From juggling grasshoppers to the Spanish queen of flamenco, from saucy burlesque with morning mimosas to roving bin chickens, First Nations truths, soundscapes in your pyjamas and Lycra-clad aqua aerobics 1980s-style, the 2023 Sydney Festival’s smorgasbord of theatre, dance, opera, art, comedy and music licks every summer taste.
A is for art. Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, frequently pigeonholed as a pop-culture icon, was a complex artist who vividly relayed dreams, love, rage, heartbreak, gender, class, physical pain and a deep longing for children in more than 200 vibrantly detailed works, particularly self-portraits. Lose yourself in Frida Kahlo: The Life of an Icon (The Cutaway, Barangaroo Reserve, January 4-31, excluding January 30), an immersive biographical exhibition allowing viewers to wander nine rooms of original films, holography, 360-degree projections and virtual reality unveiling Kahlo’s life and works of struggle, triumph, self-image and unfettered imaginings.
B is for the business we call show. Christie Whelan Browne, stage and screen star, delivers a warts and all paean to musical theatre’s glorious pizazz, heartfelt chutzpah and darker aspects in Show People (Sydney Theatre Company, January 12). Directed by Dean Bryant, Whelan Browne shape-shifts into six sharply drawn, vastly different showbiz characters, each illuminating a life treading the boards.
C is for circus. Ogle an acrobatic spree of elastic canvases, dancing bananas, ping-pong procrastination and teetering shelf-slapstick in The Artist (Seymour Centre, January 18-22), a comedic journey of a painter’s chaotic escapades overcoming creative block, performed by physical theatre and contemporary circus performer Thom Monckton.
D is for drag brunch. Kickstart your Sunday with champagne cocktails, saucy cabaret and high-flying circus acts at Smashed: The Brunch Party (Sydney Theatre Company, January 8), a mid-morning adults-only soiree of sequins, acrobatic sass and scrambled eggs hosted by award-winning cabaret queen Victoria Falconer.
E is for entrada, Spanish for a flamenco dancer’s entrance and the beginning of every heart-pounding piece by superstar dancer and choreographer Sara Baras in Alma (Sydney Opera House, January 27-28). Known as the queen of flamenco, Baras has spent more than three decades hammering her heels, curling her hands and twirling her traje de flamenca skirt ruffles to express the Spanish dance’s language of love, passion, sadness, pain and joy.
F is for First Nations. Join Elaine Crombie, a proud Pitjantjatjara, Warrigmai and South Sea Islander woman, as she shares Janet’s Vagrant Love (Belvoir Downstairs Theatre, January 19-22), a moving and personal story of love, loss, childhood trauma, truth, song and raising black sons. As the sun sets, watch Brenda L Croft’s captivating and moving portraits of 17 First Nations women projected across the facade of Old Government House in Dyin Nura (Women’s Place) (Parramatta Park, January 19-22).
G is for gender identity. Trans playwright Tabby Lamb’s joyful queer rom-com Happy Meal (Eternity Playhouse, January 17-22) is a coming-of-age story framed by the worlds of MSN, Twitter, Facebook and Reddit. Following the slow-burning romance between transitioning teens Alec and Bette, this award-winning play, set in large lit-up speech bubble boxes, underlines the vital freedoms of digital safe spaces.
H is for hotel rooms. Of the two festival shows set inside hotels, The Lucid: A Dream Portal to Awakening (The CTA Business Club, January 5-29), is the one requiring packing your jarmies. American artist Kelsey Lu’s eight-hour sound work is played as you slumber in bedrooms inside Harry Seidler’s mushroom-like Martin Place building. The second, In Chamber (Kimpton Margot Sydney, January 10-29), whispers a spell of sounds, words and music by UK poet, performer and music-maker Alabaster DePlume. Experienced by audience members alone inside a small vault, it’s as private as theatre gets.
I is for insects. A juggling grasshopper! A violin-playing dragonfly! A top-hatted ant with speedy legs! Marvel at The insect Circus (Seymour Centre, January 17-22), UK company String Theatre’s charming marionette show for ages two-and-up starring traditional long-string, hand-carved bug puppets presenting circus tricks. Hup beetle, hup!
J is for journalism. Radio is king in Sydney, a city beholden to the words of highly paid, opinion-flowing, mic-lords on the airwaves. Playwright and broadcaster Melanie Tait, known for hit play The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race, upends one radio titan’s career in A Broadcast Coup (Ensemble Theatre, January 26-March 4), a whip-smart, post #MeToo comedy starring Amber McMahon.
K is for keyboard. New York’s queen of avant-garde piano, Australian-born musician Lisa Moore, delivers singularly transformative interpretations of Stravinsky, Janacek, Randy Newman, Philip Glass and more in a peerless performance of orchestral piano (The Neilson – ACO, January 14-15).
L is for leotards. Choose pastel togs, day-glo scrunchies and a whole lotta Wham’s Club Tropicana as RetroSplash! (Ashfield Aquatic Centre January 21, 22, 28) leads a 1980s aqua-aerobics pool party elevating your bodacious heart rate. Led by Retrosweat’s spandex-wrapped exercise wizards, this 40-minute workout includes inflatables, wet buns and waves of waterproof mullets. Equally retro, Werk It (Seymour Centre, January 12-22), Circus Trick Tease’s ’90s-themed jamboree of slapstick and acrobatics, hurls five trapeze, hula-hoop, balance and juggling artists through side-ponies, tube tops and extremely shortie shorts.
M is for monologue. Justine Clarke, one of Australia’s most beloved performers, delivers British playwright Dennis Kelly’s searing 95-minute one-woman play Girls and Boys (Seymour Centre, January 5-15), a timely, unmissable and gut-wrenching treatise on masculinity and violence, dreams and destruction.
N is for nippy. Chill to the music of below-zero blizzards, undulating sea ice and cracking glaciers recorded in the Australian Antarctic Territory in Polar Force (Carriageworks, January 6-8), Speak Percussion’s immersive hyper-realistic sound adventure blending frozen sounds and ice and wind instruments.
O is for opera. Revel in Short Black Opera’s Woven Song (City Recital Hall, January 25), a series of new contemporary classical compositions created and performed by Deborah Cheetham AO and musicians, inspired by woven works from the Australian Tapestry Workshop in South Melbourne.
P is for paranoia. Accept a phone, a briefcase and a mission to discover who is innocent and who threatens the peace in Message Bank (Parramatta Square, January 13-21), a 45-minute location-based mystery adventure asking audiences to decipher made-up stories, audio trickery and the identity of illusive protagonist Charlie.
Q is for queer. Join a spectacular and moving tribute to legendary artists lost to HIV/AIDS at The Huxleys: Bloodlines (Carriageworks, January 5-March 5) an exhibition of large-scale self-portraits, films and quilt work made by Will Huxley and Garrett Huxley. Join the Huxleys on January 4 for a free opening night art disco party featuring Betty Grumble, Aaron Manhattan, Felicia Foxx and more.
R is for roving. Meet Ibsen, a tall promenading bin chicken, in Tip Duck (various locations, January 18-22) – Terrapin Puppet Theatre’s beaky, cheeky three-metre high roaming bird made from found and recycled materials. Walking the outdoors he collects rubbish, greets passersby and occasionally lays an egg.
S is for skyward. Look up! Swinging and twirling above our heads, New Zealand dancer and choreographer Chloe Loftus and Maori dance artist and wheelchair-user Rodney Bell perform The Air Between Us (Tallawoladah Lawn, opposite MCA, January 20-22), a free, outdoor aerial duet using a counterbalanced rigging system and soaring harmonised movement.
T is for ten pin bowling. An all-ages immersive dance work set in a real-life bowling alley, Guttered (Kicks Tenpin and Arcade, Parramatta Leagues Club, January 18-22) is award-winning company Restless Dance Theatre’s celebration of the power of taking risks, making your own mistakes and flinging yourself down the lanes of life. Stay on for a ten-pin game, exclusive to audience members.
U is for underwater. Eye up a Great White in Erth’s Shark Dive (Australian Museum, January 3-29), an immersive puppeteering adventure set in a shark cage and designed for ages five-and-up. Choose-your-own audio accompaniment – serene awe or high octane risk – as life-size puppet versions of the 455-million-year-old fish glide by. Equally heart-pounding for interlocking block and submerged boat devotees, Brickwrecks: Sunken Ships in Lego Bricks (January 5-29, Australian National Maritime Museum) features Ryan “The Brickman” McNaught’s re-creations of famous lost vessels including the Batavia, Terror, Erebus and the “unsinkable” Titanic, along with hands-on, audio and archaeological history activities.
V is for vultures. More particularly, their endangered existence in India, highlighted in this funny, powerful and uplifting one-man play Paradise or the Impermanence of Ice Cream (Riverside Theatres, January 17-22). Written and performed by Jacob Rajan, this tale from the afterlife blends humour, cultural history, puppeteering, and extraordinary character work and sound design.
W is for water playground. Get splashed hugging huge inflatable glowing sea creatures at Cupid’s Koi Garden (Tumbalong Park, January 5-29) a free, family-friendly play park filled with glowing fish, splashy water sprays, the world’s first inflatable fountain and interactive soundtracks. Created by Melbourne art and design funsters ENESS, responsible for Airship Orchestra last festival.
X is for expedition. Traverse the frozen plains of Antarctica (Carriageworks, January 5-8) an epic new opera by Mary Finsterer and Tom Wright, following a cartographer, a natural scientist and a philosopher travelling by ship to Antarctica. Performed on a stage of digital screens, suspended windows and silhouetted bodies, the show features an all-Australian cast and Dutch new-music ensemble Asko|Schönberg.
Y is for youngsters. Children, and grown-ups, can find their beat at Kalabante Productions’ African drumming and dance workshop (Riverside Theatres, January 10), featuring members of Afrique en Cirque (Riverside Theatres, January 6-15), in town to share their awing acrobatics, music and choreography.
Z is for zingers. Cack yourself silly at the Multicultural Comedy Gala (Riverside Theatres, January 20), a diverse one-night-only concert of First Nations, first generation, multi-generation and new Australian comedians including Ivan Aristeguieta, Dilruk Jayasinha, Rebecca De Unamuno, Raw Comedy finalist Ting Lim and other gagsters.