The Radical Act of Breathing
To live, we need oxygen. That is the precise reason why George Floyd’s words ‘I can’t breathe’ have become the mantra of the Black Lives Matter movement, demanding change all over the world embraced by so many as it taps into our primal fears.
For Jack Gray, breath is a radical act.
Gray spent over 6 years in the United States before his visiting scholar visa was impacted by Donald Trump’s presidency. What started off as an invitation to be a guest lecturer led to another role as a Visiting Associate Professor at the University of California at Riverside, a guest choreographer at University of California at Berkeley and an Artist in Residence at Asian/Pacific/American Institute at New York University.
It’s Silo Park, Auckland, Labour weekend, October 2019. I am at Te Whāinga, a multidisciplinary event that is part interactive experience, part exhibition that brought an eclectic group of multi-talented artists together. I am about to experience Whakarongo, an embodied tour of inner and outer worlds, led by Artistic Director of Atamira Dance Company, choreographer and dancer Jack Gray.
As I put on my headphones with the rest of the group, I am ready to embark on a sonic journey where I am invited to relinquish my will and commit to the fullness of my presence. But first, I must listen and connect to my breath.
Take a moment to connect within.
Let’s start with our feet.
Step your feet hip width apart and place your hands down by your sides.
I want you to breathe in through the nose, and out through the mouth.
HONGI – breath in…
PUHAA – breath out…
Ano, let’s do this again.
HONGI – breath in…
PUHAA – breath out…
“It’s funny," Gray remarks, "I was having a realisation whilst sitting cross-legged in a morning class with Atamira that even the act of breathing with intention was dance. I think about how each little action we do is an action that might save the world. It might save us. It might save others. Often we are caught up in this wheel of worrying about a future that never arrives when really we can be rooted to the truth, which is that we are alive now, with this breath."
Jack Gray at Corban Estate Arts Centre. Photo by Serena Stevenson courtesy of Atamira Dance Company.
Speaking of his time in the States, Gray continues “though dance and Māori culture were always the main points of difference, I tried always to evoke and facilitate conversations and community empowerment wherever I was. In my point of view, every place in the 'United States' was stolen Indigenous land. So by pushing the organisations and institutions that I worked with to come into a new place, that by acknowledging these relations and reaching out to bring local Native people in, that we could grow and expand outside of the problematic, racist and complex experiences that are erupting in the world right now.
"It's taken me a minute to get used to the difference of thinking and being back in Aotearoa - it is wild to witness what is happening currently with COVID–19 and the Black Lives Matters Movement.”
Indigenous Dance Forum 2016: Dance artists and Indigenous community from Aotearoa and New York preparing for their performance at Dixon Place. Directed and curated by Jack Gray (Artist in Residence at A/P/A Institute at New York University). Photo courtesy of Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU.
Indigenous Dance Forum 2016: Integrating the audience with the performance activators is a key element towards removing the third wall, theatrical separation. An intrinsic part of ceremony, wānanga and powhiri. Jack Gray's work often collapses the liminal space to be inclusive. Photo courtesy of Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU.
These words represent an attitude that has been rooted in multifaceted experience, knowledge and vulnerability. Before Atamira and before his stint in the US, Gray’s choreographic thinking and his ability to mobilise dance as ideas started in the mid-2000s when he managed to find himself within an intercultural and interdisciplinary pocket of University-funded dance and arts research development wananga projects.
“These specialist projects were the first times in which I, as a Tertiary trained contemporary dance artist, was folded into Marae, Iwi and University spaces - where I was able to learn tikanga Māori alongside the contentiousness of revolutionary community making.
"In these spaces, my spiritual essence and deep desire for cultural frameworks could both challenge and activate a profound inner knowing. Dance was my weapon; in fact, I was gifted a fibreglass patu (by designer Ema Scott) that represented what it was that I knew to be true. That we can bring the worlds together, to shine infinite light into many spectrums through.”
Ruatepupuke #Transcribing Spaces 2016: Jack Gray facilitates and curates a community wānanga with Illinois State University, local ex-pat New Zealanders in Chicago, members of the Indigenous and Native American community in Shikako - at his ancestral wharenui situated in the Field Museum. Photo by Jack Gray.
Dedicated to Decolonisation
Since 2018, Gray has been the appointed Artistic Director of Atamira Dance Company, a leading Māori contemporary dance organisation based at Corban Estate Arts Centre. His practice focuses on global interdisciplinarity, exploring cultural activation and community facilitation. Dedicated to decolonising, these choreographies and embodied conversations have been shown as part of exhibitions and festivals worldwide, including Whakarongo at the Smithsonian and at Auckland Museum, embraced by the dance communities as well as alongside and in collaboration with visual arts.
“What I do is curate and strategise the creative trajectory of Māori contemporary dance artists and have been working towards alignment of various threads that I have been interested in over the years, which challenge the status quo of expectation and also build resilience in our community.
"On a personal level, I am the youngest of seven siblings with a big extended family. The pathway I have chosen has enabled me to achieve important shifts in terms of restoring relationships with our whakapapa, cultural lineage and ancestral ancient migrations which unravelled into today’s contemporary impacts and traumas.
"At the heart of the journey is a sincere dedication towards rebalancing myself, trusting in the cultural values I hold close and gauging the best ways to share and express these ideas and concepts for others to experience.”
Mitimiti 2015: Atamira Dance Company in performance at Q Theatre. Representation of kaitiaki forms. Photo by John McDermott, courtesy of Atamira Dance Company.
Mitimiti 2015: Atamira Dance Company in performance at Q Theatre. Representation of Matihetihe Marae D.I.Y. Photo by John McDermott, courtesy of Atamira Dance Company.
As the audio tour comes to completion, I am experiencing the power of my own breath and the transformation and assertion of something so ordinary into something incredibly meaningful. Every day we are reminded that progress is not a straight line but that our collective actions can lead to change and huge leaps forward. Gray’s practice is collaborative and open. It’s an invitation to join in the conversation. As I listen, I am inspired by the strategy and practicality of breath and what it gives us. It is meditative and transformation oriented. It’s asking us to slow down and focus on this very moment of shared inhalation and exhalation.
“We want to share this breath, and consciousness, so walk tall, effortlessly, and gracefully. Choose a pace that matches your internal rhythms. Connect to the beat of your heart. Listen deeper. Whakarongo.”
Atamira Dance Company group shot 2019. Photo by Serena Stevenson, courtesy of Atamira Dance Company.