Profile

Sydney Festival’s new director, Olivia Ansell, wants to remind the city of its unruly histories.

By Isabella Trimboli.

2022 Sydney Festival director Olivia Ansell

Sydney Festival director Olivia Ansell.
Credit: Daniel Boud

Sydney, 1977. The optimism of the decade has disintegrated under the fog of an energy crisis, high rents, recession and the dismissal of Gough Whitlam. Upheaval, anger and transgression seep into the marrow of the city, spitting out punk, experimental performance art and protest, culminating a year later in the brutal but pivotal Mardi Gras march of ’78.

The year 1977 also marks the arrival of the Sydney Festival, a program of theatre, dance, music and art designed to lure people back into the city centre during the summer. A 1978 edition of Woman’s Day reports on the inaugural event, describing dancing and people congregating around the Opera House in the dead of night. More than four decades later, it’s still going.

“I have a love of Sydney’s history, but I have a love of Sydney’s future as well,” says Olivia Ansell, Sydney Festival’s newly appointed director. We’re sitting in her office at Arts Exchange, an old power station located on a winding, narrow street in Dawes Point. Turning the laminated pages of a thick black binder, she runs me through the 2022 program with an unrelenting effusiveness. She speaks with a theatrical tenor, rarely pausing or slowing her pace as she describes meditative a capella choirs, immersive raves, sound baths at Sydney pools and an endurance work involving a giant, diamond-shaped slab of ice suspended above the Sydney Harbour.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that Ansell has ended up in this position. Her grandparents’ occupations included a circus master, an opera singer and a violinist. Her father was a jazz musician and arranger, who also composed for film and television. Her mother was a dancer – most prominently on Channel Nine’s variety show Bandstand, hosted by Brian Henderson – and a choreographer who owned her own dance academy in Sydney’s south. It was here that Ansell received early training in ballet and modern dance, and first developed a love for choreography, the desire to compose movement on her own terms. “My mother would create something, and I would immediately suggest that she create it in a different way,” says Ansell, laughing. “It became apparent that maybe she shouldn’t teach me.”

This led her to the renowned Bodenwieser Dance Centre in Chippendale. “I was sent to a private girls’ school which didn’t really have a lot of dance on the menu, and I remember putting on the school uniform and catching the train,” she says. “I’d get to Hurstville and I would just keep going. Rather than go to school, I would keep going all the way to Redfern. And I had my tights and my dance outfit stuffed into my backpack, and I’d walk all the way to Bodenwieser. I’d study [Martha] Graham and [Lester] Horton and [Katherine] Dunham and jazz, and I’d do yoga, I would study ballet, I’d take Margaret Chapple’s classes, and then I’d get back in my school uniform and go home.”

The school was named after Gertrud Bodenwieser, arguably one of Australia’s most pre-eminent dancers and choreographers, who radically shaped 20th-century dance in the country. A key figure in the European Modernist movement with her own style of Ausdruckstanz, a form of expressive dance, she fled Vienna after the Nazi annexation of Austria, immigrated to Australia and set up her own dance company. After her death in 1959, two of her dancers – Keith Bain and Margaret Chapple – founded the Bodenwieser Dance Centre. For decades it remained the centre of professional dance in Sydney, cultivating the careers of dancers such as Eileen Kramer and Anita Ardell, and playing host to a number of international dance companies while they were on tour. The building was sold after Chapple’s death, one level receiving a very Sydney fate: it was transformed into a penthouse apartment.

Ansell’s parents soon allowed her to study dance full-time, completing her HSC by distance education. She trained first in Newcastle under the tutelage of Marie Walton-Mahon, then at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York, until she landed at the Queensland University of Technology. There Ansell witnessed the rise of hybrid forms, a push towards acrobatics and the emergence of release technique, where breath is used to manipulate momentum and control movement. She didn’t specialise in one form, instead opting for the versatility that had guided her parents’ careers, whose work swung from the commercial and mainstream to the experimental and avant-garde.

“When I discovered producing and curating, it felt like such a natural home,” she says. “You know, it didn’t bother me to no longer be on the stage … Making things happen for artists, making opportunities happen, that meant I could exercise my love of so many different art forms.”

Performing in Glynn Nicholas’s Shoosh in 2004 sharpened her resolve. “[He] was the creator, the performer, the deviser and the director,” says Ansell. “I was fascinated because I didn’t realise what it was like to be off stage and on the stage at the same time, and it sparked a curiosity in terms of making work and devising and curating and putting things together.” The physical theatre sketch involved a great deal of mime and clowning work in the style of Jacques Lecoq, and only Ansell and two other performers – now Broadway performer Kaye Tuckerman and dancer Andrew Koblar – hadn’t professionally studied the art, and had to undergo intensive training. Being plunged into the unknown adjusted her focus. Soon after, in 2006, she began writing her own sketch and comedy material, and learnt how to self-produce shows.

“Very quickly, I started getting employed to help other people produce their material. That was the shift,” she says. Her CV is extensive, including the Sydney Comedy Festival, Riverside Theatres Parramatta, OzAsia Festival, Hayes Theatre Co, Perth International Arts Festival and Shaun Parker & Company. Her latest position was at the Sydney Opera House, where she was the head of contemporary performance until the end of 2020.

For Ansell, Sydney’s altered landscapes have been generative. In 2016 she was the co-executive producer of Hidden Sydney – The Glittering Mile, an immersive theatre work staged in the back streets of Kings Cross and the multilevel World Bar, once home to The Nevada, an infamous bordello. The show was about the entertainment strip’s famous ghosts: witch and mystic Rosaleen Norton, lip-sync stars Les Girls, crime syndicates, music venue the Chevron Hotel, whose lore involves Dusty Springfield and Judy Garland. But it was also about how the area had become an empty and soulless spectre of its former self, scrubbed of its sleazy charms.

“I once joked that we should set up an erasure theatre company, where we perform plays in buildings in Sydney about the iconic history of that building, before somebody demolishes it,” says Ansell. Homogenisation and gentrification are not phenomena unique to Sydney, but the scale here feels especially extensive. And while unfettered development has certainly played its part, for many people the lockout laws, followed by two years of lockdowns, rang the death knell over Sydney’s music and theatre spaces.

Ideas of raising ghosts, revealing the hidden and remembering what has been forgotten or dismissed are woven into Ansell’s debut program for Sydney Festival. A room in the National Art School in Darlinghurst will be bathed in red light for Roslyn Oades and Sage Arts’ installation work The Nightline, in which rotary-dial telephones will ring to reveal a bricolage of memories, secrets, confessions and dreams left anonymously by the city’s residents. The brand new work Stay – made in collaboration with Western Sydney performance group Kurinji and Singapore’s SAtheCollective – concerns three women who become entangled in the discovery of Indigenous and Chinese skeletons on a dried-up creek bed in Queensland. Meanwhile, immersive theatre production Qween Lear, co-devised by Lucas Jervies and Hugh O’Connor, pays homage to the era of queer party excess, focusing on the Hordern Pavilion in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

“It is a comment as much on the matriarchy of the queer party era in terms of the drag queens and their special role here in Sydney,” says Ansell. “As well, [it’s] a comment on the gentrification of the city and what were the key [issues] that have taken away our party culture.”

She doesn’t want to lean into sentimentalism or nostalgia, but she worries about what is being lost in the name of progress and development. “Part of my job when there isn’t a pandemic is to fly internationally and see great work and decide what work might be appropriate to bring to the festival,” she says. “When you land in a different city internationally you step out of the airport, you jump in a taxi, you catch the bus to the CBD ... You see the same shops now, no matter if you’re in Milan, Berlin, Barcelona or in Sydney. I think that’s something we need to be careful of ... so you won’t [have these] sort of big brands and big parent companies driving how we should see culture.”

Ansell is trying to remind the city of its less polished, more unruly spirit. Speakers’ corners have been part of Western cities for centuries and Sydney has had its own rowdy outpost since the 1800s. The ritual used to take place every Sunday afternoon in The Domain, just opposite the Art Gallery of New South Wales. In a clip from the ABC’s Four Corners in 1966, a man on a makeshift pulpit delivers an unwieldy, hysterical sermon about Revelation, as he’s heckled by a crowd. “You don’t get enlightened, only confused I think,” one onlooker comments to the cameraman. For the festival, this space is being reimagined as an outdoor venue, with modern orators of a more musical tack: Melbourne punks Amyl and the Sniffers, Welsh electronic producer Kelly Lee Owens and Indigenous rapper BARKAA, among others.

“Under my tenure, I want to see a whole range of different Sydneysiders engaging with live music. I think [my program] is also a response to the devastation to the music industry from the lockout laws – it was serious devastation, over 250 live music venues [gone]. It’s changed us as Sydneysiders.”

Her new role collided with the pandemic, which has undoubtedly reconfigured the desires and interests of audiences while creating a whole new set of challenges for artists. “I think this is a really interesting stage of coming out of the pandemic, the ground is constantly shifting underneath you. We’re demanding more and more from each other – as good citizens to look after the planet and to move forward in a progressive, healing, considerate way,” says Ansell. “[Artists and curators need to] continue to be relevant and temporal about what they’re doing while the ground is moving.”

She watched as Wesley Enoch programmed his final festival under the shadow of the virus, and then as a growing outbreak in the city threatened to topple the event. The first major arts festival of 2021 in Australia – with a largely local program – went ahead, albeit in a smaller, quieter incarnation, with no international tourists or interstate travellers. Sydney residents turned up anyway.

She recalls watching Andrea James’s Sunshine Super Girl at the Sydney Town Hall, an epic play about the life of Evonne Goolagong Cawley, one of the country’s greatest tennis stars. She remembers the grand spectacle of the production – how the ornate Victorian interior was transformed into a tennis court, the actors twirling in crisp white sports clothes – juxtaposed with the vast, vacant auditorium. Restrictions meant just one person every four square metres, and so only a handful of patrons “peppered the seats”. Ansell was galvanised by the artists’ and audience’s fortitude “to just push on through and have a great cultural experience, regardless”.

As if the memory is a stark reminder of the precarity and potential complications that may await next year’s festival, Ansell lets out an exultant, slightly shaky laugh.

“So… fingers crossed!”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 20, 2021 as "Ghosts of parties past".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Isabella Trimboli is a Melbourne-based culture writer.