A highlight of this year’s New Zealand Festival of the Arts are the collaborations between some of the best artists and creators in the world. Sam Brooks talks to artists about the work they’re making and what collaboration means to them.
Whether it’s the relationship between a writer and an editor, between a choreographer and a dancer, or even between art and audience, the key to any kind of art is collaboration.
It’s also essential to this year’s New Zealand Festival of the Arts. A number of the festival’s works involve collaboration between artists from across the world, a coming together of perspectives and backgrounds. I talked to some of the artists working on these shows, to discover what collaboration means to them, and what their work is going to look like as a result.
“I make rituals for the theatre. When they succeed, the people enacting them feel transformed for the good and the people witnessing them feel in some way changed for the good … the point of these rituals that I create with other people is usually to remind ourselves that we are all in some way connected.”
That’s Irish director and choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan. He returns to the New Zealand Festival of the Arts with MÁM, the follow-up to his productions of Giselle (2008), Rian (2014) and Swan Lake/Loch na hEala (2018). MÁM was developed in 2019 during the six weeks Keegan-Dolan spent in the capital on the inaugural Made in Wellington residency established by the New Zealand Festival of the Arts. But the MÁM project was really born in 2011, when Keegan-Dolan first met virtuoso Irish traditional concertina player Cormac Begley.
“I wanted to work with Cormac because when I hear his music I involuntarily start to dance,” Keegan-Dolan says, “like a character from a medieval fairy tale.”
During his Wellington residency, Keegan-Dolan worked with a group of dancers, musicians and actors on ideas for the show and different ways of approaching the work. Along with Begley, three members of Andre de Ridder’s pan-European s t a r g a z e music collective visited during the final two weeks.
“We explored what could happen when Cormac and his tradition collided with a European contemporary classical music tradition. And then what happened when dancers from different ancestral backgrounds danced to those musical outcomes.”
Through that process, MÁM was born. The show, which premiered in 2019 at the Dublin Theatre Festival, has been hailed as a “stirring, sensuous showcase of the emotional power of the physical form”, and was described as “alternately playful and provocative, funny and frightening”.
One of the dancers, Wellington-based, American-born Amit Noy, says that Keegan-Dolan’s dedication to collaboration was clear from the outset.
“[He believes] that we all have our own ideas and our own experiences to share and that we can all learn from each other. MÁM comes from a place of wanting to think about meeting and exchange and the generativity of conflict that comes from difference.
“MÁM is a Gaelic word that means mountain paths, and the idea that attracted Michael to that word is about us as a place of precipices; kind of liminal space, somewhere in between. So, a lot of the work was initially very improvisatory. We did long, two-to-three-hour sessions of improvisations every day with each other and that was about meeting each other, about listening to each other, giving as much as receiving and I was working with dance as a place to see each other and to experience empathy, to listen and to have joy.”
Collaboration like this is inherently risky, Keegan-Dolan says.
“To collaborate truly one has to be prepared to take the risk of failing and failing terribly. One has to be prepared to give in to something that is not you. You have to take responsibility for what you do, what actions you make in this space.
“MÁM was created in an ambience that recognised the importance of realising that both are possible, connectivity and individuality and can happen at the same time.”
The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil
Sometimes collaboration happens between companies, and sometimes it happens when you get three of the right people in the same room and wait for the magic to happen. Both approaches come together in The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, a musical adaptation of George Saunders’ cult novella by lyricist and musician (and festival guest curator) Bret McKenzie, Welsh playwright Tim Price and British theatre director Lyndsey Turner.
Price and Turner they had been trying to find a project to work on for a few years when the director read the book, and sent a copy of it to the playwright. “This was it,” Price recalls. “We took it to the (British) National Theatre where Lyndsey is an associate and they were keen to support, so we had a pint together in London and spoke about our dream collaborator on this and Bret was at the top of the list.
“When you’re working with the National Theatre anything is possible because agents and managers actually do pick up the phone. So we spoke to Bret over email and Skype, and we met together in LA for a week to see if there was a show in the material and if we liked working together and thank the Lord we did and now we’re here.”
McKenzie describes the story as “dark and funny”, and says he’s stoked to have it at the festival, where it will be performed as a work in progress. “It’s a quite surreal political story, loosely about a sort of loser who becomes president of this fictional nation and his brain falls off all the time.”
The New Zealand Festival of the Arts is a crucial stepping stone in Phil‘s development process. For the creators, it’s taken a lot of emails, Skyping and figuring out timezones to get to this point.
“Lyndsey and I might bash some stuff together and send it over to Bret, or Bret and I might catch up with each other to discuss a song and then he’ll send it to Lyndsey, or Lyndsey and Bret figure out some stuff and send it to me,” Price says.
The show’s cast is a mix of Kiwis and Brits. “It’s a way to begin to create relationships for those artists, which I think is really important and special for them,” McKenzie says.
The collaboration will continue until the moment Phil is performed, and then within the festival itself. Price says the performance in Wellington will change in response to audience reaction. “Parts of it will be really stable, and parts of it we’re still to discover the right way to present, and we’ll be really honest about that on the night. The Wellington crowd is going to be an integral part of the journey of this show.”
Hōkioi me te Vwōhali
One of the farthest-reaching collaborations at the New Zealand Festival is not just in connection through distance, but through time. Hōkioi me te Vwōhali is a dance piece about the genealogy linking the Hōkioi or Haast eagle which became extinct in the 1400s, and the Vwōhali (American Golden eagle), of the Duyuktv (Cherokee) First Nations people. It’s a collaboration between the New Zealand-based Ōkāreka Dance Company and the Exhale Dance Tribe, based in Cincinnati.
The relationship between the companies was formed well over a decade ago when Taiaroa Royal, artistic director of Ōkāreka Dance Company, was invited to perform at a benefit concert in Cincinnati. As luck had it, the Exhale Dance Tribe were also performing at the concert, and it was there that Royal first met the company’s artistic directors Missy Lay Zimmer and Andrew Hubbard. Both parties nurtured their relationship and tried to find ways to bring Exhale Dance Tribe to perform in New Zealand, but it couldn’t quite work. Their plan B? Collaboration.
Lay Zimmer says that the symbol of the eagle – the extinct Hōkioi and the American Golden Eagle – was the spark for their future collaboration. “Collectively, we knew there was no way to create this work without the blessing of the Duyuktv (Cherokee) people and so in 2018 both companies travelled to North Carolina to meet and connect with the community of First Nations people, including musicians, storytellers and respected Elders.”
From that point, there were a number of workshops, culminating in the creation of Hōkioi me te Vwōhali, which involves five dancers from New Zealand and six from America. On the floor, the work sees the two companies combine their respective dance backgrounds. Lay Zimmer and Hubbard are from a musical theatre background; they met while performing in Cats on Broadway. After a while they left musical theatre behind and moved back to Cincinnati to start a community dance school.
As they worked together on Hōkioi me te Vwōhali, the Americans began to introduce genres they’d been exposed to over their careers. “Missy would be into her jazz, Broadway jazz, ballet, tap, and that’s what they bring to the collaboration. Whereas I’m mainly contemporary dance, and a lot of my influences are based in Māori contemporary dance.”
This fusion is key to their collaboration and has felt like magic to both companies. “In working with Okāreka Dance Company we feel a familiarity and common language of movement vocabulary,” says Lay Zimmer, “and yet there is so much to learn about their process and the mastery of Tai Royal.”
Love at first sight. A wedding between two families who couldn’t be more different. Comedy, drama, heartbreak. That’s BLACK TIES, a play about what happens when Māori corporate hotshot Hera and Aboriginal consultancy entrepreneur Kane meet at a cultural awareness session, and eventually decide to tie the knot.
BLACK TIES marks the first collaboration between New Zealand’s Te Rẽhia and Australia’s ILBIJERRI theatre company. Rachael Maza, artistic director of ILBIJERRI, says the idea of working with Te Rẽhia had her excited from the outset, especially as this would be the Australians’ first collaboration with another Indigenous company. The two companies began by deciding on the kind of show they wanted to create. “We were in agreement that this work would be the show that our families would enjoy coming to and want to come back. This meant it had to have live music, comedy and food.”
BLACK TIES morphed into something deeper than that, though, according to Te Rẽhia artistic director Tainui Tukiwaho. “We have created something together that we have enjoyed, but the deeper conversations that have happened on and off the stage has made this something quite unique. We have gone through a journey of learning, growth and development from this partnership, the likes I have never experienced before.
“We sought to create a show that showed our people off. We want to celebrate our humour and zest for life. Quite often our audiences see shows that bring our pain to the fore, these are very important stories, but we are offering another aspect of our peoples that revolves around three important themes that we thought everyone would enjoy: family, food and music.”
There was also an ease that came from working with another Indigenous company, says Maza – a shared understanding, a shorthand, right from the get-go. “We could fast track the usual ‘having to justify and educate’ stage and get straight into the ‘making the work and having fun’ bit!
And what does collaboration mean to her? “True collaboration is about listening, really listening, and being prepared to give up an idea if it’s not got agreement, but not giving up on good ideas which obviously you just need to find a way to better communicate the idea to get buy in.”
For Maza, collaboration means the contribution of everyone on the team is valued. For Tukiwaho, it should look like respect and empowerment. “It’s about how to offer those things, how to hold and maintain those things was the challenge. What it truly looked like, though, was patience. True collaboration in action looks like patience.”
This content was created in paid partnership with the New Zealand Festival of Arts. Learn more about our partnerships here.