Okareka Dance Company has hit the jackpot with this exploration of the strength, the spirit, the wiles and the primal beauty of women, specifically Maori women. Five extreme dancers, three choreographers at the top of their game, a totally in-tune composer, exquisite lighting and audio visual design and a wealth of cultural wisdom come together in one of the best contemporary dance performances we have seen in years.
The work was inspired by the historical story of Te Aokapurangi, a heroine of the Te Arawa people, but the narrative is richly overlayed by the collaborative input of the whole creative and mostly female team.
The dancers, Nancy Wijohn, Maria Munkowits, Jana Castillo, Bianca Hyslop and Chrissy Kokiri, handpicked for their individual spirit, pour their very life blood into the telling with astonishing stamina, bodies and art honed to perfection and with the most tangible heart.
From the stunning opening, when five ghostly bodies emerge from a silky cowled earth, through love, sorrow, gossip, sass and prayer to the spine-tingling finale, when these wahine embrace their masculine side, Wijohn in particular emerging as a muscled and magnificent warrior princess, the dancers fill the stage with their power and presence.
Their artistry is met and magnified by the stunning lighting and sophisticated audio visual design of Vanda Karolczak and Rowan Pierce who produce pure magic, even in their handling of the much cliched elements in Maori dance of native birdsong, forest and ocean. Images of kuia and kaitaki (guardian) Tui Matira Ranapiri-Ransfield open and embody the work and her voice is heard also in the gorgeously organic soundscape from Victoria Kelly.
Tracey Collins' set is a stark, white piece of simple genius. Elizabeth Whiting's costumes speak similar volumes with wisps of nude fabric, some spare swathes of black, five simple ketes and flexible woven mats.
Okareka's directors Tai Royal and Taane Mete are committed to collaborative process, and this Mana Wahine, co-authored with the mistress of wearable art, Malia Johnson, is a complex and intriguing, intelligent, honest and celebratory beacon of its success.
What: Mana Wahine with the Okareka Dance Company
Where: Q Theatre
When: Now to July 5, then touring until August 16