Performance, connectivity and care: Tīwai’s Te Pūtake and White Rabbit, Red Rabbit

Erin Harrington writes about dance collective Tīwai’s research showing of new work Te Pūtake at Movement Art Practice, 29 April 2022, and returns to JMO Theatrics’ White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, which ran at Little Andromeda from 13-17 April, 2022.

At the beginning of contemporary dance work Te Pūtake, from collective Tīwai (Rebecca Johnson, Kereana Mosen and Anthony Te Puke), we are led into the studio at Movement Art Practice – and it’s dark. Our eyes have to adjust. It smells rich and dirty, with a whiff of terpenes. The ground is covered with a thick layer of pine needles, and cut diagonally, and a little to one side, by white large semi-opaque banners that hang down from bamboo sticks like banners. In one corner, three large bowls of water are lit from below with soft yellow light, and thick cables of fairy lights snake around the room, offering soft illumination. We can sit where we like; my companion and I nestle into some of the needles. They are both soft and scratchy. The amorphous soundscape thrums, throbbing like an ultrasound, or deep echoes in a vast cavern. The three dancers, wearing flesh-toned shorts and cropped tops, are carefully covering themselves with wet plaster bandages and dirt, then curl up in the dark. It’s inchoate, latent – rich in potential.

In this fascinating and thought-provoking dance work, which explores the reciprocal relationship between skin and landscape, body and whenua, and collective and personal identity, Tīwai offer an incremental coming into being. The three performers move alone, then slowly come into collaboration. Initial stillness gives way to exploratory movement, as if they are feeling their way into the world. Twisting, writhing and curling gestures recall root formations growing and spreading. Over the course of the work the movements and gestures become more muscular and intentional as the dancers slowly rise up. Solo improvisational work, happening simultaneously, folds out then comes together in a series of duos and trios that are moving in their intimacy, skin on skin and body on body like breathing together in the dark.

Parts directly evoke the children of Rangi and Papa pushing the sky and earth away, stumbling in their new-found spaciousness. The dancers come to inhabit more discernible characters who explore their bodies and the world around them with a childlike (or clownlike) sense of wonder and newness, playfully pressing materials against their faces, poking at things to see what they do. They wash their hair in the dirty water, rub dirt from the needles, greet and challenge the world. As this sense of clarity and subjectivity increases, the soundscape evolves from the soft thrumming of a heartbeat within a body-space to more recognisable musical forms that incorporate taonga pūoro. The performance is rhythmic and durational. I have no idea how long we are here for, but it’s compelling, dynamic and suffused with joy. The slow emergence into wakefulness leaves the audience wanting more.   

Te Pūtake is the result of the first of contemporary dance incubator Movement Art Practice’s four Creative New Zealand-funded research exchanges for 2022, in which dancers have the opportunity to develop new work, alongside enriching their creative practice. Johnson, Mosen and Te Puke are recent graduates of Unitec, and this show exhibits a clarity of vision and purpose that would be admirable with any dance collective, let alone a group of creatives who are making their first post-training work.  Elsewhere the trio have indicated that in their residency they “aim to uncover the stories that reside within the landscape of our skin, seeking to understand the harmonious chaos that subsides when negotiating the imprint of history and the voice that comes from it.” What I am most struck by, throughout the performance and during the post-presentation kōrero (hosted by Juanita Hepi), is how Tīwai exhibit an ethics of compassion and connectivity in and through their work.

Here I declare not a conflict of interest, but at least some skin in the game. This year MAP’s residencies include time with what are termed ‘research advisors’, but which are really a sort of exchange-based mentoring. I’m one of these mentors, and will also support artists as they develop written work for MAP’s quarterly publication. You can see Anthony, Rebecca and Kereana’s blog posts for MAP here; they are a great insight into the artists’ explorations. Through Tīwai’s month-long residency I’d pop in for an hour or so a week for long, meandering and very entertaining chats about framing performance in space and for audiences, root structures and mycelium, objects as collaborators in performance, concrete poetry, the provenance of set elements, goofing around on walks, all sorts. Dramaturgy, but with doodles. And beyond lots of talk about dirt and pine needles, identity and connectivity, I really had no idea what the performance would look like, and what the dancers were physically working on. Exciting.

Viewing the work (as product) in light of the work (as process) it’s clear how the interconnected reciprocity of whakapapa, which is key to Tīwai’s kaupapa, offers an ethical, value-based framework that marries respect and understanding for the physical and material world, a care for one another as performers, a protection of emotional process and complexity, an honouring of identity and ancestry, and a recognition of objects and audience members as co-creators of work. We see this intentionality in the set, especially as the banners that hang from the ceiling are artefacts from previous work at the Blue Oyster art project space in Ōtepoti Dunedin – like friends, or collaborators, they choose to carry into new performances.

It’s also present in the sense, watching the work, of three people moving and exploring as individuals (through movement, separation, improvisation), while also engaging in organic physical encounters and contact work, one in three and three-in-one. It creates, in Te Pūtake a time- and movement-based work that holds the individual and the collective together in a consideration of the root, the source, the origin.

This notion of care and reciprocity is vital to the creation of work that honours the emotional and physical labour of performers. It’s impressive to see it so firmly developed, already, by early career professionals straight out of training.

* * *

These intangible aspects of the work have been foregrounded for me because for the last two weeks I have been thinking, daily, about the recent production of White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, which I wrote about here, and the extent to which such care and compassion is extended to performers and audiences of any production, no matter the type or genre. I didn’t realise until after Tīwai’s refresing and invigorating showing how much this recent show has been dominating my thoughts about what it means to make, watch and write about performance art in 2022.

In White Rabbit, Red Rabbit an actor is given the script to read, cold; the schtick is that they know nothing about it. The twelve-year culture of secrecy around the show (as it has been performed thousands of times around the world) is part of its appeal, but I’m breaching parts of that here. It is written by Iranian author Nassim Soleimanpour, who at the time of writing was unable to leave Iran. It offers an extended monologue about freedom, family, obedience, identity and repression, braided with an animal-based allegory of sorts. It’s very meta-textual. Parts of it are quite funny and sweet, but a lot really isn’t. Its initial playfulness is deceptive; the work is emotionally hard.

For an overlapping and complex set of reasons that relate to everything from the performance itself, to the layout of the theatre, to our cultural climate and the marketing of the show, this production of White Rabbit, Red Rabbit felt profoundly unsafe – far more unsafe than the Court Theatre production I saw in 2014. In fact, a lack of safety, and a degree of coercion, is built in; I think it’s just a matter of degree as to how this coercion manifests itself.

Some behind-the-scenes info: audiences are given the impression that the actor, as mouthpiece for the writer, can stop at any time, when in fact the actor has been instructed, pre-show, by the writer (in writing, via the producer) that they must finish the play. Audience members ‘volunteer’ to participate in the action, and in some cases are directly selected to come on stage, but not informed that the performer has been told that if an audience member refuses they can pick someone else. The performer asks people to do things they might not ordinarily; the writer, through the performer, invites people to get in touch with him directly.

As such, the dynamic between audience, performer, writer and script is charged, a one-time only affair. Soleimanpour refers to this as a ‘theatre machine’, ingredients in, show out, but it can go in lots of unruly directions. The first production I saw of this, eight years ago, had significant gravitas; it was profoundly moving. My more recent experience was of an audience that laughed uproariously at the ‘entertainment’, and responded to demonstrations of pathos, but did not seem to hear the story or cultural context underneath, despite the candour and talent of the performer.

Performers are always vulnerable – and here, especially so. Sure, it’s a bit of a feat doing the play, one for the bucket list maybe, if everything goes well. But: a performer consents to the process, but not the content of the play. And trick of the play is that it makes much of the sorts of freedoms we have – the choice to take a quick death or a slow one, the choice to step forward or stand back – within a context that maintains the coercive power of the writer over the reader, and the audience over the performer. The reactions of the performer in the moment to the content and demands of the script is the performance, as much as the read material script. And in the final moments of the play the performer’s vulnerability might be protected, or (as happened in one of the performances) it might be trampled all over by the choices of whichever audience member makes the choice to step out onto the stage, to pick up the script, and to close the show. And you as a performer might need time afterwards, and you might not get it, especially if the theatre has to reset for the show that’s on in 30 minutes time.

And it’s important, very important, to note that this show talks a great deal about suicide. The threat of death is present from the outset. This is particularly fraught in an Aotearoa New Zealand context, given our very high suicide rates (particularly among youth, men and Māori), within a larger mental health crisis, let alone two years into a pandemic where we’re all losing our minds. So, the ethical question – or really a tsunami of questions. Do you break the show’s compact, as it were, and give the performer a heads up about what they are about to read? Do you just wait and see what happens? Do you abide by the script’s insistence on secrecy? Do you give the audience, who likewise don’t know what’s coming, ways of thinking about this afterwards, or even the opportunity to avoid the show altogether? After all, any news item worth its salt will frame itself with information about support lines and content warnings (and I’ve linked to some at the bottom of this piece). Already the play feels dated – not least in some of the ways gender, and pronouns, are woven through the script. Is it even responsible or interesting to stage it anymore?

I’ve been so troubled by this production, and whether or not it’s fulfilled the ‘trust’ aspect of the play’s high-trust model (un-spoiler: I think ‘not’), that I’ve since talked about it with lots of people, including audience members and some of the performers. My take is that the producers were naïve, but it’s easiest to say that responses I’ve had from others have been fractious and occasionally intense. Call it an extended debrief. I was particularly struck by the response of Shay Horay, who performed one of the nights. He has been very open about his mental health challenges in recent years, and now the visceral impact, and psychological toll, of performing the show. “If you have performers who come out of a show thinking ‘I don’t ever want to perform again’, you’re not doing something right”, he told me in a very long conversation about the play’s ethics, and his interactions with come of the other performers. “It’s not a fun ride for anyone who gives a fuck.” 

So: with a show with this conceit and this content, where’s the framing – the preparation, the post-show acknowledgement of extreme emotional labour, the immediate debrief, the space, the time to reflect? And with whom does the responsibility for this lie: the author, the producer, the venue, the actor, the audience?

Where’s the wraparound – where is the care?

* * *

Te Pūtake, then, was an unexpected balm – not just because it was a terrific showing of exciting new work by a group of early career artists who no doubt have terrific paths ahead of them, and who recognise that work is always in process. But it was an unexpected and necessary release to witness a values-driven artistic process that saw reciprocity, generosity and connectivity and blood and marrow of the work.

In performance, the work’s opening engagement with Te Kore, this state of untapped and unlimited potential, of being and non-being, places us in the same emergent space as the dancers. We share breath with performers, the swish-swish of the thick pine-needle carpet making the room seem to inhale and exhale. We witness. In the work’s culmination, the three performers stand tall, realised as themselves but interconnected, as components of the work and as artists-in-process.

After, we sit around in a semi-structured wānaka for some kōrero and the artists talk about ideas and process, talk about their whānau (some of whom are in the room), where they’ve come from, where they are going. The talk about work they made at university (short title Te Kākano…, the seed) that started to set their play and collaboration. They discuss their collective’s name Tīwai (the trunk of a tree, but also a canoe they all share), their interest in Te Pūtake in roots and origins, in the way leaves of established tree decompose to make new material for new growth. They talk about re-indigenisation (as opposed to decolonisation), and how this pertains to their own explorations of whakapapa and Māori identity – what does it mean to be Māori contemporary dancers, does this mean you make ‘Māori work’, and the implications of these overlaps. Then we clear and reset the space with talk and food and drink. It’s a good model, and one that genuinely cares for all involved.

The work is never just the time spent on stage. We need to value the rest.

For a big long list of mental health resources, including information, helplines and resources relating to suicide, click here.

1 thought on “Performance, connectivity and care: Tīwai’s Te Pūtake and White Rabbit, Red Rabbit”

  1. Kia ora Erin, thank you for this erudite and necessary piece of writing. You speaking up gives us (artists) all the chance to reflect on our practice and to be a part of creating environments that are full of care. Arohanui.

    Liked by 1 person

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