Nancy Wijohn

Photo by Charles Howells

Photo by Charles Howells

By Leah Victoria

A vast group of New Zealand's top choreographers, dancers and designers come together to form Atamira Dance Company, creators and presenters of Maori contemporary dance theatre.

With their latest production Manaia ready to take to the stage, I caught a chat with choreographer/dancer Nancy Wijohn to find out what it’s all about!

Hi Nancy! So tell me about the Atamira Dance Company

So we’re a big team of people, dancers and choreographers. And it’s kind of generational also you know, we have younger groups of performers joining the previous older members, each doing different performances and dances. So yeah quiet a lot of us actually!

So for Manaia, the interesting thing is we held auditions for 4 new dancers to join, so that was interesting for the company to take on new people! Because normally we revolve around each other! It’s normally what we like to call the Whanau members the ones who have been around longer that get used for projects but this was quiet different!

So what’s the meaning of Manaia?

Well the Manaia is often depicted in bone carvings as a shape. It’s likened to a seahorse as its quiet similar in that respect. The Manaia is actually a mythical creature with a birds head and a human body.

And what that relates to is having a spiritual connection, like how Maori believe in Wairua in the spirits, and so its about having an earthly connection with that realm. I know that sounds really deep but that’s the gist of the meaning!

So how is Manaia depicted in your dance performance?

Basically it’s each choreographers take on it. We’ve got one choreographer who’s taken the meaning and the essence of Manaia and based her work around that, and for myself, I was inspired by letting Manaia inspire the work that I’m creating as opposed to actually making the work about Manaia. I’m actually allowing it to just fit in with what I’m making.

Is everyone a choreographer and dancer?

Some are just choreographers, others both. A lot of us also teach.

I come from a big sporting background and I do a lot with personal training. These things I like to incorporate in the dance as well, like more athletic ways of moving.

Have you been on tour with Atamira yet?

Yeah I have! Atamira has been on quiet extensive tours! Last year we went to Seoul, South Korea and we werepart ofa festival there, we’ve travelled to China, we did shows in Beijing, we went to North America to! We did a tour through San Francisco , danced in New York, we danced in Jacobs Hollow, which is near Boston, yeah, also we performed in Hawaii and New Caledonia. So yeah the company has been to quiet a few places! Then there’s each individual artist and their own extensive travel, so it really brings this eclectic weath of knowledge from all over!

You must find a lot of inspiration from travelling. A lot of the countries you mentioned each have quiet an extensive contemporary dance culture also.

That’s true, very true. Especially, some of the great things about when we go to other indigenous parts of the world such as Hawaii, is seeing how we can incorporate new things into our works.

Nancy how did you get involved with Atamira?

Well I had just finished my 3 year degree, I had done a contemporary dance degree at Unitec and I was chatting to Jack Grey (of Atamira) and he suggested I call Selena and organise to join the tour! So I thought why not! So basically with my first job straight from school, I was off to New Caledonia and performed at such a beautiful theatre! Sothat’s how I started and from there I got involved with small works programs, and it’s just progressed from 2008!

So you’ve been there a wee while now huh?!

I know! I’m sitting in the grandma stage now! Slowly working my way up the ranks! Haha

It’s such a fantastic company to be a part of! For me it’s the aspect of Maoritanga. The way we operate, although a Maori way, it’s quiet an urban way also. A lot of us are from the big city and haven’t lived in our homelands so have become more urban, so it’s quiet an interesting mix!

I wanted to ask you about the music! What kind of sounds will we hear in Manaia?

We’ve had a choreographer collaborate with an opera singer, and another has worked with a musician who’s sound has been created based on the movements. So it’s interesting and eclectic!

Sounds fantastic Nancy! Looking forward to seeing you all perform!

Thanks so much!

Manaia plays: 
Q Theatre Loft Space, 305 Queen Street, Auckland
Performances: 5 – 9 July, 8pm
Tickets: $15 - $30* Early Bird and Group prices available. 
Tickets available through Q Theatre – 09 309 9771 or
* Service fees apply