26/09/2023 - 30/09/2023
Choreographer/Performer: 'Isope 'Akau'ola
Bunga’s Paradise is a contemporary dance theatre work that follows ‘Isope ‘Akau’ola on a solo journey. It is both a challenge and a love letter to the promises of Milk and Honey that were once set during the Dawn Raids era in Aotearoa. Bunga’s Paradise is an attempt to envision and hope for a new world for Pasifika.
Bunga’s Paradise premieres at Basement Theatre:
26th – 30th September, 8pm
Tickets are Choose What You Pay!
Choreographer/Performer: 'Isope 'Akau'ola
Contemporary dance , Dance , Solo ,
Beautifully articulated weaving of movement, song, theatre and audience interaction
Review by Chas Mamea 30th Sep 2023
Bunga’s Paradise is a solo work curated and performed by young emerging Tongan contemporary dance practitioner, ‘Isope ‘Akau’ola. The Basement Theatre provides an intimate space that allows the audience to become immersed in ‘Akau’ola’s world, which he skilfully builds on through beautifully articulated weaving of movement, song, theatre and audience interaction. ‘Akau’ola describes the Pasifika body as one that historically, has been perceived as an “of-service” body – constantly working, laborious and has to endure. The show remembers, acknowledges and pays homage to the Pacific migrants who moved to Aotearoa for better futures for their families.
As the audience slowly trickles into the theatre to take our seats, we find ourselves entering the space to ‘Akau’ola swiftly moving with athletic, flowy, movement and gentle running. The memorable audio of the dreaded endurance exercise from school, the ‘beep test’ accompanies him; triggering nostalgic and slightly traumatic memories of P.E class from my childhood. The white tape on the ground marks the shuttle lines required to meet for the test. There is a single water bottle in the middle of the space as ‘Akau’ola navigates around the room, paying no mind to it. The sweat dripping down his face shows he has been doing this for some time and the show hadn’t even started.
As ‘Akau’ola continues to move through the space, with the same repetitive audio and movement, you cannot help but feel a sense of respect for his will to keep moving, while sustaining the same energy for a significant amount of time. The water bottle must have seemed tempting by the time he reached Level 20, but ‘Akau’ola still persisted.
He finally reaches the final level of the beep test: an achievement that would have been met with cheers and pat on the backs from classmates if we were still in school. Instead, he takes a long, refreshing drink of water from the bottle in the centre of the stage – the one he was so disciplined not to take a sip from, let alone acknowledge. As the lighting state gently shifts into a spotlight on ‘Akau’ola – he activates the space through song and traditional Tongan movement, sending shivers down my spine. A spiritual calling and acknowledging of those who have come before him – I am reminded that the body carries, remembers and recalls lineage through voice and dance which ‘Akau’ola does very well.
‘Akau’ola then returns to doing shuttle runs as he counts his laps in Tongan and then suddenly breaks into a theatrical character, resembling a young local boy on the primary school playground. ‘Akau’ola does well to break the fourth wall and includes his audience members as his ‘friends’ to play relatable, childhood games in the world he has built. A classic ‘Your Mumma’ joke battle takes place on the playground as he shows off how cool his Mum is. He classes her as one of his favourite superheroes, Batman – as they both work long night shifts. It is an important reflection of his perspective as a young Tongan boy growing up in Auckland and a symbol of respect for the superheroes aka the Pasifika migrant parents who work long, endless hours to provide for their children. A story many urban Pasifika can relate to.
‘Akau’ola then puts himself through enduring long repetitive cycles of athletic and gestural movement which reflect a working day, accompanied by the respectful ‘tulous’ and attempts to mafana the space. The longer he continues to move, the more tired he becomes. But there is still a drive in his execution to get the ‘job’ done, as we are left thinking – when does it end? The theme of the laborious Pasifika body re-emerges here: What are we capable of when we push ourselves to our limits? How long can we sustain this? A simple idea of consistent movement provides insight into how endurance on brown bodies in blue work overalls can be perceived alongside the many complex layers of identity and service for Pasifika migrants.
‘Akau’ola then shifts us into another world as he embodies the typical Kiwi presenter for a TV show called “Bunga’s Paradise”, putting NZ’s top ‘bungas’ to the test. Reframing the derogatory term in a comedic way – the idea invites a few giggles from the audience. In his quest to find NZ’s next top ‘bunga’, ‘Akau’ola invites the audience to a game. He proposes statements to the audience, who must take a sip if they relate. What starts off as light hearted and quirky dialogue, suddenly shifts into confronting and challenging questions that quickly make us realise our privilege, or therefore lack of it – for ourselves and the people we are sitting next to.
Following the game show, a voice memo of what I presume is his ‘Akau’ola’s mum reminisces of her experience moving to New Zealand. It is also revealed that ‘Akau’ola comes from a whakapapa of performers within his family.
To close the space, ‘Akau’ola chimes out a beautiful Tongan song, which is eventually joined by the audience as they tautoko with harmonies for the closing of his work. A moving experience.
With only a handful of emerging Pacific artists working in the ‘Pacific contemporary dance’ genre in Aotearoa’s current landscape, ‘Akau’ola brings a fresh fusion of Pacific perspectives, contemporary dance, traditional and urban Pacific cultural intertwinings, storytelling and nostalgic references. He has clearly developed a distinctive artistic style which audiences can relate to and see themselves reflected in and with this only being his first full length show — I am very excited to see what the future holds for him. Malo ‘aupito for your work.
Copyright © in the review belongs to the reviewer
Centering Tongan culture and values within a well known narrative of the ‘migrant dream’ in Aotearoa
Review by Iatua Richard Felagai Taito 29th Sep 2023
Coming into the space and seeing Isope ‘Akau’ola immediately running and dancing was confronting as it made me as an audience member switch on my hat of attention faster than usual. Generally you have time to read the flyer of the show, a bit of time to breathe before the show starts and to think about what to expect when watching. But, this time, once you enter the theatre, the performance begins straight away which made me engaged immediately. Once getting over being confronted by a dance – theatre piece starting almost immediately, to then be extremely engaged and focussed on what will happen next.
The beginning felt long, as ‘Akau’ola is running around the perimeters of the stage but the key point to take away was actually the gamification of the audio which accompanied him running and it being viewed as a video game. This aspect also highlighted the impeccable fitness of ‘Akau’ola. The traverse staging is clever as it allows a transparency of not just ‘Akau’ola from both angles, but seeing the audience on the other side and their reactions to this dance – theatre piece.
Through this video game ordeal at the beginning, and audience members feeling like the gamers, you can see the intensity of ‘Akau’ola’s impressive fitness and movements. He then changes to contemporary dance movements which become grander and bigger when the audio hits to a loud level 19.
Then there is a silence in the theatre with occasional verbal support from some audience members, but the silence remains throughout. But that silence isn’t an awkward one, rather an affirming one where we want ‘Akau’ola to win and not give up.
You can see the parallels of resilience in relation to a Pacific, in this context a Tongan, migrant dream coming to Aotearoa, dealing with a language barrier, racism, and socio-cultural politics, yet you are still fighting to gain happiness and success in Aotearoa. And that was what it feels like when seeing this non-stop movement.
As he reaches the top level of the game he drinks water, and we all feel so moved that he won the game. But it is too early to celebrate, as he walks back and we see him sing a Tongan hymn named ‘Ilonga Ha Taha’ in which we all have chills as it complimented well after his non-stop movement and video game type moment at the beginning.
Constructively though, it would’ve been interesting, from first impression if he sang Ilonga Ha Taha whilst moving and dancing in the beginning. This would provide an immersion of interdisciplinary forms of creativity within a Tongan context from the very start.
Despite this suggestion, it is still prominent and beautiful as the lighting starts to dim when he sings his Tongan hymn. It come from the heart when the song starts to have a life of its own and you can see how that beautiful Tongan hymn makes ‘Akau’ola really connect with his Tongan culture and his Christian faith.
One of the highlights of the show is when it becomes comedic, and ‘Akau’ola shows such skill in theatre performing. He breaks the fourth wall and engages with the audience and it makes me feel included in this fictitious world ‘Akau’ola creates with amazing one liners, kids will say for example; ‘run it straight if your mum’s fat’, ‘your mum’s a fob’. This makes us laugh but also engages us in the subtext of this theatrical moment.
The work ultimately delves into stereotypes and views of Pacific people, and the way ‘Akau’ola’ reaffirms those depictions is liberating. He stands unapologetically in his offerings. ‘Akau’ola does this with Tongan flare and humour which makes everyone laugh but also aware.
Another beautiful Tongan audio fills the theatre and contemporary Tongan and Pacific movements start to appear and the environment from that moment is the Tongan feeling of māfana. Which is an evoked emotional response and feeling of outburst of warmth and excitement all at once.
Throughout the whole performance you see the pride of Tongan culture at the forefront and this is the leading feature in his solo show.
It was poignant and a special show in ode to ‘Akau’ola’s migrant dream and most importantly his family’s one. A beautiful solo show that encompasses theatre and dance in a way where it is accessible for everyone to understand but also highlighting ‘Akau’ola’s vulnerability which becomes his superpower.
The abstract creative elements (such as the non-stop movements, symbolism of water, practice led work) of this performance symbolising the migrant dream is evident. It also has some tangible connections (theatre motifs of breaking the fourth wall, songs, lighting cues to foreshadow important parts in the show) which will appeal to certain audience members that need the clear cut storytelling.
The vulnerability of his mother’s story tied with Tongan heritage and values intertwined with his creativity, as well as delving into the migrant dream narrative that will resonate to all Pasifika people and most importantly everyone and anyone.
Copyright © in the review belongs to the reviewer