Set to open the Auckland Arts Festival in spectacular style with their new show The Breath of the Volcano, Groupe F return next week for their fourth visit to New Zealand. An impressive combination of street theatre, music, fireworks and other eye-catching visual effects, the French company's artistic director Christophe Berthonneau believes that while the 55-minute performance might not be their biggest to date, it will surely be their best.
"What we do is definitely on a human scale," he says. "I know people are curious to see what we're going to do when we come back and this year the show is really geared towards New Zealand because we know the country a little bit better. So we've been preparing something that is about our perception of the land. What we create is fiction and we're using Auckland and New Zealand as material for our stories."
Established in 1990, Groupe F have created dazzling extravaganzas at several well-known world landmarks, including the Stade de France for the 1998 Fifa World Cup, the London Eye and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
"In 2000, we did a show for the 100th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower," recalls Berthonneau. "On that occasion, we wrote a story that talked about historical events like the French Revolution, and we used video to tell it.
It was very interesting to talk about the story of your own country but it was not the official story but more the story of the people."
Drawing on their knowledge of the country from their previous trips to Wellington in 1996 and 1998, and Auckland in 2007, The Breath of the Volcano has been designed for Kiwi sensibilities. "It's about what makes us different and what we have in common," explains Berthonneau. "As a land, New Zealand has a lot of beautiful space and it's very specifically an island because it's a long way from anywhere. When you arrive for the first time, you definitely feel something strange because it seems like another world from those of us from the Northern Hemisphere."
Inspired by the cluster of volcanoes upon which Auckland is built, the show draws on the city's unique natural environment. "When you first arrive in the country, you feel the earth differently and it's almost like a 3D sensation of where you are," says Berthonneau. "New Zealand is on the opposite side to Europe on the map, so you feel like you're on the other side of the globe and, 'What's in the middle of that? An enormous ball of fire!' The volcanoes help you remember that we live on a very small part of the planet and that to me is not funny; it is reality. We're very fragile and we're like a small line in the big story of the universe." Berthonneau has drawn inspiration from the pioneering work of the late French conservationist and scientist, Jacques Cousteau.
"You see how small the people are as they walk across this huge landscape in his films," he says. "What we're doing is really a social story, first between the Maori and the animals and then we have the Europeans arriving and having a conflict with the Maori. But the land is always there and what's funny in New Zealand is that some of the land wasn't there when the Maori first arrived. So you have to remember it's a young land beneath your feet."
Set in the grounds of the Domain, Berthonneau believes that Auckland Museum will make for a perfect backdrop. "We can use it for video projections to tell something about the little things in New Zealand such as the birds," he says. "We don't want to explain any historical facts; we just want to make the people feel emotional about their own landscape."
Although about half of the 50-strong crew hail from France, the spotlight will be firmly on 12 local actors, who will take centre stage throughout the performance. "When we arrive, we will have a workshop with them," says Berthonneau, who reveals that the soundtrack by American composer Scott Gibbons will also play a crucial role.
"The show itself is made with music because we never have any words or talking. It's more choreographic and about communicating through dance. We also have a huge video component and then, of course, we have the fireworks, which makes you feel at home in that landscape. We work in the moment between the landscape and the people."
Frictions and ironies
A quick chat with Breath of the Volcano composer, American Scott Gibbons
Q: You visited Auckland last year to record sounds for Breath of the Volcano. How was that?
My first impression was that it's such a vibrant and modern city.
Auckland is rooted very much in the present, while anticipating the future, but it also retains a strong connection with its past that is not merely superficial.
The water and character of the land and air are constant reminders of strong forces at work here, and I sensed in Aucklanders a general recognition of the transience of things, accompanied by a genuine curiosity.
Q: What is it about Auckland that interests you sonically?
I was struck by Auckland's many frictions and ironies. Kiwis love native birds to the point of adopting a nickname from one of them.
But they also love their dogs and cats, which are a serious threat to kiwi in particular.
Aucklanders embrace speed; they love fast boats and the velocity of a modern lifestyle. But they also enjoy moments at the beach or playing sports and the pleasure of simply being while time is suspended. Auckland is full of such contradictions.
The city is so fast-paced, dense and contemporary, but uninhabited Rangitoto Island is only a few minutes away. Auckland is rich and multi-faceted; it's one of the most profoundly diverse cities I could imagine.
Q: What are your favourite places?
I really enjoyed being able to spend time at Auckland War Memorial Museum as I love museums, and that's a great one.
You have a sophisticated coffee culture and I had some great espressos.
All the people I've met have been very friendly and outgoing, but I also enjoyed just listening to the birds and crunch of rocks underfoot on Rangitoto Island. The waves at Piha beach are unlike anything I'd ever seen before; that place made me delight in feeling small and insignificant.
Q: You're collaborating with Richard Nunns on the soundtrack?
At the moment, Richard is working with Paddy Free from Pitch Black to weave new elements into the music we've already developed for the show. It's been a long-distance collaboration, but Richard and Paddy have carte blanche to do as they feel and I'm very anxious to hear what will happen.
Q: As it is primarily a visual experience, does music play a significant role in Breath of the Volcano?
The music is just one element of the project and it's not even the only sound element. The fireworks are also part of the rhythm and dynamics, as is the choreography, the lights, the video and the flames. I write the music to embrace and work with these other elements.
Auckland Arts Festival
What: The Breath of the Volcano with French pyrotechnic wizards Groupe F
Where and when: Auckland Domain upper field, March 7-9, gates open 6.45pm; show starts 9pm