Janet McAllister: E is for Experimental, Edgy and Exciting

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Bathing with Elephants moved the audience through the Civic's scenery.
Photo / Genevieve McClean
Bathing with Elephants moved the audience through the Civic's scenery. Photo / Genevieve McClean

What fantastical substance have they been imbibing at The Edge? Whatever it is, its effect on the organisation which manages the Aotea Centre, the Civic and the Town Hall is Lewis-Carroll fabulous. So far, it's led to elephant skeleton percussion and a pole-dancing male giant squid; other such welcome thoughtful madness - the New Performance Festival - is on its way.

I've heard theatre-makers grumble that E is only for "Entertainment" at The Edge. But now it's also for "Experimental". This is to be Encouraged.

The fauna described above materialised for Bathing with Elephants, a sold-out three nights of theatrical and digital music pieces by various local practitioners, produced a couple of weeks ago in the Civic Theatre labyrinth by The Edge's development arm, Stamp, with the Vitamin S music improvisers and AUT's CoLab.

Meanwhile, at next week's festival, "New" doesn't necessarily mean world premieres, but rather genre benders - and perhaps even genre creators.

Although both these projects took months to plan, it feels excitingly like The Edge's New Year's resolution is to live up to its (cough) edgy name, by inviting more atmospheric, boundary-pushing acts into its revered venues.

It tickles my fancy that pieces last seen at the "Old Folks Ass" Hall off K Rd are deservedly hitting the big time on Queen St.

It's true that the New Performance Festival is to be held in Aotea Centre's dungeons, rather than the airier auditorium slopes, but its shows may be happier on the lower levels' relatively flexible floor plates. Being able to change a whole room rather than just a raised stage is important if you're throwing out the usual Do Not Cross line between passive audience and active performers.

Alternatively, you can smudge the audience/performer divide by moving the audience rather than the scenery.

At Bathing with Elephants - named in honour of its pachyderm-garlanded host - we travelled through the carnival rather than watching it travel in front of us.

The evening started with a tour of the Civic's split-level foyer, guided by two bell-ringing, masked and bejewelled guides, while an alto and a soprano sang in separate upper rooms. Site-specific artworks are not just outdoor sculptures; this fetishisation of the building itself encouraged audience members to take a closer look at its camp magnificence, while they enjoyed a rare formal ritual outside of religion.

But not all the pieces were unquestioning celebrations of the iconic theatre and its history. The absurdity of the Civic's Pax Britannia decoration - the caricature of one colony in another - was highlighted in Bronwyn Bent's piece. "I'm an Indian," beamed Dharmesh Parikh. "Welcome to the Taj Mahal."

Ironically, the "Taj" is one of the less-embellished rooms.

And sneaking a peek into the dressing room of Genevieve McLean's pre-war chorus gals was fun, but our gawping faces were recorded for fellow audience members to watch onscreen in real time. Some owned their pleasure, while others cringed at the thought of looking creepy.

As to be expected with such a showcase, the quality was uneven, but the highlight was Sam Hamilton dancing with whirring film projectors, their lights fixed on someone under a sheet pretending to be a ghost. It was amusing, intense and mesmerising.

That pretend ghost is also your New Performance Festival curator, Stephen Bain.

Festival prices start at an unbelievable $10 for shows by some experienced concocters. So go on; follow The Edge's lead and do a little experimentation yourself.

- NZ Herald

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