Top Picks of the 2023 Sydney Festival

AAR-Stephanie-Lake-Manifesto-photo-by-Sam-RobertsSydney Festival returns this January to give the city its sizzle with an exhilarating line-up of vibrant ideas, irrepressible creativity, remarkable talent and pure summertime revelry across 25 days from 5 January 2023.

Playing host to its largest line-up of international artists since 2019, the second program from Artistic Director Olivia Ansell features 18 World Premieres and 14 Australian Exclusives from across a full program of over 100 unique events featuring 748 performances traversing 54 venues.

With so much on, Australian Arts Review takes a look at fifteen events worth checking out:

Carriageworks: 5 – 8 January
After a dazzling premiere in the 2022 Holland Festival, Sydney Chamber Opera will perform Antarctica on home soil, featuring renowned Dutch new music ensemble, Asko | Schönberg. The cartographer, the natural scientist and the philosopher – three archetypes from the Age of Discovery – set sail for the last great wilderness. Their sepia past meets a vivid future on the frozen plains of Antarctica in a magnificent new opera by Mary Finsterer (composer) and Tom Wright (librettist). Director Imara Savage, designers Elizabeth Gadsby and Alexander Berlage, and filmmaker Mike Daly have realised a beautiful and enthralling vision that amplifies the filmic experience of the opera – transcending space, time and memory.

The Huxleys: Bloodlines
Carriageworks: continues to 5 March
Bloodlines is multi art form exhibition which honour and worship legendary artists lost to HIV/AIDS. A loving tribute to the many influential voices silenced by the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s and 90’s. The Huxleys work evokes the colourful rebellious and creative spirit of these queer saints. Outwardly LGBTIQA+ artists that helped shift the worlds of queer art and culture into new realms. The work pays a heartfelt debt to artists who paved the way and informed and inspired the practices of The Huxleys and countless other artists working today. Utilising their skills of costume design, performance and photography, The Huxleys work is designed as a joyous sparkling séance, celebrating queer excellence. Interpreting each artist’s influence and oeuvre in a uniquely Huxley fashion. Curated by Jacob Boehme, the exhibition will feature large scale photographic work, video art, music, and a huge queer performative celebration.

Belvoir St Theatre: 14 – 29 January
Getting older is inevitable but growing up takes courage. A tender, exquisite monologue written and performed by rising star Thomas Weatherall, Blue by Thomas Weatherall takes us deep into the beauty, and sadness, of a young life at its new beginning. When Mark moved out of home for the first time his mum started writing him letters – just checking in, staying in touch, keeping a gentle hold on her son. Until one letter brought news no-one wants to hear. Alone in his apartment, Mark needs to make some sense of the path of his young life. He needs to work out how to go on with the day, his studies, the fragility of living. He needs us to hear his story, and the story of his family.

Erth’s Shark Dive
Australian Maritime Museum: continues to 29 January
Ever wanted to dive with Sharks and been too afraid? Don’t be! Come close to the Great White without getting wet at a new shark cage dive experience at the AM, created by world-renowned puppeteers, Erth. Plunge into the world of sharks and choose your own audio adventure as you dive below the surface and come face-to-face with these majestic creatures – will your performance soundtrack have you marvel in awe at their serene beauty, or be a high-energy, thrill-filled escapade? The decision is yours. No diving experience needed, but keep your eyes peeled and your mind open.

Frida Kahlo: The Life of an Icon
The Cutaway at Barangaroo: continues to 7 March
Journey through the life of one of the most influential artists of all time. For the first time in Australia, a unique biographical exhibition allows you to better understand Frida Kahlo, the woman whose perseverance, rebellion and talent placed her eons ahead of her time. Co-created by the Frida Kahlo Corporation and the renowned Spanish digital arts company Layers of Reality, this multi-sensory experience features nine transformational spaces, from collections of historical photographs and original films, captivating holography, 360º projections and a virtual reality system that will literally transport you inside Kahlo’s most famous works.

Kicks Tenpin & Arcade – Parramatta Leagues Club: 18 – 22 January
Head down to the bowling alley for an inspiring, involving and highly original all-ages dance work. Adelaide’s award-winning company Restless Dance Theatre brings its movement magic straight to the heart of a Sydney games arcade for a family day out with a difference. Performed across the lanes and around the audience, Guttered is both captivating and playful as it explores the power of making one’s own mistakes, and the ways people living with disability are often over-protected. You’re right amongst the choreography as glowing bowling bags breathe stories in your ears and bodies break free and hurl themselves down the lanes in this evocative expression of life with the gutter guards down. Directed by Michelle Ryan, artistic director of Restless Dance Theatre and recipient of the 2020 Australia Council Dance Award, Guttered boasts a dynamic score, magical lighting and creative use of space. We’re pretty sure Kicks Tenpin and Arcade has never hosted anything quite like it.

Holding Achilles
Carriageworks: 19 – 22 January
Adopted by Achilles’ father, Patroclus initially faces hostility from the young hero. But thrust together to train under the centaur Chiron, a friendship develops, which deepens as Achilles becomes the legend he was destined to be. But war with Troy is brewing and the two young men are caught between their hopes for a future together and the brutal realities of a bloody conflict. Written by David Morton, this beautifully crafted co-production from Sydney physical theatre virtuosos Legs On The Wall and Brisbane visual theatre masterminds Dead Puppet Society is an innovative interpretation of one of the great mythic stories, turning a magnifying glass toward one of its central relationships, so often downplayed or ignored. Featuring daring aerial work, exquisite puppetry and set to a haunting score performed live by Sydney singer/songwriter Montaigne and composed with Tony Buchen and Chris Bear (Grizzly Bear), this epic adaptation of Homer’s Iliad blends heightened physicality and powerful design to weave a story of mythic proportions with queer heroes at its heart.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: Call to the Morning
Strickland Estate, Vaucluse: Saturday 7 January – 05.30am
An intimate music experience overlooking Sydney Harbour as the first rays of the day greet the city skyline… what a way to start the day. Located on the lush lawns of Strickland Estate in Vaucluse, with panoramic views across to the city, Call to the Morning features an ambient performance by American composer and synth authority Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, who will play songs from her immersive, otherworldly albums Ears, The Kid and Mosaic of Transformation. Arriving in darkness for Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s dawn performance, the audience will welcome a new summer’s day in a perfect state of calm and reflection, stepping away from the intensity of the city to consider it from a gauzy distance

Maho Magic Bar
Tumbalong Park, Darling Harbour: 6 – 29 January
To enter the dazzling Maho Magic Bar is to find yourself in an intimate, gorgeously bespoke space in which your every sense will be stimulated. Take a seat, select a drink and be ready to disbelieve your eyes as Japan’s leading close-up magicians and sleight-of-hand specialists perform exclusive magic shows at your table. You’ll see these masters at work at point blank range, putting a wild contemporary spin on magic traditions that date back to Japan’s Edo period. Shirayuri is the pin-up boy pioneer whose tricks come with a storytelling twist; Kaori Kitazawa is the kawaii princess of illusion, tearing up the rulebook in a profession traditionally ruled by men; Sarito is quite possibly the craziest close-up magician on the planet (his hectic repertoire includes needles and gaffer tape), whilst everything FISM (International Federation of Magic Societies) winner Jonio touches turns to gold – even that freaky beard of his. Rounding out this troupe of tricksters is master of ceremonies and cheek, Sho.

Carriageworks: 12 – 15 January
Stephanie Lake Company returns to Sydney with another unforgettable feast for your eyes and ears. In Manifesto, Lake – one of the most innovative choreographers to emerge in Australia in the last decade – brings together nine dancers and nine drummers on nine kits in an explosive ‘tattoo to optimism’, rooted in the ancient and frankly unbeatable symbiosis of dancing and percussion. Composed by Robin Fox and featuring some of Australia’s finest drummers, Manifesto builds and builds over an enthralling hour, whipping Lake’s fearless dancers into an exhilarating and irresistible celebration of human creativity and spirit. Rich with innovative visual compositions, complex rhythms and deliciously unpredictable choreography, Manifesto is a work to raise the spirit and rattle the bones.

Paradise or the Impermanence of Ice Cream
Lennox Theatre – Parramatta Riverside Theatres: 17 – 22 January
Kutisar is dead, and lost between paradise and hell. A cantankerous vulture keeps harassing him, and a lover from his past holds the key to his salvation. On an existential post-mortem journey to correct mistakes of his past, Kutisar joins the feisty Meera on a madcap quest to save the critically endangered vultures that play a vital role in Parsi sky burials. Inspired by Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning treatise The Denial of Death, and infused with laughter, Paradise… blows your mind while melting your heart faster than an ice cream on a Mumbai summer day. Supported by an immersive sound design, Jacob Rajan (The Jungle and the Sea) delivers a wildly versatile solo performance playing seven characters, including the bumbling Kutisar, the buck-toothed, now recently deceased hero of Rajan’s beloved The Guru of Chai. Loaded with warmth and depth, Paradise… is a moving production that melds a dash of Bollywood disco and playful puppetry with thought-provoking musings on the eternal afterlife, the looming extinction of India’s sacred vulture’s, and the beauty and value of the fleeting and ephemeral.

Paul Capsis in Dry My Tears
The Nielson – ACO: 13 – 15 January
An intimate and personal acoustic evening with the inimitable Paul Capsis, sensitively backed by The Song Company’s Francis Greep on grand piano. A typically larger than life performer is stripped backed, revealing the raw vocal power and sizzling charisma we know and love. Capsis interprets cabaret, jazz and ragtime classics by Kurt Weill (The Threepenny Opera), John Kander (Cabaret), Billy Joel, Elton John, Melody Gardot, Johnny Mercer and more, with influences from Marianne Faithfull, Jimmy Scott and Nina Simone. Capsis and Greep selected the song program to take the audience on a journey through a story of Capsis’s life: of love gained, love lost, and strength found again. Capsis says, with trademark wickedness, “razorblades will be provided.”

Carriageworks: continues to 26 February
A major new immersive installation by one of Australia’s most provocative multidisciplinary artists. Paul Yore’s work engages with the histories of religious art and ritual, queer identity, pop-culture and neo-liberal capitalism, recasting a vast array of found images, materials and texts into sexually and politically loaded tableaux and sculptural assemblages which celebrate hybrid and fluid identities, unstable and contradictory meanings, and the glowing horizon of queer worldmaking. WORD MADE FLESH is a new architecturally-scaled installation, anarchically composed of improvised makeshift structures, mixed media sculpture and found objects, collage and assemblage, painting, video, and pulsating sound and light. Conceived as a cacophonous, kaleidoscopic ‘gesamtkunstwerk’, WORD MADE FLESH imagines a queer alternative reality, erected from the wasteland of the Anthropocene, performatively implicating itself into the debased spectacle of hyper-capitalist society.

The Weary Traveller
CTA Business Club Basement, Martin Place: 5 – 29 January
Deep in the roots of Martin Place’s iconic Seidler mushroom building, there is a hidden gem of Sydney nightlife, a buried bastion of 1970s bar culture, and your new favourite haunt after dark this summer. Unpretentious and unrenovated, history lines the walls and so does the original red carpet at The Weary Traveller, Sydney Festival’s live music takeover in a rare retro find. Enjoy 16 nights of eclectic, cutting-edge music programming across January, from punk to pop, jazz to metal, indie, ambient and plenty of opportunities for a dance. Come for the music, stay for the characters. Featuring: Alice Skye, Astral People Feat. Or:la and Elkka, Astral People Feat. Sherelle and Crescendoll, Automatic, Coloured Stone, HTRK, June Jones, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Lil Silva, Moktar, Party Dozen, Potion, Tom Snowdon and Too Birds with Bayanga (tha bushranger).

An Evening with Ursula Yovich
Wharf 1 – Sydney Theatre Company: Friday 13 January
Sink into the soulful sounds of Ursula Yovich and a live band, in an electrifying evening of song fromthe multi-award-winning performer with bassist Adam Ventura (Midnight Oil). A journey through the universal language of song, inspired by Ursula’s roots in Arnhem land

The 2023 Sydney Festival runs 5 – 29 January. For more information, and full program, visit: for details.

Image: Stephanie Lake’s Manifesto – photo by Sam Roberts