It's been four years since Okareka Dance Company made Mana Wahine, an all-female contemporary dance work which drew on Maori myths, legends and culture to tell a story of powerful women and creation.
Now the company launches a new production, Wired, but the length of time it has taken to do so is actually a success story. Okareka, started in 2007 by renowned dancers/ choreographers Taiaroa Royal and Taane Mete, was taken by surprise with the international demand for Mana Wahine.
With seven dancers and an all-female design team, Mana Wahine premiered in Rotorua in 2014 before a 10-centre New Zealand tour followed by, in the next three years, performances in Australia, the Netherlands, Tahiti, Canada and Hawaii.
Around the same time, six male dancers were travelling the country and to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in the company's K Road Strip, a history of Auckland's famed Karangahape Rd's LGBTI entertainment industry from the arrival of Hape's canoe to the present day.
With the company working around the world — and both Royal and Mete juggling international teaching commitments and other commissions — getting together to make new shows became all the more difficult.
Okareka's main point of difference to other local dance companies is its commitment "to fuse contemporary dance with indigenous Maori themes and other genres to create evocative, beautiful, authentic, diverse dance works… that tell bold, spiritual stories that are of and from New Zealand."
It's guided by beliefs in whanau (family), mana (honour and integrity) and matataki (challenge). Wired certainly has had its challenges, partly because its development was overtaken by the unprecedented success of Mana Wahine.
The original concept for Wired was to pay homage to the innovation and ingenuity of NZ farmers; its working title was No 8 Wired. But that plan proved difficult to bring to the stage and the touring commitments meant planned workshops were postponed.
Working with guest choreographer Sarah Foster-Sproull, Royal and Mete have instead created a production where the stars of Matariki come down to earth and take human form. By doing so, the stars learn what it is to be in a body, to touch and be touched, to speak and listen.
As Royal and Mete explain, the journey of the stars begins with their formation from pure energy within the darkness and cosmic dust of the void, Te Po. Their sky home, in the Pleiades cluster near the Tautoru constellation, holds thousands of stars.
Depending where you live, a varying number of these stars can be seen with the naked eye, rising on the northeast horizon around midwinter in early June and, if you are lucky, also in summer after sunset. Pacific voyagers used the Matariki cluster to navigate and sail from Rarotonga to NZ.
But Royal says they're not turning the Matariki stars into characters.
"The performers have each been given some aspect of the stars to bring into their movement and the ways they approach their interactions, but the stars are not identified individually."
Like Okareka's previous four shows, Wired mixes Maori legends and stories with contemporary dance, acrobatics, music and smart stage design elements. Set designer John Verryt represents the celestial home of the Matariki cluster as a huge skeletal steel cube skinned in paper.
A robust 4sq m structure, it is similar to the temporary stages used for outdoors music festivals, with lighting trusses included. It provides a portal for the action which moves in, around and through its spaces.
Costumes by fashion designer Tanya Carlson add intrigue and style to the dancing while Vanda Karolczak's lighting is moody and atmospheric, intensifying the action. Text by dramaturg Andrew Foster injects real world references. The cast includes recent graduates Cece Torres, Taniora Motutere, Oliver Carruthers, and Jag Popham alongside established performers Claire O'Neil, Rose Philpott, Aaron Burr and Aloalii Tapu.
While Mana Wahine's success delayed the making of Wired, Okareka's general manager Rachel Penman says they're naturally delighted with the international demand for the earlier work. They're still getting inquiries about staging it in the US and Europe during the next two to three years.
"The international presenters are eager to have us, and happy to pay all expenses for the season once we are grounded — except for airfares," Penman says. "And for us to take the cast and crew to Europe, for example, our return airfare is $40,000. Even though they want us, we simply can't afford to go there and back to perform at these big festivals every few weeks as the European companies can do, just to perform for one day or two."
And, as Penman observes, NZ performing arts companies know all too well that their sustainability requires regular international touring. That demands work of the highest of artistic and technical standards and Okareka has made a commitment to achieving this.
She says partnering with venues like The Auckland Performing Arts Centre (Tapac) and being able to work in its well-equipped studios for extended periods has been vital. With Wired, they have had a similar arrangement with Unitec as well as two weeks worth of rehearsals at Q Theatre.
"We need new work to be utterly ready, not just to ensure our audiences are getting the best we can give them, but also because our presenter in Tahiti is coming to see the show with an eye to programming it there."
What: Wired by Okareka Dance Company
Where & when: Rangatira at Q Theatre; today — until Saturday