissaries won much praise at the city's art biennale, the colossal panoramic video returns to the Southern Hemisphere. Reihana spent time during the early years of her career in Sydney and it's long been a dream of hers to bring the video in Pursuit of Venus [infected] here. A reimagining of the 1805 wallpaper Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, you'll never look at Pacific history, cultural identity or, perhaps, home decorating the same way again. (Lisa Reihana Cinemania, Campbell Town Arts Centre, January 12-March 29)

Opera in the Domain and Symphony Under the Stars: Put together a picnic, grab a blanket, cross your fingers for good weather and sit back under the stars to enjoy beautiful music. The opera features rising young stars performing some of the most famous arias while you'll hear the Sydney Symphony Orchestra play a selection of beloved classical compositions under the stars. Family-friendly and free. (Opera in the Domain, The Domain, January 13; Symphony Under the Stars, Parramatta Park, January 20)

Pack a picnic, grab a blanket and enjoy Sydney's Symphony Under the Stars.
Pack a picnic, grab a blanket and enjoy Sydney's Symphony Under the Stars.

Pussy Riot Theatre — Riot Days:

"Freedom doesn't exist unless you fight for it every day." So says Maria Alyokhina and she'd know. The Russian political activist is a member of Pussy Riot, the art collective which made headlines in 2012 when five of its members, including Alyokhina, were arrested and charged with hooliganism.

She spent 21 months in prison and now travels the world presenting what's described as a master class in activism, which tells the story of the dissident punk group's time in solitary confinement. (Pussy Riot Theatre — Riot Days, Carriageworks, January 27 and 28)

Trygve Wakenshaw, Nautilus: Wakenshaw is the most famous New Zealander you've never heard of. Based in Europe and regarded as a world-class mime and clown, he performs — usually — magical, beautiful and slightly strange silent comedies that swing from jokes about why the chicken crossed the road to Broadway show tunes and quick-draw spaghetti westerns. (Nautilus, Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent, January 23-27)

The Town Hall Affair: Maura Tierney is coming to Sydney. She's the US actress famous for roles in ER, The Good Wife and The Affair and she's fabulous. Now, Tierney's playing feminist firebrand Germaine Greer in an "artful reimagining" of the 1971 debate A Dialogue on Women's Liberation where Greer and fellow feminist Jill Johnston exchanged views — not so politely — with author Norman Mailer. (The Town Hall Affair, Drama Theatre at Sydney Opera House, January 7-13)

Getting there
Qantas flies from Auckland to Sydney return, with Economy Class tickets starting at $563.

Sydney Festival runs from January 6-28.

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