Loose Canons: Tānemahuta Gray
Loose Canons is a series in which we invite artists we love to share five things that have informed their work. Meet the rest of our Loose Canons here.
Tānemahuta Gray has worked in performing arts for over 20 years, both on stage and off. A trained ballet dancer, Tānemahuta is the artistic director and co-producer behind stage productions Māui - One Man Against The Gods, Arohanui - The Greatest Love and Tiki Taane Mahuta. He’s also worked extensively on WOW - World of WearableArt Awards and produced eighteen other major events, productions and festivals nationwide. In 2015, Tānemahuta was appointed as the Kahukura of Taki Rua Productions – the longest serving Māori theatre production company in Aotearoa.
"Every day is a learning day right to the day we die. From education comes knowledge, from knowledge comes understanding, from understanding comes common sense, from common sense comes cultural sensitivity."
– Mita Mohi
A major part of the bicultural productions I’ve worked on comes from training and experiences with Māori performing arts communities. Working with pre-schoolers and learning te reo Māori at Te Kōhanga Reo o Ngāio opened my eyes to not only Māori language, but also to the limitless possibilities of a child’s imagination. Learning kapa haka with Ngāti Pōneke Young Māori Club taught me traditional haka forms, and instilled in me a deep love of kapa haka. I went on to study at a mau rākau wānanga (taiaha) at Mokoia Island, under the mantle of koro Mita Hikairo Mohi. With great humility, koro Mita and the tutors empower men young and old to connect to their identity through intense Māori martial arts training. Students’ entire perspectives on life are shifted – it’s the most life-affirming experience I’ve ever had in a community environment. I left the week-long wānanga filled with new mau rākau moves and stories, but it was sharing lives with the men attending that truly made an impact on me. We had students from all walks of life - lawyers, policemen, soldiers, inmates, even Hollywood actors. The wānanga gave me moments to hear the experiences of men from all over Aotearoa. This has informed my storytelling, and my understanding of people in general, ever since. I challenge myself to honour their stories on stage.
My parents Neil and Tiahuia Gray have built a platform for myself and my four siblings (Moana, Merenia, Fraser and Nathan) to study and follow our passions. Ballet classes, kapa haka, sports, speech and drama, piano lessons, Scouts - all these opportunities wove the pathway towards an exciting career in the arts. My parents have seen the siblings work together on projects, which has been fantastic. My sister Merenia Gray and I collaborated several times on Māui – One Man Against The Gods and the Kōwhiti Festival of Māori and Indigenous Contemporary Dance. My twin brother Nathan helped to market these kaupapa with quirky ideas that have reached out strongly to the community.
My inspiration grew demonstrably after the arrival of my three children Keilani, Akira and Tamarererangi, with my wife Yumiko. Once we had the responsibility and privilege of raising our own children, my life shifted to providing for them and supporting their growth. The challenges and rewards of parenting together, and watching our children play and grow has provided a huge amount of material in understanding the journey of both the child and the parent. These experiences have played a key narrative role in Tiki Taane Mahuta, which I started ten years ago - just as my first child, Keilani, was born. It is fascinating to me what seeps through into my work from my experiences with my whānau.
I’ve always loved live theatre and film and the narrative and emotional journeys that one can be taken on. While I don’t follow specific artists, there are stand-outs that I certainly revere and whose genius inspires me. Francis’ Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Trilogy has always been a bible for me, in terms of strong character acting and narrative development. To me, it’s one of the few films as captivating as the original book.
Theatrically, the work of Robert LePage and his company Ex-Machina have been phenomenally inspiring. His seven hour epic, The Seven Streams Of The River Ota, is still the greatest theatrical experience I‘ve ever had the privilege of witnessing. His works develop a believable world and journey deeply and poignantly into the characters’ arc, but it is the absolute realism within his actors’ performances that is truly astounding.
My love of aerial work was born from five years of international touring with Diqui James and Pichon Baldinu on De La Guarda’s groundbreaking production Villa Villa. The work built a unique emotional energy using aerial displays, which shunned expose and looked inwards to the journey of the actors. Villa Villa opened my eyes to the power of aerials to create symbolism and narrative, over and above pure entertainment.
I’ve been fortunate to watch a massive number of productions, and many more films, in my life. Each one has provided ideas of what works and what doesn’t to study from and grow my own artistic practise. There’s a lot out there to be inspired by.
I’ve never been someone with the ability to build a show all on my own, particularly with the fusion of styles and forms my works tend to feature. Collaboration with my performers and creative team has always been my way of working. I’m continually inspired by what others have in their kete to contribute to the vision I’m guiding, working together to achieve our goals. I prefer working in a creative paepae with my team, navigating the best way around the challenges that a production inevitably lays down for us.
Tiki Taane Mahuta took years of work, uncovering the narrative that lay within Tiki Taane’s music and allowing characters and narrative to emerge from the songs. I worked closely with Sasha Gibb and Robert Dussler to tease out these characters and do justice to their stories. It’s incredibly moving to see how our performers embody the characters and grow them even further. Now that we’ve got Tiki Taane and Sam Trevethick from Shapeshifter performing live, the music is infused even more intricately into the characters’ journey. It’s an empowering experience to have this high quality team on board to fully realise the complete vision.
To view the world through a Māori lens is to experience it with the eyes of nature cast upon it. Māori narratives work within a natural worldview through Ranginui (sky father) and Papa-tū-ā-nuku (earth mother) and their children Tāne Mahuta (God of the forest and bird realm), Tangaroa (sea realm) and Tāwhirimātea (wind and breath realm) and many other natural elements and Ātua Māori. Having both Māori and European whakapapa has given me a drive to build bridges between the cultures and their stories. It is inspiring to live in New Zealand and have the worldview of tangata whenua still present and vibrant within our daily interactions.
The humanistic and communal philosophies within the Māui stories has always been pivotal in my understanding of our place in the world. Through Māui, we get to experience the eight faces of humanity, similar to Jung’s archetypal roles, and the personalities and character traits we have within our community. These are life-long lessons. I have a lot to learn, but I’m fully inspired when I can gather new insights from people that I connect with and walk life’s path alongside.
Aotearoa inspires me. The people of our planet inspire me. Nature and its infinite beauty inspires me. There certainly is a lot to be both grateful for and humbled by.
Tiki Taane Mahuta is currently touring the country. It runs in -
Wellington at The Opera House on June 2
Blenheim at the ASB Theatre Marlborough on June 6
Ashburton at the Ashburton Trust Event Centre on June 9
Christchurch at the Isaac Theatre Royal on June 12
Oamaru at the Oamaru Opera House on June 14
Dunedin at the Regent Theatre on June 16
Invercargill at the Civic Theatre on June 20.
You can find tickets and more information here