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Jack Gray
Festival Overviews
Indigenous Contemporary
Wellington Opera House
New Zealand
Wellington, OT (New Zealand)

Highlights of the Kowhiti Festival

by Jack Gray
November 8, 2013
Wellington Opera House
111/113 Manners St, Te Aro
Wellington, OT (New Zealand) 6011
+64 4-801 4231
Jack Gray as dramaturg and choreographic support for Dancing Earth also appeared briefly onstage as an ancestor figure in the production. He helped contextualize the Indigenous relationships between Maori and Native American peoples for this version of the show in Aotearoa only.
The Kowhiti Festival was an undertaking that brought together Maori and indigenous dance artists of varying levels from emergent to established to participate in both formal and informal presentations on stage at the Wellington Opera House, at the Marae at Te Papa O Tongarewa (National Museum of New Zealand) and at Whitireia (Traditional Polynesian Performing Arts School).

The event opened with a powhiri (official welcoming ceremony) conducted at Whitireia and included opening speeches by Tanemahuta Gray, Festival Director, Peter Cleave, Academic and Dr Duane McWaine a representative from the US Embassy in New Zealand. Waiata (songs) by the Whitireia students voiced support to the formalities and were reciprocated by the manuhiri (gathered guests). Afterwards, as is customary the pressing of noses (hongi) to signal we have shared breath completed these proceedings. Before moving on to start the programme, a giant circle of artists, academics and friends was formed and each person introduced themselves. In a small island nation of many tribes, it is likely you are related to people so these rituals create familial bonds. For the people who had travelled far from home - such as Dancing Earth from the USA - it was an opportunity to introduce their nations in this land. For some - they may have been the first representatives of their people ever to have graced these shores.

The festival began proper with a wonderful keynote speech by activist, cultural icon, choreographer and dancer Rulan Tangen, Artistic Director of Dancing Earth. She talked through the cultural and politic difficulties and realities affecting Native American culture and the journey to reclaim a visibility in this world. This was met by support from the Maori people, the most politically advantaged of indigenous peoples currently living in a bi-cultural agreement with their British colonists. These events certainly are ground breaking and like dance sets new precedents and parameters for encountering ourselves in this time as Rulan says of "prophetic change".

During the festival a number of artists performed an eclectic assortment of works. In the Kowhiti showcase - we were treated to a snippet (of a longer investigation) called Kiri by Louise Potiki Bryant in collaboration with clay artist Paerau Corneal and sound by Paddy Free. Louise is a former founding member of Auckland based Atamira Dance Company and since pursuing a more evolved solo practice has flourished in a context of more idiosyncratic physical language methodology reflecting a more conscious indigenous identity and world view. Kiri means skin and was a multiplious collusion of figurative and metaphoric storytelling. From the literal of the skin being exposed - the first image is of her in a continual state of morphous convulsion. A birthing, forming, gestating. In an indigenous contemporary dance show I felt like I was seeing the work of the avante garde. A person pushing boundaries to our cellular memories of what our dance in nature is connected to. The next stages, the clay maker arrives in a working garb of dirty jeans and shirt and forcefully handles the "clay" ( in this case the dancer). After this moulding process she is able to stand on a turning pedestal and is literally slapped with wet clay on her body. The reminiscent narrative has cultural embedding in stories of Hineahuone, first woman made of clay and breathed life into by Tanemahuta (God of the Forest). There are political implications with feminine perspectives and re-recordings of knowledge that is useful, provocative, wonderfully subtle and exciting.

During the festival, an academic symposium sidelines the event and is a series of papers delivered by leading indigenous and non-indigenous academics and artists facilitated by different key people. Workshops in traditional dance forms and contemporary dance forms are also held and keep a connection to the public in a spirit of participation and experiencing the value of these forms for the first time outside of Native contexts.

On the final day, an emerging choreographers platform gives an informal air (no lights, no theatre) as we sit down to enjoy the Marae at Te Papa Museum. It is a swirling rainbow of colour - a non traditional rendering of our most prized cultural backbone - the ancestral meeting house. Here the depiction of all four winds opening into all directions of the world encompasses the culmination of the many peoples who pass through here and sets the stage for these artists.

Lumhe Micco Sampson from the Seneca people shares two versions of his traditional hoop dance. A fun danced collection of imagery to upbeat music was followed by a talk story of what had been passed down as lessons by his teachers and their teachers before them. A genealogy of what happened to his people shared through the hoop was their old way of communicating across language barriers. And the importance of the circle - endless sides, endless possibilities - reminds us of the deep things we know. This was followed by a series of short works by students and community that seemed to have similarities of content. In one traditional legend of two lovers "Nga Whaiaipo o Te Roto" (Mattie Hamuera and Sophie Williams) - separation and angst complicate matters of the heart, to another different type of tradition, a 47 year old solo dance by Eleo Pomare (Columbian-American modern dance choreographer who died age 70 in 2008) gifted to Australian dancer Tammi Gissell called Gin Woman Distress is like a double on the rocks on a really bad day. "Purpose" (Milly Grant) a more theatre based work follows the story of a wife grieving for her husband seen in spirit form unable to console her, and concludes with a solo contribution from hula practitioner Aruna Po Ching in "Bended" a slippery slide into bipolarism as expressed through Pacific Dance forms. Fresh work, mildly depressing and angst ridden touch at the parts of our indigeneity still at times struggling with a sense of wholeness.

This festival serves an important platform and began at least threads of conversation between us that will hopefully be picked up and expanded throughout the world.
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