Sam Brooks has never been to the World of Wearable Art before. He reports on his experience as a first-timer to the show and a long-time lover of pretty things.
On one level, the World of Wearable Art is the most lavish catwalk show in the world. On another level, it’s an art exhibition blown up to epic proportions. And on yet another level, it’s theatre at its finest; it’s as close as New Zealand gets to Broadway.
If you don’t know what the World of Wearable Art is; it’s a competition where artists and designers across the world design pieces of art that can be worn. There are sections people compete in, like Aotearoa, science-fiction, and the ever-present ‘red’ category. The best designs are put together into a big huge show, people travel to Wellington from all over the world to see it, and everybody’s happy at the end of it.
While I have vague memories of it being on TV when I was a child, I’ve never been to WoW, which is something that surprises me. As someone who watches Versace catwalk runway shows to chill out, it seems strange that I’ve never seen WoW. Additionally, as someone who is the proud and happy mother of five capes, it is felt even stranger that I’ve never been to WoW.
I jumped at the chance to go and see WoW on its first show, and so did everybody else apparently. Every restaurant within spitting distance of the TSB Arena was full to the brim of the assumed audience for WoW; gays and mums (the best and most loyal audiences). As it got closer and closer to 8PM, you could feel the wave of feminine and homosexual energy moving towards TSB Arena (which was lit up with two of those crazy lights pointed into the sky that you only dream about).
Also, being as straight up as possible: I’m a theatre person, not a costume person. I know a lot about theatre, I make it, I critique it, I love it. I know very little about costume design or the work and craft that goes into making it. I have a huge amount of respect for what goes into making wearable art, and a huge amount of love for the results, but I can’t speak to that with any kind of authority. This is me responding to WoW as a theatre person, and also a person who likes looking at pretty things. Read accordingly.
I had some inkling of what to expect going into. You had New Zealand theatre’s foremost director of spectacle-with-a-copious-sprinkling-of-heart Kip Chapman doing his first show for the festival, so I knew it would be… theatrical. I also knew it would be pretty gay; Chapman knows how to make theatre that makes gay men happy, but also makes gay men feel seen and feel relevant.
This came true.
This year’s World of Wearable Art has a plot; it might always have one, I am willing to be corrected on this point, but I get the feeling this is a first or near-first. A creative woman – played by an unrecognisable from my seat Alison Bruce – who is hemmed in by her life and commitments and finds her own creative spark again. Even though the plot isn’t the point of WoW, it’s the goddamned art, there’s a very sneaky (and effective!) pandering to its core audience here. Chapman wants his audience to see themselves in the show, and gives them a protagonist they can easily identify with – it’s a huge credit to Bruce’s physicality and her huge presence as a performer that she makes an emotional impact in a venue as massive as the TSB Arena, even her distress reads as violent as visceral – and to give the show a through line.
We don’t get spectacle often in New Zealand. Real, huge, fall-in-love-with-it spectacle. There’s the musicals at the Civic, there’s whenever Cirque de Soleil strolls on into town, but it’s rare to get something made here, by New Zealanders, that is full of spectacle and is all about the spectacle. To indulge in this terrible play on words for the first and last time, it’s rare to see something where the intent is to ‘wow’ you. The World of Wearable Art does that.
The show is full of those moments that usually happen once in a show; those ones that stick in the back of your brain that you revisit every now and then to make you realise that you actually love this art form. When I think of a moment like that, I think of the angel coming through the wall in Silo’s Angels in America. But with WoW, those moments happen with each section.
There are washing lines of sheets suddenly moving into the shape of a wharenui. There’s the Liberace-type figure lip-syncing on a massive iceberg to ‘Fly Me To The Moon’ (this is a delightfully gay show) while sailors dance around him (this is a very gay show). There’s the entire science-fiction section, which seems ripped straight from the Neverending Story 2, in the best possible way. There’s women in red dresses flailing from the ceiling.
And there’s the ending, with Carrie Green singing a new Don McGlashan song during the open section, with the weirdest and most wonderful of the art, as several set pieces form a massive ramp in the middle of the stage; like an avant-garde version of the ‘Circle of Life’ sequence from The Lion King.
It’s these moments that make WoW special, and different from other theatre shows. Maybe it’s the budget (it’s definitely the budget, you guys). When an audience is watching something they know has had a lot of money spent on it, they engage with it differently. They go in and expect to be blown away. It’s exciting to see an artist like Kip Chapman given the budget to work on this scale, and I’m genuinely excited to see what he does with the event in the future; he weds all this spectacle with a genuine emotional hook, which is much easier said, and responded to, than it is to do.
It’s strange to me that WoW isn’t more of an event in this country – why it isn’t a source of national pride (although god knows telling anybody they should take pride in something is exactly the thing that makes people want to disengage from something entirely). People travel from all over the world to see it, and to compete in it. It’s a huge event – and a genuinely spectacular one. It combines a theatre show, a gallery exhibition, a catwalk show and blows it up to huge proportions.
The World of Wearable Art. There’s nothing else in this country like it. We should cherish it.
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