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June 19, 2017 | by  | in Theatre |
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Manaia — Atamira Dance Company

I am by no means a veteran of the world of dance. Unless you count furiously gyrating and unconvincingly lip-syncing to Roxy Music’s 1973 classic Street Life for an assembly talent show when I was 12, I have never “danced”. Manaia, which is part of the Kia Mau Festival in Wellington, served as my first introduction into the world of dance that I was not forced to see by my peers (looking at you, school trip to Billy Elliot). As I went in essentially blind, aside for knowing the production was brought to us by the Atamira Dance Company, and that it was to “showcase the strong female choreographic voice” at the centre of one of the leading Māori dance companies in Aotearoa, I thought I’d give my raw impression of what I saw next to each three of the director/choreographer’s unique visions.

 

“Pito” — choreographed by Nancy Wijohn, performed by Kelly Nash

Programme: Exploring themes of maternal connections that transcend space and time (and even death), Pito, meaning “to be human and to be at peace,” looks to reimagine what it means to die. It looks to interrogate pain and loss to find something worth learning and living for.

My Impression: A confession: I wasn’t let in to see Pito. Me and my companion turned up about two minutes late, and were greeted by the notice that they weren’t allowing latecomers until the start of the second piece. So, I can’t really give an honest review of my impression: but, we could hear at least a wealth of beautiful orchestration and live music from the performance above whilst stuck downstairs in the bar drinking overpriced Mac’s. When we entered during the interval, the rapturous applause for Pito was only just dying down, and as we sat down we could hear people behind up whispering “that was beautiful,” so I would imagine the sight matched the tremendous sound.

 

“Te Waenganui” — choreographed by Gabrielle Thomas, performed by Nancy Wijohn, Imogen Tapara, and Ngaere Jenkins.

Programme: Te Waenganui is the space inbetween (fitting then that it would play second in a three-act bill), and the performance explores the three fingers of the manaia — birth, life, and death. The piece builds from Rev. Māori Marsden’s thesis of the whare wānanga: that it views the world as a series of moving, flowing rhythmic patterns of energy. The performance looks to complicate the relationship between the physical body, the spiritual existence, and the space between.

My impression: Three is a magic number especially in the context of Manaia, but I would imagine it could be potentially painful for a performance like this. As most of the piece depends on complete unity between each element, any performer who moves out of step or forgets their next movement runs the risk of ruining the entire choreography. Yet, none of the performers made a false step — in fact, each of the three moved between roles seamlessly: whether as an isolated individual, as part of a support for that individual, or as something else entirely. Their movements brought to mind different bodies — of birds, snakes, preying mantises — that became entangled in each other until they inevitably burst apart. Each performer is dependent on one another, just as every element of the manaia needs its counterpart to create a whole. The movements cut through the folk-drone instrumentation beautifully, and the moments when each performer comes into contact with another are worth the extended periods they spend drifting away from each other.

 

“Mā”, choreographed by Kelly Nash, performed by Sean MacDonald, Hannah Tasker-Poland, and Milly Kimberly Grant.

Programme: Reframing and reinterpreting a Māori legend, depicts the demigod Maui’s attempts to create an eternal and immortal life for himself through exploitation of the female form, re-entering the vagina of goddess of death Hine Nui Te Po. being half of Māmā, the piece provides a counterbalance to the maternal themes of Pito, with Nash writing that they intend to link social and ecological decay with men’s patriarchal domination.

My impression: Mā depicts multiple births and rebirths, multiple body transformations, and multiple elements that unnerve just as well as they entertain. At the heart of the piece is Milly Kimberly Grants frankly unbelievable performance — she sings, screams, and creates dense soundscapes, and often creates a noise somewhere in between these three things. She silences the audience whenever a graphic set piece is greeted with nervous laughter, her piercing gaze as much a character of the performance as Maui or Hine Nui Te Po. The use of screens and unfamiliar objects creates an uneasy atmosphere, with mouths, eyes, breasts, vaginas superimposed onto flesh and wood and manipulated by the performers. It’s sensual and surreal all at once, and it makes a similarly strong statement on the exploitative nature of men, whether human or demigod.

 

Manaia, choreographed and performed by Atamira Dance Company.

Programme: Promised a strong artistic vision that reframes and reimagine concepts and legends of indigeneity in Aotearoa, performed and created by a strong female voice integral to the company.

My impression: I got what Atamira Dance Company promised and much more. If all dance can be as strong as this, you can catch me at the next Swan Lake premiere — and I won’t be late.

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