Okareka Dance's K'Rd Strip set for Edinburgh Fringe Festival video

Chris Skelton/STUFF

K' Rd Strip - A Place to Stand is a dance show about the history of K Rd by Okareka Dance Company.

Seeing a dancer at rest is like seeing an animal out of its natural habitat.

There's the same posture, grace and elegance. Only it's all wrapped up in trackpants and hoodies, sitting cross--legged on the floor inhaling sandwiches in a break between rehearsals.

The man in charge claps his hands and the all-male cast pull on heels higher than most women would dare to don. The relaxed smiles are replaced by fierce, sultry stares as they take their positions to start the first number.

A taster of the show's costumes which Taane Mete says will all be beautiful.
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A taster of the show's costumes which Taane Mete says will all be beautiful.

The show is K' Rd Strip - A Place to Stand and it's billed as a mixture of dance, kapa haka and drag. "Nothing you're going to see here is traditional!" Taane Mete, one of the artistic directors, warns with a laugh.

Sure enough. They form up and charge forwards with ferocity: "Sometimes we're he," they chant, and pukana - their tongues sticking out. "And sometimes we're she," they say, clicking their fingers with a camp cry of "heeey!".

It's a world where tradition meets everything that isn't. When it comes time to take photographs, the dancers drape their limbs over each other, puffing out chests and artfully bending joints and arching necks, their eyes ablaze.

Two things are clear: this isn't their first time to the dance, and they're not messing around this time.

This is K'Rd Strip's second time to the stage, having enjoyed a 29-show sell-out nationwide run in 2013.

The show was six years in the making in the mind of Mete, who studied at the New Zealand School of Dance and has worked with many of the major dance companies in the country.

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Jesse Wikiriwhi, Adam Burrell, Jason Te Mete, Will Cooper-Barling and Tai Royal (front). Photo: Chris Skelton

Now, the all-male, all-queer cast of the Okareka Dance Company are back, running a tighter ship and this time taking the show all the way to the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August.

Okareka director Rachael Penman can barely contain her excitement as she hands over the festival programme and points to their spot in the listings: "there we are, right up front".

And they are. They're a highly anticipated act in one of the biggest arts festivals in the world.

Not bad for a show about a seedy Auckland street.

But Mete says the show is about more than that. It's about the vibrancy, integrity and acceptance on and of Karangahape Road, the sometimes-seedy inner-city strip in central Auckland with a storied history.

"It's a very infamous street that's steeped in history in terms of the culture of the road and how it connects to community - to the gay community, to the transgender community, to the night club community and also the red light district," he says. "And it was these qualities which really helped towards bringing the show together."

Penman adds that this time around, Mete's "taken it back", and incorporated the artistic feedback gained from the show's first run.

That includes adding new songs to the entirely-Kiwi catalogue drawn together by musician Paul McLaney, including tunes from Gin Wigmore, Crowded House, Split Enz and Th' Dudes.

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Tai Royal, Will Cooper-Barling and Taane Mete get fierce in K'Rd Strip costumes.

Mete says he was struck by the unique nature of K Rd when he first came to Auckland. "It was really incredible for me because it was a space and a place and a road where all these cultures collided. Indigenous, community, drag, gay, drug, nightclub communities - a whole array," says Mete.

"And I was really blown away by that. I was intrigued and keen to get involved in that being a young gay man at the time, and then getting involved by assisting in choreographing drag shows and then becoming a drag artist myself, I got a little bit more of an understanding of the wealth of the road."

Consulting with Kuia Tui Matira Ranapiri-Ransfield, Mete and the crew travelled back in time to first learn how K Rd got its name.

Mete says it's based on the legend of man who lived with his brothers in Hawaiki. Because he was club-footed, he was deemed unfit to fight and was left behind when his brothers set sail to explore new lands.

Distraught by this, he sat on the beach creating incantations until one day he saw a taniwha which brought him to New Zealand, where upon landing he stood up on a ridge and called to his brothers when their ships came into view.

His name was Hape. The word for call is karanga.

"Tui assisted us to really give us depth and also wrote a haka and a karanga especially for us - for the show. Talking to others we know - our kaumatua - really helped give us a greater understanding so we could go forth knowing that we are on solid ground and no one could take us down, because everything that we hold is true and honest," says Mete.

And while it may seem strange to build on such strong foundations with dance and drag instead of traditional kapa haka, Massey University's Auckland-based history professor Peter Lineham says that crossover has existed for years.

He says K Rd was once Auckland's go-to street, when Queen Street was undeveloped and Ponsonby Road was the seedy one.

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The street is partially owned by two churches, and is home to many more, who all brought their congregations to K Rd in the 1940s and 50s.

When Pacific Islanders started to move to New Zealand, a lot of them gravitated toward Beresford Street's Congregational Church, as it had been the Cook Islands' strongest denomination. Eventually, says Lineham, they were able to take over the church hall in neighbouring Edinburgh St, the other side of K Rd, and became the first specifically Pacific Island church in New Zealand.

Nowadays, he says, the Pitt St church is strongly Samoan, while the Baptist Tabernacle caters to a massive international following, so it's religion which was the initial basis for the colliding cultures Mete first experienced on discovering the street.

It might not make obvious sense for K Rd to go from being a religious centre to a red light district, but Lineham says the connection Mete and the Okareka Dance crew are making between Maori culture and LGBT culture is a true one.

"There's a significant interconnection of Maori and Pacific Islands people in both [religion and red light communities]. They form an important part of the entertainment community and at the late-night bars, they're sometimes the same people - very significant church going families," says Lineham.

And in the 70s when Queen Street was developed and shopping moved out of the central city and into the malls, "that marked the final end of the grandeur of K Rd".

As it became less popular, the buildings became cheaper and began to lend themselves toward red light and gay venues.

"So the LGBT side overlaps a lot with the Maori and Pacific Island influence and that's been critical in adding the colour to K Rd," says Lineham.

So with that in mind, Mete and the crew went ahead and made a one of a kind show which is already gaining support overseas.

"There's definitely an interest in Maori culture overseas. They're intrigued by the mythology as much as all the other sides of the show," Rachael Penman says.

And you'd hope so, given it's costing the company some $300,000 to get to Edinburgh.

"It's been hard. We're still fundraising. But going to Edinburgh is not about making money - you don't. You make a loss. We're going because we know there's a life for this internationally, and Edinburgh is the biggest buyers market in the world. this is our investment into the future of this and people recognise that people are quite forward thinking about the gay issues and equality and they're looking forward to seeing that."

Mete says it's worth it, to show a product which is "solid and has meaning and integrity".

"We're trying to portray that we are all equal. That at face value we can be criticised and judged, but at the heart we have heart. It's a simple story," says Mete.

"Just come back to yourself and stand your ground."

K' Rd Strip - A place to Stand is playing in  Auckland, July 14-18; Rotorua, July 21-22; Hamilton, July 23-24 and then at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, August 5-31.

For more information see Okareka.com, or to contribute to the fundraising effort, boosted.org.nz

 - Stuff

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