Worlds apart

As It Stands by Muscle Mouth (NZ) at ASB Waterfront Theatre , 8-10 March.
Blood Water Earth by Santee Smith and Louise Potiki Bryant at Te Uru, Titirangi, 9-10 March. Week 1, Auckland Arts Festival 2019. Reviewed by Raewyn Whyte

Dancers in As It Stands
Image: Michael Smith

Human reactions to unexpected, unpredictable, impossible and unimaginable events are at the heart of As It Stands. This absorbing and choreographically cohesive work takes us into a sparsely populated world bounded by a cluster of tall wall panels which sit against one another at strange angles. Too high to see over, and opaquely blocking any sense of what lies beyond, the walls are inspired by Richard Serra’s Te Tuhirangi Contour installation at Gibbs Farm.

Eight extraordinary dancers inhabit this strange world. They worship at the foot of the walls, caress and stroke them or lean meditatively against them. At times they become guardians, blocking access to the walls by forming an interlaced phalanx across the stage and crawling slowly backwards. At other times they help one another to climb the walls and hang from the top, and at times they seem to carry invisible walls with them.

Repeated motifs are seeded through the work and help to build cohesion. Intense cameos mark moments of personal revelation, and a series of astonishing duets define specific pockets of space or social relations, and make the most of niches between the walls.

The dancers seem to absorb energies from the walls. A very large clock-like sculpture is rotated and strange things start to happen, impacting on the dancers’ activities. They become disordered and disorientated.  Alliances shift. Purposeful movement is replaced by occasional fluid flurries, and retreats into stillness. Minds shatter.

As It Stands has been rigorously developed by the Muscle Mouth team under the direction of choreographer/designer Ross McCormack and dramaturg/producer Melanie Hamilton. There is rich integration of design and dance, scenography and performance, with a sonically rich ambient soundscape by Jason Wright, environmental lighting by Natasha James, stylish unisex costumes by Vicki Slow, and the outstanding performances of the dancers: James Vu Anh Pham, Christina Gueib, Luke Hanna, Jeremy Beck, Toa Paranihi, Lauren Langlois, Emily Adams and Tiana Lung.

Vivid video imagery from Ngai Tahu videographer Louise Potiki Bryant beautifully supports live performance by the Kahnyen’kehàka multidisciplinary artist/dancer Santee Smith in Blood Water Earth, a multidisciplinary performance installation presented at Te Uru. It brings together dance, film, taonga puoro, vocals, and a lush soundscore created by Paddy Free and Cris Derksen, to create an immersive experience.

On the screen, three women in flowing red fabric panels repeatedly cross a stretch of water before a similarly dressed Smith appears in the gallery with wisps of sacred smoke. Smith is a luminous presence as she dances live in the room, appearing at times on screen floating in rippling water. She sings and ritually washes, conjures the flickering presence of frog, trout and eagle, and creates swirling vortices of red fabric.

These beautiful images also honour the traditional ritual power and transformative qualities of water for indigenous women, and raise awareness of traditional knowledge and practices which have been lost under colonisation.

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