Festival View: Veni, vidi, sensi

Circenses - Pic - Benny Degrove
Tu – Pic – Aneta Ruth
Beautiful Burnout – Pic – Ela Wlodarczyk
Peninsula – Pic – Stephen Melanie Lisch
TeZukA – Pic – Hugo Glendinning
Masi - Pic - Phillip Merry
First Contact – Pic – Artist Concept, Image by Mi
Renee Liang reports on her week as cultural tourist in the nation’s capital for the NZ International Arts Festival.

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By Renee Liang

Veni, vidi, sensi – I came, I saw, I felt. That might sum up my week in Wellington at the NZ International Arts Festival. Being a cultural tourist in the capital is always fun, though of course I wish I had had longer than six days to take it all in.

I saw six shows in total, three from NZ and three international. Despite the dire ‘weather bomb’ warnings, the venues were busy, the crowds undampened in their enthusiasm. Standing outside a circus tent on soggy grass, sharing a flimsy umbrella with my friend, I felt buzzed from all the excitement around me. And that was before the show even started.

Circenses was that show and the anticipation was well deserved. It’s a show which quite literally deconstructs the circus. The audience is split in two on arrival, one half sits on the ‘show’ side of the ring, the other half ‘backstage’. Separated by a thin curtain, we occasionally caught glimpses of the other half as the show’s curtain was parted for performers to pass through. Curiosity was piqued as first one side roared with laughter, then the other. After an interval, we swapped sides to find out what the others had experienced – but of course, it would have been too predictable if the two halves of the show were exactly the same. Part theatre, part comedy, part philosophy and 100% circus, I left pondering the fragility, beauty and humanity of the ‘characters’ I’d seen. It was a lovely return to the magic of circus and storytelling, in a world where shows like Cirque du Soleil have left us expecting more and more spectacle without, perhaps, so much substance.

The premiere of Tu was an entirely different experience. Hone Kouka’s anticipated new play, inspired by Patricia Grace’s novel, was aptly housed in the body of the Pipitea Marae meeting house. I admit to being moved initially by jealousy when I saw the set (a timber wharf spanning the room) and the lush lighting. But when the play began I was moved by the power of voices and bodies. The movement in this play is what made it so compelling. At the end I looked around and realized that many people were crying, and a group rose to their feet to salute the actors in a spontaneous and impassioned haka.

Beautiful Burnout, an import from Scotland, welcomed me the next night. It succeeded (mostly) in the difficult task of turning the bland space of the TSB Bank Arena into a sweaty, atmospheric boxing ring – although the clanking from the roof through the performance was a bit distracting. I’m no boxing aficionado, but the movement of the actors – choreographed to spilt second timing – had me mesmerized. It wasn’t that though that eventually moved me to tears, but the beauty of the script that slowly, devastatingly, crept up on me. I love it when that happens – when a piece is so enthralling that it catches you even when you’re watching for it.

Peninsula, the first time this play by Gary Henderson has been performed in the North Island, was a contrast to Beautiful Burnout in terms of technology. Instead of a slick set with double (!) rotating stage, hidden trapdoors and a bank of LED screens, this classic NZ play was performed on a set constructed from sheets and astroturf, with four chairs and two telephones the only props. Four actors played eight characters, children and adults, in an apparently simple story of childhood nostalgia that slowly became coloured with adult knowledge. There was laughter – plenty of it (the dog deserves special mention). And there was understanding of what people do to maintain the safety of their worlds. Yet again a piece that crept up on me with its emotion – I loved it.

Tezuka, a dance piece choreographed by Belgian-Morrocan choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and inspired by the Japanese manga master referred to in the title, turned out to be a thesis in words and movement. It was difficult to read the rolling subtitles and watch everything going on stage at the same time. Even when there were no subtitles, the rush of bodies on stage and the scrolling projections behind them led to a sense of frenetic activity, deliberate perhaps, to refer to the lifetime of ceaseless mental activity that Tezuka practiced. Beauty mixed with ugliness, normality mutated into characters driven to extremes – that is the world of manga. And through it all the flowing lines of Japanese calligraphy, written live on stage by a calligraphy master, by the actors on their bodies, by light on the screen.

Masi, Nina Nawalowalo’s unraveling of the connections between her story and her parents’ unlikely romance, was a magical conclusion to my week. A show that quite deliberately uses illusion to capture imagination, it was technically accomplished yet beautiful also in its storytelling. About halfway through I stopped wondering “how did they do that?” and just sat back and let it wrap me up. I shall say it again – magic.

Of course, there was much more to the festival than these shows, and had the evening weather been less discouraging I probably would have stayed around to sample the atmosphere of the Festival Club and enjoy the light projection on Te Papa, First Contact. There were plenty of visual art exhibitions too, and I caught a few on my daytime jaunts through the city. But for me the shows – especially the chance to sample ‘world-class’ international acts and premieres of local shows – are the highlight.

My favourite? I’m going to cheat and name two. Of the international shows, Circenses stood out, for its humanity and sheer inventiveness. And of the local shows, Peninsula was my favourite, for its deceptively simple script and dedicated actors. So long, Wellywood. I’m sure I’ll be back soon.

 

Written by

Renee Liang

22 Mar 2012

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