Olivia Ansell has announced her first program as the new Director of Sydney Festival. Running from 6–30 January, her 2022 line-up will span 133 events including 33 world premieres and 52 new commissions.

As she set about programming the Festival, Ansell was constantly having to adjust to the changing health regulations, travel restrictions and border closures due to COVID.

“It’s amazing in the last two years how agile we’ve become,” she says. “We have seen the digitisation of works and people thinking about their carbon footprint, we have seen a lot of social change, so really we are stepping into a different world than we were previously. We have seen unprecedented border issues where I wasn’t sure I could I get Victorian artist home or artists from WA into NSW. I always thought international borders would be difficult but I never imagined we’d be having conversations around what if we can’t get Victorian artists home.”

“So much has happened socially and politically, so the four themes for the festival are: Hope, our dream for the future; Change, empowering hope through action; Unite, to reconnect and gather with the Sydney community; and Recover, to safely restore culture to our city.”

Vigil: Songs for Tomorrow

Vigil: Songs for Tomorrow. Photo courtesy of Sydney Festival

Jacob Nash, a proud Murri man, is working with the Festival as a creative artist for 2022 and helping Ansell honour the First Nations focus that her predecessor Wesley Enoch brought to Sydney Festival.

“We’ve had some lovely conversations with Wesley looking at the programs he cultivated within the festival and there’s a lot of care and love taking that baton forward and continuing those programs,” says Ansell.

“We’ve commissioned Jake Nash to create a beautiful work called Future Dreaming, which will be installed on the Stargazer Lawn at Barangaroo for the duration of the Festival. It asks the people of Sydney to share with us their hopes for the future. It [features] two monumental sculptures that conceptually place themselves in the now and are surrounded by the aspirations of the First Nations community. I won’t share too much as the reveal is a bit of a surprise,” says Ansell.

Get to know the music acts performing at the 2022 Sydney Festival, with this playlist of hand-picked favourites from the Festival’s Music Curator, Chris Twite.

The Festival will also include Vigil: Songs for Tomorrow on 25 January – an event introduced by Enoch that includes a smoking ceremony, fire and song by leading First Nations artists.

Another major installation called Thaw, presented by Legs on the Wall, will see a 2.7 tonne block of sculpted ice hoisted 20 metres above Sydney Harbour from a crane standing on the Sydney Opera House forecourt. Over the course of three days, a solo performer and sometimes a duo will perform on the ice as it gradually melts.

Running over the second weekend, there will be a Thaw cam on the Saturday so people can log on and see what’s happening. “We think that might be a bit of a hit globally seeing the Sydney Opera House, the Harbour Bridge and the ice in no doubt searing summer heat,” says Ansell.

Thaw Sydney Festival

Thaw. Photo © Shane Rozario

A sound and light installation called Airship Orchestra will delight families at Tumbalong Park in Darling Harbour. The interactive multi-sensory installation by Melbourne-based multimedia design studio ENESS will feature an otherworldly chorus of 16 inflatable sculptures, which Ansell describes as resembling “astral beings”, which will pulsate with glowing light and supernatural song.

The music program will include a ferry ride to venues around Sydney Harbour as part of a work called Acoustic Life of Boatsheds, developed by Big hART with the Australian National Maritime Museum, which builds on Big hART’s hugely successful, award-winning Acoustic Life of Sheds.

“[Acoustic Life of Boatsheds] is a site-specific new music work set across Sydney Harbour so artists and audiences are invited to journey on these beautiful, historic, wooden ferries to these working boatsheds, where a series of different musical performances, inspired by the location, will occur in each boatshed. It’s three hours all up as we journey around Sydney Harbour hearing contemporary classical and world music artists performing,” says Ansell.

Sydney Philharmonia Choirs will perform Night of the Soul at The Cutaway at Barangaroo. “It’s been quite dramatic at times over the past few months for Sydneysiders in terms of lockdown, and in talking to Brett Weymark [Artistic & Music Director] at Sydney Philharmonia Choirs I felt like we needed a calming, meditative, choral performance by SPC and we thought well why not present Night of the Soul,” says Ansell.

“It is a beautiful program that Brett has put together. We will invite audiences to lie on yoga mats and we will place the Sydney Phil and the 30 choristers [from SPC’s Chamber Singers] in concentric circles inside the space, with a string quartet and piano. It kicks off with a beautiful piece by Deborah Cheetham and Matthew Doyle and ranges across 12 different composers including Arvo Pärt, Tarik O’Regan, Eric Whitacre, Ola Gjeilo and many others, so it will be a beautiful 80-minute experience around twilight.”

Night of the Soul

Night of the Soul. Photo © Daniel Boud

The ever-popular Sydney Symphony Under the Stars returns to Parramatta Park where Benjamin Northey will conduct a program ranging from 18th and 19th-century classics to music by Elena Kats-Chernin, with the evening concluding, as it always does, with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.

Ensemble Offspring and Yuwaalaraay storteller Nardi Simpson will perform -barra, a sonic and visual journey through Yuwaalaraay country in north-western NSW, directly inspired by country. Katie Noonan will premiere her latest album The Sweetest Taboo at Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres, and Bennelong, the restaurant at the Sydney Opera House, with come alive with the sound of jazz on Sunday afternoons during the festival.

The Pulse from Gravity & Other Myths was supposed to have had its world premiere at the 2021 Sydney Festival but the performers were unable to travel to Sydney due to the pandemic so it premiered at the Adelaide Festival, gaining a 4.5-star review from Limelight. It finally has its Sydney Festival season in 2022. The epic work is performed by 24 acrobats and 26 singers from the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs.

“It’s stunning, it’s everything you can dream a festival piece to be – the scale of it and the music. We are really proud to be finally presenting it at the Roslyn Packer Theatre in our opening week,” says Ansell.

The Pulse

The Pulse. Photo © Darcy Grant

The festival will feature three musicals. Girl from the North Country, using songs by Bob Dylan, will open at the Theatre Royal with a cast including Lisa McCune, Zahra Newman, Helen Dallimore and Peter Carroll, before going on tour.

Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s new production of the legendary dance musical A Chorus Line, featuring direction and new choreography by Amy Campbell, which was postponed twice due COVID-19, will have a season at Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres. And at the Hayes Theatre Co., Lizzie will tell the story of Lizzie Borden who was the prime suspect when her parents were axed to death.

The theatre line-up will include several outdoor productions. “There’s a huge amount of recalibration needed in creating a program that’s appropriate to what we can do now in a pandemic – and what the public health order was five weeks ago is different to what it will be tomorrow – so we have tried to shape a program that is 50 percent outdoors and 50 percent indoors,” says Ansell.

“We made that pivot at the height of the COVID lockdown several months ago. We always did have a fair amount of outdoor work but there were some terrific theatre pieces that I knew were available and I thought now the time’s to do it because there’s so much more confidence from the public in being outdoors, and we need to build that confidence and return people back to our theatres.”

A Chorus Line

A Chorus Line. Photo © Daniel Shipp

These include Griffin Theatre Company’s production of Green Park by Elias Jamieson Brown, which had a sold-out season at Green Park in Darlinghurst earlier this year, and Small Metal Objects by Back to Back Theatre, which Sydney Festival presented at Customs House in 2007.

“We are bringing [Small Metal Objects] back for a return season,” says Ansell. “I saw it earlier this year at the Adelaide Festival and it’s just so fabulous and it hasn’t dated. It’s a theatrical gem and so few people will have had the chance to see it last time so I wanted to seize the opportunity to bring it to Sydney again for a whole new audience.”

Another outdoor work is The Construct, choreographed by up-and-coming circus director Zebastian Hunter, the new Artistic Director of Circus Monoxide in Wollongong. “Eight acrobats will tumble, dance and weave their way across this prism, a huge sculpture on wheels, performing to a beautiful neo-classical score, and it’s an outdoor work so it’s free,” says Ansell. “The performers have all worked with different companies including Cirque du Soleil, 7  Fingers, Circus Oz and Circa.” The Construct will be performed in Parramatta and Darling Harbour.

Other theatre includes Black Brass, performed by Mararo Wangai and composer-musician Mahamudo Selimane, which was a hit at the 2021 Perth Festival; Margaret Harvey’s State Theatre Company production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; and Lost in Shanghai by ABC journalist, China correspondent, war zone reporter and author Jane Hutcheon, in which she tells the story of her mother Beatrice’s turbulent childhood in pre-Communist Shanghai, among other shows.

Ansell is a former dancer, so it’s not surprising that she has programmed a strong, exciting-looking dance component. Sydney Dance Company will perform Decadence featuring excerpts from works by visionary Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin.

Decadence Sydney Festival

Sydney Dance Company will perform Decadence. Photo courtesy of Sydney Festival

Marrugeku, Australia’s leading Indigenous-intercultural dance company, will performed Jurrungun Ngan-ga (literally meaning Straight Talk), inspired by perspectives on incarceration shared by Yawuru leader Patrick Dodson and Kurish-Iranian writer and former Manus Island detainee Behrouz Boochani. Chunky Move will perform Yung Lung “a rave of Mount Olympus” devised by its Artistic Director Antony Hamilton. Former Sydney Dance Company dancers Charmene Yap and Cass Mortimer Eipper will choreograph an audacious new dance epic called Grey Rhino, while choreographer and dancer Martin del Amo and collaborator Miranda Wheen are creating a new full-length dance work called Mirage, inspired by the optical phenomenon.

Sydney Festival will also present a previously announced, major collaboration between Bangarra Dance Theatre and Sydney Theatre Company called Wudjang: Not the Past, which will be performed by 17 dancers, four musicians and five actors.

Ansell has also programmed a dedicated festival club called Speakers Corner – a reference to the nearby Domain where provocateurs and orators would take to their soapbox.

“Many people still remember The Bacardi Club at the Sydney Festival, so in a COVID-safe way we are taking a bit of a throwback to a nightly program where we present a broad range of music artists,” she says. “This is basically our music club, which will be in front of St Mary’s Cathedral on College Street opposite Hyde Park.”

Unveiling the program, Ansell said: “We are thrilled to reunite artists with audiences this summer, unleashing a compelling and diverse line-up of world class performing and visual arts experiences to be enjoyed outdoors, indoors and online. Sydneysiders and visitors alike can rediscover their city differently, through a contemporary, immersive, irreverent and imaginative lens. Sydney Festival’s 2022 program will play a crucial role in restoring culture safely to our city.”

The 2022 Sydney Festival runs 6–30 January. For the full program visit the festival website.