The tableau, like a pioneer photograph, depicts a woman in black Edwardian dress, concealed by a veil, standing under an umbrella. She and other colonial-style dignitaries, along with Maori warriors, solemnly wait for a portent. The warriors erupt into a powerful haka, opening Auckland’s Tempo Dance Festival 2012. The mood then shifts into a dark, intimate landscape for two dancers. Extract, from the larger work Whero, is part of the Tuakana programme of Maori works. Disembodied sounds, a loop of a whinnying horse, waves lapping and a projection of flickering foliage shadowing a night-time tent suggest spirit dimensions.
The piece was devised by Moana Nepia and Carol Brown – both highly refined dancers – who inhabit a space devoid of fixed points save their own bodies. Their partnering is sensitive and finely nuanced; they nevertheless remain distant, caught in their own subliminal worlds. Cat Ruka in Fantastically Natural Environments disrupts societal norms with her ironic commentary on the superficiality of contemporary life. Ruka, Haydon Timoko and Milly Grant engage in absurd bouncing bends and rapid jumping, nearly tripped up by their knee-length blonde wigs. A distorted baby voice entreats “watch me”. Timoko and Grant alternate between embrace and struggle in a robust duet, while Ruka, dispensing with the game, stands apart in quiet contemplation.
Michael Parmenter’s tango-inspired Absence stands out amid the audience enjoying refreshments in the foyer of Q theatre. Opening Footnote Dance Company’s impressive programme, the duet provides a visceral experience as Lucy Marinkovich and Levi Cameron slice the space with straight back lunges, glancing embraces and holds; jagged edges and tender moments. Kristian Larsen stretches time and the dancers’ bodies in the well-crafted (An Ironic Dream Of ) A Common Language. Dancers in street clothing inhabit an interior zone, mouthing speech and struggling for movement. Bodies slump, arc and swing, pulling in and out of contorted positions – as if transfigured into a digital world or trying to emerge from the unconscious.
A crate-like box is assembled on stage by dancer Alice Macann in Lyne Pringle’s Beautiful Prison, a study of environmental issues. Meanwhile, clothed in pretty green dresses, her three companions engage in serene dance, weaving and waltzing around each other. Wearing tight jeans, the tui-like Macann spins about the trio with reckless freedom, taut with concentrated energy – all too quickly curtailed when she is trapped in her own box. Fresh Cuts is a surprisingly feminine mix of works that explore themes of timeliness, vulnerability and representation of Pasifika women. In Pacific Me Barbie by Charlene Tedrow, elegant women resplendent in wigs, floral prints and false eyelashes whoop and dance with swaying hips and twirling wrists, like wind-up hula dolls. Reflecting the commercialisation of Maori and Pacific cultures, the piece’s dance styles and quick costume changes challenge the precepts of the “desirable South Pacific maiden”.
The upbeat Gimme Some Sugar, I Am Your Neighbour, by Jessie McCall, is an all-girly take on acquisitiveness, desire and “girlfriend-ness”. Four dancers in frilly dresses swap allegiances, make each other jealous then good-naturedly accommodate each other’s cravings, all the while ogling large boxes of wrapped presents. One of the highlights of the festival was Daniel Belton’s Time Dance and Soma Songs, intricate integrations of dance and film – the former beautifully accompanied in a live performance by the ensemble Stroma, conducted by Hamish McKeich. Belton’s award-winning films are dazzling intellectual riddles in which he transposes the human form through digital manipulation to investigate themes of mathematical scale, history and connection to topography.
Running contrary to a contemporary notion that immediate fulfilment is all-important, Belton sees the body as an agent for inquiry. He removes dancers from traditional, earthbound settings and juxtaposes them on film with stone, ancient sculpture or abstract design, invoking the laws of physics and geometry – in much the way of an astronaut or space traveller – enabling us to re-imagine or re-see history or art. Dancers are dwarfed on screen, then brought back to full-bodied life, sometimes as fanciful characters. Through these images Belton hints at the enduring cycles that connect and bind us. The composition by Stroma artistic director Michael Norris, referencing JS Bach’s precision, wonderfully illuminates these mysterious journeys.
Still by Janine Parkes, in the Prime Cuts programme, delves into states on the edge of death. Despite the sombre theme, the work sensitively explores the ephemeral transience of being. In delicate shades of grey, three dancers move around each other like the swirling smoke patterns of a candle. Quirky and optimistic, Kelly Nash’s Meme (Skin) gives expression to the extravagant whimsical qualities of five women with idiosyncratic tendencies – one with her face wedged inside a crescent moon mask. Disregarding high-heel shoes and other social conventions, the dancers give full flight to their inner personas.
The full-length Nga Hau e Wha, choreographed by Taane Mete, Taiaroa Royal and Ross McCormack, is a powerful work. It is broken into four elements – wind, water, earth and fire – each inspired by Maori creation myths. Vivid images are created – the outline of muscled bodies suggest giant celestial infants, hunched crab-like organisms emerge from the sea, and powdered ancient beings squat on each other and wrestle, pulling at one another’s faces. The seven dancers deliver commanding, sophisticated dance incorporating elements of butoh, haka, taiaha and contemporary choreography. The sound score by Eden Mulholland and lighting by Paul O’Brian add to the primeval world where creatures struggle to take form and presence.
This year’s Tempo presented a number of highly professional contemporary works where the marriage of ideas and dance was fully realised. These mature performances showcased the considerable talent, both choreographic and dance, coming out of all our main cities. By contrast, works by emerging choreographers were of an uneven quality – some needing more development or rehearsal time. The expansion of traditional dance, both Maori and Pasifika, into the festival’s programmes and in standalone shows added vitality and strength. Sadly missing were the one or two experimental, off-the-wall works that deliberately seek to provoke audiences yet always create a real edge.
TEMPO DANCE FESTIVAL 2012, Q Theatre, Auckland, October 9-21.