John Laidlaw (Director, Live & Local) talks about his visit to Arts on Tour, New Zealand in Christchurch
Just to goes to show how one can get misconceptions. Misconception one; in my first conversation in New Zealand (the night porter at the YMCA in Christchurch) I kicked off with a quip about the rugby semi final to find out it was a bad thing to say to a hockey coach! I received a friendly but forthright expose about the excessive flow of sports funding to rugby and how much the world cup was costing the country!
Misconception number two… that I’d have no concerns about being in an earthquake zone that was still getting regular tremors. Not true; especially when my room turned out to be on the fifth floor.
The next morning was nippy but sunny and I looked out over Christchurch botanical gardens and everything seemed to be standing and straight. Not having any New Zealand money and an in-operative debit card forced a coffee free exit across the road to the Canterbury Museum. Then I saw their Arts Centre.
This was completely fenced off, one of its towers off its roof and placed for safety on the ground. Clearly there was some roof damage, but a cursory glance revealed no other apparent serious damage, but it is unsafe to enter; as is much Christchurch. Christchurch has a lot of Victorian style buildings and this one is apparently one of the best examples of its kind in the southern hemisphere. Think Oxford or Cambridge College and you get the idea. This is not a small complex, apart from many offices and spaces it houses a major Theatre (The Court Theatre). It will cost a lot of money to bring it back into use again. But at least it’s standing which is more than one can say for many places. The city hall is now in what was going to be a new gallery and the whole of the CBD area is a no go zone. There are many, many cleared blocks, propped up buildings, and uneven roads. However perhaps the most shocking images were of the streets of houses in the suburbs that were just a bit squint, most if not all will need to be rebuilt. Then there was the whole estate of houses (about 10 years old I’d say) that had suffered from liquefaction (basically rock turning to mud being forced up through the foundations, then re-solidifying in the house). The next day I was taken to the Arts on Tour New Zealand temporary(ish) offices (they were based at the Arts Centre; Steve and his staff left in a hurry). You may have seen images of the Anglican Cathedral; their offices are now close to the remains of the Catholic Cathedral, one side of its front is supported by a pile of containers five stories high, the other side is open like a dolls house, and its cupola has gone all together. It is due for complete demolition.
Lets be clear, this is not a third world country and not a disaster on the scale of Japan, but neither is it a rich country (4m people) and it’s clear that the shock and trauma must run deep in the communities most affected. It will take years to rebuild and recover. There are however some strange silver linings…. Arts Council NZ have coughed up to rehouse several arts organisations in the local poly, creating some interesting potential collaborations I suspect! The recent dance festival also had to rethink the whats and whens and especially the wheres of its programming.
Steve was a great host. In the short time I was there (two days effectively) I sampled a good range of NZ culture… artistic, sporting, culinary and liquid! On the sports front, given that I am English with a substantial dollop of Scots blood, have an Australian family and was visiting a Welshman who is also a Kiwi I was a bit concerned over who to support (England already being dispatched homewards) For information, I chose Wales and New Zealand in that order. But I may not mention this when with my Aussie family in Perth!
Watching a world cup rugby semi final in NZ, with a glass on NZ wine having eaten NZ lamb and Mutton Bird is a once in a lifetime experience. Take any three parts of that mix it would have been special…. But the Mutton Bird definitely made it unique. This is a Maori speciality, I think from the far south, much beloved by Steve; less to by his partner Marilyn (there was some previous issue over the demise of a plant in the garden due to the disposal of the fat rendered from the cooking!) The bird lives like a puffin in a burrow and the local people have the right to harvest a few each year. I believe there is a lot of cooking involved (and a lot of fat) and it ends up a bit like a salty, slightly fishy, crispy Peking duck. Definitely an acquired taste; but I love kippers so enjoyed about half the bird as it is very rich as well. The gorgeous lamb was something of a palate clearer after the Mutton Bird!
But I was in NZ for more than culinary reasons with the Sunday set aside for the AOTNZ symposium at the George Hotel just down the road. The participants were a mix of Board members, presenters (promoters) and local artists. AOTNZ covers the whole of NZ; north and south islands. It supports about 10-15 tours per year to communities all over the North and South islands and about 160 performances I believe. Now these really are tours! I’m afraid that companies in the UK who moan about 2 or 3 hour drive between consecutive one night stands will get short shrift at Live & Local from now on! Venues are generally small community run places. The smallest seats 35 people and there are apparently only 36 people living in that community! Avoiding geographical local clashes is not much of an issue… routing the tour is. A lot of the process, support and feel of the scheme are very reminiscent of UK schemes.
The day was kicked off by a Powhiri and Welcome from Iohangawai. This was part prayer, part personal affirmation, part song/chant, part welcome. It was a gentle and calming start to the day. It is part of the local culture to respond in like manner should you choose to. One of the Maori artists, Ariana Tikao (Voices of our Ancestors) gave a beautiful short song and Steve (who is quite a poet) got his rugby defeat frustrations out of the way! Then more familiar elements… sort of… as it may be the only meeting I will attend at which the ‘housekeeping’ included what to do in case of seismic activity.
I gave a presentation about Live & Local and the National Rural Touring Forum (NRTF) and three of the artists did a session on what their favourite things were to make a successful tour/performance. Vicky Allpress Hill (The Audience Connection, Auckland) ran a very useful session on social media and Steve and his staff updated people on various aspects of AOTNZ marketing and strategic plans.
At the end of the day we were treated to a showcase from four groups and I would offer any of them to our Promoters. Mundi – a world music band led by a virtuoso flautist (Tamara Smith) inspired by North Africa, the Amazon and beyond. International violinist and composer, Fiona Pears played some gypsy swing with La Petite Manouche. She’s played at Ronnie Scott’s and with the LPO. Helen Webby, principal harpist with the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, who tours AOTNZ with guitarist Davy Stuart who is also a renowned instrument maker (he made Chris Newman’s guitar)
It was an informative, relaxed and sociable day rounded off by a buffet and drinks in the sun. For me two things stood out. The repeated comments from the artists about how important they found the scheme to enabling them to tour without the admin and marketing worries so they could put all their energy into their art over a prolonged period. Secondly, the vital curatorial role that the scheme plays in ensuring high quality, wide ranging and appropriate product for the participating communities.
Thank you to Steve, his Board and everyone who helped make my visit so good. I hope we can offer the same hospitality to visiting staff, promoters, artists or Board members across in the UK soon.