Dunedin Midwinter Carnival - Juliet Novena Sorrel

by Insiders Dunedin

It’s the end of an era, and you don’t see many of those. Not only will this be the last year the mid-winter carnival will circle the Octagon, it will be the last with Artistic Director Juliet Novena Sorrel’s hand on the tiller. Stepping down after 18 years, she has seen the audience for what started as a small solstice ritual involving giant puppets and dancers with masks walking around the octagon anti-clockwise, quickly get too big for its boots in a good way: literally doubling every year, growing from 500 to 15,000 people in the last 15 years. A world class event, authentic and unique to the city, the magical, fairy-tale atmosphere creates life-long memories in Dunedin children affirming who they are and where they live and belong. Juliet was inspired as a child by the Alexandra blossom festival. The difference being, Dunedin children are able to not just watch, but have the opportunity to take put in it, dance in it, be the light.

The ancient pagan ritual of banishing evil from the community, a procession of lanterns banishing darkness still strikes a chord: parents have their kids out quite late in the evening, claiming the inner space of the city, shining light into dark corners. “People find it meaningfully marks the seasons,” says Juliet, who cried to see the pride on the faces of the teenagers performing to a huge audience last year, after the hours of choreography and practice, sustaining the performance through two revolutions of the octagon.

This year’s theme is Nocturnal Nature, evoking the idea of walking up a gulley through the New Zealand bush and meeting the magical creatures of the night, made more enchanting than ever by an explosion of LED technology which carnival organisers have made great use of. All the giant lanterns now have LEDs inside, a far cry from the candles of old.  Organisers have had to constantly adapt, think on their feet, even change the processions route at huge cost to themselves, applying to turn off the lights around Moray Place to accommodation the needs of the ever-swelling audience.

Having been trying to step down for about 6 years now and wanting to know the event could stand on its own two feet, “Nothing is strong if it relies on one person” – Juliet has grown a phenomenal art team whose skills are very specific and technical, a long built-up knowledge and expertise easy to lose when you can’t pay people, making it difficult to sustain an event long-term, or transfer those skills to other artists. Jeopardised by the limitations of funding and sponsorship, as well as costumes for the performers, all the lanterns are hand-built from scratch. Storage and workshop space are a problem; the artworks desperately need a permanent home, rather than the tenuous existence of a damp borrowed corner, hastening their deterioration. There’s not enough funding to pay for year-round storage, and every year they create more.

Juliet has maintained her own art over this time, her work consisting of large scale charcoal drawings on plywood, echoing the light and dark so much a part of the last 15 years of her life, as well as outdoor sculptures of wielded steel and ceramic. Finishing an MA and a secondary diploma in teaching art and technology at SIT, for the last year and a half she’s been teaching in the Maniototo after a residency on Stewart Island, and will soon take up an artist’s residency in Ashburton after an upcoming illuminated sculpture show at Glenfalloch gardens called the Golden Night Garden. A light that never goes out, Juliet will be there to take a bow on the 24th of June, radiating, no doubt, her love for the show that goes on.

Post submitted by Dallas Synott and Lisa Scott

Photos by Jackie Jubel

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