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Summer Festivals Enliven Sydney

From theater and concerts to fireworks and ferry races, the city pulses with performances

IF you picked the wrong time to cross George St., you might have seen the person next to you get his hair shaved off during the "walk" signal. Or if you walked through the Circular Quay to catch a ferry, your small child might have been "gobbled" by a strange figure in black Lycra.

Such were the hazards of Sydney this month. This was the wild-and-woolly Sydney Festival & Carnavale, during which the city pulses with street theater, circuses, drama, dance, opera, fireworks, outdoor concerts, a writers' festival, a ferry race, and more.

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The Carnavale is New South Wales's celebration of multiculturalism, featuring a world premiere by the internationally acclaimed Aboriginal Islander Dance Company, a family day at Redfern Park (with Aboriginal and contemporary Australian acts), and international food and festivities for Chinese New Year.

And this year, the Biennale of Sydney, the nation's largest and most prestigious exhibition of international contemporary art (see accompanying story), coincides with the other festivals. The state government decreed that the three festivals join forces, partly to blend fund-raising. But the fact that the International Olympic Committee is visiting Sydney (which is bidding on the 2000 Olympics) may also have had something to do with it.

January used to be a somnambulant month: kids on summer holiday, parents on vacation, factories and shops closed. It is said you could practically hear the flies drone.

Then the Sydney Opera House was built in 1973 - the country's first performing-arts venue that was air-conditioned. That opened up all sorts of possibilities. The Sydney Festival was started in 1977 to bring a little life to January - for both retailers and residents.

"People had to be reeducated," says Stephen Hall, general manager of the Sydney Festival for all of its 17 years. "From once being the dullest, most uneventful period, it's now the busiest. People learned they could spend the day on the beach and then come to the theater at night and be in comfort. Now the festival brings in A$44 million [US$29.9 million] in tourist dollars."

One of the biggest attractions is the series of outdoor concerts held on a huge public lawn called the Domain. The concerts - "Australia-made" (country-western and popular singers), an opera, a symphony, and a jazz concert - draw upwards of 100,000 people, some of whom travel hundreds of miles to attend.

Twenty-five performing groups have been commissioned to engage the public when it least expects it. That's where the masked "gobblers" and the haircutters (who only cut one another's hair) come in. This year, ballroom dancers on stilts will spoof the smash Australian film, "Strictly Ballroom," in "Strictly Elevated."

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But it's not all silly. Two stage productions worth mentioning are British actress Barbara Ewing's one-woman show and "Streets of Crocodiles" by Britain's Theatre de Complicite.

The Ewing show recounts the life of Alexandra Kollontai, the only woman in Lenin's inner circle, and the terror and glory of the Russian Revolution. Ms. Kollontai, an eloquent fighter for women's rights, was the only member of Lenin's cabinet to survive Stalin's purge. Aware that she was a state official only to gain the support of women, Kollontai nonetheless gave up everything for the Party, remaining loyal even after officials killed her lover and betrayed her.

Ms. Ewing's dynamic performance, reminiscent of an exultant Vanessa Redgrave, makes this not a bad way to imbibe history. But as theater, the massive amount of historical data is confusing, and the dramatic thread is snarled.

Thtre de Complicite also obliquely deals with oppression and menace. "Streets of Crocodiles" is an improvised blending of several stories by Bruno Schulz, a Polish Jew who was shot by the Nazis. An ominous Eastern European atmosphere overlays the play, much like the smoke that greets the audience. The focus is not on the plot, which involves a shy schoolteacher, his beloved but eccentric father (who hatches the eggs of exotic birds in the attic), and a tough-minded servant girl/temptress.

The heart of the play is the kaleidoscope of powerful images: Books flap like birds; upended chairs be-come roots pushing up in spring; and a man walks down a wall. As schoolteacher Joseph reads one of the banned books that he has been hired by the Nazis to sort for destruction, he "reads" characters into existence.

As the characters slowly emerge from trunks, out of walls, up through garbage cans, they are also reading books. In perhaps the most stunning moment, the pale Joseph is passed from lap to lap in a kind of traveling fetal embrace.

It's a lively, muscular troupe, and it's easy to see why Royal Shakespeare Company founder Sir Peter Hall says of them, "If any company is going to change the future of European theater, it is this company."

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