Theatre and dance meet in magical tale of Maori and Spanish culture

Paniora!

is an exotic marriage of dance and theatre, Maori and Spanish culture, and myth and history. Since childhood, writer Briar Grace-Smith has been entranced by whispers of a mysterious Spanish ancestor who washed up on the Scottish coast and married into her father's family, leaving just a wisp of a tale for his descendents to contemplate.

"I would imagine what he was like and in my mind, I used to embellish him so I thought he was a matador," says the award-winning writer who has penned stage plays, TV scripts and films. "I have always been interested in questions about identity and what's more important: the dreaming and imagining or the actual truth."

This musing forms the basis for her latest play, Paniora!, where myth meets history to tell a story inspired by the union of Spanish and Maori culture to create what must be one of the country's most distinctive iwi.

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The Paniora (Spanish Maori) are descended from Manual Jos de Frutos Huerta, who was born in the small Spanish town of Valverde del Majano in 1811, came to New Zealand as a whaler in 1835 and married five Ngati Porou women. Today he is thought to have around 16,000 descendants.

Grace-Smith first learned of the Paniora when she married and holidayed with her husband's family on the East Cape. Long transfixed by the story, she only decided to explore it a couple of years back while doing an MA in Creative Writing at Wellington's Victoria University.

"I had been thinking about this story for most of my life and it had reached the point where it needed to come out so, inspired by it, I wrote it in eight months but it was a big and sprawling story and I knew it needed to be re-worked."

When Auckland Theatre Company asked if she would write something for them, Grace-Smith knew exactly what story she wanted to tell.

"There was a lot to distil but theatre is the medium I am most familiar with so I thought it could be done," she says. "With a novel, you can internalise and get inside a character's head and still keep the action flowing, but it's not so easy to do that on stage so I had to get rid of some characters, to think carefully about how to portray certain emotions.

"It meant asking myself the big question - 'what is this story about?' - which is something all writers have to ask themselves. I enjoy magical realism and I guess this is just the kind of story that lends itself to that. You can take it as far as you want and use it to open the world up. In terms of the world I have created, it works very well."

Set on the East Cape, Paniora! is a family odyssey and focuses on Te Mamaenui Martinez (Nancy Brunning), the 92-year-old head of the prosperous and proud Hotai-Martinez family who speak Spanish, cook tapas, and dance the flamenco. But, like any family, there are tensions and son Jimmy (Kirk Torrance) is keen to prove himself so he brings to town a supposedly genuine bullfighter (Barnie Duncan) and organises a bullfight. The cast of 13 includes six dancers.

ATC's artistic director Colin McColl describes Paniora! as the grittiest family drama the company has staged since August: Osage County in 2011. While the story is a contemporary marriage of myth, history and cultures, its adaptation for stage is as much about a marriage of two mediums. McColl might have muttered that Grace-Smith had been "working in bloody film for too long" when he saw the script featured a bullfight, a stampede, flamenco dancing and a puckish talking owl, but he wanted to retain these dramatic elements.

"When you commission a writer to write something for you, the last thing you want to do is inhibit them by telling them what they can and cannot write," he says. "Whatever they want, it's up to us to try to find a way of doing it. It's a delightful challenge."

When McColl saw Okareka Dance Company perform K-Rd Strip, he knew he'd found the answer and a collaboration between ATC and Okareka was decided upon. Okareka founder and choreographer Taane Mete agrees it's been a fruitful partnership where both sides have added to their talents and developed newfound appreciation for the other's craft.

Mete started creating Paniora!'s choreography by bringing together flamenco and haka; McColl was awestruck by the speed with which the dancers devised a "movement language". Grace-Smith says she pulled back in the rehearsal process to leave ATC and Okareka to do their work, but she was pleased with the dance elements, saying they make the story even more resonant.

Since Paniora! was performed at the NZ Festival in Wellington, dancers, actors and crew have had time to refine certain aspects of the production. But overall they're happy, particularly with positive feedback from members of the actual Paniora.

Lead actor Nancy Brunning says their support is the biggest affirmation the show could have.

"Maori theatre is always very much a whanau experience where lots of different practitioners are involved, but this is something new for ATC," she says.

Brunning accepted the role of Te Mamaenui Martinez early in the play's workshop process and was then told Grace-Smith had written it with her mind. Having worked previously with Grace-Smith on plays, TV features and films, she was happy to sign up again.

"Briar always knows how to tap into the imagination, she knows how to explore and she's not afraid to create magic on the stage nor to step out of her comfort zone. As an actor, that's great and we have to embrace it."

Performance

What:

Paniora!

Where and when: Maidment Theatre, to April 12