JACK GRAY

JACK GRAY
Dancer, Choreographer & Artistic Director at Atamira Dance Company 
profile_007I was born and bred in West Auckland. The beauty of being raised in Te Atatu Peninsula is that it was a tight-knit community of big families. Even though I was raised away from my turangawaewae on my mother’s and father’s sides, I still had that feeling of coming from a cultural background that definitely informed my creative pursuit around connecting whakapapa.

My first experience of dance was at age six when I started Kapa Haka. It’s funny to think about it as dance because most people see it as culture, but for me it was really just about coordination, moving, being in a community and working towards physically manifesting something. Now that it is something I have studied and researched, I think about how cultural concepts feed into dance, for example – Ihi is that inner fire you feel when you do a haka and then wehi is how the audience feel when their emotions boil up from watching a performance.

I remember learning that I could affect people through dance at a very young age, particularly when my father cried watching me perform the haka for the first time. I felt proud about that and I’m not sure exactly why being able to make people have an emotional reaction and release makes me feel proud, but it still does to this day.

I started off learning what we know as western dance at high school. I went to Rutherford High and we were the first secondary school in the country to have dance as a subject, so I was very fortunate. It was like it was destiny, because if that hadn’t happened then maybe I wouldn’t be here now. After high school I went to Unitec for what initially was a Diploma of Contemporary Dance. The year I graduated it became a degree so I went back and did what was the very first Bachelor Degree of Performing and Screen Arts in 1998. Nowadays you can get a Master’s degree in dance at most universities, but at the time it was so cutting edge and forward thinking.

After that I was a member of the Auckland’s Dance Community and doing everything I could to earn a living. I did some work in hospitality but soon gave it up as I realised that for myself to be happy I needed to follow my heart, so that’s when we started Atamira Dance Collective. There were four of us who were recent graduates from Unitec and The New Zealand School of Dance and basically our idea was to focus on Kaupapa Maori driven dance works and productions and see how that could create innovative choreography that spoke to all of our backgrounds at the time.    

I think now that Atamira is a world class dance company and the reason why I say that is because I have seen what is happening around the world. I think that what we have is a level of authenticity, emotion and spiritual strength that other countries don’t. I’m excited that we can get our work out there and watch it become a conversation changer for all of the different types of human rights that are being oppressed at this moment in time and the ways that we’re mistreating our environment. People are looking for the answers around the world and I think that we potentially already have the solutions, maybe we just need to find a new means to give them.

Manaakitanga is a way of recognising each others mana and a way of reciprocating our shared values together. What I’ve learnt is to not create a pressure or an oppression around what I think is happening, but to let the people who are gathered, create their own information. Sometimes we get stuck in the past and while the past is important, I like to think that being present is really beautiful because you can transform. I love the idea that there’s an aspect of transformation in whatever I do, because if you’re doing something and you don’t change, then I just don’t know exactly what you accomplish. Changing doesn’t necessarily mean solving or improving, it just means becoming.

I believe that you don’t need to work on people, you need to work on the space, so my attention goes into creating an environment and making sure that people feel valued, seen and respected. For me it’s all about people – our families and our community. My job as the artistic director of Atamira is to work towards seeing how strong relations can create new opportunities. Our artists at the moment range from current dance school students at Unitec to recent graduates and elders. It’s a very mixed and diverse group, but for me it’s definitely all about playing a part in growing the layers of a community.

My pathway has been very eclectic. I have been a dancer and choreographer for the last 20 years and after winning the AMP Scholarship in 2011 which was a really important time for me, I was able to look beyond what we had created and boil down to an essence what I really love, which is looking at indigenous culture. I went to Europe earlier on my OE for two years and got to see a very wide range of art and politics. Now we call it ‘research based’ work, but at the time I think I was just very curious.

People seem to think that culture and identity are static and that’s why I truly believe New Zealander’s need to travel in their lives because we are so isolated. Not so much now with social media, but definitely when I was younger. We are all the product of our environment and the way people were around us, growing up. We come from a country that has a signed treaty and even though that has its difficulties and its complexities, I think that at least it is a recognition of partnership and relationship.

The conversation is very different in all of the places that I have been to. There are some truly endangered languages and cultures out there and there are some very colonised territories where people have been forcibly moved from their lands and also made to stay away. So what I’ve learnt is that I’m very grateful for the country I was born in and the culture that was given to me and that I also sought out for myself. When I think about my culture I don’t think it of it as only Maori. While I think there is a Maori world, view and perspective, we live in a very diverse nation and it goes back to the fact that there are ways we can integrate, connect, communicate and not have to be at conflict.

Part of the reason I travelled was because I felt like what I could offer was a perspective that everyone in the room could be included. Everyone has their own ancestry, genealogy and mana to speak to that. I think the media does a terrible job of lumping things together and then creating stereotypes and cliches. In order to have a conscious opinion that allows for other perspectives, we just need to get out there and see it.

What I’ve seen from the work that I’ve done overseas, is that if you retain an element where the community can keep growing alongside you, then you’re going to have more options. It’s not in everyone’s taste or mental conditioning to live on the edge as an artist. Unfortunately our country has a very competitive arts scene, so it does become political and you have to align yourself with where you’re going and you definitely have to choose this life. 

I think dance has a bad wrap around discipline with that idea of the ‘old and strict dance master.’ Similar to the everyday business world, the arts world also has to change. We have to be observing basic protocols of courtesy and respect and just recognising people as humans first of all. People often get me to come into schools to help them with ‘getting their creativity right,’ but once you show people that there is actually no right or wrong, there’s just doing and learning, then it frees people up to believe in themselves. 

Life is all about looking for the gaps. Look for what you naturally have. I figured out very early on that I had a different way of identifying and articulating my culture. You really have to spend the time to get to know yourself and once you know you are then you can question how you can serve others. It’s about freedom. We have to liberate people to have a sense of freedom.  

My proudest achievement is the fact that I have been able to meet some really beautiful people and make those connections on a deep level. In this day and age we can be so superficial in our communication and networks, so I like to know that I’ve spent time in people’s homes, on their lands and I’ve learnt about their ancestors and rituals and I’ve seen their heartache and strengths.

Ralph Hotere the Maori painter was a big inspiration for me in creating Atamira. His paintings were very abstract and I remember strongly identifying with this idea that not all Maori art has to typically look like what you think it would. So I thought that if we use our bodies as a source rather than to replicate an idea, we can generate something more interesting. Many years later when I was researching my whakapapa, it turned out that Ralph and I actually come from the same village, Mitimiti in the Hokianga. That was a real light bulb moment for me because I thought that maybe there’s something to this idea that whatever was inside him, could also be inside me. It was very informative to my practice and process. 

On a local level I’m very inspired by people who are passionate about advancing social justice causes. I’ve learnt so much about different social justice issues resonating from say transgender, black and Native American people and I think it is mind-boggling that while we like to convince ourselves we’re all in this sense of equality, there’s so many people out there who don’t have the same opportunities as a lot of others. So for people who dedicate themselves to making a difference for others, whether they’re doing it voluntarily or standing on top of a mountain waving a sign and getting arrested for the work they do, I’m very thankful to those people because we have to be the voice.

I kind of don’t emulate from this idea of famous people because I love looking for those who are quietly doing their thing and New Zealand is really good for it too. We’re a unique country because we have a unique name like Aotearoa. We have an indigenous language that is spoken by the majority of people in this country, at no matter what level. Whenever I’ve encountered New Zealander’s abroad, there is this undeniable force that connects us. Kiwis around the world have unquestionably taken me in and supported me no matter where I am and they always cry for home – You just can’t beat that umbilical cord to this land. That’s what makes us special. 

I’m at a point now where I’m questioning a lot of the things that I was conditioned to think, growing up. I think really knowing your own mana, trusting yourself and having courage and confidence in your voice and own truth is important. As New Zealanders we have this strong sense of holding onto our emotions and just getting on with things, so I’m currently in the process of unpacking a lot of those emotions so I can evolve. I don’t what exactly that looks like yet, but I am open. I have been given a lot of advice, but I am still searching for wisdom. 


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