Polite Society's May Social Diary

Defy the cold at an unmissable Sydney festival and a hair-raising exhibition.



The heat of high summer has passed, which means it’s time to pursue more cerebral activities than lying on a beach. This year’s Melbourne Writer’s Festival is a great place to start. Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen will be there, alongside 2020 finalist Ann Patchett (Bel Canto, The Dutch House, Tom Lake) in conversation with Australian author Meg Mason (Sorrow and Bliss). There’s philosophy with AC Grayling, Booker Prize winner Paul Lynch (whose winning novel has caused several sleepless nights chez Polite Society recently) and a selection of highly regarded Australian authors including Christos Tsiolkas, Charlotte Wood and Nam Le. Tickets for the biggest names are still available. May 6-12, Melbourne, various locations, followed by the equally good Sydney Writer’s Festival, May 20-26.

Grieving his daughter’s death and his own incurable heart condition, Gustav Mahler wrote Song of the Earth, which covers all human emotion: joy, love, longing, grief and, ultimately, acceptance of life’s brief beauty. More intimate than the composer’s previous symphonies and written for only two voices, this song cycle performed by the Australian Chamber Orchestra is still a musical event. Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and Brisbane, May 12-26.

Fancy a drink? Whether you’re a whisky wonk or gin afficionado, there’s a tipple to suit all tastes at this year’s Spirits Festival in Sydney. There are more than 140 spirits to sample in each three-hour ticketed session, plus talks on such essential topics as how to match cocktails with canapes. Overseas Passenger Terminal, Sydney Cove, May 10-12.

Surely one of the more intriguing exhibitions this year, Hair Pieces at Heide Museum of Modern Art explores the personal and cultural significance of hair through work from 40 artists. In one video piece, artist Ana Mendieta methodically glues individual strands from a friend’s beard onto her own upper lip, while in another recorded performance piece, well-known collaborators Marina Abramović and Ulay sit back-to-back, with their hair bound together in a tight coil… for 17 hours. We’re fascinated, slightly repelled – and definitely paying a visit. Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, Melbourne,  from May 4.

Seeing the Opera House sails and the MCA awash with colour is a highlight, but there’s more to Vivid Sydney than, well, lights. This year’s program includes After The Fact, a free, nightly discussion of the day’s news with high-profile figures such as Annabel Crabb and Lucy Turnbull AO; talks on everything from the humanity of names to whether AI will destroy us; the flame-lit Vivid Fire Kitchen and an equally hot curation of music. This is a unmissable event (although if you live in Sydney, we doubt you’ll be able to…). Various locations, from May 24.

Anyone with a passing acquaintance to ballet knows what it demands of dancers. Études takes the formalised structure of a ballet class – from gentle stretches at the start to the more challenging movements later – and turns it into a one-act ballet set to piano. Twinned with a new work by acclaimed Australian choreographer Stephanie Lake, this piece is billed as ‘a ballet dancers dream of performing’, which certainly piques our interest. Australian Ballet, Sydney Opera House, May 3-18 (you can see it in Melbourne in October).