Rebecca Kamm looks at a dramatic work paying homage to the eviction of the Tuhoe people.
Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki was the best-known Maori freedom fighter of the 19th century and famed for his prophetic visions. The Tuhoe people, whose traditional lands centre on rugged Te Urewera, tell of his visit to the old Maori village of Te Huohi, where he slept just outside the settlement on a grassy knoll.
While Te Kooti slept, he dreamed the surrounding valley was covered in a dense mist, intruding from all areas and obscuring his view.
Choreographer Maaka Pepene, of Tuhoe descent, knows the story well. "Te Kooti's dream has been interpreted to mean that the people were going to be separated from the land," he says.
"He placed eight treasures under the ground, prophesying that when a child came to unearth them, the people and the land would be reunited.
"So this story doesn't have an end, because the prophecy hasn't been fulfilled yet: the people are not one with the land again."
The story might not yet have an end, but it certainly has a beginning, and that beginning forms the backbone of Pepene's new work, Te Houhi. The first full-length performance from the Atamira Dance Collective in three years, Pepene's production will pay homage to his turbulent tribal history; the eviction of the Tuhoe people.
Labelled rebels for harbouring Te Kooti in the late 1800s, the Tuhoe people were subjected to scorched earth military tactics and war, leaving them ravaged and dispossessed. Their land was fraudulently acquired by two pakeha settlers, and - crucially - they were forbidden to take their beloved wharenui (meeting house) with them.
Eventually, in 1908, the Government agreed to return the wharenui to its rightful owners, offering to pay for its transportation.
But the Tuhoe people declined, and in a poignant act of defiance carried their sacred building several kilometres by hand, from Te Houhi to a new settlement in Waiohou, inland from Whakatane.
Inlaid with early Maori figurative art and central to the Tuhoe people's Ringatu faith, the Tuhoi wharenui is a crucial symbol of faith and hope.
A production visit to Pepene's family in Waiohou during the work's planning stages made that fact even clearer for all involved, says Moss Patterson, artistic director of the Atamira Dance Collective.
"We didn't realise the weight of it at the time, but it was a celebration of the shifting of the house," he says. "There was a full haka powhiri; it was huge ... We were part of their Ringatu church service ... We met his father, Pepe, who was the Ringatu priest in that area. [Ringatu] is very much a living faith, and it forms the backdrop for the story."
Accordingly, Te Houhi starts at the start. That is, at the very beginning of time. "I wanted to establish that we didn't come here in a waka, that we were born from the Urewera elements," says Pepene. "We're part of the air, the soil, the wind."
The body of the work itself is made up of three segments: Te ao o neheraa, the ancient world; Te ao hurihuri, the arrival of the Europeans; Te ao marama. the world of light.
Within these three segments are seven central characters - the ageless gatekeeper who "opens the portal to let people traverse through time and space" - and six other entities.
Two play the parent types, two are siblings or offspring, and two are cousins, or uncles.
Pepene has given each character a "persona", or element, and symbolism, lighting and costume all work to define the emotion represented by each of these personas.
"In the beginning and the second half, each character has on their costumes a moko, representing their element. Those motifs are carried through in the AV, and come to represent different emotional states, like fire, aggression and anger."
Pepene and set designer John Verryt also uses projection to recreate the "metaphysical realms" of the landscape, using high-definition film of Te Urewera and the warenui.
Pepene says his aim was a magically cinematic effect.
"There are connotations to Te Urewera," he says. "Some people think of it as a mystical place, others think of it as the place of rebels and activists. Because of the content of the story I wanted to establish a sense of a mythical realm, a utopian society, to tell the story of where we come from."
The choreographer's foray into the emotional and spiritual is enhanced by a soundscape by Tuia award-winner Louise Potiki Bryant and Pitch Black's Paddy Free, who have powered Te Houhi with simple, organic sounds that fuel its narrative.
Rumbling thunder accompanies the scorched earth scene, a rhythmic heartbeat the work's opening.
"Music and sound make it a more complete experience," Pepene says. "The sections of the work are full of content, but they're each also expressions of a certain feeling."
Expressions of feelings via dance form the crux of this tribal retelling.
"Movement is nothing without intention," says Pepene, who - true to his allegiance to holistic performance - has incorporated kapa haka, contemporary dance, and movement inspired by Butoh; a minimalistic Japanese dance form.
His performers, dressed by Marama designer Tracey Loyd, will wear flowing, "Greek god-like" dresses and trousers. In contrast, the second act has hyper-stylised colonial costumes.
Yet despite all the grandeur and intensity, Pepene maintains his ethos is one of clarity.
"I'm a simple person, and storytelling is about finding the essence of the story, and then embellishing that to create highs and lows.
"Life is about those highs and lows, and then those moments of stillness. It's those moments of stillness that make the high and lows even more poignant."
What: Te Houhi
Where and when: Q Theatre, 305 Queen St, Auckland CBD. September 21-25.