SCENE BY NATHAN: Ōtautahi Tiny Performance Festival

by Nathan Joe

Size Isn’t Everything

This past Saturday (30th Nov 2019), over the course of 14 hours, Christchurch audiences were treated to a lineup of live performance at CoCA art gallery. The Ōtautahi Tiny Performance Festival is a first-ever event, presented by Movement Arts Practice (curated by artistic director Julia Harvie). 

Appropriately nicknamed Tiny Fest, reflecting its short-lived existence and the intimate scale of the works, talented practitioners from all walks of the artistic world were showcased, from dance, theatre, poetry to music. With only the briefest breaks between shows, audiences willing to pay for an all-day pass could treat the day as a marathon of live art. 

The first performance to open up the event bright and early at 10am was Alice Canton’s Year of the Tiger. In a barebones white box gallery space, she utilised audience participation in a gentle way, encouraging them to engage with a series of simple questions, often relating to the personalities of the Chinese zodiac. In between questions, a pre-recorded computer voice recounts landmark events in different years of the tiger (2010, 1998, 1986, etc). Audiences engaged with Canton’s provocations of self-evaluation with openness, bravery and humour. Those familiar with her community-based work will recognise some of the techniques used, while also building on her body of work in new ways. With the disclaimer that the show is a work-in-progress, Canton encouraged us to engage with the many disparate “threads” on display, the transparency and development of the process becoming the very point of it. Process as performance rather than simply watching a perfect, finished product. An ideal lens to approach the rest of the day. 

At midday, FIKA Writers a Christchurch collective of Pasifika poets, hosted a workshop led by Tusiata Avia (of Wild Dogs Under My Skirt fame). An intimate but appreciative audience engaged with the legendary poet, working at just under an hour to write and share a new work. A reminder that art and artmaking is not just for so-called professional artists, but belongs to the community. 

Following that was a panel discussion chaired by theatre critic and academic Erin Harrington in the main gallery space, where a discussion of Feminist Performance in Aotearoa took place. She was joined by creatives Alice Canton, Audrey Baldwin and Marika Pratley. The tricky discussion of what feminist performance is was unpacked in detail, with all its contradictions and associations laid bare, the stigma and pressure associated with the label particularly scrutinised. The final question posed was what a sustainable arts practice might look like. No easy answers were given, but a recognition of the emotional labour that artists invest was notable. 

At 2:00pm Performing Object took place in the main gallery space. Dancer Dave Huggins appeared to us naked, moving around a sea of camping chairs. Clinging to him like clothing, draped around his long and slender limbs, he evoked an endless, absurdist struggle. Think Sisyphus dragging chairs instead of pushing a boulder. As the early afternoon and natural light filled the space, every inch of his body exposed, voyeurism felt starkly different without the magic of lighting or even a pre-recorded soundscape. The audience as exposed as the artist. 

Following on was the most recognisably conventional theatre work, utilising stagecraft and tropes I was most familiar with. Created and performed by co-founder of Two Productions Tom Eason (and directed by Holly Chappell), Mainman featured an exquisite examination of the many faces of toxic masculinity. A key element, supported by Te Aihe Butler’s sound design, was a fixed microphone to a helmet. The reverberating soundscape, created the effect of plummeting Eason and his performance onto the edge of no man’s land, floating like a rock climber swinging on the edge of the abyss. 

At 4:00PM choreographer Sarah Elswort created what was described as a “movement memoir”, probing the fragments of her childhood. With the spirit of a memory play, Elsworth casts a wide net of devices to explore the past in My Kin Blue. Structured beautifully, each section offering a new vantage point to access the works slippery themes of memory. Beginning with the assistance of two older performers (evoking paternal figures) we watch them laying down a foundation of lavender bricks, matching perfectly with Sarah’s own outfit. Then breaking into playfully ecstatic dance, the stuff of Dionysian rituals and clownishness, she leapt and hopped around the entire space. And finally, while listening to old recordings on a cassette, she recounted the stuff of nostalgia. The text delivered with a hushed, hurried quality – as if anxiously running out of breath. Sonic soundscape (by Caleb Wright) too, shaped the whole show. Speech, sound and memory all tangibly linked. 

Perhaps the most provocative event of the festival was not a live performance as such but the Keynote Speech delivered by Cat Ruka (recently appointed artistic director of Tempo Dance Festival). Like throwing down a gauntlet into the ring, she posed us with the challenge to resist the seduction of innovation in the arts. In a speech that blended mission statement with personal storytelling, she delved into her upbringing and past, and the ways in which art saved her life. Like toppling over a false idol, she made the argument against art as fashionable or trendy. For myself, as an artist still relatively new in the scheme of things, innovation and its ties to funding, competition and validation are ever present forces in my everyday life. She asked necessary questions on how we return the healing power to something that has been turned into a product. Reframing the question of who your audience is to who your audience should be. 

Later in the evening FIKA & Friends* returned with a lineup of poets (curated by Danielle O’Halloran) performing a quickfire session of spoken word. The material covered the wide breadth of female and queer bodies, capped of beautifully by Tusiata Avia performing Apology from her most recent collection Fale Aitu (Spirit House) alongside her daughter. As the two spoke in unison, the audience sat in collective awe, spirits held captive and moved to tears.

Audrey Baldwin is a prominent figure in the Christchurch arts scene, particularly known for the often visceral work centered around her own body and its abjectness. As one of the final events at 9PM, she presented Hobble, where she stalked the stage in nothing but a pair of heels. Each step somewhat precarious, her legs restricted by a red string attached through a series of piercings running up her thighs, made especially for this performance. From The Scarlet Letter to The Handmaid’s Tale, female sexual oppression was evoked through both the red string and the blood left stained on her legs.  

In James Wenley’s overview of Wellington Fringe earlier this year, he asked three important questions: 

Can you take the pulse of a city through the shows performed on its Fringe?

Can you judge the heart of a Festival by the visitors who have come to play?

Can you take stock of the world via the canary call of the artists who have something to say?

When applied to Tiny Fest, the answer to all three questions is: I hope so. Because, if it is, I am deeply optimistic about the future of Christchurch. The kaupapa of this short but sweet festival seems to be that of an urgent rallying cry against the status quo. An antidote to a city stuck in the aftermath of trauma. While it was not explicitly a feminist festival, it’s appropriate that it seemed to advocate for voices in the margins. Even the male-centric works sought to destabalise the male body through context (Performing Object) or criticism (Mainman). 

Here the audience was not simply invited to passively watch, but also to engage throughout the day with the artists, where conversations leaked organically from the makeshift stages to the cafe and bar. A curiosity and desire to be challenged and expanded was apparent. 

I recall the first stanza of aforementioned poem Apology by Tusiata Avia:

My body is not an apology

not a hiding place

not an arranged and artful fortress

The bodies and ideas on display were not tidy well-made things. But messy, visceral creatures. Unapologetically themselves. 

There were many more events I was not able to attend during this festival. This is a but a snapshot of the day’s rich tapestry. A promising look at Christchurch’s vital and recently re-energised arts scene. 

If one leaves an event like this hopefully, one must remember that there is still plenty of work to do. 

*Full disclosure: I was invited to perform as one of the guest poets as a “friend” of FIKA. 

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