Delilah Pārore Southen attends a rehearsal of Karanga, the latest work from choreographer and dancer Merenia Gray, inspired by her mother.
To karanga - to call - is the exclusive domain of women, whose voices possess the tonal quality necessary to connect to tūpuna (ancestors) in the transcendental world. Karanga is an integral part of any formal welcome ceremony - the first voice: initiating the proceedings, calling for spiritual guidance and giving expression to the mana of the groups that are either welcoming (tangata whenua) or being welcomed (manuhiri).
Karanga is also the name of a powerful and deeply personal new work by a pioneer of Māori contemporary dance in Aotearoa, Merenia Gray (Ngāi Tahu, Rāngitane, Tainui).
Gray describes Karanga as an urgent call, in the metaphorical sense, to heed the warnings of Papatūānuku and Mana Wāhine, concerning the long-time abuse of the planet and the exploitation of its resources. Karanga is, says Gray, a call to action. And it is an ode to her late mother Tiahuia Te Puea Herangi Ramihana Gray.
Tiahuia was born in 1944 on August 5, which also happens to be the opening night of Karanga. "It's Mum's birthday gift," says Gray.
Tiahuia was gifted and highly respected. She performed karanga to international manuhiri (visitors) such as the Dalai Lama, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, and Fleetwood Mac, among others.
Tiahuia was adopted as whāngai to Princess Te Puea Hērangi and spent her early years growing up on Tūrangawaewae Marae. As one of Te Puea's favourites, she was allowed to live at home with the princess, where she would act as one of her handmaidens, waving the fan to keep her cool in hot Waikato summers. It was from Princess Te Puea that Tiahuia Gray passed on a deeper knowledge of karanga.
"She was an aroha woman," says Gray of her mother's legacy. "She was a giver, she was completely there for so many people and whānau who were struggling - she helped people in so many ways … even right to the end when she wasn't well. Always leading with her heart, and always giving, she was a hard worker - a true Mana Wāhine. She led from the heart."
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Gray has developed her own unique style over 30 years, blending kapa haka, and mau rākau (martial arts), with ballet, contemporary dance and the exacting elements of physical theatre. Portfolio highlights include; "Maui - One Man Against the
Gods", "Pounamu", "Alchemy" and "Entangled" for the Royal New Zealand Ballet.
The dancer and choreographer, based in Tāmaki Makaurau, is also mother of three and a new stage - a period of empty-nesting - means Gray has had more time to return to her mahi.
Merenia's creation is the embodiment of the three stages of Karanga: movement, imagery and the voice of the kaikaranga (caller) is woven through the performance. Celebrating the beauty of womanhood and ageing, dancers ranging in age from 20 to 70 years move across backdrops that convey the beauty of the natural world.
It's a taonga, says Gray, to be able to connect deeply.
"To understand who and what you're connected to gives so much strength, and Karanga is just that. It's knowing where you're from, who you've come from, and who is coming to your whāre - whether that be in the physical sense, with others or within yourself."
It is through this connection to the Earth, says Gray, that Karanga can teach our extremely deep connection to the planet. "Papatuanuku is our mother, we whakapapa to her, so we have to start listening to her. Karanga is a calling, because our planet is sick.
"Connection [to me] is to the whenua … through the pito (bellybutton) of when we're born, from the whare tangata (house of humanity) of my mother … I carried my mother's mother with me from the day I came into this world."
Karanga - Thursday, August 5, 7pm at Q Theatre, Auckland