Clothes become metaphors for colonisation, to be variously worn and discarded.New dance work explores the female spirit, writes Bernadette Rae

An all-women creative team -- apart from artistic directors Taiaroa Royal, Taane Mete and the audio-visual operator -- and an all-female cast of five explore the power of the female spirit in Okareka Dance Company's new work, Mana Wahine.

"It has been very courageous of Taane and I to take on the essence of women in this work," says Royal. "We might be gay but it has been a real challenge to explore our feminine side so deeply, to get to the nuts and bolts of women, how they tick, what they go through, how they work, to really understand the female essence."

For Mete, the process of exploring such female mana has involved a closer examination of fatherhood -- he is a father -- to deepen his understanding of what it means to be a mother. Even guest choreographer Malia Johnstone has found working with the intense feminine energy unusual. In her extensive dance history, there has always been a mix of genders, she says.


The choreographic process has also been unusual. While Okareka has invited guest choreographers to join them in the past, separate sections of the dance have been individually produced then linked together. This time the work has been jointly created by all three with strong input from the dancers.

The process began three years ago when Royal's second cousin, Tui Matira Ranapiri-Ransfield, kuia and kaitiaki (guardian) of the resulting work, inspired him with the true story of their shared ancestor, Te Aokapurangi, of the Ngati Ohomairangi people of Te Arawa, and her warrior princess role.

Apart from Taane Mete (left) and Tai Royal, the creative team in Okareka Dance Company's Mana Wahine show are all women.
Apart from Taane Mete (left) and Tai Royal, the creative team in Okareka Dance Company's Mana Wahine show are all women.

Captured by a northern tribe as a young maiden, she returned years later on another raid but begged her husband to spare her people. He challenged her to break the sacred taboo of people passing between a woman's thighs. With lateral thinking and considerable feminine wiles, brave Te Aokapurangi climbed to the roof of the meeting house and spread her legs over the entrance. All her people passed through and were saved.

The music/soundscape evolved simultaneously with the physical component. Musical director Victoria Kelly composed in real time, first recording the sounds of the dancing women in rehearsals, their voices, the rhythm of their feet on the floor, the rush of their bodies through space and their breath, layering that with traditional chants composed specifically for the work by Ranapiri-Ransfield and a rich selection of instrumental and vocal sounds that range from birdsong to a poi-led hip-hop riff.

Designer Tracey Collins has produced a neutral stage -- "a white whare" -- to showcase projected and surreal images: of Ranapiri-Ransfield's face and the dancers' morphing from the technical to the futuristic body, all creating layers of meaning. Costumier Elizabeth Whiting's clothes become metaphors for colonisation, to be variously worn and discarded.

Johnstone describes the complex movement vocabulary as emerging from traditional movements such as the "wiri" or vibration of hands, expanded through the whole body and expressed through contemporary dance technique. The natural movement involved in weaving kite or swinging patu and poi are also identifiable in specific phrases.

Royal and Mete handpicked the five dancers, Bianca Hyslop, Maria Munkowits, Nancy Wijohn, Jana Castillo and Chrissy Kokiri, for their strength, grace, control and balance -- and for their spirit off and on stage.

"Their own intimate stories regarding the women they descend from and who have sculpted them as Mana Wahine are embedded in this work," says Ransfield.

"Driving the imagery, defying the impossible, exploring and evolving potentiality and imagining the invisible is what these precious vessels bring to this forum of Mana Wahine."



Mana Wahine, with Okareka Dance Company

Where and when:

• Civic Theatre, Rotorua, today (June 28)
• Rangatira @ Q Theatre, Auckland, July2-5
• Forum North, Whangarei, July 15
• Turner Centre, Kerikeri, July 19
• Te Ahu Centre, Kaitaia, July 22
• Mangere Arts Centre, Mangere, July25-27
• Baycourt Theatre, Tauranga, July 29
• Playhouse, Gallagher Academy of Performing Arts, Hamilton August 1-3
• CHB Municipal Theatre, Waipawa, Hawkes Bay, August 8-9
• Te Whaea, Wellington, August 13-16