What are you doing for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays? At this time of year, that question is passed around like gifts under a tinselled Balsam fir. Some have modest plans like family visits, others have extravagant getaways underway but many people are still unsure.

When the new Director of Sydney Festival Lieven Bertels is asked he peers at his desk piled with work and knows exactly what he’s doing. ‘The whole festival team can’t pay too much attention to Christmas. We’ve got a little party to organise just after that,’ the Belgian native explains.  

Sydney Festival is anything but little. A three-week summer celebration of the arts, the 2013 edition of the festival features 92 events, working out to be 360 performances, with over 53 venues involved and over 750 artists coming from over 20 countries.

While 2013 will be the first festival under Bertels’ guidance, he’s no stranger to Sydney or the Australian arts scene. In his role as Artistic Coordinator of Holland Festival in Amsterdam, Bertels encountered our own festival stalwarts like Robyn Archer and Brett Sheehy, both of whom he mentions having known for a long time.  

‘I knew quite a few of the major people in festivals and performing arts here, either by working with them as artists or meeting them in various capacities. I’d been to Sydney and I thought this might be a place that I’d love to work.’

It inevitably was. Bertels has been ‘the guy lurking behind the trees’ since he bid Europe au revoir in December 2011. From his backstage vantage point he carefully watched the work of Lindy Hume, his predecessor, which was ‘a great way to get to know the team and the city’ while also searching for ways to ‘weave a local story into the basket full of ideas’ he touched down with.

Despite the inevitable need to lure big international productions, of which there are many in 2013, that local story is at the heart of his programming strategy. ‘It’s very important to me. Contrary to the obvious, “Oh he’s European so local companies are going to find it difficult”, whenever I curate festivals I take pride in first and foremost looking at opportunities to combine local and international,’ he explains.

This year there has been debate in the arts about whether major festivals actually serve the local artistic community or decrease opportunities for Australian practitioners. This is something that Bertels is keenly aware of. ‘What’s interesting is the festivalisation of the landscape. Everything is called a festival and everyone feels like they have to cash in. It’s a question of offer and demand and we have to be careful the whole sector delivers a sustainable amount of tickets,’ he explains.

According to Destination NSW, there are around 4 million tickets in the Sydney market between now and March, including commercial music festivals and pop concerts, but still the figure is staggering. In order for everyone to get a take of the door, major festivals need to work with arts venues and companies. ‘We have to think of a sustainable model and make more collaborations so there will be a chance for small initiatives and start-ups. Sydney Festival is robust, but what about all the smaller organisations and theatre groups?’

Addressing this, Bertels highlights how Sydney Festival and local acts, venues and organisations can benefit by mutual involvement. ‘Look at Concrete and Bone Sessions for instance,’ he says, speaking of local company Branch Nebula’s production that sees theatre, dance and urban street sports staged at a suburban skate bowl. ‘That’s a really top international work – I already see interest from international presenters. But it’s a local company. We need companies like them but to give [Concrete and Bone] the production values and international context and visibility – that’s where the festival comes in.’

Another instance of the festival working with the local arts scene is contemporary circus work, URBAN by Circolombia. This internationally revered production debuted at London’s Roundhouse Theatre before sell-out shows in New York and France. Now Riverside Theatre in Parramatta will host this major piece. ‘Nobody else in Australia could probably bring URBAN to Parramatta and it’s that type of work that Parramatta probably wouldn’t see without Sydney Festival,’ he explains.

There’s no pretension in Bertels’ explanation. He doesn’t see himself or the festival as some kind of godsend to Sydney’s arts scene, rather he seems excited about his adopted city, speaking with the kind of passion some men reserve for their favourite football team. He talks as if he’s been part of Team Sydney since it’s inception, always saying ‘we’ when mentioning the city or the festival, never ‘I’.

One of the best ways for festival-goers to experience this mixture of the local and international is through the About an Hour series hosted at Carriageworks, which presents 45 performances of nine different works (both free and ticketed) that cover theatre, storytelling, movement and music – all programmed so five performances can be seen in one day. As an added bonus, those events that are ticketed are only $35.

‘It’s really like a festival within a festival. I’m very happy with that because people can make a couple of international and local discoveries in one go,’ he says.

He also indicates that programs such as About an Hour are important in enticing audiences into undertaking artistic risks by seeing more than just marquee events, while also giving the performers the chance to reach more people.  

‘Those big names productions will come [to Australia] nonetheless. The big arts centres like the Arts Centre Melbourne are programming international names as well now. So we really have to fulfil a role in nurturing the next generation. That’s where the $35 ticket and one hour show allow people to say, “I’m going to take the risk and if I like it that’s a discovery but if I don’t, that’s not too bad because I have another show booked and I’ll see something else”.’

But no major international arts festival is really complete without those headline acts. Bertels mentions the new Legs on the Wall production, Symphony and Archie Roache’s Into the Bloodstream as his personal Australian picks, in the international category he’s especially excited about Semele Walk, Ludger Engels’ take on Handel’s baroque opera with couture by Vivien Westwood.

Semele Walk is something I’m very proud of. It’s going to look stellar in the Town Hall. It took a lot to convince Vivien Westwood; she was only going to do this once,’ he says. ‘It’s also perfect for Sydney. It has a nice bling factor but a lot of substance and surprise, it’s really fresh, and then to have top musicians who are real specialists on baroque instruments playing – that’s really what I’m looking forwards too.

It’s no surprise that Semele Walk is one of the five pieces included in Bertels’ personal package of international highlights, The Director’s Cut. Aside from Semele Walk, his personal picks also include Eraritjaritjaka, RIAN, URBAN, and Sing the Truth, covering everything from theatre and opera to dance, circus and music.

‘If you want to give yourself a treat for Christmas, The Director’s Cut package is the easy way to see the talk of the town.’

That takes care of things for those still unsure what they’re doing during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

This article was originally published on artshub.com.au