In the eight years since its inception, Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival has firmly planted itself as a stalwart of the local cultural calendar. 

Rolling with the Covid punches, the festival team returns with the lofty and insightful ambition to whiria te tāngata — to weave the people together. On Tuesday night, they launched their programme, a conscious effort to use arts and culture as a glue to bind together an increasingly divided society. 

The assembly massed in the newly-vaulted halls of the Tribune Building’s Atrium. This was the first event held in the space, a physical and symbolic breaking of the seal of good things to come. Beneath its behemoth glass walls bubbles flowed and excited chatter reverberated up its chunky black industrial spiral staircase to the mezzanine above. 

A sacrifice to the by now ubiquitous spectre of sickness, festival director Pitsch Leiser was conspicuous in his absence. Nevertheless, chair Andy Heast, and MC extraordinaire Jamie McPhail stepped into the breach, injecting proceedings with the pomp and ceremony they deserved.

There were performances, of course, representing the diverse spectrum the festival hopes to espouse. First up was veteran showgirl, Jackie Clarke, ensconced in sequins and a cloak of vivacious humour, accompanied on Undergrand’s superlative white baby grand piano by the accomplished Stephen Small. They treated us to a trio of familiar hits inspired by the great goddesses of the golden age of show business, a taster for her show, Jackie Goes Prima Diva!, a five night extravaganza in association with Small Hall Sessions.

Next, emblazoned with touches of Elvis-like sparkles courtesy of Spoilt Victorian Child, was local legend Arahi, pared back on guitar. A ripple of joyful recognition passed through the crowd in response to the opening strains of E Ipo. His too brief performance was just a teaser for his festival ending show, The Revelator. On the back of last years’ ‘Hurricane Years’ success, he promises a marriage of theatre and soul-rousing rock ’n’ roll, an ecclesiastical and heart expanding expression of the arts.

To round off the entertainment we had dance, but not as you’ve seen before. The stunningly talented Seidah Tuaoi of Projekt Team commanded hearts and eyes with her solo performance, part traditional Pacifica, part pop ’n’ lock hip hop. Infused with humour and hard hitting symbolism, her captivating performance paved the way for Projekt Team’s two shows in the programme. One a freestyle extravaganza dance battle to the beats of Biggie Smalls; the other an intimate expression of diverse identity, Ko Au — I am.

Our appetites whetted for the live experience, the meat of the evening, the programme itself, was launched to a showreel of snippets while paper copies passed through the crowd. A brief smorgasbord revealed the kind of diversity we could previously only hope for in the festival programme. It seems the departure of the previous major sponsor has only resulted in a broader range of cultural fare for a wider audience. With over sixty-five free shows, events and happenings, it seems a passion for access has inspired the festival, as it should. 

Within the staples of theatre and comedy there are a range of offerings to suit all tastes. There is also a small smattering of dance, some circus, several exhibitions of visual arts, the return of the joyous street festival, White Night, and the community collaboration that is Waiohiki Earth Food and Fire nights

The Readers and Writers Festival is back with a bang, producing a roving spotlight of programming to pique the braincells, to educate and inform. Not least among them is the much-anticipated launch of Tarquin the Honest: The Hand of Glodd, brain child of our locally beloved fantasy author, ex-cop and bookshop owner, Gareth Ward. Not content just to give us something great to read and to look at, he’s hosting a Dungeons and Dragons Extravaganza guaranteed to blow your mind. 

Other outliers include the interactive installation by our own Bridie Freeman-Rock and Jess Souter Barron, ‘Put My Ear to the Ground’, a tribute to the late and great Puti Lancaster who firmly made her mark on this festival before her death. Whira!, an exhibition and workshop space for raranga held in the new municipal building adds another point of difference, taking a much-needed space at the cultural table. With so much on offer, festival goers are spoiled for choice, and should be encouraged to stuff themselves to bursting on the cultural feast at their fingertips. 

Photo: Charlotte Anderson

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