Shaping Mauri

Pelenakeke Brown and Cat Ruka, the Artistic Director of Tempo Dance Festival, discuss dance and the decolonising practise of accessing the digital realms.

Posted on
30.07.20

Tempo is one of Aotearoa’s leading dance festivals. An annual event that usually occurs in October, Tempo brings together the contemporary dance world, often with international and national acts. This year, due to Covid-19, the festival shifted to a fully digital festival running from May until December. The Whatumanawa Season has three digital spaces: Papa Tuatahi, a platform for new and archival dance footage; Papa Tuarua, a space for in-progress offerings, whether this is through stills, essays or other, choreographic, forms; as well as Facebook serving as another platform and venue for the works. To celebrate this kaupapa, below is an edited transcript of an interview with Cat Ruka, the Artistic Director of Tempo, on dance, decolonisation and the digital realms.

Pelenakeke Brown: Tell me your vision for this year's Tempo Dance Festival. 

Cat Ruka: Well, I mean, it's because of Covid-19. We had planned a big live extravaganza. It was the 20th anniversary of Tempo and so it was going to be the biggest live festival we had ever done, but we just realised quickly that it wasn't going to be possible. A lot of our revenue comes from smaller trusts and some of them were closing down. So we just went, "What is possible?" And threw in the idea of going digital. As I was saying it, I was like, that doesn’t feel right to me. Just because what we do is the body, it's about the body. And I think not being a digital native, being a bit older, I haven't fully reconciled what the digital space means to me, what it means to me as an artist.

But then as we sank deeper into the process of it, I realised how many potentialities there were as a decolonial practice or destructuring practice, and that it was quite interesting in its rhizomatic force. Digital spaces aren't without their own hierarchies and aren't without colonial thinking; however, I'm now aware of the potential that they do hold.

It also opened up some really interesting things socioeconomically. The theatre really is for privileged people. And what I mean by privileged is financially privileged, people who have parents that they can turn to if they can't pay their rent. Digital stuff doesn't cost people. You can track shit up, and it doesn't cost you, so the financial stuff is what I’m most interested in, in terms of it being decolonial. I think because I grew up poor and I grew up wanting to be a performer, but just never being able to afford the practice that I wanted. So I have a leaning towards that side of things. The digital space has opened up accessibility for those who can't afford to do shit in theatre. Digital spaces allow for sovereignty and agency in a way that potentially venues and theaters don't.

how can I fuck around in my lounge and reconnect with my own body

PB: I came to your opening, the digital opening. And I love that the three of you [Cat, Gabrielle Vincent and Zoe Nicholson] were wearing bathrobes and had your hair wrapped up in towels, and as you were talking I was thinking about the blurring between home and the theatre. I feel like you embraced that.

CR: I've learned a lot about privacy, opening up private spaces. Due to some of the feedback we've received from artists, there's been some interesting kōrero that we've developed around creating digital work for digital spaces, whilst in the home. This has allowed people to reconnect with themselves, because dance can be such an enabler of being able to figure out your own shit.

And so people have been afforded that luxury, of being able to use dance. It's not about making epic work, it's more about, "Ooh, how can I fuck around in my lounge and actually reconnect with the anteriority of my own body, rather than having to think about my collaborators and stuff like that?" So that return to the home in terms of the whenua, the land that sits within, has been a really cool thing.

PB: Where do you see digital work sitting now? 

CR: My thoughts have been around what next year might look like in terms of those two platforms sitting alongside each other. Festivals are those yearly big-bang moments. There's that assumption that it's going to be like that, but I'm quite interested in what if it was a bit more gentle than that?

I think what's been interesting about our programming this year is that we've been able to be gentle, curatorially. Just little bits and pieces here and there, and people forget that the festival is running. And so they return to it in a couple of months and it’s still going and they can experience something. And we don't try to programme too many things in one week. So there's space around things.

I'm interested in taking that style with me into the future. We could have a big-bang moment, and that's beautiful because it serves our communities, because it's a time to come together. But what if we also had digital experiences happening through the year as well, so that all these amazing artists who are interested in digital dance have somewhere to share their work.

I think about the responsibility we have to hold the work that our artists make

PB: It sounds like you're thinking about the process of dance rather than the finished product. When I looked at all the work, I was interested in how the dance artists approach time, digital space, their bodies and collaboration. What did you notice during the open-call process?

CR: I noticed that our artists are incredibly experimental, creative and innovative. They think across multiple different forms and ways of presenting work. Our community has such an expanded understanding of what choreography can be and what choreographic thinking can mean and how that can live. But they just haven't had a place experimental enough to hold that work.

And so I think that I really want to hold onto that. I want to hold onto all of that. And in fact, again, it was a humbling experience to see how incredibly experienced our artists are, and just not having anywhere to go. I think about the industry and the responsibility we have to be able to hold the work that our artists actually make. All of our artists, not just one or two from every generation who create gigantic theatre works that cost 250k to put on.

PB: How do you think we can encourage more Māori, Pacific, disabled and previously unsupported artists to be involved? 

CR: Placing those people at the centre of everything. Placing them in leadership roles and not expecting them to join a kaupapa that isn’t theirs. I think that was the diversity project of the early 2000s – we've done that. For me, whenever I move through those communities, it’s just about the way that I move as manuhuri in those spaces and in the understanding that I'm a visitor, and connecting from that place.

I think whenever somebody does that and they move humbly through those spaces of artists, trust is built, and then from there, you can start to work together and collaborate. What do you think?

PB: I think you have to go educate yourself. You have to go and read, you have to learn, you have to be a humble manuhuri, you have to take the time to read the writers of that generation and that community to understand. I think reading builds empathy so I think you have a responsibility to be a humble visitor in that community and then you go home and do your homework.

CR: Totally, because it's not up to them to do the mahi for you.

taking dance into people's living rooms opens up conversations around dance and its relevance

PB: How does being a curator or an artistic director change in the digital sphere for you?

CR: Yeah, it's changed a lot. I mean, it's become a little bit more transactional than I like to work because normally it's a lot of sharing of food, a lot of coming into showings and having lengthy discussions around conceptual stuff that's being there to manaaki and hold that artist more face to face. So I really miss that.

It's become a lot more transactional in terms of producing something, actually. It's way more the work of the producer. However, there's beauty in that as well.

PB: So, Tempo has been going for 20 years. How do you sum up a 20-year legacy? 

CR: I have a lot of respect for the wāhine who are part of the legacy of Tempo, for the people who started up that trust and just went, "Let's pull our shit together and make our festival happen." It is a wāhine-led space, which is really cool. I was an artist in Tempo for 10 years and that was when I really cut my teeth. 

Tempo has enhanced the mana of many, many great artists who have gone on to make incredible work all over the world. And I think, moving forward, our mahi is about sinking deeper into claiming what we haven't done and naming that mahi, and connecting with and supporting those communities that made us.

PB: What do you want audiences to take away from Tempo?

CR: An expanded understanding of dance practice and the resilience that creative people have. But I also don't like that whole messaging because we actually… This has created a lot of pain as well, and it shouldn't just be that whole ‘charge on’ thing all the time, but we are resilient. 

What else? I think that there's just this kind of bigger question around the relevance of dance as an art form for the country, for our theatre, and I know the answer to that, but it's hard to convince people. I believe that dance contributes to the overall order and wellness of society. It looks after the wairua, as well as the physical, but because it looks after that intangible sense of overall societal health and wealth, it becomes a really hard thing to describe and talk about.

I hope that being able to take dance into people's living rooms has opened up conversations around dance and its relevance.

describe dance to an alien

PB: I guess this is like a selfish question, but how is it being in a Pākehā-dominated world and in a position of leadership as someone who is Māori?

CR: Massive question. I've attempted multiple ways, and now I just do the things my Nan taught me, which is like, be humble, be polite and be of love – care. Care about other people. That simple stuff I think, is what being Māori and being a woman is. Yeah, simple practice.

PB: I just want to hear you talk more around dance and your relationship to dance. How would you describe dance to an alien? 

CR: And here we go, I'm going to go into full hippy mode. For me, in essence, dance is vibration and it's like the practice of shaping mauri, shaping life force, shaping being alive. It just magnifies for me, that thing of being present and being here in this dimension. Yeah, that's all it is for me. The sculpting of energy and vibrations. And so what does that even mean when we're in digital spaces? How do those things come up against each other? I think there's this real assumption that dance in digital spaces isn't embodied. There's some sort of assumption that there's a lack of body and a lack of presence. But for me, it's not a lack. It's just a different thing. It's just a different embodiment. It's a different body.

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This interview is presented in a partnership with Tempo Dance Festival, which covers the cost of paying our writers. We retain all editorial control.