15 minutes with Jack Gray
In 2011, dancer and choreographer Jack Gray won an AMP Scholarship to share Maori contemporary dance with other indigenous cultures in California, New Mexico, Hawaii and New York. He returned to the Hokianga last February with TV programme Marae DIY and. his new show Mitimiti opens Auckland's upcoming Tempo Dance Festival. Grant Smithies talks to him.
Were you one of those kids who was always dancing around?
"Not at all, I was a bookworm. My cousins laughed at me for reading newspapers from a young age. At my brothers' rugby games, I'd be reading a book, facing away from the field. I've always been absorbed in my imagination. Dance wasn't really a thing for me until I got to high school. If it wasn't for Rutherford being the first school in New Zealand to have dance as a subject, I would never have been here today!"
What's your favourite music to dance to?
"I really like pop music, of all things. I know it's weird. I even do my own private step aerobics on my deck!"
You've taught at some very prestigious universities in America. What's that been like?
"It was a great challenge trying to cross intercultural divides, but rewarding also to make progress. I learnt so much in the United States – it completely transformed me as I didn't realise the 'performance of race and gender' was even a thing. Americans struggle with cultural protocols, as there is a fraught history that makes these things complex. But I hope to have influenced students positively."
How did the concept for Mitimiti come about?
"I was searching for inspiration when I came across a Ralph Hotere art book. It reminded me of initial inspirations behind forming Atamira Dance Company, and I also found out Ralph was born in Mitimiti, which is where my whanau come from too. This discovery led to my first trip back to Matihetihe Marae in 2011, and the rest is history. Whenever I've seen Ralph's work, I always get drawn into a very introspective, almost alchemical space. I love the way the dark, the gloss and the matte counterbalance light, neon and colours that seem to pop out of nowhere. I love that the work is still considered radical as Maori art. There's a timeless potency – ancient without decay or degradation."
Mitimiti is a culmination of five years work with various artists. How has it evolved over that time?
"The most important evolution is that I am far more accepting now of my life story. Being a true-blue city boy, I always thought this identity made me culturally less authentic. I'm working on playing with perceptions that urban Maori are more, or less, disconnected. I wonder if once human beings find out what we're looking for, we somehow circle back to the beginning? I remember reading The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho in 2003, and admired that story for that very reason."
What do you think it's going to be like to see such an emotionally invested piece of work finally hit the stage?
"At the moment, putting hours and hours of work into all the planning and design and production elements, I'm still wondering about what it is to achieve a goal, and how to keep one foot on the accelerator and not back off until the end. Maybe ask me again after Mitimiti's opening night show is done – I'll be parked up at Q Theatre bar, sipping on a very well-deserved mai tai!"
As part of your research for Mitimiti, you went back to the Hokianga Harbour with Marae DIY. What was that like?
"It was a total blast. I find the journey travelling up north so magical, it's so refreshing to get out of Auckland. We got stuck in with 120 people, and worked hard day and night. The reveal of the wharenui was amazing and emotional for the people who live there. These memories will stay with us forever."
What's it been like collaborating on this show with artist Lisa Reihana?
"Lisa is super cool and funky, and I love her ideas and application. She is so thoughtful and intelligent and edgy. These are also the things that attract me to my other collaborating artists, who are incredibly invested in the outcome. I love we spend so much time trying to create a unique theatrical world for the audience to come be inspired by. I can't wait to share the fruits of our labour!"
You've been invited to become the 2016 Artist in Residence at the Asia/Pacific/American Institute of Dance at New York University.
"Yes, which allows me to influence Americans – one of my favourite pastimes! I am interested in making relationships with native peoples, former tribes who historically were forced to leave New York City many centuries ago. I create opportunities for people to cultivate indigenous knowledge, and support that in every way I can."
Where's the best place to eat in the Hokianga?
The biggest fish burger in the entire world comes from the fish and chip shop in Opononi. I think they even put deep-fried mussels in a double fish burger. It was so huge and made me feel so guilty. So guilty, I took a photo and sent it back to friends in Auckland. "
Atamira Dance Company's Mitimiti opens Auckland's Tempo Dance Festival and is playing September 30 to October 3 at Q Theatre.