Pacific dance moves to contemporary

By Dionne Christian

Exploring the modern culture of dance.
Metusela Toso, Albert Mateni and Riki Nofo'akifolau of Burnt Skin. Photo / David St George
Metusela Toso, Albert Mateni and Riki Nofo'akifolau of Burnt Skin. Photo / David St George

As the world's largest Polynesian city, Auckland is no stranger to Pacific dance. It takes centre stage at the annual ASB Secondary Schools' PolyFest and Pasifika; it's often seen before or after sports events.

But when we talk about Pacific dance, we're often thinking of its more traditional forms: the Hawaiian hula, Samoan siva and the Tongan lakalaka performed in specific settings to fit picture postcard ideas about Pacific culture.

Now there's a new festival which aims to show how varied Pacific dance is. The inaugural Pacific Dance Festival is the first contemporary dance festival of its kind in New Zealand and, says director Iosefa Enari, showcases some of our most exciting contemporary Pacific choreographers.

Enari says it will demonstrate the ways in which culture bends and re-shapes, influenced by tradition as much as by new experiences in a new and different place. In other words, how traditional Pacific dance has become a contemporary art form.

Pacific Dance New Zealand has organised "choreographic labs" since 2009, where three emerging Pacific choreographers work with a mentor to create, develop and perform original dance works. Enari says there is an impressive range of dance works, some of which have only been performed once or twice while others have had a longer life outside the labs.

He says it was time to bring the artists involved together, take previously devised works out of "the lab" and re-present them in developed -- sometimes changed -- form as part of the festival. Justin Haiu, Tupua Tigafua, Nikki Upoko, Katerina Fatupaito, Leki Bourke, Hadleigh Pouesi and Jahra Wasasala are among the choreographers involved.

A number of these choreographers work with some of our biggest dance and theatre companies and have toured with international musicals. Enari says Pacific dancers are regarded as among the best in the world.

"I think there are a lot of people who would be quite shocked to learn as they're watching a Justin Bieber video that the dancer behind him is from South Auckland."

Julia Mage'au Gray, of Sunameke Dance, was PDNZ's first mentor for its inaugural choreolab in 2009. Mage'au Gray makes a guest appearance at the festival, incorporating Papua New Guinean dance and video narrative, in a special edition piece, Wearing My Map, which highlights contemporary Melanesian dance.

The festival also includes a performance of Fatu na Toto  the Planted Seed, the successful show by Le Moana and Tupe Lualua. Lualua was the PDNZ Artist in Residence in 2013 and has concentrated on the immigrant experience of working life. Drawing on her own family's experiences, she wanted to focus on the impact on a family when dreams of coming to a "land of milk and honey" don't come true.

Performed in 2013 at the Wellington Fringe Festival and, later that year, at the Tempo Dance Festival in Auckland, Fatu na Toto originally featured Lualua's father, Matua i Falemua as the orator. She was apprehensive about telling a story that "doesn't always paint a pretty picture" of her childhood.

"But my dad said to me, 'There's a reason why we are doing this; if it's going to change or improve someone else's life, we have to do it.' So while it is our story, it is also a story so many others recognise and relate to and can learn from."

This time round, her father is unable to appear so Lualua will take the role as the orator.

"I have huge Jandals to fill," she says.

Fatu na Toto sold out in its Auckland and Wellington seasons; Lualua says reprising it is an opportunity to refine certain elements before it travels to the San Diego International Fringe Festival.

"A festival like the Pacific Dance one means we can expose our work and craft to a larger audience and it gives us something to work toward, an opportunity to continue to shape and polish a piece for different audiences."

The festival also features an exhibition of costumes from a variety of nations, a nod to the heritage that today's Pacific dance has grown out of.

• Find more information about the Pacific Dance Festival 2016 at pacificdance.co.nz

Performance

What: Pacific Dance Festival 2016

Where & when: Mangere Arts Centre, June 13-18.

- NZ Herald

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