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Te Wheke review by Dr Tia Reihana-Morunga (Theatreview)

It takes a village.

This statement is perhaps most prevelant when thinking about community members and whānau working together to realise the aspirations of the collective. Many hands and hearts to flourish. Diversity held together in aroha despite the challenges.

Atamira Dance Company and their performance of Te Wheke materialised as a reflection of the whakatauki ‘ka mua ka muri’ (moving backwards towards future). It celebrated 21 years of their dancing as a collective in the embodiment of Māori Contemporary art forms. The challenges of the 21 years to maintain a platform for Te Ao Māori in the New Zealand Arts sector has certainly taken the villlage. This performance in all its abundance was where village members held by ‘tangaroa tohu’ co-created a multi-layered pūrākau.

Kotahitanga is another value of this production interfaced with the idea of village prosperity. The richness of unity where identity is most thoughtful when acknowledgeing the distinct differences that occur in the individual, whānau, hapū and iwi. Relationships are everything and the village when flourishing presents a wonderful network of moments between, people, environment, all its inhabitants and the cosmos.

And of course there is the Ocean – As part of this consciousness oceans are considered as dwellings of history, knowledge and community. The ocean is not merely a physical resource: in every cultural context it is densely encoded with social, spiritual, political and environmental meanings. For iwi Māori our land and seascapes are enriched through whakapapa. Relationships are determined through the sharing of our knowledge of mountains, rivers, oceans, and the locations of our family houses. Our ancestors who travelled from Hawaiiki, and the names of their waka are also shared within our pepeha as means to identify ourselves and connect with others. In the performance Te Wheke, these experiences of being deep in sea/landscapes and therefore whakapapa, are offered to audience as familiar genealogies that akin the migration of ancestors, to dancing sequences.

In our oceans reside Te Wheke (the octopus) whom are, as rangatira Dr. Rangimarie Turuki Rose Pere so wonderfully communicated, “a symbol from Ancient Hawaiiki, that illustrates the interdependence of all things across the universe”. The work of Atamira leans into the rich ako of Dr. Rose Pere, and her development of the hauora framework, Te Wheke Kamaatu. This health model encompasses the physical composition of the octopus to embody the holistic characteristics of a Māori World view to foster wellbeing. The head and the body represent the ‘whanau’ or unique family collectives. The eyes are the ‘Waiora’ that are symbolic of holistic wellbeing... and each of the tentacles, as explored within the programme of Atamira embody hinengaro, wairua, mana ake, mauri, taonga I tuku iho (tūpuna), tinana, whanaungatanga, and whatumanawa.

Atamira Dance Company inspired by the teachings of Dr. Rose Pere bestowed in response a choreographic score in which to share their story. The meeting place between this vast mātauranga and the work of Atamira is navigated through relationships that rāranga Atamira rangatira, tuākana and teina. We have a moment to sit with the dualities of Dolina Wehipeihana and Sean MacDonald, Eddie Elliot and Kelly Nash, Jack Gray and Oli Mathiesen, Taane Mete and Caleb Heke to name a few. The interplay is soft yet rigorous... in a background of moving silk, sound, voice, projection, breath and more.

Solo, to duo, to group where rope and black tube undo romanticised ideologies of the indigenous contemporary dancer occur. Kowhaiwhai as pathway, personal memories, and archival recollections shown in body and projection resonate throughout. Emerging artists hold space with more established whom are in turn sharing praxis with Toi Māori experts and tuākana. As mentioned, Jack Gray, Dolina Wehipeihana, Louise Potiki Bryant, Sean MacDonald, Kelly Nash, Taane Mete, Gabrielle Thomas, Kura Te Ua, Bianca Hyslop and featured work from Moss Patterson create the pou of this production grounding what may be considered a brave re-conceptualisation. Especially as we negotiate pandemic landscapes that have taken its toll on the arts and audience communities of Aotearoa, moments of courage are important... and more so when they are undertaken by the village...

I hope that you might have had the chance to see an octopus underwater (YouTube doesn’t count). They move in such a majestic manner appearing in wonderous unison with the sea current. There were moments that the dancers were moving with similar fluidity. Excerpts of past Atamira repertoire added to complex collaborations as means to enrich or as company Artistic Director Jack Gray states “reimagine the very fabric of our work and to understand the soul of our collective embodiment: our being in the world’.

The ‘being’ and the ‘embodiment’ of Te Wheke was the meeting place for movement, art, and design. Louise Potiki Bryant (video design), Paddy Free (sound Design), John Verryt (set designer), Vanda Karolczak (lighting design) and Marama Lloydd (kākahu designer) provided pivotal creative augmentation to bring to fruition a whāriki of indigenous artistic consciousness. Material backdrops with projection of tūpuna, shapeshifting designs as means to whakamana the body intersected moments of karanga, waiata, pepeha, mihi recorded and live. Ideas of Te Ao Māori were not advanced to the audience as absolute ... but appear as intimate encounters and recollections unique to time, space, context and culture. Sections of dance flow into other, from the head of the octopus through each tentacle into the body as we digest pūrākau that are distinct to Māori in corporeal, recognisable and un-recognisable ways.

Within Māori dance forms, the embodied and holistic relationships of body and the environment also involve the recognition of metaphysical dimensions. Dancing knowledge extends beyond what are classed as the human senses, to encompass the felt, feeling, intangible, and at times unidentified experience. Te Wheke by Atamira involved a strong wairua medium, where physical and spiritual were united. The work demonstrated an inter-relationship where expression and the aesthetic were reflective of environment and our Mauri.

The accountability to perform and authentically activate such tikanga within the vastness of formalised theatre, also presents a necessity to ensure a reconciliation between performing and being. The different challenges that we encounter not just as artists, but as members of our whānau, hapū and iwi always demand a truth and integrity to the stories we tell. This responsibility is paramount and was evident in the work throughout.

For Atamira and their performance of Te Wheke, it is these intrinsic values that have been cultivated and strengthen their community (our community) in and beyond the New Zealand arts sector, to reveal understandings, rich indigenous interactions and interpretations of the world. Atamira reached into their vast artistic genealogy to interweave through the tohu of te wheke and its vast mātauranga a vision that as Company Executive Director Marama Lloydd states will offer opportunities for us all to “reconnect and grow”

Mauri Ora