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Dance Review: WHENUA

WHENUA is a wonderful show of dance theatre that is made up of two distinct pieces – Imprint, choreographed by Malia Johnston in collaboration with Rodney Bell;  and Uku – Behind the Canvas choreographed by Eddie Elliott.

First up on this double bill is Imprint which asks the question ‘‘What are you willing to give up to meet me half way?’’

It begins with a beautifully harmonic piece of music featuring piano and strings. Dancers swiftly walk on stage one after the other on what could almost be a busy streetscape. Each one takes a turn hugging the passers by. The movements become more fluid as they swap roles. Witnessing this intimacy is uplifting. 

In other parts of Imprint the energy between the characters is youthful and exuberant. In one scene a young man seems to be moving backwards as though some mysterious force is pulling him into the past.

The set pieces are filled with precise and fluid movements with the dancers sometimes alone, other times in harmony with one another, which gives Imprint a sumptuous and sensual feel to it. 

The pieces explore human connections and in some moments the dancers interact together joyfully, while others display isolation, pain, and a sense of disassociation, tension, and confusion. 

The muted colours of the fabrics, the gorgeous soundscape created by Eden Mulholland, the exquisite dancing, and the clever use of light in Imprint manifests a stunning piece of dance theatre that passes too quickly. 

The second half, Uku – Behind the Canvas, is altogether a different beast.

This was much darker, deeply emotional and grittier than Imprint. Beginning with a monotonous drone like soundscape the dancers wash themselves with a mixture of clay and water. 

This piece felt dystopian and was laden with clear references to the colonisation of Aotearoa and the grief and mental anguish that resulted. 

Yet among the suffering was also pride and defiance. A very short haka rang out at one point and was later reinterpreted in a more stylised way heavy with symbolism and artistry. 

With Imprint the scenes and even the energy flowed seamlessly from vignette to vignette, whereas Uku, was full of primal energy and raw emotion that could be very jarring and even surreal. 

An example was a scene in which a male dancer smiled happily as he applied clay to his face and body. Next to him was a young women, whom, when he started daubing her body with the clay, reacted with anguish and manic screams.

This incredibly visceral moment unsettled me and at the time I felt it almost over done, yet upon reflection, I see this moment differently. The shock of that moment was I believe quite deliberate. 

As with other moments I think it was there to make us recognise both the mana of tangata whenua, particularly in the present day, yet also force us to acknowledge the devastating trauma of colonisation that still impacts Māori today.  

For me, Uku reminds us that we as a nation, and we Pakeha in particular, mustn’t be complacent or dismissive about the heartache and pain that still lingers in this land because of our shared history.  

WHENUA by the New Zealand Dance Company is a stunning production performed magnificently by a flawless set of dancers. 


11-12 April 2024

Q Theatre 



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