There isn’t a huge amount known about new Sydney Festival director Lieven Bertels, a man who prefers to let art speak for itself. Nevertheless, it was hard to miss a recent full-page ad for his Director’s Cut, shot by photographer Helen White, featuring Bertels, clad in a skin-tight black latex T-shirt and equally snug canary yellow pants, staring nonchalantly down the barrel of the lens, while a globe, guitar and various theatrical paraphernalia spilt from the bright red filing cabinets behind him. “That’s just another day in the office for me,” he says. “I live in this universe between 2001: A Space Odyssey, Superman and A Clockwork Orange,” he chuckles. “How can you make it happen if you don’t have that wild visual?”
That “wild visual” isn’t immediately apparent when you meet the man, a slightly intense, cerebral and engaging 41-year-old who hails from Belgium but is calling Sydney home for the next few years. Bertels’ 23-day festival, which kicks off on January 5, mixes the highbrow with the fun and accessible, a program he feels reflects the city itself. “Sydney Festival has a reputation for being a unique combination of broad entertainment and high art, which is not something we see in European festivals a lot,” he says. “One of the things that really strikes you if you come from somewhere else is the way this city has embraced diversity; it seems like a real Sydney thing to be able to celebrate and come together.”
Bertels comes to Sydney following seven years as artistic co-ordinator of the Holland Festival, where he was acclaimed for his programming of contemporary music, opera and non-Western work. Before that, he was artistic director of a performing arts venue in Bruges, but he is perhaps most famous for emptying his piggy bank to back a then-unknown musical British quartet known as the Hilliard Ensemble. The concert sold out and, in the process, Bertels realised he’d found his calling, drawing a great deal of satisfaction from the process of wrangling the various creative, logistical and administrative strands underlying the production and presentation of a major gig, from fundraising to venue planning. Given his musical background (he studied Musicology at the University of Leuven), it’s no surprise to learn he is a keen, albeit shy saxophonist.
Bertels fell for the harbour city when he travelled to Sydney for the 2008 Biennale, co-curated by fellow Belgian Catherine de Zegher. He and his family squeezed in some sightseeing while they were here and when the three-year Sydney Festival gig came up, it wasn’t a hard sell.
Bertels believes his “good phonebook” and connection and interest in Asia may have helped him secure the job as festival director. He hopes to build on the legacies left by previous festival directors Lindy Hume, with her particular focus on indigenous work, and Fergus Linehan who added an edgy contemporary feel. “We’re upping the quality of some of the presentations, bringing back opera and visual art as much as possible – certainly things that should have a place in a big international arts festival,” he says.
Almost all the shows in the 2013 festival feature live music, something Bertels is justifiably proud of. This year. the festival bar – renamed Paradiso – moves to a new home in the Sydney Town Hall, transforming an historic building into a rock venue channelling the iconic Paradiso in Amsterdam, which has played host to the likes of the Rolling Stones and Tom Waits. With free entry after 11.30pm, the nightly line-up ranges from Malian singer Rokia Traore to New Yorker Nicolas Jaar and Japanese funk soul band Osaka Monaurail.
Bertels insists every Sydneysider should visit the Spiegeltent – another Belgian import – with its magnificently plush, mirrored interiors hosting intimate shows such as local performers Strut & Fret’s erotic, decadent acrobatic act Cantina and Spain’s rock ‘n’ roll flamenco band Los Coronas. Other shows around town include Irish-meets-West African contemporary dance show Rian and the former Colombian street kids-turned-circus performers Circolombia, whose show Urban received rave reviews in Paris and the West End.
Bertels is pleased with the eclectic line-up, which also includes free family entertainment such as Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman's 15-metre Rubber Duck, which will be floating around on Darling Harbour for duration of the festival. “I promised them I’d shake it up a little” he says, “and I think that’s what we’ll see.”