This week at Auckland Arts Festival: March 20-26

by Metro / 20 March, 2017

Pick ‘n’ mix between dance, theatre and visual art for the final week of the annual Auckland Arts Festival.

Natalia Osipova and Sergei Polunin are both quite “mood-dependent”.

Natalia Osipova & Guests, Aotea Centre,  March 24-26.

The reigning queen and king of the ballet world are now partners on stage as well as in life.

She may be the darling of the ballet world, but Natalia Osipova is no prima donna. Speaking to Metro by Skype from her home in London, the Russian-born ballerina is just out of the shower, her hair still damp.

At 30, the Royal Ballet star, who has been dancing since the age of eight, is testing new territory. Natalia Osipova & Guests is a three-part work, the first the ballerina has commissioned. The resulting creative freedom has enabled Osipova to have her real-life partner, ballet bad boy Sergei Polunin, as her dance partner. (Ukrainian-born Polunin is a sensation in his own right, not least because of the David LaChapelle-directed video of him dancing to Hozier’s “Take Me to Church”, which went viral in 2015.)

For the Sadler’s Wells London production, Osipova commissioned works from three of her most beloved contemporary choreographers, Arthur Pita, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Russell Maliphant — chosen, she says, for (respectively)their dramatism, fluidity and energy.

First and foremost a classical dancer, she was ready for a fresh challenge. “When you work one-on-one with a choreographer, you can create your own world. I think that quite likely everyone strives for this, and I, too, am moving in this direction,” she says through a Russian translator.

This new work is her key to exploring different styles of dance. Part one sets Osipova and Polunin amid ’60s-era rock’n’roll, while the second piece sees Osipova dance with two partners to examine concepts of human co-existence. For the meditative third dance, she and Polunin reunite, and their masculine and feminine energies come together in somewhat unromantic ways.

Osipova describes 27-year-old Polunin in terms of his presence on stage. “Sergei is a very unusual, very interesting dancer, with his own energy and his own personality. It is not always easy for two people with their own charisma and personality to dance a duet.” 

His unpredictability is something she also sees in herself, she says, and this offers a thrilling challenge. “We have shows that go incredibly well because we are in sync, but there are times when we are not in sync, and it does not go so well, because we both can be quite mood-dependent.”

She expects the moods of the audience to shift and change during the show, too. “Dance is about an energy exchange between the dancer and the audience. When I dance, my goal is always to charge the audience with emotions and feelings, through my body and through my soul.”             #

 -India Hendrikse

Renee Liang, who converted her play The Bone Feeder into a libretto for opera.  Photographed at the ASB Waterfront Theatre by Stephen Langdon.

The Bone Feeder, ASB Waterfront Theatre, March 23-26.

Three strands of New Zealand identity come together in an opera inspired by the loss  -- and recovery — of human bones after a shipwreck.

The sinking of the SS Ventnor and the loss of “the bodies of the resurrected Chinese” — as the Nelson Colonist called them in a 1902 report — was one of New Zealand history’s forgotten episodes for most of the 20th century.

Renee Liang first came across the story in 2007 and began writing a play about it almost immediately. The play has been staged four times in various centres around the country, and now it’s an opera, with a magical cicada, ghosts, politics, high melodrama and, most importantly, a fart joke. “Getting a fart joke into an opera is probably my greatest achievement in the arts to date,” says Liang.

She wrote the play The Bone Feeder for herself, as a way of answering some deep personal questions, “because I’m a New Zealander, born in New Zealand, but from a different group of cultures. What drove me was coming across the stories of early Chinese New Zealanders. They came here as gold miners in the late 19th century with no hope that they would ever belong. And some of them found connections to New Zealand, but they were still torn between staying here and going back to China. And so you get the lost coffins on the Ventnor.”

The Ventnor was a steamer carrying the bones of 501 New Zealand Chinese to Hong Kong so they could be buried in family graves with full traditional rites — which, according to custom, was the only way the dead could rest in peace. But the Ventnor hit a reef off Taranaki, and after limping up the coast, it finally sank in deep water near the Hokianga.

“A beautiful component of the story is that years afterwards, the ship began to break up, and the bones bobbed to the surface and started coming to shore. And the iwi of the Hokianga found them and said, ‘These are someone’s family, we need to look after them.’ And so they buried them in their own family graves. If you speak to the right people in the major iwi groups of the area, the older people will say, ‘Oh yes, I remember, my aunty told me...’”

So the story weaves together three strands of New Zealand identity: Chinese immigrants who thought they could never be accepted here; Europeans, who entirely agreed; and Maori, who gave the lost dead a home. Carla van Zon, artistic director of the Auckland Arts Festival, saw the play at TAPAC in 2011 and suggested to Liang that it would make a superb opera. “I just went, ‘Yeah right.’ And then three years later, she came back with everything lined up and said, ‘Let’s do this.’ And I went, ‘Really?’”

Really. Gareth Farr signed on to compose, Sara Brodie signed on to direct, and Liang set out to convert her play into a libretto. “Obviously, I’ve never done it before. Very few people in New Zealand ever get to write a second libretto. I had to learn as I went.”

One big change from theatre is a completely different attitude to stage directions. “Sara said to me early on, ‘Be aware that I’m not going to follow any of your stage directions.’ I realised I had to put my intent into the actual words people sing. Everything in opera starts from the words, so everything has to be put into them. If it doesn’t come out on opening night the way it is in my head, I actually only have myself to blame. But this is part of what collaboration means. You kind of have to let go and trust people to get the gist.”        

 — David Larsen

Moss Patterson (second left) and dancers rehearse Awa: When Two Rivers Collide. Photographed by Stephen Langdon at the Corban Estate Arts Centre in Henderson.

Awa: When Two Rivers Collide, Town Hall, March 25.

Family tragedy lies behind the director’s imagining of a lost spirit trying to return to New Zealand.

It boasts a 100-strong cast but for Moss Patterson, artistic director and choreographer of Awa, the show starts with just one person: his dad. Patterson was 20 when his father, Dale, died suddenly while working as an engineer at a dam project on China’s Yellow River.

“We never really knew what happened to him,” says Patterson, two decades on. “There were these stories, like maybe he faked his death and he’s now living in a Shaolin monastery. This show will give me an opportunity to explore that sense of loss and those feelings of how to let go.”

Awa is a personal story and a universal one that follows the lost spirit of a man trying to return to New Zealand after his death in China. Featuring a children’s chorus, Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra musicians and professional contemporary dancers from Atamira Dance Company and China versed in kapa haka and martial arts, the large-scale spectacle is performed in the round.

The staging and musical score are inspired by the kura kaupapa attended by Patterson’s two children, where they start each school day in a circle, reciting whakapapa and prayers. The series of fugue scores is mostly Bach, infused with haka and prayers; the Patterson kids and their classmates are in Awa’s chorus.

Patterson hopes his family will see the show “and somehow weave things back together through the movement, the song — feel something in the experience that will help us connect back to dad’s story and our own stories, our connections with each other”.

— Susannah Walker

Horror references classic horror movies but aims to be humorous and humane with it . Photo/ Sanne Peper Kopie.

Horror, The Civic, March 21-26.

It's scary and dramatic but also funny, and also touching and also poetic.

“You can make people scared,” says Jakop Ahlbom. “Sudden noises, unexpected movements; this is not difficult.” He sounds like a chef explaining that, yes, he can chop vegetables very quickly: the skill does need to be learned, but it’s a little odd to be asked about it.

Not that it’s vegetables he chops. “You will see blood flying, there will be a knife suddenly in the back of somebody, you will see things floating, people will emerge from where they shouldn’t be, things will disappear... The difficult thing, what I find exciting, is to see if you can build up tension, pull people into the story so you’re not just scaring them with tricks, you’re scaring them because they care.”

Ahlbom is the leader of the Jakop Ahlbom Company, a physical theatre troupe based in the Netherlands who create touring spectaculars, stage shows whose wide-ranging stories aim to be humane, absorbing and unexpected.

“I try every time to take a new subject and a new genre. So you could say that my shows don’t look like each other at all. But they’re all very physical, very visual, and I use a lot of illusion effects. And they’re always a little bit funny here and there, because when your ingredients are very dramatic, you need to have a comical aspect to even it out.”

For “dramatic”, in the case of Horror — the first Ahlbom show to come to New Zealand — read “terrifying”. As the show opens, a woman and two men have arrived at an old Victorian house. It’s out in the country somewhere. “And something is not okay in this house... We learn that this is a woman coming back to the place where she spent her childhood, and she is going to be confronted with old memories there, in the form of a ghost story.” The genre being referenced: classic horror movies, a particular enthusiasm of Ahlbom’s since his childhood in Sweden.

“I have this memory of hiding behind the television the first time I ever saw one [a horror movie]. That bungy-jump feeling of falling into fear… My favourites when I got a bit older were Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, the Evil Dead films from Sam Raimi, Braindead from Peter Jackson, The Exorcist, The Shining — that would be artistically the most substantive one — the Japanese original of The Ring, not the remake, and more recently The Orphanage. That was a very good one, I thought.”

All of these films are present in Horror, some only as influences, many in direct visual quotes. “People will see things they wouldn’t believe they could see live on stage. Horror fans will recognise many of these images, but the impact is much greater than in the movies, where special effects are so common. The effect on stage becomes something totally different.”

The aim is not merely to make a spectacular horror show, Ahlbom stresses. “There also has to be a sense of showing what horror is, and for me, that means bringing characters back to deep traumatic memory. And there has to be sort of a lightness to it, too, so that it’s scary and dramatic but also funny, and also touching and also poetic; I try to combine all of this. So for the audience, it’s more than only horror, hopefully, and you don’t need to be a horror fan to enjoy it. But people who do like horror will really enjoy it, because they’ll understand all the references, and it will let them experience the genre in a new way.”

— David Larsen

Eclectic showman Rufus Wainwright says the American Dream is on the line.

Rufus Wainwright, ASB Theatre, March 22.

Rufus Wainwright is striking back at Donald Trump — with opera and show tunes. 

Rufus Wainwright could be a kind of poster boy for the Deplorables-detested, liberal la-la land elite. His husband, JÖrn Weisbrodt, is a German-born arts administrator but he has a child with Leonard Cohen’s daughter, Lorca. He’s battled back from crystal-meth addiction, fronted an environmental campaign dubbed Blackout Sabbath, campaigned for Hillary Clinton, and lives “bi-coastal” between California and New York. And he opens this interview by talking about the suitability of Donald Trump’s pick for head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

So is it time for the man who, even as far back as 2007 in his song “Going to a Town”, wrote he was “so tired of America” to finally cash in his chips and take advantage of dual Canadian citizenship?

“No, I don’t think any of us get a free ticket out of this one, I’m afraid. Even in New Zealand,” he says. “I think it’s going to really take a worldwide effort and a plan of action that involves all nations, all peoples, to really figure out this one. Because it’s not only Trump, it’s happening in Europe and … well, we live in a very mixed-up world at the moment.”

So the performer and composer is using upheaval as a creative springboard — even composing a new opera based on the life of Roman emperor Hadrian. “If one is going to talk about the end of a classical era and the beginning of the fall of Rome … I don’t have to look too far for inspiration.”

Ever the eclectic showman — he’s comfortable in pop or classical, can share stages with symphony orchestras, Robbie Williams or Alison Kraus, has recorded for films from Shrek to Brokeback Mountain, written music for Shakespeare’s sonnets and modern dance, and will bring a show to Auckland that combines selections from his opera Prima Donna with a tribute to Judy Garland — Wainwright, at 43, is looking to his muse as a form of therapy.

“After George Bush decided to invade Iraq the second time, I was so despondent and depressed about the state of the United States, I really did think about leaving,” he says. “But I also started getting into Judy Garland records, just because that brought me back to this mythical concept where America could be great and could be inclusive and could be brilliant.

“And it’s funny because now I’m certainly having a similar experience with this whole Donald Trump thing — there are actually certain musicals and certain productions from earlier times that are very, very touching right now, because that American Dream is really on the line at the moment.”

And so Wainwright will retaliate by showcasing opera and Garland accompanied by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. It’s a departure for audiences here, who have seen him in recent years with Paul Simon or fronting a seven-piece band. The first half of the show is a multi-media reconfiguration of Prima Donna, in which three classical singers retell the story of fictional diva Régine St Laurent, portrayed in an accompanying film by artist Cindy Sherman wearing Maria Callas’ actual costumes. In the second half, Wainwright revisits Garland’s legendary 1961 Carnegie Hall concert. It’s a format he’s already toured around the world.

Why opera? “I’ve always wanted the bigger things in life, whether it’s marriage or opera or fame,” he says. “I guess I just devour profound experiences for breakfast. And sometimes that’s a great thing, like with having a child or being married or writing an opera, and other times it’s not so great if I’m abusing myself or letting my ego take over. I love going to the opera so much because it’s such a feat for them to sing that material and that’s the level of excellence I’m attracted to. I’ve written a ton of pop songs, and after this opera’s done, I will return to that form again and see what all these wild artistic pursuits have engendered.

“But, in the end, it’s because I do like the bigger questions. And I am happy to go out there before everybody and check out the terrain. I just hope I make it back again.”

- James Belfield


More hot picks

Visual art—Antarctica — While You Were Sleeping

In 2015, Joseph Michael was part of an expedition that saw him photographically map icebergs in Antarctica. Now he’s projecting the visuals and sounds onto the exterior walls of Auckland Museum. Major wow factor.
Auckland War Memorial Museum, March 24-26.


Stage—Lost at Sea

No kids? Borrow some to catch this interactive show by award-winning Scottish children’s theatre company Catherine Wheels. It tells the true tale of some 28,800 rubber ducks and other bath toys accidentally ending up in the North Pacific Ocean, which proved incredibly useful to scientists modelling ocean currents.
Q Theatre, March 16-19, Mangere Arts Centre, March 25.


The feisty spirit of Aretha Franklin’s 1967 hit lives on, with local soul sisters Annie Crummer, Aaradhna, Bella Kalolo and Esther Stephens joining forces with the Auckland Jazz Orchestra to belt out tunes, including selected Franklin classics.
Spiegeltent, March 22-23.


Stage—How to Keep an Alien 

Being in love can be the most complicated thing in the world. A very honest, very bureaucratic, very modern love story, written and performed by Edinburgh Fringe winner Sonya Kelly.
Q Theatre, March 22-26.


Metro is a proud sponsor of the 2017 auckland arts festival. For more festival information, including booking advice for all shows, visit


Should we bring our fallen soldiers home?
90004 2018-04-25 00:00:00Z Television

Should we bring our fallen soldiers home?

by Fiona Rae

One of our most successful writers visited six countries to speak to the families of those buried in Commonwealth war graves.

Read more
This may be the most beautiful natural history documentary ever
90022 2018-04-25 00:00:00Z Television

This may be the most beautiful natural history doc…

by Fiona Rae

Will Smith and Darren Aronofsky come together to create a jaw-dropping documentary about Planet Earth.

Read more
Lest they forget: Anzac books for children and young readers
90033 2018-04-25 00:00:00Z Books

Lest they forget: Anzac books for children and you…

by Ann Packer

In time for Anzac Day, books for younger readers make war stories easy to digest.

Read more
Scout cafe owner Roger Liu opens Woolfy’s, a new place to eat in east Auckland
90050 2018-04-24 14:22:44Z Auckland Eats

Scout cafe owner Roger Liu opens Woolfy’s, a new p…

by Kate Richards

East Auckland gets a new cafe, Woolfy's, from the brains behind Scout in Torbay.

Read more
How to find your family's Anzac history online
90042 2018-04-24 13:16:14Z History

How to find your family's Anzac history online

by Peter Griffin

As Anzac Day looms there’s an opportunity to delve into millions of World War I documents, which are available for a limited time.

Read more
Grey District's retiring mayor Tony Kokshoorn, the accidental author
90027 2018-04-24 11:31:52Z Profiles

Grey District's retiring mayor Tony Kokshoorn, the…

by Clare de Lore

Grey District's long-serving mayor, Tony Kokshoorn, is retiring from politics next year. We look back at a 2016 profile from the Listener archives.

Read more
The Australian Government has gone to war with itself
89860 2018-04-24 00:00:00Z World

The Australian Government has gone to war with its…

by Bernard Lagan

Sydney swelters and the ruling Liberal Party is bitterly divided between progressives and pro-coal conservatives.

Read more
Why Witi Ihimaera wants New Zealand to bring its war dead home
89883 2018-04-24 00:00:00Z Profiles

Why Witi Ihimaera wants New Zealand to bring its w…

by Clare de Lore

Witi Ihimaera's journey to Commonwealth war graves for a new documentary, In Foreign Fields, is both personal and political.

Read more