Unitec Dance SHOWCASE 2023

Te Pou Theatre, 44a Portage Road, New Lynn, Auckland

16/11/2023 - 19/11/2023

Production Details

Show Director and Producer: Katie Burton
Choreographers: Jessie McCall, Kasina Campbell & Abbie Rogers – Atamira Dance Company

Unitec School of Creative Industries

Book now for SHOWCASE 2023 to enjoy new works by guest choreographers Jessie McCall and Kasina Campbell & Abbie Rogers of Atamira Dance Company. We are thrilled to announce a change of venue this year! Join us in the heart of West Auckland at Te Pou Theatre from 16-19 November.

Unitec Dance acknowledges the many kaiako, tauira, and kaikanikani who have enriched the dance programme contributing to a living legacy of education through movement, time, and space. Since its inception in 1989 to its current format, Unitec Dance and our alumni have been the nucleus of the dance community in Aotearoa.

SHOWCASE 2023 will premiere Unitec Dance alumni Jessie McCall’s ‘Industry Party’, a full-length work performed by our Year 1 and 3 cohort. Industry Party collides the promise and problems of power – as it plays out within us and within our industries. Does the vitality of inanimate objects let them edit the guestlist? Can we disrupt relentless mechanisms of mammonistic progress and swerve toward humanity – or will it kill the vibe? The punch has spiked itself in revolt. There’s a megalomaniac in the air vent. The astroturf needs a trim. Who is in – who is out – and how did we wake up here?

Kasina Campbell (Nga Puhi, Ngati Porou, Ngati Kahungunu ki Wairoa) & Abbie Rogers (Kai Tahu, Te Arawa) close the evening with ‘Tipuranga’ a reflection of whanaungatanga, understanding and embodiment. ‘Tipuranga’ is the culmination of a year long haerenga undertaken with the extraordinary artists of Atamira Dance Company. We are honoured to present a performance which celebrates the deep hononga (connection) between Atamira and Unitec Dance.

DATES: 16-18 November 7:30pm & 19 November 5:00pm
VENUE: Te Pou Theatre, Corbans Estate, 2 Mt Lebanon Lane, Henderson
PRICES: $10-$15

YEAR 1 DANCERS: Sylvie Manning, Nicole Steiner, Josie Pepperell (Ngāti porou Muaūpoko), Felicity Dowden, Amelia Monsma, Katrina Marks (Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, Ngāti Mutunga o Wharekauri), Petronilla Su’a, Juelz Silulu, Lily-Mae Baird, Abby Knowles, Komai Waqalevu, Leilani-Grace Tonu’u, Jasmine Reynolds, Tyler Wilson

YEAR 3 DANCERS: Kaylah Campbell, Lara Chuo, Charlotte Collins, Tess Doorman-Smith, Peniperite Fakaua, Jasmin Fisher-Johnson, Elizabeth MacDonald, Alya Munshi-Kurian, Natthavout Sabanhdit, Alyssa Snowsill, Hope Strom

Rehearsal Director: Tamsyn Russell
Lighting Designers: Brad Gledhill & Rachel Marlow – Filament Eleven 11
Costume Designer: Miriam Eskildsen

Production Manager: Calvin Hudson
Stage Manager: Jacob Reynolds
Technical Manager: Michael Craven
Venue Technician: Peter check with Te Pou/Calvin
Wardrobe Assistant and Additional Rehearsal Direction: Lulu Qiu
Photographer: Jinki Cambronero
Head of School (Creative Industries): Dr Vanessa Byrnes
Academic Programme Manager (PASA): Michael Miller
Administration: Dale Leyland
Marketing & Publicity: Peter Rees

Contemporary dance , Dance ,

75 minutes

Buoyed by Agility and Resilience: Congratulations Graduating UNITEC Students

Review by Rose Tapsell 17th Nov 2023

Staging end of year showcase at the stunning Te Pou Theatre is a first for the UNITEC  Dance program, which has been through mill over the past years. Sale of land for new builds has meant the school has had to move off campus and downsize the program. It is a frustrating reality following a well-worn pattern where the arts cop the slack for social crises that should be addressed through decent land and wealth taxes. As an audience member and previous student of the UNITEC program however, I leave this show ultimately feeling buoyed by the agility and resilience of the core UNITEC educators and the new graduates, as well as curious about how this resilience can help transform at the roots how we do things in the arts community.

The show begins with four wāhine performers slow-walking into the foyer space and performing what reads, in tandem with their black attire, as a movement-karanga. I can hear what sounds like a volcano rumbling, and a distant haka, but I wonder if my mind is making it up, encouraged by the elemental design of the Te Pou foyer. It is difficult to be sure, as any performance sound mixes with the hubbub of the crowd. I assume, incorrectly, that this is the beginning of Tipuranga, the work by Abbie Rogers and Kasina Campbell in conjunction with Atamira Dance Company. The performers lead us into the theatre where I’m expecting to find the rest of the students gathered in haka, as often follows in the adapted pōhiri sequences that have opened previous showcases. But this is not the case, the stage is empty, we find our seats, still chatting. I have a conversation with the person next to me, while feeling still slightly suspended by the enigmatic opening that just preceded.

When the lights come up, it is clear immediately that we are now watching a Jessie McCall work. The nostalgic melancholia of Angel Olsen’s voice in her ballad Lark fills the space and a single female dancer, Tess Doorman-Smith, front-lit by a spotlight, gazes magnetically at the audience. She is subtly questioning us, beckoning us rhythmically with her ticking hands in time with the heart-beat of the music. She moves through an expressive and idiosyncratic choreography which goes on to repeat at multiple intervals in the work as a narrative motif. At nearly every repeat, her moment of audience intimacy is disrupted by the absurd entry of a prop, or a character, or a ‘snap’ reality-distortion. The first of these has the audience gasping, as the panels that make the back of the stage suddenly drop back into space, rolling out to the sides to become wings, revealing a stage twice the size we had begun with.

This experience of joyful surprise in the transformation of space, prop and costume – illuminated at every stage by beautiful lighting choices from Brad Gledhill and Rachel Marlow, is a great strength of this work and develops consistently throughout. With a sound-score of pop-music that continues in a signature McCall style, mixing satire with vulnerability, the performers take us on a journey through the machinations of industry and power – signified in props and costume; suggesting literal industry such as hard-hats, high-vis jackets, industrial pipes and air vents, a Hire-Ace trailer and a characterful concrete-mixer. Reaching into an icy industrial freezer on wheels, dancers systematically distribute quarter-filled bottles of brightly colored juice to each other. These get drunk, poured into the concrete mixer, stored back in the freezer and re-distributed throughout the work. I read them as the dancers’ precious ‘life juices,’ their vitality and creativity, getting commodified, rationed, re-distributed, extracted and sucked up by the machines of neo-liberal arts industry, compacted into the concrete of continued colonial nation-building. 

The choreography is idiosyncratic and gestural with a pop feeling. It moves from robotic to fluid to clown-like. McCall works dynamically with the mass to maintain a lively movement design which is always evolving while also holding fast to an unfolding thread of narrative logic. Solos, duets and small group work sections from the third-year students emerge naturally from this progression, lifting and transforming the energy of the work, shifting the tone and sliding the audience along a continuum, from distanced intellectual satire to more intimate connection with the dancers and their stories. I am awed by the virtuosity and confidence of these dancers in their craft. A liquid-whirlwind duet between Peni Faukaua and the concrete mixer stands out in my memory, alongside the whimsically boneless, sliding, spiraling, turning inside-out of Natthavout (Woody) Sabanhdit, and the defiant, bombastic clarity of Lara Chuo.

Interestingly, I don’t ultimately see a party where people gather for drinks and socializing. Instead, I see a political party of hard-hat wearing young workers attempting to unionize in the rare moments they can catch their breath. The homogeneity of ages and quirky gen Z costuming make it hard to see any of the generational gate-keeping of elite inner circles and hierarchies at play in this depiction of the arts industry. Oppressive power in this work feels like an invisible, omnipresent force which acts through the agency of objects and set, animated by the dancers’ preoccupation with orienting themselves around them, through them, against them. Shifts in status between the dancers are ephemeral, signified by who is now wearing the high-vis, who holds the megaphone, who claps icily at the frozen absurdist tableaux. Status is not hoarded in this work. It is lost and gained fluidly by the dancers. I perceive an enduring solidarity among the dancers even as they are divided and occupied. There is a sense that they are all in conversation with industry, attempting to collectively queer its boundaries. As objects like air vents and pipes get repeatedly re-purposed and re-assembled, taking on a life of their own, there is a sense of hope that instead of deadening and extracting the life-juice from dancers, with enough unsettling of perception, the arts world might be able to regenerate and re-animate itself out of the concrete grind of industry. The anarchistic end of the work, with its return to Doorman-Smith completing her dance alongside peers, seems to give a bit of hope to this reading.

Tipuranga, by Abbie Rogers and Kasina Campbell, begins in the stripped back, deconstructed stage space left by the previous work. The students enter in black singlets and differently colored track pants, moving reverently and low to the ground with horizontal rākau held out before them. Alternating groups emerge out of this sea of floating rākau to execute drills and breathwork, culminating in a unity of voice and movement as the dancers sing Tihore Mai. When the rākau are put down, the students move into an explosion of expressions of ihi, and haka first to each other and then to the audience in a rendition of Tika Tonu. This haka is well-known for marking milestones and initiating young people into responsible adulthood. Experience level and embodied understanding varies among the dancers, but I witness a deep and whole-hearted commitment to Haka Toi forms. 

What feels strange in my puku about this work has little to do with the mana and aroha of the students or the choreographers, but how it feels contextualized within the program. The choice not to open with a Māori work, as has been done in most showcases of previous years, was striking and gave me things to ponder. I wondered if it was a choice to try not to tokenize Māori art-forms in the box-ticking, ‘hire-a-powhiri’ kind of way. I appreciated this possibility, and I also felt conflicted over how the work then sat where it did, with Māori art forms performed in a way that felt quite decontextualized from their purposes in the Māori world – from the tikanga of pragmatic social ceremonies, or from the mana of specific Kaupapa or pūrākau that we have gathered to share or meditate on. My experience was that the forms and expressions became quite abstracted, and somewhat dissociated, within this framing. They were well-executed, but without specific, maintained connection to ritual, stories, time, place it read as a very stripped back and deconstructed recital of the students’ learning. On one hand, it was beautiful to see the forms effectively, spaciously and simply performed, but on another hand, the deeper intentionality, stories or purpose within these forms felt subsumed by the showcase agenda to demonstrate student mastery and acquisition of skills.

I considered what it would be like if the situation were culturally reversed: if we had just watched a full-length, multi-dimensional work by a Māori choreographer fully immersed in Haka Tapere – integrating Māori storytelling and Kaupapa along with Māori movement forms – and then watched a recital of western contemporary dance techniques showcased afterwards – where the dancers neatly showed, section by section, how they had mastered plies, tendues, rolling, partnering, lines and curves and making ambiguous eye-contact with the audience. 

What stays with me is a contemplation of the limitations kaihaka may face in attempting to bring students into the relational space of mātauranga māori within the dominant, educational frameworks of tertiary dance institutions in Aotearoa. Within these institutions indigenous art forms are classified, categorized and given a slot in the curriculum according to the priorities of the white ‘universal’ norm rather than being the ontological starting places for how the curriculum is conceived of. 

The purpose of making this point is not to critique program leaders, because their individual respect for indigenous art forms is clear, and decolonizing an institution requires collective capacity-building and resourcing that is not currently abundantly supported from funders! The point is to identify what feels to me like a plateau, a turning point or growth-moment where UNITEC needs to regenerate how it is incorporating indigenous arts – where Haka Toi specifically needs space to grow out of its ‘slot,’ and shape the lens with which we are taught to consider art, not simply be an object of it.

I wonder how indigenous art forms could be facilitated in the curriculum not just as forms to ‘acquire’ but as relational skills, ways of learning, ways of storytelling and thinking. I wonder how this could eventually change how end of year showcase is conceived of and offered? Mātauranga is not simply a discrete body of knowledge, a set of resources that can be acquired, it is also way of forming and relating to knowledge which comes with radically different notions of time, space, the role of the ‘individual’ and of the creative arts in the whānau, the community, the world. Mātauranga Māori inherently challenges the dominant, mechanistic structures of arts industry and capital that were depicted and satirized in McCall’s work. What I took away from my experience in Tipuranga is that “Mātauranga Māori” cannot remain a buzzword, with its associated content showcased in a neatly programmed category. As a living knowledge system it requires the centering and the space to lead, to transform how we think about arts education, about trade, about the role of art in society and how it contributes to the world we are preparing young artists for. I don’t have the answers for how this emerges, but I do have hope and belief in the contributions the students coming through this course will make, and the adaptability and resilience of their educators to keep working with the times. 


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