2011 in review

by Fiona Rae / 31 December, 2011
Our critics look back over the highs and lows of 2011.

Film


by David Larsen and Helene Wong




Never neglect the Jeff Bridges omens. 2010 closed with a sorry excuse for a Bridges film (Tron: Legacy). 2011 opened with him on top form (True Grit). So, a great year? It also opened with the traditional flood of would-be Oscar contenders (127 Hours, The Fighter, Black Swan, The Kids are All Right, The King’s Speech, True Grit itself), a phenomenon we can best comment on by noting Bridges should have got Best Actor for his True Grit role, but didn’t, because he’d won the previous year for Crazy Heart. Colin Firth did stronger work that year in the less heart-warming A Single Man; this year he won for a technically impressive but less daring performance in the more heart-warming The King’s Speech. That’s the Oscars for you.

Still, we’re excited to see The Orator go into contention as New Zealand’s first-ever Oscar submission in the foreign-language category. Tusi Tamasese’s debut feature deserves the attention. Its competition for the home-grown film of the year crown comes from a remarkable crop of documentaries: Operation 8, Brother Number One, Billy T: Te Movie and When a City Falls. Then there’s Love Story, Florian Habicht’s idiosyncratic hybrid of documentary and drama. In all, a good year for local film, strengthened by the attention paid to Christchurch, past and present: in Reflections of the Past, where historical images of the city add poignancy to its discussion of the Parker-Hulme murder, and in Moving, an ideal companion piece to When a City Falls, with its minimalist, absorbing tale of immigrant resilience and earthquake survival from the perspective of a Korean couple.

Survival seems an achievement worth celebrating when you look back over the events of this calamity-plagued year. Perhaps Hollywood’s ongoing population explosion in the superhero demographic is unconsciously catering to a need for certainty in uncertain times.

Then there are the counter-trends. Consider the protagonists of Win Win, Beautiful Lies, The Big Picture and the hilarious Bridesmaids – neither heroic nor venal, just ordinary flawed humans. Consider the imperfect, unHollywood romances in small indie films such as Beginners, The Future, Tiny Furniture, and not so small ones like A Separation, Mademoiselle Chambon, Blue Valentine, where the couples are not so much dysfunctional as beset by indecision and big fat existential questions.

Uncertain characters and relationships require unusual depth and subtlety in the execution. The films rose to the challenge, delivering complex psychology with a naturalism that shook us with its truthfulness. And the actors were up for it. It’s reassuring to see that beyond the celebrity sideshows a group of actors (think Paul Giamatti, Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams) is building careers that span art, commerce, glamour and grit, while proving able to turn inward to express the drama of internal conflict.

Now that we think of it, most of this year’s bumper superhero crop featured ambivalent endings as well, although admittedly more as a function of leaving room for sequels than because of any philosophical musings. Their “watch this space” finales were a major reason The Mighty Thor, X-Men: First Class and Captain America: The First Avenger all fell slightly flat, despite some fun moments. Martin Campbell’s Green Lantern would have had the same problem, had it been in danger of showing audiences a good time to begin with.

So JJ Abrams’s Steven Spielberg tribute, Super 8, had a clear advantage in the popcorn movie stakes, being in possession of a beginning, a middle and an ending; although we have to confess we didn’t like its ending as much as its beginning. Harry Potter 8, on the other hand, aka Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, was an ending we liked better than the series’ beginning. This was the celebratory conclusion the franchise deserved, an instance of big budget film-making doing justice to a good story.

It was also an instance of the 2D/3D dual release strategy. Being nerds, we saw both versions. 3D was inoffensive; 2D was better. This is the technology that was going to change cinema forever? But before we write its obituary, we should note that hard on Harry’s heels came two bona fide 3D art films, Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Wim Wenders’s Pina, both of which found new and startling uses for their extra dimension, as did the visceral motorbike racing film TT3D: Closer to the Edge. We note also that Peter Jackson’s online video blogs from the set of The Hobbit manage to make the prospect of a 3D Middle Earth look genuinely exciting. Only 374 more sleeps …



Outside the mainstream, other large cinematic canvases – besides The Tree of Life and Melancholia – handled big themes and glorious visuals: Of Gods and Men, The Mill and the Cross, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Meek’s Cutoff and the sprawling 19th-century saga Mysteries of Lisbon. Yet even these resembled the smaller films by focusing on intimate observation of relationships rather than grand set-pieces.

Mysteries, incidentally, was shot digitally, yet still delivered an epic effect. Other less ambitious documentary projects used digital to shoot fast, flexibly and cheaply and they, too, transcended their apparent smallness, partly through their filmic approach to the visuals, and partly through the scale of their ideas. There Once Was an Island, Moving, Into Eternity, Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Position Among the Stars all testify to documentary being more than mere “document”; they speak deeply to universal issues of humanity.

And, finally, it’s the Year of Uncommonly Smart Animals. Besides dolphins, chipmunks and penguins, there’s Red Dog, Tintin’s Snowy and Beginners’ sub-titled Arthur. Of the felines, we’ll draw a veil over The Future’s Paw Paw – more arthritic puppet than a triumph of special effects – and hail instead Red Cat, A Cat in Paris and, stomping his boots over them all, claws rampant, Puss.

TOP 10 FILMS


Helene Wong

  • Blue Valentine

  • Bridesmaids

  • Brother Number One

  • Incendies

  • Love Story

  • Mademoiselle Chambon

  • Melancholia

  • The Orator

  • A Separation

  • When a City Falls


David Larsen

  • Blue Valentine

  • Brother Number One

  • Incendies

  • Melancholia

  • Of Gods & Men

  • The Orator

  • A Separation

  • Source Code

  • The Tree of Life

  • When a City Falls


Cultural Curmudgeon


By Hamish Keith




For the arts, the year may not have been the best of times but its beginning was the worst of times, and to push the Dickensian metaphor a bit further, it also turned out to be a tale of two galleries. No one will forget the fury of the February earthquake in Christchurch. The loss of life, the homes and suburbs destroyed, the dislocation of lives, the exodus of thousands and the obliteration of one of New Zealand’s richest concentrations of Victorian heritage. We will all go on feeling the pain for generations. Less attention was given to the brutal damage to the cultural infrastructure of that most vivacious of New Zealand’s cities and that want of attention continued for most of the year.

Galleries and private collections were damaged and lost. Artists’ studios were crushed and destroyed and their life’s work gone. The arts centre became uninhabitable. Theatres were broken and abandoned. Music venues are gone – even the bars that nursed Christchurch’s vibrant music scene. In the immediate aftermath of the quake, Creative New Zealand (CNZ) and the Ministry for Culture and Heritage added to this natural mischief with an unforgiveable silence. The very agencies that should have straight away responded with, at the very least, some vision of hope and a plan for recovery said nothing. Yes, they had meetings, but an artist, actor, writer or musician who has seen the immediacies of his or her art destroyed can take no hope from meetings. To abuse Dickens once more, that was a season of darkness and a winter of despair, and if there was any spring of hope it did not come from the cultural agencies, whose first responsibility it should have been.

The only hope came instead from Christchurch Art Gallery, which stood solidly at the centre of recovery, not only as the headquarters of the Civil Defence response but metaphorically, too, as its staff responded as best they could to the less tangible cultural disaster. It was the gallery, not CNZ, that picked up the LostArtChCh website and began the recovery of collections. It was the constant persuasion and presence of gallery staff that made that plan official, and rescued treasures and archives from damaged studios and galleries.

Culturally, Christchurch is climbing out of the pit with remarkable local initiatives like the pop-up container galleries, the relocation of theatres to warehouse spaces and Gap Filler fun like a library in a fridge. The city gallery, while still closed by adjacent demolitions, is in the thick of that, too. The other gallery is, of course, the rebuilt Auckland Art Gallery, with double the space and record crowds. If all this wasn’t enough to remind us how resilient and relevant the arts are, the year’s best supporting actor award must go to the courageous and feisty Robyn Malcolm for insisting the arts should have strong views of the real world. Award for the most useful cultural thing would go to the Ministry for Culture and Heritage’s infrastructure map – if it ever emerges from where it has been hidden.

Pop & Rock


By Nick Bollinger




With more music available in more media than ever, we are all free to follow our particular musical fancies, which are as likely to lead us into the past as to define the present. Although current superstars like Adele or Lady Gaga may claim a big slice of the market, they can no longer unite listeners in a great mass-cultural moment as Nirvana, Michael Jackson or the Beatles once did.

My explorations this year were not much aided by the internet or file-sharing – often cited as the reason for this Balkanisation of Pop – but rather began with the old media of books and vinyl. Reading Rob Young’s excellent Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music set me on a trail of folk-derived obscurities from the UK, starting with a rediscovery of the Incredible String Band (notably their genre-mashing double Wee Tam and The Big Huge) and arriving at the contemporary Trembling Bells, whose The Constant Pageant (released this year) suggests a post-punk Pentangle.

Closer to home, a number of local indies provided that assurance of quality that is the mark of a good record label. Under the stewardship of Fat Freddy’s trumpeter Toby Laing, Economy Records brought jazz, soul and reggae-derived offerings from Shogun Orchestra, Fabulous Arabia and the Yoots. Rattle celebrated 20 years of service to jazz and experimental music with a plethora of releases, including a spellbinding new set from Whirimako Black and Richard Nunns. Round Trip Mars trawled the ocean of alt-pop to produce such compelling catches as Haunted Love and the Vietnam War. And Flying Nun looked both ahead and behind, with strong sets from sequencer-wielding new signing F in Math and veteran guitar-janglers the Bats.

At a time when every band that ever lived seemed to have reunited, a few significant ones bucked the trend and broke up, starting with the White Stripes, who bowed out elegantly just after the 10th anniversary of their first visit to New Zealand, when they were still unknowns. Granted, REM should have done it back when drummer Bill Berry laid down his sticks in 1997, and Sonic Youth’s dissolution doesn’t seem as sad as the reason behind it: the separation, after 27 years, of their core married couple, Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore.

Lastly, special tribute is owed to Hubert Sumlin, who died in December, age 80, and whose brain-stabbing solos on Howlin’ Wolf’s immortal Chess recordings remain among the most thrilling sounds in rock’n’roll.

Pop & Rock


By Jim Pinckney




In a female-dominated year, PJ Harvey’s stunning Let England Shake album justifiably topped many of the year’s Best Of lists, while locally Ladi6 furthered her international aspirations with supports for Gil Scott-Heron and Erykah Badu, as well as picking up the prestigious Taite Prize for her sophomore album back home.

Ex-Mint Chick Kody Neilson’s Unknown Mortal Orchestra album caused a serious stir among the blogs and tastemakers with its lo-fi, psychedelic white-boy funk, joining Conan Mockasin (feted by the Horrors and Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Wellington’s Orchestra of Spheres (invited to play at All Tomorrow’s Parties by Caribou) in the quiet achievement stakes. Counteracting the multitude of sketchy outfits reforming under the dubious “legacy” banner (the bottom of the barrel reveals the Monkees and the Darkness as the latest to need help with the mortgage), REM, LCD Soundsystem and the White Stripes all chose to call it a day.

Among those who won’t be seeing in 2012 are tragic talent Amy Winehouse, Scottish folk legend Bert Jansch, score king John Barry, hip-hoppers Nate Dogg and Heavy D, and punk original Poly Styrene, who was cruelly taken shortly after releasing a new album.

Any doubts about the downward spiral of dubstep as a creative movement were crushed beneath a juggernaut of irritating wub-wub wobbling basslines and predictable dancefloor reflexes. Locals Mt Eden have been riding the wave internationally, while the likes of Big Day Out visitors Nero and Korn-collaborator Skillrex continue to gracelessly hammer the nails in the coffin at a regulation 140bpm.

2011 was also the year that hip-hop alternatives easily overpowered a bloated mainstream content with churning out landfill like Jay Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne. Odd Future undoubtedly copped the most headlines, but it was their R&B associate, Frankie Ocean, and his Canadian counter-part the Weeknd who made the biggest impact, rejuvenating R&B in the process. Producers like Clams Casino and Araabmuzik may be new names to most, but alongside Detroit’s inimitable Danny Brown, ASAP Rocky, Shabazz Palaces and the insanely prolific Lil B, they have kept hip-hop relevant through an otherwise unremarkable year.

Looking forward, the slovenly, hazed-out “chillwave” aesthetic that has hauntologically coloured so many of this year’s underground triumphs seems set to be appropriated by a canny premier-league artist, and based on the commercial certainty of their opening salvos this time next year you may have wished you’d never heard the names Lana Del Rey and Azealia Banks.


Classical


Auckland, by Rod Biss




Indra Hughes is New Zealand music’s Richie McCaw. He persuaded top-goal-scoring counter-tenor Andreas Scholl to sing with home team Musica Sacra, put the fledgling orchestra AK Barok alongside, then stepped onto the podium to conduct Bach and Handel as though he was now a musical Graham Henry. This was Auckland’s gold-cup winning concert: stylish performances in which everyone sang and played like angels in the most heavenly music ever written.

The reborn Auckland Arts Festival included the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s concert A Musical Odyssey, conducted by a hyper-enthused James Judd and featuring Berio, Ligeti, Richard Strauss and (no relation) Johann Strauss. All a festival concert should be. New Zealand Opera gave us the ultimate verismo double bill, Cav and Pag, in a semi-updated production that tried to convince us they were a single opera. Pagliacci survived best, with great singing, production and conducting, and a stand-out rock-star performance from Andrew Glover.

The NZSO under Pietari Inkinen played Mahler’s Fourth with Anna Leese singing an uncomfortable last movement, whereas the Sixth had Inkinen searching deeply into the work. But the most thrilling Mahler of all was the Ninth from the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra under Eckehard Stier, who persuaded his devoted players to perform as though they were the Berlin Phil. The APO also gave a revelatory concert performance of Das Rheingold, in which they played Mozart with the fire he deserves, under the baton of Roy Goodman. With Alina Ibragimova as an unbelievably passionate young violinist, they burnt their way through Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto.

But my most treasured musical moment came from an encore: young American organist Cameron Carpenter, soloist with the National Youth Orchestra, played his own Liszt arrangement and brought the new Auckland Town Hall organ to life as never before. Him you must see: you’ll find him on YouTube, of course, playing Stars and Stripes Forever.

Wellington, by Lindis Taylor




Wellington’s musical year really began in Nelson with the biennial Adam New Zealand Chamber Music Festival; this was the 11th. With more than 20 concerts, it’s probably the biggest such festival in Australasia. Present this year were pianist Martin Roscoe, celebrating Liszt’s bicentenary; tenor Keith Lewis, who sang Schubert’s Winterreise with pianist Michael Houstoun; and the New Zealand String Quartet, Hermitage String Trio and a team of New Zealand Symphony Orchestra players, who unveiled several beautiful rarities.

In spite of its lowish profile, chamber music flourishes throughout the region in professional contexts – such as the New Zealand String Quartet and Jenny Wollerman illuminating Schoenberg’s Quartet No 2 – as well as with students and amateurs, alongside the region’s increasingly accomplished amateur orchestras (like the Wellington Chamber Orchestra) and gifted choirs, such as the Tudor Consort.

The NZSO’s highlight was a Brahms festival – all the symphonies and concertos on four successive nights in strong mainstream performances. Exploring Russian repertoire were pianist Simon Trpceski in Prokofiev and conductor Vasily Petrenko with a blazing Leningrad Symphony. Pietari Inkinen conducted Mahler’s Fourth and Sixth, and a Choral Symphony was -distinguished with splendid New Zealand soloists.

The Vector Wellington Orchestra, distracted by a needless struggle with Creative New Zealand over funding, has become an important element in lower North Island music under Marc Taddei, in both programming and performance. Central in their subscription series were three Mozart piano concertos with Diedre Irons and an exciting Symphonie Fantastique in tandem with mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter.

Handel’s Xerxes from New Zealand Opera, opening in Wellington, was authentically illuminated through accompaniment by German baroque ensemble Lautten Compagney. In many ways an even greater delight was Britten’s opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream, from the New Zealand School of Music. The school has upped its public appearances, both at Victoria University and downtown, and a trio of distinguished performance lecturers are already making an impact: Martin Riseley, Jian Liu and Inbal Megiddo.

Christchurch, by Ian Dando & Jonathan Le Cocq


The loss of Christchurch’s major classical performance venues in the February quake, especially the Town Hall and Arts Centre, was a blow that connected with most of the year’s events. Southern Opera gave up the ghost on Tosca and the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra fled on an international tour, before heroically resuming with business as usual in the middle of the year.

Of the makeshift alternatives for large concerts, the 8000-seater CBS arena proved soullessly cavernous and the Aurora Centre – famously designed to do everything – succeeds at nothing. But there was opportunity in crisis. The Christchurch Arts Festival went ahead and included a cracking memorial concert mainly of works by Gareth Farr in an air-force museum hangar, and audiences thronged to events as if to make a statement about why the arts matter.

There were fine things to throng to. The Press’s classical music critic snubbed the CSO’s all-Beethoven programme, but thankfully Radio New Zealand Concert picked up for review a humdinger Beethoven Seventh Symphony directed by Sir William Southgate, our best residential conductor. His finale was one of the finest you could hear, bringing his sure-footed interpretative concept to a textbook landing worthy of an experienced Boeing pilot.

Michael Endres, new piano professor at the University of Canterbury, gave us the complete cycle of the magnificent Schubert sonatas over four remarkable afternoons and evenings, and in a programme of middlebrow opera 71-year-old Plácido Domingo proved his voice has lost none of its burnish in his one New Zealand sell-out charity concert for earthquake victims.

The other hero was musical entrepreneur Chris Doig, who saw his wish of a legacy for the future of Christchurch’s arts poignantly fulfilled six days before dying of bowel cancer. For the arts community that was a loss greater than any building.

Dunedin, by Marian Poole




Until more money is spent, the Forsyth Barr Stadium will remain best known for its hit-and-miss acoustics. Although classic arias were performed energetically at the Otago Daily Times’ Big Night In, they remained audible only to a few. Meanwhile, renovations of Dunedin’s acoustically excellent concert venues resulted in a peripatetic year for orchestral and chamber music events.

Southern Sinfonia, which continues to raise its game, moved into the Kings and Queens Performing Arts Centre, where both the acoustics and the auditorium are excellently designed. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, with soloist Lara St John, and Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony were both stunning. The Sinfonia commissioned a work from the University of Otago’s 2011 Mozart Fellow, Chris Adams: Symphonic Dances is a charming piece of lateral thinking and was performed with wonderful understanding.

Chamber Music New Zealand decamped from the Town Hall, where Jenny Wollerman and the New Zealand String Quartet had performed Schoenberg’s String Quartet No 2, to the more homely Knox Church for their performance of Voices of Aotearoa. Although these concerts were very different in character – the former challenging Schoenberg’s reputation of being difficult by highlighting his allegiance to Mahler and cabaret, and the latter melding Maori and European New Zealand sounds – they both drew boisterous responses from enthralled Dunedin audiences.

St Kilda Brass and soloists Emma Frazer and Jason Balla, under the direction of David Burchell, got classical with a Night at the Opera and transformed works from Carmen and The Magic Flute. Marama Hall hosted Jekyll Rat by Chris Adams for the NZTrio. This politically motivated and cleverly wrought work in three sections takes its inspiration from furtive political dealings. The audience is invited to sup warily before a charming Sycophant’s Dance seduces them and Insanity takes over.

Art


Auckland, by Warwick Brown




Not everything was perfect in 2011. Most dealer galleries report having had another tough selling year, not helped by the recession and RWC hysteria, and the city lost two cultural icons with the deaths of Sir Peter and Lady Siddell. However, the year got off to a good start with the Waiheke Island Sculpture on the Gulf show – well-selected and well-presented as usual.

By March, at least 25 committed contemporary galleries across the city were into their programmes. With over 350 shows a year, covering all fields of art, it is not possible to sum up this scene in a short note. Much diversity was on show at the biennial Art Fair, held in August in an airy new harbourside building. The standards were high, the environment magnificent and one had to keep asking, “Am I really still in Auckland?”

This heady feeling was reinforced with the opening in September of the rebuilt Auckland Art Gallery. The place has been crowded from day one, and exiting visitors praise it unreservedly. Jeremiads about joining old and new architecture, too much glass, wrong location and ruination of the adjoining park have all been disproved.

During the three years this gallery was closed, the five suburban public spaces carried on their excellent work. The newcomer in this field was the TSB Wallace Arts Centre, which opened in Hillsborough in September 2010. Fifteen months later, over 157,000 visitors have thronged the mansion housing Sir James Wallace’s huge collection, which is frequently rehung. Pick just one show to mention? Wasteland, at Bath St Gallery in August. Peter Gibson Smith’s monumental dream landscapes were grisaille combinations of old photographs, computer-generated images and painting. Quite fascinating.

Wellington, by Martin Patrick




The most readily apparent feature of the creative landscape in Wellington is its “fringe”-oriented flea markets and festivals devoted to crafts, ’zines, and other sedimentary layers of DIY visual culture. Retro-styled records, videos and bookshops offer shelters from the onslaught of current media – sometimes a cassette of soul music is all the art one needs.

Meanwhile, alongside Te Papa’s prominent mega-exhibitions – such as Oceania (in which I learnt a tremendous amount of cultural history concerning the fifth of the world the Pacific region occupies) and European Masters: 19th-20th Century Art from the Städel Museum (in which I was nudged to revise my knowledge of something I thought I knew very well) – are “micro-curatorial” efforts.

The hyperactive Letting Space duo, Sophie Jerram and Mark Amery, have facilitated unlikely public projects (condo-minium on Mars, anyone? Nagging desire to shake up the state?), and there’s the charming amalgam of academic think-tank and funky experimentation that characterises the Alterations collective (Laura Preston, Amit Charan, Joel Cocks). Artist Bryce Galloway curated Typical Girls at the Film Archive, featuring satirical and hilarious video artworks by local women artists.

Dealer galleries presented the usual – high-end – suspects, Robert Heald’s space hosting on occasion fresher takes, including David Cauchi’s painted ruminations blending cryptic art histories and idio-syncratic personal anecdotes. City Gallery’s highlights included Tender is the Night, Heather Galbraith’s advocacy of a neo-Romantic turn, and Kate Montgomery’s Prospect: New Zealand Art Now (which continues until February 12), proffering knowingly recycled rubbish and glacial neo-minimalism (sometimes at once, as in Eve Armstrong’s installation), tenuously bridging low-key sustainability and high-camp effervescence.

In the Adam Art Gallery’s Behind Closed Doors, I enjoyed seeing Ronnie van Hout’s Lilliputian Colin McCahon near intriguing paintings by the icon himself.

Christchurch, by Sally Blundell




During a year of ground shaking, Christchurch’s art spaces fell into new and often surprising configurations. Jonathan Smart Gallery carved out a space in sculptor Neil Dawson’s studio – highlights of the year being Fiona Pardington’s sumptuously melancholic photographs of crushed silk flowers (Immortally Yours) and Michael Parekowhai’s huge bookend elephant pushing trunk-first against the floor in a mythic pitch against the earth (Te Ao Hurihuri, The World Turns Slowly).

The Physics Room, its gallery marooned inside the cordoned red zone, returned temporarily to its peripatetic roots with a welcome presence in Auckland (St Paul’s St Gallery) and Dunedin (DSA Gallery). Brooke Gifford, similarly exiled, adopted the post-quake lingo with its one-off group show, 36 Years in the Zone, in the new Chambers 241 exhibition and studio space, with notable new works by Euan MacLeod, Steve Walsh, Marie Le Lievre and Richard Killeen, while NG Design reopened its downtown doors with an exhibition of work by German jeweller Karl Fritsch, curated by the National.

Yes, it was that sort of year. At the relatively unscathed Papergraphica, the proficiency and elegant self-assurance of lithographer Marian Maguire was evident in her latest iterations of colonial New Zealand enacted through the forms and imagery of Greek classicism (Titokowaru’s Dilemma).

Students and emerging artists kick-started a largely decimated artscape (already battered by the recession) with the new ABC artist-run space in fast-becoming-chic Addington and the home-turned-gallery of sculpture student Tim Middleton. Driving the post-quake arts revival, Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology facilitated exhibitions, seminars and the much-awaited Artbox relocatable gallery and studio modules. Dominating a year of small but smart acts of expedience, Gap Filler presented a superb programme of events – petanque, bowls, movies, exhibitions and performances – drawing a vivacious and mercifully upbeat loop through the broken streets.

Dunedin, by David Eggleton




In Dunedin, the most polarising artwork turned out to be Rachel Rakena’s Haka Peep Show, a towering, black-painted tin can of teasing intent that materialised in the lower Octagon for the duration of the Rugby World Cup.

Ralph Hotere’s 80th birthday was celebrated with greatest hits exhibition Zero to Infinity at the Hocken Gallery. And Pathway to the Sea – Aramoana (1991), by Hotere and Bill Culbert, returned to Dunedin Public Art Gallery, where for the first time this linear assemblage was installed as originally intended, pointing out along Otago Harbour towards Aramoana.

DPAG’s Big Wall was fully engaged by Jeena Shin’s complex Fractus, an all-over painting of triangular planes of white on white, the surface of which shimmered with the changing daylight. The power of the sun was also prime mover in Chris Reid’s exhibition of “solargraphs” at Monumental Gallery, offering a variation on the pinhole camera by using an exposure time of weeks or months to produce tantalising suggestions of the “weight” of slowed-down time. Photographs by Max Oettli, at Brett McDowell Gallery and Temple Gallery, by contrast, revealed lighting reflexes, along with a sophisticated eye for comic possibilities.

Painter Sam Foley, known for nocturnes of Dunedin’s liminal spaces, returned from Germany with atmospheric paintings of the shadowy trees of Bavaria’s Black Forest, exhibited at the Artist’s Room, while Jasmine Middlebrook won, among other awards, the City of Dunedin 2011 Art Award for her virtuoso exercise in interlacing paintwork and dreamy imagery, Now I’m Not So Sure.

And at Blue Oyster Art Project Space, psychogeographer Kate Fitzharris displayed rosary-like strings of beads created from beeswax and roadside detritus found while walking the 23km from the Blueskin Bay oyster beds to the Blue Oyster.

Theatre


Auckland, by Nick Grant




2011 was an appropriately strong year for theatre in the freshly minted super-city, which had its cultural capacity significantly bulked up by the August opening of new venue Q – a development that should help finally silence those cheap shots about Auckland and pottles of yoghurt. With picking a particular favourite a happily impossible task, I offer instead the three shows (in strictly alphabetical order) that squarely hit my sweet spot: Auckland Theatre Company’s Mary Stuart, Kila Kokonut Krew’s The Factory and Silo Theatre’s The Only Child.

Interestingly, the ATC and Silo productions were updated versions of venerable plays, two centuries and 107 years old respectively. Where the former enjoyed a sparkling new translation and the latter received a rather more radical refurbishment, both eloquently illuminated the constant, insistent throb at the heart of the human condition, impervious to the ebb and flow of mere fashion – surely the pinnacle of theatre’s purpose. The manner in which all the elements of each worked together in concert, meanwhile, was exquisite.

Although aspects of the physical staging of the KKK’s fresh-as-a-daisy, fresh-off-the-boat migrant musical didn’t have quite the same polish as the other two shows, it was the most purely enjoyable production of the year. I hope 2012 will see (and hear) the release of the soundtrack album, and the production itself toured – to deny the rest of the country the chance to see it is just cruel.

Peach Theatre Company’s Othello, in stark contrast, was like an inadvertent example of the Theatre of Cruelty, so painful was it to watch: in marketing parlance, although Jesse Peach the impresario certainly did a stellar job of selling his show’s sizzle, as a director he completely failed to create a satisfying sausage.

Wellington, by Elspeth Sandys




There is something unforgiving about theatre. If a play is bad, it will not be saved by clever staging or even brilliant acting: on the contrary, the emptiness at its heart will be all the more cruelly exposed. On the other hand, if a play is good, the audience will have that release of emotion, whether it be expressed in laughter or tears, that makes the theatrical experience so unique.

I’m happy to report that in Wellington in 2011 there were considerably more plays in the latter category than the former. Audiences lucky enough to see Circa’s two standout productions, Andrew Bovell’s When the Rain Stops Falling and Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County, will have experienced the catharsis only great drama can produce. Both of these plays were brilliantly acted by some of the country’s finest practitioners.

Honours go to Circa again for the best (in my view) New Zealand play of the year, Hone Kouka’s I, George Nepia. A touching revelation of the life of one of our greatest rugby heroes, the play succeeded where all the hype -surrounding the World Cup failed, in converting this reluctant Kiwi to our national game.

Elsewhere, at the troubled Downstage and at Bats (as exuberant and experimental as ever, and now reprieved thanks to Sir Peter Jackson riding to the financial rescue), there were enough highs to -justify the claim that theatre in Wellington is going from strength to strength. Arthur Meek’s touching On the Upside Down of the World was, for me, the highlight of Downstage’s year, and Bats produced not one but two outstanding new New Zealand plays, both of them sharply political, but only incidentally partisan: The Engine Room by actor and first-time writer Ralph McCubbin Howell and Slouching Towards Bethlehem by old hand Dean Parker.

Christchurch, Faith Oxenbridge




Dean Parker’s Midnight in Moscow enjoyed two performances before the February 22 earthquake struck, leaving the Court Theatre and its 40-year-old collection of props and costumes unsalvageable. Six months later, the Loons fashioned a wild – if not quite wonderful – Macbeth out of Lyttelton’s rubble, and this was the year of theatre in Christchurch.

But now a silver lining has emerged from the clouds of dust. The Court’s new space – all 3200sq m of it – is an old granary in the suburb of Addington, and it’s magnificent. The Shed’s purpose-built auditorium, foyer with bar, cafe and alternative performance space have been designed by local architect and actor Stewart Ross – who designed the original auditorium – and brought about through the drive and determination of artistic director Ross Gumbley, Court chief executive Philip Aldridge and their team of fundraisers and workers, not to mention the generosity and support of sponsors.

The new auditorium has all the intimacy of the old theatre but is bigger – with more seating and height – and better. It is earthquake-proofed and insulated and has better sight lines and more comfortable seating. On the day I visited – a week before their new season opened with Roger Hall’s A Shortcut to Happiness – it was like entering Santa’s workshop. The excitement was tangible. And they should be excited; Christchurch should be excited. Gumbley has big plans for the space and the future of the theatre and has created a strong line-up of- -productions for the new season. “Christ-church has shown us that they want their theatre back,” he said. And they’re getting it – with bells on.

Dunedin, by Helen Watson White




Fortune’s fortunes rose in 2011, with a string of popular successes, including a new play sponsored by the Otago Daily Times to celebrate its 150th anniversary. That was Simon Cunliffe’s newspaper exposé The Truth Game, as fast and furious as Roger Hall’s A Shortcut to Happiness was flighty and fun. Both were more entertaining than the season-opener, Patrick Barlow’s “comedy of incompetence”, The Wonder of Sex, which promised more than it delivered – for reasons I still don’t understand.

I minded missing God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza, but enjoyed Dave Armstrong’s The Tutor as much as his Wanaka--premiered Rita and Douglas. I liked, too, Alan Ball’s Five Women Wearing the Same Dress – although not everybody did; on the other hand, I wasn’t as taken as everyone else with the manic puppet-musical Avenue Q. On top of its own programme, the Fortune hosted a Read Out Loud series (continuing), and reputedly adventurous, youthful late-night improv shows, as well as Verbatim Theatre’s moving piece on domestic violence, Hush.

But the Fortune yet again offered nothing with a whiff of history about it, even in our heritage-proud town. It was left to the Globe to present – with its own sort of near-professionalism – not one but two 20th-century classics, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (brilliantly directed by Richard Huber) and an equally enthusiastic Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward.

New groups sprang up – too many to name; Allen Hall kept up its unique training ground; the Regent theatre was reopened after major renovations; Utopia (Limited) by the Really Authentic Gilbert & Sullivan Performance Trust was almost as good as its 2010 Gondoliers. It was a pretty good year.

Dance


By Francesca Horsley




The spectrum of contemporary dance runs from the extremes of highly articulated movement – expressing physical and choreographic brilliance – to reflective commentaries on everyday life, sometimes with minimal movement. Internationally, these polarities are ever-widening, and although both were evident in New Zealand dance this year, its hallmarks were intense physicality and subtle humour, with Pasifika and Maori stories holding sway.

With each new work, master choreographer Douglas Wright has further developed his iconic movement vocabulary. His Rapt built a compelling landscape of psychological drama and richly embroidered dance. Premiering at the Auckland Arts Festival, it featured the best of New Zealand dancers realising his wonderfully -flamboyant creation.

Ann Dewey’s densely layered works meld her personal treatise with natural motifs from her North Auckland coastal village, Leigh. Shine Lady presented -goddesses in delightful variations – regal, but nevertheless down-to-earth – affirming women’s place both in a personal and societal terrain. The storytelling traditions of Maori and Pasifika dance continue to provide challenging works. Atamira Dance Company brings acute messages from the past into the present. Te Houhi, by Maaka Pepene, interrogated postcolonial amnesia to reveal a poignant story of grace and courage in the face of state tyranny in Te Urewera.

Choreographer/video artist Louise Potiki Bryant produces works of extraordinary clarity and depth, which deserve national acclaim. In Nohopuku, in collaboration with electronic musician Paddy Free, her dance brought to life ancient voices, seamlessly integrated with her cutting-edge videography.

Intense physical dance requiring strength and musicality marks Neil Ieremia’s choreography. His themes are imbedded within a mix of European/Pasifika traditions and social commentary. The dancers in his company, Black Grace, always give their utmost, and in Verse II embodied his turbulent yet poetic insights.

The earthquakes that disrupted and inspired Christchurch choreo-graphers are the dance story of the year. Profoundly affected by the loss of rehearsal and performance space, Christchurch-based dance-makers and performers channelled the upheaval into new works. Fleur de Thier -created Tilt and Julia Milsom developed Random Acts of God, works that tested dancers’ nervous systems, both physically and psychologically, delivering metaphoric renderings of the human response to tragedy.

Annual Christchurch dance festival The Body was a bravura event packed with the country’s best touring works. The “can do” spirit was uplifting. Several works travelled north to Auckland’s Tempo festival, including Echo 1, choreographed by Riki von Falken, which was an intellectual work exploring the relationship between space and confinement.

As a dancer, Sarah Foster-Sproull puts conviction into every movement; as a choreographer, she captures the restless and rebounding energy of youth. Her duet with dancer--extraordinaire Alex Leonshartsberger in the Tempo piece Brunhilde Observing Gunther, by Mia Mason, was sublime. Foster-Sproull’s choreography in Tragic Best was an effervescent romp in which bumptious oddities out-
jostled one another.



Wellington’s Footnote Dance always punches above its weight, touring works by leading choreographers. In Hulla-polloi, by Kate McIntosh and Jo Randerson, a community of endearing yet disturbing futuristic creatures, moving about in repetitive sequences, stuffed consumer waste under their costumes before disgorging it back on stage. In contrast, Body/Fight/Time, by Malia Johnston and Emma Willis, was exhilarating, high-paced action. Bodies collided, twisted, connected and fell apart in combustive encounters – dialogue exchanges came via cue cards.

Subversive works by Sean Curham and Alexa Wilson gave audiences a taste for the extraordinary, challenging socially acceptable mores with iconoclastic delight. Curham’s Are You Scared of Me?, an obtuse work with Suzanne Cohen, combined the Sweet Adelines choir, the shell of a 1970s Toyota and a pulley, to the bewilderment of the audience. Wilson’s idiosyncratic Weg: a-way was heart-on-sleeve, embodying social media-like, tell-all interactions with the audience, travel snapshots, personal disclosures – and a graffiti-writing session on her exposed body.

This year’s Royal New Zealand Ballet performances combined storytelling – mischievous Pinocchio, lovelorn Petrouchka and triumphant The Sleeping Beauty – with abstract works including Cameron McMillan’s Satisfied with Great Success, which played homage to Stravinsky. The company’s commitment to meeting the technical challenges of the classics, together with contemporary choreography, is to be applauded. RNZB is a national treasure, and new artistic director American Ethan Stiefel will no doubt add further lustre.
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