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© Neena Bhandari, Inter Press Service

ImageSydney, January 20 (IPS) – In a world beset with conflict, natural disasters and economic crisis, the 2010 Sydney Festival has been a celebration of human connectedness, bringing together 1500 artists from 30 countries performing to an audience of a million over three weeks (January 9 to 30).

At the heart of the festival, Australia’s premier art and cultural event, has been a series of free concerts by diverse artistes ranging from American legendary soul singer Al Green to Oscar-winning A R Rahman of Slumdog Millionaire fame.

As Festival Director Lindy Hume said, “This year 40 per cent of the programming budget has been spent on free events. If you're only spending money to make as much as you can, I'm not sure that there's a huge future there, because that pushes us only into the realm of the commercial”.

The festival, which has been running since 1977, is not only generous but expansive, with 81 events, 326 performances, and 27 venues. The ongoing vast programme includes traditional and contemporary musicians, dancers, trapeze artists, puppeteers, circus performers and art exhibitions with performers from countries like Britain, the United States, Canada, Japan, Papua New Guinea, Mali, Mexico and Panama.

“In 2010, we've begun to develop a deeper connection with artists from the Asia-Pacific region. The festival features major artists from the Pacific and India,” says Hume, an opera and theatre director and the first woman to steer the festival since it began in 1977.

The city, stripped of cars on the festival’s first night, opened its heart to nine hours of non-stop entertainment, with the most unexpected nook and cranny of the central business district filled with music and entertainment as saxophonists, DJs, Brazilian drummers, carnival dancers delighted a growing stream of people.

Heliosphere floats with an acrobat suspended beneath a helium balloon, creating the illusion of flying, enchanted and mystified young and old. “Floating above the crowds in Sydney, I saw beautiful parks, a buzzing city and thousands of smiling faces from all nationalities. As one of the international companies involved, I felt part of a global community. The festival is a dynamic, vibrant celebration of Australia’s cosmopolitan lifestyle,” said British choreographer and aerialist Robyn Simpson.

Often thought to be obsessed with sport and the beach, Australians have been coming out in thousands to celebrate art and culture drawn from diverse communities. As Nigel Jamieson, Creative Director, Sydney Festival First Night, told IPS,  “Compared to other cities in the world, what makes Sydney so special for such events is the confluence of three elements – the city’s wonderful physical beauty,  the gorgeous Sydney summer nights, and the love the people of Sydney have for getting out and celebrating together”.

An emotive performance by Australia's master of shadow puppetry, Raymond Crowe, brought a touch of magic with his astounding and intricate shadow puppet rendition of Louis Armstrong's `What A Wonderful World’, which was projected on to the top storeys of the Law Courts building. The tiny fingers signifying an individual and the huge projections representing the global world we live in.

At Hyde Park, fig trees have been adorned with silks and colourful kites, which set the tone for the Festival first night centrepiece, The Manganiyar Seduction, a spectacular performance by India’s Rajasthani musicians directed by Roysten Abel.

The set design is inspired by the windows of Amsterdam’s red light district. Each of the 43 musicians are seated in veiled compartments framed by carnival lights, which open one by one to reveal a solo or two musicians leading to a crescendo of instruments and voices unfolding into a lush spectacle of melody, rhythm and song. It received a standing ovation from a mesmerised audience.

“I hope the music transcends borders. I know the Manganiyar’s music heals. It has been healing for centuries. I feel any good performance should affect the energies of this universe and this music does it. It just touches you deep within. The music takes people through an experience and they are awed by the spectacle of it”, Abel told IPS.

Multiple Grammy award winner Al Green kicked off his first Australian concert, holding the crowd in rapture in a performance that was very much a family affair, with his daughters Alva, Ruby and Cora providing backup vocals.

Also well received was the show by ‘Uber Lingua’, which focuses on cutting-edge music, targeting the younger generation and promoting the use of mother tongues or learned languages. The group is a movement of artists and musicians based in various Australian cities.

“So many languages today are getting pushed to the side among the younger people. Once they hear a cool Hip Hop track with a verse in a language their grandmother speaks, they start to understand that what they have is so important it needs to be kept alive,” Brendan Palmer, director of Uber Lingua, told IPS.

“For six years ‘Uber Lingua’ has promoted cultural harmony through global music, dance and visual arts parties in Australia. It's a methodology that subliminally sends the message that we can all party together and enjoy each other’s music and culture,” added the Irish-Australian musician, who wants to promote Australia as a place with so much more than what can be perceived from the outside as a White Anglo dominated society.

January is summer holiday time in Australia and there was much for young art lovers.  As George Ellis, Musical Director, Australian Children’s Music Foundation (ACMF) which performed on the first night told IPS: “Children see the world from a wonderful perspective. They understand adult conflicts and know our troubled world but can’t, or don’t want to, always relate to this. They see things from a different angle and that is why it is very important that they have a voice and an opportunity to express themselves. The ACMF National Song writing competition gives young people this outlet through music composition”.

The verse from 15-year-old Jenny McKechnie’s song called Beyond the Eucalypts is particularly profound and insightful.  “….But it’s all time, it takes you by the hand and leads you onwards in your life where you may go; and if you stand by it will gladly age your bones until they have years your mind doesn’t know, so here I go.”

Aside from fun and entertainment, the festival, which concludes on Jan. 30, also offers intellectual stimulation. A series of discussions brings together artists, policy makers, academics, and other intellectuals to talk about their fears and aspirations.

© Copyright Neena Bhandari. All rights reserved. Republication, copying or using information from any content is expressly prohibited without  the permission of the writer and the news agency through which the article is syndicated.
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