Dance 'til you drop - and more
Eight thousand music lovers in one place? The Gathering could be heaven or hell, depending on your view. Sharon McIver joined the fun at Takaka over the New Year.
"The Gathering is a festival of freedom, dance, music and participation. Your presence creates The Gathering. Take care, we are all responsible for the environment. Be nice humans."
The creed at the beginning of The Gathering handbook neatly sums up the expectations and atmosphere of the three-day dance festival. What it fails to mention is that it is also one of the most freeing, heady experiences many of the more than 8,000 Gatherers are ever likely to encounter. The sight of happy, beautiful people accessing and exhibiting atavistic impulses (already, I sound like a raving hippie) is a world away from the usual New Year's Eve mayhem of drunken louts inflicting alcoholic kisses on innocent peple.
From December 31 to January 2 each year the pastoral landscape of Canaan Downs, near Takaka, is transformed into a huge adventure playground for big kids. All necessities and safety arrangements are taken care of by the wonderful Gathering crew and their security team (who take an older-sibling role, reather than a heavy parental one) so that all the Gatherers need to do is kick back and enjoy.
In addition to the seven dance zones pumping out dance music (in all its constantly mutating forms) for the 48 hours of official partying, there are specially hired performers who circulate continuously, putting on displays of stilt walking, juggling, mime, and fire poi. Sometimes these weird and wonderful looking individuals are organised in groups (a stunning fire-juggling display was one of the midnight New Year celebrations), but they are just as likely to turn up where you least expect them. The lines between imagination and reality are blurred when a mime artist "hauls" in the line made by a light cutting across the dark, or an iridescent frog squats realistically at the entrance to one of the dance zones.
Each of the dance zones is an experience in itself (no expense or time spared in decoration), and most can be accessed easily from the central area, so that if you are bored with one style of music you can easily move on to another. One of the headiest feelings comes from standing at the edge of the central fire pit and deciding which zone to take in next, trying to find the perfect match for your mood.
Occupying a pocket in the surrounding beech forest, the glaring (sunlight by day, light show by night) trance/techno zone is surrounded by eight speaker shells so that the sound hits you at full force from each side. The football-field-sized space is a riot of colour and action during the day with poi dancers weaving in and out through the dancers, hacky-ers and jugglers.
Once away from the speakered seclusion of the trance arena, the cross-channel sounds of the next three zones (housed in huge marquees) fill the open air. The sumptuously lined house/funk/garage zone could not be any more different to the almost sinister, black polystyrened happy/hardcore/industrial/hardbag tent next door, where full-on hardcore drills incessantly while brave (fit) dancers endeavour to keep up with the artillery beats.
A more relaxing territory is the dub/hiphop/drum&bass/roots zone, which is barracked in a wide, airy tent decked out with military camoflage, and lime-green tree sculptures. Here you can let your body relax while DJs spin some of the cruisiest, trippy dub sounds around.
When the non-stop sounds of the noisy dance areas all get a bit much there are several areas designed for relaxing and chilling out. Set in a clearing at the foot of a cliff, the jazz/classical/world zone is the perfect place to relax during the day, or psych yourself out at night, when walk-in movies feed paranoia with tales of aliens and afterlife.
On the route to the far-away tribal zone, the ambient/lounge zone is the place to find shade (flower-shaped umbrellas) during the day or warmth (campfire) at night. The large crater is an ideal spot to get away from the surrounding cacophony and let the spatial, calming sounds wash over you.
However, for all the wonders of the electronic zones (each powered by separate generators), it was the back-to-basic tribal zone that had the greatest impact. Drummers and percussionists paying natural, acoustic instruments gather around a cenral fire creating music that feeds off and into each other's individual rhythms. Without this primitive music form there would be no house, techno, jungle, or dub, and here people are given the chance to open their minds to ancient impulses, joining in by drumming, clapping, chanting, and dancing to rhythms that have existed throughout the ages.
The Gathering is a place where you can ignore the restrictions of conventions and be who you want to be. The event attracts all sorts, from tripped-out hippies to enlightened new-agers, from preppy high-school kids to body-decorated trend-setters.
Everywhere you looked there are happy, relaxed people all intent on getting on with the serious businesss of having the best possible time. The Gathering has achieved its goal of "Unity Through Diversity".