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Should I be a cultural legend expert to enjoy dance?


Image credit: taken from the Atamira Dance Company's FaceBook page.  photographer: the very talented Charles Howells

I saw a performance by the Atamira Dance Company last night. Entitled 'Manaia', it was three separate pieces, all bearing a relationship to the Maori mythological creature, usually depicted with the head of a bird & body of a man. The Manaia is believed to be a messenger between the mortal world and the spirit domain, and its symbol is used as a guardian against evil. The three set pieces, Pito (maternal connection), Te Waenganui (trinity of birth, life and death) & Mā (sexism & speciesism - their word!) were beautifully performed.


I went to see a modern dance show & hoped to be visually enthralled. I was. The power, control & skill of all the performers was evident. Last week I went to see the Nederland Dans Theater & was entranced. Given that NDT are an internationally acclaimed touring company, I was not expecting that quality last night, but I'm certain that at least a couple of the performers could have held their own in that environment. They were excellent, and if you haven't experienced dance up close & personal, there are still a few tickets available tonight (Friday). Tomorrow is sold out. The show is at the Q Theatre Loft, an intimate venue perfectly suited to these short works.


Here's the thing. I am not steeped in Maori culture, myths & legends. I am very interested & curious, but I am not a student of Maori traditions. Like probably most non-Maori people, I will learn & absorb what I come across, if well taught, but I'm not signing up for night classes; much as I think that would be fascinating, I simply do not have the leisure time to indulge myself. So should I have researched the Maori myths behind these dance pieces before I saw them? Would a deeper understanding of the source inspiration have enhanced my experience? Having seen them, I think so; particularly the last piece, Mā. Was it my responsibility to do this? I don't think so because it was not signalled as a requirement or simply a good thing to do. This perhaps is my naivety, or more possibly the promotional team's lack of understanding of their full audience. Are the team so fully immersed in their culture that it is impossible for them to step outside & view the work from a non-Maori viewpoint?


Of the three works, Te Waenganui was the most accessible. It was a beautifully choreographed piece, performed to perfection by three (or was it four?) very accomplished dancers, Paige Shand, Tyler Carney, Imogen Tapara & Cushla Roughan. I don't know if all four were involved as only three were on stage at any one time... It was a synchronised visual treat & because it did not labour complex messages, it was the simplest & easiest to appreciate. Yes, I know, I'm shallow like that. I'm a photographer so I look for the visual first & foremost! Ask me to think too hard about what I'm seeing & I may be able to do it, but it certainly takes the edge off my relaxed enjoyment, because then it becomes an intellectual exercise, which is not why I've paid for tickets. One observation I do have to share. A single dancer stood out for me because her movement, especially in complex, rapid transitional set pieces was beautifully smooth. I found it difficult to concentrate on the others because her liquidity demanded my attention. Checking the dance company's FaceBook page, I'm pretty sure it was Tyler Carney. Impressive.


I really enjoyed the other two works, but I believe I could have enjoyed them more had I known more about the symbolic connections they were referencing. I must state now that this Rant has nothing to do with the performers. They could not have done more. Sean McDonald & Hannah Tasker-Polland were so committed to the performance, their passion shone through & Nancy Wijohn's strong solo opening was an impressive demonstration of her obvious dance skill & experience. Forgive me guys, I'm not a dance critic, so if I'm using the wrong words, I apologise. I loved the shows & was impressed by you all! Given that it was a dance show, this may sound odd, but I have to reserve special mention for someone who did not dance, Milly Kimberly Grant. It was only when the spotlight slowly revealed her standing in front of a microphone at the edge of the stage that I realised this soundtrack was not recorded, but live. A virtuoso performance, it held Mā together.


So my problem is with the show's publicists. If you had prepared me by giving me more background, not in a detailed history lesson way, but in a selected, show-relevant way, I think I would have been able to relax into the performance more. As it was, I was slightly on edge, with part of my brain trying to work out the meaning being expressed instead of relaxing to enjoy a portrayal of a point that had already been absorbed. Would that be dumbing down the show? I think not. The show is in danger of becoming slightly elitist, in the same way that Opera was, with its own language, culture, and performance dialect. As I mentioned, I went to the NDT last week & could enjoy every distinct performance without referencing any historical, cultural or social influence. I am sure there were strong influences & markers available should I have had the education to see them, but my point is that it was easily accessible pure modern dance that I could appreciate without being made to feel I was missing anything.


The modern dance performances by the dancers of the Atamira Dance Company was excellent and at that level I enjoyed it immensely. But add in the (important) ingredient of the cultural source of the choreographic inspiration & I was lost because I was not prepared. If one of the aims of this type of performance is to keep alive & extend Maori myths & legends into a new age with new art forms & with wider audiences, then that audience (or could it really just be me!) needs to be more prepared. It boils down to empathy. If the publicists could sit in the centre of the middle row & imagine they had no real knowledge of Maori culture & then view the performance through those eyes, they might add some important educational elements to their promotion. Without that, they are in danger of turning people off the cultural aspects, because you leave the performance feeling slightly inadequate & just a little bit more on the outside of Maori culture than you were before. Surely the opposite of what is, or should be, intended?


Be quick. Go and see the performances because they deserve to be seen & make your own mind up.


p.s. a quick side rant. I used an image from the Atamira Dance Company's FaceBook page to illustrate this blog, but I cannot credit the (excellent) photographer because there is no mention of who they are! If it is you or you know who they are, please let me know & I'll put up a credit...


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