Some dance performances make you feel like dancing and some make you think you “just don’t get it.” Then others have the power to keep you in your seat long after the theatre has emptied because you are speechless. Such was the case with Maori New Zealander Charles Koroneho’s Pure at Montréal Arts Interculturels until Nov 30.

Movement, immanence, anguish and something akin to magic happened on the stage last night, and even after having a chance to interview the prolific performer/director, this humble reviewer is still at a loss for words.

A native of Auckland, Charles Koroneho is a philosopher’s dancer, a theatrical shaman, a teacher, visual artist and poet whose work makes you feel like everything else you’ve seen this season is child’s play. This is perhaps because it is imbued with something beyond performed “meaning,” with a symbology all its own and a trunk-load of histories that have come from the other side of the world to confront and display his alienation and attempt to “inhabit” Montreal (which is Koroneho’s newfound home after falling in love with a brilliant Quebecoise three years ago) and deciding to relocate to this icy colonial place.

“The backdrop for Pure is this back-and-forth and the feeling of returning home,” Koroneho told me the day before his opening night this week. Pure is both a Maori word for a ritual of the unknown (which can only be expressed from the place of knowing and remembering), and serendipitously a word with ritual connotations in both English and French. The piece is the result of Koroneho’s TÜAHÜ choreographic research, which informs both his practice and his teaching.

pure mai montreal 2“Tuahu is place that is distanced from our everyday life. It is a historical/anthropological space,” Koroneho explains. In Maori spirituality, there are three main “spaces” of cosmic, physical and psychic significance: the urupa or burial place, the marae, which is both a meeting place and sometimes a burial platform, and tüahü, which encompasses the worldspace of “everything else,” including, for Pure, the space of the stage at the MAI.

Koroneho’s set design for the piece includes a giant metallic backdrop that he transported in pieces all the way from Auckland, a large reclining dais (perhaps referencing birth and rebirth), and an oblong “carpet” of mulched wood bark that covers the floor. A plank, a glowing talisman, a staff which gets woven in phosphorescent rope, are some of the weighty symbols the artist manipulates in the 70-minute performance. Opening with an amplified field recording of a casseroles demonstration from the summer of 2012 in Montreal, and closing with a mesmerizing Maori traditional prayer chant sung live, Pure has the multi-dimensional elements of a one-man opera. Love, death, the eternal return, and an unspoken theme of resistance to colonialism pervade the work.

The difference between inhabitation and occupation is another subtheme Koroneho let me in on when we spoke about Pure, and one that I think deserve much more exploration from those who benefit and suffer from ongoing colonialism. “Inhabitation is a time-based project [whereas] occupation is a spatial concept,” he posits. Coming to Montreal for love, encountering the challenges of a new country and a new language and living his heritage as an artist and feeler all become incarnate in Pure, and the result is at once unsettling and grounding.

“If you really immerse yourself in the study of humanity, I can’t think of a greater thing to be than an artist. It makes you curious about life and about people,“ Koroneho concluded simply. If Montrealers have the privilege of seeing Koroneho continue to make work here, I will be the first to admit that our curiosity is more than piqued. It is stymied, and we’re the richer for it.

* Images courtesy of MAI/Oriori C