An enthusiastic audience is waiting for the showing. Honoured guests are in the front row. The venue is one of Manukau’s eight Arts Centres – the Metro Theatre – a grand old hall. The producer has seated the audience on the stage and some of the floor area, leaving a simple open space for dance performers to be viewed. This is a showing, not a show. The people present, the speeches, the Master at work – these things create a sense of wonder, not lighting effects or staging.
A row of musicians is seated at the top end of the performance area – 3 slit drums, plus Keneti himself, on large rubbish bin drum. Guitars are picked up later. Two women join in singing. The men are in matching tan lava-lava, while the women are in yellow and blue.
Four young girls enter – perhaps aged about eight to eleven years old. They are fresh faced, beautiful and dressed traditionally. As they take the floor, an off stage MC informs the audience that we are about to a see a dance based on a traditional Sasa. The drummed accompaniment begins. I am taken in by the simplicity, the precision and the grace of it. I am not in a hyped up performance like I have seen at Auckland festivals or in a Samoan resort setting. This is peaceful, natural. It feels authentic.
When their four frangipaned, high-bunned heads bob quietly off stage, seven lovely teenage women take over for a Ma’ulu’ulu. Keneti is paying respect to his culture with traditional dance forms as the starting points and structures for his choreographies. They perform two dances. The first is to a CD accompaniment from the Samoan Teachers Training College, the next a live Samoan song from the musicians. The posture of the dancers is particular; their grace is beautiful. They move in perfect unison and I feel joyful. Keneti’s intention “to accord traditional Samoan siva the same level of respect given to other genres” is stated in the programme notes. This is his philosophical approach to the art form, and I believe he has indeed created art tonight.
The grace is followed with excitement! Loud drumming calls in three bare-chested, gorgeous young men to take the floor for a Fa’ataupati – a traditional Samoan slap dance. Each one’s short lava-lava is rolled at the waist, but there are no tattooed thighs here. The slapping is fast, precise and exciting.
The off stage MC changes with each dance piece and the young voices of the first dancers are among them. She compares Irish foot percussion with Samoan body percussion as she introduces the pieces we have all been waiting for – the contemporary ones. We are wondering where Keneti will go. He has told us in the programme notes that the concept of Past, Present, Future was to create dances from the inside out – the inside being traditional Samoan dances as a starting point. But how will he contemporize the motifs and style of Siva Samoa? Will he go beyond where his elders would want him to travel? We are about to find out as three more pieces are presented.
Ten dancers flow out in a semi-circular formation, casually smiling and waving. A mixed gender group is the first surprise. The lava-lava is still present, but one young woman has long tights peeping out from under hers. One man wears sneakers. They sit and begin a Sasa inspired dance, but the hand movements include new vocabulary and before long the sneakered male is on his feet in the middle of the formation, with lava-lava removed, track pants rolled down and a cap on his head. Some spectacular break dancing follows with plenty of floor work requiring lots of skill and strength. The audience whoop!
The group changes to six women and a Ma’ulu’ulu inspired dance which starts with guitar accompaniment but changes to drumming, including on the back of a guitar! The dancers retain the traditional form, posture and formation, but there are new combinations of hand movements and full backward arm circles. The MC carries on speaking between each dance, which allows for costume changes and by the last piece, traditional costuming is gone.
This piece is based on Fa’ataupati but five women and one man dance it! Their costumes are black tights and black singlets. The dance extends traditional Siva motifs in the direction of modern contemporary dance, but retains traditional formations, hand patterns and unison movement. Several changes of height are part of the significant contemporization as they move between lying partly on the ground, on high knees, balancing, bending and standing. The dance vocabulary retains clean lines but it is not as boundaried and encompasses some large limb extensions. Precise attention to movement detail is also retained from the traditional form. Speeches follow for some time. The elders seem to approve, or at least the MP speaking does. The presentation is cause for celebration.
Auckland’s Pacific Dance Artist in Residence programme is only in its second year. This showing culminates eight weeks of work. The Auckland-based residency is presented by Pacific Dance New Zealand in partnership with Auckland Council, Creative New Zealand and DANZ (Dance Aotearoa New Zealand). Keneti is a master dancer specialising in Samoan dance. His extensive personal performance CV, his professional teaching CV and the Company and Movement he has founded are well known to the Pacific Community. He is a gentle man with a passionate heart; an expert well deserving of this role.
During his residency he has taught a dozen or so dancers from various backgrounds three Samoan heritage dances – the sasa, ma’ulu’ulu (action dance) and the fa’ataupati (slap dance). From there he has created dances based on these traditions and their associated movements. These dances also include a music/rhythm aspect, which Keneti received mentoring for from esteemed ethnomusicologist Dr Richard Moyle.
Keneti is the co-founder for Vision Cultural Movement, which specializes in the maintenance of Samoan heritage arts & culture in Aotearoa. Keneti was also the founder of Legacy Dance Company, which took Samoan dance into the limelight on television’s “New Zealand’s Got Talent” (2008). He has 15 years of Pacific Dance teaching experience, has taught at various tertiary institutions around the country and has also taught and choreographed winning performances in the ASBPolyfest.