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TE WHEKE reviewed by Megan Seawright (Theatreview)

Anticipating how a performance will convey twenty-one years of comprehensive contemporary Maori dance is an exciting wonder and for this, the auditorium of Te Whaea in Wellington is unsurprisingly full. A darkened stage with a singular line of misty light and the sound of waves upon a shore is enough to guide us into this journey.

Kaitiaki, tūpuna, waiora all resonate, for as much as Atamira’s whakapapa resides in a complete mastery of physical technique, viewers are also consciously lifted to these living invisibilities. Giggles and cackles are heard with stone tapping, time slips into the past to assert the future through the present rōpū of dancers, and wero is issued to places we dare to go or resist, so to complete oneself.

It’s a complex arrangement of integral negotiations, manaakitanga. Liquid rippling limbs enfold, gather, and retreat soundlessly. Dancers are committed to each other as the embodiment of whanaungatanga, belonging to and from each other's movement. Importantly, mātauranga practice is forefront. Artistic director Jack Gray and executive producer Marama Lloydd collaborate further with those who also contribute to Atamira’s choreographic whakapapa - Kelly Nash, Taane Mete and Dolina Wehipeihana. Additionally, the hauora wellbeing model visioned by the late Dr Rangimarie Turuki (Rose) Pere and significant performance development through tuakana/tenia relationship resolve this performance.

Te Wheke is sublimely fluid and unwaveringly beautiful.

In this watery terrain dancers morph like te wheke, camouflaged patterns project into silk drops and kaitiaki face forward for the real navigations to start. Dancers propel themselves into alignment and arrive condensed through Rose Pere’s eight Hauora values; (Named dancer + practitioner name) Whanaungatanga – Sean MacDonald + Dolina Wehipeihana. Mauri – Eddie Elliott + Kelly Nash. Wairua Emma Cosgrave + Gabrielle Thomas. Whatumanawa Cory-Toalei Roycroft + Bianca Hyslop. Hinengaro Dana Moore-Mudgway + Louise Potiki Bryant. Mana Ake – Oli Mathiesen + Jack Gray. Tūpuna – Abbie Rogers + Kura Te Ua. Tinana Caleb Heke + Taane Mete.

Memory and affection are given away through a waltz and concise transformative shifts that lean us into care. Sean MacDonald’s airy gestural movements cradle childhood, revive old age and a recalling of pepeha. Eddie Elliott spins his cords wider until unrestrained from the central light space the mooring is broken free “I will, be fine, it’s a want, a need, I will, I have cried from what I see, I think I like my bones, they feel heavy.” The backdrop lights with falling stars as if the whole universe is split open; as star dust we arrive, yes our bones are heavy and “I think I like my bones...” Emma Cosgrave’s concise technique releases astute fluid grace while Cory-Toalei Roycroft’s astonishing malleability embodies te wheke in quick swirls across the floor, truly open expressiveness.

Dispersed between this all are moments of previous works that project inter-dimensionality such as Kelly Nash’s tube Duet (Atamira 2017), and a long gauzy red shimmer of fabric is accentuated by Dana Moore-Mudgways’ generous extensions which linger intuitive tensions. We are deluged with lightening pulses and electric noise from Alien Weaponry smashing it though the whole theatre whist Oli Mathiesen flits with often delicate movement.

Silk cadence and intonation with tūpuna projections surround us - we swim the tides with them. This is a decoding from the constraints of imported and colonial forms and processes. We are ready to meet the wero of Abbie Rogers whose empowered stance is a centred pou for us to remember tūpuna are alongside her through breath and balance. A large silk drapes over the dancers and is rolled back and forth in a continuous wave momentum, and as if to emphasis the relief of this long journey Caleb Heke releases the painful gut of it all through an intimate, yielding sequence of motions.

It cannot be overstated the relevance of the design aesthetic to this work. It is stunning. Set designer John Verryt, sound designer Paddy Free, AV Designer Louise Potiki Bryant, Kākahu designer Marama Lloydd, and lighting designer Vanda Karolczak all bridge our focus and offer expansive sensory resonances. Energetic spaces are opened with intensifying mandala rotations. Within the stages’ boundaries the universe multiplies infinitely with shards of falling light, a poutama pattern projected onto shifting fabric and moments of shear amplified friction. Soundscapes hark us to bygone eras, then hunt us with relentless loudness in attempts to reconcile. These are creative declarations to the world, and this is Kaupapa Maori Contemporary Dance in all guises of existence.

The final hold is of the Atamira company standing facing us all, there is a swelling of gratitude for all we have witnesses, this connectivity across all platforms - these are precious bones riding currents of aroha.