Date: December 31 2012
IT SOUNDS like a tough ask to expect a rubber duck - even one 15 metres high - to open the Sydney Festival and entertain an audience for two hours.
The incoming director, Lieven Bertels, says there were various ways the festival could have welcomed the arrival of Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman's giant floating artwork, Rubber Duck, at Darling Harbour. But Bertels and Patrick Nolan, the director of The Arrival, one of three free outdoor events featured in Day One: An Opening in Three Acts, opted for the most difficult.
''We could have inflated the duck overnight but we thought it would be way more spectacular and fun to show off the size of the duck by physically swinging open Pyrmont Bridge, which is a logistical nightmare,'' Bertels says. ''That's what the Sydney Festival is good at: creating logistical nightmares and solving them.''
The opening of Pyrmont Bridge and the monorail line to allow the five storey-high artwork to bob into Cockle Bay is only one part of the two-hour family-friendly show Nolan devised as part of the scaled-back opening of the Sydney Festival on Saturday.
Nolan has marshalled a cast of more than 100 performers - including a brass band, didgeridoo and saxophone ensembles, TaikOz drummers and an alphornist - to tell the story of a young boy's search for a duck to bathe with. The show also features 21 boat skippers, nine tugboats, four trampolines, 3000 little ducks, bathtubs and a 138-metre wide floating stage.
Nolan says the show opens with acrobats and 30 saxophone players performing a ''quackophony'' as the hunt begins for the boy's bath toy. Bigger ducks appear as a flotilla of tug boats perform an aquatic ballet - a world-first, Nolan says - before the Sydney Philharmonia VOX Choir lead the audience in the bathtime song Ode to a Duck.
''The challenge of using the site is it's effectively all water,'' he says. ''It's a natural amphitheatre but the stage area is all water.''
The show is being staged on a budget severely diminished by Destination NSW's withdrawal of funding for the opening of the Sydney Festival. Nolan says he does not believe Day One will be inferior to previous years' Festival First Night events, which in 2012 included an eight-hour concert by a DJ in a double-decker bus parked in Hyde Park, a spectacular aerial performance on a vertical stage in College Street and concerts in Elizabeth Street and the Domain attended by an estimated 200,000 people.
''It's a completely different idea,'' he says. ''Festival First Night was a huge party in which the whole city closed down. This is a family event to welcome an enormous art piece. I think comparisons are silly, really.''
Nolan says the idea behind Hofman's Rubber Duck is to remind people of the innocence and playfulness of childhood. ''I think that's something that pretty much even the most diehard cynic will respond to.''
Bertels says family-friendly shows can be cheesy: ''It's weird that we prevent children from seeing so much and create cotton-wool performing arts when the world around us is so edgy and rough.''
However, the festival director says he entrusted The Arrival to Nolan, who also heads the aerial theatre company Legs on the Wall, because of his track record of creating beautiful spectacles that have substance and high production values. ''He understands what it is to work with a tight budget,'' Bertels adds.
Legs on the Wall features in the festival's About an Hour series of stage shows at Carriageworks in Eveleigh. Nolan's Symphony features four acrobatic performers flinging themselves around to the sound of guitarist Stefan Gregory's reimagining of Beethoven's seventh symphony performed live. Nolan says the show, which opens on January 11, was inspired by the composer and ''the emotional world that listening to a symphony conjures''.
Symphony was first performed as part of the Northern Rivers Performing Arts season in Lismore in November and features work by video artist Andrew Wholley. Nolan says Wholley's imagery explores the idea of community. ''Is it an apartment block, a group of people in a park?'' he asks. ''What does a graffitied wall mean? We looked to the urban environment as our inspiration.''
The Arrival is at Darling Harbour on Saturday from 2pm to 4pm.
Symphony is at Carriageworks from January 11 to 16.
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