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Atamira: Māori Dance Platform

By Francesca Horsley

Hail by Jack Gray (2003), Jack Gray & Dolina Wehipeihana / Photo by Te Papa Press

Multi-talented, modest and hardworking, Dolina has steered the Collective from strength to strength since it began in 2000. With their show ‘Mapunapuna’ successfully premiered at this year’s Tempo, they are gearing up for a major full-length work, ‘Taonga: Dust, Water, Wind’ by Louise Potiki-Bryant, for the Auckland Festival 2009.

It has been an impressive eight years since a group of young Maori dance graduates met at an Auckland café to discuss forming a group. “It was Jack Gray’s idea,” Dolina says. “He had been on Susan Jordan’s Platform project, and thought it would be great for Maori choreographers and dancers to explore their Maoritanga. So he asked me, Louise and Justine (Hohaia) to the Occam café in Grey Lynn. We sat round and talked about Maori dance, what we wanted to do - to express ourselves as Maori without doing kapa haka, without necessarily doing the wiri.(hand movement).”

Jack came up the name ‘Atamira’ – platform. “Traditionally an Atamira is a ‘platform for the dead body’ but when Jack first chose it, he meant a Maori dance platform. Then we discovered its traditional meaning, and that influenced the direction of our work, especially in the first three years.”

“We thought about the use of the word, and though it is tapu we decided to take it on. When we are creating work we feel our ancestors with us – we try and bring the stage to life with all those associations.”

Dolina graduated from the UNITEC School of Performing Arts in ‘95, and Jack a year later, returning for degree studies in ’98. “We met Justine at a tertiary dance festival when she was with the New Zealand School Of Dance; she graduated in ’95. “I went and had a baby; Justine joined Mary-Jane O’Reilly’s Auckland Dance Company.”

In 2000 they performed at the Celebration of Performing Arts day in Auckland’s Town Hall. Louise and Jack had shown choreographic interest when studying, so when Jack obtained funding from Te Waka Toi in 2001 they workshopped and produced ‘Freshly Minted’ at Tatai Hono Marae Hall in Kyber Pass.

Jack then went to Vienna's ImPulsTanz festival, a month-long contemporary dance platform, and stayed on performing and choreographing in Europe; Louise and Dolina decided to continue with Atamira.

The next project, in 2002, ‘Sub-urban Legends’, created work around the idea of a platform for the dead body, the process of caring for those who have died, and exploring tradition in contemporary environments. Louise produced her powerfully evocative ‘Te Aroha me te Mamae’, Dolina ‘Legends On The Dance Floor’, and Jack returned from Europe especially to present ‘Hail’.

From the beginning, the name Atamira has influenced the tone - “serious and passionate. Lou’s work ‘Te Aroha me te Mamae’ means love and pain - I think that that sums up our early work,” Dolina says.

Other shows followed; ‘Atamira’ in 2003, also featuring Stephen Bradshaw’s ‘Mauri’; in 2004, ‘Ngai Tahu 32’- a powerful work by Louise which they toured in 2005 and now a signature piece, the charming ‘Memoirs of an Active Service’ by Maaka Pepene, and Moss Patterson’s 2007 tough, uncompromising ‘Whakairo’.

Masterminding the Collective is Dolina - it is her great passion. “I enjoy every aspect – but when I am doing it all at once – trying to dance, produce, choreograph, look after my kids – it’s nuts. While I’m the driver I am also aware that it couldn’t happen without everybody’s contribution – that’s why we are a collective.” Her title is Creative Producer – a cross between Artistic Director and General Manager.

The core group is Dolina, Louise, Justine, Maaka, Jack, Corinna Hunziker, Cathy Livermore, Kelly Nash and Moss Patterson.  They are mostly in their early 30s, Corinna and Maaka a little bit older.

There is a larger group that works on projects or sits within the whanau – Taiaroa Royal, Gaby Thomas, Nancy Wijohn, Kura Te Ua, Sean MacDonald, Peter Takapuna, and mentors Charles Koroneho, Stephen Bradshaw and Moana Nepia.

“For the overall vision I keep the fires burning and maintain the direction.” This involves many unpaid hours (and some paid) in administration, producing and organising tours to South Pacific Arts Festival in Palau in 2004, Noumea and Hawaii this year.

Dolina is a beautiful, expressive dancer who also guests for other companies. She learnt ballet from a young age; her mother, raised on a farm, was keen to give her three daughters opportunities she missed; Dolina also studied the piano. Brought up in Cambridge, attending Sacred Heart Girls College, she was taught PE by well-known dance academic, Dorothy Coe. “Dorothy took a group of us during PE and we had our own group after school when she moved to Waikato University.”

“She was into creative dance; it was exciting because I discovered you could put your soul into your dancing, be creative.”

“Dorothy believed in me; I was shy, she really cut me so much slack. When I was 15 she took a group of us to Utah, Salt Lake City to a Daci Conference (Dance and the Child International) where we performed and did workshops. I went straight from high school to the performing arts school because of her.”

Dolina’s mother has Scottish and Irish ancestry going back for generations. “She has this fabulous photo of my great, great, grand pa George Harrison sitting in front of a whare made of sticks; it’s amazing, he was a real pioneer. I love that side of my history.”

Her involvement with her Dad’s whanau is less regular; he is second youngest in a large family, many of whom have passed away. “All my first cousins are a lot older than me and Dad pretty much does his own thing – occasionally I will see family but not hugely.” However there is a story, perhaps a myth, that her grandfather once joined the circus.

Dolina has experienced her Maori heritage in a more intense, in-depth way because of Atamira. “When you are looking into your whakapapa, there are lots of things you can do – my domain has never been on the Marae, weaving or the language, although I can speak a little. Dance is where I find myself. Atamira is the perfect place”.

“I think that’s what Atamira provides; a place to safely look into our Maori history. At the heart we are trying to create innovation in Maori contemporary dance by providing a platform for Maori choreographers and dancers, locally, nationally and internationally”.

“We attempt to make sense of our situations –we are an urban-based group from different iwi. We have our own experiences and backgrounds and are exploring and expressing these. 

Atamira: Māori Dance Platform

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