How about this weather? The city's a sauna and there's the bollocking wind and rain out of nowhere and then it's back to endless summer finery. Jonathan Bielski is, perhaps, a little bi worried.

He's the new artistic director of the Auckland Arts Festival and it was his idea to create a new outdoor performance venue, the Festival Playground, at Silo Park. Right on the waterfront.

It's the new home for music. Neil Finn will perform there with the Auckland Philharmonia. Ricki Gooch will present his Eru Dangerspiel dance spectacular. Ria Hall, Tiki Taane and A Tribe Called Red will do local soul, Anoushka Shankar will bring her sitar and the Lemon Bucket Orchestra will do their Balkan-klezmer-gypsy-party-punk thing.

"A festival within a festival," is what Bielski called it when I went to see him in his office one steaming day earlier this week. Actually, if the steaminess keeps up, that Lemon Bucket thing sounds like it might be perfect.


"Yes I'm a little bit worried about the weather. But I'm really not worried that people will come. The precinct is heaving. You go down there and it's full of people, all sorts of people, and they're all having a lot of fun."

At the Festival Playground, fun is what it's about. "Because not everyone wants to go to the theatre," said Bielski.

Mind you, then he raved about the theatre he's lined up – for those who do want to go.

The provocative power of Wellingtonian Hone Kouka's play about domestic violence, Bless This Child. The life-changing experience he had, years ago, seeing Canadian Robert Lepage's tale of personal grief and cosmic alienation, The Far Side of the Moon. "It has ambition beyond what I had ever imagined," he said.

This is Bielski's first city festival, not just here but anywhere. He used be a manager at The Edge (now Auckland Live, which runs the council's entertainment venues in the central city) and then moved to the Sydney Opera House, where he was the programme director. Now he's home again.

He's a large man who likes to call himself a "feared arts administrator", but honestly, I can't imagine who would be frightened. He's bright-eyed, keen to talk, a friendly smirk rarely leaving his face.

Just a few weeks out from opening night there must have been a thousand things going wrong, not least of them being the madness that has overwhelmed the weather, but he sat there, the relaxed enthusiast, hands folded in front of him, talking up the excitement.

One reason for his composure may be that he's kept almost all of the staff. The usual thing when the leader of an organisation like this moves on is for half the staff to move on too. But when Bielski's predecessor Carla van Zon left, after the 2017 festival, that didn't happen.


He was already there by then, at her elbow in a kind of handover role, and that meant they all got to know him and, presumably, like him and trust him. So this year it's a festival run by a new head with old hands.

The centrepiece is Akram Khan's Giselle, a big show in every way. Khan has rechoreographed the classical ballet story, with new music, a "monumental" set and 65 dancers. "Dozens of them, they just keep coming at you."

Khan's a giant in contemporary dance and so is the English National Ballet, which commissioned the new Giselle from him. "I had to battle to get it," said Bielski.

This will be the first time it's been performed outside Britain.

And from the sublime to the friggin' awesome, there's Anika Moa headlining the acts outside the city centre. "She's so famous," said Bielski, which is why he asked her to do a regional tour: he didn't want to send a minor act. Moa will perform her riotous kids' show Chop Chop Hiyaaa! in eight Auckland towns from Helensville to Wellsford, Orewa to Clevedon.

I asked him, why do we have an arts festival, and he talked about "public celebration, by artists for everyone", and an experience that is "unifying, uplifting and edifying". A moral purpose, then? "Can I say it's spiritual too?"


So what's the most exhilarating show? "A o Lang Pho, it's an espresso shot of joy from Vietnam. Charming, beautiful artists, with a simple story about migrating to the city and the loss of culture that goes along with that. Twenty acrobats in a completely new take on the circus."

He saw it in Perth. Went in cold, not knowing how good it might be, and when it finished he booked them on the spot. "It's the only time I've ever done that."

When he programmes, he looks for artists who want to take a leap. "It's not going to be what I could have seen any other time."

He said, "You want to do intellectual and emotional battle with a story or an idea? Good, come along. Also, the festival's for having fun."

So what's the show with the really big laughs?

"The Naked Samoans Do Magic. It's going to be silly, hilarious and naughty."


• The NZ Herald begins a new online series today, behind-the-scenes. On the eve of the Auckland Arts Festival and New Zealand Festival in Wellington, we speak to some of our leading choreographers and dancers, theatre-makers, playwrights and poets, musicians and singers about what makes them tick. Why do they make the art they do and what can we expect to see from them at our biggest arts festivals?