Expressing the meaning of Matariki

Mixing science and dance are (from left) Simon Kaan, Metiria Turei, Louise Potiki-Bryant and Rhys Latton as they prepare for their upcoming Matariki dance piece. Photo: Gregor Richardson
Mixing science and dance are (from left) Simon Kaan, Metiria Turei, Louise Potiki-Bryant and Rhys Latton as they prepare for their upcoming Matariki dance piece. Photo: Gregor Richardson
For the first time in Dunedin’s Science Festival, science and dance will collaborate in an exploration of the Matariki constellation. Rebecca Fox looks at how the two come together in a community performance.

Rangi Matamua
Rangi Matamua
A constellation of stars has inspired a multidisciplinary dance performance that will highlight the story of Matariki and its origins.

''Hahakaranga'' is based on the work of Dr Rangi Matamua, a University of Waikato academic who has specialised in the field of Maori astronomy.

''It's more of a lifestyle than a field,'' he said.

The Matariki constellation is a cluster of stars also known as the Pleiades.

Growing interest in, and celebration of, Matariki as it becomes more a part of the national identity and consciousness is ''fantastic'', he says.

But what is missing is the knowledge of the ''origins and deeper spiritual and cultural meanings'' of Matariki.

That is highlighted by many media outlets showing the Matariki constellation ''upside down'' to the way it is seen in the southern skies.

There are some simple facts about Matariki people should know, he said.

''Matariki is not the seven sisters - that is a Greek myth. In the Maori narrative, not all the stars are female.''

The number of stars in the constellation is also debated - Matamua believes there are nine, not seven.

''The saying 'little eyes' is a non-Maori translation.''

To Maori, Matariki is a ceremony or celebration of those who have died in the past year.

''It is to remember the dead and who has passed away. It is a celebration of ourselves today, of family togetherness, of eating and feasting together.''

They are universal principles that people of all cultures often celebrate - remembering the past, celebrating who we are and a prosperous future.

In the past, Matariki has always been a time of performance and festivities.

''It's very traditional. Performing and dancing, they enacted plays of traditional stories during this time, so it fits well with this artistic exploration.''

He believes the arts community is undervalued in the way it gives voice and expression to important parts of society and history.

Co-ordinator of Hahakaranga theatre director Jessica Latton said the dance was based on Matamua's book Matariki - The Star of the Year.

It follows Te Kokau Himiona Te Pikikotuku's account of his people's Matariki traditions, which were written down in the 1890s and passed down through the generations until they were given to Matamua by his father, Timi Rawiri, Te Kokau's grandson.

Jessica Latton
Jessica Latton

''Hahakaranga'' is broken up into different dances representing the different stars in the constellation - Matariki is the mother of the other stars; Pohutukawa connects Matariki to the dead; Tupuanuku is tied to food from the ground, Tupuarangi to food that comes from above your head, Waiti to freshwater food, Waita to saltwater food; Waipunarangi is tied to the rain, Ururangi to the winds; and Hiwaiterangi/Hiwa is the star you send your wishes to.

As a community dance project it will involve dancers across the spectrum, including from Otago Girls' High School, veteran Dunedin dance educator Ali East, mixed ability dance group GASP, a kapa haka group, pupils from Macandrew Bay School and Caroline Plummer Fellow Matthew Smith.

Guest choreographer Louise Potiki-Bryant is responsible for the Pohutukawa star section.

Pohutukawa is the star in the Matariki star cluster that guides those who have died in the previous year across the evening sky. One of the main aspects of Matariki is that it is a time for acknowledging and farewelling those who have died in the year.

''So the inspiration for my choreography is to honour this aspect of Matariki and to embody the role of Pohutukawa in carrying those who have passed on across the sky. I feel very honoured to be performing and dancing this role.''

She believes Matariki is an important time for whanau to come together.

''I have been away from home for the past few months, teaching overseas, so to come back home, spend time with family and to perform this beautiful work with whanau is so special for me.''

Bringing all of the star stories together will be the ''storytellers'' Ollie Olsen, Peter Hayden and Metiria Turei.

The astronomy and science of Matariki cannot be separated from its spiritual traditions, she said.

''So it will all be woven into this beautiful dance.''

The whole process of pulling together the dance reflected Matariki's meaning.

''It's bringing us together in the making of this dance theatre and gives everyone a sense of wellbeing, of working together.''

To see

Science Festival and Puaka Matariki Festival: ‘‘Hahakaranga’’, Toitu Otago Settlers Museum, Dunedin, July 15, 2pm-3pm;Dr Rangi Matamua, ‘‘Matariki’s Beliefs and Customs Explained’’, Otago Museum, Dunedin, July 14, 11am.

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