The waka had to be redesigned.

Ballet documentary The Heart Dances is a lesson in cross-cultural understanding

Documentary The Heart Dances is about the process of a European choreographer recreating The Piano as a ballet, but its real story lies in the exploration of what can happen when Māori culture meets European art.

The exploration of Māori culture within European art can be contentious. New Zealand artist Gordon Walters was criticised for his use of koru in many of his paintings throughout the 60s and 70s. Dick Frizzell similarly received criticism for his 1992 ‘Tiki’ series. Both artists are Pākehā and to some it seemed the aesthetic beauty of the Māori art was more important to them than the meaning behind it.

The Heart Dances is a new film by documentary-maker Rebecca Tansley that follows the adaptation of Jane Campion’s 1993 film The Piano into a ballet. Czech choreographer Jiří Bubeníček was commissioned by the Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB) to create the piece, expanding on a shorter version he had staged in Germany.

It’s a film about the creation of dance, but the most potent narrative is one of cultures clashing, compromising, then coming together.

Shortly after landing in New Zealand, Bubeníček was put in touch with Moss Te Ururangi Patterson (Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāti Pūkenga, Ngāti Rāhiri) a Māori choreographer, who would serve as the cultural advisor throughout the weeks-long process.

“I’m here to offer a perspective as an artist that draws my whakapapa from the land, someone who has experienced using that in a way to create contemporary art,” he starts, quickly finding his first point of contention with the production. “[Pākehā] dancers playing Māori, I find that a bit strange.”

Patterson remains calm and measured through all discussions, some more confrontational than others. It is apparent from the very beginning that from his perspective, the production needed work. “Unfortunately this is an example of what has happened multiple times with our traditional forms and our traditional symbols being appropriated by people who are mostly not from this country,” he says.

James Webster designs the waka hoi (paddle) for the show.

The appropriation he’s referring to is the improper use of Ka Mate, the complete lack of Māori performers in the ballet company, and the incorrect use of whakairo on the side of a prop waka. For the latter, Patterson enlists the help of Māori arts practitioner James Webster, (Tainui, Te Arawa and Pākehā) to help with the specifics of the Māori set design.

“To create harmony you all have to have the same idea about the function of a waka. I don’t really think that’s where the waka is at, at the moment,” says Webster.

Patterson politely but firmly negotiates with the forces of “artistic expression” that initially push back on his knowledge and advice. He quickly becomes an endearing protagonist as he navigates the tightrope of staying strong in his beliefs without derailing the show.

As a modern dance choreographer who works with Māori dancers, Patterson doesn’t hold back in questioning the lack of Māori presence in the RNZB. “Where are the Māori ballerinas?” he asks. “They’re not here.”

“This is the 21st century and we have to find a way for us to feel strong in ourselves, in our mana. We have to stand proud as Māori but we also have to find ways to work together and to be together and to create together.”

RNZB creative director Patricia Barker says the outcome of Patterson’s work was not only a sensitive and beautiful piece of art, but one that, for both the cast and the crew, “pushed the frontiers of the relationship of the culture here in New Zealand and of dance.”

Patterson’s measured approach to some hard topics is admirable, but in his own words, “others would not be so patient.” Though his korero with Bubeníček is sometimes frustrating, it teaches that sometimes even in this mad world of people with their fingers in their ears, there are those still willing to learn.

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The film works not just as a charming documentary about a ballet, but a commentary on the beauty that can be born out of collaboration.

The Heart Dances is playing now in selected cinemas nationwide.


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