Critical mass: Brickbats, bouquets

TESSA JOHNSTONE
Last updated 05:00 22/03/2014

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It ended with appropriate drama - under threat from a cyclone. But did this year's New Zealand Festival deliver the punch expected, or was it a fizzer like Lusi?

Shelagh Magadza is relieved to see we have not brought a photographer to this interview: "I'm wearing pyjamas today."

Who can blame her? Alongside a team of more than 100 staff and volunteers, the New Zealand Festival artistic director has been working 14-hour days to ensure the smooth running of the 24-day arts binge.

The puppets and daleks have been packed away, the international artists have left for the next leg of their tours, the local artists have gone back to writing funding applications, and the festival team are tying up loose ends and readying themselves for the Wellington Jazz Festival in June.

This was Magadza's first year as artistic director but, after 20 years working in festivals around the world, she was somewhat prepared for what was to come.

"You're carried along by adrenaline and all the nice people you want to spend time with, but you can't ever seem to get yourself home before midnight."

About 1220 artists were involved in putting on nearly 350 shows, slightly more than the last event in 2012.

Some shows had Twitter fluttering with praise - "Face sore from smiling whole time" about Beyond, and "Standing ovation for Requiem For The Fallen in the @NZFestival this evening. Great job" - but others had audiences on the fence.

Several people were reported to have walked out of Lemi Ponifasio's The Crimson House, with one describing it as the lowlight of the festival.

Magadza said she knew some shows were going to be a risk - judging the tone of the city and audience can be tough until you've given something a go.

If ticket sales were the only measure, it all worked out well. There were 6000 more tickets sold than in 2012. The bright lights and whirrs of Power Plant at the Botanic Gardens alone attracted 22,000 people.

Asked if Power Plant was the festival's saving grace, Magadza says, well, sort of.

Every programme has to be balanced, with the more popular events such as Power Plant and the Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular off-setting the harder-to-market shows such as a Russian puppetry version of A Midsummer Night's Dream and contemporary opera Ainadamar.

"It's really important that you do structure a programme that allows you to take some artistic risks, everything can't be easy and comfortable."

Although the final tallies won't be in until June, Magadza is confident they will break even with an increased budget of $13.2 million this year.

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One of the biggest gambles for organisers was The Big Bang, the noisy, community-centred opener.

A crowd-funding campaign run by The Arts Foundation raised more than $25,000 towards the event and the rain held off long enough for 200 children to have their moment in the sun with Kora and Strike Percussion.

Magadza says the ultimate goal of any arts festival should be to bridge the gap between loyal arts followers and the wider community. "I really think that what the festival and the arts have to offer is something that can transform people's lives, either at individual or societal level.

"There's hard economic facts, but there's all those intangible benefits. Like street lighting and all those other things that are there to make people's lives better, I think that too about this kind of experience. It's not just entertainment."

Museum Hotel owner and arts patron Chris Parkin said in August last year that Wellingtonians had become a "bit ho-hum" about the city's arts offerings and the capital needed to refresh its arts image to recapture people's attention.

"The reason people are starting to think this way is that there hasn't been growth," he said.

So how did this year's festival stack up? "It was good for us, but probably very similar to previous festivals as opposed to being better or worse."

The hotel certainly had guests who were there for the festival, and the general feeling was the programme offered was good - but it wasn't a step up, he says.

Dominion Post classical music reviewer John Button, who has worked at every festival since 1986, agrees that, if this festival wasn't the best, it certainly wasn't the worst.

"[Shelagh] did a really good job, I take my hat off to her and appreciate some of the difficulties she was working with."

He does, however, lament the absence of the Wellington Town Hall as a music venue for this festival. Positively Wellington Venues chief executive Glenys Coughlan agrees it was a loss to the programme.

"The town hall is dear to lots of festival-goers' hearts, and rightly so, and I think it'll be great to see it back online."

The closure of two large CBD parking buildings did not help either, Ms Coughlan says.

"There were quite frequently late arrivals at performances and, because of close-outs, people missed shows, some people were incredibly late for shows. With two parking buildings out . . . it was something that had an impact."

SO WHAT next for the festival?

Whether or not the festival will move from a biennial event to an annual one is still being hotly debated, and Magadza is on the fence.

But whatever happens, she'd like to see it evolve towards a more interactive and participatory way of experiencing the arts.

"I'm really keen to try to explore the idea of audience of the future, and how they like to experience arts. This is probably a 10-year project, but I think those first explorations need to happen otherwise we'll lose an audience."

BEST OF THE FEST

The Dominion Post's team of reviewers pick their favourite shows of the New Zealand Festival. 

EWEN COLEMAN, THEATRE

The pick of the festival before it started was A Midsummer Night's Dream (As You Like It), by Chekhov International Theatre Festival/Dmitry Krymov's Laboratory/Theatre School of Dramatic Art (Russia), and it certainly didn't disappoint. It was everything we expected and more: light and insubstantial with nothing dramatic or deep and meaningful about it, it nevertheless was the essence of theatricality. 

LAURIE ATKINSON, THEATRE

Of the six theatre productions I saw, only one stands out. The other five, including An Iliad, Unmythable, and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, lacked that imaginative fire or spark that creates truly memorable theatre. Only the Russian reimagining of a famous scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream ticked all the boxes for me, as it made fun of theatre by being highly theatrical, imaginative, and at times just gloriously wacky. 

COLIN MORRIS, POPULAR MUSIC

I have found that it is the show you least expect to be great or even good that surprises. Such was the case with Suitcase Royale's The Ballad of Backbone Joe, with the theme of a prize-fighter past his prime, who may have murdered his lover. Suitcase Royale is a three-man group incorporating tapes of sound effects and dialogue to contribute to the show. Of course it went wrong, but as the ad says, it's the putting right that counts. 

SIMON SWEETMAN, POP MUSIC

No one Yo La Tengo show is the same; for this tour, the band has been playing one quiet set, one loud. Plenty of people left at half-time or as soon as the guitars were cranked. They missed the real point. Feedback and coils of sound from a band living inside its own version of musical solipsism – but taking from almost every style available to make something distinctly their own. Their left-of-mainstream legend continues. 

ANN HUNT, DANCE

Stones in her mouth, by Mau, directed by Lemi Ponifasio, was a starkly beautiful production that is profoundly moving and which carries a message totally relevant to New Zealand today. Two other outstanding productions were Rian (fabulous beast) and Deca dance (batsheva dance company). Both productions left audiences exhilarated and with a smile on their faces.

JOHN BUTTON, CLASSICAL

This year's compact music programme had real highlights, making a choice far from easy. I've opted for the near-perfect semi-staging of Osvaldo Golijov's opera Ainadamar. Golijov's sultry treatment of reminiscences surrounding the death of Federico Garcia Lorca in the Spanish Civil War had a staging and performance that will linger long in the memory. 

- The Dominion Post

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