Sydney festival 2023: Town Hall to be filled with 26 tonnes of sand for program showpiece

The heritage building’s floor will become an indoor beach for an award-winning opera – one of a few architectural landmarks that will get a new life this summer

Twenty-six tonnes of sand will be shipped into Sydney town hall as part of the 2023 Sydney festival, with the heritage-listed building transformed into a faux beach for an award-winning opera starring 79 people and a dog.

The program for the annual festival, announced today, will amplify stories from Indigenous and female-identifying creatives next year. Led by artistic director Olivia Ansell for the second time, it will champion climate action, marginalised voices and the rediscovery of underused spaces in the city – including Harry Seidler’s mushroom-shaped building in Martin Place, which will be turned into a 1970s-themed bar and live music hub, with audiences invited to stay in the retro hotel rooms above.

The festival’s showpiece is Sun & Sea, an Australian-exclusive production that will turn the ground level of the town hall into a faux beach for an immersive 60-minute Lithuanian opera, which won the coveted Golden Lion at the 2019 Venice Biennale.

People lying on towels on an artificial indoor beach
Sun & Sea: Marina took over the Lithuanian Pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

In the Sydney iteration – the production’s largest to date – audiences will be invited to make their way around viewing decks at the gallery level, watching 19 international performers, 30 local choir members and a dog take part in the daily business of a beach afternoon – sunbathing, frolicking, being a dog – soundtracked by a dark libretto about the deterioration of the planet. Thirty volunteer beach goers will also populate the scene, with a call-out from the festival expected in coming weeks.

Guardian critic Adrian Searle called Sun & Sea one of his top shows of 2019: “Threat slowly seeps in, like sun-tan oil,” he said in his Venice review. “This astonishing performance slides into almost unbearable pathos and pain. I can’t stop thinking about this work.”

Mushroom-shaped building surrounded by skyscrapers
Harry Seidler’s modernist Commercial Travellers’s Association building will host a pop-up bar and immersive overnight stay. Photograph: Zoltan Csipke/Alamy

As the city continues to wake itself up in time for summer, new life will be breathed into the Seidler mushroom: an architectural emblem of Sydney perched next to the MLC centre. Currently the structure sits atop “a buried bastion of 1970s bar culture”: the untouched, red shag carpet-walled Commercial Travellers’ Association club, which will be renamed the Weary Traveller for the festival. A 200-capacity pop-up venue, it will host 16 nights of music programming including HTRK, June Jones, Automatic in the USA and Astral People.

At the top of the Seidler mushroom, audiences are invited to check into the CTA’s similarly retro hotel rooms. All overnight stays will be guided by an eight-hour sonic composition by the US singer and cellist Kelsey Lu, whose work will be presented via bespoke audio systems in each room, every night of the festival.

It’s one of two immersive experiences to take over a vintage hotel, with UK poet and experimental saxophonist Alabaster DePlume performing for one audience member at a time in the art deco basement of the Margot Kimpton.

The CBD’s brutalist Masonic Centre, meanwhile, will host a dance party in its banquet hall, with a DJ set from Bonobo for an event titled Call to the Night. The morning after, US composer Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith will be welcoming the sun with an ambient dawn performance, titled Call to the Morning, at Milk Beach.

In another repurposed venue, Parramatta bowling arcade Kicks, Restless Dance Theatre will perform Guttered – an interactive production about the well-intentioned help that, like bowling bumpers, can actually smother the potential growth of people living with disabilities.

Thomas Weatherall dancing in a room with white walls and a polished floor
Heartbreak High star Thomas Weatherall will premiere his one-man show Blue. Photograph: Daniel Boud

The program has an extensive Blak Out program of First Nations work, curated by Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Jacob Nash. Centred at Belvoir St theatre, it will be headlined by two world premieres: Ilbijerri Theatre Company and Australian Dance Theatre’s Tracker, an Ursula Yovich-written work co-directed by Rachael Maza, about choreographer-director Daniel Riley’s famed Wiradjuri uncle Alec Riley; and Blue, a coming-of-age monologue from Heartbreak High star Thomas Weatherall.

The festival’s family programming includes Bangarra’s production of Waru – the journey of the small turtle – which will be taken to Dharawal country in Sutherland. Nathan Maynard and Jamie McCaskill’s Hide the Dog, about the last Tasmanian tiger, will get a Sydney Opera House run. And London’s String Theatre will bring their long-string puppetry extravaganza the Insect Circus to the Seymour Centre.

People in a room with enormous artwork of a heart on the wall
Immersive exhibition Frida Kahlo: The Life Of An Icon is travelling from Spain for the 2023 festival. Photograph: David Ruano

Other international highlights include a 90-minute immersive installation inspired by the life and work of Frida Kahlo, which will take over the Cutaway at Barangaroo with live performance, holograms, workshops, projections and a Mexican cantina; Spanish flamenco star Sara Baras, who will dance with a seven-piece band and an ensemble at the Sydney Opera House; and a production of new opera Antarctica, a collaboration between the Sydney Chamber Opera and Dutch chamber orchestra Asko|Schönberg.

Public art dappled through the city will include bold and bright sculptures from Jenny Kee at South Eveleigh; a six-metre high inflatable fountain at Darling harbour; and a giant ibis that will be picking up litter and dropping it into bins, countering its natural inclination to do the opposite.

Dancer wearing a turtle shell and flippers hunches on the floor while another performer shines a torch on them
Waru: The Journey of the Small Turtle. Photograph: Daniel Boud

Acclaimed productions from around the country will be heading to Sydney, including dance work Manifesto from Stephanie Lake Company; Legs on the Wall and Dead Puppet Society’s Holding Achilles, which debuted at Brisbane festival; Christie Whelan Browne’s one-woman show Show People; and Paul Yore’s immersive Word Made Flesh, which the Guardian described as “a queer church” of “spectacular, colourful vulgarity” when it opened in Melbourne last month.

Last year’s Sydney festival was a controversial affair, boycotted by some artists and audiences over a funding agreement with the Israeli embassy.

In September, festival chair David Kirk apologised to those affected, and announced that foreign government funding of the festival had been suspended.


Steph Harmon

The GuardianTramp

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