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The line-up for March's Auckland Arts Festival has just been announced. Linda Herrick reports

Fingers crossed Auckland's weather will behave on the opening days of March's Arts Festival with three nights of outdoor pyrotechnics created by France's Groupe F roaring and blasting above Auckland Domain.

The Breath of the Volcano, inspired by Auckland's ring of volcanos, will showcase a spectrum of projected images and light, LED-lit costumes and fireworks, echoing Groupe F's launch of the festival back in 2007 when they blew up a tonne of explosives and set off a range of flame generators.

Founded by pyro-whiz Christophe Berthonneau, Groupe F have lit up the skies above the Eiffel Tower, London's Millennium Bridge and the Barcelona Olympics. Breath of the Volcano will be based on location-specific research, with film footage from Piha, Rangitoto and Auckland Harbour, and music by American electro-acoustic composer Scott Gibbons. That will be one for the whole family, March 7-9.


The 19-day festival, launched this week by new artistic director Carla van Zon, formerly of the International Festival of the Arts in Wellington, balances a range of local and international acts.

National Theatre of China will present Rhinoceros in Love, writer Liao Yimei's curious allegory about a rhino keeper who falls in love with his neighbour but, thwarted by her indifference, holds her hostage. The work, which has been performed in Beijing more than 1000 times to packed audiences, will be performed in Mandarin with subtitles; Maidment Theatre, March 8-12.

Britain's National Theatre production of the comedy One Man, Two Guvnors, announced a couple of months ago, will undoubtedly be one of the festival's big headliners, but National Theatre of Scotland will also be here, setting its supernatural "border-ballad" play Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart in a bar, literally. Prudencia Hart, a big hit at last year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival, follows uptight academic Prudencia, who shelters in a snowbound rural pub on her way to a conference and finds herself locked in with a group of locals who start singing ballads "belonging to the Devil".

Its origins are allegedly "spooky". Writer David Greig, composer Alasdair Macrae and director Wils Wilson went to a pub in Kelso to research songs, and when the landlord closed the doors at midnight, a local told the trio about a group of researchers who had done the same thing a few years earlier, and one of them "vanished for ever".

Prudencia Hart will be staged at the Bluestone Room from March 13-23 where you can sip a dram to ward off the shivers.

In a real coup, leading British sculptor Antony Gormley has created the huge aluminium cube set for Babel, a dance-theatre piece performed by Belgian group Eastman, with choreography by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet. Eastman's 18 dancers will be joined on stage by five musicians playing a score that incorporates Hindi and Japanese drumming and medieval harp and flute. Babel will play at the Civic, March 21-23.

Career prospects for young people in Colombia are severely reduced by poverty and crime so the establishment of circus-theatre group Circolombia and its Circo Para Todos school for disadvantaged youths, established in 2006, has been a godsend for dozens of kids, with similar projects in South America and South Africa training more than 4000 children. Circolombia's Urban, a stunt-filled, risky narrative about life on the streets of Cali, runs at the Civic from March 13-17.

Berlin-based theatre company Circle of Eleven brings Leo, a gravity-defying one-man show already seen by this year's International Arts Festival audiences. Featuring dancer-actor-gymnast Tobias Wegner, Leo is about a man stuck in a room but freed by a soaring imagination; Maidment Theatre, March 19-23.

If you want to enjoy En Route, a concept brought here by Australian producers One Step at a Time Like This, you'll have to "inter-act" your way through the "back alleys" of Auckland's CBD, armed with a mobile phone, an MP3 player and an open mind. It's been tried in Edinburgh, London, Seoul, Brisbane and Melbourne, places that boast a heritage of urban lanes and alleys. So it will be interesting to see what the Australian producers come up with in Auckland's more banal byways; our historic architecture has not been so well-treated; March 6-24.

The New Zealand components form an essential part of the festival, giving companies and performers the chance to shine in front of a mix of local and international audiences.

Not all of the 2013 line-up is new: Pacific musical The Factory, by Kila Kokonut Krew, was staged in Mangere last year - and the audiences in the sold-out season loved it. With a cast of 14, a score by Poulima Salima, and a seven-piece band, this will be a must-see at Q Theatre, March 6-11.

Newly minted Arts Foundation Laureate Rachel House directs brand new play Hui, by Mitch Tawhi Thomas, about four long-estranged brothers reuniting over the course of one night after their father's tangi. Hui, which has already won this year's Adam NZ Play Award, will star Vinnie Bennett, Stephen Butterworth, Xavier Horan and Tola Newbery; Q Theatre, March 16-19.

Hone Kouka's 2011 Chapman Tripp Award winner I, George Nepia returns to celebrate the life of rugby player Nepia, played by Jarod Rawiri and directed by Jason Te Kare. The play will be staged at three venues to reflect the festival's aim of growing audiences beyond Auckland's CBD: Mahurangi College, Warkworth, March 8; Q Theatre Loft, March 13-18; Mangere Arts Centre, March 21-23.

The festival champions Maori showbands and singers in Everything is Ka Pai as a "world premiere", a one-off show celebrating classic songs and iconic performers such as the Volcanics, Prince Tui Teka, Howard Morrison, the Hi-Marks and the Quin-Tikis. Curated by Anika Moa and hosted by Pio Terei, performers include Will and Annie Crummer, Maisey Rika, Hinewehi Mohi, Ria Hall, the Yoots and St Joseph's Maori Girls Choir, with a guest spot by John Rowles; Town Hall, March 16.

Another "world premiere" stars the Auckland neighbourhood of Dominion Rd in a walk along the street to visit places that have inspired songs and stories: the bowling club, bus stops, restaurants, culminating in a picnic at Potters Park and a show by - surprise! - Don McGlashan. Dominion Road Stories, March 16-17, family picnic on March 16.

The festival also incorporates visual arts events, including a return of the super-popular White Night, a late Saturday night (March 16) visiting art galleries and museums; a prayer flag project by Tiffany Singh at Aotea Square for the duration of the festival; exhibitions by Bepen Bhana, Robin White with Ruha Fifita, and Derek Lardell, and a community project based around Avondale's Rosebank Rd.

International contemporary music performers are thin on the ground, with a show at the Town Hall on March 14 by South African trumpet maestro Hugh Masekela, who is also appearing at Womad.

What: Auckland Arts Festival
When: March 6-24, across town; tickets are on sale now, see buytickets.co.nz