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Mana Wahine - Okareka Dance Company
21 June 2016, Circa Theatre, Wellington

Reviewed by Leah Maclean




In an age of modern feminism, it is extremely empowering to see five women owning the stage. The five women in particular are Emily Adams, Jana Castillo, Bianca Hyslop, Maria Munkowitz and Nancy Wijohn of Okareka Dance Company. Mana Wahine is the choreographic brain child of Taane Mete, Taiaroa Royal and Malia Johnston, which premiered two years ago. In 2014 the performance was met with rave reviews, commending the beautiful physicality of the dancers, the innovation of the lighting (Vanda Karolczak) and AV design (Rowan Pierce), and the clever weave of gender and cultural identity. In 2016 the show, inspired by the Māori heroine Te Aokapurangi, still exceeds expectations with sold out tickets in the Wellington Kia Mau Festival. 

Circa patrons walk into the theatre to see the face of Tui Matira Ranapiri-Ransfield (the work’s cultural advisor) in a blown-up projection. She is beautiful, engaging, mysterious and she perfectly sets the scene for what is about to come. The audience is an eclectic mix of people, including little girls who will hopefully be inspired and wowed by the company’s five powerful women. The execution of Mana Wahine is a sensory overload. From the eerie opening sequence where dancers lay and grow under a shroud of white, to the explosive ear-splitting finale where the wahine come to their full warrior forms – something which dancer, Bianca Hyslop, describes as the most momentous and emotional sequence in the show. The true magic of Mana Wahine is the multi-layer design; dance, music, costume, props, lighting and of course the AV. The music (Victoria Kelly) is something that keeps you on the edge of your seat, the lighting fills the backdrop with stunning silhouettes just as beautiful as the dancers, the dancers use the props and costume to create their own kind of music and extension of themselves, and the AV is incredible in that it makes you question what is physical and what is not.

The work is emotional and timeless, particularly because it is rare to see a New Zealand contemporary performance more than once; not to mention one that has taken two years to revisit, rebuild and re-inspire. Okareka are on to something
special. The performance is filled with many iconic sequences, highlighting the timeless descriptor. Using the shirt on their own backs as props, tugging and pulling side to side and up and down, the hilarious and oddly relatable sequence of tui prancing to and fro – as real tui do. The entire time I felt like I was watching beautiful, mystical and even mythical beings in a personal, movement based story.

Nancy Wijohn is an absolute powerhouse, taking control of the stage with her movements her expressions and her attitude. But no doubt, all of the women can be commended for their ability to meld together and support one another in every situation – physically and emotionally. Their capacity to so easily switch between the delicate and the more aggressive is insurmountable and the fact that, without fail, there is always a dancer on stage speaks volumes of their stamina, dedication and love for the art-form and the ideas they are presenting.   

If there is one gripe it would be that perhaps the space is too restrictive for such a demanding and elaborate work. But even so the intimate space created a bubble of powerful energy and emotion, felt both by the performers and audience alike. Above all Mana Wahine is natural; it resonates and leaves you feeling both encouraged and courageous.

Mana Wahine Review

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