It's started. The Auckland Arts Festival had karaoke in Aotea Square last night:


, the free festival opening show, with Maisey Rika, Stan Walker, Ria Hall and Troy Kingi leading the way, singing the waiata you know and love, or perhaps have heard and loved but didn't know. Yes, with the words on screen.


It's a very cool idea, a great start for an arts festival but why stop at the arts festival? Could the organisers get it going at Eden Park and Mt Smart, and in the Trusts Arena in Henderson, the Spark Arena, the Vodafone Events Centre in Manukau?

Fun for the crowds before the game, ramping up the thrill of the live experience of sport, which all sports need to learn how to do. And a way – don't we desperately need this? – to turn dull New Zealand sports audiences into the kind of crowds that sing the roof off a stadium. You know, like the Welsh, the Irish, the English, those extraordinary Tongan crowds … Culture, riding to the rescue of sport, and everyone's a winner.

Actually, culture always rides to the rescue. We tie ourselves in the most anguished knots debating where speedway and cricket and league should be played in Auckland, but the more important question is: what concert venues do we need?

More people go to the big concerts and they spend more money, at the event and after. Most people at a rugby test in Eden Park live in the city, but when Adele plays Auckland she's here for locals and for visitors. The hotels fill up.

Here's a way to look at the stadium debate: they're cultural venues that also do sport.

I love a good arts festival. For all sorts of reasons. Fresh, exciting and insightful shows that speak to you about the world and your place in it. Shows that transport you somewhere you did not even dream might exist, whose storytelling and beauty speak straight to your heart.

Ross McCormack is regarded as one of our most visionary dancers and choreographers; now he's making work inspired by giant sculpture. Photo / Andi Crown
Ross McCormack is regarded as one of our most visionary dancers and choreographers; now he's making work inspired by giant sculpture. Photo / Andi Crown

I love the moments of wonder. One festival I saw a play by the National Theatre of Scotland where we sat at tables and the action took place all around us. They gave us sheets of paper to tear into little pieces and, as the show began, we were asked to throw the pieces into the air. Does it sound silly in the retelling? It was magic. We were all in there, together, actors and audience, and it was snowing.

There'll be snow like that, moments like that, in this year's festival. I have no idea when or where, and I know my moment of magic might be your moment of silly people making a mess. But if you're looking for something great, my festival rule is: see what you normally wouldn't.


With that in mind, here's my top 5, all guesswork, mind, because I haven't seen them yet.

1. Grand Finale

See what you normally wouldn't means a lot of things. One of them is: take the chance to see some of the best shows in the world. The apocalyptic dance theatre piece Grand Finale, by Hofesh Shechter Company, qualifies for that.

In the little I have seen the dance is hypnotic, breathtakingly synchronised, sometimes chaotic, and both angrily determined and liltingly beautiful. The theme: the apocalypse that's coming for us this century.

Also widely acclaimed in the class of "world's best": the classically infused world music of Silkroad Ensemble; the Scottish play Ulster American, described as a searing examination of "power and consent and the silencing of female voices", which won the top theatre prize at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival; and Mozart's The Magic Flute, a production by Komische Oper Berlin that blends live opera with projected animation and has been thrilling audiences everywhere.

2. Wild Dogs Under My Skirt

See what you normally wouldn't also means looking deep into another world or more deeply than you normally do into your own. And it means seeing different kinds of performance. How about poetry on stage, from deep within the world of Samoan women? Wild Dogs Under My Skirt is a dynamite set of poems by Tusiata Avia, who has previously presented the work as a solo show.

This new production is an ensemble piece directed by Anapela Polata'ivao, formerly of Killa Kokonut Krew, who just last month also directed Sol3 Mio in a remarkable Samoan opera performed in Manurewa. Wild Dogs has already opened and the critics are in love with it.

Wild Dogs Under My Skirt at Auckland Arts Festival. Photo / Supplied
Wild Dogs Under My Skirt at Auckland Arts Festival. Photo / Supplied

3. The Dreamer

Here's a mash-up of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Chinese romance The Peony Pavilion, performed by the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre with the British physical theatre company Gecko.

There's not a lot of Shakespeare. As in, the language. It's the opposite of what they do at the Globe, where the productions honour Shakespeare's texts while bringing them alive for contemporary audiences. The Dreamer relies much more for its storytelling on melodramatic action, a live band onstage, all sorts of visual trickery and a great deal of physical comedy.

4. As It Stands

Which show are the aficionados most excited about? This one. Choreographer Ross McCormack became an arts laureate last year for his ability to "push the limits of virtuosic dance and design", which means he does movement as movement: dance moves like you've never seen, like you've scarcely even imagined.

As It Stands is set against a backdrop of monumental sculptural pieces – fluid bodies, rigid steel-like landscape – inspired by the work of Richard Serra, whose gigantic steel ribbon is a standout at Alan Gibbs' sculpture farm on the Kaipara harbour.

5. Toku Reo Waiata

See what you normally wouldn't? Catch something thrillingly beautiful. Something good for your soul. And here it is, one night only in the town hall: some of the best singers in this land performing some of our most beautiful songs, and yes, singalongs are included. This is waiata, courtesy of Maisey Rika, Rob Ruha, Tami Neilson, Annie Crummer, Moana Maniapoto, Hinewehi Mohi, Whirimako Black, Stan Walker, Maimoa, Seth Hapua and many more. Your heart may stop, in a good way.

See what you normally wouldn't. Step outside your comfort zone. You can tippytoe step or you can close your eyes and jump off the ledge. As they say in high finance, the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward. Which obviously isn't always true but you'd be surprised how often is.

There's a lot to choose from, including lots more free stuff, family shows, shows outside the city centre and a strong commitment to bringing te reo to life throughout. Check it out at