Captivating the Contemporary Stage: A Conversation with Ebony Bott
In the heart of the iconic Sydney Opera House, Ebony Bott orchestrates a symphony of diverse and inclusive performances that resonate with the pulse of modernity. With over 18 years of experience as a festival director, programmer, and creative producer, she has become a trailblazer in shaping the cultural landscape of Australia and New Zealand.
Helping to steer the ship through the Sydney Opera House's 50th-anniversary year, the programming for this milestone has been nothing short of ambitious, capturing the spirit of both classic and contemporary performances.
Ebony sits down with Theatre Thoughts to reflect on the marvels of the past and envisions the future for the iconic landmark in Sydney.
The Sydney Opera House has just celebrated its 50th anniversary. How does it feel to be part of this significant milestone, and how have you curated the contemporary performance program to mark this special occasion?
It has been a very special time to work at the Opera House. Over the course of the 50th anniversary year there have been many stories shared about the chapters of the building’s history. There is much to marvel at, and you get a sense of the curatorial custodians across time, and the small part we all play in the larger picture.
For the 50th anniversary, I wanted to program productions that celebrated past and present – the classic reimagined through contemporary prisms. And to be ambitious by dreaming into large scale projects that a milestone anniversary gives context to.
Amadeus was a mighty example of this. A classic play presented in the Concert Hall with the intention of creating spectacle through costumes by Romance Was Born, and incorporating Mozart’s music into the play through a roving live orchestra, the lead role performed by world renowned actor Michael Sheen and a cast of Australia’s finest theatre actors.
Bark of Millions was another big celebratory work for the 50th. Taylor Mac is one of the world’s most prolific queer performance artists, and together we presented a world-premiere staging of an ambitious song cycle that reinvents icons across time through a queer lens – the queering of history.
Tim Minchin performs 'Play It Safe' to celebrate the Sydney Opera House's 50th Anniversary
Could you share any insights into your Contemporary Performance program? What do you look for when you’re considering shows to become part of your program? What do you hope it says about the future of the Sydney Opera House?
I endeavour to curate an inclusive and diverse program through the mix of stories we choose to tell, and the people who perform on our stages. That’s a vital part of the Opera House being a civic space open to everyone in our community. The future is now, and every choice that is made in the pursuit of new stories and pushing the boundaries of artforms helps to create it.
Programming is also a balancing act between what audiences are drawn to and ensuring there is a cohesion to the mix of artforms, while staying relevant to the current cultural trends and what’s in the zeitgeist. And you also have to fit the right production to the right venue; some productions suit the smaller intimate spaces like the Studio and some need the magnificent Concert Hall.
GATSBY at The Green Light takes Fitzgerald's classic novel and transports it into a world where the 1920's meet the 2020's. Could you tell us more about this innovative concept and how it combines cabaret, variety, and contemporary music?
The Great Gatsby is a timeless title that evokes a rich aesthetic from a design and musical point of view. The 1920’s were called the “Roaring Twenties” for the exhilarating pace set by the rapidly evolving culture and technology, and that feels so relevant to the era we live in.
We loved the idea of designing a club called The Green Light that embodied the abundance and revelry of a Gatsby party, but with a contemporary design flare. And the party atmosphere creates the perfect setting for vaudeville acts inspired by the 1920’s era that we still all love today – tapping, juggling, fire breathing, burlesque, and masterful aerial, accompanied by the striking vocals of Odette.
This version of Gatsby is non-linear, it’s more of a concept album staging. The Green Light is Gatsby’s club, where he and his staff serve up a night to remember with world class entertainment, all whilst Gatsby himself remembers his great love Daisy. The show feels like an ode to a big, timeless love story.
GATSBY at the Green Light rehearsal photos. Images by Daniel Boud
"Circus 1903" promises a Golden Age of circus experience with sensational puppetry and a diverse cast of performers. Could you highlight some of the unique acts and elements that will captivate audiences of all ages?
Circus 1903 has everything you expect to see in a classic circus with the sophisticated sleekness of the world’s best aerial artists and performers. Think Greatest Showman meets Warhorse!
The elephant puppets are mesmerising to watch and you know you’re seeing masterful puppetry when you think the puppet is real and you fall in love with their personalities. The ringmaster David Williamson chorales some of the finest circus performers from across the world. We’ll see the timeless circus acts like aerial trapeze, a strongman, juggling, hoop diving, rola bola, teeterboard and contortion.
Circus 1903 images. Credit: Ken Leanfore
Malevo offers an electrifying modern take on the Argentinian folk dance, Malambo. How does this show utilise both traditional and contemporary performance? What excites you about Malevo?
I wanted the summer program to include a physical, high energy show that would appeal to audiences of all ages and cultures, and Malevo does just that. The show utilises elements of the traditional malambo dance form, which customarily is performed as a solo style and passed down from older to younger men. In Malevo we get to see an ensemble of incredibly talented artists dancing and drumming all together – I think that percussion is going to sound amazing in our Concert Hall.
The skill of the cast is extraordinary, I’ve never seen anything quite like it! The speed and the agility of the drumming and movement combined with that special South American passion makes for an exhilarating show.
Malevo at the Sydney Opera House. Images Supplied by Sydney Opera House.
What message or experience do you hope the audience takes away from these productions as they celebrate summer at the Sydney Opera House?
Summer is about fun and having memorable experiences with our families and friends. I hope we see people coming together to be entertained – kids, parents, and grandparents going out together to shows like Circus 1903 and Malevo, and on date nights or for a girls’ night out with GATSBY at The Green Light.
Coming to the Opera House always has a sense of occasion about it, and I think this Summer program promises truly awe-inspiring moments that I know will create memories to cherish.
Show details: GATSBY at The Green Light makes its world premiere in the Studio from 16 December 2023. Circus 1903 makes its long awaited return to the Concert Hall, 21 – 29 December 2023. Malevo makes its Australian premiere in the Concert Hall, 17 – 21 January 2024.
Bio: Ebony Bott - Head of Contemporary Performance
Ebony Bott has 18 years’ experience as a festival director, programmer, and creative producer in Australia and New Zealand, working across a variety of senior curatorial, marketing, and audience development positions. She was most recently Creative Director of Cabaret and Commercial at Adelaide Festival Centre (Jan 2018-Oct 2020) where she curated and delivered the award-winning Adelaide Cabaret Festival and the broader musical theatre and commercial program.
Prior to this, she was the Creative Producer of Families and Young People at Arts Centre Melbourne. She has worked in many leading Australian theatre companies in a range of marketing, producing, and directorial roles including Arena Theatre Company, Back to Back Theatre, Circus Oz as well in festival focused roles at the Australian Festival for Young People (Come Out) and New Zealand’s National Theatre for Children and Children’s National Arts Festival in Wellington. She has also worked as a freelance producer for Yana Alana & Tha Paranas; Dee & Cornelius; and contemporary dance artist Alison Currie.
At the Opera House, Ebony has recently established the Contemporary Performance Industry Development Initiative, implemented to provide pathways in the commercial performing arts sector. Recipients will be offered the opportunity to work alongside established creatives to develop their skills and increase their profile within the industry.