Auckland Festival
March 5-22 | Reviewed by Renee Liang

AUCKLAND is known as a rainy city, but it put on a (mostly) sunny disposition for the start of Auckland Festival 2009. But there was no lack of challenging weather in events on offer. In Little Rain (March 3-28, City Art Rooms), one of the many visual arts exhibitions opening during the Festival, artists Cat Auburn and Karena Way use rain as a metaphor for how ideas and images pervade people’s lives. Rain creeps up almost without noticing, getting under the skin. In Rest Cure, featuring a life-size sculpture of a horse bound to a bed, Auburn explores ideas of Victorian repression and artifice and how this hides deeper issues such as freedom and independence. Way’s installation piece Paradise, as far as we know focuses a diffuse light on a white wall above a thin metal rail, encouraging us to escape beyond our own horizons. The other sculptural and photographic pieces work around these themes, while a soundscape created by Way from fragments of poetry, music and environmental noise lulls us into a false sense of security at first. Both artists seem to engage us lightly, drawing us into a world that seems innocent, almost flippant on the surface. But linger a while and the darkness becomes increasingly evident. The exhibition runs until March 28 and is part of the Artlink bus tour on March 21, when Way will invite members of the public to create a sound work with her.

Tempest: Without a Body (March 5, single performance), on the other hand, demonstrated no such subtlety. Lemi Ponifasio’s piece, coming home after many international showings, is an assault on the senses from the very beginning. It opens with an explosive wall of sound that quite literally can be felt vibrating the bones of the audience (not to mention severely challenging their eardrums). Those brave enough to keep their eyes open will see a wizened angel with wasted wings, standing underneath a gigantic wall. The wall seems to change with lighting: resembling flayed human skin at one moment, an impassive barrier about to crush the angel at the other, and at one stage seeming to spill over with blood. The angel screams in agony, calling into being the inhabitants of this post-apocalyptic world: dancing ministers in formal suited lavalava, a man / beast of burden that moves painfully on all four limbs, a bare-chested man who writhes in agony as he is struck with unknown forces.

There is no doubt that this is a piece that excoriates war and those who would live by making it. The visual effects and movements of the dancers are stunning, but constantly traumatising. One of the few moments of relief is a traditional island song sung by the ministers as they move in practised rhythm, their movements referencing a traditional sasa. But this was a brief moment of respite and soon the assault begins again. Images by Marti Friedlander, Ahmed Zaoui and Greg Wood drive home the point that war exists in New Zealand as much as in other places, and the appearance of Tame Iti on stage for a prolonged address brought a strong and vocal response from whanau members seated in the audience. The image of a bent angel departing painfully over broken clods of earth unmistakably references the famous image of Dame Whina Cooper on the 1975 hikoi, but this time the angel holds no small child by the hand. The image is of despair and loss and not of hope.

Gathering Clouds (Black Grace, March 5-8) is a more lyrical but no less hard-hitting work. A response (in part) to the controversial Clydesdale paper which labelled Pacific Island migrants as displaying “significant and enduring under-achievement”, it lays out an alternative vision of Pacific Islanders in New Zealand. Accompanied by a beautiful programme which is itself a work of art and careful scholarship, there is the sense that this is a very personal work by choreographer Neil Ieremia.

The work (whose full name is Gathering Clouds—Peace, Poverty, Dreams and the Pacific) is in three parts – part one, ‘Exodus’, being a revisitation of the traditions which the Pacific peoples brought with them when they came to New Zealand. At the beginning, a man wearing a Zorro-style mask and black gloves walks across the stage holding a stick. What the stick is for is unclear. Is it a weapon? He is followed by the explosion of bodies onto the stage: three women and four men in different tableaux accompanied by traditional Samoan songs. The women, in short dresses designed by Zambesi, wield wooden battle clubs as if they were rolling pins or scarves; their graceful movements cancel out the menace of the weapons. Likewise the men spin, collide, turn and fall lightly around the stage, making Gathering Clouds an object of visual pleasure as well as serious commentary.

But the clouds darken as we watch and the next part, ‘land of the song sung cloud’ captures the terror of the 1970s ‘dawn raids’, set against the ironic counterpoint of Elvis Presley’s voice. In a series of set pieces inspired by (again) Marti Friedlander’s images in her book ‘Larks in a Paradise’, the work introduces elements of theatre and documentary to become a cross-genre work. The voiceover centralises the masked figure as the narrator as he watches his people being oppressed by over zealous policemen. I enjoyed the poetic insightfulness of this narration, although at times it seemed a little too directive.

Pieces such as the dawn raid sequence delightfully demonstrate the blurred borders between absurdist theatre and dance. However where no explanation is needed, Ieremia wisely lets the action do the talking. Such a piece is the striking ‘moving photograph’ of rugby stalwarts melting and fading from view during wartime, later repeated with a ‘photograph’ of a church congregation.

Images of children bursting happily from a school with the inscription “Keep Honour Bright” dominate the last part. It is here that Ieremia gives his moving personal testimony, leaving us in no doubt as to the interpretation of this landmark work: “I am proud to be a Pacific Islander, a Samoan. Equally I am proud to be a New Zealander, a Kiwi. I am blessed to be able to raise my children here, and there is nowhere else in the world that I would rather call home. Despite our struggles, it is in this land and under these Gathering Clouds where I will work, learn and live.”

It is a powerful statement in words. But even more powerful is the dance image Ieremia follows up with. The masked man walks centre stage, within a procession of larger-than-life photos of the people who have come to NZ before him. He pauses, slowly takes off his gloves, and then reaches up to undo his mask. His face finally revealed and reclaimed, he stands and faces us as a fellow human being. The stick he carries is revealed to be a chieftain’s stick, one which assures him of the right to speak and be heard. The clouds break and we are treated to a joyful storm of bodies, demonstrating Ieremia’s determination to show that we can all live as one nation. It is an uplifting image of hope and one which the audience I was with very much applauded.

Sleep/Wake (March 7-10, The Playground) melds aquatic elements with theatre, dance and design in an entirely different way. A collaboration between performance designer Sam Trubridge and sleep scientist Philippa Gander, this is a piece that not so much bends the boundaries between installation art, theatre and scientific investigation as blows them, um, out of the water.

A woman (Elise Chan) lies sleeping on a hospital bed, hooked up to a monitor which displays her (real?) brainwaves. The Orator (Jamie Burgess), a strikingly tall, angular figure wearing a costume suggestive of an ancient priest, enters her small room and closes the door. Using carefully chosen lay language he explains the science and philosophy behind sleep: “Sleep is how we divide our days. Without sleep, there is no tomorrow.” An image of a man apparently asleep rises on the wall behind him: William Trubridge, Sam’s real life brother. It is only when he releases a cloud of bubbles that we realise he is underwater. He is freediving, a dangerous sport where a second’s miscalculation could mean death. In such a way the shallow boundary between sleep and death is drawn early on in this work.

Sleep/Wake is full of quirky surprises. The set constantly changes, as do the cast of seven, and supposedly static elements (such as a kitchen sink) develop in unusual ways. Sam Trubridge seems undaunted by the rather formal surroundings of the Great Hall of the Auckland Town Hall, but instead explores the possibilities of every level of this space, even making sound out of the walls themselves. He also questions our fixed notions of time and space. At one stage, a performer from London ‘skypes’ in by internet (in real time) and speaks to one of the actors. A digital clock above the main stage appears to keep time, but at the end of a performance lasting one hour and ten minutes it reads only 14 minutes. The significance of this number is unclear but intriguing.

Sleep/Wake has no clear line of narrative, but incorporates ideas from science, philosophy, myth and fiction to explore our beliefs around the act of sleeping – and waking. It is an embodiment of the idea that theatre is a waking dream. When the dream finally ends and the lights come on, it takes some time to adjust to the fact that we are back in the real world. Even the sight of a smiling attendant holding out fluffy white towels (did I mention there was water involved?) didn’t quite break the spell, at least not for a while.