Atamira Dance Company
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York

March 29, 2023
Te Wheke

Jerry Hochman

New Zealand’s Atamira Dance Company made its first appearance in New York at the Joyce Theater on Wednesday night for a five-performance run. I saw the opening night program.

What makes the engagement more memorable than it might otherwise be is that Atamira isn’t just a New Zealand dance company; it’s a Māori dance company. It was founded in 2000 to empower and inspire urban Māori and to bridge the intergenerational urban identity with Māori cultural expression. Translated, that means to connect urbanized/ assimilated Māori with their cultural traditions.

With Te Wheke, an evening-length contemporary dance, Atamira has succeeded admirably, and in the process has created a dance that can be appreciated by viewers of any background, even if one cannot exactly follow all the Māori cultural allusions. And the eight dancers, each with Māori heritage, are sensational. It’s a must see.

Sean MacDonald in Atamira Dance Company’s “Te Wheke”
Photo by Jinki Cambronero

Atamira, which means “platform” or “stage,” was founded in 2000 as a collective of artists by Jack Gray, who remains its Artistic Director. He and Executive Producer Marama Lloydd addressed the full audience (which appeared to be sold-out, or close to it) before the performance in an unusually approachable and non-ceremonial way, from the foot of one of the theater aisles rather than from the stage, speaking both Māori and English, and expressing pride about being at the Joyce. It was quite sweet and engaging – and Atamira’s impression on an artistic level only expanded from there.

The Māori are the indigenous Polynesian people of mainland New Zealand. Māori originated with settlers from East Polynesia, who arrived in New Zealand in several waves of canoe voyages between roughly 1320 and 1350 (some sources trace their arrival to a century or so before that), but their genetic history has been traced back over 5000 years (and beyond that), to the indigenous people of Taiwan. The Māori developed their own distinctive culture, with a language, mythology, crafts, and performing arts that evolved independently from those of other eastern Polynesian cultures, and which certainly was different from the culture brought by European explorers, whalers, and settlers who arrived in the area in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Dana Moore-Mudgway in Atamira Dance Company’s “Te Wheke”
Photo by Jinki Cambronero

As was the case with other indigenous cultures when confronted with Western cultural traditions, there was an effort to conform and assimilate (by persuasion, by force, or by fiat) which led to a subsequent disconnect between many of Māori descent (primarily in urban areas) and their cultural history. Te Wheke, which premiered in 2021, is intended to navigate two complementary pathways – as an account of Atamira’s efforts to overcome that disconnect, and as a work of dance art that represents the sense of Māori culture that Atamira is attempting to restore to urbanized and assimilated Māori. In the process, Atamira presents both prongs to non-Māori audiences. What Atamira clearly is not attempting to do is to explain or justify that effort and that culture, or to convince anyone that it’s superior to any other culture. It is what it is – which in this review will be something of a recurring theme.

Te Wheke translates as “The Octopus,” which, according to the program note, is a powerful symbol for Māori and many Oceanic peoples. The symbol has both legendary and mythological manifestation. According to the New Zealand government’s online Encyclopedia of New Zealand (“Te Ara”), legend has it that the Polynesian navigator Kupe was led to New Zealand by a giant octopus that was robbing his tribe of fish. Kupe eventually hunted the massive octopus down and, after a ferocious battle, killed it. That aside (and similar to the way other animals are both feared and respected, and given human attributes), the octopus as a symbol is a representative of health, and its tentacles have been assigned various properties that are considered dimensions of health. These properties are: Mauri (life essence), Whānau (family), Wairua (spirit), Whatumanawa (emotions), Hinengaro (mind), Mana Ake (self-worth), Tupuna (ancestors), and Tinana (body). [The New Zealand Department of Health’s online site references the same properties, though with slight, immaterial differences in nomenclature and description.]

Abbie Rogers
in Atamira Dance Company’s
“Te Wheke”
Photo by Jinki Cambronero

In creating Te Wheke, eight “choreographic practitioners” (Gray, Bianca Hyslop, Taane Mete, Kelly Nash, Louise Potiki Bryant, Kura Te Ua, Gabrielle Thomas, and Dolina Wehipeihana) were paired with eight dancers to create solos that incorporate and reflect the properties of the eight octopus tentacles. Choreographing a piece by committee doesn’t normally lead to a good outcome, but as with everything else about it, Te Wheke is different. Here the individualized choreography meshes into a singularity with a collective style. And each such solo segment is connected to the other via ensemble dances that may or may not reflect the property previously or subsequently visualized (no choreographic attribution is made for the ensemble segments).

To the extent there’s a flaw in the Te Wheke’s presentation, it’s that deciphering the meaning of each dance segment in more than simple descriptive terms is difficult for one not familiar with the way Atamira (and by extension Māori culture) manifests these dimensions of health, and, beyond the general properties stated above, the program notes provide no assistance. So the solos, for example, appear to speak for themselves rather than the properties they’re supposed to represent. As an outsider, it’s essential simply to accept them for what they are rather than to attempt to deconstruct them into some meaningful (by Western standards) statement of the purported eight dimensions of health. As a consequence, however, there’s a lot in Te Wheke that appears inscrutable.

But although an absence of clarity is something I’ve frequently criticized, approaching this dance with that mindset is inappropriate. It is what it is (or, for the benefit of sceptics, what Atamira says it is), and might not be as authentic-looking as it is if it had been presented through the prism of Western sensibility. As must be clear by this point, Te Wehke is not the equivalent of “native” entertainment for visiting tourists.

Caleb Heke
in Atamira Dance Company’s
“Te Wheke”
Photo by Jinki Cambronero

Similarly, and unfortunately, any effort I might make here to describe what I saw is doomed to failure in part because Te Wheke is so idiosyncratic, and in part because I didn’t clearly understand it all. But that confusion is mine, and even if shared by others, doesn’t in the least detract from the success of the production as a whole. On the contrary, the sense of being a grain of sand suddenly thrust dumb into an unfamiliar but undeniably epic landscape is appropriate, if not essential to its presumed authenticity.

As must be evident by now, I’ve used as much space here as I have because describing Te Wheke in any significant detail is virtually impossible – at least to me. The cursory description I’m able to muster, combined with the background provided, should be sufficient.

Before I discuss Te Wheke in as much detail as I dare, it must be emphasized that the piece is an environment as well as a dance. As such, the sets (including lighting, projected images, and accompanying music) play a pivotal role here. That I may not have understood all these environmental references is frustrating, but doesn’t detract from the piece’s impact.

The set takes the viewer into a highly stylized Māori cultural world. Billowy black fabric (described as silk) dominates the upstage area and plays a multi-faceted environmental role – as the surrounding land, sea, and air (or, at times, all three combined). Before the dance begins, the stage-set shows upright sticks of light against this black “wall,” alit by a beam of light emanating from the upstage audience-right wing. The effect is of a forest of trees. As the dance progresses, these “trees” disappear, and the black wall either undulates such that it looks like a huge body of water, or forms the background for glittering stars – or simply acts as a display platform for other images. Onto the wall, at times, are projected images that simulate lightning, objects that may be fish or other sea life, even the glowing “stained-glass” windows of a religious space – the vast atmosphere effectively being a Māori cathedral. Most significantly, the black wall serves as a space for generations past, whose individual images periodically emerge to visually impact the space the viewer sees as well as to propel the events on stage – including ancestral giants (or perhaps Māori deities) who appear to vocalize in an awesome manner (in the truest sense of “awe”), seemingly demanding that the existing generation of Māori recognize and acknowledge its heritage.

Caleb Heke in Atamira Dance Company’s “Te Wheke”
Photo by Jinki Cambronero

The effort to create this environment, and to do so to such stunning effect and with such incalculable entertainment value, must have been monumental. The set’s collective designers are listed as Paddy Free, Vanda Karolczak (who is given individual credit for lighting design), Lloydd (the company’s Executive Director), Bryant, and John Verryt. Unfortunately, the dance’s accompanying score is not credited.

The description below may not be in exact chronological order.

To a large extent the dance’s opening is the tail that wags the dog. One dancer (it’s difficult to identify the specific dancers in any one segment because they’re not identified by function or role, or by any health dimension their solos might represent), I think Sean MacDonald, is seen ambling onto the stage dressed in an insignificant way (i.e., like a “typical” assimilated Māori), with a loose-fitting tan shirt or jacket. Soon he spies an object on the stage floor, and doesn’t know what to make of it. The object is an octopus, apparently dead, the symbolic significance of which he doesn’t know. He plays with the object, grabs a tentacle like a snake and while maintaining a distance from it swirls it around above the stage floor, and at one point wraps a lifeless tentacle around his neck like a fur scarf (neck wrap; stole), prompting some audience giggles.

Suddenly, a dancer emerges from the stage right wing (I think Dana Moore-Mudgway, but am not certain), and physically confronts the man, apparently attempting to school him in the object’s significance to a heritage he’s heir to but has long forgotten or never knew.

Obviously, this segment introduces the dance’s prong that addresses Atamira’s stated purpose: its efforts to educate urbanized Māori in their cultural traditions. What follows of the 75 minute dance takes off from there, educating him, and the audience, in the process. The solos and ensemble transitions don’t, to me, relate to any particular health property, but that’s not important. The dancers’ movement qualities, in solos and in ensembles, are – they’re a frenzy of often angular movement, but that angular positioning (of hands, head, limbs and body) changes so rapidly, exceeding the tempo of whatever music accompanies it, that in most cases the angularity looks fluid. Indeed, after initially looking predominantly angular, the movement quality often undulates as if borne by the perceived sea background. Adding to the fluid sense of the dance as a whole is the dance’s overall seamlessness. One solo overlaps with an ensemble segment, which leads to the next solo segment, and so on.

Oli Mathiesen in Atamira Dance Company’s “Te Wheke”
Photo by Jinki Cambronero

Each solo, and each intervening ensemble segment (the ensemble sections are comprised of a varying number of dancers, most of the time emerging seemingly out of the depths or out of thin air) has its own distinctive quality. One may involve the appearance of ancestors emanating from the billowy black wall, one may include dancers (live) suddenly materializing from behind a scrim, or one may contain evidence of both. The solos (I didn’t count, but each of the eight dancers seemed to have one), though individual, share a similarity of style but appear to increase in intensity, and in a sense of cultural and spiritual imperative, as the dance evolves. And, independent from whatever solo they’re assigned) each of the eight dancers takes part, without solo portfolio, in the ensemble dances.

It’s perilous (and unfair) to single out one solo over another, since they were all well-done, but the multi-faceted final solo (or penultimate – I don’t recall for sure whether there was another solo that followed it) was especially wide-ranging in physical scope and internal torment, and merited the individual acknowledgement received from the audience.

Each of Te Wheke’s eight dancers performed with extraordinary competence and commitment. That it’s not possible for me to distinguish one from another without having had more exposure to the company (or more targeted program descriptions) is unfortunate, but that, too, is what it is. In addition to the two already mentioned (MacDonald and Moore-Mudgway), they included, in program order, Nancy Wijohn, Abbie Rogers, Cory-Toalei Roycroft, Oli Mathiesen, Caleb Patric Rangiera Heke, and Madi Tumataroa. [Each dancer’s name has another name following it that is the name (or, in some cases, names) of that dancer’s specific “tribe” (iwi – Māori social unit).]

Over the years I’ve attended so many dance performances that I’ve lost count, but some, no matter the length of time since seeing them, remain forever in my memory. For its power and majesty and purpose, even without understanding it, Atamira’s Te Wheke is now another. If and when it returns to, or is within flying distance of, the New York area, it’s well worth whatever effort it takes to see.