Review: Matariki at The Arts Centre – Ad Parnassum -Purapurawhetū, th’Orchard, and Pōhutukawa

Erin Harrington reviews Ad Parnassum – Purapurawhetū, and Naomi van den Broek reviews Th’Orchard Dreamers Chapter 2 and Pōhutukawa, all performed at The Arts Centre Te Matatiki Toi Ora as part of their Matariki programming, 8 June – 9 July 2022.

“Ngā toi is for everyone”, notes the introduction to The Arts Centre Te Matatiki Toi Ora’s Matariki programming for 2022; the arts are for everyone. We’ve seen this in a month’s worth of Māori-led, Moana-focused arts programming celebrating Te Tau Hou Māori, which has included visual arts, kapa haka, contemporary dance, music, storytelling, activities and workshops – and screenings of The Lion King in Te Reo for those of us who want to quietly weep while Stan Walker sings “Can You Feel The Love Tonight”.

There’s extra resonance this year, as we celebrate Matariki as an official public holiday for the first time: a sense of deep, embodied rightness, as the call to look back, reflect, and look to the future is honoured on a large scale. This is amplified when we consider the neo-gothic space of the Arts Centre itself, which like many other institutions on Ōtautahi must grapple with its past as it looks to its future and works to understand and serve its communities. The organisation can be proud of the year’s programming – but even moreso for partnering meaningfully with and being led by their collaborators. As you’ll see here, in an account of three of these full-hearted works, the events of the last few weeks have been notable in the way they foregrounded connection, collaboration and community.

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The vision of a celestial divine offered by Ad Parnassum – Purapurawhetū has been a key aspect of The Arts Centre’s Matariki programming. The work is a remarkable and enthralling full-length dance-art film, presented by Daniel Belton, Donnine Harrison and Good Company Arts, and inspired by Bolton’s encounter ten years ago with Bauhaus artist Paul Klee’s painting “Ad Parnassum”. The meditative 30-minute work loops for two hours each evening from midwinter, Rātu 21 Pipiri, until Rāhina 4 Hōngongoi, projected onto a large, wide screen, custom designed and installed by site foreman Andrew Kitchingham and team along the southern face of the North Quad. 

This cross-disciplinary collaboration, which brings together the country’s finest contemporary and digital art, dance and musical talents, plays with a panoramic sense of depth and scale. A series of dance solos offer a vocabulary marrying Māori dance art and movement, contemporary dance, and ballet. Nine dancers (Nancy Wijohn, Jahra Wasasala, Christina Guieb, Kelly Nash, Neve Pierce, Stephanie Halyburton, Lucy Marinkovich, Laura Saxon-Jones, and Kiki Miwa) are at once the nine stars of Matariki, the nine Greek muses who live on Parnassus, the seven sisters of the Pleiades, all wāhine toa. They wear gorgeous, bright white sculptural shirts and skirts, designed by Kate Sylvester. They change in size, are multiplied, sometimes moving along the lowest edge of the screen, which becomes both stage and horizon, sometimes taking up the entire screen in intimate close up. The digital playback of torsion and long-lined, full-bodied gesture pulses between flowing and abrupt, which feels controlled yet otherworldly. Playback is frequently slowed, giving the sense of women dancing through water, their movements sometimes dragging afterimages behind them. These sequences are dreamy, interior, and at times feel improvisatory, as if we have been allowed access to some private ceremony.  

Dame Gillian Karawe Whitehead’s stunning score, which draws from Ancient Greek and Māori musical modalities, is given life by the New Zealand String Quartet, with Al Fraser on taonga pūoro. Strings slide around in pitch, offsetting low drones of sustained notes and lyrical, mournful melodic lines, with brisk pizzicato, the soft rasp of bow on string, and the hums, clicks, rattles and throaty calls of taonga pūoro. The score offers a sense of mystery that leaves your heart in your throat; in playing with a sense of undulating duration, it feels like the universe breathing.  

Music and layered visuals are beautifully integrated. Slow-moving 3D animated sequences with remarkable depth recall Mount Parnassus, home to the muses, but also photographs of nebulae, while invoking the pointillist texture of Klee’s painting. High contrast light and dark is softened with smudged drifts of cloudy colour. In a 2D plane, shapes and lines inspired by Klee’s painting, as well as the crosshatching of tukutuku panels, extend out into angles and curves of an expanding Fibonacci sequence. This sacred geometry coils off into a koru, and responds to mathematical shifts in phase in the thrumming soundscape. The dancers often use mirrored kinetic props and poi, whose shapes are echoed in the digitally rendered mise-en-scene. Geometric pops of colour respond to the patterns emerging from the soundtrack, and that recall the repetitive tiles and points in Klee’s work: depth and texture, texture and ddepth.

I (Erin) am moved by the sense of ritual and circularity: the music of the spheres is the voice of the stars, is the visual language of the bodies, is the flickering of line and colour, is the hum and echo of swirling, slow-moving visual structures; it’s like staring at once at a grain of sand and at the centre of a galaxy. And the installation setting is important too. Standing for half an hour, wrapped up against the cold and damp, offers a sense of intensity; you can’t help but be present. The geometric patterns also enter into conversation with the lines of the neogothic buildings surrounding the screen, binding us to the work. Everything is connected.

In situ, the quality of image and amplified sound is excellent, the score seeming to resonate in the outdoor space without a clear point of origin. The work was originally intended to be projected while musicians played live – a wry inversion of the usual model – but this aspect of the work’s long genesis, like so much else, has been impacted by the pandemic. But it doesn’t matter – the resulting film is a magnificently holistic piece that feels organic and divine, both alien and familiar. It’s one of the best pieces of performance art to have graced the city all year.

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On Rāmere 1 Hōngongoi, music and mentoring collective th’Orchard presents a short but incredibly sweet programme of music on the stage of the Great Hall: Dreamers Chapter 2. This is the second chapter in th’Orchard’s journey, the first having begun during Matariki 2021, telling their journey under Waipuna-ā-rangi – the water that pools in the sky. 

The stage is transformed into a campsite – complete with pup tent, marshmallows, pjs, slippers, soft toys – all of which is lit by a cunningly conceived “fire” on stage, created by lighting and sound wizard Fetu Pera-Maurangi. And the mood is suitably campfire too. It’s casual and low key, almost to the point of creating tension for the audience at times; it feels like stumbling across someone else’s campsite in the middle of the bush, not wanting to interrupt or eavesdrop, but really wanting to know what people are saying. There’s a real charm in this for a number of reasons. It feels deliciously anti-establishment in a venue like the Great Hall with all its writ-large colonial history on display. The performances are intimate in their power. The ‘jam’ style links between what are more clearly structured songs or pieces create a through-composed style to the whole preserving the delicate atmosphere. The sound is crystalline; voices and instruments shine and shimmer. 

I (Naomi) didn’t know much about th’Orchard before coming to this show, apart from knowing the pedigree of the stalwart Ōtautahi-based musical talent on the stage, Mark Vanilau and Henare Kaa. Both are artists who have collaborated with the who’s who of New Zealand music as well as leading solo and group projects of their own. 

Having since done some research, I’ve found out Vanilau founded th’Orchard with Solomon Smith with the “intention of cultivating the arts and creating a platform that artists could use to share and express their talent”. The group are based in Hoon Hay/Rowley, a community they describe, here, as “rich with aspiring artists of all disciplines. The community has a high Māori and Pacific population and has a high number of social housing and low income earners. The low incomes contribute to many of the aspiring artists not having the means to pursue their dreams in the arts. Many of these artists have contributed to making the Hoon Hay/Rowley community an amazingly cool place to be a part of.” Th’Orchard was set up to help these young people pursue their dreams.

Nonetheless I’m glad I come to the show without more background knowledge because it allows me to take the music at face value, appreciate the funky rhythms, the quality of the excellent songwriting, the stunning vocals and luscious harmonies, and the contained and authentic performance styles of many of the performers. It also allows me a greater shock at the end of the show when the performers introduce themselves and I learn that many of those on stage are students – from age 13 to early 20s. Some of this young talent have only been working with th’Orchard for a matter of months and have collaborated on this show like seasoned pros. It’s a welcome surprise and part of what makes th’Orchard special; it’s providing a place for young talent to develop, gain experience and work with giants of the local scene. 

The highlight of the set for me is Vanilau’s “The Lake”, written with Troy Kingi. Courtney Reid and Vanilau’s daughter Khonnah, who is currently in year 10 at Christchurch Girls’ High School, deliver a moving and mesmerising vocal performance of this song, which in dimly lit Great Hall seems to tap into something elemental about the human experience. It’s like the best kind of church.

With a kaupapa such as th’Orchard’s, it seems only right to mihi to all of those involved on this special night: Briannah Jarvis (composer and vocals); Courtney Reid (composer and vocals); Cruz Tata (guitar); Henare Kaa (cajon, percussion, and vocals); Justine Berry (bass guitar); Khonnah Vanilau (piano and vocals); Liam Crawford (guitar and vocals); Mark Vanilau (composer, vocals, piano, and guitar); Nakoda Tamaira (composer, vocals, and rap); Riley Silberry (vocals); and Solomon Smith (composer, vocals, and rap).

One of the wonderful things about this show, and Pōhutukawa (discussed below), is it feels like a real act of decolonisation in the space of the Arts Centre. It is a joy to see audiences including everyone from toddlers to the elderly, with lots of Māori and Pasifka people, flooding through the doors of what can sometimes feel like a space that is wholly commandeered by ‘old Christchurch’ in all its colonial whiteness. And this isn’t token programming. It’s clear there’s a genuine connection, as is evidenced by the shout out by Smith to Arts Centre Creative Director, Chris Archer, at the end of the show: “You’ve always looked after us, brother, and we will always look after you.”

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Pōhutukawa is the second to last show on the Art Centre’s Matariki programme. It is curated by composer, singer, producer, and – surely textbook definition of – wahine toa, Byllie-Jean. Byllie-Jean has a particular gift for the spreading of the net of inclusion, and drawing other performers around her in a way that seems, appropriately, like a constellation of stars. This collaborative performance journeys through the cyclic phases of reflection, death, and potential, and the spaces between. 

The stellar cast for this show features Māhina Kaui on taonga pūoro, Lisa Davies on piano, Grace Thorpe on vocals, Ani-Oriwia Adds on vocals and guitar, Cha’nel Kaa-Luke offering visual vernacular storytelling and sign language interpretation, and what has to be Ōtautahi’s funkiest rhythm section, Iona Ulaula (drums) and Seta Timo (bass). 

The show starts with a long period of unexplained silence. The performers are seated, the lights are low and – from the audience’s perspective – nothing is happening. It’s a testament to the strength of the cast that they can hold this silence and tension with a capacity crowd for such a long time without losing our interest. The show then opens with a solo piece by Kaui, “Maumahara koe”. This lament for voice, taonga pūoro and fixed media breaks out of the silence and dark and pulls us in. Kaui is compelling; she has the command and mana of a seasoned performer and it’s clear the audience are hanging on every sound. This is followed by a pensive and introspective piano solo by Davies. 

After the last note hangs in the air, an energetic drum fill signals a change of mood, and Byllie-Jean launches into her waiata “Running Amok” with the full ensemble. Byllie-Jean has that indefinable thing people call ‘X-factor’ but is perhaps more accurately described as equal parts talent, experience, command, confidence and magnetism. The energy in the room lifts and surges as she sings, and it’s pretty damn hard to take your eyes off her. (Ok, clearly I am a fan!) It’s also subversive as hell to hear a lyric like “Our land’s been stolen and we know who took it” delivered from the stage of the Great Hall. 

Pōhutukawa is a class act from start to finish. The vocals are tight and blend beautifully, the instrumentation is small but mighty, and the performers are charismatic and assured. Timo’s jazz-inspired bass solos and Ulaula’s unusual two snare set up on his drum kit add interesting and unexpected sonic textures to the evening, as does Davies’ use of percussion and string work on and inside the piano. The Great Hall’s acoustics, which can lean towards overly reverberant, often present sonic challenges, but here sound is expertly and creatively managed by Jo Barus, with some particularly noteworthy use of delay.

A real highlight is Cha’nel Kaa-Luke’s expressive storytelling piece “The Reflection of Pōhutukawa and Identity”, accompanied by Kaui and Davies. To say Kaa-Luke is a strong performer is an understatement; like Byllie-Jean and Kaui, she commands the stage. Her considerable storytelling and acting skills are amplified by the clever camera manipulation and projection by John Ross. The positioning of the camera, which captures her body and the edge of the projection screen, means she is multiplied, with a slight delay and increasing transparency, in a manner that reads like echoes, or the repetition of history. This piece in particular is evidence of the holistic consideration Byllie-Jean gives to the production of a show like Pōhutukawa. This is a work that feels both equal to and greater than the sum of its parts. 

The penultimate waiata of the evening is composed and led by Ani-Oriwia Adds. Adds has a gorgeous stage presence matched by a soaring voice. The addition of guitar to the ensemble at this point is a welcome textural change. This waiata effectively brings together performers and audience in a manner that leads seamlessly, and meaningfully, into the final waiata of the evening, “Matariki, E Ara e”, where we are invited to stand and join the performers in singing. This feels like a generous acknowledgement of how important collaboration has been for this performance, and hearing the Great Hall swell with a waiata celebrating our first nationally acknowledged Matariki celebration feels incredibly special. Having people stand for the last song is always a clever way of ensuring a standing ovation, but I am sure this show would have received one regardless. My only criticism is that I would have liked one (or five, let’s be honest) more songs. 

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Kua haehae ngā hihi o Matariki; the rays of Matariki are spread. Thank you to all who shared their talents and stories with us over the last few weeks, bringing us all closer to one another, and making the midwinter a little less cold.

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