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Review of Hou 2015 — Carol Brown

This independent peer review is written from my perspective as an independent practitioner, an academic dance researcher and a Pakeha New Zealander. I offer these reflections in a spirit of dialogue and engaged interest in the many offers I experienced within HOU 2015.

1.0 Context

For HOU 2015 Atamira presented a substantial 40 minute work-in-progress at TAPAC on 24th March1. According to their website, the company describes this series as aiming to ‘nurture talent and provide opportunities for upcoming Māori choreographers’ as well to ‘foster the development of new work in the community’.

TAPAC as a central Auckland small scale theatre is an ideal venue for sharing work in this stage of development. After a brief introduction from choreographer Louise Potiki Bryant and Artistic Director Moss Paterson, we were brought into the darkened theatre where a forest of corrugated steel and shadowy figures marked the stage. In this atmosphere, there was a strong sense of occasion, that something was going to take place and that we, as witnesses, were also a part of it.

Over the next 40 minutes we experienced a sustained and varied sequence of choreographic sketches, intermeshed with lighting, design, sound and video elements. The culmination of a four-week research and development workshop by choreographer Louise Potiki Byrant and company dancers -Bianca Hyslop, Gabrielle Thomas, Eddie Elliott and Mark Bonnington -this work demonstrated strong potential as the first outcome of a fully realised production.

1.1 Concept: Mark-making and recovery

Louise Potiki Bryant explained to audience in the foyer before the showing that the concept for the work emerged from two recent experiences. The first was a performance at Te Ana Māori Rock Art Centre in Timaru as well as a visit with her whānau to rock art sites in Te Wai Pounamu. The second experience was spending time with a waka recently discovered at Papanui Inlet on the Otago Peninsula. This waka is currently being cared for by Louise’s marae and is submerged in a tank of fresh water and solution to protect it from disintegration. The processes for HOU 2015, catalyzed by these experiences involved actions of connection and discovery, working with images from the art of her tupuna, and consideration of the possible messages contained within these taonga. In this work-inprogress sharing the unearthed waka as well as trace-forms inspired by the rock art. For an audience in Tamaki Makaurau, having our attention drawn to cave drawings made by Ngai Tahu ancestors hundreds of years ago in a relatively isolated part of the country invites curiosity, fascination and wonder. The concept of the work and its realization align with an ecological indigenous perspective of performance that is necessary and relevant. What transpired was an adventure, as if into a dark cave where shadows, hybrids and metamorphic states unfolded on the walls and through the senses in an energized space of thresholds.

1.2 Content: Performance elements

Figurative stylizing of movement in the choreography was strongly in evidence. I witnessed the building of a somatic language that appropriately aligned and combined with the design to create an atmosphere that allowed for the emergence of images, affects and sensations. There were clear and striking images that could be read in the dancers movements: a multi-limbed, part-man part-animal hybrid; a pattern of curves in arched spines and blunt feet; gestural marks suggesting the trace-forms of ochre-based paintings such as taniwha and manu; jagged limbs stabbing the air and intersecting body parts creating contrapuntal tableaux. These images were most striking when they possessed a rigorous alteration of the human figure morphing the outline of the body/bodies into something other, something strange.

A good performance should condense itself in an image, the image of an organism of an animal. (Romeo Castelluci)

The choreography was at its most original when patterns of movement were developed through an attunement to forms and images that emerged from movement research that was inventive and enquiring. In other words when there was clarity of movement design and concept that involved a rigorous investment in invention of form. Striking events of movement appeared as sculptures of time through figurative tension becoming momentarily ‘preserved’ in time (like the recovered waka or the cave paintings).

Less effective, in my opinion, were sections of ‘pure dance’ where phrases of movement echoed the familiar patterns of canonical contemporary dance such as in unison symmetry and smooth, lyrical, whole body movement patterns.

2.0 Dance Technique: Focus & verve

The dancers execution of the choreography was articulate, precise and varied in dynamics. In particular I would note the liquid sequential articulations of the dancers and the clarity of presence, purpose and dynamic range. Different levels of maturity and experience were evident in the quality and nuances of their performances. This would suggest that there is mutual support, a culture of enabling difference and achieving to a high level expectation in relation to performance quality. The performers were consistently strong in their instantiation of the choreography and created a palpable sense of kinesthetic attunement with each other. I wondered however who they were in relation to the work and what personal take they might have on it? Solo moments allowed us to be with individual dancers in a more intimate way and to get to know their body stories. I would enjoy seeing more of this personalization of the choreography for the performers as different personae within the world of the work could emerge.

2.1 Performance Technique: Many-timed bodies

Atamira work across performance registers that relate to both indigenous Maori and Western European theatre models of performance presence. The four dancers comprised a balanced quartet, as two women and two men, and a tight ensemble. Expressing genealogies of presence through their performing, the dancers possess and attend to ihi. This mode of performing allows for communication across multiple dimensions of space and time for the performer. However, given critical contexts for performance in conceptual approaches to choreography and the role of the audience in the work I wondered how performance techniques might incorporate the audience more actively? Sitting in the dark for the duration of the work in a ‘black box’ environment tends to efface ‘our’ presence in relation to the performer. Is there something in the ecology of this performance that might address the potential of the audience as ‘witness’ to be acknowledged (danced with) rather than danced for?

2.2 Design: Listening to the shadows

Design elements included sheets of corrugated steel, lighting (both theatre and wearable headlights), video, sound and costuming.

The scenography involved a series of corrugated steel panels that performed multiple roles: As boundaries dividing up the space; as ‘beds’; as objects to be carried; as waka; as walls (at one point one performer was pinned to one of the panels); as well as projection surfaces. These panels were effective as transformative objects that served multiple purposes within the poetics of the event but also as planes that allowed for the stage to be remodeled and altered providing different sight lines. They were moved and manipulated by the performers with relative ease.

Design also involved lighting and in particular wearable headlamps. These were also explored as ways to throw light onto the walls as well as luminous ‘eyes’ through which the performers directed the audience’s attention and in the case of the latter became mythic figures.

To my mind this design idea would benefit from further research into the use of wearable lighting and its potential application within live performance. The lights used were bright and directional throwing patches of illumination around the walls of the theatre in a way that could not be controlled given the performers movements. This meant that at times we were unable to see the dancers movements properly and audience attention was drawn to splashes of light that were thrown haphazardly around the black walls and floor. It was unclear how intentional this was.

Overall theatre lighting was at a relatively low level of intensity. Whilst this suggested a dimly lit space, relating to the sense of a cave-like environment, or objects being buried (such as the recovered waka), it also meant that at times, the movement and clarity of design of the choreography was not as legible as it could have been.

I would suggest the company does some further research into wearable light technology and its interaction with theatre lighting. Perhaps working with an LED lighting designer who could customize the lighting to work with the choreography and offer greater control to how the light appears within the work in relation to the intentions of the choreography. Sensors could also work in this context to allow more control by the dancer to turn lights on and off through movement cues triggering key moments in the work.

Costuming was effective and sleek. Dark short sleeve tops and shorts were made of a sheen-like material that caught the light and contours of the movement in scintillating ways. At the same time the costumes were simple and unobtrusive. Keeping arms and legs bare allowed the dancers movements to be ‘read’ as inscriptions that could be made to recall the rock art figures and the gestures of touch that once marked limestone walls.

The sound design by Paddy Free offers HOU a textured sound field of electronic music. A constant presence in the work it serves as a sonic bed for the choreography and video aiding and immersing the work in atmospheric layers that push and pull with suppleness and ease. This sonic layer of the work could be developed in future through the use of more strongly signaled structural signposts, signifying shifts and changes in the mood and atmospheres of the choreography. It could also look at counterpoint as well as shared accents as ways to intensify the potential for the sound and the dance to work on each other rather than consistently with each other.

Video was incorporated into the work as a further layer, amplifying a sense of liquid space-time. The movement of watery images across the grooved surfaces of the corrugated panels was mesmerizingly beautiful and could be further incorporated into the spatial dramaturgy perhaps with a palette of further imagery in a future iteration.

3.0 Performance ecology and event

As an originary member of Atamira, Louise Potiki Bryant brings to HOU 2015 a long history with the company but also a more recent solo practice as an independent choreographer and researcher through projects such as Kiri. Kiri was more akin to a live art performance installation than a dance theatre event (a more customary genre of performance that Atamira have developed since their inception) as it was presented in art galleries and theatres.

The demands of choreographic installations often invite audiences to experience a work through a multiplicity of senses and elements (objects, sounds and images performing as agents of the choreography as much as dancers). In HOU 2015 we see a development in this direction for Atamira, however at times the work falls back on the more familiar trope of dance theatre. Resolving the identity of the work will come through further development and, I imagine negotiation with producers and venues as well as opportunities for funding.

3.1 Questions and comments

If the audience hadn’t been informed prior to the sharing about the source material – rock art and a buried waka – would they have made these connections? Does it matter? I don’t know if this would be appropriate, but it would be interesting to actually see the cave drawings that inspired the choreography either projected or in the programme. How to release the global in the localized and particular? How does the audience receive the work? Perhaps this question could be addressed in relation to the identity of the company, its constituent audiences and its spaces and contexts of performance. What kind of a relation is being evolved with audiences through processual sharings? The opportunity to respond at the end of the HOU sharing was taken up by several in the audience who spoke of how the work resonated culturally and personally. This is a powerful tool for the company to engage in in that such opportunites offer immediate response and reflection, binding their work into a community culturally, holistically through the deep tap-roots of identity.

Could we dramaturgically be taken ‘inside’ the lifeworlds of the dancers more


The separation of stage space and audience space is strong in the work partly because of the evocation of ihi by the performers but also because of the design of the lighting. Is there space in this work for a more vernacular moment, an everydayness that might make an immediate connection with audience, enabling them to identify with the performers as people and from this position to move on into altered worlds? In Kiri Louise puts on a simple dress towards the end of the work and dances in a girl-like way, this kind of ordinariness creates a sense of empathy and connection with the performer. I felt in HOU there could be a moment where the choreography rather than striving to ‘represent’ something, could just allow the performers to be and we could see them as ‘people like us’ capable of metamorphic transformations.

How is the audience invited to engage in the journey?

An installation for a front-end stage limits the possibilities for audience to discover the work from multiple angles. In Kiri the dancer rotating much like on a kiln resolved this. In HOU the stage was dissected by design elements such as the corrugated panels this had the effect of radically altering the space. What would happen if this was pushed further and the work was accessed from multiple sides as an installation?

What is being developed here?

The choreographer had 4 weeks to explore her concept with highly skilled and willing dancers. In some senses I approached the work as an ecological architecture, binding elements, restoring habitats, cultivating and seeding and inviting something new by building on existing knowledge’s.

3.2 Sharing Process

As a work in progress the presentation format of a theatre space has a tendency to install the conventions and expectations of a finished work. Clearly the work is under construction. How could the presentation of this work at a critical stage of development acknowledge that it is provisional and still in process?

And how could events like this let the audience into the process? These are questions for practice. For example could sections or nuggets of material be framed as this rather than put into a continuous sequence of events, that way acknowledging that decisions are still being made about the structure and form the work will take.

4.0 Conclusion: Cultivating inter-disciplinarity & indigenous performance

HOU in development is brimming with ideas embodied by four committed dancers and an inter-disciplinarity group of practitioners. I was surprised and tantalized by glimpses of what a fully realized production of HOU might become. This work revealed significant potential for artistic growth for the company and artistic team involved for the way it works upon the senses. In particular, the work’s emphasis on performance design that incorporates objects, lighting, sound and video with choreography in a cohesive and dynamic way, is to be noted as it develops upon previous incarnations of the company’s work and Potiki Bryant’s recent independent practice.

In my opinion the choreographic and design choices in this work strike at the heart of the concept of time in relation to the work of performance and what it can do. How might Atamira through HOU continue to develop a unique vision where the time of their performance resonates with multiple dimensions of space and the body is revealed as many-timed? Choreography such as HOU that attends to the long view, binding and rebinding the past, present and future has much to offer contemporary New Zealand audiences. Given the themes of recovery, connection and preservation as well as casting light on rock drawings that are not accessible for many, the company can continue to develop a particularity of choreographic forms that are emergent yet resonant, that offer audiences new-old ways of relating to time, place and memory and grow a community of practice that is generative, enabling and nourishing.

5.0 Hou 2015 Credits

  • Atamira CE/AD: Moss Patterson

  • Choreographer: Louise Potiki Bryant

  • Dancers: Bianca Hyslop, GabrielleThomas, Eddie Elliott, Mark Bonnington

  • AV's: Louise Potiki Bryant

  • Soundscape: Paddy Free

  • Choreographic mentor/rehearsal director: Megan Adams

  • Set design: Louise Potiki Bryant

  • Technician: Paddy Free

  • Lighting: Ambrose Hills-Simonsen

  • Producer: Zoe Williams

  • Project Coordinator: Stephen Bain

  • Show photography: John McDermott

  • Show filming: Matt Gillanders

  • Rehearsal photography: Zoe Williams

  • Front of House: Sarah Watson

1 The Reed Dictionary of Modern Māori (1997) describes Hou as meaning ‘to bind together, make peace, downwards force, establish’ (p64). 2 Ihi is a Maori term used for a performance quality. Matthews (2011) defined ihi as ‘a psychic designs are referenced, revealing themselves through gesture, movement and action as well as fading and disappearing.

  • 2 April 2015