Heliaki: Tongan Contemporary Dance Theatre

Mangere Arts Centre, Auckland

26/09/2012 - 28/09/2012

Production Details

This programme of dance works is included in MATALA –  A Celebration of Tongan Culture at Mangere Arts Centre, suppoerted by Creative New Zealand.

Performers - LIMA Dance Theatre

Sei o Fafine:
Performers: Sesiliak Puliaki, Lavinia 'Uhila; Suivai Autagavaia; Antonia Stehlin, Manuariki Nofo'akifolau, Beni Morrison, Katerina Fatupaito
Singers: Ana Puliuvaea, Viki Puliuvaea, Aspasia Tatuila

Fanau Tangata:
puleleki Jackson-Bourjke, Tevita Vaka, Al;bert Mateni, Moses Maika, Onetoto Ikavuka, Paula Mohena, Moses 'Uhila, Aisea Latu


Lighting designer: Jennifer Lal; Lighting operator: Samson Chan-Boon; Sound operator: Melissa Banse; 

1 hour 20 mins

Passionate, engaging and vibrant

Review by Margi Vaz Martin 28th Sep 2012

Heliaki is a programme which weaves together elements of dance-theatre and music. It is passionate, engaging and vibrant. A double-bill show by two Tongan choreographers, Amanaki Prescott-Faletau and Sesilia Pusiaki, and New Zealand’s first professional contemporary Tongan dance production, Heliaki is showing as part of Matala – A Celebration of Tongan Culture at Mangere Arts centre, 24 – 29 September 2012. Matala features dance, theatre, poetry, and music with traditional and contemporary faikava.  [see http://www.eventfinder.co.nz/2012/matala-celebration-of-tongan-culture/auckland/mangere ]

In January 2012 LIMA Productions held a Creative NZ funded three week intensive workshop developing new pieces.The initial drafts of both  Sei O’ Fafine and Fanau Tangata were created from this mentoring and development process and previewed in February at the Mangere Arts Centre. In Heliaki, the choreographers have revisited these two innovative, complementary works encompassing contemporary and Tongan dance, physical theatre, drama and song.

Pusiaki and Prescott-Faletau are both establishing themselves as choreographers with influence. They are graduates of the Pacific Institute of Performing Arts (PIPA). The show has specific appeal for Tongan communities but it is also accessible to Pasifika, transgender and dance audiences across the public spectrum. In Heliaki, both choreographers push boundaries by taking elements of traditional Tongan dance and uset hem to form contemporary artistic expressions of their experiences as young Tongans growing up in New Zealand today.

The show gives the general public an inside peek into the gendered world of  Tongan society  –  women, men and fakaleiti (Tongan transgender).

Pusiaki’s Sei ‘o Fafineis cast for seven dancer-actors and three vocalists. The vocalists’ faces are covered with black veils. They are skillfully lit in dim light, grouped together in varying positions on the stage. The live sound and exquisite harmonies add atmosphere to the piece. The first dance is characterized by heavy rhythmic feet and unison swinging as the group seem to emotionally struggle with something. Later on I wonder if this dance represents the death of the Father, since the mother character is then separated into a chair alone and later on goes into a monologue about her loss. This is one of the key themes that connects the two pieces.

Dramatic dialogue, monolgue and powerful dance transport us into this Tongan family home. The vibrant vingettes and quickly changing scenes sustain our interest in the story. The matriarchal mother tries to be in charge while teaching her girls how young Tongan girls need to be polite and graceful and demonstrate love, respect and obedience. With passion, she emphasizes community expectations (another theme) when she says “If you do the wrong thing they will talk about me”.

It is an energetic and humorous portrayal of Tongan women’s self-perceptions in a close family setting. Attentive audience members may also notice that one of the dancers is fakaleiti (Tongan transgender) – although this is never made obvious. It foreshadows the second part of the programme, but contrasts to it in that the inclusion of a fakaleitiamong the women  is not an issue that needs raising.

The programme states that in Fanau Tangata, Prescott-Faletau tells his story about growing up as a fakaleiti (transgender) in an all-male, traditional Tongan and Christian household. At first I expect the atmosphere in the theatre to change markedly and be filled with emotional angst. But I am wrong. We meet lots of men – perhaps brothers –  in another family who again are dancing, dialoging and working through family issues. It is like the flipside of the first piece.

Again there are the family, Tongan expectations described, powerful dancing and live singing and drumming directly on the stage floor. In one scene the men are dancing, gesturing and slapping in traditional and contemporary movements, when one man steps forward and speaks. He says “You father lets you do what you please…The things you do reflects on us… The men in our family have to love you because you’re blood…” We are not clear who he is addressing but we have seen an additional male performer appear side stage in various scenes, dressed with a floral lava-lava over the all-black attire worn by the other men. He is the odd one out.

Prescott-Faletau enhances his piece with two vivid and symbolic props. One is a red satin fabric sheet which can cover the stage floor, and the other an everyday chair. The fabric is used in the first and last scenes, as well as an intermediate scene, and its symbolism is open to interpretation. In the dramatic middle scene, the red satin is wound and twisted and pulled, eventually wrapping around a body and also the group. The body is lifted above the group of men and carried off stage – perhaps indicating the death of Grandfather Baker? It’s another family loss.

The other prop is a chair. In one scene it is acknowledged and central to the action, and repeatedly knocked over and picked up again. It seems to represent a family member that has passed on. Each young man releases his emotion and connection to the person by directing monologue and movement around the chair. We see relationships under the strain brought about by a family death (perhaps a child?) and a family member that does not fit in. There is no denying the emotional impact.

One of the brothers speaks to us in Tongan but unfortunately the literal meaning is lost to me. The brothers are then engaged in busy walking and singing up stage, leaving the other brother (Prescott-Faletau) down stage now clearly revealing his identity as fakaleiti (transgender) as he dances with jerky, powerful emotion to “It’s a mans world”. They bring the red satin back on stage, stretching it across the space before they leave Prescott-Faletau to deliver his final monologue.

The enduring image that closes the show is of Prescott-Faletau, seated in a sea of softly lit, beautiful red satin. It billows gently on and off the floor. For me it seems to represent love, the fabric of community and the symbol of a family member passing on. His monologue is thought-provoking, culturally challenging and emotional. “I am who I am… a fakaleiti … I’m living on the edge… the edge of hope… God makes no mistakes.. I was born this way.”

Jennifer Lal’s lighting design is very effective, creating lots of atmosphere. The contemporary approach, reflecting the experience of Tongan youth living in Auckland, is part of Sesilia’s larger goal, to broaden Tongan music and dance, to move it out of the home and church and give it a foothold on the stage. She achieves this without using any set, connecting immediately with the audience, allowing the audience’s imagination to work. Her political point seems to be to simply portray the reality of her life. Pusiaki’s piece is well resolved.

Prescott-Faletau, by contrast,  seems to be making stronger socio-political statements about his identity and tries to open a dialogue about it. His work is immersive but not completely satisfying. The collage of vingettes appears a little fragmented and perhaps it reflects the need for further development of this important piece.


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