Thursday, February 12, 2015

Thinking dance, doing dance

val smith writes about Man Made, a choreographic work by Oliver Connew

How is art a tool of social change?
How do body-based explorations impact cultural discourse?
How do artistic experiences transform our imagination of what’s possible in our world?
How do race, gender, economics give or withhold voice in our society?

Across the Pacific Ocean, Julie Phelps, the Artistic Director of Counterpulse in San Francisco, relays the above questions in regards to Miguel Gutierrez’s new work Age & Beauty Part 1: Mid-Career Artist/Suicide Note or &:-/, noting how such questions are currently in dialogue in that part of the world.  Here in New Zealand, Oliver Connew returns from his European base in the artistic mecca of Berlin, to present a choreographic work Man Made, which deals with the privileges of being male and white in contemporary society.  

Employing some clearly defined and intriguingly indistinct structural methods of practice, Connew and collaborator Gareth Okan present a series of choreographic episodes that intelligently question how their apparently able-bodied, middle-class, thin, and cisgendered male physicalities reflect various cultural positioning and advantages. Through a participatory game structure, a non-linear investigation of space, an endurance test involving bunches of green bananas, and a boxing style gym routine cum dance-dance, the two performers innovatively touch on the power dynamics of colonialism, patriarchy and capitalism.  The self-aware performance piece navigates performance issues of coercion, force, bullying, competition and ownership, in ways that implicate, absorb and amuse the audienceMan Made not only employs choreographic innovation as a rule of thumb, it also represents a solid transdisciplinary approach to collaboration, bringing together the inspired lighting ideas by Amber Molloy and Marshall Bull, the rousing beat making and mixing of Andrew Cesan, and the choreographic contributions of the two dance artists.

Whilst I am well interested in how this work deals with the issues at hand, the more significant impact for me of Man Made, is in how the choreographic structuring and styling challenge unspoken rules embedded in the fields of dance and choreography. These rules, or dance making conventions, assert that a well-polished choreography worthy of praise should display: tidy compositional structures; relentless and virtuosic acts of physicality; quick and seamless transitions; and should conform to tight and comfortable time frames.  Man Made offers alternative choreographic values that resist these rules in a number of ways:

-         - In an extended episode of fuzzy actions and roamings, Man Made emphasizes the workings of its transitions without a concern for tight compositional control,
-         - The work resists the idea that choreography should never linger in a territory where ‘nothing much is happening’, or dwell for ‘tooo long’ in any movement terrain at all (a rule of thumb monitored mostly by audiences),
-         -  It also disregards the convention that any prop or lighting change should be rendered invisible, and not acknowledged as part of the choreography itself,
-         - Unapologetically playing in the space between sections or action, Man Made asserts waiting and resting as choreographically worthwhile and meaningful performative acts. 

I am perplexed and inspired by these choreographic counter-values, becoming particularly engrossed in how the work utilizes physical actions and performative gestures in material I can best describe as knowing and unknowing.

The opening episode of Man Made, a participatory ‘game’, invites us into a competitive environment that tests our physical balance with a partner.  The hosts of the game, Oliver and Gareth, set a tone of tongue-in-cheek irony into the competition, a tone that lingers to the end of the work emphasized by the performers’ sports shoes and lycra costuming.  We are instructed to choose another audience member and attempt to make them fall off the spot, the winner being the one whose feet stay planted.  As someone who finds the call for adrenalized alertness and roughness in competitive sports alienating and ridiculous, I instantly feel awkward and resistant to the game.  I’m not sure whether to politely comply with the given instructions, or to rebel and risk looking like a snobby wanker.  I partner with fellow improviser Kristian Larsen and we end up playing with the intricacies of pressure between our hands, and with the possibilities of articulation, in a manner that does not buy into a desire to win or finish our round quickly.  Do we represent part of a percentage of renegade resistors in the audience who, when faced with parameters that ask for particular kinds of involvement and interaction in the performance, looks for ways to participate differently?  Employing the known structure of a ‘game’ brings into conversation the psychological forces innate to methods of participation as well as the competition at hand.  When faced with the rules, guidelines and parameters of Man Made, in this section and others, the audience is visibly compliant, but I wonder how power dynamics are playing out in the subjective experience of each audience member.  This work seems to be carefully and consciously highlighting a complexity of power relations operating within a performance context. 

The game has created a sense of connectedness amongst the audience, and between us and the two performers. This feeling of friendliness and openness shifts us easily into the expanded episode to follow.  This second episode combines indistinct movements, meanings and intentions in a way that is hard to describe, hard to describe because I’m not quite sure what it is that I am witnessing.  This challenge to implicit notions of what constitutes good dancing and successful choreography, opens up new ideas for dance making. What if we deliberately do what the rules of dance tell us not to do?  Will this reveal new understandings about our construction and conception of time and space in choreography?  The outcome of this episode is a curious assertion of uncertainty as a compositional value; I am clearly watching a piece of ‘thinking dance’. 

The third episode (or is it an extension of the previous episode?) explores a process of making and unmaking space.  The two performers work together to imply and define spatial parameters using gestures, statements, props and lights, creating a politics of ownership, colonialism and the domination of space by white men.  A long string of lights is used to create non-linear spaces; the performers are playfully investigating ways to fill and occupy the temporary spaces with their bodies.  The spaces created morph again quickly; no space is clearly defined for very long. If you buy into the idea that what you believe in becomes your reality, then this episode speaks to how we force our ontological beliefs onto others.  A performer states “this is my space”, reinforcing his claim through an encompassing gesture with his arms.  In another statement, “the space between my arms is a void, and no one can sit there” along with an assertive arm gesture is enough to clear the audiences bodies out of the zone conventionally designated for us.  Unsettling our comfortable grouping into one big togetherness, this action that divides the audience into two halves sets up an awareness of our separateness. Is this strategy testing how we might respond to force and coercion?

Following on is a test of stamina and endurance.  The two performers now face off against each other grasping a bunch of green bananas in each hand out in front of their bodies.  Who can hold the 2nd position squat the longest whilst maintaining an eye lock with the other?  The static stance quickly becomes physically demanding: perspiration forms, their breathing gets deeper and quicker, we can see the effort and determination on their faces and in their bodies.  I adore the simplicity and implied politics of this section, with its piss take on codes of masculinity.  Gareth increases the stakes part way through this test/competition by significantly deepening his squat, signaling the absurdity of how far some men will go to prove their masculinity.  His body starts to shake, and I find myself wanting to cheer him on, like an enthusiastic sports mum or a bloodthirsty sideliner at a dog fight (weird feelings, but strangely empowering).  Again, Man Made is revealing complex layers of power, this time in relation to dynamics that operate between viewers and the object of their gaze: the episode is clever and thrilling.  

This section ends when Gareth, exhausted, collapses in a heap on the floor.  Oliver follows suit and they rest on folded legs for a period that moves beyond a body time that we know to be ‘ok’ in the context of theatre.  Continuing with their rest and recovery beyond that comfortable timeframe triggers laughter through the room.  I’m not sure if this is uncomfortable laughter, or a laughter that recognizes the performers are doing something ‘cheeky’ or ‘smug’?  This intentional rest moves our intimate relationship with the performers beyond an admiration of their athletic aptitude to empathize with their fragility, sensitivity and humanness.  Is the choreographer presenting a scene of sitting inside vulnerability and being ok with not doing much on stage, to suggest a shift in contemporary dance values beyond the desiring for a display of physical virtuosity?

The final episode uses movement material derived from cheaply styled Les Mills boxing drills (I think?) with well-known methods of choreographic structuring.  The performers move in time with the music, emphasizing the down beat with movement accents.  It’s entrancing.  This has me thinking about the dominance of physical routine in contemporary dance training, the repetition and the discipline that dancers are encultured into.  As I watch the two dancers performing the same movements in unison and canon, I am also thinking about the privileges of a body that ‘knows’.  Whilst we can see that both Oliver and Gareth have highly trained dance bodies, they don’t look the same.  They have distinct bodily features and shapes, and in this section Gareth’s body appears to know the boxing drills well, as if they have been trained into him over time.  Through his body, the execution of the movements looks easy and coordinated, whereas Oliver’s physicality doesn’t seem as confident with where to place weight, how to angle the torso or shoulders to allow full movement, how to gain maximum force behind the punch or strike.  I find this point of difference fascinating, and again I’m thinking here about the complexity and layering of power dynamics in the field of dance.  Keeping in mind the Western tradition of contemporary dance training, were the perfection of line, form, shape and body is relentlessly insisted upon, how are we evaluating the difference between these two male dancers’ physicalities?  

Man Made contributes to a conversation about whiteness, maculinity and individualist middle class values through its’ exploration of control, misuse of power and manipulation in performance.  How can we continue the conversation opened up by Connew locally and consider questions currently being explored in the work of internationally active performance artists?  Is it possible to create anti-racist practices in the field of contemporary dance here in New Zealand Aotearoa when its values are embedded in histories of colonialism and white ideals?

Further information on Oliver Connew:

Reference: “Interview with an Artist: Miguel Gutierrez responds to Julie Phelps”, retrieved from

Monday, November 10, 2014


Written by Mary Kettle
Directed by Milly Grant
Performed by Mary Kettle and Milly Grant
Ensemble performed by Paige Elgar, Lisa Clarke and Metu Toso
Tuesday 4th and Wednesday 5th November
Manukau Institute of Technology
Faculty of Creative Arts

She is a traditional dramatic theatre piece written and performed by Mary Kettle and directed and performed by Milly Grant. Both women have recently studied at Manukau Institute of Technology’s School of Performing Arts, and have teamed up for Mary’s final year assessment to present an hour-length work inspired by her own accounts of deep emotional pain and suffering. The show is driven by the journey of central character Katherine (played by Mary), whose devastating mental plummet raises important questions around female abuse and the systems that have a hand in contributing to emotional unwell-being in contemporary women.   

Due to my past role as lecturer to both Milly and Mary, I feel it more appropriate to respond to the ideas and questions raised by the artefact rather than give a conventional reviewer rendering whereby artists are put under scrutiny. I also feel it important to honour and respect the intense emotional sacrifice and baring of soul and body made throughout the work, which for me places She into an untouchable realm of taonga. Discussions on what elements of the work are “successful” or not are replaced by a conversation on what this taonga unearths.

In her plight towards mental institutionalisation, Katherine takes us on an annihilating excursion of raw emotional expression. Inside the privacy and secrecy of a bedroom and a therapist's couch, we learn of her unfortunate relations with men, shattering memories of her mother and distressing experiences as a mother herself. Katherine bares her wounded soul and unlocks hidden chambers of pain that have been pushed down to the underbelly of her existence. We as audience are flies on the wall, witness to secret feminine turmoil. It is confronting to experience fully-fledged emotion like this, to hear the haunting and unusual sounds of pain on the feminine vocal chords, to see the feminine body contort and twist in spontaneous choreography as it purges itself of afflictions. How often in a lifetime do we witness such an event? How often do we allow ourselves to go to these places of true self-recognition? The experience is transformational - we are taken right to the eye of the storm, we share its pukana gaze, and after it dissipates we are cleansed and nourished by the storm’s waters. 

It is my belief that through the patriarchal mechanics of colonial land domination, knowledge around emotional healing held by our female ancestors all over the world became lost - both hidden and safeguarded by the women themselves to the point of near extinction, and fearfully labelled by colonial entities as sinister and evil. Emotional knowledge is not something that is ingrained into our everyday lives, nor recognised and developed through our mainstream educational systems. We are not given tools to safely deal with emotional pain and suffering. So how do we take care of ourselves? How do we heal? Do we lock our pain away? Do we express it? In this instance, Mary has utilised the theatre and her autobiographical character Katherine to heal her own personal pain. In doing so she gives her audience inspiration to do the same. She suggests that perhaps the body has a capacity to heal its’ own suffering through being deeply submerged in emotion itself.

Katherine is joined on her anguished journey by a supporting character (played by Milly), introduced as a “friend” but later revealed to be an imagined entity in Katherine’s head. Milly brings an important layering of dynamics to the work, embodying stark contrasts of golden light and shadowy dark. Through their close-knit relationship and apparent love for each other, we laugh with Katherine and her friend as they humorously recount personal stories. We delight in their sharing of private jokes and innocent girly mischief. It seems that Katherine needs her friend to remind her to laugh, to find the slivers of hope in her life. But as the unravelling of the story takes hold, this “friend” comes to represent the unhealthy destruction that is present in toxic female friendships, and in our own inner dialogue with ourselves. She satiates Katherine’s dark side and plays into her vulnerabilities, always appearing to be doing the right thing for her but ultimately pulling her way down into the caves of self hatred. It is intriguing to see this examination of inter-female dynamics, a complexity to a story that could have easily plundered into a one dimensional male-bashing narrative. 

What I find perhaps most despairing and unsettling about Katherine is the relentless narcissism that plagues her. She is bound by the desire to attain total aesthetic perfection, which manifests in an intimidating and hyper-real Barbie Doll appearance. She hides behind a sickly-sweet veneer that is highly sexualised - the short red dress and long blonde hair that she dons for the majority of the piece is a giddying symbol of pleasure. It simultaneously empowers and represses her, and invokes the long line of tragic theatre beauties that have come before. As she tottles off to her therapist in death-fetish heels, the air becomes thick with these old sex ghosts, these beauties of sadness and passion. She twitches in front of the mirror endlessly, flicking her hair from side to side and back again, posing and reposing, walking away and walking back, dressing and undressing, stretching skin, lifting breasts, practising conversations. She is contained inside her own image, self-obsessed and wound up by the dysmorphic vision looking back at her. She wants to please and seduce. She wants to disappear.

What contributes to this obsession in Katherine? Are all women poisoned by this suffering, this madness, even if just a little? And how is this behaviour activated? She suggests that it is in the dynamics of how we treat each other - how mens’ sexual objectification of women might drive them to the point of mental torment, and how women might condemn each other’s true beauty through their own fears and lack of self worth. Perhaps there is a broader context to it all though - a larger machine that controls us and hinders our ability to accept all physical and emotional honesties. What role does our society’s media and visual culture have to play in how we behave? What is beauty? Who sets the lens we look through? Can anyone really be blamed for inflicting pain if we are in fact all oppressed by larger systems of control?

She is a work that provokes many open-ended questions and ideas, not only in its content but in how it is made. I am interested and excited by the tuaakana mentorship of Milly’s direction, where she has offered Mary the teachings and guidance of an older sister rather than that of an elder traditional to actor/director relationships. It is evident that Milly has managed to draw real performance magic from Mary, and that the two have collaborated in a way that feels fresh. Perhaps it is through the sacred exchanges of truth and understanding found only in sisterly relationships that the work is able to find itself. Interestingly, this dynamic is mirrored in the two characters the women play, whereby Katherine is often “directed” and guided by her friend, but ultimately plays a huge part in what transpires. I see full potential in this tuaakana dynamic and believe that it offers new knowledge in regards to arts practice and education. 

What I also find important to mention is the power of autobiographical research in the making of performance work. In Mary’s case this approach has validated her experiential knowledge around pain, therein giving her permission to heal and grow. Through a re-tracing of her personal histories and memories, Mary has gained clarity around who she is both as an artist and as a young woman, assisting her in her own identity formation as she embarks on a career in the arts.

In my own work I am always looking to consider the theatre space as a site where moments of ritual can take place, where true change can occur, and works like this remind me that it is possible. In my reflection on experiencing She I realise that the show has remained present in me for a week at both an intellectual and cellular level. Performance practices of this nature go beyond just the creation of an artefact, they also activate. I did not walk away from She with an instant feeling of relief and empowerment - it instead sent me on a bumpy journey of true self-reflection. I have arrived somewhere though, some place new and strong, but just like Katherine I had to confront my own terror to get there. 

Cat Ruka

Thursday, October 3, 2013

TO BE GLORIFIED by Zahra Killeen-Chance


A new solo work by Zahra Killeen-Chance

3rd - 5th October 9pm Basement Theatre

Featuring new music by Samin Son

Lighting Amber Molloy 

reflections by val smith:

The background story to this piece of writing about TO BE GLORFIED, by Zahra Killeen-Chance, is a conversation that emerged between Sean Curham, Jonny Almario, Christina Houghton and myself as we walked to our cars and homes last night after the show. The content of this conversation oscillated between thoughts regarding Zahra’s work and Sean’s response to the recent CNZ online forum about funding structures. What is foregrounding for me in this writing is my own response to a vision of what CNZ as a funding system could be if we let ourselves think outside of the box, quite literally. Sean’s ideas for change alongside the experience of seeing Zahra’s work has re-sparked in me a belief about how reimagining our systems, agencies, and communities can change it all, and it can change how art is being made. And bigger than that, I am reminded of how reimagining can change how the world is thinking about the world, and that is a really powerful thing to attend to. This realization recognizes how conversation and the sharing of ideas through art practices contribute to a fluid system of thinking that pools and leaks and merges across perceived boundaries. Through this system of thinking, differences and variant perspectives bleed into each other; across opinions, beliefs and actions, across hugely divergent fields of interest. We are constantly downloading each other’s paradigms. In languages or forms of communication beyond our comprehension we are becoming each other, deforming and reforming ourselves in relation to the world. But still we insist on being different from each other. So why is that?

I begin this writing by sitting here thinking about some of the beliefs we hold as artists engaged in our respective professions. Somehow calling into question the WHY of what we are doing.

dear zahra and sean
thanks for sharing your thoughts and visions with the world
i have been reminded of a bigger picture in relation to what we do in dance - the purpose of why we do it
one thread regarding what you are communicating that is sticking with me today, uncoiling with me, is the scrutinizing of our beliefs. professionally we take so many commonly shared beliefs for granted, not looking at what it is that we believe in.

like reviewing a performance. is there a bigger purpose here?

i liked how you opened up a space for considering how philosophical slash theoretical thought and religious slash theosophical thought are embedded through each other. a contagion of thought and behavior which operates beyond our control.

i am thinking of Edmond Jabes’ The Book of Questions as one example of how paradigms merge and shift between the conceptual worlds of literature, religion and philosophy.

it is in this space that you have revealed how meanings can translate and morph across and through different fields. even when the beliefs that meaning holds on to seem completely at odds with one another. such as with Science and Art.

do you really believe in your art? can any of us say that we really believe in what we do?

i am reminded of how the way we style our work can affect people in profound ways, different styles affecting us in different ways. a proto-religious or ritualistic styling of ideas and words (like the hymn-like mantras we were reading off the projections) can change how the mind takes in the information.

I am thinking about brainwashing.

I find myself responding to the words and their corresponding ideas or feelings in ways that take me back to being brought up in a Methodist church in Helensville, with Sunday School teachers for parents. In that big cavernous wooden church on the hill, where I spent so many Sunday mornings, the kinds of stylized ritual events that took place, have stayed with me, they have formed in my body a kind of rhythm that feels familiar. such as with singing and listening, and walking up an aisle flanked by rows of faces. rhythms and textures of experiences have been infected into my body. responses to ordered socialized happenings.

what is it about religion that someone believes in? is it the structure that strikes a chord?

rituals infect us in ways I don’t think are easily describable. a neat methodical style that relaxes the mind in ways where words and meanings sink in

is there a kind of faith at play here? do we pin faith on the performer? do we pin hope?

some might call this ‘being made susceptible,’ but this phrase invokes a sense of disempowerment that doesn’t quite sit right with my experience of religious ritual. There is an element of how choice and an agreement to participate influences how experience moves through us, and potentially moves us.

which brings this train of thought to intention. same old, intention wins every time. The stronger the intention or the directed will, the sharper the impact, or so we are led to believe…

so, why do you dance?

as someone sitting in the racked seating watching a performance, i am also someone making choices to move within their ‘profession’; i believe there are always options available.

what choices do you believe are available to you right her now?

looking at these options in play, an audience member of TO BE GLORFIED can choose to keep their mind operating in a more critical state where information filters through a lens of acute awareness, or they could‘let themselves go’or relax’ such as the programme notes for TO BE GLORFIED asks us to do.

Following the first option words enter into my system in a particular way, if I think of it as an image, it looks geometric or mathematical, words move to particular compartments of my brain, my limbs. Following the second option a sense of the melody and tones of what you are saying sinks into me, into my tissues, in more nomadic fashion. the words themselves are felt in the body, they shift around and change shape. and somehow, i don’t know how, a sense of meaningfulness emerges.

why do we think our way is the right way?

How this transmission of information works physiologically or at a cognitive level, I would love to know more about, but this sense of unknowing reminds me of the value and inevitability of not knowing. ha.

what do I want to say?

So considering belief and how it influences the pathways we take as artists, i am asking myself now if there is really anything i feel compelled to say here? something that has a sense that it is known enough and is significant enough to warrant a mention?
Well there is.
I can’t give up the convictions I have inside. it’s an intuitive thing I reckon. Your work, THE PROFESSION, systems, art practices, and our relationships with it all matters. I intuitively believe that art matters. that dance is important. and even though I don’t know any of this with any certainty, and you claim that you don’t either, I still feel like I do, know that is, and that you do too.

A game of languaging, of dreaming is seeping out like long fingers, enabling spaces for thinking the future. And this writing, being a lie and a parable, ends now with a quote from last night:

“Why not think big?”


Tuesday, April 2, 2013

We Have Been There (Cloud In Hand) - Reflections from Cat Ruka

We Have Been There - (Cloud In Hand)
Lisa Densem - Footnote Forte Series 2013
Q Theatre, 27 and 28 March 

As part of Footnote Dance Company's most recent Forte Series, Berlin-based New Zealand born choreographer Lisa Densem presents her newly commissioned work We Have Been There (Cloud In Hand). I receive this work as a complex movement study that for all its cerebral epiphanies still somehow manages to anchor itself into something very down to earth and primal. Through a simple and timeless approach to structure and an intuitive understanding of the relationship between ritual and presence, I am able to experience this intellectually enlightening work as also being spiritually moving - a combination I imagine to be challenging to achieve. 

The spatial and social structure of the work is simply a journey of individuals who are first established in isolation to each other and eventually come together through a series of groupings. As the audience enters, the dancers are already on stage, making small shifts of dissonant movement that investigate the internal dimensions of their unique and idiosyncratic worlds. They are distant from each other and pre-occupied with their own physical speech, though somehow seem to be tentatively connected to the audience. 

As the work progresses, the dancers appear to be seeking out or declaring movement statements that they inscribe through refreshingly unusual configurations of bones and muscles. Never quite relaxing in a finished place but then again, never too far away from comfort, we see contortions, contractions, disruptions, inter-lacings and weavings that are approached by the choreographer from what seems like a genuinely innovative perspective. Eventually the dancers gravitate to one another, sometimes momentum is found, sometimes it is uneasy for the individuals to find a sense of place within the group, but somehow it is always gentle. This gentleness and the delicate wonderment the dancers seem to posses at their own movement manifestations gives a powerful sense of intrigue that permeates the work from start to finish. 

The unusualness of the language is never alienating for me - I somehow find it very accessible and at times upsettingly true and profound. Though the choreographer has no intention to explore a theme or idea, the work still manages to invite me into thinking about a particular sense of being. The distortive, ill-fittingness of the movement seems to perfectly echo the way in which I think about how we in the West struggle to relate back to our real bodies as technology beckons us to leave them behind or extend beyond the real space they occupy. I see the dancers grapple with the parameters of their bodies, and a desire to arrive at a new location where Self sits slightly outside of the skin becomes apparent. The Westernized body as we know it today, or perhaps its state of being, is somehow placed under an intense scrutiny in this work, but not in a way that is invasive or direct or polemic. 

As it all subtly unfolds within a patient and sacred on-going moment, I am left with a sensation that is similar to that which is present after witnessing a vulnerable chick hatch from its egg, take its first breath and adjust to its new space and time. And the space and time of the work altogether feels beautifully and achingly contemporary - a triumph that may have been aided by the choreographer's rigorous research into hyper-attention and presence. The piece confronts me with the here and now - I am hyper-aware not only of the presence of the dancers who occupy this black, barren and empty void of a stage, but also of myself, a viewer, a participant in the exchange. The acutely-aware arena allows the 'statements of moving body' to penetrate quietly and sharply as tiny cracks in thin glass. 

We Have Been There is not a highly sensationalized, immediately gratifying work of spectacle and entertainment, and there are one or two moments that I am not entirely in my role as viewer. I have taken off momentarily into side-thoughts spurred on by the underlying textures of the work. But I am thankful for being given permission to do this, to drop away or 'sign out' from my viewer-role and return to it with ease much like I would as a passive participant of a community ritual. I am so thankful to Lisa and to Footnote for creating this sophisticated work and sharing it with New Zealand audiences, and I look forward to seeing the ways in which it influences our artistic landscapes.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

New Treaty Militia - A response from Tru Paraha


On 28th October 1835 The Declaration of Independence was signed in Aotearoa, five years prior to the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. On Friday the 28th October 2011 performance artists Cat Ruka and Joshua Rutter presented New Treaty Militia at The Otara Music and Arts Centre, where audience members including whanau, friends, South Auckland locals, artists, dancers, teachers and students from Manukau Institute of Technology were invited to place their signature of attendance on a giant registry board. This was the first of many provocations of the evening where the gathered crowd became collaborator and conscience. I am reminded of Australian artist Lynette Wallworth and her profound installation work “The evolution of fearlessness”. She expresses in her notes how she is challenged to ‘structure theses spaces to encourage temporary interdependence between the viewer and the vision and a communal relationship between participants’.

Ruka achieved this feat through strategic decisions which placed an R18, experimental dance work in the heart of Otara and subsequently transformed the space. Presenting this work in The Southside Arts Festival after a disappointing response at Tempo allowed Ruka’s colleagues and students to form the voluntary support crew by which the tasks of production could be achieved. This enabled the kind of on-site learning that performing arts students are seldom privy to in their first year of training and gave them insight into a distinctive arena of independent production. For these individuals to host a NZ arts gathering including practitioners such as Shigeyuki Kihara, Sean Curham and Kristian Larsen on their own turf was liberating and of critical value.

The self-produced event relied on a currency of venue sponsorship, koha and product and bar sales. The performance artifacts and set design were accumulated through a process where friends and colleagues of the choreographer gifted articles to her. This was not a financial decision but a deliberate act of community inclusion. The most pervasive currency of the event however, was Aroha. Aroha as an operational principle presumes the universe to be abundant with more opportunities than there are people. Aroha in practice is intelligent; a unified intelligence of the heart, soul and mind, recognised by peoples of all cultures. Aroha in action is munificent as was evident in the audience contribution throughout the performance, generosity of koha and commitment of various individuals who respect and support both artists. This currency is a direct result of Ruka’s ability to maintain significant relationships within her local and international community. It also attests to a wahine who, through the evolution of her own fearlessness, enrolls the veracity of like-minded comrades along the way.


Described in the director’s notes as a “theatrical protest,” New Treaty Militia arrives in NZ as a timely prelude to the oncoming general elections. Aotearoa, notorious for our post-colonial identity crisis has toiled over Maori/Pakeha relations and power dynamics for nearly two centuries. Cat Ruka of Ngapuhi and Pakeha descent explores this hybrid conundrum in collaboration with NZ born artist Josh Rutter, in a performance of un-rivaled ingenuity. A barren community arts centre with black out curtains and modest lighting grid is mutated with a mountain of green bottles, chains, portable smoke machine, stage lights, bells, balloons, boxes of beer, a giant poi, two microphone stands, sound equipment, swag bag and various other paraphernalia. Symbolic and evocative, the haphazard display is more than chaos. There is a camera which the audience are invited to use at anytime and it’s fine if our cell-phones go off during the performance. Eleven envelopes entitled “articles” placed in a precise row across the floor contain cryptic information. The contents/instructions are unknown to both audience and performer until selected and read aloud. What follows could range from an orgiastic dance solo, to violent treaty negotiation, exquisite hair pulling pas de deux or a series of interrogations such as, “Do you relate more to people of African American descent than to Pakeha even though you are genetically more distant?” and my personal favourite “Are you Maori?”. These intermittent questionnaires evoke childhood games of truth or dare and at times, the odious surveys of NZ census; a wry observation of the Kiwi obsession with identity.


A medley of selected and original soundtracks including modulated voice-over, gangster rap, and Kiri Te Kanawa’s rendition of ‘Po karekare ana’, create subliminal rhapsody and dissonance depending on what is happening within the performance or which article we are dealing with. The eccentric duo morph in and

out of theatricality, treading the edges of indiscretion. Their voices, amplified by microphones are often a caricature. Michael Haneke in his ground-breaking thriller “Funny Games” breaks the unspoken rule of the 4th wall when one of the antagonists makes a direct address to the camera/viewer. Such a blurring of fantasy/reality and reconstruction of genre has caused much controversy and debate as also happens within the dance paradigm. Ruka’s work is not everyone’s cup of tea, though I suspect it may be because kiwi patrons are not familiar with the blend. The piece is abstract, and refreshingly impossible to understand. It does not reek of the codified movement vocabulary which is propagated through schools of dance in this country. These are however, highly trained practitioners who have chosen a unique path of navigation. A provocation of which one must be willing to experience; a breaking of the 4th wall.

Halfway through the performance, the audience is invited to create a dance party with pop-out streamers, lighters aflame and bass booming. Here is a euphoric hiatus, beckoning the elevated spirit of the participants to couple with an atmosphere of permissiveness. It is a clever manipulation. The artists possess full awareness of our need to articulate. The mute, passive observer of the proscenium arch is not cultivated in this breed of theatre. Some of us remain in a kind of Stockholm syndrome and continue to identify with an oppressor. I choose to stand on my chair and wave my hands in the air. Others avail themselves of randomly positioned bottles of beer. Beer is a powerful device in this decadent performance ritual. The players consume it before, during and after the show. It serves as a performance artifact and cultural emissary. Ruka sloshes it over her bare breasts inducing a paradox of iconic Maori maiden and wet-t-shirt-contender-at-slapper-pub. She questions her proclivities and ponders whether a desire to take her top off stems from the fact that her ancestors didn’t have tops on? Rutter, in a brilliant moment of absurdist theatre strikes a pseudo-gangster pose for the camera with an orange Tui box over his head. Later, when questioned on whether he loves rugby, an ambiguous head roll ensues, to both the dismay and delight of a gathering with divided loyalties. In some nations this could equate to being asked whether you support a fascist government or believe in God. His interpretive taiaha display is also something to behold; vaguely camp and devoid of the customary warrior mechanisms prevalent in indigenous performance. But the pertinent thing is that he isn’t Maori (unless you are of the doctrine that having Maori friends makes you a little bit Maori) and can improvise without duress. Ruka – a 21st century femme fatale clad in sheer tights and leotard, sequined brassiere, lace-up boots and bandanna across her face-greets her audience with legs astride, penetrating stare and taiaha in hand while Rutter ominously binds his hands in white boxing wraps, over and over again. Yes. You had to be there.

THE ART OF THE STATE (of things)

This brings me to cite those illustrious advocates of the NZ contemporary arts industry who did not make it to the performance. No professional dance reviewers, CNZ/Te Waka Toi representatives, NZ arts administrators or members of DANZ, Pacific Dance, Toi Maori or director/producer of any state-funded performance company in Aotearoa were sighted at this event. As the late front man of OMC, Pauly Fuemana once proclaimed- how bizarre, how bizarre. And it really is considering the international itinerary of this work and the contribution that these practitioners are making to the NZ contemporary art arena. It was the only professional dance performance programmed in The Southside Arts Festival and is supported by a strong media profile with feature articles in The Leader, The Aucklander, Sunday Star Times, Radio Live and various online sources. Perhaps the work is too subversive or the location simply undesirable. My questions to the above mentioned organisations and others are:

How are we able to create a culture of critical analysis/dialogue around performance work being made in NZ if we are not attending?
Who are the artists considered worthy of investment by the State and why?
Why are dance support organisations in Auckland not sending representatives to every profiled contemporary performance?
What are the current definitions for contemporary dance, contemporary Maori dance, experimental dance, avant-garde dance theatre, Pacific dance and performance art?
Which do you personally consider “real dance”?
Are you Maori?


Performers: Cat Ruka and Joshua Rutter
Venue: Otara Music and Arts Centre
Southside Arts Festival

Monday, August 22, 2011

‘Pro - Man Renaissance’

a re'posting..

Performances at Auckland Zoo are part of its marketing engine, A strategy to maintain or boost numbers - not so much bums on searts but eyes on animals. Usually performances are by musicians playing in publicly user friendly zones of the zoo. However the marketing dept at Auckland Zoo have taken a big risk with a very subversive event. Amsterdam based De Laatste Groep van het Werk van de Bank (translation - The Last Bank Work Group) have created something of a performance art coup. Paying homage to and going way beyond Janice Claxtons 'Enclosure 44 - Humans at Edinburgh Zoo' this 48 hour long installation not only evicted the divisions between animal and human, it also slammed culture and species together with head fucking simplicity.

De Laatste Groep van het Werk van de Bank is a seven strong group of performers headed by couple / co - directors Femke Bathhuis and Matz Van Doorn. This is a collective of independent artists, a format typical of the networks of European artists that have functioned quite happily outside of the antiquated 'company' model for some time now. This particular constellation seems to have referenced the 90's European dance movement which itself strongly referenced Judson Church. The Judson artists deployed pedestrian movement and heavily deconstructive conceptual frameworks to depart from previous era's of dance. However this group has stayed true to two movement languages that emerged from that time: Contact Improvisation and pedestrian gesture. Those two movement languages were used to construct a vocabulary that connoted a dying culture and species. Although a decidedly conventional movement pallet, it was deployed with devastating effectiveness.

Van Doorn and Batthuis have created a kind of cultural anti-statement in response to the age of spectacle. Known around Europe for their politically subversive performances, De Laatste Groep van het Werk van de Bank's new work is an event that is almost too good to be true. Reminiscent of shop front window performances where the performers would live on display for twenty four hours a day, this group have taken that format a step and a half further. Housing themselves in an enclosure called Giraffe Valley at the Auckland Zoo, the colony of seven humans cohabited an enclosure with relatively benign zebras, giraffes, and ostriches.

The dancers looked both terrifyingly vulnerable and at the same time discomfortingly 'normal'. They also accomplished a deeply natural sense of disinterest in their surroundings which made their integration into the enclosure almost seamless. Miraculously the animals reciprocate this disinterest and were not intimidated by the presence of the colony in the slightest. They simply wandered around, ate, and did their thing as did the dancers. There were no predators, bar the audience.

Over the course of a day the dancer's employed an improvisational loop structure that allowed them to navigate a consistent world of material via endless theme and variation. Familiar activities such as gathering and preparing food, sheltering in bivouacs, and walking in meandering choreographic patterns, were blended with contact duets, trios, and even a group unison phrase that consisted entirely of everyday gestures. The members of the group interacted only with each other, never with the animals, and never with the audience. The shifting and confused crowd of onlookers were largely disregarded - eye contact between performer and audience was incidental, even accidental. Occasionally the dancers spoke to each other but it wasn't really possible to discern what they were saying, or even if what they were speaking was a made up language.

Within this terrain there were elements that seemed so natural that they were easy to overlook. The most obvious being that the performers were naked. To a seasoned punter nudity is de rigeuer, to be expected. However in this situation the placement of naked humans in an animal enclosure desexualised them, turning the performers into a crude cultural artefact. This played havoc with deeply entrenched notions of packageable entertainement housed in comfortable environs. 'Pro - Man Renaissance' not only subverted the tedium of spectacle that saturates performance across most media, it also reframed human beings as an endangered species to be ogled for entertainment and consumption.

This work was an outrageous social experiment. But polarising the ourageousness was the 'typical' New Zealand muted emotional response. I didn't see parents pulling their children away, rather most adults were either ignoring the performance outright, or just pretending to look at the animals in the enclosure. The strongest reactions were ones of faint embarrassment or discomfort as if some reality tv cameras were present. Which they weren't.

Call me cynical but I wasn't surprised by this. I was however deeply impressed with the multilayered audacity of the event. I had one question as I moved on to see the kiwi's in their little night house enclosure; if on the one hand a zoo is a place where humans view animals, and a 'zoo' is a metaphor for a place where chaos and unrestrained behaviour takes place; how can an audience remain so complacent or even just socially awkward in the face of imagery that is so spectacularly ironic, confronting, and profoundly questioning? Oh well, I soon lost track of that thought as soon as I saw the ocelots, my oh my they were just too adorable!