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A STUNNING VISUAL EXPERIENCE

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Mana Wahine
Artistic Directors/Choreographers: Taiaroa Royal, Taane Mete
Guest Choreographer: Malia Johnston
Te Ariki Tapairu/Kuikui O Ōkareka Dance Company: Tui Matira Ranapiri-Ransfield

at Te Whaea National Dance and Drama Centre, 11 Hutchison Rd, Newtown, Wellington
From 13 Aug 2014 to 16 Aug 2014
[65 mins]

Reviewed by Sam Trubridge, 14 Aug 2014


How many of us  know that Maori women also signed on the Treaty of Waitangi? In a year when a Maori woman sits at the helm of Taki Rua Theatre, and Tawata Productions presents two new scripts by Maori women, it may be possible to get excited about the growing number of female voices in Maori performing arts.

It wasn't long into Okareka's powerful new all-female production that I began to ask myself 'what is the Maori concept of wahine'? This may seem like an odd question to ask, but it struck me with the powerful energy on stage, and its whirling, athletic study of Maori femininity, that this may actually be a question work asking. I found some answer in the words of Leonie Pihama, who states that:

"Conceptually we can begin to see Wahine as the intersection of the two worlds: wa and hine. Wa relates to notions of time and space, Hine to a female essence. The term Wahine designates a certain time and space for Maori women but is by no means a universal term like the term woman in English. There are many times and spaces that Maori women move through in our lives, Wahine is one of those. There are others" [Tihei Mauri Ora Honouring Our Voices: Mana Wahine as a Kaupapa Maori Theoretical Framework (2001, p.235)]

I am still moved by the memories of Kimiora Grey's stunning performance in Okareka's earlier Nga Hau e Wha (2011), and was very excited after this experience to see how this company would embrace an all-female cast and their stories.  Five strong and technically precise dancers weave a powerful and frentic tapestry of choreography set by Okareka directors Taiaroa Royal and Taane Mete working with the extraordinary talents of Malia Johnston. 

Dance is by necessity, a study of 'Wa' (the space between), and this work does so with beautiful tension between these women, from the moment that they emerge within the exquisite setting, pulsing and trembling with energy. These are not just bodies in an empty space though - there is instead a tight weave between the performance, the design, AV, costume, lighting, and sound that is absolutely flawless - with an amazing synthesis of all the stage elements to make a stunning visual experience.

Fabrics twist, rustle, fold, gather, and billow in so many ways through this amazing performance without ever deferring to familiar tropes. From the breathtaking opening when video of the dancers is projected onto their same shrouded forms, we are able to appreciate the stage as a space of playful and imaginative transformation. The ghostly figures flicker, sometimes in time with their doubles, while at other times falling behind or racing ahead of each other. There are numerous other moments like this: a beautiful dance on woven mats that drift over the surface of a lake, or the sweeping of the large shroud across the floor in surging liquid folds. Tracy Collins' sparse but beautifully considered space, Elizabeth Whiting's mobile costumes, Rowan Pierce's precise and ethereal video work all weave beautifully with the performance, the electrifying beats of Victoria Kelly's music, and Vanda Karolczak's equally dynamic lighting.

The dancers are outstanding: powerful and graceful within a movement language that is very much contemporary dance, with some nods to Maori forms. Perhaps there is something too 'embroidered' about these contemporary dance components, or too 'cultivated' in a way that is defied by the raw expressive power of a pukana or the wiriwiri. There are times when this seems more resolved - such as a wonderful duet between Jana Castillo and Bianca Hyslop with stiff limbs: with tensions held and then released from the core that foregrounds their physicality. Castillo's articulation of her limbs and control of her individual movements is unbelievable throughout the evening - with a breathtaking solo near the end. But this is an ensemble work most of all, and each of the dancers bring so much to the overall texture and sheer energy of the work that lifts and lifts and lifts with growing excitement and anticipation. Smaller dancers like Chrissy Kokiri demonstrate amazing strength and control in some beautiful partnering sequences, lifting taller dancers with ease. Nancy Wijohn's muscular grace and Maria Munkowits' more delicate movements seem to be the leads for the other dancers.

As their patterns of movement build in momentum towards the end we are treated to a beautiful solo by Munkowits in front of a soft projection of warm colours: a woman's face that blurs in and out of focus. And then Wijohn with a bone patu, wielding the weapon with precision and confidence that reminded me that Maori women sometimes helped in the defense of a pa, or accompanied war parties into battle. Wijohn reclaims this taonga with a confidence that stares toward those female ancestors with a pride in feminine power, presenting a bold wero (challenge) to the audience.  This seems to be the most striking thing about this work that finishes so explosively and energetically, leaving its performers panting, and its audience with their hearts and ears ringing.

Mana Wahine is above all a claiming of power, energy,  agency, generative and creative force with an almost ecstatic enthusiasm. With the whirling purerehua (bullroarer) or poi we hear their celebratory whoops. With such a resounding message and unstoppable energy, it is so fantastic to see the extensive tour that this production has in this season. From three venues in the Far North, to the East Coast and Dunedin it is a triumph for Okareka to bring this simple message of celebrating female 'mana' (agency, prestige, power, influence, and honour) to Maori women, Maori people, and our NZ audiences around the country.

 

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See also reviews by:
 Ann Hunt (The Dominion Post);
 Amy Chakif
 Raewyn Whyte
 Sharu Delilkan (Theatrescenes);
 Bernadette Rae (NZ Herald);
 Anna Bate
 Debbie Bright
 Kim Buckley