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Pango - Reflections from Artistic Director Jack Gray

As the Artistic Director of Atamira, one would expect that I would have seen the show PANGO earlier than its sixth and penultimate performance! However, the surprise was maintained because the PANGO 2018 remount took place in Wellington (not our usual Auckland base). Pango* has since successfully wound its way in theatres throughout Te Ika a Maui - from Hastings to Gisborne, Tauranga, Hamilton, New Plymouth and now Whangarei - which is where I travelled to meet the team.

Superbly directed by Moss Patterson (choreographer and former long-term Atamira Artistic Director) PANGO showcases a talented new ensemble of dancers such as Jeremy Beck, Matiu Hamuera, Jared Hemopo and Toa Paranihi who join original members Luke Hanna and Emmanuel Reynaud. (Missing but noted were: Arahi Easton, Eddie Elliot, Roymata Holmes and Andrew Miller). Pango was presented in joint partnership with Stephanie Richardson and Drew James of Tourmakers (who funded four of seven venues). The touring company was comprised of Executive Director, Marama Lloydd, two musicians, Shayne Carter and James Webster, and two technicians, Nik Janiurek and Rowan Pierce. It was evident that everyone collectively contributed to the group's success.

I went to sit by the falls, Otuihau, replenishing myself after the long bus ride. My feet plunged in the cold waters of the Hatea River. A wall of water spray met the wind and moved like fine droplets everywhere, touching my skin. In the show, one of the most enlivening moments is a video effect in the space where light shimmers on the dry ice, I think it was a green light, maybe an arc that vibrated in the darkness. It reminded me a lot of the waterfall. I got dropped off at Forum North, the community theatre where the show was to be performed. I racked my brain to remember if I had performed there back in the day, and I think we had (for Ngai Tahu 32 in 2011). In any case, I was also thinking about my mother being born here - and trying to remember a memory of how that happened and what this place then resonated to me on that level. I entered the theatre and the dancers, 6 men, were in full pre-show focus mode, fixing spacing and movement, running over sections and warming their bodies in space. It’s beautiful to see dancers prepare, there is an energy of the work to be done, the precision required. I waved quietly and brought myself into the space more. They were looking sharp, their different physiques and mana embodied. They played some energy games, did some vocals and drilled the haka. Overhead were steel bars with black ropes tied on them and falling down on three sides, creating the illusion of a wharenui, house. As the musicians arrived, we checked in with each other and they expressed their excitement of the tour and their eager anticipation of the evenings performance.

7pm and we assembled onstage in a circle for karakia, led by Matiu. Around the circle, each person added words to make themselves in the present, to acknowledge the moment to happen and give energy to the teamwork, to consolidate the story thus far and emphasise the camaraderie of the group. There were many mentions of Moss, currently in Taiwan, and a clear sense of who the work belongs to (these people) and a reminder to the whakapapa of the work. It was an important psychological check in to calibrate the unfolding to happen.

The dancers talked after about the emotional intensity of the work and taking themselves into the “space”. I know the work originated from six men who had space and time in a studio to get things out. There’s a beautiful commitment to these men’s stories and it is particular, and specific. I appreciate the boundaries and what is being held.

I am not often used to being on the periphery of a show, as a dancer and choreographer myself, so decided to really buy into the experience of being on the other side and enjoy being an audience member of the show! In Whangarei, I had the benefit of anonymity which gave me a chance to experience the manaakitanga of the theatre and the true feelings of the audience. First thing I did was go straight to the bar, unfortunately they had no bubbles (my Aucklandness was really showing) and I ended up getting a glass of Pinot Gris and a bag of chips (more on that later). I loved when the woman told me sweetly to “enjoy the show”. I met some relatives of Marama and enjoyed their comments about this being the first time to a contemporary dance show. They told me that Kapa Haka is also dance and they were proud “Kapa Haka Freaks”. I said “Well I think the show will definitely be quite freaky!” I got my ticket from the box office and chatted to a few other patrons, two who had received tickets from a promotional event we ran at InnoNative Markets a few weeks back.

As part of this Pango Tour, we had appointed Terri Crawford (Korou Productions) to organise and coordinate our Maori Community Engagement strategy. Many things, including community dance and music workshops and radio interviews were all designed to increase our engagement and to specifically try to bring more Maori to the theatre. As I entered the balcony to take my seat, I ended up sitting next to a Maori woman who had come after hearing a radio interview this morning and looking the show up online to buy a ticket. She was excited to see Atamira for the first time, was enthralled by the program design, asked me some interesting questions and told me about her son who has a love of the performing arts. We friended each other then and there on Facebook and took a selfie! The people in the audience and who I spoke to were all genuinely excited to have a new experience, to see Māori contemporary dance and to see other Maori in the audience too.

Finally the show.

I was sitting next to two Maori who spoke only in Te Reo. There was something so deeply Maori about their dialogue throughout the work, as they narrated and queried and questioned amidst recognising cultural elements and genuinely being moved and evoked. There was a young child behind me who kept it real throughout. She was into some bits, didn’t enjoy other bits, but remained transfixed and ever present. If this was America she would get a big shush from an indignant audience member, I thought about doing it but in the end decided I enjoyed her commentary too.

The lights went dark.

Pango to me, was a show that would be different for everyone. And I mean that with none of the arty wankiness that comes with the territory of dance sometimes. It’s not that it’s either relatable or unrelatable, it’s moreso that for whatever reason - you actually witness yourself witness. You sit in the dark and think, I’m in the dark. It’s how you intuitively feel about that, that is part of the genius of the work. Because the reality is that you are watching a work about Te Kore, which exists where? In our understanding. But what is it’s proof? Does the space of nothingness and infinite potential exist? What does it look like? In this version, it looks like many things in fact. Something is always alive in the space and space is alive in many different ways. There is active and transformational form and there is dark matter. There’s content like whirlpools that are extracts of the dancers, but also of yourself. Because the reality is that this is as much universal as it is much Māori. Sure the particularities read as Aotearoa, but also it is breath, and body, and non body and spirit and emotions, and darkness and light and change. It is endless but it is structured so that the endless can not be engulfing in a hard way.

I notice that I am fully alert, I am sitting up, I am watching like a hawk, I am sensing all around me. I feel comfortable, I feel like putting all my attention into my intention of watching, I am letting go as soon as I am gathering. It is and isn’t worth picking out favourite parts of the dance, extracting any more from the essence. To me it is a calculated constellation of the horizons of the work, it has manifested the capacity to do what it needs to do, the artists have delivered their content with purpose and heart. I see the work, I see the effort, I see them, I see us. It is a conducive exchange, it is consensual and it is most likely liberating depending on who you are and what you need.

There is perhaps one or two sequeway moments, perhaps it’s when either the music or the AV has stopped to reveal the actions of the dancers in the raw. But I live for the inbetween, the transitory, the non spotlight moments of life. Blinks, clunky footsteps in the night. It helps tether us. I also am jolted by English words in the space. I think it’s ok. They speak English. English can be in Te Kore too. At some point I couldn’t tell if the child behind me was grumbling or whether it was my stomach! I decided that I needed to eat the chips in my bag. Hilariously this coincided with the part where the dancers were eating a body onstage. How’s that for interactive! I have a quiet fascination with watching YouTube videos of animals in the wild. The dancers reminded me of a pride of lions or a pack of wolves. I am drawn to the dancers differences. They are like brothers. Same but different. Personalities and ways of being, holding. I am interested in that too. And boy, can they haka. The show concludes and there is a hesitation before a hearty applause. That crack in the 4th wall is important. So often we want to jump that moment of, is it finished? Is it still going? I think it’s ok not to know. And to eventually flow into the separation again.

There was a Q & A and it was really well done. People enjoyed listening to the artists. They enjoyed their insights, their growing understandings. It is a different thing to watch as an outsider and have an experience as an insider. Both worlds are completely valid, and they do and don’t tie together. My feeling in the audience is that people are genuinely desiring to engage with the palpable impacts of the work. The korero helps make things more real and tangible, and I think gives the audience time to put the images and senses someplace. A kuia, elder makes some important comments. People ask a variety of questions you would expect - how was it for you, what’s it like in an all male group, what’s your conditioning regime? The last question by the man next to me was “what was the essence of Pango and Te Kore and what do we take away with us?”. James Webster answered that question beautifully.

After the talk, the foyer moved quickly, surveys were filled out and conversations and congratulations were had. Atamira Dance Whanau Justine and Maaka, Noa Campbell were there to connect with after. We then ended up at a restaurant willing to serve a big group late on a Wednesday evening, and toasted Matiu - the birthday boy and took photos with the cast and crew spilled over a few tables. As we got back to the hotel I noticed the night sky was different (Auckland has a lot of light pollution). I ruminate on the night and why it is that NZ audiences resonate with the work, perhaps as a way to consolidate and understand ourselves. We all have to deal with the darkness and this country has a lot of it. It will be part of us until we collectively decide to move more into the realm of light...

  • Nov 7 2018
  • Forum North, Whangarei