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Festivals in Australia

Perth Festival event at Cottesloe Beach. Image by Kathryn Wells.

Festivals have become ubiquitous in Australia, with hundreds held each year.  Some are as small as the community-based Apollo Bay Music Festival and Thirroul Seaside and Arts Festival, while others, such as the Falls Festival and Woodford Folk Festival, are able to bring international performers to Australian audiences and showcase Australian works.

Arts and cultural festivals

Each capital city has a festival. Major festivals are:

Sydney Festival (January)

Each year the Sydney Festival offers a rich and diverse program spanning all art forms and including dance, theatre, music, visual arts, film, forums and large-scale free outdoor events.  For three weeks in January the festival hosts around 80 events involving upwards of 500 artists from Australia and abroad.  In any given year, it makes use of most of the main theatres across the breadth of the city and also has a commitment to the presentation of quality, large-scale outdoor events such as the iconic Domain Series.

National Multicultural Festival, Canberra (February)

The National Multicultural Festival is held over four days and features the very best in local, national and international music, dance, food and creative arts.  Festival favourites include the Food and Dance Spectacular, the Greek Glendi, Carnivale, the International Concert and the Pacific Islander Showcase.  The Festival Fringe complements the mainstream festival, and provides a place for artists who break traditional barriers to bring their work to a wider audience.

Red lotus flower floating in the reflection pool in front of Winthrop Hall, by Korean pop artist Choi Jeong Hwa for Perth International Arts Festival, March 2012. Image by Kathryn Wells.

Perth International Arts Festival (February–March)

The Perth International Arts Festival is the oldest annual international multi-arts festival in the southern hemisphere and is Western Australia's premier cultural event.  The first Perth Festival was in 1953 and it now offers the people of Western Australia some of the best international and contemporary drama, theatre, music, film, visual arts, street arts, literature, comedy and free community events.  Some other events in the festival include the Contemporary Culture program and the Perth Visual Arts Festival. 

As well as these, there are satellite festivals surrounding the main festival which itself offers more than 30 Australian premieres.  The Western Australian Indigenous Arts Showcase (WAIAS) is part of the Perth International Arts Festival, and has involved over 90 Indigenous singers and songwriters, musicians, actors and comedians from all over Australia's largest state.

Adelaide Festival of Arts (March)

The Adelaide Festival of Arts has created a strong tradition of innovation since 1960, inspiring celebration and presenting diverse art from across Australia and around the world.  Held in the warm South Australian autumn in every 'even' year, this is a large-scale multi-arts event of extraordinary richness and diversity.

Ten Days on the Island, Tasmania (March)

Tasmania's flagship celebration of island arts and culture, Ten Days on the Island, boasts a multitude of events in 50 locations across the island.  Events and activities range across all types of music, dance, visual arts, theatre, literature, food and film. Individual artists and companies come from all corners of the globe, and a number of local artists also take part.

Darwin Festival (August)

Yilila, winners of 2006 NT Indigenous Music Awards. Courtesy of Yilila.

The Darwin Festival is an expression of the city's uniqueness, celebrating its multicultural community, youthful energy, tropical climate and great lifestyle.  The cultural program provides a feast of local, national and international performances to excite, inspire and entertain.  It includes opera, cabaret, dance, music, film, comedy, the visual arts and workshops – incorporating music and dance from Indigenous, Indonesian and Pacific Island communities.  There is also a strong visual arts component, with traditional land owners guiding visitors through the many galleries exhibiting Indigenous art.

Brisbane Festival (September)

Brisbane Festival 2010, no source.

Brisbane Festival is Brisbane's foremost international multi-arts festival, offering an outstanding program of theatre, dance, music, opera, multimedia, and free community events for the residents of Brisbane and its visitors.  Held every two years, it endeavours to include the entire community in its program of activities by having intellectual rigour, international artistic credibility and an extremely broad grass-roots support base.  Consequently, Brisbane Festival is about a lot more than just putting on shows.  It encourages engagement and participation from everyone in the greater community across the wonderful city of Brisbane, the country and the globe.

Melbourne International Arts Festival (October)

Stickwork by Patrick Dougherty was held at Fed Square in October 2012 as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival. Image by Kathryn Wells.

Melbourne International Arts Festival has a reputation for presenting unique international and Australian events in the fields of dance, theatre, music, visual arts, multimedia, and free and outdoor events over 17 days each October.  First staged in 1986 under the direction of composer Gian Carlo Menotti, it became the third in the Spoleto Festival series – joining Spoleto, Italy, and Charleston, United States.  Melbourne's Spoleto Festival changed its name to the Melbourne International Festival of the Arts in 1990.  In 2003, the festival was renamed Melbourne International Arts Festival.

Independent festivals

Major independent national festivals include:

Chinese New Year (February)

Australian Chinese New Year celebrations, image by Dan Peled for AAP. Courtesy ABC.

Chinese New Year is the longest and most important celebration in the Chinese calendar.  The new year begins on the first day of the Chinese calendar, which usually falls in February, and the festivities continue for 15 days.  During Chinese New Year celebrations, people wear red clothes, give children 'lucky money' in red envelopes, and set off firecrackers.

Chinese New Year ends with the lantern festival, where people hang decorated lanterns in temples and carry lanterns to an evening parade under the light of the full moon.  The highlight of the lantern festival is often the dragon dance.  The dragon can be as long as 30 metres and is typically made of silk, paper and bamboo.  In Sydney, more than 500,000 people crowd the streets to celebrate the Lunar New Year and all things Chinese.

Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras (February–March)

From a protest rally to one of the world's largest gay and lesbian festivals, the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras has come a long way.  In 1978, a group of 1000 people marched down Oxford Street to mark International Gay Solidarity Day.  This one-off event resulted in violent clashes with police and a determination to do it all again the following year, and so Mardi Gras was born.  The event has continued to evolve, adding an arts festival in 1983, and it has grown to attract an audience of hundreds of thousands of participants from all over the world.  The festival forms a huge celebration and reflection on gay and lesbian life.

WOMADelaide (March)

WOMADelaide. Courtesy of Government of South Australia.

Over three days, WOMADelaide runs six outdoor stages featuring performances and intimate workshops by around 35 groups from over 20 countries.  It also presents a KidZone, visual arts and street theatre programs, and an amazing Global Village of 100 arts, crafts, international cuisine, and educational display stalls and three bars.  The magical ambience of WOMADelaide is indescribably lush.  Thousands of people of all ages bliss out as they enjoy the sounds of the planet while catching up with friends in the sunshine, lazing under the trees, shopping, eating, drinking and having fun with their family.

National Folk Festival, Canberra (April)

Held over the Easter weekend in Canberra every year, the National Folk Festival draws together people from all around Australia and the world.  They come to share in the songs, dances, tunes and verse that have flowed through the ages from many communities into Australian folk culture.  The festival includes over 100 concerts, poetry and storytelling sessions, various dance classes running all day, a kids program and of course lots of different food options.  Camping is available and many people spend the whole five days and nights at the festival.

Gubbi Gubbi Dancers, performing at The Dreaming 2014. Courtesy The Dreaming.

Dreaming Festival, Woodford, Queensland (December–January)

The Dreaming is a vibrant, exciting and valuable destination. Local, national and international audiences look forward to it as their annual ceremony time along with the most comprehensive showcase of Indigenous arts from across the country and around the world.  This three day and four night festival has performing arts venues, bars, ceremony grounds, traditional healing, galleries, rituals, campfire story circles, a mass of stalls, a workshop avenue and food outlets.  Presented by the Queensland Folk Federation, the program features film and literature components, performing arts, new media and digital technologies, food and wine fair, comedy, ceremony, exhibitions, performance artists, physical theatre, visual arts, craft workshops, a music program, street performers, musicals and a youth program.

Revelation Perth International Film Festival (July)

The Revelation Perth International Film Festival has always maintained a strong focus on documentary.  The festival's history has seen the screening of a wide array of contemporary and archival documentaries including Oscar-nominated pieces, progressive works from the international scene, and works from the international underground.

Woodford Folk Festival, Queensland (December–January)

Sunrise at the Woodford Folk Festival, no source.

The Woodford Folk Festival is an event of international standing.  Held over six days and six nights, it presents more than 2000 performers and 400 events with concerts, dances, workshops, forums, street theatre, writers' panels, film festival, comedy sessions, acoustic jams, social dialogue and debate, an entire children's festival, art and craft workshops, late night cabarets, and special events including a spectacular fire event.  The festival features the cream of Australian performers and a gathering of special international guests.

Theme-based festivals

There are major national festivals based on themes such as film, jazz, music, folk, digital media and writing.

Film festivals

Digital media

Writers' festivals

Jazz festivals

Klezmeritis in performance. Photo courtesy of the Kingston Arts Centre.

Folk festivals

Other festivals

NSW and ACT festivals

Victorian festivals

Baksheva Dance Company performing for Adelaide Festival of Arts 2014. Courtesy of Government of South Australia

Other states

Listen, look and play

Last updated: 30 July 2013
Creators: Kathryn Wells

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