PROUD. SLICK. SPIRITED.
WHITIREIA PERFORMING ARTS Graduation Season 2015
Kereama Te Ua, Tupe Lualua, Tuaine Robati, Paora Taurima
at Whitireia Performance Centre, 25-27 Vivian Street, Wellington
From 10 Nov 2015 to 13 Nov 2015
Reviewed by Chris Jannides, 11 Nov 2015
“Mmmm… that was slick” whispered a man behind me in the dark at the conclusion of one of the items in Whitireia’s Graduation show. And slick it was! The Whitireia performance, featuring exquisitely costumed dance items from three different cultures – Maori, Samoan and Cook Island, plus a contemporary dance section – is a stunner.
The programme notes are sparse on details. Next to nothing about the meanings, themes or cultural references behind the various items. Interesting to reflect on why this is. An assumption might be that we don’t need it. Just focus on the dancing and the performance and leave it to people within those cultures to appreciate the material more knowledgeably. So, along with all the others in the audience like myself who are visibly from diverse racial backgrounds, I sit back and focus on what provides immediate engagement.
Before discussing standout features, acknowledgement must be made of the tutors listed in the programme who are responsible for the teaching, choreography and production aspects. Kereama Te Ua for the Maori component. Tupe Lualua for the Samoan. Tuaine Robati for the Cook Island section. And Paora Taurima for Contemporary Dance. The students are fortunate to have tutors of this calibre with the skills to lift them to such high standards of professionalism.
I was slightly concerned after the opening Maori segment that the bar had been set too high. I knew that I would be comparing everything else that followed against it. Had they made the mistake of starting with their best shot? Would the slope go downhill from here? I had nothing to worry about. It was clear to me as we passed through each of the different dance territories, that this is a team of tutors who are all working with the same levels of confidence and competency as each other in their respective areas. In spite of the obvious stylistic and aesthetic distinctions that separate the different cultures represented in this graduation show, what is consistent is the assured choreographic complexity and interest of the outcomes.
It is as a choreographer that I mainly view and critique this performance. So the opening Maori section surprises me for its ever-shifting group patterns. The dancing seamlessly shifts and morphs from one geometrical arrangement to another while at the same time leading us on a journey through different shades and qualities of mood, rhythm and intensity. I honestly wasn’t expecting this degree of choreographic crafting and finesse.
The constantly changing formations at no point lose their visual appeal or harmony. And it’s all performed as though it’s been put together in a deceptively effortless way. My experience knows otherwise. This kind of intricacy takes work and depth of ability. All praise and appreciation to you, Kereama Te Ua.
What is firmly established almost immediately at the start are the performance strengths of the student dancers. The words I find myself scribbling in the dark while I am watching are: spirited, strong, poise, power, presence. I note the beauty and clarity of their singing. Their focus and how light they are on their feet, which makes moments where they deliberately stamp the ground for percussive effect stand out even more. The weapon and poi work are precise. I am impressed at how well they’ve been rehearsed and how fully invested and committed the students are to their task and to the material. This is exquisitely tight ensemble work that is projected with great pride, group cohesion and attention to detail.
The comfort and ease with which these dancers perform the opening section makes me think, ‘Oh, they must all be Maori’. But then the Samoan segment that follows makes me go, ‘Ah, perhaps not’. This is performed with the same degree of ownership, confidence and familiarity. Again, the lines and formations are tight and impressive. The gestures are expressive and beautifully articulate. There is a lot of genuine warmth coming off the stage. The dancing is fast, happy, exciting. The professionalism of pace, crafting and delivery continues. (I wonder to myself if these dance items have been performed a lot prior to this evening. They don’t have any of the shakiness of material that has just been learnt.) A new choreographic element that didn’t exist in the predominantly front-focussed Maori section is a pronounced shift to a lovely diagonal configuration for a taste of slap-dance. And it is slap-dance again that uplifts us to a rousing conclusion. I extend my praise and appreciation to you also, Tupe Lualua.
Next on the programme is contemporary dance. This is my area of expertise. Compared to the standards of the cultural sections where the dancing is faultless, this is where the students’ depth of technical ownership noticeably slips away. It is clear that their tutor, Paora Taurima – and I send you my acknowledgement and admiration also – is masterful at providing them with a vocabulary and choreographic understanding to work confidently in this style. But there are no short-cuts to contemporary dance. It is impossible to match the standards that are visible in the cultural dance sections without investing in the time and teaching necessary.
To my eyes and mind, if Whitireia wants consistent professionalism and high outcomes across all the dance forms it wishes to display in its graduates, then it must re-think its approach to contemporary dance. My comments are not a criticism of the students, who perform with the same attack and clarity as they do throughout the whole show. My thoughts are directed at the school, who I wish to encourage if it truly wishes to honour the art form to which I am devoted.
The evening’s conclusion is a medley of songs and dances from the Cook Islands. Long fringed leggings on the men accentuate their recurring shake-a-leg motif, while grass skirts on the women do the same for their rapid hip movements. After the Maori and Samoan segments, I am left wondering whether there can be anymore choreographic surprises. Obviously, the movement language is different – along with the knees and hula hips mentioned above, there is a greater story-telling emphasis in the hand movements. The dancers also travel through space differently – the women with little shuffling runs and the men are more airborne. A seductive Hawaian rhythm echoes the ebb and flow of the ocean and the lifestyles associated with it.
Humour is also a standout feature that isn’t in any of the earlier segments. I really enjoy seeing the men, whose demeanour is more warrior-like or ‘man’-like in their roles and personas up to now, suddenly take on a camp ‘voguing’ quality with lots of sexual teasing and flirting with the audience. We all laugh and are seduced by the fun. The versatility of the students is terrific.
But what I value in the Cook Island portion of the show is yet another choreographic shift. Maori – front-focussed. Samoan – added a diagonal sweep. Cook Island – introduces a circle. I loved this. Instead of the expected assault at the end of the show directed towards the audience, the dancers spend much of the time facing in towards each other, without ever making us feel left out. The effect is ritualistic and communal. Appreciation for the evening is deepened. So my final acknowledgement goes to you, Tuaine Robati. Wonderful!
To all the team, not forgetting the beautiful live music throughout, thank you. Great work.