Sei ‘O Fafine

Kavanagh Auditorium, Kavanagh College, 255A Rattray St, Dunedin

13/10/2014 - 14/10/2014

The Pumphouse, Auckland

27/11/2014 - 28/11/2014

Aurora Centre, Burnside, Christchurch

10/10/2014 - 10/10/2014

Dunedin Arts Festival 2014

The Body Festival 2014


Production Details

When hope is all you have, sometimes reality looses its way. A mother’s struggle to cope after the sudden death of her husband. A daughter’s deep dark secret yearning to be free. Both journey in isolation, set on a collision course that is moving at speed and from which they may never recover.

A passionate, engaging and deeply vibrant inside peek into the gendered world of Tongan society and family.

Told through Tongan contemporary dance, dramatic dialogue, monologue and song. Sei ‘O Fafine mesmerises you into the deep layers, with a dash of humour, of Tongan women’s self-perceptions, constraints, love, culture and struggles in a close family setting.

By Sesilia Pusiaki

Date/Time         Fri 10th October at 7.00pm

Tickets    $25 Adults, $20 Concessions, $18 for groups of 6+ from Ticketek 0800 842 538 booking fees apply.

Writer/Choreographer/Director: Sesilia Pusiaki: LIMA Productions

Performers: Litea Aholelei, Suivai Autagavaia Latu, Natassia Wolfgramm, Loretta Ese, Shauntelle Jones, Maile Finau.

Dramaturge/Director mentor: Lauren Jackson

Assistant Director: Antonia Stehlin

70 mins

Fragilities of family life unpicked

Review by Dr Linda Ashley 28th Nov 2014

Sesilia Pusiaki has been developing this piece of Tongan dance theatre since 2011. When I first saw and reviewed it in 2012 it opened up a fresh view of dance theatre in New Zealand. Remnants of that vision remain in this substantially reworked version.

The story unpicks fragilities of the family life of a mother and her five daughters after the sudden death of the father. As the family pieces itself back together we are given glimpses of the tensions that have been brewing and continue to fester in their day-to-day lives. There is grief and guilt. A sudden fissure appears through which a dirty secret spreads into their world shattering any illusion of functionality. The women struggle with Tongan traditional expectations about how they should live their lives in urban New Zealand.

This is a work of light and dark, anguish and redemption, struggle and shame, and pain and heartbreak. It tells the story through the eyes of the various players. The performers are a tour de force, and each of them has a moment to shine. They are tuned in with each other in movement and voice as a highly cohesive group. They also brilliantly capture the humorous side of the lives of the sisters as they endeavour to be Tongan women and embody all the expectations of traditional cultural protocols and the associated punishments. A kung fu paper-rock-scissors battle that settles an argument and, in seeking the perfect body a round of cosmetic remedies which includes spoofs on dental, plastic and dietary treatments, are both highly amusing.

When the pace cracks along it is most certainly due in part to the singing chorus (Milly Grant, Jessica Unu, Neti Finau). Their powerful voices enhance the drama as they materialise spectrelike, delivering cascades of haunting harmonies. 

Dramatic conventions abound throughout this theatre piece, and on the whole they are effectively manipulated. Pusiaki is known for her serious depth of knowledge about traditional Tongan dance and she can use this to seamlessly layer older legacies with contemporary ones. When she does this she has a knack for quintessentially embodying everyday intercultural contentions and dilemmas, such as those driving the story of Sei ‘O Fafine. The predominant dance movement, however, that was a strong and expressive feature of the original production has become of lesser importance than the dialogue and monologue. OK – here’s the thing, I am a dance reviewer and I missed the power of Pusiaki’s proven choreographic talent, glimpses of which in this Sei ‘O Fafine retain the impact of earlier versions. A section in which Pusiaki counterpoints body percussion and gestures of a fatupasi with voice, song and more personal movement vocabulary results in a wholly Polynesian package during which the auditorium overflows with waves of the emotions that run throughout the work. Similarly, as mother spells out how Tongan women should behave, the daughters, in the shadows, perform a deconstructed tau l’uga with grace, poise and skill. These sections vividly capture the essence of the whole show, leaving some of the mimetic movement and less engaging spoken word as seemingly superfluous and somewhat clunky.

Ambrose Hills-Simonsen delivers a lighting design that is subtle when it needs to be and incisive when called for.



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An unexpected treasure

Review by Hannah Molloy 14th Oct 2014

A story of women, a story of parenting, alone and through your own grief, a story of growing up a woman, a sister, a daughter, a story of rage, of passion, confusion and of love. Sesilia Pusiaki’s  Sei’ O‘ Fafine is all of these stories and others as well.

The story is a simple one, made fraught with the complexities of familial relationships. A husband dies, leaving a woman grieving with her five daughters, responsible for bringing them up and teaching them how to be “young Tongan women” with all the generations of cultural expectation and mores that go with that. Her children struggle or conform, depending on their personalities, experiences and position in the family.

Any mother who lost her beloved husband and found herself left with five stroppy daughters could be excused for finding herself being a little short tempered and impatient of their foibles. (Being one of 11 children mysel,f and ten of us clear minded women, not to mention our clear minded mother, I understand many elements of this family’s life).

Each of the five siblings plays the role of their place in the family neatly, from the responsible but compassionate eldest to the pesky but beloved youngest (I’m the youngest but I was definitely never pesky…) and the almost invisible middle child who has to find her own way of making her presence felt in the family.

The performance is a juxtaposition of contemporary and traditional movement, song and dialogue. The blend works well, weaving the eternal story of one generation not understanding the next – or the one before. The presence of three singers on stage periodically, dressed in black and covered with black lace veils makes me think of the three Furies, or perhaps the Muses, depending on the moment. Their voices are beautiful and harmonic, adding a delicious aural layer to the performance.

Sei ‘O Fafine reaches into all the emotional pockets of the audience, with people snorting with laughter, a deep hush during moments of passion and a collective breath of catharsis at the end, when the family finds its way back to wholeness and understanding.

The performance is a little unpolished but the rawness of its passion make up for this. The women have a bond and move beautifully around each, stamping and thumping the floor and each other. Their hands are beautiful, placed precisely and carefully.

The performance touches me as a mother, as a daughter, as a sister, as an aunty. Their story makes me think about how I play these roles in my own life and what they mean for me and for my children, my mother, my sisters and my nieces.

There’s no handbook for parenting – not even an emergency flipchart – and I think mothers do their best for their children, however much or little that best may be. It doesn’t excuse the failings or missing the important things but if there is love and an intent to see your child through to adulthood as a complete and compassionate person, I think much can be forgiven, even missing the important things. As long as you make up for it with sincerity.

We have been very lucky this year with the calibre and range of performing arts on offer in this year’s Arts Festival Dunedin and Sei ‘O Fafine is one of its unexpected treasures.


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A profound sense of grace

Review by Sharon Mazer 11th Oct 2014

So beautiful. Three veiled singers, six dancers. All women, each moving in her own way, together. The play of dance and stillness, sound and silence in Sesilia Pusiaki’s Sei ‘O Fafine fills the stage and the audience with a sense of grace, lived and lost and discovered once more.

The story is familiar. Call it ‘the prodigal daughter’. Ofa lives precociously in the rather claustrophobic bosom of her Tongan family, but goes off the rails after her father dies. Her losses are those of her family compounded. She is banished, sinks into sin and suffering on the mean streets of Auckland. But she returns home, is forgiven and embraced. A year after the father’s death, the five sisters and their mother live again in harmony.

Sei ‘O Fafine is a wonderful example of what is possible in dance theatre. Sesilia Pusiaki has skilfully tapped into diverse modes of performance: contemporary dance, Tongan dance, quasi-realistic pantomime and speaking, some real silences and suspended moments, brief verbal interchanges and percussive vocalisations, and monologues to the audience in Tongan and English to move the story forward, accompanied intermittently by three veiled singers.

This conflation of styles could easily have turned to mush and muddle, but its delicately disciplined kinaesthetics communicate something of what it means to move between cultures – Tongan and urban New Zealand – and moves us to experience the narrative viscerally, nowhere more so perhaps than in the mother’s lesson on how to be a proper (Tongan) woman, embodied in shifts between Tongan cultural dance and more mundane bodily expressions.

Key to the success of this performance are the suspensions – when all movement and sound stops for a moment, like a memory captured and sustained over time. These moments hold up for us the tension between being/needing/desiring to be embraced in the bosom of the (female) family and needing/desiring/being free, the mix of joy and claustrophobia in the first and the exuberance, alienation and dislocation of the second.

The precision, passion and joy of the performers, their sense of being together in this with the audience, is profound and anything but commonplace. What I’m not so sure about are the littlest bits of pantomime, when the mundane is extended perhaps too far. For example, at the end, when the family is close again, we have the singers underscoring the ladies taking selfies – an action that gives way to a final, radiant tableau. This act (and others) of quasi-realism – the telling the story in a ‘first this happened, then that happened’ way, one episode at a time – at times makes the performance feel more like TV than dance theatre. The performance didn’t need such explanations, any more than it needed translation. Its power was in its theatricality, whether in motion or in stillness: the girls sleeping, being awaked by their mum, going through their daily routine (driven by mum), the mother’s grief sitting in her chair. . .

That said, I sometimes wonder if someday someone will tell the story of the prodigal who leaves home, doesn’t get drunk on K Road and instead of falling into sin and despair, makes a true life for herself – makes a new home that embraces her, creates its own narratives and traditions and new stories that remember the past but look forward without such regret, such loss.



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