New shows by three veterans of the arts, all still at the peak of their powers.
I remember Phil Dadson, with Geoff Chapple and Wayne Laird, chalking circles on the floor, setting up racks of plastic pipes and beating on the open ends of them with pieces of rubber that looked like jandals. It was electrifying, not just for the inventiveness but for the melodic range, the haunting harmonics, the impossibly intricate rhythms, the beat that went on and on, curdling your brain and your guts. I do mean that in a good way.
Hocketing is what they call it: sharing the rhythms among the instruments. A funny word for a fabulously engaging thing.
From Scratch was the name of the band. It meant they built their instruments from found objects, marked their place, tore back the skein of the accepted and the commonplace. From Scratch performed music that protested French nuclear testing in the Pacific and the British and US testing that had gone before.
In Pacific 3-2-1 Zero, the names of the test sites were chanted and the chanting was hypnotic: Moruroa, Fangataufa, Bikini, Enewetak. It was the 1980s, music fused with protest.
Phil Dadson is 72 now but he hasn't stopped, and when I went to see him in a basement rehearsal room he had the original enormous pipe instruments there. Been in storage since the mid-80s, he said. And now they're out of the house they're not going back.
They'll be in the new From Scratch show, Heart'Heart, which is a "tapestry" of older pieces with interventions from newer percussion artists: the electronica duo Pitch Black, among others, and also NPME, the New Pacific Music Ensemble, who are Rarotongan drummers. The circles of Dadson's dedication to Pacific issues and Pasifika peoples have not stopped winding around themselves.
• 546 Moons - a survey exhibition of the sonic innovations and invented instruments of From Scratch is at Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery from March 3 - May 27; From Scratch plays in Heart'Heart, a performance series, on March 9, 10, 11 and 23, 24 and 25. Phil Dadson holds his first solo show in three years, Elemental, at the Trish Clark Gallery, on now - March 29.
I remember Michael Parmenter climbing out of a pile of earth on stage. He and another dancer had been buried in that dirt since well before the show started, and it was confronting, dramatic, utterly unexpected. Also, surprisingly, given the smeared filth on their bodies and the angry dynamic of the couple's relationship – they were fighting – it became astonishingly beautiful. That was Insolent River.
And I remember Parmenter telling his life story, the boy from Southland, born in the 1950s, gay in a conservative Christian family, how he got from there to dance, and then to a show based not on choreography but on words, although there was some very lovely dance in it too. That was A Long Undressing.
So many times, Parmenter has broken with expectation. He is an artist on the edge, inviting us with each new work to travel with him somewhere new, to thrill to the aesthetic splendour and also to what the work tells us, or asks us, about what it means to live in this time and in this place.
In A Long Undressing, he told my story, although it was also not my story. He's my age, almost exactly, a Pakeha male like me, and it seems we have much in common: taste in music, books, values, ideas about culture and identity and community.
Yet the differences are stark too, in sexuality, health issues, our backgrounds, so many of our life experiences. Everyone's story only ever overlaps.
And what's he doing now? Retelling the stories of Orpheus, among the Argonauts and in the Underworld, weaving in a Maori sensibility, among many things, underpinning it all with the new most urgent issue in the Mediterranean: the refugee crisis. That's his show for the festival: the "dance opera" OrphEus.
The body is a instrument of glory and of damage, and the world is a thing that must be wrestled with. I've seen some of OrphEus in development and it is very exciting.
• OrphEus - a Dance Opera plays at the Auckland Arts Festival, March 9-11 at The Civic before travelling to the New Zealand Festival in Wellington, March 16 and 17 at The Opera House.
My favourite Neil Finn memory doesn't even have Finn in it. It was an end-of-year primary school show and every last kid was on stage, in Wellington's Paramount Theatre, to perform the Crowded House song "Together Alone".
A messy massed choir rich in harmony, the purity of the voices shining bright. It was so beautiful. But who would be surprised? Like Parmenter and Dadson, Neil Finn has been there for us for so long now, gifting us anthems, love songs and power ballads; cultural artefacts freighted with that thing he taught us was noble: to write a perfect pop song.
Finn's friends in that school show were children. His friends in his new show, Out of Silence, are a mix of rising talents and superstars, because that's what this musician and impresario brings to the great cultural project of this country.
Like Parmenter and Dadson, he trades in joy and heartache, all three of them among the many helping us ask, what does it mean to be us, living here and now?
• Neil Finn - Out of Silence, with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and special guests is at the Auckland Arts Festival's Festival Playground, Music Arena, March 9 & 10.
Behind the scenes: As the Auckland Arts Festival and New Zealand Festival in Wellington begin, the Herald speaks to some of our leading choreographers and dancers, theatre-makers, playwrights and poets, musicians and singers about what makes them tick and what can we expect to see from them at our biggest arts festivals. Today, we talk with Neil Finn, composer Victoria Kelly and APO musician Emma Eden on the compulsion to make music.