Auckland Festival
March 5-22 | Reviewed by Renee Liang

BILLED as “an extraordinary evening of cross-cultural collaboration and innovation,” The Wide Alley (Festival Club, March 6-7) doesn’t quite live up to this promise, but instead resembles a comfortable jam session. This isn’t so bad. Being a fusion of jazz and traditional Chinese street music, it was always going to be more comfortable in a lounge than in the Festival Club which turned out to be too large a space for this gig.

The Wide Alley is the result of a nearly ten year collaboration between Australian jazz musicians Vanessa Tomlinson and Erik Griswold, and composer Zou Xiangping from Chengdu province in China. Watching “Western musicians trying to play like Chinese and Chinese musicians trying to play like Westerners” brings the revelation that the two musical traditions are very different indeed, in everything from chord progression and rhythm to singing style. There must have been some interesting negotiations happening during rehearsal. Even so the louder Western instruments (trumpet, piano, trombone, percussion and double bass) did occasionally overpower the more subtle erhu, cymbals and small drum.

The resultant collaborative pieces are a mixed bag. There are moments of lyrical delight, for example in a sensitive adaptation of Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu’s “Enjoying Flowers”. Unfortunately the artistically paint-splashed screens made it difficult to read the subtitles, which were also projected far too small (I was sitting midway back and even squinting could not read most of the text). Films shown during some of the other pieces were similarly hard to see. Most of the folk songs were light in both tone and topic, and I found myself occasionally wishing for a piece that explored a darker subject than maidens picking flowers. I may have picked up on more had I been able to read the subtitles though!

The formality of the Chinese songs also made it difficult for them to be reinterpreted in a jazz style. Ultimately, I found this to be a worthy but uneven collaboration, with the two forms working against each other in some pieces, and hitting a note of rare resonance in others. Not everyone felt this way though. At the end of the evening, a gentleman stood up and proclaimed it some of the most exciting music he’d ever heard. So for the record (no pun intended), a CD will be available later in the year through clockedout.org.

Fluff (Town Hall, March 12-15), as the name suggests, is a light confection aimed at the under-fives. Devised and performed by Australians Christine Johnston, Lisa O’Neill and Peter Nelson, it features a kooky trio called the Gingham Family who wander the world seeking lost toys to bring home. This is a kiddy version of the multigenre, multimedia shows that are headlining the Auckland Festival.

On entering the Concert Chamber, we have the choice between sitting on the mat or being an adult and taking a chair. (Many of the real adults chose to sit on the mat.) The set is decidedly reminiscent of Playschool: toys, doll’s beds, giant building blocks, bright colours and interesting lights. There are some clever design elements: the central building blocks convert into a projection screen; toys become comforting night lights; the Gingham family appear as if emerging from the walls themselves. Straight away we know that the world is not going to operate along its usual principles.

That being said, Fluff doesn’t have much impact beyond being nicely presented entertainment for very young children. There are many promising tangents – for example the live sampling of audience voices to make into a soundtrack for the show; the idea that lost toys can be brought ‘home’ and their qualities rediscovered; the engaging dance steps of Lisa O’Neill, who ‘reinterprets’ the personalities of the toys. Any of these could have been taken further to make a truly fascinating piece with appeal beyond the under-fives, but although there were moments of interest, it never quite got there for me.

On the other hand, the innocent charm of this show is undeniable. It is pretty much a live version of Playschool, with a more tech toys that those poor TV presenters ever had, and better dancing, as well. But somehow the energy wasn’t quite there on the morning I attended, even though there were plenty of kids. On the other hand, who needs extra energy? If you are a hassled mum with young kids looking for something easy to do this weekend, this could be the perfect rest hour for you.