Phosphate mining, farming and Pacific dance – it appears to be an incongruous list but Mānoa Teaiwa is about to tell a story that involves all three and could well shock many New Zealanders.

Teaiwa, a member of queer Pasifika artists' collective FAFSWAG, has devised Stolen Stories, a 12 minute dance work, for the annual Pacific Dance Festival. Taken from his own family history, it is about the impact of phosphate mining on Banaba (Ocean Island) from 1900–1979.

During those eight decades, 90 per cent of the island's surface was stripped away and the phosphate used to fertilise New Zealand, Australian and British farms – land made from land, says Teaiwa. After World War II, most of Banaba's population was shipped off the island, part of the Republic of Kiribati, to Rabi Island, Fiji.

While some 300 people now live on Banaba, there's thought to be about 6000 of Banaban descent living around the world. Teaiwa, whose maternal grandfather was one of those moved to Fiji, is a child of that diaspora.


A professional dancer who has performed with contemporary companies and hip hop crews, Teaiwa not trying to answer questions about remediation for historical and environmental damages; he's more interested in exploring what past events mean for descendants living in the here and now.

"They say dance is a language; I like to say dance is my first language," he says. "It gives me a way to articulate certain things through movement and that's about creating a feeling and atmosphere where information can perhaps land more easily for an audience.

"When I was presented with an opportunity to create a work – to tell a story – I thought the most appropriate thing to talk about in a Pacific dance festival was my story of the Pacific. I think it adds value to a festival like this because it's something people can learn from and it's affected more people, in positive and negative ways, than just those from Banaba."

Teaiwa knows well the power of the arts to tell stories. His mother, Teresia, was a scholar and poet while his stepfather is Sean Mallon, the museum curator and researcher who, along Sebastian Galliot, won a 2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Award for Tatau: A History of Sāmoan Tattooing.

"I've dabbled in photography but for me, it's always been dance because I like that it touches so many of the senses. There's the visual, in watching in; the audible in hearing the music or the dancers themselves and sometimes you can actually feel it in your skin when you feel someone brush past you."

Stolen Stories is one of three short dances in the Moana section of the 4-year-old festival. It provides a chance for choreographers and dancers to show what they're working on and, hopefully, develop their pieces.

Teaiwa is already thinking of the future, saying he'd like it to become a touring production possibly performed alongside an exhibition his aunt, Katerina Teaiwa, put together. Now showing at the MTG in Napier until September, Project Banaba uses historical photographs from the British Phosphate Company as well as first-hand accounts.


What: Pacific Dance Festival
Where & when: Venues around Auckland; Wednesday June 5 – Sunday June 23; Moana, Māngere Arts Centre, Tuesday June 11 and Wednesday June 12


Other Pacific Dance Festival events


The festival opener, led by Aloalii Tapu and featuring eight other dancers, looks at the experience of being Kiwi and Pasifika in a Eurocentric country. ASB Waterfront Theatre, Friday June 7

Maui: Award-winning Nesian-hip-hop fusion dance by Hadleigh Pouesi and Freshmans Crew back by popular demand after performances at this year's Auckland Fringe Festival. Māngere Arts Centre, Saturday June 15

Siva Mai: Explores how music and dance, including jazz, ballet and Arabic, allow Samoan identity to be expresses. Māngere Arts Centre, Sunday June 23