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TE WHEKE reviewed by Dr Ian Lochhead (Theatreview)

It is a cause for celebration that Atamira Dance Company has reached its twenty-first year, and even more so that, on the evidence of its current programme, Te Wheke, it has reached this milestone in robust good health. The changed working environment resulting from the global pandemic has been particularly challenging for dance companies but Atamira has responded by pairing eight choreographers, all with close connections to the company formed over the last 21 years, with its eight dancers. Working together over the course of the last year has allowed them to create a fully developed programme that shows now sign of being a makeshift response to challenging times. The company has also avoided the potential trap of celebratory occasions in which a selection of extracts from past works is assembled in a gala programme; although it pays tribute to the past, Te Wheke is a new work that stands proudly on its own two feet, and is as much about the future as it is about the past.

The set, by John Verryt, consists of a series of drops that can be raised or lowered to suit the needs of the different sections of the programme; they also allow the dancers to slip between them for entrances and exits and act as a blank canvas for Louise Potiki Bryant’s video design. This draws its inspiration from the natural world but also includes images from the company’s past. At times it is possible to imagine that this is a stage setting that Ralph Hotere might have conceived, the ripples of the suspended drops suggesting his corrugated iron works and the dappled patterns on some reminiscent of his un-stretched, paint-spattered works. It is serendipitous that a Hotere exhibition is currently on show in the Christchurch Art Gallery.

The sound of the ocean opens Te Wheke and signals its close and the work in between has an almost cyclical quality. The metaphor of te wheke, the octopus, with its eight limbs connected to its central body, is an ideal one for this programme, with its eight choreographers all connected to Atamira. The work evolves more as a single connected entity than as a series of separate, individual components, the whole linked together by Paddy Free’s continuously evolving sound design. This sense of a work that is larger than its component parts is aided by each choreographer’s commitment to a modern dance language that is strongly based in a movement vocabulary that could only originate in these islands. The confidence and assurance of both dancers and choreographers evident in Te Wheke can be seen as the culmination of a shared vision that has evolved over the last 21 years. As we learned from artistic director Jack Gray when he spoke to the audience at the end of the show, three of the dancers on stage are the same age as the company. It is something of a triumph that we now have dancers who have always lived in a world in which Atamira has existed; right from the start they have had a goal to aspire to and a home company to join.

Less than a week ago, in a review of Rebound Dance Company’s In the case of… I bemoaned the fact that our dance companies often struggle to find the funding to take their work to a broad New Zealand audience. Now we have Atamira at the start of an ambitious national tour. If they come to a town near you don’t miss Te Wheke. Atamira Dance Company deserves your support and you won’t be disappointed.

Over its 21 years Atamira has become a national taonga and the printed programme for Te Wheke is something of a taonga in itself, providing extensive notes on the current show but also including a record of the company’s evolution from its beginnings to the present. It deserves to be read and preserved, but although beautifully designed its tabloid format makes it impractical to use when seated in a theatre. At 21 it is also time for Atamira to be thinking about a detailed company history while memories are still fresh and key participants are still around to be interviewed. Such a history, like Te Wheke itself, will form a sound platform for the next 21 years.