Confessions of a veteran reviewer

Southern Festival of Colour reviewer Nigel Zega.
Southern Festival of Colour reviewer Nigel Zega.
Australian circus company Casus presents Knee Deep, an inventive blend of traditional and...
Australian circus company Casus presents Knee Deep, an inventive blend of traditional and contemporary circus techniques, at the Central Lakes Trust Crystal Palace, Wanaka, on Tuesday, April 21. Photo supplied.

Nigel Zega, the Otago Daily Times' Southern Festival of Colour reviewer, has lost track of the number of festival performances he has seen, but believes only festival staff will have seen more. Mr Zega steps into the limelight for a moment to answer a series of questions from Mark Price before the opening of the Wanaka-based festival.


Q Is there one performance that stands out ahead of all the others?

A The thing that continues to impress me the most is not a single performance but how a community as small as Wanaka comes together to provide sufficient support to maintain a first-class festival every two years.

It's a testament to sponsors, patrons, festival-goers and the small but hard-working team who keep it going.

On a personal level, I've enjoyed outstanding dance performances at previous festivals and have high expectations of next week's shows.

Q Which was the most disappointing?

A One of the greatest joys of festivals is getting a chance to sample new things.

While there will be something for everyone, some things will not be to everyone's taste.

A percussive act I attended was mind-numbingly repetitive and far too loud for a wee lad sitting with his parents near me.

He burst into tears and had to be taken out, and I felt like going with him.

But I come from the school of reviewing that stays to the end in the hope things might change for the better, or at least change. They didn't.

Q What trends have you noted in festival performances?

A They're getting more inventive and pushing boundaries, just as they should. Performers are also increasingly linking up and jamming as the week goes on, which is always fun.

Q What change has occurred in the make-up of audiences?

A As the Festival of Colour is proving itself to be here for the long run, it seems to be attracting a wider cross-section of audiences.

In the first year you would often see many of the same faces attending most of the shows.

Now you see totally different audiences from show to show. Organisers set out to cater for all, and have also succeeded in getting more young people involved.

The growth and changing demographics of Wanaka will make a difference, too.

Q More women than men go to performances. Why's that?

A You could ask why more men than women go to sports events like rugby and cricket.

It's a traditional gender divide, but it's reducing over time.

Women are usually at the forefront of trying new things in the arts, and they can be very persuasive in taking their partners along with them.

And as more men are exposed to the wide variety of shows available at festivals, it's more likely that they'll discover things that they like - even dance.

Q What do you consider is the reason for men being largely uninterested in dance and what are they missing out on?

A I think there's a popular male misconception that dance is girly.

A long time ago I spent some years training with dancers and occasionally succeeded in getting my roughy-toughy rugby and football-playing mates along to try it out.

None of them could stand the pace.

Dance is incredibly demanding physically and mentally, and like any top-level athletic endeavour, it can be superb entertainment once you get to appreciate how hard it is.

Once you get over that hurdle, a good dance performance can be extremely moving.

Q Are you a kind or harsh reviewer?

A Neither. I hope I'm fair.

I've been reviewing arts events for more than 40 years, and in my early days I used to argue with a senior critic who rated everything to the highest standards.

I used different standards for the local amateur dramatic society in the parish hall and the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford.

They were both trying their best with the resources they had.

If the RSC gets it wrong, they expect to be slated.

If amateurs do things well, they deserve praise, and if they don't, you don't have to rub their noses in it.

You just let your readers know not to expect too much.

That said, I've seen amateur productions that would not be out of place on a professional stage - and professional productions that were anything but professional.

Q Are you, or should you be, as tough on festival performers as the media is on rugby or cricket players?

A When sports players are paid huge sums of money it must soften the blows rained on them by the increasingly sensationalist media. Festivals are different beasts.

Events at the Festival of Colour are reasonably priced and have a range of performers, from school pupils to world-class professionals, and probably most of them would say that their art is more important than their earnings.

People in the world of creative arts can't afford to be driven solely by money.

They don't need to be slagged off just for the sake of a good headline, and if they really don't perform as they should, they'll soon find the gigs stop coming.

At a different level, if top-earning entertainers perform poorly at high-priced events, they can expect bad press.

But a review can let the public know what to expect without character assassination.

Q Which three performances are you most looking forward to next week, and why?

A Top of my list is Douglas Wright's The Kiss Inside.

Wright is a game-changer in dance, and although his work is often obscure and hard-core, the dancers he attracts are exceptional.

I've never been disappointed by a Wright show and I don't expect this to be different.

On a totally different tack, I hear good things about the family-friendly festival finisher, The Pianist, who combines the talents of a clown with a grand piano.

What can possibly go right?

There's no definitive third place, but I'll be looking out for Michael Houston's debut as a jazz pianist with the Rodger Fox Big Band, a gig he may have got a taste for when playing work from Mike Nock at a previous festival.

Jazzman Nock is performing with the classical NZTrio, who will separately be revealing how they and composer Claire Cowan bring a piece to life with Behind the Curtain and Inside the Notes.

NZTrio will also be supporting The Coffee Cantata, a brief whimsical show that could be an introduction to comic opera for people who think they don't like opera. It's a festival.

Forget your preconceptions and give things a go. Love or hate things, you'll have had an experience to remember.

Q What don't people know about daily newspaper reviewers?

A Some reviewers have the luxury of days of contemplation and discussion after a show.

If you're working for a daily morning newspaper, you often have less than half an hour to get out of the venue, get your thoughts straight, find a place to work, write your piece, and file it.

And at festival time you then need to race back to the next event.

Roll on Tuesday.


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