An interview with Louise Potiki Bryant, the 2019 Arts Foundation Laureate receiving the award for choreography and dance.
Tell me about Onepū
Onepū is an expression of mana wāhine; the intrinsic spiritual power of women, and is inspired by a Kāi Tahu tradition as told by Teone Taare Tikao about six atua wahine (female deities) who control and release the principal winds of the world. Onepū (sand) is named to reflect the sand bank Pikopiko-i-whiti which encircles the world and upon which the six atua wahine stand within the different directions of the wind.
Teone Taare Tikao was born in Akaroa on Banks Penisula in 1850. As a boy he was sent by his father to study under two tohunga, with whom he stayed for nearly ten years. In 1920, Teone Taare Tikao was interviewed by historian Herries Beattie and a book was subsequently published in 1939, Tikao Talks - Traditions and Tales of the Canterbury Maori as told by Teone Taare Tikao to Herries Beattie. In Tikao Talks, Teone Taare Tikao describes the six atua wahine, each of whom controls a wind from a different direction. I was very inspired by these atua wahine and by their unique qualities.
We developed Onepū in several stages last year as part of a group of works presented by Atamira Dance Company at the Tempo Dance Festival 2018 entitled Kotahi. This year we undertook another rehearsal period to develop the work further in preparation for our tour of Onepū to Hamilton, Whāngarei, Kaitaia, Wellington, Ōtautahi and New Plymouth.
We are fortunate to have composer, singer, and taonga pūoro player Ariana Tikao as a collaborator and performer in Onepū. Ariana is a great-granddaughter of Teone Taare Tikao, and she co-composed the soundtrack for Onepū with my husband, Paddy Free. She also plays taonga pūoro and performs waiata in both the recorded soundtrack as well live in the Onepū performances. It has been such an honour to perform alongside Ariana and to collaborate with her on this dance work inspired by a pūrakau as told my her tūpuna.
What are the different qualities of the wind?
In Onepū I portray Hine-pū-nui-o-toka who holds the power of the wind in general. Her position is in the South-West where she holds the origin of the southern winds. Hine-pū-nui-o-toka is the mother of the other five atua wahine. Hine-aroraki is the eldest of the daughters and is the atua wahine who controls the flight of birds. In this pūrakau Hine-aroraki is Māui's mother. Then there is Hine-rōriki who controls and releases the powerful northern winds, whilst Hine-rōtia holds and releases the westerly winds, one of which – the māuru – was known to bring tidings of those who have passed on. Hine-hauone is the atua wahine who stands on the eastern portion of the sand bank and controls the easterly to north-easterly winds. Hine-hauone finds Māui wrapped in a cloth and raises Māui to life. In Onepū Ariana portrays Hine-aroaro-pari who controls the echoes in the inland and sea cliffs. Ariana is also the story-teller in our performance through her waiata and taonga pūoro.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Ōtepoti and I whakapapa to Ōtākou Marae. In 1997 I moved to Tāmaki Makaurau to go to Unitec School of Performing and Screen Arts. I now live in Piha.
How did you feel when you were told that you had received the award?
I was totally surprised! I never thought I would be awarded an Arts Foundation Laureate. I'm hugely grateful and blown away by receiving this award. It’s something that was completely unexpected. It’s hard to put into words how much it means to be acknowledged in this way.
I feel very honoured and humbled to be receiving this award which has given me the opportunity to put resources into my art practice. The Arts Foundation Laureate will enable me to deepen my choreographic practice, to fill my creative well as well as enrich the video aspect of my work - video being a big part of my practice as well.
Tell me about your video work. When did you start incorporating that as part of your artistic practice?
I started working with video when I was at studyng at the Unitec School of Performing and Screen Arts where we got the opportunity to make short dance films. We had Shona McCullagh as one of our tutors. Amongst other things Shona is a dance filmmaker. She's the artistic director of New Zealand Dance Company now, but she has also made several amazing dance films. Since that time, I've always experimented with video, but formerly I started making my own dance video installations in 2003.
In 2001 I collaborated with Ngāi Tahu video artist Rachel Rakena on a dance video installation called Tūranga. Rachael was kind enough to give me some initial lessons on a video editing software called Premiere. It took me a couple of lessons and then I started experimenting on my own with video in my work. I just kept learning along the way. Video became more and more a part of my artistic practice. I also started making video design for stage productions and operas, as well as music events, music videos, and dance films.
What does the video bring that choreography or dance doesn't?
From a young age, I've always loved different art forms, I have always painted and drawn, written poetry and danced, and for me, it's the creative process that I've always loved. I've always been interested in visual art as well as performing arts, and I was always trying to find movement in my paintings, and so video was the perfect medium for me to create that movement. One of the ways I’ve linked my performance practice with my video practice has been to draw my body’s experience and then animate my drawings. My video work is often a kind of collage. I experiment a lot until I find something that resonates. I also film choreography and layer textures within the tinana of the dancers.
I use Photoshop and a programme called Motion, and then I work with Final Cut Pro to bring it all together. The drawings are a way to connect my dance practice to my video practice. As well as drawing my body's experiences, and animating these, there are all sorts of different ways I approach the video-making process but it does tend to be painterly and textured.
What do you feel when you perform on stage?
For me performance is a time when I feel I can express a deeper side of myself. The main time this emerges is when I'm on stage. Performance for me feels like being somewhere between consciousness and subconsciousness. When you're in that sort of space on stage, it’s quite transformative and I enjoy that way of expressing.
What made you decide to become an artist, and more specifically, the mediums that you've chosen?
I was always experimenting with art growing up. Naturally children are drawn towards their imagination and that was where I was all the time. When I was a young girl I would dance around in this old room in our house for hours. I was lucky that my Mum also sent me to ballet and gymnastics. However it was when I was dancing in that room alone, making up my own movment, that I really felt the freedom of dancing. I also learnt Kapa Haka from a young age as well and this fed into who I am as a dancer as well.
But there was a point when I thought I couldn't be an artist and I got a little bit disheartened. I went to the University of Otago and studied Māori Studies and Law. I value this time a lot because it helped me to understand so many aspects of our history such as issues surrounding te Tiriti o Waitangi. At the same time, I was also in a dance group and I was becoming more interested in choreography. One of my lecturers saw I was dancing all my assignments and told me I was in the wrong place. This led to me going to the Unitec School of Performing and Screen Arts in Tāmaki Makaurau.
You then auditioned and went to dance school?
I auditioned for Unitec before I finished my degree at the University of Otago. However I decided to finish my BA, majoring in Māori Studies at Otago and then returned to Unitec the following year, where I trained for three years graduating with a Bachelor of Performing and Screen Arts.
When I graduated I applied to Creative New Zealand to make my first work. I was lucky enough to be funded to create an interdisciplinary work collaborating with Ngāi Tahu video artist Rachel Rakena, a work entitled Tūranga. Around the same time Jack Gray invited me to be part of Atamira Dance Collective. He had this vision for a collective of young Māori dancers and choreographers. There were just four of us at the beginning — Jack Gray, Dolina Wehipeihana, Justine Hohaia and myself. We were the four founding members of Atamira Dance Collective.
Have you had any mentors?
When I was younger I had many strong female role models. One was Alva Kapa who was a teacher of mine, a close family friend and mentor. She taught me so much about mana wahine. I am grateful to have had such mentors in my life. It's been meaningful throughout my life to have mentors and people who have helped shape and guide me.
My husband Paddy Free is my greatest supporter and I’m hugely grateful for all his tautoko and artistry over the years. Paddy is a beautiful musician and composer and I’ve always been inspired by his music. Like me he’s inspired by the whenua when he makes music, and I am lucky that he has composed the soundtracks for almost all of my dance and video works.
Charles Koroneho, who is also an Arts Foundation Laureate, has been a huge inspiration. I saw his work when I was a first-year at Unitec and I was blown away and inspired by what he does. He made a work called Retrieve, which I found to be the direction I wanted to go in. The type of work he was making was a combination of installation and performance which I was inspired by.
Another huge influence on me came in 2005, when I got the opportunity to collaborate with musician, composer, storyteller and researcher Dr.Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal. Much of his research has been into the whare tapere, the traditional house of entertainment. Included in his research are the different activities of the whare tapere, one of which is haka. In 2005, Charles held a hui in Porirua where he gathered many Māori contemporary dancers together. He shared with us that he was interested to see how choreographers might work with his research into the whare tapere. I was excited about this idea and shortly afterwards we started to collaborate together. We continued to work together over I think a period of eight years and created a dance work together entitled Te Kārohirohi – the light dances. I was influenced by his research, and from that time my work became more elemental and more about our relationship with te taiao, with the natural world.
There are many others who have been an inspiration to me as well, such as Ariana Tikao who I am currently working with. I am hugely inspired by her work.
I am inspired by all the collaborators I’ve had the honour to work with over the years. I’m thinking about Dr Richard Nunns. He was always interested in the idea of dancers working with taonga pūoro and allowing the instruments to move. So that's been really important to me as well.
Also clay artist Paerau Corneal with whom I collaborated on the interdisciplinary work Kiri is a huge inspiration. Combining the artforms of uku (clay) and dance has been an exciting journey for us.
You have also collaborated a lot with Canadian artists.
I've been lucky enough to collaborate and work alongside Santee Smith, the artistic director of Kaha:wi Dance Theatre based in Toronto. Santee is from the Kahnyen’kehàka (Mohawk) Nation, Turtle Clan from Six Nations of the Grand River, Ontario. She is a choreographer and multi-media artist. I've collaborated with Santee on a number of works where I’ve made the video designs for her dance productions. Santee has also visited us in Aotearoa to collaborate with us here as well. Recently we collaborated on the video installation and performance series Blood Water Earth which was presented as part of the Auckland Arts Festival this year at Te Uru Waiākere Contemporary Gallery.
I’ve also had the pleasure to dance with Vancouver-based choreographer, and community-arts facilitator Olivia C. Davies who is of Anishinaabe heritage. This was a wonderful experience as well.
With Arts Month coming up in September we are asking the Laureates what is art to you and why does it matter?
I feel that art enables us to express that which cannot always be expressed in a literal way. For me dance and visual art is often about expressing concepts and kaupapa in a way that cannot always be expressed with words. Dance in particular is a time for me when I go into a space that is transformative, where I lose myself and become timeless in a liminal space between consciousness and subconsciousness.
You don't always know why you're drawn towards imagery or exploration, and why it connects with you, it's on a subconscious level sometimes. I feel like my dance practice exists within the realm of wairua, within the realm of spirit. Wairua meaning the two waters – one from the masculine and one from the feminine side, because spirit is genderless. It's about connecting with something bigger than myself and expressing something that I cannot express through words alone.
I've always been drawn towards creativity. It's a deep passion. Why it matters is that when we perform, the audience can feel transformed by the experience as well. When they can see this transformation occur in the performer there is often a transformation in themselves. There is this relationship between the audience and the performer. Art can transform people. It can help us consider the value of our land, our whenua, te taiao, and the value of connecting with one another. Art has the abliliy to connect and to heal.
Because we make work about kaupapa Māori, when we perform oftentimes one of our whanaunga or an audience member might karanga or mihi to us as the end. It's always so powerful, and makes you connect with the reason you do what you do, as a performer and as an artist. It also makes you realise that your work is resonating with people.
How has your work affected the wider community?
Early on in my dance practice I choreographed a trilogy of works which were inspired by stories of resilience in times of struggle for my iwi Ngāi Tahu and in particular for Ngāi Tahu women. One of these works was Te Aroha me te Mamae, a work about the experiences of Ngāi Tahu women during World War Two, when a lot of our young men went off to war.
During the creation process I attended a Ngāi Tahu artist hui where I presented a video of a work-in-progress of the work. There I met Greyanna Barrett who saw her own story reflected in what I had presented. She also saw her mother’s and grandmother’s experiences reflected, and she spoke to me about how she wanted to tell her story. It was a story which revealed the effects of colonisation on the women in her whānau. So I spent time with her and interviewed her. The work became about her whānau’s experiences and that was the beginning of my process making works which were about and for my community.
I then went on to make another work entitled Whakaruruhau about Araiteuru Marae in Ōtepoti. This work was also about my Great Aunty Emma Potiki Grooby who had been instrumental in helping to establish Araiteuru Marae as an urban marae for all Māori, a place for all, where I had spent a lot of time in my youth. In 1997, the wharenui at Araiteuru Marae burnt down in an arson attack. The wharenui has since been rebuilt but before this re-building I interviewed members of my whānau about the effect this arson attack had on them and their voices were the soundtrack for a dance installation and film called Whakaruruhau which means shelter. That was what the marae and my aunty were for us.