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The five greatest moments of the Arts Festival so far (and a few not so great)

And there’s more to come. With 10 days still to run, Simon Wilson takes stock of the Auckland Arts Festival.

The rain came down and you had to be a hardy soul (and living in an unflooded house), not to stay home. But then it stopped and look at this weather now – and the festival is still on, with some of the best shows still running and more to come.

Five great moments so far…

1. Lights up on the trolls

Eli Kent’s new play Peer Gynt [Recycled] at the ASB Waterfront Theatre is worth seeing for all sorts of reasons – theatrical daring, thematic incision, bravura acting, hilarious costumes, brilliant set and lighting on that big new stage – but the moment that tops them all is the revelation of the trolls. They’re trolls in every sense, all lumpy body stockings and gross sexual appendages, with that ridiculous king of comedy Adam Gardiner running the show. Or trying to.

Want a bout of deep self-critiquing millennialism, a spiralling interrogation of morality, identity and storytelling, a very funny night out? Hurry, it finishes with two shows on Saturday.

There are trolls! Peer Gynt at the Waterfront Theatre only till Saturday. Photo Michael Smith.

2. The first song by L’Arpeggiata

The instruments have names like theorbo and archlute, the musicians were a motley European crew and I thought, this will be nice: intricate, stately and restrained. An evening at peace with something lovely. But it wasn’t like that at all. L’Arpeggiata are like Charlie Mingus and Eric Dolphy running riot in a 17th century English court.

Their music is intricate, for sure, but owes at least as much to the thrilling subversive rhythms and tonal contrasts of the outer reaches of bebop as to Henry Purcell, who actually wrote the songs. And, alongside those fascinating period instruments they also throw in an electric keyboard, a melodica and a set of flat, bodhran-like drums. A sort of world music for the ages. From the opening bars of the opening song the entire audience was transfixed. They’re touring New Zealand right now with Chamber Music New Zealand, if you’re reading this in Napier, Wellington, Christchurch or Dunedin.

L’Arpeggiata (not shown: Charlie Mingus and Eric Dolphy). Photo Michael Uneffer.

3. The pole dancing in La Soiree

La Soiree is the best spiegeltent cabaret show we’ve had here in years. They’re always highly skilled, they’re often very funny, but all too rarely are they also transgressive. This one nails it. Ursula Martinez leads the way with her famous feminist striptease called Hanky Panky – honestly, I watched her hands so closely and I do not know how she disappears that handkerchief. Her faux-Spanish guitar routine is damn good too. The laughs get pushed in delightful new directions by “sexual gentleman” Asher Treleaven reading pornographic Mills & Boon, Mario the Freddy Mercury fanboy narcissist who, wait for it, juggles, and Captain Frodo the Norwegian contortionist. “Is my hair all right, I don’t want to look ridiculous,” he mutters, ridiculously trapped in a couple of tennis rackets.

There are a few weaknesses: kissing the bald men’s heads and sipping audience drinks belong to that special new set of clichés that modern cabaret has spawned. But there’s also so much to marvel at. My favourite: Hamish McCann’s pole dancing, accompanied by Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good”. Birds flying high, you know how I feel? Soulfully raunchy, oh-so-muscular, gravity-defying grace: who doesn’t love a bit of that? On every night except Monday.

La Soiree: pole dancing but not as you may remember it. Photo Prudence Upton.

4. Discovering the website of The Encounter.

I’ve reviewed this extraordinary show here. When you’ve seen it, blow your mind all over again at the extraordinary website here. If you haven’t seen it, be quick: finishes Sunday.

5. Moana Maniopoto singing Nga Iwi E

Maniapoto, Warren Maxwell, Jon Toogood and Rob Ruha produced a magic evening of song in Revolutions, with the deliciously toned musicality of Ruha easily the equal of his more famous co-performers. But while what they did was wonderful, it wasn’t quite what was promised on the label. The Revolutions set of songs were rarely about protest and activism and more about values, family and children featuring prominently.

Toogood, yay, did present ballads of class solidarity: “Here’s a song from my day band Shihad,” he said, “but this time you’ll be able to understand the words.” But for me, the special moment came with Maniapoto’s glorious rendition of that anthem from the Springbok Tour protest, Nga Iwi E. I’ve heard massed crowds of thousands sing it well, but never gloriously well as this.

Meanwhile, Maxwell demonstrated again that ability he has of seeming to grow while he’s performing. He starts hesitant, almost clumsy sometimes, with a voice that seems like it’s nearly gone, but as the song fires up he blooms, it’s like he’s expanding with a fire lit from within and you can see the glow on the faces and bodies of the others. Breathtaking. But he did not sing Home, Land and Sea. I know, everyone always wants a slightly different set list and I just have to deal with it, but hey, it’s only the greatest revolutionary song anyone’s written since forever. RNZ recorded the concert, so listen out for it.

But it’s not all great!

The festival’s not all wonderful. If you turn up at the garden bar in Aotea Square, before or after a show at the town hall or Q or in the Aotea Centre, you’ll probably catch the stage crew on the free music stage there packing away the equipment. At least, that’s been my repeated experience.

Why? Come on festival folk, before and after shows are your peak times to grab the crowds and seduce us into sitting down with a drink. Or do you want us just to go home?

As for Emir Kusturica and his No Smoking Orchestra, what a dud. Half the crowd loved it so if that was you, I’m sorry, I was the grump with his head in his hands. Urgent but dull music, an uninspired barrage of insistently one-notey mediocrity. Despite the obvious musical talent on stage, I’ve never heard fiddle, accordion, guitars and keyboards played with such a blockheaded lack of soul.

Kusturica himself treated the whole evening as an exercise in personal glory, reflected back at him through the trick of inviting people on stage to dance. Women, that is, not men. There were a few men who got up, but they quickly got told to fuck off. Then he organised the women into a line to perform as he commanded. It was icky. As for the Serbian nationalism on display, the flags and whatnot… that’s not something you often see at a concert.

And the goodness to come

Never fear, it was one night only. There’s still heaps of what I expect will be much better to come. For Peer Gynt, The Encounter and La Soiree, see above. There is also:

Power Plant: The light show for families got rained off a couple of times but that’s not going to happen again. It finishes Sunday in the Domain.

Natalia Osipova and Guests: She’s ex-Bolshoi, ex-American Ballet Theatre and currently principal dancer at the Royal Ballet, but this show is contemporary dance. One of her guests is her partner Sergei Polunin, the dancer from the movie The Dancer (yes, that guy). They fell in love dancing Giselle! And one of the choreographers is Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, who brought his show Babel here in 2013.

Natalia Osipova and Sergei Polunin enjoying a quiet moment together.

White Night: The magical mystery tour of art all over Auckland is this Saturday.

Horror: Like a scary movie but live on stage. The Civic will never seem the same again, and it’s pretty weird already.

Whanui: The mashup of local artists and schoolkids continues every day in the city’s north, south, east and west. Check out aaf.conz/Whanui

The Bone Feeder: New local opera set at the juncture of Maori, Chinese and Pakeha cultures, composed by Gareth Farr.

AWA: You won’t see this again: AWA is a multi-disciplinary collaboration of two of Auckland’s great cultural taonga – Atamira Dance and the APO – with a big choir drawn from schools and communities across the city.

Antarctica: A free video show of icebergs projected onto the Auckland Museum.

Rufus Wainwright: In one bill, for one night, we get his opera and his acclaimed tribute show to Judy Garland. This one I really can’t wait.

Rufus Wainwright: Judy Garland and opera, in one show two-part show. Photo Matthew Welch.

Respect: I’d have the Aretha Franklin tribute on my list too, but it’s sold out. Good taste, people!

Find out more about everything at the festival website here.

And if that’s not enough culture for you right now, this weekend also features Polyfest at the Manukau Sports Bowl, the Holi Festival dust-up at the Trusts Arena in Waitakere, and the opening of the Auckland Arts Festival’s new show from the Tate Gallery, The Body Laid Bare. Nudes, that is, and an awful lot of them.

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