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Print Version
Photo: Philip Merry
Photo: Philip Merry
New Zealand International Arts Festival 2012
Artistic Director Nina Nawalowalo
illusionist Paul Kieve
The Conch

at Soundings - Te Papa, Wellington
From 2 Mar 2012 to 6 Mar 2012

Reviewed by John Smythe, 3 Mar 2012

Masi is another 'must see' festival show. Like the quest it embodies it is simultaneously mysterious and exotic yet strangely familiar.

As creator/director and the pivotal performer, Nina Nawalowalo draws on the history, mythology and craft of masi (Fijian tapa cloth) to find her own way back to her paternal roots. Her Fijian high chief father met his English nurse bride-to-be in 1950s Wellington and 'home', for Nina, is New Zealand (although she trained in mime, magic, mask and clown in London and Paris and has performed and taught all over the world).

Photos taken by a young Ans Westra establish the young courting couple, who are 'made flesh' by Victoria Abbott and Alexander Tarrant. The chess game captured in one photo becomes a motif for their relationship. The lyrical physicality of their performances speaks volumes in the nature of their romance at that time.

Almost entirely non-verbal – apart from a greeting and traditional songs sung in Fijian – a variety of other devices are also employed to evoke Nawalowalo's journey of discovery. Masi-maker Ro Miriama Saunayalewa Tubailagi makes masi on stage, accompanied by performer Kasaya Manulevu whose entrance is literally magical.

Likewise the growth of a tree and the appearance of a boy (Jerry Vakamoce) – presumably the father as a child – are highlights amid the many magical moments.

Vakatara (chant soloist) Peni Jeffrey Lala sings potent melodies live, sometime accompanying himself on the lali (wooden drum). And most of the substantive action is choreographed to original music composed by Gareth Farr(recorded by cellist Charley Davenport and pianist Emma Sayers).

Nawalowalo has worked with world-renowned illusion designer Paul Kieve to take the wondrous work developed earlier this century in Vula to a new and astonishing level. People and objects appear, vanish and transform as a means of evoking the magical experience of discovering and recovering an essential dimension of being.  

Here the tireless invisible work of lead object animator Salesi Le'ota and his team – Merlin Connell-Nawalowalo, Manuel Solomon and Tameka Sowman – must be applauded along with Nik Janiurek's lighting design, which is crucial to their success. Even if you know how they achieve the illusions, the precision and discipline they bring to the work is a wondrous feat in itself.  

Of course no evocation of Fijian culture can be complete without a strong dose of masculinity, which comes with the Kabu ni Vanua Dance group – Maika Cobo, Dan John Fox, Paula Rokotuiveikau Nabuta, Inoke Rokotuinamata, Mesake Vuniwai – whose contributions are lyrical, muscular, mesmeric and pounding.

There are times when I would have liked greater clarity of understanding as to what certain sequences mean in the context of Nina's quest. Had I not seen mention, in the programme, of "being lost in a storm in the middle of the Pacific ocean" I too might have been lost in the powerful section involving white flags. And I remain unclear as to who this happens to.

Similarly there is a moving sequence towards the end which suggests someone has died, but who? I took it to be her mother, I don't know why, but note the programme dedicates Masi "to my late father Ratu Noa Nawalowalo" so now I am not so sure.

Nevertheless Masi is a remarkable work that allows us to share Nina Nawalowalo's experience in a unique and memorable way. And since it doesn't rely on spoken language to engage its audience, but explores a realm of being human that anyone can relate to, it is an ideal candidate for festivals world wide.  

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Graham Atkinson posted 3 Mar 2012, 06:10 PM / edited 3 Mar 2012, 12:00 AM

A magnificent work that will undoubtedly equal Vula in longevity. My only small criticism is that as with so many New Zealand works the lighting was too dark in places resulting in some of the animation being lost. I appreciate there is a very fine line between lighting the animation and not the animators but last night we missed some of the choreographed movement. 

A small quibble and I look forward to enjoying it a second time.

Lyne Pringle posted 4 Mar 2012, 05:25 PM

I think I must have been at a different show!?