Fergus Linehan is about to enter the busiest month of his year as festival director of the Sydney Festival. However, don’t be too surprised if he is spotted in the coming weeks swimming lengths of Bronte Beach as regularly as meeting and greeting in theatre foyers across the city.

It’s Linehan’s first Sydney Festival, and he knows many will be watching his every move as a range of events open across the city. January in Sydney is Festival time, so the heat is on, and Linehan admits he does have moments of panic.

I used to be a competitive swimmer and it is like that feeling just before a race when you have that sickness in your stomach, the Irishman says. This time is like that now.

I still swim most days as it is the best way to clear my head. I think I am going to need it -“ but I also think if you don’t swim in this city, then you are crazy.

Linehan, 37, moved to Australia in late 2004 with his young family from Dublin, where he had been the director of the Dublin Festival since 2000.

In moving to Sydney to take up the prestigious post with the Sydney Festival, Linehan follows in the footsteps of Brett Sheehy, who enjoyed a successful and popular three-year reign in the position.

Linehan began work on the Festival in early 2004 when his appointment was made. With 18 months of planning on his side, he says the show is ready to go  on -“ his way.

In the first year, you want to deliver a lot of the baseline things and a lot of the effort goes into that, he says. I think I am a populist at heart and I probably gravitate towards art which is more celebratory and more to do with pleasure and joy.

Ideally you create something which is of a very high standard, but has a degree of informality to it. There is a lot of smoke and mirrors put up around music, dance and theatre, which is so unnecessary. It doesn’t mean if you break them down, which is what is being attempted, it is in any way lessened.

Then with a laugh, he adds: It is probably a bit more rock and roll and more casual, but with all the intellectual rigour you would necessarily expect with an international arts festival.

Taking centre stage of this year’s Festival are the Domain concerts, with jazz featured on 14 January in A Tribute To New Orleans, and the symphony and showtunes making a musical marriage with Gershwin’s World on 21 January.

Hyde Park North will also come to life with light and images in Tony Oursler’s Blue Invasion, which will create what is being billed as a psycho landscape among the trees and paths of the city park. I hope it is something like a guerrilla tactic, with people just coming across it in the middle of the night, Linehan laughs.

Other visual art events include Glue Your Brain at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the video installations of Sherin Neshat at the Art Gallery of NSW and photographic works of tenant by tenant at the Museum of Sydney.

Highlights of the theatre offerings include Robert Lepage’s The Anderson Project at the Sydney Theatre, the Norwegian song and dance piece The Department at The Playhouse at the Opera House, circus theatre wunderkind James Thi??in Bright Abyss at the Theatre Royal, the UK hit Tristan And Yseult at the Seymour Centre, and an all-male reinterpretation of Twelfth Night in Russian at the Theatre Royal.

Tristan And Yseult will be a seriously popular piece because I have seen that go off all over the place, Linehan says. It is the kind of piece that will send you skipping out into the night, putting you on a complete high.

Twelfth Night should be a stormer of a show. The play is the ultimate gender-bending play because it is all about women who dress up as men and then fall in love with men -“ and then you subvert that by having an all-male cast. This show is subverting all kinds of things, but it is done with a lightness of touch.

The music line-up of this year’s Festival includes the first Australian performance of Antony and The Johnsons at the State Theatre, Portuguese fado singer Mariza at the Concert Hall of the Opera House, the return of 1980s cult band The Go-Betweens at Sydney Theatre, and Elvis Costello in three different shows, including one with the Sydney Symphony, at both the Concert Hall and the City Recital Hall.

On one hand, we have shows which are known and people love them wherever they play in the world, and then there are lots of unknowns which are also particularly exciting as I can’t wait to see audiences’ responses to them, Linehan says.

Having Antony and The Johnsons doing their first ever full Australian gig is just amazing and, as I am a real fan, Elvis Costello in concert will be brilliant.

The dance shows of the Festival include the two Australian works I Want To Dance Better At Parties by Chunky Move at Riverside at Parramatta and Splinter Group’s lawn at the Drama Theatre at the Opera House. From France and the UK are Sylvie Guillem and George Piper Dances at the Sydney Theatre.

This Festival is very specific about what summer and January means to people in this city, Linehan observes. This city in January is very different to any other time of the year, and what this [the Festival] is about is capturing that mood and enjoying a very special time in the city.

It is about people finding themselves in a busy urban centre for a holiday period, so we are animating that in a way which is relevant for urban people.

For more information visit the Sydney Festival website. Bookings through Festival Ticketek on 9266 4890.


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