The Spiritual Work of Dancing

An Interview with Gabrielle Thomas

BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT, PHOTOGRAPHY BY JINKI CAMBRONERO

Gabrielle Thomas is a choreographer and dancer in Mangawhai, a small town in Aotearoa/New Zealand. She has choreographed and performed for Atamira Dance Company as well as other dance companies in New Zealand. Here, she discusses how her choreography draws upon her Māori worldview and how motherhood and living in a small town inform her process.

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Can you share a little about your dance history – what kinds of performance practices and in what contexts shaped who you are today?

First, I’d like to acknowledge where I am from. On my mother’s side, my mother’s tribe is Te Atiawa ki te Tau Ihu, and her marae is in a small town called Waikawa at the top of Te Wai Pounamu (the South Island of New Zealand). My father’s marae is in Wairewa, which is on the Banks Peninsula, also in Te Wai Pounamu. His iwi (tribe) is Kai Tahu. Both were raised in Wellington away from their marae.

I grew up in Wellington and did ballet as a young girl. I stopped when I was 11 or 12. I didn’t know there was another world of dance beyond ballet. It wasn’t until I was 19 that I discovered the larger world of dance after a healer told me I should be doing it. I trained at the Wellington Performing Arts Centre, which gave me an amazing foundation. That led me to the New Zealand School of Dance (NZSD), where the technical focus was strong.

During my time at NZSD I injured my back. I was told I would have to repeat the year so instead I decided to return to my music; I started writing music in my early teens. I busked regularly and played at all the local open mic nights. One day I was busking in town when I was approached by the choreographer Raewyn Hill. She had seen me dance at NZSD but her interest in me came from hearing my karanga to the manuhiri for the school powhiri (a powhiri is a ceremony of welcome and a karanga is the wailing call that brings in the guests). She said she felt so moved by it and she wanted me to take part in her new work Angels with Dirty Feet. So, thanks to the karanga, I was thrown back into the dance environment and realized dance was what I really wanted to do. I ended up touring with that show. It was my first glimpse into the process of dance making. I loved it.

From there, I went to Unitec to receive my BA in Contemporary Dance. The school had a choreographic focus. It was an amazing experience. It was there that I first met Jack Gray (who is a founding member of Atamira Dance Company and the company’s artistic director).

I graduated in 2006 and in the same year joined Black Grace Dance Company. While I was working with Black Grace on a piece called Amata, my mother passed away. That experience altered my perception of what dance is. I realized that it is more than just performing; it is like stepping into another realm. When my mother passed, an aspect of spirituality entered my work. A year later, I joined Atamira Dance Company for Moss Patterson’s first full length work Whakairo. I had found my people.

At this stage, when I created dance phrases or developed vocabulary on myself, I sourced movement through imagery and narrative. Feldenkrais and Skinner Releasing Technique were huge influences on my choreographic process. When I started working with Atamira, that’s when I began to acknowledge my Māori whakapapa (heritage), and this brought a whole new layer both to me as a person as well as to my dance practice.

How would you generally describe your work to someone unfamiliar with it?

It always has elements of spirituality, like birth and death or light and dark. I utilize technique and a focus on spatial design. Māori symbolism also comes into the movement vocabulary.

What does your choreographic process look like?

It tends to start with conversation around a concept or idea, often based on a personal experience. There’s a lot of work that I put in before going to the studio. For example, in TOMO, the piece I recently made, we explored the boundary between light and dark, which is where colour resides. We discussed these concepts and how we interpret them as Māori (our creation stories of how light came into the world) for three days as well as explored sensory tasks and observational tasks in the natural environment of Mangawhai.

I try to activate the space we are working in with love and truth so that when we go to make the work, we’re all connected. Dancers tune in through their own interpretation and trust that whatever they offer will be the right thing. Dance is spiritual work, not solely movement, so I try to find a process that supports it so the dancers can feel empowered to be themselves and bring everything with them. That’s a huge part of the process as well, looking after one another.

The music is often there from the beginning of a process. Not in its entirety, but it’s a tool I use to instill energy into the developing work. I often work with Peter Hobbs, who composes beautiful music. I feed him the narrative and themes, he makes a skeleton of music, and then we use that in the studio. That informs the improvisations and the atmosphere in terms of pulse, rhythm and vibration. The composer is on board the whole time and continues to flesh out the music. He is in a creative space in which he is empowered to do what he wants to do; I’m not driving the whole time. It’s a collaboration.

Are there certain themes or issues that feel important to you to keep tackling or addressing in your work?

When I first joined Atamira, I became pregnant with my firstborn. It inspired me to make a work, Hapū, about birth and motherhood, and the fear tangled in that experience. Birth, motherhood and death have always been drivers in my work.

My work Te Waenganui was part of a larger program at Atamira called MANAIA. “Manaia” is the Māori word for seahorse and a spiritual guardian with three fingers. These three fingers represent birth, life, and death. The seahorse also wears its bones on the outside. It moves like it’s not moving at all; it has a hypnotic quality. I watched seahorses for a long time and drew inspiration from their ahua (form/ appearance).

My children are my world. When I birthed my firstborn, I felt close to death; I left my body in a way I never had before. As wahine (women), we carry a portal in our bellies, a doorway from the spiritual realm into the land of the living. That is our power, to bring life. My most recent piece, TOMO, was about how women carry that doorway, which also brought me back to the themes of birth, life and death.

Is there a specific piece in your repertoire you’d like to share more about that you feel is a good representation of your work?

TOMO was my first full length work. In it, I had the chance to create a space where the work could arrive, rather than trying to force its creation. In that way, I feel like I found a Māori way of working. It was supported by Atamira and embraced by the community.

TOMO started with light and dark, therefore birth. But it’s also a story about my mother. My mother was very spiritual. If she had been raised Māori, she would have been considered a seer. Instead, she was put through the mental health system. She struggled but was very powerful and taught me much among the chaos. One of the dancers takes on the spirit of my mother, embodying her power but also elements of darkness. She wears a large skirt and is fed by a man with silver spoons (representing the colonizer and medication). He is frightened of her and eventually she births two women. They perform a haka that pays heed to the power of women.

What are some shifts (if any) you’ve seen or experienced with regards to representation of Indigenous/ Māori voices in dance?

With the TOMO process, Atamira allowed a Māori practice to be the driver. In past projects, deadlines and outcomes were drivers. In TOMO’s process, we solely focused on the work, gave it power, and took care of it on a whole other level. For example, the show sold out so fast that lots of people didn’t get tickets. We could have done another show but, in the end, we brought in the elders and other valuable community members who had missed out to see the dress rehearsal. There was a lot of protection around the work. Even though people missed out and we could have made more money, we stayed true to what was important.

In terms of the larger world, I’m a bit of a recluse. There’s a growing interest in Māori work. Our mainstream companies are wanting to employ Māori dancers, but require more of a Māori perspective and approach. Watching movies with my children, I am annoyed at how many times Indigenous people are made out to be simple and primitive. Our ancestral knowledge is sophisticated and should be respected.

Time is different for Indigenous people. The knowledge of our ancestors is tino tawhito (ancient) and time is in relation to the natural world. The tides, the winds, the stars, the birds and animals dictated their choices. Nowadays, we try to live by one clock and one calendar, with no regard to the sun and the moon or where we are positioned on the planet. This new form of time disregards our connections to mother earth and the universe.

How does living outside a major city influence your work?

I live in a tiny house that is 2.5 meters wide by 8 meters long. There’s six of us, so we’re outside a lot. My partner and I did this on purpose. In fact, we own a normal-sized family home in Auckland but chose to live tiny to connect on many levels – with our kids, with ourselves, with our environment – to find another way of being that feels a bit more real. This lifestyle choice informs my dance in a way it didn’t when I was living in Auckland. It can be a little bit lonely, as well as a bit scary and vulnerable when I go back into the dance realm. However, that informs my process too. I quickly find what I must rely on. I have to be true to the work. That’s what I have. My work has become more process driven and I now get the dancers to create a lot of movement because I’m not dancing as much as I used to. But I’ve found this is informing my choreographic process in new and exciting ways.

I have discovered some useful task provocations where the dancers’ somatic experience generates their movement material. Once I dreamt of a sound like thunder and drumming, I turned to see hundreds of oranges bouncing down a large stairwell, and my intuition told me hundreds of tigers were coming. In rehearsal soon after, I wanted to explore this concept of tohu (signs) and dream state in my choreography. The dancers were lying inside boxes, experiencing the sounds of oranges rolling over them just like in my dream. This generated the movement I was needing almost instantly.

When I’m in a choreographic process, I stay in Auckland. That means that when I’m working, I’m wholeheartedly working. With TOMO, we staged the piece in under five weeks. There’s no way I could go home to cook dinner, do homework with the kids, clean, and prepare for the next day. It doesn’t stop until 10 p.m. at night with four kids. There’s no time for myself let alone for a creative process. So instead I go back to my accommodation away from the whanau (family). I dive into the work for five days straight and drive home for the weekends. Living in a small town works for me in this way. Thankfully, I have a supportive partner, Estevez, who is also a performing artist, so we take turns holding down the fort.

What’s your next project? What are you working/focused on now?

Atamira’s 20-year celebration is coming up and we are developing something new. The concepts I’m looking at are mauri and mana (life force and power), as well as revisiting older works, some based on our Māori stories and weaving.

Establishing a great way of working in the studio has made me question what is really happening on a spiritual level with dance. I’m looking at what we instill into a space, how we transfer it into ourselves and our movement, and how that raises our mana – the relationship between tinana (body), mauri (lifeforce), and wairua (spirit).

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To learn more, visit atamiradance.co.nz.

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