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Mana Wahine | Okareka Dance Company

Mana. Wahine.There is an energy embedded in these two words that defies the adequacy of the English language.

There is an energy embedded in these two words that defies the adequacy of the English language.

The tendency to translate, to equalize and offer words of sufficient satisfaction are tempting but it is rare that this ever fully possible. Mana Wahine asks, in fact invites, her audiences to embrace both the mana of our wahine, but also to recognise and acknowledge the inherent power of Mana Wahine as a collective.

This is the return season of Okareka’s fabulously well received production, but for many at the opening night in Auckland, including myself, this was our first engagement with one of New Zealand’s most visually arresting and potent dance works.

Under the stewardship of kuia Tui Matira Ranapiri-Ransfield, co-authors Tai Royal, Taane Mete and Malia Johnston have brought together a fierce and spirited narrative that blends worlds, vivid imagery and human dexterity. Emily Adams, Jana Castillo, Bianca Hyslop, Maria Munkowits and Nancy Wijohn are powerhouses on stage, each channelling their individual and collective stories into sequences of nuanced movement that are complete as they are cohesive within the overarching narrative.

The work begins with a projection of Tui Ranapiri-Ransfield, she is the matriarch, the cradler of this space. Her pukana are staunch, fierce and already the kawa of the show are being laid out. The ceremony has begun. The scrim drops away and we see projections on the back wall while five bodies writhe beneath fabric. The call is made, the karanga from the kuia and out of the bowels of Papatuanuku these women are born, brought out of the earth. A waerea is offered and together, audience and company begin a shared and engaged journey.

Okareka have created a finely wrought contemporary work that is deeply indigenous and profoundly modern. The aesthetics are sublime. Rowan Pierce’s AV design is meticulous and exacting, the multiple simultaneous projections giving life but also channelling the mauri into every aspect of the work.  Complementing the projection, Tracey Collins’ set design is appropriately minimalist yet equally, spacious and flexible while Elizabeth Whiting’s palette is replete with natural tones that allow the dancers movement and flexibility.

The constant layering within the work is testimony to the insights, the many koreros that must have been had and the inspiration of Te Aokapurangi, a young hine from Rotorua, who saved her people. It’s a story of courage and determination, of the sheer resilience of a Te Arawa woman whose story weaves through this collage of different feminine korero.

There is a stunning sequence that is easily recognisable for the beautiful ways in which the dancers use hooped black Victorian skirts, creating soft black puddles at their feet and slowly arching them up over their hips. The sound effects and the movements are simple yet captivating. Another image that lends itself to memory is when a marsupial mother and child make their way across the stage, and likewise when a flock of native NZ birds gather together to have a yarn. A cheeky kookaburra might have found its way in there too but it adds to the charm and the recognisable exchange of stories. Then there is the joie de vivre as the women shuffle their mats, leaping and joining each other in different waka as they move over a watery surface.

Dramaturgically this work is held together by light and sound. Not that it shys away from the darkness but it is through images of cascading, convulsing and even electrifying corridors of shadows that the breadth of wahine ma is heard throughout the work. Lighting designer Vanda Karolczak brings a delicacy to the work that ensures that each vignette is superbly lit, sensitive to the changing rhythms, gestures and utterances of the women and their stories. Victoria Kelly’s score adds deep resonances to Ranapere-Ransfield’s oratory and her own tonally rich soundscape supports the breath that gives space to create the work in all its multiple languages.

The closing moments as kereru and poi reverberate through the theatre allow the war cries of the women to be amplified. Nancy Wijohn wields her bone patu and takes centre stage, and it is here that the voices of mana wahine rise in a crescendo, unleashing a power that is tangible to their audience.

Mana Wahine is a contemporary dance work but it is more than a unique production by an exemplary company. It is a call to recognise, a call to respect, a call to action.