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Eco-Warriors Dancing - Review of Kowhiti Dance 2013 - Atarau – A Beam of Light: Indigenous Contemporary Dance Festival

by Linda Ashley
November 8, 2013
Wellington Opera House
111/113 Manners St, Te Aro
Wellington, OT (New Zealand) 6011
+64 4-801 4231
Companies and choreographers: Rulan Tangen & artists of Dancing Earth (USA); Rita Pryce, Baiwa Dance Company (Australia); (NZ) Tanemahuta Gray, Louise Potiki Bryant, Future Flame, Merenia Gray Dance Theatre.
This third season curated by Kowhiti (Merenia and Tanemahuta Gray, and Jenny Stevenson) celebrates the international phenomenon of indigenous contemporary dance. Although possibly not intentional, the programme has an elemental feel befitting indigenous peoples' concerns about earth, air, fire and water. These threads interlace throughout the programme, reminiscent of the Maori art of weaving. At this point it is important to declare that I had been a co-convenor of the two-day academic symposium that preceded the show, and, on personal note, it was illuminating to see the talk about this emerging dance style 'talked out' in the flesh.

Rulan Tangen and her dancers of Dancing Earth open the show with an eco-production Walking at the Edge of Water. They first appear in the foyer, slowly ghosting amongst the buzz of the audience – otherworldly. As is Tangen's policy, local indigenous artists are included in their performances, and this inclusivity is to be applauded as a strategy that could contribute to building this dance community globally. Maori choreographer and dancer, Jack Gray contributes to the ethnic mosaic of Western contemporary, several American First Nation tribes and Afro-American dancing. Can I see fleeting moments of Grahamesque heritage? Extracts are performed from the full-length production exploring the environmental damage and appropriation of the purifying, life giving waters that are protected by indigenous communities. Food for thought for Kiwis who are experiencing the threats that fracking pose to our environment, as well as other issues about pollution of waterways and ocean. Opening with a powerful birthing moment in which the Voice of Water speaks loud (Sina Soul), the bite size sections that follow layer aquatic images in a myriad of pathways across the stage, and the performers become as interesting as the choreography. Carrying their heritages on the surfaces of their skin the dancers execute unisons with nuanced differences presenting an innovative cultural spectrum that brings the traditional into the now.

The solo, Warupaw UUjecho of Drums, (Rita Pryce, Baiwa Dance), is danced with appealing simplicity by Masepah Banu. Exploring Torres Strait Islander peoples' connection to nature, there are entrancing moments in which, navigating by the stars, the dance drifts between islands across the stage. Banu, stooped over, dances syncopated steps, stamps, claps and calls recalling more ancient times. As ocean breezes blow the sails of the costume-prop, the past is connected to the present through the curve of the horizon. There is an older worldliness about the movement, and yet it carries contemporary relevance without calling on western contemporary dance. I would like to see more.

We also visit more urban spaces. Future Fame's Flodiac lights up the stage with a b-boying and boogaloo solo. A street style response to music (Magic & Steel) flickers with shades of Jackson influenced cool, hot footwork and floor spins. Fame brings the audience to respond with spontaneous shouts of approval.

Remaining in the metropolis, Tanemahuta Gray's Tiki Taane Mahuta narrates a story in which concerns for family are told. Linking to the spirits of ancestors in a 21stC manner, an expansive contemporary dance vocabulary embodies the lyrics of the powerful music (Tikki Tane). As the forerunner of a full-length piece in the making, this dance ranges from youthful exuberant beach dance parties to tragic loss of young people in a car crash. Consideration of such concerns has potential to reverberate internationally. Gray's trademark aerial work is used sensitively to enhance the images of loss, spiritual connections and rebirth.

By a similar token, Gray performs with an ethereal brightness in the aerial work of his sister's choreography. Merenia Gray's Rangimarie – Peace is inspired by Hone Tuwhare's poetry and Ralph Hotere's visual artwork. Lucidly choreographed as a dance poem, western contemporary and Maori indigenous movement provide rich and thoughtful solo, duet and group sections; a tapestry of contemplations on the power of rain and cultivating the earth as metaphor for understanding that how we live now has consequences for the future. The Maori rakau (staff) is skilfully choreographed, at one moment a farming tool and then a weapon – just one part of strong performances by dancers of Footnote Dance Company and students from The New Zealand School of Dance.

Louise Potiki Bryant's Kiri (skin) is a dancing conversation between a sculptor (Paerau Corneal) and dancer. Potiki Bryant's movement is boneless and earth bound at the same time. As she is shaped, dismantled and reshaped it brings to mind that we are also of the earth, and that the skins we live in are one way of mapping our world. There is a mythical quality, and Bryant acknowledges Maori myth as one of the inspirations for this work. The lighting design and Paddy Free's sound score add considerable impact.

Music and production values of the whole evening are high quality, and it is only space that prevents me from mentioning all the people who lit, composed sound and designed for this treat of an evening of dancing the elements that make up our planet by people who care about it.
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