THE ART OF FEARLESS COMMUNITY
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.
THE ART OF PROVOCATION
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.
THE ART OF TRANSGRESSION
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