Dispatches from the Nelson Arts Festival 2013

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts
On Maori contemporary dance show Kaha; physical comedy piece The Pianist; science hip-hop fusion The Rap Guide to Evolution; interactive news satire Live at Six; and beat generation two-hander Beautiful Losers.

It’s been almost ten years since I’ve attended a Nelson Arts Festival. Back in the hood, I decided to check out what’s on offer in my home city. While shops, bars, and scenes have disappeared since I left, it’s heartening to see that this annual event has grown immensely.

Flicking through the programme, there’s plenty to challenge, inspire, educate, and entertain. There are over 50 performances, mostly from New Zealand, but also a few beyond our borders, as well as free music and community events spanning the 17 days. From Australian circus show Knee Deep, to a play about Janet Frame meeting Frank Sargeson (Gifted), to a performance of hit kids’ book Duck, Death and the Tulip, not to mention acts that recently performed in Edinburgh’s festival, including comedy act Squidboy, there was a lot of choose from.

My first show, Kaha (at the Theatre Royal), from Auckland’s Atamira Dance Company, showcased Maori contemporary dance and set the bar high for the rest of the festival. Consisting of seven different pieces, each explained and introduced by artistic director Moss Patterson, the dancing was bold, energetic, and authentic, bound together by an unforgettable opening and closing set. The opening Haka grabbed everyone’s attention and held it through the six remaining performances, the last being a hilarious version of ‘Thriller’, done to Patea Maori Club’s ‘Poi E’. Those who’ve seen Taika Waititi’s Boy will recognise this dance well.

With a group of three females and four males, the pieces all stood alone beautifully, but were also cohesive within the bounds of the show. Not usually a fan of contemporary dance (I was put off a few years ago when I saw two people roll back and forth across a floor for the better part of a show), I appreciated the explanations and stories behind the pieces, especially the personal links and cultural traditions. These included exploring the rakau—Maori stick games in Poi Rakau—or tackling an old Maori proverb in Te Paki, where three dancers explored the influence the ocean has on internal rhythms, a smooth and captivating piece.

I’ve been away from New Zealand for four years, and I think much of this show encapsulated the diversity and beauty of our land, from the aggression of the Haka, to the quirkiness of the ‘Poi E Thriller’, to the pride of the Moko (another cultural tradition paid homage to in this performance), and the humour of Paarua, where the dancers emulate sport games and competitions, with a bit of break-dancing and slapstick humour using piercing whistles. The seven performances spanned and represented many motifs that make New Zealand a land of beautiful contrasts, and also gave me a sense of relief about coming home.

While the standing ovation for Kaha was well deserved in my eyes, I was not as adoring of the next performance I saw. It probably would have worked on me 20 years ago, but because I didn’t read between the lines of the programme blurb or notice the age 8+ audience recommendation, I only have but myself to blame. When the school kids started filing in my heart sunk, and, being a small theatre, I knew I was going to have to see it out.

Needless to say, The Pianist was not my kind of show. I like my theatre to challenge me emotionally and mentally, although it must be said that the titular pianist (Thomas Monckton) was adept at performing his role—he played the fool by way of Mr Bean while physically resembling The Simpsons’ Sideshow Bob with his frazzled ginger hair. His goofy, predictable, and repetitive clowning had the kids hollering as well as some adults without kids—a baffling sight. The premise of the show has the pianist about to commence a fabulous recital on a grand stage, only for him to spend most of the performance readying himself to play. Obstacles included his piano leg falling off, dropping his sheet music everywhere (this took about 15 minutes of the performance), and losing a shoe in a chandelier. Everyone else in the audience seemed to love it, so I concede, I am a negative Nancy, and will read the programme properly next time I commit to a show.

A few nights later was the show I’d most been looking forward to, The Rap Guide to Evolution. Right away Canadian Baba Brinkman’s fusion of science and hip-hop had me hooked. Accompanied by turntablist DJ Jamie Simmonds and two huge video screens to illustrate his points, Brinkman used the Doctrine of Malthus to relate the “too many MCs not enough mics” adage to farm animals—too many mouths to feed, not enough resources. In the same vein, he pointed to similarities between male peacocks’ showy tails, and hip-hop’s love of bling. Much like a peacock spreading his magnificent tail to lure peahens to his beauty, bling, as symbol of power and success, is also used attract the ladies. Elsewhere, he had us shouting out to his ‘I’m an African’ number explaining how humans originated in Africa—if only we could curb our “middle class grammar” and sing the phrase as it was intended by the song’s inspiration, Dead Prez. Another standout piece saw Brinkman impersonating his Creationist cousins, refuting all their claims with humour and biting truths, while wittingly going back and forth in the argument before adding another angle from a feminist sister. A brilliant show deserving of all the accolades it has collected over the past few years.

A few days later I was back at the Theatre Royal for Live At Six, an interactive satire about TV news in which the audience were encouraged to add to by way of social media. When One News’ fictional presenter Jane Kenyon (Jessica Robinson) is caught in a compromising situation, evidence is blasted all over the Internet, and the next day we are witness to how competing newsrooms spin the story: TV3 go for the jugular, painting Kenyon as a drug addict unfit for the job, while TV1 go into damage control.

Sharp, engaging, darkly humorous, Live at Six is a well-executed play with sublimely believable characters, from the squabbling nerdy editors, to the feisty woman-on-top producers, to a TV3 reporter conflicted over covering a story about his friend and rival. Cynical yet relevant, it’s also an intriguing look at the competitiveness of TV news, with friendships and relationships sacrificed and ethics all but forgotten in pursuit of the story. Encouraging the audience to use social media was also a timely reminder about the changing face of traditional forms of reporting. The one-liners about the nature of news went down particularly well, with knowing laughs and jeers any time an actor proclaimed, “Who said news has to be intelligent?” or “It’s only the news, it’s not real.”

My final show at the Nelson Arts Festival was one I saw last time I was here in 2004. Beautiful Losers, about the relationship between beat writer Jack Kerouac and his friend and muse behind On the Road, Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty in the book), opens with Kerouac (played by Paul Glover) intensely taping away at his typewriter in his mother’s apartment near Times Square, 1948. Frenzied noises come howling off stage; a proudly jacked-up Cassady (Scott Wills) enters, leaving his girlfriend in the bedroom.

This two man play initially sees the pair chasing highs, avoiding responsibility, stealing cars, and driving all night from New York to Mexico to see a “junkie who takes his addiction seriously” (William Burroughs), all with the intention of seeing America and inspiring Kerouac to write. From the moment he bounds on stage, it’s clear that Wills is the star of the show; he’s been performing this role for ten years, and exudes the energy and charisma needed to portray Cassady, who as a hero of the beat generation, is extolled in their novels and poems for his love of life and free spirit.

When I first saw Beautiful Losers, I was a teenager obsessed with Kerouac and the beat generation. The show electrified me; I was rapt with the way they portrayed the slick talking, hedonistic approach to life back then. Nine years later, it is still an outstanding production, capturing the beginnings of America’s counterculture and the essence of Kerouac’s dedication to detailing what life was like for him and his friends. The beats are often romanticised but Beautiful Losers examines the tolls of their lifestyle. There’s depth and darkness that comes through even in the wild moments, something I paid more attention to this time round. There’s the desire for stability—in one poignant scene, Kerouac and Cassady fantasise about a loving father caring for his kids, and earlier, Cassady runs into his drunken deadbeat pa, who asks him for money. There’s the talk of religion—Kerouac wrote extensively on it in subsequent novel the Dharma Bums. And then there’s the crux of the show—the pressure Cassady felt to live up to the reputation Kerouac pinned on him in On the Road—and how that brought about his demise.

It’s not until later in the play, when Kerouac has made his money after the two haven’t seen each other in years, that they are reunited. Cassady tells Kerouac that he stole his soul and sealed it in the book. The consequences of his life are now catching up on him when all he wants is to bury his past and focus on a clean family life. Life unravels for both Cassady and Kerouac, who would be 90 years old had he survived those hedonistic days. Glover and Willis also seamlessly switch to other characters throughout—most notably William and Joan Burroughs, who are wasted the whole time—and they even play out his infamous party trick of shooting an apple off her head, and missing.

Beautiful Losers marked a perfect end to the Nelson Arts Festival. While Nelson has changed quite drastically since I was last living here, it’s great to see that the arts, in all forms, are still cherished and celebrated. A polished arts festival, full of variety and from what I could see, and pretty well attended. I’ll be looking forward to seeing how it will develop further in another few years.

The Nelson Arts Festival ran from October 11-28. Stacey Knott is a freelance New Zealand writer. She has been published in New Zealand, the UK, USA, and West Africa. Read more at weirdwanderlust.com.