“Wohali,” the newest work by Exhale Dance Tribe’s artistic directors Missy Lay Zimmer and Andrew Hubbard, is also a Cherokee word for eagle, and the culmination so far of the pair’s ongoing collaboration with New Zealand’s Okareka Dance Company. It’s also what the two have named their program Saturday at the Aronoff Center.
Wohali is rounded out with other featured choreography by local talent Katie Farry, Sarah Emmons and Jennifer Rutherford, but it’s the namesake performance that takes top billing.
“Wohali is a 45-minute sneak peek into a performance of the same name that will appear at the New Zealand Dance Festival in 2017,” Zimmer says. “Three Exhale dancers will accompany Andrew (who will also be dancing) and I to New Zealand, where we will perform opposite Okareka. Each company will perform a piece around the same theme.”
The story of how the collaboration between two companies on two different continents came together is fascinating. It began a decade ago when Lisa West-Smith, a Greater Cincinnati native, longtime dancer and arts supporter, was co-directing a Livestrong Foundation fundraiser in Cincinnati. After watching a video of Black Grace, a New Zealand company, she was inspired to choose them to perform at the fundraiser.
“They performed dance based on Maori and other South Pacific traditions,” Smith says. “They portrayed warriors. I saw strength, energy and joy — it was just beautiful. It was powerful.”
While they were in Cincinnati, Taane Mete and Taiaroa Royal, two company members who broke off from Black Grace in 2007 and formed their own company, Okareka, connected with Zimmer and Hubbard after seeing an Exhale performance.
Since then, Zimmer and Hubbard have taught and choreographed for Okareka in New Zealand. Mete and Royal have done the same in Cincinnati, choreographing “Mother and Child” and “SELFISH,” both performed during Exhale’s 10th-anniversary show in 2015. Royal is set to be in Cincinnati this weekend, and will appear on stage with Zimmer and Hubbard before the two programs.
“I have some Cherokee ancestry,” Zimmer says. “I’ve come to believe a white ancestor in my past was abducted from her family. She lived with the tribe that abducted her, and when her original family found her, she did not connect and remained with the tribe.” In some of her early choreographic efforts with Hubbard, she referenced her history.
She explains that working with Okareka has grounded her and re-inspired what she feels is her spirituality. After Exhale’s 10th anniversary, she and Hubbard reviewed the dances they had created so far for their award-winning company and decided it was time to make a more substantial piece, one that had resonance they felt was lacking in some of their popular Broadway-inspired contemporary/jazz pieces that they, their dancers and their audiences were fond of.
In the process of creating Wohali, therefore, the two wanted to draw on Native American culture. They decided that the fable of the Eagle, Wohali, was a platform for the storytelling they had defined as their company’s mission. The idea was that Eagle represented the duality between Earth and Sky, and (Wo)Man and Bird.
The dance became a meditation on Eagle as a magical, elusive bird — a sort of “sacred messenger” connecting New Zealand and North America. “One of the things I love about Tai and Taane’s choreography for their company is how they take a more contemporary spin on time-honored stories while retaining the lifeblood of tradition. We feel that in our work, too,” Zimmer says.
“So for us, though we are telling a fable, it is not so much a literal retelling of a Native American story, though we want to retain the energy of that kind of story.”
Exhale board member Jacqui Haas, a former dancer who now supervises the Performing Arts Medicine Program for UC Health, is excited to see Wohali on stage.
“The movement they present is unpredictable, rhythmic and raw,” she says of Zimmer and Hubbard.
Exhale Dance Tribe presents WOHALI at 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Aronoff Center. More info: cincinnatiarts.org.