What an astonishing thing, that we are about to welcome the return of the Auckland Arts Festival.
Covid struck right in the middle of the 2020 festival, cancelling shows, stranding performers, forcing audiences home. Most famously, American singer Amanda Palmer had to cancel, and then holed up for the duration in Hawke's Bay with her daughter and her husband, writer Neil Gaiman. Until Gaiman couldn't cope any longer and found a way to flee to Scotland.
It was dramatic, in its own way, but it wasn't the same as having an actual arts festival.
And then, just this year, still in Havelock North, Palmer tweeted that she had walked into a cafe and got a standing ovation because, you know, Americans are good again. It was sort of true but not really, according to an assiduous investigation at the Spinoff.
That was also entertaining, but still nowhere near as good as a festival.
And now we have one again. The Auckland Arts Festival 2021 runs for a little over two weeks from next Thursday, with 63 shows, at last count, and performances throughout the wider city. The theme: aroha. Because we always need a bit of that.
It's not like the America's Cup. For that, seemingly everyone who was necessary to any of the teams was able to get here, including everyone whose wealth defined them as necessary.
But performing groups from overseas can't get in, the Wiggles being a rare exception that proves the rule. Mostly, they can't even get together to rehearse in their own countries. So this festival is homegrown.
Artists and entertainers, here as everywhere, have done it hard during the pandemic. Most of them work in the gig economy: no work, no money. They usually didn't qualify for wage subsidies because they weren't earning wages. And it's hard to qualify for other benefits when your work history is erratic. And not knowing, like the rest of us, what will happen tomorrow.
If you're Shona McCullagh, the festival's new artistic director, how do you put together a programme when week by week, day by day sometimes, you don't know if groups can rehearse or the show will be allowed to go on, or audiences will want to turn up?
Judging from the programme, her answer to that seems obvious enough: you do it with courage. While she's presenting some new names, she has many artists at the pinnacle of their fields, not just here but internationally, presenting remarkably bold new work.
The internationally acclaimed chamber choir Voices NZ, under revered choirmaster Karen Grylls, teams up with Warren Maxwell and other composers from Finland and Canada to present Taonga Moana, a celebration of the sea, this Saturday in the Town Hall. Maxwell gave us the anthem Home, Land and Sea all those years ago: he's still at it, and who wouldn't want him to be.
Michael Hurst, the director who has given this city Chicago, Cabaret and other barnstormingly racy shows over the years, is applying that same bravura theatricality, albeit with family values, to his production of Jack and the Beanstalk, playing at the Bruce Mason Theatre in Takapuna.
Hurst won't mind, though, if he cedes the absolute bravura title to John Psathas, who will present the world premiere of Voices at the End, his new work for six (!) grand pianos, one of them played by Michael Houstoun. And just for good measure, seeing as they have the instruments already to hand, they're also going to do American composer Alan Reich's work Six Pianos.
The Psathas music will be accompanied by an audio-visual spectacular embracing the Amazon, Africa, Aotearoa and outer space, among other places of awe. It's about us, on this planet now. If you're into magnificent contemporary classical music, it's kind of jaw-droppingly big.
Te Matatini, the spectacular kapa haka contest, has been postponed until next year – it was scheduled for right about now, with Eden Park as the host venue. But the defending champion, Ngā Tūmanako from West Auckland, has teamed up with three other groups for a three-and-a-half hour extravaganza on the last Sunday afternoon in the Aotea Centre. That's an invitation to drench yourself in the beauty, right there.
New Zealand's pre-eminent theatre group, the Auckland Theatre Company, is also boldly going, etc, with The Haka Party Incident. Conceived and directed by Katie Wolfe, the show explores what happened in 1979 when members of the newly formed He Taua activist group, including a young Hilda Halkyard and Hone Harawira, beat up a group of engineering students who had refused to cancel the mock haka they performed about town as a capping ritual.
It's a "verbatim" play: the words come entirely from interviews with participants on both sides, along with newspaper and court records of the time. I've seen a workshop presentation and it's bracingly good.
Dance supremo Michael Parmenter appears in Strasbourg 1518, directed and choreographed by Lucy Marinkovich with music by Lucien Johnson, a work that brings a thrilling piece of history to life: the "dancing plague" that swept through the city and lasted for months.
Parmenter's other gig this festival might not be so frenzied: he's hosting the New Moon Folk Ball at the Titirangi Community Hall. With a nod to the dances they used to have in the caves at Whatipu (true), it promises an intoxicating night of folk dancing for all. Parmenter himself will help you learn how not to tread on your partner's feet or fall over your own. Sometimes, you just think, how splendid is that?
And for something not so new but still very special, on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Polynesian Panthers, former panther Tigilau Ness will join his son Che Fu, with the Kratez, on stage at the town hall to perform the album Navigator. Which is now 20 years old.
There's no Spiegeltent this year. Instead, cabaret, music and other performances are scheduled for the Civic Theatre, where the audience will sit on stage, close to the performers. I've done this at a couple of shows in the past: it's magical.
Bookings are strongly advised. The lineup includes Reb Fountain, Estere, Julia Deans, Anna Coddington, Chelsea Jade, and Shayne Carter teaming up with Delaney Davidson and Theia. And, because it wouldn't be a festival without it, three nights of burlesque acrobatics in the show Heavenly Bodies.
There's a siva afi festival: that's fire knife dance, including a schools contest, free in Aotea Square and at the Mangere Art Centre. The APO is live-performing the music to accompany the movie E.T., Antonie Tonnon is riding trams at Motat, K-Pop will storm the Bruce Mason Centre and Moana Maniapoto is touring community halls.
The artists must be relishing the chance to perform. And how good is this for the city? Another big community-based event, with lots of free shows, regional tours and spectacular concerts in our best venues. Excellent.
And how about this. On Thursday, just to get everyone aroha'd up, Ria Hall and the Levites will present Tahu Tau Kahurangi: a set of beloved songs from Aotearoa. Split Enz's I Wish I Never, Shihad's Pacifier, Fur Patrol's Lydia, King Kapisi's Screems from Da Old Plantation, Bic Runga's Sway and many more. Check out the entire playlist here. Check out the whole festival here.
Hall's set also includes Marlon Williams and Aldous Harding's great song of heartbreak and flimsy hope, Nobody Gets What They Want Anymore. For a couple of weeks at least, fingers crossed against lockdowns, that may turn out not to be true.