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TE WHEKE review by Mark James Hamilton (Theatreview)

Te Wheke has a remarkable genesis. Amid pandemic limitations, the twenty-one-year-old company has created work underpinned by a holistic health model. Covid 19 social distancing measures shifted Atamira into bubbles of two – one to direct, one to dance (Dolina Wehipeihana and Sean MacDonald; Kelly Nash and Eddie Elliott; Kura Te Ua and Abbie Rogers; Bianca Hyslop and Cory-Toalei Roycroft; Gabrielle Thomas and Emma Cosgrave; Taane Mete and Caleb Heke; Jack Gray and Oli Mathiesen; Louise Potiki Bryant and Dana Moore-Mudgway). They persevered with their anniversary production via this mode of operation. Each duo drew from Rose Pere’s octopus- emblem for total wellbeing: each tentacle of te wheke drawing forth a vital strand of Māori vision.

The integration of generations — of choreography, dancers and ancestors — makes a work that bends time: eras fold into one another. Amongst the music (Paddy Free) are bygone recordings, wherein te reo merges with trilling vibratos and choral harmonies that recall a time when car travel was modern. Apparitions of figures in the projection (Louise Potiki Bryant) and gestures in a tender duet further evoke past times. Shimmying silk hangs swirl when the company whisk through bursts of liquid unison. The ensemble slumber under a huge sheet while a golden orb is paraded; the dancer carrying it is doubled by a giant projected behind. Yet Te Wheke is not tranquil. A dancer spins ever faster until his huge knotted scarf of rope lifts horizontal — like a helicopter blade. And thrash metal, jagged and thrusting, propels a dancer to every stage corner through an ever-extending range of feats. Contrasting phases of movement layered with projection conjure varied sites: a submarine descent into a floating realm; ceaseless snowfall on high peaks; a centripetal tunnel, glowing and red.

The performances progression forward is moved by the distinct solos and duets, often bounded by recordings of whakapapa recitations, shifts of music and lighting (Vanda Karolczak). But the return of en masse motifs render the whole into a singular world, where ‘before’, ‘now’ and ‘next’ are conjoined. There is a radical collapse of perspective; everything seen from all sides at once.

The cast sustain this tumbling through time with their wiry resilience that is strong and supple. Their vigor is neither pure athletics nor empty gestures and they embody a balance that dissolves older gender types. Indeed, they all wear matching knee-length shifts (Marama Lloydd). Sex determines some pairings and configurations but it’s not a dominant theme. When two don knitted tiki masks, or another pair see-saw through counterbalances, the movement is the main matter.

Foreground throughout is Atamira’s flourishing intergenerational commitment to expression of Māori experience through new dance. Midground dwell strands of stories; people gambol through a gamut of encounters. Then, background — behind and beyond, before and above — there are traces of ancestral lineages, surges of natural forces, and (most poignantly) the precious decades of dancers dancing the company to this anniversary. The production poster collages dancers’ images to shape a figure of eight. Turned on its side, it’s the infinity symbol. Twenty-one years is not forever, but to reach that date signals Atamira’s remarkable momentum. It will require great clarity and discipline to funnel such force forward in an arena so different from that into which the company first emerged.