Carla van Zon, photographed circa 2013

The last dance of Carla van Zon

Auckland Arts Festival boss Carla van Zon has left the spiegeltent. Triumphant but also very ill, she has retired. Simon Wilson pays tribute.

The day I interviewed Carla van Zon she was due on a flight to Wellington, where the airport was closed due to fog. So she’d managed to get a new flight to Palmerston North. The arts festival had finished and they were cleaning out their offices on Wellesley St: boxes to storage, wheelie bins clogging the hallways. Outside, the rain was so heavy it sluiced down the street. Stressful?

It was, a bit. Van Zon needed that flight because she was due in hospital for an operation the next day. She has chronic kidney disease.

She said to me, when I plucked up the courage to ask her about it, “I have three percent kidney function.”

They have horrible offices. Tiny rooms, narrow angled hallways, an 80s rabbit warren whose bleakness the posters on the walls cannot disguise, and this is because they have never spent festival money on themselves. And it was humid, the drear rain outside, everyone so exhausted they moved like they were wading.

Carla van Zon is a person who will either ignore you or get up close to you and talk, urgently, staring and grinning, speaking only of what’s important. Not today. Today she just sat there, slumped, measuring her speech, telling me what she must have told a hundred other people, about her options – peritoneal dialysis, hemodialysis, a new kidney. As she talked the features seemed to move around in her face.

Peritoneal dialysis means connecting to a hose every four hours. She might not be able to do it because she’s had two lots of major surgery in her life (including for a burst appendix) and she thinks her peritoneum is too badly damaged. Hemodialysis will mean being hooked up to a machine for eight hours every two days.

“I’ll have dialysis,” she said, “if I’m about to cark it.” The emergency-only option. She doesn’t want it.

She wants a transplant. All the operations are done in the public system and there are about 500-600 people on the waiting list. Each year, because too few people donate kidneys and there’s a quota for how many operations are done, about 70 of them die.

Her best hope is to find a donor. Her family have all tested; none of them match. Friends too. Except for one, who does match. But everything takes forever: the friend started the process for donating seven months ago and it’s not all done yet.

Carla van Zon, photographed circa 2012

Meanwhile, that’s it, her last festival. She’s been artistic director of four in Auckland, doubling the audience numbers since she started after 2011. She ran the Wellington festival before that, and further back worked for Creative New Zealand (CNZ), did arts management, produced shows, packed them in and packed them out again and, at the start of it all, she danced. Carla was a dancer.

Her mother was a dance teacher and her father was the head of the local division of Pan Am: she grew up to be glamorous.

Auckland festival CEO David Inns, who talked to me in his own pokey little office one door along, said it’s “one of her strengths” that she’s done everything. “She can talk to anyone in the whole operation and she knows what their job is, you know, she’s probably done it, so she can spot a problem and she knows how to talk about it.”

I asked her, she’s in charge of constructing big cultural statements about who we are, so who are we? Does she have a working definition?

The dancer in her replied. “Our dancers are different. You watch them. It’s because they grew up with bare feet. They’re earthbound, they’re centred, they’re stockier, they’re connected to the ground, they know the feeling of it between their toes and they can feel it when they dance. It’s not just because of kapa haka, it’s running on the beach and climbing on the rocks.”

Not completely glamorous, then. Something more wonderful than that.

Van Zon, second right, with (L – R) former Creative NZ chair David Gascoigne, dancer Natalia Osipova, Governor-General Patsy Reddy, dancer Sergei Polunin and van Zon’s husband, Gregg Fletcher

You sit in the Aotea Centre for a big play or the town hall for a classical concert, surrounded by a bobbling sea of grey hair and bald heads, and it’s not hard to think of the arts festival as an event for wealthy, older, whiter Auckland. Not so, she said.

“Our demographics are quite young. We’re strongly represented in the 30-45 age bracket.” Younger crowds turned out this year for the acrobatic circus show iD and the live horror show Horror. There were flocks of girls and their mums in to see dancers Natalia Osipova and Sergei Polunin and great drifts of boys with their dads at the live-orchestra screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. “Kids who’d never seen an orchestra before,” said van Zon, suddenly beaming.

“There are gateway performances,” she added. “Art should be joyous as well as meaningful.”

There was also La Soiree, the burlesque cabaret in the spiegeltent, which was “full of stockbrokers on a Friday night having just the best time”. I didn’t ask how she knew they were stockbrokers.

Age aside, van Zon had a deeper reason to object to the idea the festival is for old white people.

Senior programme manager Tama Waipara sat with us in Inns’ office and explained the heart of what Carla van Zon has done as artistic director of the Auckland Arts Festival. “The first thing was she put tangata whenua front and centre. And then she said Auckland is a city of the Pacific. She said we have to know who we are and where we are. And then we can invite the world.”

It’s an easy enough thing to say, but Carla van Zon is the one who said it. Who put together a team and led them, who nurtured and frustrated and inspired and loved them, and together with them made it bloom.

The festivals in Auckland and Wellington don’t just find shows to put on, they commission and produce them too. This year van Zon’s special project was The Bone Feeder by Gareth Farr and Renee Liang; in previous years she’s been instrumental in bringing to the stage shows like Waiora by Hone Kouka, Hui by Mitch Tawhi Thomas, The Conch’s Marama, A Frigate Bird Sings by Dave Fane, Oscar Kightley and Nathaniel Lees.

Whānui, in the 2017 Auckland Arts Festival

This year also she introduced Whānui: a daily series of participatory arts-related events for children and families in the north, south, east and west of the city. Artists in all the disciplines worked with local creative groups to create the works: it was your chance to join in a Bollywood dance, or get your kids photographing their world, or produce a group show on the local impact of climate change.

“Those kids came out of it with such hope,” said van Zon, bright again at the memory. She expect Whānui to become a regular feature of the festival.

It’s not easy, taking the festival out of the city centre. Put a show into the Mangere Community Centre, she said, and it will go well if it’s Māori or Pasifika, but not if it’s on tour from Ireland.

“People keep saying to us, why don’t we send shows out there? And we do, we did it with Lost at Sea this year but, but nope. Gotta have the whānau in it.”

And this. “People ask if there is something in the festival for everybody. There is not. All we can do is please various groups.”

David Inns: “She has a commitment to making this a truly internationally recognised festival, rooted firmly in Auckland.”

Tama Waipara: “She’s given us a very clear kaupapa. That’s not easy to do.”

You spend your life in the arts, respected by your peers and the agencies who fund you. You have unparalleled commissioning power, especially now the Auckland festival is annual, and that gives you enormous influence over which artists get to work and what our arts look like. You’re committed across the three pillars: to quality, to development and to community engagement. You build your audiences. And yet every year it gets harder.

“It is harder now,” she said, and got up to look for something, a research paper or a report, to show me. She couldn’t find it and gave up but she stayed on her feet because this was important.

“When Helen Clark was the minister, she didn’t give more money to the arts. But she created an environment where people valued the arts. So we got more corporate funding.”

Corporates knew that if they didn’t sponsor the arts the Clark government would be less inclined to take them seriously.

“That’s all gone now,” she said. “Tell me one major corporate that still gives money to the arts.”

I suggested ASB. “ASB gives money for buildings. Which we need, but we need the organisations and the shows too. Westpac does a bit.”

Why has it changed?

“The minister is, what is it, number 35 in the cabinet? So the arts and conservation, no, they don’t get taken seriously.”

The minister for both the arts and conservation is Maggie Barry.

Van Zon wasn’t finished. “Creative New Zealand needs to lobby more.”

Surely they do that? “It’s about whether they work for the artists, putting the case to the government, or is it the other way round?”

Which do they do mostly? She didn’t want to say.

“But we need more money and it has to come from Vote, not Lotteries.” Lotto money is declining and it’s taking the arts down with it. Van Zon was arguing for secure funding not tied to the uncertainties of our gambling predilections.

Then she sat down, finished, with that at least.

Always in orange: at the South Bank Centre, London

She got into arts administration by accident, filling in for a sick friend at CNZ for a couple of weeks. After that, “I begged David Gascoigne for a job.” He was CNZ chair then; now, he’s husband of the governor-general.  The begging probably wasn’t very desperate: CNZ valued her so much it created a job for her. Carla van Zon, says Inns, “led a huge effort to get New Zealand artists into Asia, into Edinburgh and so on.”

She took our artists to the world. Then she turned around and brought the world’s artists to New Zealand. Now she’s 65 and her contract is up – it was up anyway, she was moving on before she found out about the kidneys.

So what’s she like?

Neither David Inns nor Tama Waipara really wanted to say. They weren’t going to say what everyone who knows her knows: she’s blunt, gruff, determined.

Also generous. Waipara said, “She’ll bring in organic eggs, feijoas, pipi, and she can’t eat them. But she doesn’t make grand gestures.”

She’s frugal. She travels with one small case; she takes the bus to the airport. “Always,” said Inns.

Also flamboyant: she wears orange, pinks and reds. Inns said the orange started with a pair of shoes one day in Lyon, spread to scarves and then to everything. Her glasses frames are red. “But she used to wear black and white all the time. It hasn’t always been orange.”

Inns, for the record, ever the administrator, wears a shapeless dark suit and open-necked white shirt, all the time. Waipara, a musician blessed with a lovely voice, favours black tops and tight black jeans. They’re both going to be lost without the colour van Zon has brought to their lives.

She’s demanding. Waipara said, admiringly, “She’ll always ask, ‘What is the right way to do this?’” But there were things he wouldn’t say. I waited. After a while he said, “The truth? We’ve always had a free-flowing relationship.”

“Carla’s honest,” said Inns. She’ll tell you, and she’ll tell the artists, if they’re not right or not good enough.” If you want your organisation to be as good as it can be, you’ve got to put your disagreements on the table. Van Zon does that.

At the start of each week of the three-week festival they hold a powhiri for the visiting artists. It’s highly charged and the artists often respond to the waiata in kind. This year, at the powhiri at the start of the third week, Rufus Wainwright sang and a choir from Auckland Girls Grammar responded with Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, which he has sung often. They sang it in Māori and he was in tears.

Carla van Zon and Tama Waipara, and Dolina Wehipeihana, the head of programming, they’ve made those things happen. “There’s a festival whanau,” Waipara said. And it’s true, it’s easy to see among the staff: they get up and sing, they inspire each other, they’re tight.

“We call her Auntie Carla,” he said. “She’s our kuia, in our family and among the artists.”

Earlier, she had told me, “I thought I was feeling worse this year. But I’m feeling better. Because of the projects.”

Rufus Does Judy: Rufus Wainwright performing in his tribute show to Judy Garland. Photo: Jo Miller

The life of Carla van Zon. She grew up a Westie but home now is a five-acre block in Otaki, just north of Wellington, where she and her partner Gregg have chooks and all the rest and he makes cider. She’s hardly been home, though, for years: she reckons she’s averaged “four or five shows a week” in New Zealand, at least one a day when she’s overseas, “and five a day in Edinburgh,” at the annual festival there.

Waipara says, “She doesn’t do it because she has to see things. She does it because she wants to.”

She has travelled a lot. Usually she’ll see everything they bring to the festival, often two or three times. David Inns sees a lot of it too, and for this year, because she was ill, he took on more of that load. In more ways than we may ever know, he’s made Carla possible: it was his idea to make the festival annual; he’s given the festival its admin and financial foundation; he’s represented when she couldn’t.

But there’s only one Carla. Some of the shows we get in Auckland are entirely down to her pulling power. This year that included Natalia Osipova, a principal in the Royal Ballet, who was preparing to premiere her modern ballet show but had no plans to come to this part of the world.

“It was a late addition to our programme,” said Inns. “Carla pushed hard with Sadlers Wells [where Osipova will perform the show next month] and it was because of their respect for Carla they gave her two weeks’ leave.” The dancers flew out, did three nights and flew back. No Australian leg, no other shows. Just Auckland.

“That’s the power of Carla. She’s got those relationships with the National Theatre, the National Theatre of Scotland, with everyone.”

“She’s fierce about the programme,” said Waipara.

“Not in a fierce way,” said Inns.

She works closely with shows in development and she engages with the visiting shows too.

“Occasionally,” she said, “I say cut.”

Example? “It happened in La Soiree.” La Soiree is a big burlesque cabaret show based in Leicester Square in London. The lineup changes and neither van Zon nor Inns had seen all the acts. When they got here van Zon was horrified to discover they included a man reading a filthy version of a “Mills & Boon” novel as if it was charming literature. She called it “cheap thrills”, quite different from the politically charged sexuality of the other risqué acts, and wanted it out of the show. But one of the festival patrons told her it was wonderful and the act stayed.

This is how Carla van Zon works.  In 2011, on one of those five nights out a week, she saw Renee Liang’s play The Bone Feeder and liked it so much she asked Liang if she would rewrite it as an opera. Liang said yes but then NZ Opera said no, they didn’t want to be involved. So the festival took on the production.

The Bone Feeder. Photograph: Candice Whitmore

Van Zon surrounded the inexperienced Liang with an A list of creative colleagues: composer Gareth Farr, director Sara Brodie and, later, conductor Peter Scholes. “It was important to have an Auckland person in that role.” Brodie put together her own A list, a creative team that included set designer John Verryt and costume designer Elizabeth Whiting.

The Bone Feeder was inspired by the story of a ship in 1902 carrying the bones of 500 Chinese miners being repatriated to China from the goldfields, wrecked off the coast at Hokianga. The opera explored dual worlds: Māori and Chinese, past and present, reality and magic. The music, especially, made the most of all that with an intricate and very beautiful fusion of Māori, Chinese and European instruments and musical styles. There were many ghosts.

Van Zon called it “the perfect show”, by which she meant it was a perfect realisation of the role of a festival. The opportunities it gave to both new and established talent, the way it was developed, the cross-cultural themes of identity and relationships and, not least, the creation of a bold new piece of art. It was performed in the new ASB Waterfront Theatre and it made budget.

In fact, the whole festival made budget and then some. They had a hideous first week, with torrential rain cancelling some shows and keeping a lot of people at home, but came good in the second week and in the last week they were rocking it. “Everything in those last five days was sold out,” said Inns, which is an exaggeration but not a big one. Van Zon and Inns were both pretty happy. “And don’t forget we had competition,” he said. “Adele, Justin Bieber, the Globe.”

Giving out certificates at a Whānui children’s photography workshop in Otara, south Auckland. Photo: Candice Whitmore

Did she have any advice for her successor? “No.”

What about a successor in 20 years’ time? She couldn’t help herself. “Ask the artist who it’s for. The artist and the audience are of equal importance. I have no time for what I call art in the bathroom.”

Art in the bathroom. She means that thing you do when you stand in front of the mirror and sing with the hairbrush.

“And don’t do the same old crap all the time.”

They should keep paying her just to give advice, I reckon.

“I’m taking Lance Armstrong drugs,” she said. “They’re natural hormones. I shoot up every two days.”

I started to say, you’re uniquely well placed to answer the next question, when she interrupted with a wave. “Art or hospitals? Listen, some things governments are responsible for. Hospitals and schools. They’re not businesses. People in them struggle because they have been made time poor and resource poor.”

It wasn’t quite an answer, but then the question was not quite answerable. She preferred to talk about her doctor at Palmerston North hospital. “He’s fantastic. He makes me laugh. He’s late for his appointments and I don’t mind because I know why. It’s because he’s still talking to the last patient.”

She said, “A doctor who makes you laugh is worth more than everything.”

She looked out at the traffic winding around the City Rail Link roadworks, the pedestrians with their umbrellas. “I can hardly walk up the hill,” she said.

With Carla van Zon not running the arts festival, what will we lose?

“Feijoas,” said Tama Waipara.

“Not as much as you might think,” said David Inns. “Because she’s not going to stop being part of the arts.”

Will the festival change? Well of course it will.

Inns said, “One of the real keys for an AD [an artistic director] is not to think we’re the pinnacle, but to work out how to fit in to what’s already happening.” She didn’t give them the values that come with being connected but she cherished those values. She redefined the festival for the city. She built an arts and events leadership team – they contract to other events in Auckland now – and she gave them artistic rigour.

Waipara said he had a favourite memory of her dancing with Hugh Masekela, the South African trumpeter. “They were dancing, in the spiegeltent, just the two of them. It was a DJ show I think. Just them, dancing.”

She said to me, “I believe art can be the solution to everything.”

I said, really?

“Yes. It takes some time, I’m not saying. But look at those kids in the Whanui workshops, they learned about taking risks. They’ll go on to be risk takers all their lives. Even if they turn into accountants. Because they know the value of risk taking now.”

She has this thing, when she sits at a table, of looking at her hands, slumping a little, thinking about the rings or the spots or whatever, lost in the thought. Then she looks up at you, eyes huge through the glasses. She did it now. “I see the excitement. I see people lifted and enthused by human excellence. We would be a shadow of ourselves, as a people, if we didn’t have art.”

It was still raining. She had that plane to catch. I said it seemed like a good place to finish.

She said, “If I get a kidney by July, I’ll be all right.”

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