[Ways of knowing Death]
The passing of a beloved is always is painful. From the body’s disintegration to its last breathe, to what lies beyond, for both the dead and those left to mourn it is as unfathomable as it is matter of fact. Sacred ritual provides a means to negotiate this pathway.
Atamira Dance Company’s work, Atamira, choreographed by Kelly Nash, is an exploration of all that the journey encompasses – suffering, death, tangihanga and our way of making meaning from this most momentous – and for Nash frightening – event: the bringing of a life to its close.
Accompanying the work was an expansive broadsheet of programme notes outlining the origin of the work, with Nash’s own experiences melded with her partner’s mother losing her struggle with cancer. Kelly accompanied her partner, fellow Atamira dancer Nancy Wijohn, to the Ureweras for the tangi.
While this was a catalyst for the theme, Nash layered it with multiple frames, including her struggle to connect with her father and her lost whakapapa. It was an extraordinary and beautiful mix of story-telling, a taha Māori mystical weaving of memory, deep mourning and ceremony.
The core of the work was the traditional meaning of Atamira, a platform for death, and Nash explored this platform and all that flows from tangihanga, creating a complex and contemporary analysis.
In the cavernous Shed 1 at Corban Estate Arts Centre, Henderson, sheer white curtains suggest two worlds – one of spirit, the other worldly – brought to life by the seven Atamira dancers. Vocal performer Milly Grant-Koria emitted piercing cries that heralded the beginning of the journey and she continued to escort the work throughout, graphically vocalising the rigours of death, shaking branches of blue flowers to mark the end of the ritual. In one section she climbed a staircase on to a platform at the back of stage as if stationed on a small hill overlooking the urupa (burial ground). From this vantage point she provided a response to the tangi below. “It was all so beautiful” she cried. Words revealed themselves to be inadequate.
The dancers took turns to enact the passage of dying to death. The body vomited, heaved, struggled, was carried tenderly, washed, cradled, embraced and sanctified. Sean MacDonald was almost translucent as he was carried across Wijohn’s shoulders – resonant of Italian renaissance imagery depicting Christ’s death or ‘passion’.
Within the work was a powerful invocation of the life force, the passion of love – Bianca Hyslop passed through a mattress opening as if slipping from life into death. But equally the shape of the opening suggested a vagina and a baby’s journey to begin life.
Nash is a very accomplished dancer, and her choreography was carefully honed and articulate. The dancers moved seamlessly, with musicality and assurance. As the narrative moved to the afterlife they became joyous and light.
Image was overladen with image, leaving the audience to find its own meaning. When Hyslop was placed inside a translucent, enormous plastic ball filled with water, she rolled over the stage, as the dancers lifted and turned the ball in celebratory fashion. Nash says in her notes that the image represents a layered womb, the connection of earth to universe – but for me it suggested the distinctive bubble of memory that each of us holds of a departed loved one.
The ritual over, the dancers turned away from the audience and walked backstage to leave via an open door at the back of the theatre, into our everyday world. Life goes on and we cannot take our dead with us. They are on their journey and we are on ours.
Brilliant audio visual imagery by Louise Potiki Bryant and a moving sound score by Eden Mullholland lifted the work into emotional heights without stepping into elegy or sentimentality.
Atamira is Nash’s first major work. It was beautifully rendered, revealing deep ways of seeing, flowing across multiple realities yet all the while anchored by an earthiness which gave it an accessible, universal voice.
Atamira played at Corban Estate Arts Centre, Henderson, 13 – 16 December 2017.