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Academy Award-winning Kiwi composer-actor Bret McKenzie is curating part of the NZ Festival of the Arts 2020, in February. Photo/Sara Tansy

Summer in Wellington: Extraordinary encounters, exhibitions & walks

Every day is a good day in Wellington this summer. Even before the New Zealand Festival of the Arts takes over the town, sublimely, in February, you’ll be spoiled for choice – with exhibitions, outdoor concerts, food and wine fiestas... And take your walking shoes! The capital’s stunning trails and urban explorations await.

Creative Capital

What do a comedian-musician, a dancer-choreographer and an avant-garde multi-media artist have in common? They’re all guest curators for New Zealand’s largest arts festival, opening in Wellington on 21 February. Sharon Stephenson talks to creative director Marnie Karmelita.

Ghuznee St is, quite possibly,the most Wellington street in ­Wellington.   

For years, this 650m stretch of bitumen was an ugly duckling among birds of paradise; at best, a portal to somewhere more interesting. Then the developers moved in, exfoliating the street’s grimy history and replacing it with minimalist cafes and boutiques, even craft breweries. Man-bunned baristas with ironic tattoos soon followed. 

At a corner table in one of those intimidatingly cool cafes, heads swivel when Marnie Karmelita squeals with delight. The third guest curator for 2020’s New Zealand Festival of the Arts has just been announced and Karmelita, the biennial festival’s creative director, is like a human Berocca.   

Marnie Karmelita

“I’m incredibly excited that Laurie Anderson, the avant-garde American musician and multi-media artist, will be curating a week of the three-week festival,” says Karmelita, her Australian accent slightly blunted by three years in the US and another three in Wellington.

Anderson will be sandwiched between Academy Award-winning Kiwi composer-actor Bret McKenzie, who’ll curate the last week of the festival (9-15 March), while contemporary Auckland director-choreographer Lemi Ponifasio will take the reins for the first week (21 February-2 March).  

Karmelita has woven another 24 events – ranging from Dutch choir Netherlands Chamber Opera and Lyon Opera Ballet to US country-blues musician Rhiannon Giddens – around those chosen by her guest curators.

It’s no surprise the 2020 festival, the 18th, will have a “very different feel to previous events”, she says. “We had a conversation early on about how we could shake things up to better reflect the world in which our audiences live. Our communities are increasingly diverse and we wanted to bring more of those voices into the conversation rather than just us picking the acts. That’s  how the concept of having guest curators rose, of giving that voice to others.”

US country-blues musician Rhiannon Giddens with multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi. Photo/Supplied

It also dovetailed nicely with the idea of festivals going the Netflix route. “These days, many of us select the TV and music we consume based on the recommendations of platforms such as Netflix and Spotify. We wondered if festivals could be more like that, if guest curators could allow audiences to more easily select from the programme, given people know Bret, Laurie and Lemi and might trust their recommendations.”  

In other words, less passivity and more connectivity, with audiences talking directly to artists and curators. “All three guest curators will be at each event during their respective weeks, so audiences can engage with them about their work and the programme they’ve curated.”

In a world rich with talent and fat with experience, it wasn’t an easy selection process. Karmelita eventually narrowed her wish-list down to 20 and then had to pick a lane: domestic or international; male or female; which type of artistic discipline? There was also the issue of artists who prefer to create their own works rather than curating them.

Karmelita, a classical ballerina who switch to arts management when her body failed her (“I’m simply not built like a ballerina”), reckons she’s hit pay-dirt with the three curators.

“Laurie had previously curated the UK’s Brighton Festival and she sees this as a residency, of connecting with a place and people for longer than just one night. Because she’s not familiar with New Zealand artists, Laurie will be working with artists from the US, Albania, Taiwan and Pakistan, as well as incorporating the work of her late partner, musician Lou Reed. Bret and Lemi, however, have the opportunity to tap into local artists such as Nadia Reid and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.”

Read more: Why Laurie Anderson is bringing songs for dogs and Lou Reed’s guitars to the NZ Festival

Lyon Opera Ballet, here performing Trois Grandes Fugues, are coming to Wellington for the festival. Photo/Supplied

McKenzie says he saw his involvement as “giving Kiwi artists the opportunity to work with overseas artists, because it’s inspiring and opens doors to other work and ways of working. One of the magic things about an arts festival is the way it brings artists together who wouldn’t normally collaborate. They wouldn’t normally even meet, and festivals are a chance for them to cross paths, to cross-pollinate. It can be an incredibly fertile creative landscape. When that works, you actually can feel it in the shows.”

Also shaking things up is an inaugural international artist residency, which brings an artist or company to the capital specifically to create a festival work. The first recipient of the Made in Wellington residency is Irish choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan, who earlier in 2019 relocated from Dingle, Ireland to Wellington for six weeks with 12 dancers and 10 musicians to create his work MÁM.

Guest curator Lemi Ponifasio

Plotting the journey of a child (Keegan-Dolan’s daughter, Ellie) through the ­often-confusing adult world, the 90-minute contemporary dance/theatre/live music piece premiered to acclaim in Dublin in September (the Irish Times called it a “showcase of ritualised ecstasy”). It moves to London’s Sadlers Wells and the Perth Festival before beginning its five-night run in Wellington on 5 March.

“Michael was fascinated with the renaissance of Māori language and culture in Aotearoa, as his work focuses on forging deeper connections with the music, language and traditions of Ireland,” says Karmelita. “He and his team were incredibly grateful to have that unique New Zealand environment in which to create MÁM.”  

And for the first time in the festival’s history, Writers events won’t be shoehorned into seven days but will extend across the festival’s three-week span. “It will be three weeks of exciting conversations with authors, poets and artists that take us to Zambia, Chernobyl, Antarctica and back to Aotearoa,” says Karmelita, swishing black tea around her cup.

And for those who think arts festivals are elitist, this is her response. “Bret could hardly be called elitist! By using guest curators, we’re offering audiences a different way into the festival. So contemporary dance might not be your thing, but maybe you’ve seen Bret in Flight of the Conchords or his work with the Muppets and you think, ‘I quite like him, so let’s see what he’s offering.’ It’s another way the public can be offered a seat at the festival table.”

New Zealand Festival of the Arts guest curator Laurie Anderson. Photo/Supplied

Guest appearances

These three works – one by each of the New Zealand Festival of the Arts’ guest curators – show the breadth and diversity of the 2020 programme.

Chosen and Beloved

Michael Fowler Centre, 21 February

Begin as you mean to go on, seems to be the theme of opening night with this music and dance extravaganza from Auckland-based Lemi Ponifasio. Featuring the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Ponifasio’s dance-theatre company MAU, the opening ceremony will pivot around Polish composer Henryk Górecki’s sorrowful Symphony No. 3 – which will not only stir emotions but remind us to choose love over lament, promises Karmelita. “Prepare to be moved.”

Here Comes the Ocean

Michael Fowler Centre, 6 March 

Laurie Anderson and her international string ensemble, along with New Zealand musicians including taonga pūoro composer and musician Horomona Horo, interpret, arrange and improvise the songs and texts of Anderson and her late husband and collaborator Lou Reed into an entirely new symphonic work. “Laurie and Lou wrote many songs about the ocean, and Laurie is promising this work will be an ocean of sound,” says Karmelita.

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil

Shed 6, 10-14 March   

When London’s National Theatre commissioned British writer Tim Price, director Lyndsey Turner and Kiwi Bret McKenzie to turn George Saunders’ cult 2005 novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil into a musical, they probably didn’t imagine it would be workshopped live as part of the New Zealand Festival of the Arts, where the piece will be shaped into its final iteration. Says Karmelita: “This story of Phil, a ‘nobody’ with an enormous chip on his shoulder and an opinion about everything, gives audiences a rare insight into the process of making a musical, of what goes on behind the scenes in getting a story from the page into living, breathing work."

Visitors to Wonderland can experience the interactive curiosities of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. Photo/Phoebe Powell courtesy of ACMI

Down the rabbit hole

Things get curiouser and curiouser at Te Papa’s new exhibition Wonderland, showcasing the Lewis Carroll stories that have become pop-culture icons. 

It was a warm day in 1862 and Lewis Carroll had taken his boss’s three daughters on a boating trip. As he rowed along the River Isis, the Oxford mathematician made up stories to entertain his passengers.

That particular day’s tale was inspired by one of his young charges, Alice Liddell, whose namesake falls down a rabbit hole into a fantasy world with a Mad Hatter, Cheshire cat and a white rabbit with time-keeping issues.

Carroll’s story eventually became a novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – one of the best-loved children’s books of all time – followed by its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.

Over the years, visual artists of all stripes have fallen under Carroll’s spell, adapting Alice’s story for the screen (at last count, 30 TV shows and 40 movies, from silent films and puppetry to 3D animation, and even video games).

This summer, Kiwis can track Alice’s journey through popular culture at Wonderland, an interactive exhibition running from 7 December to 8 March at Wellington’s Te Papa museum.

Wonderland celebrates the screen history of Alice by demonstrating how artists, filmmakers and fans have returned to her story for more than a century, using different moving image technologies,” says Stephanie Gibson, a Te Papa curator of New Zealand histories and cultures.

That includes scratchy snippets from the first-ever film, a 1903 British version, through to director Tim Burton’s two darkly lurid, post-modern adaptations, where cutting-edge CGI is as big a star as Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter and Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen.  

Wonderland also contains more than 300 original artefacts sourced from all over the globe, including Carroll’s original illustrations and first-edition publications, magic lantern projectors and slides, puppetry, costumes and animation cells,” says Gibson.  

Wonderland will appeal to Kiwis of all ages. Photo/Anne Moffat courtesy of ACMI

Conceived and created by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), Wonderland began its run in Melbourne in 2018 before moving to Singapore. Next, it’s New Zealand’s turn for the exhibition, which is anything but ordinary. It starts in Lewis Carroll’s drawing room, where visitors are given a map crafted around four different characters whose digital features “unlock” various riddles and secrets as they journey through the looking glass.

There’s a Hallway of Doors and a Pool of Tears, which focuses on cinematic works from 1910 to 1931, while the Advice from a Caterpillar section pivots around all things Disney. But the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party is where things get curiouser and curiouser – the digital set and projection mapping mean “items appear and disappear, even the plates come to life”, says Gibson of the slightly surreal four-minute experience. Then it’s time for visitors to get creative, building their own character and scanning it into a large-scale projection in the Red Queen’s croquet ground.

Although Carroll’s original Alice books were designed for children, Gibson believes Wonderland will appeal to Kiwis of all ages.

“Most people have a childhood memory of Alice, of reading the books or seeing the films. But this completely immersive experience, viewed as it is through changing technology, will surprise people with things they either didn’t know about her or the way her story has been reimagined.”

Strolling Egmont St, with its garage-door murals. Photo/Supplied

Walkabout Wellington

A heritage stroll around town or an all-day hiking adventure – the capital is made for walking. 

The sun’s out, rooftop and garden bars are humming, and deckchairs are unfolding on the downtown waterfront lawn. But you have your walking shoes on and you’re ready to explore. For a city-meets-beach experience, a stroll along Oriental Parade is hard to beat; or notch it up and hit the Southern Walkway, which follows the Town Belt and winds through some of the city’s best-loved parks, bush and suburbs to Island Bay. Catch your breath at the top of Mt Victoria and take in the sweeping views of city and sea, before descending to the wild grandeur of the South Coast.

Walkers, hikers and mountain bikers – check out the wellingtonregionaltrails.com site for the best of Wellington’s trails, from the Makara Peak Mountain Bike Park and Remutaka Cycle Trail to the 10km Te Araroa Escarpment Track, which climbs 220m above the Kāpiti coastline for a thrilling, ridgeline traverse. On the wellington.govt.nz/walks site, you’ll find additional guides to the city’s short walks and historical trails, with times, transport connections – and even “don’t disturb the seals” advice!

Makara Peak Mountain Bike Park. Photo/Jay French

You could shame those locals who keep putting off their trip to Matiu/Somes Island, and make the short ferry ride across Wellington Harbour to the predator-free reserve, home to tuatara and kākāriki among other native species. The island has a rich multicultural history. You can stay the night, when you’ll likely hear little blue penguins (kororā), or watch giant wētā going about their nocturnal business. 

The East by West ferry from downtown will also take you to pretty Days Bay and Eastbourne. Hire a bike or e-bike, and follow the beautiful – and flat! – trail along the Pencarrow Coast Rd to New Zealand’s first (1859) lighthouse.

Less energetic but equally satisfying “great outdoors” Wellington experiences include Zealandia in Karori, which became the world’s first fully fenced urban ecosanctuary when it opened in the mid-90s. The number of resident kiwi has doubled in the past five years, and thriving populations of kākā, tīeke (saddleback) and hihi are now spilling out into the surrounding suburbs. This ambitious conservation project with a 500-year vision has successfully reintroduced native species absent from the mainland for more than a century. Guided tours are available by day and by night (for kiwi spotting).

The reservoir tower at Zealandia. Photo/Supplied

Opened in 1906, Wellington Zoo was the country’s first zoo; it’s also the first carboNZero-certified zoo in the world. As well as a self-guided tour, you can book a “close encounter” – such as hand-feeding fruit to the lemurs or having a cheetah purr at your feet.

Wellington city itself is eminently “walkable”, and you can spice up your stroll by following an art deco or heritage trail. In summer, there will also be a host of events – many free – happening around town, including Gardens Magic concerts in the Botanic Garden running from 7-26 January, Pasifika on 18 January along the waterfront, cricket at Westpac (soon to be Sky) Stadium and the Basin Reserve, and the Wellington Wine & Food Festival on 1 February at Waitangi Park.

Every day, though, is a great day for enjoying the capital’s excellent cafes, restaurants and bars. Having worked up a healthy appetite on your walking or cycling adventure, reward yourself with a fab meal, maybe a local craft beer or a fine Wairarapa wine and – arguably – the country’s best coffee. 

This feature was first published in the December 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.