Jack Gray is the artistic director and founder of Atamira Dance Company, a contemporary Māori contemporary dance theater company in Auckland, New Zealand. In this interview, he discusses the making and the impact of one of his most successful pieces, Mitimiti, and the obstacles to presentation Indigenous dancemakers face.
Can you give me a history of how you came to found Atamira Dance Company?
The idea for the organization came after I graduated from Unitec Performing and Screen Arts in Auckland. I was one of the first people to get a bachelor’s in contemporary dance and choreography. This was in 1998. I went into typical freelancing. At that time, there was a bourgeoning of film, so I was involved in Xena: Warrior Princess, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and King Kong. New Zealand is a cheap place to film, our landscapes are incredibly beautiful, and we don’t have restrictive unions. It was a boon period for commercial dance when we could get gigs.
However, one of the things I was realizing was whether or not surviving as a dancer was the intention of why I had gone to train and pursue a lifelong passion for expression through the body. In that year, I was dancing in different types of operas and films and getting a good grounding in the multiplicity of performance. I quickly worked out that in order to create dances that specifically connected to me and my cultural intelligence, I would need to find opportunities to develop through my own workshops, as well as pulling together communities.
In 2000, I applied for Creative Communities funding and Creative New Zealand funding to set up the idea of Atamira Dance Company (then ‘Atamira Dance Collective’). At that time, I was still in the process of learning my culture and language, although I had been involved in Māori traditional dance practices since I was about seven years old. You basically learn the language through the different dances that you then perform in competitions. I had learned the language through osmosis, but for me there was a distinct space between Jack as a cultural identity and Jack as a dancer. The question was how to bring those identities together. The simplest way I did that was working with Māori contemporary dancers who all shared a similar experience of being urban born, educated, trained as dancemakers, and all having a desire to connect to our heritage and culture.
The word whakapapa is intrinsic to our culture. A simple definition of it would be genealogy, but we’re not only talking about linear ancestral timelines, who begat this person and so on. It’s a wraparound of cultural frameworks that bring us in relation to land, water and place. They say that Māori occupation of these islands began around 900 AD. Therefore there’s 1,000 years of storytelling on these lands. One of the main things that I think is very unique to Aotearoa (the Māori name for New Zealand) is that we relate to ancestral migrations via the ocean.
This takes us back to places in our traditions that we reference as Hawaiiki Nui (big), Hawaiiki Roa (long), and Hawaiiki Pamaomao (scattered). So we come from this idea of Hawaiiki as a big, long and scattered diaspora (we have archaeological sites linking Māori voyaging to and with Hawaii, Tahiti, Cook Islands and Rapa Nui to name a few). The interesting thing about that is that when we look back at how Austronesian language groups shared as a root between all of the islands in the Pacific and parts of Asia, and the different ways those languages shifted and consolidated until they became incredibly different, there are many ways we can search for how our people may have moved in and through each other and conceived of space. Today, when we think of the Pacific Ocean, we think of it in cartography terms as determined by mapmakers. We talk about areas as Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia. These terms were used by Europeans to describe us, and we took those on. But there’s a move toward decolonizing our perspectives and reintegrating our creation stories. What can we learn about Pacific navigation from the ways that people were reading the stars? That configures into stories, songs and chants, especially since we are an oral tradition.
To enter into conversations on who we are, what we are, and where we are, we have to re-center the ways in which we understand each other so that when I’m talking to you in what is commonly known as the United States, but that some traditional societies call Turtle Island, we’re aware of how we’re having this conversation. We need to pay attention to not just the past 100 years since these islands were renamed by colonial powers, or how citizenship separates us, but how the lineages that have been severely disrupted give us clues into what is remaining in our cellular memory, what is remaining in the space of creativity, whereby we can map our traditional ways of thinking with our contemporary ways of thinking.
Often, in the realm of dance and theater, contemporary artists are really just reflecting the disruptions that go on, telling narratives to bring about some sense of justice for the many communities who suffer from devastation. By telling our stories, or fighting or protesting, we’re able to achieve a sense of visibility of these erased histories and therefore question what is the future. My perspective is that we can work in many different ways, and there’s a shifting of the root. What I mean by that is philosophically and conceptually, we can let ourselves deepen the range by which we connect to place, memory and ancestry, and rethink a lot of the boundaries we’re given now.
These are activated, present discussions. Ceremony becomes a part because it’s a word that brings the spirit, land and people into mediation, freedom and liberation. What I’ve discovered over 20 years of doing this work is that we’re now in a global instead of local discussion.
What kinds of training do the dancers in Atamira Dance Company have?
Most went to a dance school, and would have taken classical ballet as well as been exposed to multiple styles of contemporary dance technique. New Zealand is an interesting country in that there was a great push by our government to extend our artforms around the 70s and 80s. What happened was a lot of dancers who had trained at the New Zealand School of Dance and were not majoring in classical dance became contemporary dancers, but we didn’t really know what that was in the 70s in New Zealand, so they went to New York City to study modern dance techniques and contact improvisation. What they did was learn these modes, take them back to New Zealand, and teach them. However, they didn’t teach them specifically but as an amalgamated version of all those things. I would say the New Zealand contemporary dance style is incredibly eclectic and versatile. New Zealand dancers are known globally for really moving in the space. When I think about it, it’s probably because we have a lot of space, and we don’t have a ton of dancers in classes, like trying to cram 40 dancers in a tiny New York studio.
We are known for our visceral, physical nature. Unlike most countries, all our kids get to swim in the ocean and climb trees. Every New Zealand childhood is a very physical childhood; we’re outside on the land as much as possible. We are not in cities where concrete and fences exist in abundance. That’s an important part of the New Zealand psyche. Both as a dancer and as a person, there is a strong relationship to land. And because we have beaches everywhere, there’s also a strong connection to the ocean.
I think it’s important to have a working relationship with the natural world, whatever country you’re in. Often, dancers become completely studio bound and theater based. We then think of the outdoors as being site-specific, another type of dance.
Since ‘contemporary dance’ can refer to so many different things, what does the word ‘contemporary’ mean in your context?
Thanks for the question, because it gives me a chance to break down some problematic preconceptions. One of those preconceptions is the idea that we are the only people who are Māori focusing on contemporary dance as our main vessel for sharing our stories. We have a very strong traditional practice in our country called kapa haka, a highly codified community performance practice that also may feature theatrical elements, new compositions, or electronic music. We work with the resonance of traditional elements such as fibers to make kakahu, or adornment. However, at the same time, we’re courageously exploring the stretch between that and other things that speak to a contemporary experience.
Even now, the global questions play a part. For instance, we cannot travel easily with our traditional fibers into other lands unless they have been treated and labeled in particular ways. New Zealand is very particular on this; we have a bio-security because we are so isolated and as a result are conscientious of any bugs or beetles that might come into our country that we don’t have a natural system to deal with. A lot of our trees and birds have suffered because of imported species. We’ve lost something like 100 species of birds over the past 100 years because we didn’t have natural predators in our country. Our land was initially isolated. For instance, we don’t have any native mammals except a bat. They say the birds flew here. We had the world’s biggest bird, larger than an emu or ostrich. We have bones to prove it.
When the Māori first got here, there were only birds and fish, so many of our stories and understandings come from these animals. When the European colonizers came, they decided they wanted to turn the land into Britain, so they brought sheep, cows and livestock, cut down trees and created fields. The idea was then to replicate an English countryside, so they brought foxes, stoats, weasels and ferrets, and these animals ate our birds, who previously didn’t need to worry about natural predators. It’s a tough thing to understand, but it means that right now we’re on quite intensive programs to take care of our environment.
Some of our most beautiful songbirds no longer exist, and we only have recordings of what they sound like. These birds were intrinsic to Māori people. We still talk about them and sing about them, and might give a compliment like, “Your voice is as beautiful as this bird,” but we’ve not seen them in 100 years. There’s something quite beautiful and sad about that.
Going back to bio-security, because of the devastation of our land, we’ve been inhibited in sharing our stories and truths. That’s why I think dance artists are needed; we embody those truths. This goes back to whakapapa, the genealogy of how things connect. We chart the good, the bad, and the potential in an ever-shifting modality.
What is Atamira’s relationship between performance and process?
To illustrate that, I’d like to talk about a work that I made called Mitimiti. That’s also the name of where my ancestors come from on the north island of New Zealand. One of the things I wanted to achieve was to make a physical and spiritual connection to a place I’d never been, as my grandmother’s generation had moved from there as part of an urban drift in the 50s and 60s. Most Māori families moved away from their traditional homes into new cities. It was post war and we were integrating. My parents and I grew up in that experience.
The work asked: How do I make a contribution to the place that I know is my standing place, but I’ve never physically been to? What came out of that was a long five-year process. I started writing about it, and co-authored an essay with Jacqueline Shea Murphy, a professor of dance studies at UC Riverside. She helped me develop a way of talking about my methodology through writing. We published a paper called Manaakitanga In Motion: Indigenous Choreographies of Possibility. I was writing my way into being present in Mitimiti, but I was presenting the writing in Hawaii and California, which I found ironic and interesting, that I was becoming closer to the place I wanted to know by going farther away from it. It made sense to me, as different ears can bring different angles of solidarity. Back in New Zealand, urban and rural Māori are looked at as quite different, even though of course we’re not. How do I understand what it is to be ‘other’ in my own?
Eventually, I created a relationship with the place, and visited it with the dance company. This was pivotal in creating my idea of what dance research is through intercultural exchange, and also deepening the understanding that the land itself is a primal driver and participant in the work. It’s not just an idea, and it’s not just my own pretense. It’s part of the process, how the unknown becomes the known. I went and made those relationships, and then we created the work.
Mitimiti was performed in a theater, but we challenged the fourth wall by taking it away completely. We took out all the chairs and made it a gigantic open space, in which we had to bring several things into relationship. One was people’s impressions of what it means to come into a theater, how to act, and what they expect for their money. Another thing we tackled are the strict cultural protocols that govern coming into a Māori environment. In my country we have a certain methodology called powhiri, a way in which we go into each other’s lands and marae (traditional houses, similar to a longhouse). But I didn’t want to do that. The performance was not really in a theater, and it was not really in a traditional home either. I had to ask myself: What is this, and how do we deal with the space without having to give a lecture or write it out?
What we ended up doing was developing an interactive engagement with the audience. They came into an open space where the dancers were already moving, using chalk to create hieroglyphs on the dance floor. There were piles of chalk everywhere, giving people an open invitation to pick up a piece of chalk and contribute. It made visible everyone’s intention. Some people used words, others used markings, but it was a way of using mapmaking to create an abstract relationship to the space. We came into a negotiation, and it became highly social. Of course, we also used other elements like lighting, sound, highly choreographed dance, interjections of spoken word, and we finished with a round dance.
We had global guests who were invited to participate in a series of events in and alongside the performance. We had a forum after the opening night, and the next day we had different activations to talk about installation and ceremony, things happened on the street outside the theater such as traditional smoking practices, and there were installations from native and Pacific artmakers in the foyer. Many different ideas were being alluded to around the actual performance. The circle at the end of the piece was a reference to these global connections.
Who is your general audience? Is it Māori people or white New Zealanders, or a mix?
We use the word Pakeha for white New Zealanders. It’s a contentious word, as they may or may not use it to refer to themselves. The majority of any theater audience in Auckland is most likely white women, age 30 plus. Generally, theater space is looked at as a situation for the middle to upper class. Obviously, we’re a Māori performance group, but our performances are mostly attended by non-Māori people. That’s always been the case, and that’s the case across the board. The fact has been highlighted at different festivals over the past 20 years. The country is definitely trying to address these things. I wouldn’t say this problem is specific to Atamira. It’s genre specific and economically specific.
How I addressed that in Mitimiti was I began a campaign that went viral. It was basically #Mitimiti #WhereYouAt, and then I gave an example, so for me it was #Mitimiti #TamakiMakaurau. Tamaki Makaurau is the traditional name for the territory of Auckland City. Wherever you are, hashtag Mitimiti and then hashtag the indigenous name of the place where you are. It was about audience development, but it was also driven by the need to show what connection can look like.
Back in its heyday when Mitimiti was a thriving community, the village probably had between three and four thousand people. Today, Mitimiti has about 60 people in its settlement, and might go up to 100 on special occasions. The people of Mitimiti were so uplifted by the whole process. There was a spotlight shown on them in a way that hadn’t been for generations. They really embraced it, and started owning the hashtag. They made their own t-shirts. They reposted all the photos of the performances that were on social media. Generations of family members who had been disconnected from Mitimiti were able through this campaign to make themselves visible. It spread to people in Australia who had been there for generations but who knew they traced back to Mitimiti. The performance and campaign turned into a vessel.
We invited the town of Mitimiti to come see a performance. It’s a five-and-a-half-hour drive, and it involves a ferry crossing. It’s hard to get to, but they came down. Everything was free for them, because the journey is expensive and they have no money. They walked into the space – an interactive, global, Indigenous, very edgy space – and recognized it. They lit up and started talking in the middle of the performance, because they didn’t know the protocol of the theater. They’d never seen their home in this way. That was such an amazing thing for me as an artist, because the whole project I was asking how I redress the inadequacy I feel in myself about my connection to this place, and what do I have to offer. What I gifted was a reflection through my global Indigenous artistic lens. It wasn’t a performance you just attended; it was a living, breathing, symbiotic, connecting embodiment through dance and other methodologies, that became a significant placement of who we are at a particular time.
What do you foresee is the future of contemporary Indigenous dance, and how do you see it evolving?
The way we talk about the future has to come from our most present and updated situation. I have recently become the artistic director of Atamira Dance Company. I’ve had a 20-year legacy as the founder of the company, and also as a contributing artist. The difference of being in this role means I’m now put into different platforms. Where I’m now situating myself is in arts markets, rooms with mostly white presenters and producers who have the power to program and create sustainability for Indigenous creatives. The hard fact of it is that, from what I’ve experienced, conversations around brave programming for Indigenous work is up to the individual presenter to be comfortable with and to have any measure of interest.
The go-to is: What audiences are coming? What are they used to? What do they want? You can never anticipate what an audience wants. You can only feed them the same thing and see them keep coming back. My sense, though, is that we need to look at the numbers of what is being programmed and who is programming it. There was a study by the Australian Arts Council a couple years ago that looked specifically at how many Indigenous and non-Indigenous works were being programmed by presenters, and the numbers were pretty low. Less than 10 percent of all arts being programmed were Indigenous Australian. It shows that as a sector and as a global community, we need to do the work to shift these numbers.
I’ve been involved since 2012 in conversations with BlakDance, an organization advocating for Indigenous performance in Australia. There have been artist-led talks and research. We are in a shift whereby individual artists living in their own paradigm and trying to fight their own battles is only getting limited results. We need bigger and stronger strategies toward understanding the issues ahead of us, so we can start to inform institutional spaces about the correlations between First Nations Peoples, communities and land, and make reconciliations presently, historically and futuristically.
Any time I perform internationally, it’s a white presenter or producer who I am talking to. What that means is there’s a vast gap in knowledge and communication. We need to get on the same page. To get on the same page, we need to go through what it is to live in a world that is integrating all peoples, shifting the power dynamic so that it is balanced. We’re moving away from patriarchy, from government funded models that tell us what box we’re supposed to be in. We need to inform the sector to prioritize artists’ intentions as the most important thing. Right now, the artist always has to fit into the theater or event. That doesn’t work for us. What I’m proposing is working on a globally manifested Indigenous set of thoughts, ways and strategies by which we can operate across nations.
Everything I can do in this position, I want to, beyond Atamira and beyond Jack Gray. Different pieces of the conversation are starting to link up.
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