For over thirty years the World Of WearableArt Awards Show has created a platform for a unique and highly entertaining form of expression and design. It is firmly established on the Wellington calendar, having moved here from Nelson fifteen years ago, and enjoys support from Wellington City Council, retailers and restaurants, who cross-promote the show with street decorations, window displays and customised menu offerings. The World Of WearableArt Awards Show (WOW) dominates the TSB Arena and waterfront area for a three-week season, attracting visitors from near and far.
There are some real positives about WOW. This original and thoroughly Kiwi concept has developed and sustained momentum for itself in an era where many forms of live performance struggle to stay afloat. The original spirit of ingenuity and unbridled creativity conceptualised by founder Dame Suzie Moncrieff is alive and well in the riot of colours, shapes and textures that are the designers’ garments. It is wonderful that as many as half of the designs are international entries, and that WOW remains a New Zealand show that draws this talent to us. Additionally, WOW provides paid employment for a large number of artistic creatives and performers in a professional environment for several weeks each year.
WOW is an entity of two parts; designers, competition coordinators and judging which begins in July in Nelson each year, and the artistic team, production staff, and performers that create the stadium show in Wellington in September/October. This year the WOW show sees new leadership take the reins with Show Director Andy Packer and Director of Choreography Sarah Foster-Sproull. A live band is onstage as the audience enters, which creates a great sense of atmosphere and occasion. At the same time, a small number of disappointingly-costumed performers mingle with the audience or are set on plinths inside the venue. These performers contribute little to the show, initially seeming more like audience members dressed up as they whisper to one-another and fail to demonstrate commitment to character. The transition to the start of the show proper is heralded by two performers delivering a scripted welcome through a loudhailer, some of which is lost in a venue which cannot provide auditorium-standard sound clarity.
Each year the WOW competition is made up of six categories; three recurring sections (Aotearoa, Avant-garde, and Open), and three sections unique to the year (in 2019 these are White, Mythology and Transform). In addition to this, the stage show is designed around the legend of Te Wheke-a-Muturangi the terrifying giant octopus smote by Kupe in ancient times. Wrangling these two contrasting demands becomes a point of tension for WOW, with the competition sections and show narrative competing for clarity and attention. Unfortunately, these two aspects of the stage show fail to reach synchronicity or integration. The legend of Te Wheke-a-Muturangi is only clear upon reading the programme notes, and the performance elements of the show tend to distract and detract from the celebration of the garments which are the heart of the event. Individually the elements of the performance are of good quality, however, holistically there is room for a much clearer sense of priority. WOW feels as though it is desperately trying to create a stadium spectacular in the spirit of Cirque du Soleil, and in doing so places itself in competition with the designs it is there to promote.
A variety of performers (including professional and student dancers, dancer/models, parkour athletes, aerial acrobats, voice artists, singers and musicians) ensure there is plenty to experience. Despite the detail and quality of Foster-Sproull’s choreography, I feel contemporary dance is the wrong genre for a stadium show of this size. Similarly, so much goes into manipulating set for the parkour athletes that their one or two tricks feel anticlimactic. During the Aotearoa Section a small number of Muslim New Zealanders (not otherwise part of the show) appear onstage and form a semi-circle facing outwards from the ensemble of performers. In this formation, males and females together repeatedly prostrate themselves in prayer. I have struggled with how to review this moment of such contrast to the fantasy world WOW strives to create. My understanding of Islam is that people always face Mecca to pray, and are physically separated by gender in places of worship (as opposed to the mixed-gender semi-circle presented onstage). The audience demonstrated their love and support for those representing this community, however, the means of inclusion at this point in the show seems incongruous. While a well-intentioned gesture of inclusivity, it unfortunately comes across a little like lip service.
The stars of WOW are of course the garments. Walking them follows a successful and established pattern of each garment (one at a time) on the five circular thrusts, allowing audience members reasonable views regardless of where in the stadium they’re sitting. The thrusts have revolves, used sparingly and effectively. WOW would benefit from including cameras on each of the thrusts, capturing the garments in close-up detail, and projecting live to screens (in the style used to show band members in stadium concerts). A lot depends on the ability of the individual dancer/model to pull focus to their garment. The models who succeed with this do much to enhance the life and appearance of the designs – some animate garments brilliantly, others less so. During one of the sections, garments are modelled alongside not only large set pieces constantly in motion, but also a projected animated backdrop, three silks aerialists, stage crew manipulating ropes, and an ensemble of contemporary dancers. It is too much for the garments to compete with, and it is too easy for them to go unnoticed.
It is worthwhile to stay for the announcement of the award winners at the end of the show, and to compare the judges selections with one’s own favourites. Alongside the six Section Awards are eleven special awards, including the auspicious Supreme WOW Award worth NZ$30,000. For the record, my pick of the 108 remarkable finalist designs are; The Blomar by Akhilesh Gupta (India), Natural Progression by Dylan Mulder (NZ), Escaped Pods by Lynn Christiansen (United States), Chrysanthemum & Amphitrite by Jack Irving (United Kingdom), Soul Guardian by Chang Yi-Wei (Taiwan), Sea Urchin Explosion by Jack Irving (United Kingdom), Gemini: The Twins by Dawn Mostow & Ben Gould (United States), Woven In-Tent by Kirsten Fletcher (Australia), and The Lady Warrior by Rinaldy Yunardi (Indonesia). In 2019 the Supreme WOW Award was deservedly won by Rinaldy Yunardi (Indonesia) for The Lady Warrior.
2019 WOW Awards Show plays TSB Arena until 13 October.
Direction: Andy Packer
Choreography: Sarah Foster-Sproull
Musical Direction: Paul McLaney
Lighting Design: Chris Petridis
AV Design: John Strang
Costume Design: Sophie Ham
Show Concept Design: Dan Potra