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Programming Dance at Festivals in Aotearoa, New Zealand

By Dione Joseph

Atamira, Ruauamoko (Auckland Arts Festival) / Photo by Gate Photography

Thumbing through a freshly printed programme is undeniably one of the most delicious moments for any fan. The covers are glossy, the images sing out and between those slim covers is potentially a treasure trove of artistic jewels. But while the coffee shops and bars may buzz with the latest gossip of what’s hot and what’s not (and of course, everyone has their opinion), festival programming doesn’t happen overnight.

In fact, programmes are extensively curated and one of the key roles of the Festival Director is to bring works into a much bigger conversation that is inclusive of the locals, the landscape and also, the different works themselves. This is supported by other generic factors including the artistic merit of a concept, capacity of the artist or company,
practical matters such as logistics, venues, budget, time-frames and also, touring affordability and partnerships.

Artistic Director for the Festival of Colour, Philip Tremewan, is a stalwart supporter of including dance in his festival’s programme – but for him it’s just as important to ensure that where possible, these works are world premieres.

“Dance works have to be of high quality, capable of reaching a wide audience, fit a modest budget and if possible, be new works,” he says.

This commitment is reflected in an early inclusion of dance in the 2007 programme with Raewyn Hill’s Mercy: A dance for the forgotten and more recently Black Grace’s Waka (2013), Java Dance Company’s The Wine Project and Douglas Wright’s The Kiss Inside.

However, that’s not all.

“We also like to do some unusual combinations,” says Tremewan, “We brought two leading tango dancers from Melbourne (2009) and they toured community halls with the NZ Army Band teaching audiences the basics of Tango. The following festival (2011) they returned with their tango company to perform for us in Wanaka and Queenstown”.

It’s a community-centric approach that caters to audiences in specific cities and regions while recognising that different places create different spaces for dance, and in turn, are sculpted to a particular cultural ecology and creative landscape.

Auckland Arts Festival director Carla van Zon explains: “The dance community is 500 people and they go to one night at the Rangatira in Q Theatre and two nights at Downstage but that’s just not enough,” she says, “You have to get the wider population – and if you don’t then there’s no point”.

Having watched changing trends over the past 20 years, van Zon is more “concerned with trying to do things that can’t be done at another time” than necessarily focusing on fulfilling any expectations including quotas of dance, theatre or music.

With six dance works in the 2015 festival (including NZ works I AM, PAH and Fale Sā) and five in 2016 (including NZ works Changes, Ruaumoko and Speed of Light), the dance programme is reflective of works that speak to Auckland as the largest Polynesian city – and the diversity within diversity that comes with the broad brushstroke category.

“Programming dance is to do with the people who are in my city and how I can involve them and bring them into a theatre,” she explains, “I remember selling out six shows at St James but the numbers in Auckland were half those in Wellington for the same show – and that was a shock”.

Java Dance Theatre, The Wine Project - Photo by Tom Hoyle

Different audiences have different expectations and what may be a highly successful event in one city is not always guaranteed to have the same reception in another.

It’s a challenge that Nelson’s Festival Director Charlie Unwin also faces.

“I do hear we need more dance,” he says, “But when an excellent contemporary dance work from a great New Zealand company is presented, the theatre is only half-full. We have had success in recent times with new genres like hip hop and site specific work, but contemporary dance is more difficult”.

Nevertheless, in both the 2013 and 2015 programmes the Nelson Arts Festival included two dance works and this year will showcase Triumphs and Other Alternatives (Ross McCormack) as part of the 2016 festival.

“I saw Triumphs at APAM earlier this year and fell in love with it,” he says, “Ross is a great performer and choreographer and it’s a magnificent show – but we are only really able to present with the assistance of Tour Makers”.

Support and assistance enables festivals of all sizes to create circuits, not only to tour but also to break down any exclusivist tendencies. Sometimes however, despite the support from other partner cities and producers, other challenges still prevail.

For Southland’s Festival of the Arts Creative Projects Manager, Angela Newell, organising the dance programme requires more than just creative thinking.

“There is really only room for one dance production in the festival, in terms of our audience  numbers and tastes,” she says, “It’s a very difficult genre to get bums on seats and generally always runs at a loss, therefore price is important”.

However, she adds: “Programming-wise there is a lot to choose from in the market but I think that audiences are still developing a taste for this genre. In a regional area like Southland these initiatives have to be propped up financially especially as the numbers are not at break-even point yet”.

While many Festivals are unable to commission new works due to finance, Christchurch Arts Festival’s budget enables the team to commission one or two new works across
each Festival. However, the organisers face additional challenges in regards to the time required to programme new works or those in development. General Manager, Vanessa Thompson, explains: “I feel we have as much responsibility for serving the dance community and it's always a tough balance as our Festival has a limited budget but we’re stretching our resources across multi-art events, shows and activities to ensure there is something for everyone from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to 30Forward.”

30 Forward, Footnote New Zealand Dance - Photo by Jeremy Brick

With an impressive line-up of six dance works in 2014 and seven in 2016, Artistic Director for the NZ Festival, Shelagh Magadza also relishes the challenge to create an artistic banquet for punters in the capital - but as she points out, there’s more to it than just a fabulous opening night party.

“We have strong dancers and choreographers and increasing ambition by our artists,” she says, “So a key to growing our community is to engage audiences and ensure there is a range of experiences on offer that will draw people to dance”.

It’s a motivation that goes beyond the pages of contracts, the schedules, the arts markets and the negotiating. It’s a reminder that ultimately programmes are crafted as dialogue – or as Nicholas McBryde, Festival Director of the Dunedin Arts Festival summarises, a much bigger exchange that speaks to the integrity of the works as a whole.

“Dance is difficult,” he says, “But it’s more than just budget, we need to choose the right works because our audiences deserve the very best of the festival fare we can afford and requires creating and curating for the sensibility, fashion and aesthetics of our audiences”.

How successful is our dance programming and how will it determine the future of New Zealand dance?  Well, you’ll have to wait for the next issue to find out.

Download the article Creating & Curating

Read Part 2: The Future of Contemporary Dance at Festivals in Aotearoa

Programming Dance at Festivals in New Zealand

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