The Christchurch Arts Festival opens this week. Critic Nathan Joe selects his six must-see events that offer vastly distinct flavours and genres.
When you first look at the programme for the Christchurch Arts Festival you might be struck by the lack of international acts. What seems like a glaring omission, upon closer inspection, is an acknowledgement of Ōtautahi’s fiercely creative spirit. The programming is a reflection of something that many in Christchurch may have long forgotten or that newer generations are completely unaware of: the spirit of genre-blending and groundbreaking artists that often challenge the status quo.
Under the helm of newly appointed artistic director George Parker, this programme, most of all, strikes me as a love letter to a city that harbours more talent than we often acknowledge or realise. A reminder that this is a city filled with talented people across all mediums. That art and entertainment is sitting right under your nose. From the early days of Flying Nun to the heyday of the Free Theatre, these radical game changers are paid tribute here. Most importantly, it’s a programme that seems directly plugged into the pulse and beating heart of what is happening right here, right now, in the city. Even if most people don’t know it.
My six picks aren’t necessarily the best of the best, but they are six distinct offerings that I think reflect the desire to nurture the city’s independent spirit. Six picks that sit in vastly different genres with vastly different textures and flavours, including music, dance, theatre, puppetry, and often cross-disciplinary work that is harder to define.
COMMUNITY – A Winter’s Tale & Pōwhiri
When: Friday 26th July, 5pm; Saturday 27th July, 6pm
Where: Civic Promenade – Oxford Tce
The opening ceremony begins with a pōwhiri, followed by a performance by local kapa haka group Te Pao a Tahu. From then on, over two nights, Free Theatre, Christchurch’s longest-standing experimental theatre company transforms the Oxford Terrace into a carnival street party. Director of the company, Peter Falkenberg, promises an immersive experience with oversized puppets and masked actors all along the riverside, offering a Shakespearean alternative to the Pop-Up Globe’s Winter Season. Those familiar with Free Theatre’s Ubu Nights will know what to expect; an evening of mixed media performance (theatre, live music, video projection) tied together with a central theme (past events have included Faust to Twin Peaks).
For the Free Theatre, which also celebrates 40 years, this is an acknowledgement of their place in the city. As a company that has always existed on the fringes, it’s also an opportunity for a wider community to see them for the first time.
And, if Shakespeare ain’t your cup of tea, the event includes two separate music stages with performances by six local acts, including: Mark Vanilau, Dark Matter, UC School of Music, Best Bets, Yurt Party, and Adam Hattaway and the Haunters.
Most of all, it’s free, so this is the one event you really don’t have an excuse not to check out. This is a gift to the city and its people. It’s not often, in the chilly winters of Christchurch, that we’re given a truly good reason to all get out and celebrate together. Get amongst.
THEATRE – Wild Dogs Under My Skirt
When: Thursday 25th July, 7pm / Friday 26th to Saturday 27th March, 7pm
Where: Haeata Community Campus / The Piano
Christchurch-based Tusiata Avia is a national treasure. Her poetry demonstrates the quality that I most admire about art: it provides equipment for living. But as well as being life-affirming, this is the sort of writing that reminds you that words can gut you like a fish. Under the direction of Anapela Polata’ivao and her all-female cast, these words jump off the page, biting, snarling and occasionally comforting with their wisdom.
It is both a celebration and exploration of Samoan womanhood, from superstition to sexuality, suffused with equal parts humour and darkness. It resists becoming a piece of cultural tourism and refuses to hold your hand, never feeling a need to explain itself. A work that directly addresses its subject but provides gaps of understanding for audiences of all kinds to learn from.
Growing from a simple staged reading at TAPAC, to the first production I saw at Māngere Arts Center, and finally picked up by both Auckland and Wellington Arts Festivals [Read Gabriel Faatau’uu-Satiu’s review of the 2019 Auckland season], Wild Dogs Under My Skirt has deservedly earned the reputation of one of the best theatre productions of the last 4 years. And finally it makes its way to the hometown of the artist that started it all.
DANCE – Meremere
When: Thursday 1st August, 7pm; 1pm, Friday 2nd August, 1pm; Friday 2nd August, 7pm; Saturday 3 August, 7pm
Where: The Piano
Malia Johnston’s work falls into the category of works that I most regret missing.
Rushes was one of the best sounding shows I have never seen (and probably never will now), the hype and enthusiasm surrounding it speaking volumes. Universal praise stacked on universal praise – everyone I respected was gushing. And what I glimpsed of Movement of the Human during this year’s Auckland Fringe was enough to move me into surefire determination that, if given the opportunity, I would absolutely never miss any of her shows again. They have the reputation of being large-scale, ambitious, landscapes of bodies in space.
With Meremere, acclaimed choreographer Malia Johnston collaborates with integrated performer Rodney Bell to create an autobiographical solo show that incorporates personal storytelling and multimedia to explore a dark chapter of his life. It’s a more intimate sounding affair than her most recent projects, but it sounds no less worthy of attention. While Meremere was Bell’s homecoming show (returning from the US) when it first premiered back in Auckland in 2016, this time around it is Johnston’s homecoming to the city where she spent her teen years, opening her own studio by the time she was 18 years old, before finally training up in Auckland.
MUSIC – DOG Power
When: Thursday 1st August, 7pm
Where: Avon Room, Town Hall
Industrial electronica, baroque pop, and moody cinematic soundscapes. DOG Power are one of my absolute favourite recent New Zealand bands. Their programming in the Christchurch Arts Festival strikes me as a bold tribute to Otautahi’s early days, connecting The Flying Nun label of the new with the Flying Nun of the old.
Though they’re originally from these quarters, first forming in 2017, co-founders Sam Perry and Henry Nicol have since relocated to Serbia, making them a local band with unconventionally international stripes. Who knows how long they’ll stick around for? Prepare for a homecoming show that not only features music from their self-titled album from last year, but a whole bunch of new material from their new upcoming LP. Exciting stuff for fans and newcomers alike.
For the arts festival, this dynamic duo also offer audiences more than what you can get off Spotify. Prepare for an aesthetic experience that includes a video collage of their recent exploits, as well as a fully decked out band featuring Nick Harte, George Aitken and Anita Clark.
NOISE – Sublime Sonic Splinters and Skronk
When: Saturday 3rd August, 9pm
Where: Avon Room, Town Hall
Time to get a little bit freaky. Avant-garde music with a lineup featuring legendary underground Taiwanese noise and performance artist Betty Apple. Think high voltage Yoko Ono. While she’s one of the only strictly international acts in the entire programme, it’s notable that she’s not listed as the main act, but rather as simply alongside (or in between) two local Christchurch bands, Teen Haters and the newly formed Aotearoa Snuff Jazz Sextet.
Though part of an international tour, the choice to not name her as the headliner is a small gesture that hopefully reflects the deeper kaupapa of the programming. Our local acts might not have the same reputation as Betty Apple, but for one night only they get to share the same stage as equals. Oh, and it’s the only R16+ event of the whole festival. Spicy.
FILM – Night of the Living Score
When: Thursday 1 August, 9pm
Where: Avon Room, Town Hall
The wild card of my picks.
Three bands (No Exit, Space Wolf 2, The Opawa 45s) are paired with three films by fine arts alumni Ronnie van Hout, Tjalling de Vries, and Luke Shaw to produce an improvised live score.
The fine arts community in Christchurch is one of huge overlaps to the independent music scene. Dig a little deeper and the overlap is that of a two venn diagrams sitting directly on top of each other.
Will it feel like live music with film as a backdrop or film with musical accompaniment? It’s hard to say, but Night of the Living Score is an interesting provocation.
The Christchurch Arts Festival runs from the 26 July to the 4 August.