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Lowdown: Fame Found, Dreams Realised

09 May 2024

Some big career boosts for hard-working creatives and new ambitions declared in this week's arts news bulletin.

No matter where you are in your career journey - most of us could use a boost.

Whether that's a kind word or financial windfall, something that makes you feel seen and underlines your mahi is appreciated.

For six established creatives, that's come in the form of what's fast becoming a highlight of the performing arts calendar -  the FAME Mid-Career Awards.

Just three years into its existence, the 2024 tranche of talent is the largest yet. It's usually three artists getting the nod but after a record-breaking 72 nominees, the decision was made between Performing Arts Network New Zealand (PANNZ), the FAME Trust and the Acorn Foundation to expand this year's recipients list, which sees each awarded $15,000 (the overall prize pool raised from $75,000 to $90,000).

PANNZ Chief Executive, Louise Gallagher states “The recipients span diverse cultures and backgrounds and have left indelible marks on the performing arts landscape. From pioneering paths for women in classical composition to nurturing the next generation of Pacific artists, their contributions extend far beyond the stage.”

As well as selecting performing artists across Contemporary Dance, Classical Music, and Theatre, two awards for Production, Design and Technical professionals are also handed out.

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Claire Cowan, Bianca Hyslop, Malia Johnston, Anapela Polata'ivao, Natasha James and Posenai Mavaega. Photos: Supplied.

The creative community has embraced this recognition being bestowed upon proven performers in the sector like Bianca Hyslop, who has forged a strong reputation in Māori Contemporary Dance both nationally and internationally over the last 15 years.

Hyslop told The Lowdown "Receiving this award has definitely given me that little nudge that I so currently needed, as if the universe was saying, 'hey keep going, you’ve only just begun!' Feeling extremely blessed!” 

She's joined by pioneering composer and founder of the Blackbird Ensemble, Claire Cowan - the first woman to receive commissions for ballets from the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

On her FAME acknowledgement, she told The Lowdown "Receiving an award such as this is hugely encouraging to continue my mahi in the music industry, at a time when being a full-time musician is not an easy career path. 

"There have been times when I wanted to give up, where I was broke, out of work and felt like I was a failure. Receiving this award feels like an acknowledgement of tenacity and hard work for the last 15 years, despite all the ups and downs. 

"One of the criteria for this award was audience response to my work - and that is something that has always been important to me. I am always looking to find connections with my audience through my work - creating experiences that move people, telling stories that deserve to be seen, and breaking down barriers of classical music composition and performance."

Movement of the Human (MOTH) Co-Founder Malia Johnston is another who has earned an acclaimed standing in the sector with a long line of cross-form collaborations, frequently integrating artists from diverse practices into her innovative storytelling.

Johnston told The Lowdown "It's very humbling and at the same time super awesome to be acknowledged especially during these 'tricky financial' times - our sector works hard and especially in project-to-project spaces where there is a huge amount of work behind the scenes securing platforms and presentation opportunities.   

"Receiving this type of award brings a positive energy-enhancing moment into that space.  It makes you realise that people see you and see your mahi and appreciate it - it's super encouraging and it makes me think and reflect on all of the incredible people that I have collaborated along the way with - these people are precious!!!  

"I acknowledge many others in the sector that give strongly back to their artistic community and do that job of 'chasing opportunity' - I hope that these awards continue well into the future for others to have this feeling of support and uplift.  

"This support comes at a crucial time for us at Movement Of The Human as we look to develop and continue opportunities from the recent work we have made."

Samoan-born director and performer Anapela Polata'ivao's career has been on an upwards trajectory since acting and directing in Tusiata Avia’s Wild Dogs Under My Skirt, which saw her make history as the first Samoan woman to have directed a show off-Broadway when Wild Dogs made its New York debut. As a mentor to emerging artists and having a real impact on the Pacific arts community, Polata’ivao told The Lowdown why the FAME acknowledgement is special to her.

"This award signifies ‘fa’amālo lava’ and ‘alofa atu’ to the unwavering commitment of a village that have supported my stubborn pursuit of crafting Pasefika theatre over the past two decades. Fa’afetai tele lava mo lo outou alofa fa’amaoni ma lo outou agalelei."

Posenai Mavaega, one of the Production Technical Professional recipients feels the same way. With a strong history with the groundbreaking Pacific Underground (PU) dating back to 1993 - He's credited with writing, recording, touring, producing, and music directing in theatres, concerts and festivals throughout the Pacific. 

Mavaeaga told The Lowdown he feels humbled. "I'm a musician first - and old school - so everything has been learnt through making and being in shows with PU, and through the generosity of fellow production professionals.  

"I'm still learning and it’s great PANNZ acknowledges the technical and production world.  Being Samoan, hopefully this award will inspire the next gens to commit to their passion.  We need more Tagata Moana and Tangata Whenua managing the technical aspects, and production elements of our arts spaces, so this award helps me continue advocating for this."

Natasha James has put 24 years into her career as a Lighting Designer and Production Manager for a host of organisations across several continents, currently working for Tawata Productions and Kia Mau Festival.

James told The Lowdown "I feel grateful to receive a FAME award alongside the other recipients, all of whom I really respect and admire.  In one way, the FAME award allows a moment of time to reflect on what I've done, where I'm at and what is next.  I have always felt so incredibly blessed to work in the arts to be part of some amazing productions alongside some really beautiful creative people whilst doing what I love to do.  

"Like lots of people, I feel like the world is in an uncertain and urgent place on many levels.  The arts can play a pivotal role, whether that's responding to what's occurring or offering escape and reprieve into creative spaces. I want to continue to be part of that mahi, to keep on doing and continue to encourage and support the next generation of practitioners.   

"The recognition of this award has spurred me on; I love where I'm at and I'm energised for it."

Dance dreams come true

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Ana Gallardo Lobaina and Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson (centre holding flowers) get their RNZB Principal promotion. Photo: Supplied.

It's commonplace for dancers to be given flowers on stage after performances - promotions, not so much.

After an afternoon session of Swan Lake at a sold-out St James Theatre in Wellington over the weekend, Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB) soloists Ana Gallardo Lobaina and Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson were announced as ascending to the coveted roles of Principal dancers by Artistic Director Ty King-Wall.

Christchurch-born Guillemot-Rodgerson's rise has been rapid - his first job was with Houston Ballet seven years ago and he joined RNZB in mid-2020 as a guest dancer (around the same time as Gallardo Lobaina). 

He told The Lowdown "It’s still so fresh, I don’t fully believe it yet. Even though I dance in front of big crowds all the time, in the moment I suddenly felt so shy, maybe a bit like four-year-old me all of sudden, living out a big dream. 

"This is something I have strived for - for a really long time - it’s hard to know if you’re ever going to reach that level. I keep thinking how grateful I am to my family and everyone who helped me or made sacrifices along my journey overseas and back again - because there were a lot - and now my dreams are such a reality, I feel very lucky. 

"It also feels like now the work really begins, to keep reaching new heights in my dancing, and to make NZ and our awesome audiences proud!"

Explaining how he got into ballet, Guillemot-Rodgerson reveals "I discovered I wanted to dance when I was four. I was watching Shortland St like the good Kiwi I am, and two of the characters did a tango. 

"I grabbed Mum and said I want to do that. I’m pretty grateful to Mum for letting me do it, encouraging me and supporting me the whole way because she definitely was expecting a rugby player! 

"I knew I was going to be a dancer from then on, but It took me a long time to try ballet specifically because I thought it was a bit boring and was very afraid of tights. As I got older the athleticism and artistry of ballet really drew me in, and the fact that i could become a different person or character on stage through it. Ballet can be quite addictive once you get into it."

Gallardo Lobaina also started when she was four and credits her mum as well - in a dance journey that's taken her through Cuba, the United States, Australia and now New Zealand. 

She told The Lowdown "My promotion is a victory for my family. It’s not in any way a personal win. 

"My parents come to mind first, but I’ve been blessed to have had a nest of people everywhere I’ve gone. The support I’ve always had along the way has given me the strength to fight through the less pleasant chapters of my career. 

"The cloud nine feeling is definitely not gone yet, it won't be for a while - it's only THE biggest recognition I could have ever hoped for. 

"Nothing changes really after a promotion, but everything does change at the same time. I’m deeply grateful, thankful, ecstatic, and honoured to be a Principal in a company I love and that has quickly become home."

Gallardo Lobaina and Guillemot-Rodgerson are scheduled to reprise their leading Swan Lake roles of Odette/Odile and Prince Siegfried in Auckland (10 May) and Christchurch (23 May, 26 May). 

Hall's big calls

ria mayor.jpgIt's been a big week for talented singer/songwriter Ria Hall - and it's got nothing to do with her most recognised talents.

As well as declaring her intention to run for Mayor of Tauranga, she's sharing her personal story in a powerful work.

Hall hit social media to confirm her mayoralty ambitions - as her beloved town comes out of the Commissioner run era after a messy break-up of the previous council - with one of her driving kaupapa being one that will resonate with many Lowdown readers;

"I will commit to Tauranga becoming known as the city of arts and culture - where we connect together and where our tourism and business communities can thrive."

A connected, inclusive community, housing growth, safer communities, sustainability and future-proofing the environment are also key elements in her approach for local office.

She's also laid herself bare on her parenting journey - in a new documentary from filmmaker Taylor Hohepa which explores the alarming mental health disparities faced by Māori māmā in Aotearoa.

It Takes a Kāinga puts a spotlight on the heartbreaking statistic that Māori mothers are 3.35 times more likely to die during pregnancy due to suicide, with the aim to inspire meaningful social and systematic change through amplifying Māori voices and hapūtanga expertise.

"We are hoping to spread the message of this kaupapa through Ria’s inspiring story," Hohepa states. "While this documentary has a strong Māori lens - it is for everybody, and I believe positive change begins with collective understanding.”

The short film garnered over 356,000 views in the first 24 hours when released on Hall's social media channels - you watch It Takes a Kāinga below.

CNZ's latest appointment

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Jannita Pilisi. Photo: Supplied.

We've discussed the high number of outgoing figures from Creative NZ (CNZ) in the past few weeks - now there's news of one heading in the other direction.

Jannita Pilisi has been appointed to the CNZ Board - adding another Pasifika voice after the end of former Chair Caren Rangi's tenure.

Of Niuean descent, Pilisi is the Director of Pacific Poppies Consulting and an advisor with the Niue Public Service Commission, bringing a wealth of experience in leadership, strategy, capability and capacity building, project management, and stakeholder relations. 

A short social media post from CNZ notes that Pilisi grew up in a pan-Pasifika environment, providing her insights and understanding to Niuean, Cook Islands, Samoan, Tongan and Tuvaluan culture, languages, and traditions. She is heavily involved with arts and culture of Pacific people at a grassroots, community level.

Pilisi will be one of several changes to both CNZ and the Arts Council in the coming weeks and months, so watch this space. 

Pacific push

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Glenda Tuaine. Photo: Supplied.

A touch of Aotearoa in the latest opportunity from Hawaiian-based Pacific Islanders in Communications (PIC).

New Zealand producer Kerry Warkia - perhaps best known for feature film WARU - is one of the mentors in the inaugural Leanne K. Ferrer Filmmaker Fellowship - a pilot six-month mentorship programme designed to uplift emerging Pacific filmmakers and prepare them for future funding opportunities, while also providing grants to kickstart their current projects.

And one of those selected for the Fellowship has a Kiwi connection in Glenda Tuaine.

NZ Fringe Festival's first Artistic Director, Tuaine studied at Victoria University of Wellington and led the Te Papa Museum events team in the development of the Matariki Festival concepts and Exhibition extension programmes before relocating to Rarotonga.

The producer, director and scriptwriter previously received PIC funding to make her award-winning short documentary film on legendary master carver Mike Tavioni - Taonga, An Artist Activist - and is currently working on a short film script with the Cook Islands/Kuki Airani’s deaf community.

Tuaine was chosen alongside fellow filmmakers Sonny Ganaden, Aukai Ligairi and Olivé. 

PIC’s other primary funding opportunities, the Media Fund (up to US$65,000) and the Shorts Fund (up to US$25,000), are open for applications through to 31 May.