Magic from the shadows

By Janet McAllister

Breathtaking elements at play in theatre/dance piece despite message being a little lost.
Excellent lighting sees puppets dancing without a string in sight.
Excellent lighting sees puppets dancing without a string in sight.

This wordless theatre/dance piece from Wellington's Conch theatre company is beautiful, evocative and atmospheric but - at least for an audience with little knowledge of Western Pacific cultures - it seems simultaneously culturally opaque and politically simplistic.

Director Nina Nawalowalo ties the destruction of forests to the destruction of cultures but the show contextualises neither: what is deforestation's link to the immediate audience?

The hour-long work starts with a shaft of light spilling on to a large leaf as if through the forest canopy, before a spider walks over to a woman emerging from shadow. The lighting throughout is breathtaking. Designer Fabiana Piccioli uses haze, pinpoint spotlights and silhouettes to reveal John Verryt's set in surprising ways and to change the shape and depth of the performance space. In the shadows, not a string can be seen: woven mats and birds seem to dance by themselves. The glimpses of animal puppetry are excellent.

The five featured women dance, create pretty moving tableaux and sing. From the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Fiji, Samoa and Aotearoa, they're great performers. Collectively, whimsically, they mimic the sudden movements of birds; they cradle mats in their arms like babies. Artefacts are prominent: cloaks, percussive bracelets and an ornate treasure box.

But an audience unable to interpret, or differentiate between, the traditions could be left with the impression it's all generically "exotic". The programme describes the performers as "high born", a phrase that jars for outsiders; were they cast for being upper class?

Gareth Farr's soundtrack features harp notes like individual water drops, while solemn strings create an intense poignancy.

Lyrical but not everyone will find it illuminating.

Where and when: Rangatira, Q Theatre, to Sunday.

- NZ Herald

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