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TE WHEKE reviewed by Louie Zalk-Neale (Theatreview)

Atamira is one beautiful creature. They have summoned te wheke, the octopus, as a creature of multiplicity, to guide this kaupapa. An octopus can change their colour and texture, and their body morphs into whatever they need to become.

The show is set in the sounds of the ocean, a breathing in and a breathing out with each wave rolling onto the sand. Framed by the ornate expanse of the Regent on Broadway in Te Papaioea, we are looking at a black stage backed with shimmering projections and fine black silk hanging from above. We’re in the depths of the ocean, so deep down that the sky doesn’t even exist in this realm. Things move differently here. Maybe this is Te Pō. A space that looks empty, but is full, with a thick, gooey darkness.

From a layer of subtle misty smoke, someone moves fluidly onto the stage. A human, symmetrical with an arm and a leg on one side, and an arm and a leg on the other side. Behind them, someone else raises their arm and lays a hand on their shoulder. The pair hold each other in a tight embrace. I can’t help but think of Papatūānuku and Ranginui. An archetype of beginnings, he tīmatanga tēnei. But these two on the stage, they drift apart, and then hold each other again, moving fluidly, their connection never lost. A rhythm of connecting and separating, of building and receding. I know that their mundane hugs would seem monumental in 100,000x slow motion. I realise also, that with their bodies embraced, their form has 8 limbs.

A knotted white taura is draped around the shoulders of one of the performers. These ropes are extensions of their body, whipping around with agile speed and a heavy flop. In other moments, the taura becomes kōiwi, like bleached bones, and at other times, a sleeping pēpi cradled in someone’s arms. Draped back over the shoulders, another performer is spinning like a spider, creating a whirlpool of energy in the centre of the stage. The performers know exactly how to make this knotted rope shapeshift like the wheke.

Throughout the show, the silk that hangs from above is illuminated with giant human figures, which multiply, melt away and disappear into the ripples of water, or sharp diagonal rain. These are atua and tīpuna, whose wairua, presence, can move freely between forms of humans and any other piece of the world. They are shape-shifters, unbound from painful consistency. They are Tipua; their power flows off them in abundance for the performers to absorb.

A performer is convulsing and writhing with a long piece of industrial black tubing encasing their body. From big speakers we can hear rasping grunts, squeals, vocalisations and screams. With dancers swarming around them, this creature is undeniably from deep in the moana. Then a taniwha appears, long, red and silky. Two arms reach out like the long eyes of a snail – another slimy mollusc – then the taniwha sheds their silk and takes the form of a human.

The athleticism of the performers is incredible to watch, and with kapa haka merging fluently into the language of contemporary dance, I think their joints must be oiled with magical squid ink. When the soundtrack is quiet, I can notice that every jolt of the performers’ bodies forces air from their lungs. Gasps and heaves as they exert their energy. Other sections use the reo of mau rākau, accompanied with a rumbling pulse; and the sound design ranges from the texture of beach gravel and volcanic glass tinkling through molten rock; to the breathy whistles and whirrs of taonga pūoro; and iconic waiata from Alien Weaponry, old recordings from when your nanny was young, and choirs performing hymns; amongst other talented tūī.

The feeling of a huge surging wave rolls over us all when the performers pull a wide metallic sheet of fabric across the stage. The dancers are hidden below to form maunga, their limbs forming ridgelines, and the gaps between becoming valleys to channel rain into awa. A glowing orange orb appears in the hands of one dancer – Tamanuiterā, the Sun – and they make their way across the rolling hills. This feels like a time that no human has ever experienced; maybe in the future, maybe in the past; maybe both, or maybe neither.

With 25 collaborators creating this astounding performance, Atamira demonstrates that the future of Te Ao Māori is unfolding in ways that our tūpuna might not have been able to imagine. Still, our ancestors set us up to make decisions with the right considerations if we can tune in to listen to them. We need to make decisions that decentralise our brains. Collective thinking. Thinking with all of our limbs outstretched. As the dancers reflect at the end of the performance in a Q&A, they talk about moving their thinking to be more like the three hearts of te wheke, thinking with their hinengaro (minds), their manawa (hearts), and their pūmanawa (guts). We can learn a lot from shape-shifters.

Palmerston North performance announcement, the performers include: Taane Mete, Nancy Wijohn.