Atamira Dance Company: On the rite path

By Raewyn Whyte

Atamira Dance Company marks its 14th anniversary with a double bill exploring the challenges young Maori face dealing with city life. Raewyn Whyte reports

Atamira Dance Company 2012: Mark Bonnington and Nancy Wijohn in Jack Gray's Mitimiti
Atamira Dance Company 2012: Mark Bonnington and Nancy Wijohn in Jack Gray's Mitimiti

In next week's Tohu programme, as part of its annual Urban Disturbance season, Atamira Dance Company begins its 14th year of making Maori contemporary dance.

Over the years, the company has made an impressive array of dance works, some short and frothy, and some longer works about very serious matters such as child abuse. Sometimes five or six short works combine to build a programme, but more often the show is just one work.

Previously, the company's main focus has been telling stories that connect the dancers to their ancestors - connecting the experiences of the Maori Battalion on the front lines of the war with those of their families in East Coast farming communities; connecting the hunting of muttonbirds and harvesting of kai moana along the Catlins Coast with the legend of Rona and the Moon; examining the impact of broken promises to do with land ownership on successive generations of one family.

With the Tohu season, Atamira is taking a step sideways, breaking with the strong aesthetic that has made their works instantly recognisable.

In place of the rhythmically driven, luscious movement in hypnotically repeating patterns danced in black dance gear in relatively low light, fragmented movement is infused with broken urban rhythms and overlaid by cutting edge projections, presented in street clothes. Now the focus is on sharing contemporary experiences which have direct relevance to their audience members.

"It's time for us to break new ground," says Atamira's artistic director, Moss Patterson.

Tohu are signs and symbols of significance, patterns or ways of doing things attached to a particular person or group, object or place. Sometimes they are invisible, but are as strongly present as a physical object, such as a sudden feeling of warmth as if from a hug, or a shiver down the spine as if a warning is being delivered. These signs can offer guidance and reassurance that you are on the right path, help you to re-orient yourself in a time of confusion, and act as a touchstone when courage is needed. Tohu are also associated with rites of passage, times of transformation, and times of disturbance, perhaps as rituals for restoring harmony to your life.

The two works that make up the Tohu season deal with the good and bad things about city life, the challenges young Maori face in the urban environment, and the quandaries faced by Maori artists whose allegiance is torn between the inspirations and edginess of urban living and their deep affiliations with specific rural landscapes.

Moko, by Moss Patterson, asks questions about what it is to become whole, exploring possible answers through movement and projections which coexist in the same space. Mitimiti, by Jack Gray, is concerned with the dislocation and grounding of body, mind and spirit and the challenges that result from moving between urban and ancestral landscapes.

For Moss Paterson, making Moko has been a way to make changes in his approach as a choreographer, to let go of elements no longer as important as they once were, to let him embrace other aspects of artistic practice.

"There are lots of questions you have to ask, and answers you have to face up to, when you challenge yourself to move on, keep on developing as an artist and as a person. The dance I'm making explores transformational moments, and acknowledges the impact of the urban landscape on our dance making, and on me as a Maori artist. I also want to discover what emerges from the states of intense interconnection which we are exploring in the studio."

Jack Gray has been shuttling between New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii and California over the past year, with support of an AMP "Do Your Thing" Scholarship, the University of Hawaii, and artist residencies at UC Riverside and Santa Fe Arts Institute. He has been actively researching the nature of indigenous dance practice for people of diverse nations, with dance providing a living, breathing form of cultural interpretation. His discoveries are now being applied in the continuing development of Mitimiti - the dance is named for the ancestral home of his mother's people, a tiny village on the wild west coast, just up from the mouth of the Hokianga harbour.

"It's ironic," he says, "I've spent more time in San Francisco this year than I have in Mitimiti in my whole life, but visiting Mitimiti recently has made me question what it is to find my place in the world, to be at home, how to keep ancestral pathways alive in the city context."

Both Moko and Mitimiti have been taking shape over the past year, and have been seen in earlier incarnations. As serial works, each has already developed quite a following, and tickets to the show have been selling fast. Both will be performed again in their next development next March as part of the Auckland Arts Festival, then go on to be completed as full-length works - Mitimiti in 2014 and Moko in 2015.

What: Tohu - Urban Disturbance

Where and when: Shed 1, Corban Estate Arts Centre, 426 Great North Rd, Henderson, November 22-24 at 7.30pm

- NZ Herald

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