The Air Between Us. Photo: Greg Arnold

Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival promises a smorgasbord of cultural delights on which we are invited to feast. 

As with any laden table, it is tempting to get fat on our favourite foods, safe, reliable and familiar. But there is more to life than carbs and meat. If we graze around the edges and taste the more exotic delicacies, we may acquire a liking for something new, fresh and interesting. Delve into some of the more unusual offerings and you will be pleasantly surprised.

The Most Naked 

28 October, Toitoi Assembly Ballroom

If you’re into edgy and open to having your mind blown, then look no further than The Most Naked, a captivating feat encapsulating burlesque, cabaret, dance, live music and what developer, lead performer and all-round alchemist Hannah Tasker-Poland calls political eroticism. 

“It explores this fascination we have with the body – revealing the body, concealing the body, delving into people’s relationship with nudity, particularly the feminine body. I’ve always been super fascinated with the historical ideal of women’s bodies. The scarlet woman, the femme fatale, the witch, the slut, the whore – all the ways feminine bodies have been on one hand adored, lusted after, obsessed over, but at the same time repressed and controlled, abused, and manipulated,” reveals Tasker-Poland. 

Taking this dichotomy as inspiration, she plays with expectations, utilising her brimming kit of theatrical tools to produce a show that cleverly picks apart the social fabric even as it wildly entertains. A passionate soundtrack composed and performed by the virtuosic Lucien Johnson anchors the piece, catering to all your aural pleasures.

The Most Naked is a masterclass in feminine empowerment. Channeling a dominant goddess, Tasker-Poland takes full ownership of her superlative physicality championing eroticism and sexuality even as she provokes the audience to question the lens through which society views the human form. “We all have a body. The body can be seen as this really boring perfunctory thing, a mass of bone, sinew, muscle, and flesh that we have loaded all of this social conditioning over how it should look.” Tasker-Poland strips bare these social norms, using the body as metaphor to highlight the objective oddness of the assumptions projected onto the sacks of meat that house our immortal souls.

This is a show that challenges, but Tasker-Poland is not in the business of provocation just to be provocative. She understands that alienating her audience would only dilute her message. Yes, there may be some discomfort, but she’s taken care to direct those feelings towards the social norms she is trying to expose. “There’s a difference between doing something that may be challenging as opposed to something that is just abrasive, that completely rubs people the wrong way. We want to take care of the audience as well. I really want to be with the audience. I tried very hard not to make this a preachy show, I don’t want people to feel on the out. It may be a different perspective for some people. If they’re feeling uncomfortable it may be that they’re not feeling uncomfortable with me but with society.”

This arts festival performance is a coming home for Tasker-Poland. She spent her school years in Napier but has had few opportunities to perform in her former home. “I still have tendrils of connection to the Bay. It feels really good to come back, not just with any show but with something I have birthed, and share it here,” she muses. Back when she left for the bright lights and big city there were no spaces here for the kind of work she wanted to explore. It is testimony to the sea change of arts in the region that she will be welcomed back with open arms and a full house.

Projekt Team 

Biggie & Smalls 2×2 All Style Dance Battle 15 October, Napier CBD

Ko Au 16 October, Toitoi Municipal Building

A quiet revolution has been happening in the underground dance scene. Projekt Team, a global dance collective, are breaking out of their cyphers and going public, bringing you a pair of dance experiences like you have never seen before. 

Projekt Team comprises around thirty diverse members from across the country and as far flung as Europe and Japan. They work in the realms of improvisation, focusing on freestyle battles in the sphere of street dance. Run like a family, they cultivate a culture of care that is borne out in their work. “Projekt Team is based on people first and dance second. Friendship and connection is the main thing and that brings us all together,” says one of the team’s leaders, Seidah Tuaoi.

Tuaoi came to Hawke’s Bay last year with a wealth of performance experience behind her to teach dance at Karamu High School. A street dance veteran, she has been growing the local scene, hosting bi-weekly workshops in the school’s studio for whomever wants to come along. Tuaoi gives dancers of all ages and skill levels “the tools and movement vocabulary to gear up to battle.”

Their practice is about to be put to the test in Biggie & Smalls 2×2 All Style Dance Battle, a free performance run as part of White Night. It’s a duo competition, in which pairs of dancers face off against each other, competing for the love of the crowd. “Biggie represents an experienced dancer or freestyler who has battled in many events and Smalls is someone who’s new to the battle scene,” explains Tuaoi. 

Pairing novice and experienced dancers creates the supportive mentorship environment Projekt Team is all about. Duos work together to produce moves and mini routines but the music on the night is a surprise to which they must improvise. Pairs of red and blue cards are passed around the crowd and spectators get the final say on each battle’s winner. From a starting sixteen, one winning team will emerge victorious. “There are not many dance battle events happening in Hawke’s Bay, we are really looking forward to bringing it here. We want to make sure there are opportunities for competition, we want to make a platform for freestyling,” says Tuaoi.

Projekt Team’s second festival show is something completely different. Ko Au, meaning I am, is a performance installation utilising the many rooms of the new Municipal Building. Spectators move between rooms in groups on a guided tour, “similar to an art gallery but there is a choreographed route,” explains Tuaoi. 

Ten team members have been supported by Tuaoi and the team’s founder, Josh Mitikulena, to develop a five-minute piece reflecting their own discrete cultural and personal identity. “The foundation of each piece is street dance, but they’ve brought their own cultural identity into their pieces. They’re playing with cultural movement, cultural ideas and concepts and try to fuse that with their own personal stories,” explains Tuaoi.

Each dancer has choreographed their own work and will also transform their room into an expression of their identity, so that ten installations accompany the performance. Tuaoi describes the piece as an expression of “different stories, different journeys, different perspectives on dance and how they view life. We’ve tried to encapsulate that within their room and a five-minute performance slot. It’s a snapshot of where they think they are in life and what they’ve created through dance … They’ve played a lot with their own personalities, so you’ll get to see that once you enter each room.”

Dancers come from diverse backgrounds, bringing a tapestry of culture and experience to the work. There are two Māori and two Samoan performers, as well as Indian, Cook Islander, Niuean, Tongan, Vietnamese and Korean. One dancer set his room up as a replica of his own living room. Another recreates his family run bakery and uses flour to create movement. 

Though now in its fourth run, this is a first for Hawke’s Bay. Dancers are excited to connect with a virgin audience, to bring us something new and unusual we haven’t seen before, both in style and execution, and to share a little piece of who they are.

The Revelator, 30 October, Toitoi

Arahi is an artist with big dreams and the raw talent and hard graft to bring them to reality. Anyone who has had the pleasure of witnessing one of his shows knows that they are less displays of musical prowess than immersive multifaceted experiences.

For the second year running, Arahi plays the Arts Festival finale on the Toitoi stage. Last year’s show, The Hurricane Years, took us on a haunting journey through his back catalogue, breathing life into a host of exquisitely costumed characters. Rather than trying to force some sense of false intimacy in strange times, he stripped back his stage, laying the elements bare, a stark observation of the zeitgeist. 

The Revelator offers similar social commentary, this time a meditation on the nature of change. It is a show in two acts, revelation and redemption, consciously channeling the evangelical. ‘Arahi’ means cosmic herald, a sign in the sky that something new is beginning. Here, he takes on the role of preacher, spreading his message with heartfelt conviction and prodigious skill. “Usually, my shows leave people feeling alienated on purpose, but with this one I’d like them to feel almost a sort of cleanse,” he reflects.

The first act sees Arahi indulge his dramatic flair with his first foray into theatre. Carefully curated musical numbers intersperse with live actors performing a series of vignettes developed to tie thematically to the songs. They chart the journey from innocence to experience, document our disparate realities and examine the ways we grapple with inevitable change. 

Arahi sees this novel approach as a means for connection, something for which he hungers. “Sometimes it’s not enough to tell people, you have to show them … I’m creating the world the songs exist in, their context, their intentions. The songs are what I mean but the theatre is what I really mean,” he says.

Like a brewing storm, tension builds throughout the first act ending in an explosive kapa haka performance. Incorporating Māori arts in a novel way is important to Arahi. He knows that which does not evolve becomes fossilised and he is invested in keeping his culture alive.

After the revelations of the first act, the second promises redemption. A full set change brings with it the mood and feeling of a stadium gig, a riotous rock concert, action in motion. Arahi describes it like, “the rapture, like you’ve ascended after the trials of the first set, like you come out the other side. Now let us break bread, go forth.”

The potency of Arahi’s composition is equalled by the calibre of the musicians he works with. He has pulled together a big band of the finest artists and collaborators, each one a master of their instruments. “These tunes are the pinnacle of what I’ve been doing,” he explains. In this show he gives them the star treatment they deserve, thoughtfully arranged with orchestral quality.

This is an ambitious show in which Arahi displays his mettle, pouring his soul out onto the stage for your entertainment and illumination. It promises to be a singular spiritual experience to ignite the fire inside, leaving legions of faithful followers in its wake.

These three morsels are just a taste of the buffet the arts festival has on offer. There are plenty of shows to suit every palate, to challenge and delight. 

The Air Between Us features acclaimed disabled aerial artist, Rodney Bell, enacting jaw-dropping feats on his specially designed wheelchair rig. The show is free and will be in both Napier and Hastings so there really is no excuse to miss it.

Letters from Iraq sees Rahim AlHaj telling his story and bearing his soul on oud, an Arabic lute, backed by strings, bass, and percussion. This is his love letter to his fractured country and its people, and promises to be a heart wrenching experience.

Put My Ear to the Ground responds to the gaping hole left in this year’s festival by the late Puti Lancaster, and speaks to something of her unfinished work, her legacy. Its title is taken from a line of her poetry, “Tomorrow I will put my ear to the ground and listen for your words.” This interactive installation will be a co-created, process-oriented collaboration over three days as part of a long goodbye.

Teremoana Rapley: Daughter of a Housegirl is the culmination of thirty years of soul searching, rich and deep. This is music with substance that will transport you even as your eyes are delighted by a visual feast.

Mrs Krishnan’s Party is a comedic theatre experience that puts the audience right in the action, treating them less as guests than as family. This is not sit back and watch theatre as audience members are expected to roll up their sleeves and get involved. 

A Boy Called Piano is gritty theatre at its best. Fa’amoana John Luafutu tells his own story of growing up in institutional care in the 1960’s. Dark and powerful it drags some of our nation’s shame into the light.

These are but a sample of the varied cultural treats the Arts Festival is serving up. Dive into their ample programming and let your tastebuds be piqued. 

Fringe in the ‘Stings 

Lurking round the corners of Hastings CBD, the Arts Festival’s unruly stepchild, Fringe in the ’Stings is back with a vengeance. Nominally cancelled last year, it was replaced by Safe As, a covid compliant mini festival comprised of mostly local shows. This year restrictions are lifted, and the net has been cast wide drawing in a range of performances from the Bay and beyond. 

Cast from the mould of the iconic Edinburgh Fringe and affiliated with New Zealand Fringe, this festival is founded on the principles of inclusion and experimentation. Ticket prices are kept low, and events run one after the other throughout the day and night so you can experience a cultural pick ’n’ mix, flowing from show to show absorbing the anarchic creative atmosphere this festival inspires. Novice performers are supported and encouraged to have a go, and seasoned makers given a platform for more unusual projects.

Fringe in the ’Stings runs in the first two weekends of October, just before the Arts Festival, a joyful celebration offering music and dance, puppets and poetry, comedy and drama, pop up street performances and visual arts. Centred around Heretaunga Street’s 200 block, Common Room and Spaceship are its two main venues with happenings and activations occurring in Albert Square and the surrounding streets, and special shows hosted in satellite locations.

Fringe in the ’Stings is run on love and a shoestring, powered by an army of volunteers passionate about bringing unusual and affordable art to the people of Heretaunga. Its existence is a testimony to the community of creatives that have sprung up around town, banding together to make something strange and lovely, a genuine expression of the vast and diverse appetite for art on the fringes of the ’stings.

30 September/1 October/ 7/8 October



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