Janet McAllister on the arts
Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

Janet McAllister: Coronation Hall lends itself to the cutting edge

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American jazz singer Josephine Baker.
American jazz singer Josephine Baker.

There's a tantalising connection between Jazz Age performance legend Josephine Baker and the Old Folks Ass. Coronation Hall in Gundry St off K Rd ... and it's not just that they both have a celebrated ass.

In 1927, famous ornament-eschewing Austrian architect Adolf Loos designed a sleek, clean, modernist fantasy house for African-American Baker in her adopted Paris.

Alas, it was never built, but the Baker-Loos line leads us to Czech architect Heinrich ("Henry") Kulka. Kulka was Loos' student-turned-collaborator who also worked on the Baker house design - and 12 years later, in 1939, he escaped from the Nazis and ended up in New Zealand. According to Google's suitably tense translation of Czech Wikipedia, Kulka returned briefly "to the old country" after the war "to timely recognise the danger coming next totality and permanently relocated to Auckland, New Zealand".

Phew. Communism's loss was the old folks' gain. Working for Fletchers, Kulka designed a solid, functional building for the association.

And voila - the star and the old folks shared an architect.

Sixty years on at the 1953 hall, the paint is peeling from the ceiling. And the masking tape - there to keep the ceiling up? - is peeling from the paint. The one-bar heaters are unconvincing on a winter's night.

Dotted around the auditorium are plaques commemorating the association's heyday of offering "friendship and happiness to elderly people", newspaper clippings of afternoon tea visits and invitations from Ladies Cobham and Fergusson, wives of Governor Generals.

But although its past is fascinating, the hall's current happenings are even more peculiar and exciting. Still owned by the Old Folks Association, and in spite of the rudimentary set-up, the hall has become an independent, affordable space for some of the most cutting-edge, experimental performances in the city.

The roster of hall appearances is a fringe/avant-garde Who's Who (if that's not an oxymoron): Alexa Wilson, Sean Curham, Cat Ruka, Vitamin-S, Phil Dadson, Fiona Jack and Peter Robinson.

I've seen actress Nisha Madhan making "snow" angels in flour for playwright Louise Tu'u, in Gaga: The Unmentionable (on the frustrations of language and immigrant experience); and I was amused (and relieved) when actor/comedian Johnny Brough - as an audience member - seriously wrestled theatre maker Stephen Bain to stop him from literally pouring money down a drain in finance-critiquing Free Happiness.

The aim, says Curham - who acts as hall custodian, aided by a brains trust including artists Alex Monteith and Mark Harvey - is to support non-commercial "performance research": "programming that's not viable anywhere else" and that therefore wouldn't otherwise happen.

As an occasional hall spectator, I am intrigued; as someone who cares about the diversity and depth of Auckland's performance culture - particularly about works critiquing or commenting on power - I am overwhelmingly grateful (although I wish there was more than a hit-and-miss way of finding out what's on).

Perhaps there's a connection in spirit as well as history to Baker - dancer, civil rights activist, integrator of theatres, winner of the Legion d'honneur and adoptive mother of 12.

- NZ Herald

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