Kahurangi Maori Dance Theatre,
The Playhouse, Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada (April 2003)
While researching my review of the music of Te Vaka, I found an ad for Kahuarangi Maori Dance Theatre's visit to Fredericton, and thought it would give me another perspective on Polynesian music and culture. I'm very glad I went.
The six young men and women (three of each) immediately built up a rapport with the audience. They came on stage chanting impressively, then one bubbly young lady made us feel at ease by telling us about the group and about the next piece they would be singing. She traded MC duties with one of the men throughout the performance.
The costumes were impressive, consisting of short reed skirts and headdresses for the men, longer skirts and bodices for the women. The women had cloth skirts under the reed ones. They all changed costume at the intermission, including the women's underskirts (My teenaged daughter and I tried to determine whether the men had also changed undergarments, but despite the jumping that was part of the dance numbers we were never quite sure.). All the performers had decorated their faces and bodies with traditional Maori designs, but from the balcony we couldn't tell whether they were really tattooed or just painted on.
Most of the music was recorded, as was some of the narration. One of the men played guitar, and there was some drumming. The songs, like those in most concerts, had various subjects love, work, history, patriotism, legends. One of the latter included the most creative use of flatulence I've heard of in a long time. They ended with two modern patriotic songs sung in English and Maori.
The performance included other traditional pursuits as well as music.
I don't know about in the rest of the world, but here in Canada the Maori Stick Game is a popular Girl Guide activity. Each participant has two sticks about the length of his or her forearm. These are tapped rhythmically on the ground and thrown from hand to hand, and between the participants. I'd seen it done a few times and never been very good at it myself, though some of my friends are. I quickly realized, however, that even they are amateurs beside the members of Kahurangi. Coordinating twelve sticks in the air at a time, in various formations, is at least as hard as it sounds. It's also hypnotically entertaining.
Cats' cradles are an art form in several cultures, including among the Inuit here in Canada, but I've never seen anything like Maori ones. Kahurangi used ropes of various lengths as props as they acted out a legend. Some figures were familiar to me the one my daughters call the witch's broom makes a convincing jellyfish when held upside down, and what they know as the Eiffel Tower makes a lintel surmounted by a statue but most were not. The smaller figures, such as birds and jellyfish, were made by one person, while others needed two or three people. The grand finale, representing the first house to be decorated with statues, needed all six performers and several ropes.
Between numbers, the two MCs also told us something about Maori culture. They tried to teach us greetings and the names of some of the weapons and other implements they had on stage. (Of course, I've forgotten all of them, but it was fun at the time. At least I finally learned how to pronounce Aotearoa, the Maori name for New Zealand.) They got three "volunteers" up on stage to learn how to be Maori warriors and had them do various weapons drills, with predictably funny results, but the volunteers were treated with respectful humour, not mockery.
Kahurangi Maori Dance Theatre was formed in 1983 and is the only professional Maori dance company touring in North America. All the performers are graduates of the Takitimu Performing Arts School in Hastings, New Zealand. Several troupes are travelling around New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the US at any one time. It has a double purpose introducing Maori culture to the rest of the world and providing employment opportunities in the performing arts for young Maori performers.
Here in Canada there is a certain amount of controversy among First Nations people as to whether performances like these are valuable ways to educate others about your culture or are humiliating sideshows to titillate the gawking mob. While it is true that there have been plenty of abuses over the years, realistically, how else are you going to learn about another culture? Not everyone can spend their whole lives traveling the globe to visit other cultures someone has to stay home and provide the culture to visit. Personally, I feel that if they are done with respect and good humour, and if the people involved are in control of how their culture is being presented, such shows are valuable.
I found both of these conditions fulfilled in Kahurangi's performance. The
troupe was founded by a Maori, precisely to give Maoris an opportunity to present
their culture to the rest of the world in their own terms. The old ways are
passed on to a new generation at home, and people abroad are exposed to another
world-view. This can't help but be beneficial to all concerned those who learn
new respect for their own culture, and those who are introduced to a new one.
As for the respect and good humour aspects, there was plenty of laughter, but
no mockery. The troupe invited us into their world as guests and equals not
as invaders to be feared or ignorant inferiors to be instructed. Once you've
met a few people who spend their lives apologizing for who they are and feeling
inferior because of their race (as I tend to do in Trinidad when swathing my
pale, easily burnt skin while my brown-skinned in-laws face the sun unafraid),
you can tell the difference.
Kahurangi Maori Dance Theatre doesn't have much of a Web presence, but you can find some information at http://www.uniqueartists.com/html/kahurangi.html and at www.lasallehs.org/culture/kahurangi.html.