For over 60,000 years Sydney has known how to hold a festival. Early recorded encounters between colonists and the First Australians talk of dancing, song and ceremony happening throughout the Sydney area.
In what is now The Domain, the written record describes events and ceremony occurring as clans gathered to perform non-sacred dances and songs for the enjoyment of both locals and the recently arrived. Governor John Hunter, who looked after the colony from 1795 to 1800, wrote of the music and song of the women reaching Government House from Bennelong Point where they fished and paddled out in canoes. The shell middens around the Sydney area are reported as being up to 12 meters high and more like shell monuments to the gathering of clans as they feasted and discarded the cockle shells.
This long trajectory of communal gathering and celebration perhaps explains why Sydney has a reputation for being a party city.
Festivals are a core component of global cultures throughout history. A festival to celebrate a specific event like a harvest or holy day is common across cultures. These have evolved and altered dramatically over time: one only has to consider Christmas to see an example of a festival transformed through the ages. From observing a religious event through ecclesiastical ceremonies to the modern, mostly secular feasting, gift exchange and family gatherings that Christmas has become.
Halloween has gone through a similar progression from All Saints Day and Allhallowtide and before then the more pagan festivals of gods and goddesses of death and life, or the developments of South America’s Day of the Dead, into a commercially led event.
Festivals keep changing to reflect the changing attitudes and interests of the people who celebrate them. There is something in the large gathering of people coming together in a united way to celebrate and focus civic identity that builds and binds communities of a great city.
After the tragedies of WW2 that saw almost a million Australians serve and over 30,000 die, post-war Australia was keen to bind communities through civic events and rituals. Record crowds gathered to see Queen Elizabeth in 1954, prompting city leaders to create festivals: Moomba in 1955 in Melbourne, Waratah Festival in 1956 in Sydney and Warana in 1961 in Brisbane. The Waratah Festival was held in October and was conceived to breathe cultural life into the city centre, including beauty pageants, a parade (fabled to involve over 5,000 people), flower shows and plethora of community activities. This festival continued until the opening of the Sydney Opera House in 1973. There are reports that the Waratah Festival ceased due to the withdrawal of sponsors, waning public interest and reports of the whole thing becoming boring and tacky. Maybe it had overstayed its purpose? Or maybe it had stopped evolving with the times? Whatever the cause, the Waratah Festival was soon replaced by the Festival of Sydney in 1977, which was established by the Sydney Committee and owned by the city council. The Festival of Sydney continued many of the Waratah traditions with equestrian events, dog shows, outdoor concerts and an ever growing program of cultural and civic events.
Jump to today, and the modern Sydney Festival reflects this long history with over 150 separate events stretching the width and breadth of this expanding city, including free and ticketed shows and exhibitions, and boasting an attendance of well over 500,000 Sydneysiders and visitors. Many other smaller festivals have sprung up, and Sydney now has a cultural calendar full of festivals. It seems clear why Sydney is known as the City of Festivals.
Sydney Festival is one of the largest cultural festivals in the country and has inherited four very distinct personalities that drive its programming.
- The Heritage Festival highlights things we have been doing for a very long time and people have come to expect year on year—the large outdoor events, the free concerts, the Ferrython.
- The Summer Festival offers the chance to enjoy the city in summer by having a drink in the parks, being outdoors, enjoying time with friends and family.
- The International Arts Festival brings Sydney the best of the world and the country to expose us to what is going on and how what we are doing fits into a global picture.
- The Festival of Disruption and Change prototypes new ways of engaging with the city and helps existing organisations and arts companies to go beyond their limitations.
Sydney Festival works with every cultural body in the city to explore new relationships and dream big. Cultural ambition is what motivates many artists, but often the resources are not equal to the ambitions and hence collaboration is key to realising projects that are bigger than the groups who are undertaking them. Works like Cloudstreet, Secret River, Black Diggers or the work of Force Majeure are examples where Sydney Festival has collaborated with artists to support their vision.
There has been a huge growth in festivals in Sydney in recent years for a variety of reasons. Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, started in 1978, rose from modest beginnings to become an internationally recognised example of Sydney’s acceptance and celebrated diversity. Carnivale, Parramasala, Corroboree and Lunar New Year have issued invitations to the city to celebrate the diverse range of cultures that populate Sydney. Over the years, venues like the Sydney Opera House and Carriageworks have been successful in creating and hosting festivalised programming streams to extend the impact in a particular field of cultural endeavour, such as the Festival of Dangerous Ideas.
These festivals have provided the opportunity to group together existing offerings whilst speaking directly with the general public about a body of work. Or in other cases they build momentum to capture and galvanise organisations and audiences around a cultural ambition that is not being addressed in other ways. Sometimes these festivals will come and go riding a wave of community interest or the skills of the individuals involved. Sometimes a festival fulfills its purpose and transforms into something new.
The role of the Sydney Festival is to be constantly prototyping the new and exploring exciting developments. Sydney Festival must continue to evolve, to show the way forward, to inspire. Up until 1996 the New Year’s Eve fireworks were the responsibility of Sydney Festival before becoming their own entity. After years of Sydney Festival concerts in The Domain, it is no accident that there is now a constant stream of commercial concerts and festivals occurring in that space. Light installations, experimental music and large scale projections all were prototyped through Sydney Festival before leading to the establishment of the spectacular Vivid Festival in 2009. In a city of festivals, Sydney Festival has the role of thought leader, provocateur, elder statesman, risk-taker and reliable old friend.
What will the festivals of the future look like in a world where the digital and virtual technologies are leading us into amazing social changes? How will we organise ourselves as a community 50 years from now? Will the reasons for festivals still exist in the future?
Whatever the future holds, I believe festivals will be at the forefront of stimulating our communities to think about what is over the horizon, to test and to provide a vocabulary for future cultural developments. Like the early exchanges of song and dance between the first Sydneysiders and the clans of the Eora, Sydney Festival continues a legacy of cultural adventure and continuity, contributing to building a stronger and more vibrant community in which to live.