Review: A New Zealand Troupe’s Oceanic Feelings

In Maori, “te wheke” means “the octopus,” both the cephalopod and a mythological creature. Or so I gather from the program of “Te Wheke,” the work that Atamira Dance Company performed during its debut at the Joyce Theater on Wednesday.

Founded in 2000 in New Zealand, Atamira fuses Maori cultural expression with contemporary dance theater. There’s an admirable integrity to how the group doesn’t explain much to the uninitiated. Translating almost nothing but the title, the dancers drop you into their world, graciously, and trust that you can learn how to swim in it.

The environment of “Te Wheke” is oceanic. The first sound is that of surf. The production design is centered on black silk curtains that are raised and lowered throughout, like sails without a mast. When they move quickly, they seem to spurt and spread like octopus ink. The curtains are also screens for projections: the sparkling ocean surface, driving rain.

The eight dancers often suggest or embody sea creatures, frequently with the help of simple props. A mass of knotted rope entangles like tentacles or whirs when swung by a spinning dancer. Wide plastic tubing serves as tentacles, too, sliding over and enveloping bodies. But objects also have other uses. Sticks are twirled like weapons, and at one point, the dancers pull many props out of a sack — balls, pillows, masks — like a band of traveling players or kids playing dress-up.

Near the end, more silken sheets are run across the stage, billowing, washing over the dancers, in an age-old theatrical representation of the ocean. Underneath those sheets, the dancers, rising and writhing wildly, conjure the rippling, pulsating form of a giant octopus in motion.

More on N.Y.C. Theater, Music and Dance This Spring

No doubt most of this has culturally specific resonances. It can also be viewed formally or abstractly as dance. The core style is low-slung and fluid in an international contemporary vein, but with precisely attacked, end-stopped action that seems to be drawn from martial arts. These aren’t dancers you want to mess with. Some Maori elements of the style are closer to pantomime, closer to speech, like chest-thumping and quivering hands, which electrify poses and add a thrilling shimmer.

Choreographed by a group of eight that includes the artistic director, Jack Gray, and Taane Mete and Kelly Nash, who directed together, “Te Wheke” contains group sections, both of martial unison and of more complex interactions, swirling and breaching unpredictably. An opening duet that recurs is tender and layered, its embraces and coupled slow dancing intertwined with more troubled chest-thumping and hand vibrations. It might be happening yesterday or at the beginning of time.

But most of the work is a series of long solos. These have a freehand grace and elasticity, if also a wandering quality. Most seem to enact an internal struggle and erupt in some kind of possession, as the dancer collapses and resists, laughing or screaming.

A program note says that these solos “journey into the esoteric dimensions of human existence.” As much as I respect Atamira’s lack of pandering, I would have welcomed a little more guidance. And it would have been nice to learn the names of the songs, chants and choral hymns threaded through the sound score. A thrash metal track (uncredited but by the Maori band Alien Weaponry) is a treat.

Elsewhere, swathes of the recorded sound score lapse into more generic, cheapening combinations of drum machine and sentimental strings. Swathes of the choreography also feel generic — contemporary in an unspecific and Western sense.

Still, “Te Wheke” is an accomplished work of many layers. Frequently, human figures are projected onto the curtains, always ghostly and sometimes with a double-exposure blur. Anyone can see these as ancestors, representatives of a culture that Atamira furthers in its homeland and is now sharing with New York.

Atamira Dance Company

Through Sunday at the Joyce Theater;

Source: Read Full Article