Atamira Dance Company's's beautifully crafted new Te Houhi - The People and the Land are One draws on intricately connected layers of dance, video imagery and narrated text to share poignant ancestral stories from dancer and choreographer Maaka Pepene's Ngai Tuhoe lineage.
Pepene himself is downstage right throughout proceedings, an intriguing, shamanistic figure who appears to morph through a series of leadership roles - tohunga, priest, military leader, peacemaker - along with being the choreographer's grandfather, and the ancestor for whom the wharenui, Te Houhi is named.
The wharenui (design John Verryt) is present throughout as a glimmering, skeletal form along the back wall of the stage. Above it hangs a narrow horizontal video screen which shows a continuous stream of animations (videographer Louise Potiki Bryant) ranging from photographs of Urewera locations, to steadily morphing abstract patterns drawn from traditional designs, and photographs of the actual pou of Te Houhi. A steady, resonant drumbeat is heard throughout the work, at times doubling or speeding up, accompanies by percussive sticks and stones and an ambient drone, and at time replaced by strings (composers Paddy Free and Stephen Hussey).
Like a Renaissance triptych, the work is structured into two smaller sections which act as bookends for a more substantial core, at the same time creating an overarching narrative which links all three together. An interspersed voiceover narration ensures that the key aspects of the overarching story are not missed, and the stream of video imagery subtly draws attention to the symbolic interconnections between the various elements.
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Te Ao o Neheraa (the ancient world) establishes a relatively untroubled past, the Ngati Haka Patuheuheu people living in harmony and respect for the land and one another.
Te Ao Hurihuri (the world turns upside down) shows the impact of Pakeha colonisation, the rise of Te Kooti, military reactions to passive resistance, the demoralisation of the people through many years of court battles over the fraudulent sale of their land at Te Houhi, and finally the eviction of the people from their land, leaving behind their treasured wharenui which was inlaid with early Maori figurative art, and central to their Ringatu religion.
Te Ao Marama (the world of light) shows the eventual re-uniting of the people with their meeting house, which they dismantled and carried by hand to its new home at Waiohou, along with ancestral remains and other artefacts necessary to the development of a new harmony of the people with the land. - though even today we hear on the News of ongoing tension between the Crown and Ngai Tuhoe.
The imagery is rich, the story well told, the many elements very carefully integrated thanks to the sophistication of the work as whole, and beautifully presented by a team of mature dancers: Taiaroa Royal, Taane Mete, Jack Gray, Jason Moore, Maaka Pepene, Kelly Nash and Justine Hohaia.