VU made for an uncomfortable evening in a way that only artists taking risks can produce.
Choreographed by Vivian Aue, resident choreographer of Fiji’s VOU Dance Company, VU is the second iteration of a work that was received with offence and anger in Suva, Fiji’s capital.
I wander into Rangatira theatre to see a woman (Eleni Tabua), sitting cross-legged in front of a tanoa (large wooden bowl used in traditional kava ceremonies), a long rope of loosely woven vines hanging above. With her back to the audience, she is singing disjointedly and quietly, endlessly cupping the kava and pouring it back into the tanoa.
Behind her one man (Navi Fong) sits on two others (Rusiate Rokilibau, and Tevita Tobeyaweni). Six hanging pendant lights frame the stage, though only one is lit.
Navi begins to shake his head and upper torso violently and Eleni begins to scrub him vigorously with her hair and with kava. She returns to the tanoa and back several times, until a pool of kava rests underneath him. At this point, the minimal dynamic tone of the work is set. The performers are present in stillness, an internal energy building for longer than I as an audience member have patience for. This energy is manifested through shaking, convulsing, bearing stares and accusation, culminating in shocking acts of aggression. And the cycle begins again with the second man, then the third. Who is all this rage and torment directed at? The silence is crushing. I am hyper-aware of the indistinct ambience of the theatre and of every audience member moving. The tension in the audience is tangible and weighted, and several people leave.
But however drawn out the in-between spaces are, I am not prepared for the performers’ actions. Eleni drags Tevita and holds him in the tanoa until he has spit kava in the faces of the others. At another point, the tanoa is emptied over him and he is trapped under it, dragged, and possessed by its power over him. Later again the men scream at him to drink in a driving chain of assaults on his manhood and cultural identity.
In the final scene, Eleni speaks in Fijian to the audience, as the men run between her and the tanoa, forcing kava down her throat. She chokes as she speaks but refuses to be stopped, only growing louder as they slip and fall around her. There are few times I have ever felt more uncomfortable in a Western-theatre context. Can I continue to watch a woman drowned for speaking?
After the performance, we are invited onstage to participate in a kava ceremony and artist talk with Vivian and the performers. This talk is helpful in understanding the cultural significance and taboo behind many actions within the work, including the use of kava as a traditional drink, the knowledge of VU as the ancient ancestral spirits, who take many forms, that protect each province in Fiji, and the soliloquy of Eleni as a traditional form of apology (written by Rusiate Rokilibau) presented only by Fijian men. The performers also offer their personal stories and experiences within the work. The artists share foremost about Fiji’s political system, and social treatment of women. The questions that arise share a common theme: will our culture protect us? Or will it bind us to suffering?
VU is a transformative art work. A work clothed in stillness that forces uncomfortable truths to be considered. A critique and reflection of social and political issues felt in Fiji by these artists. It is honest and important.
VU is also a turning point in Vivian’s artistry. Breaking away from the defining characteristics of his past work, driving rhythms, unrelenting physical endurance and visual activity, VU has proved his versatility and his potential to grow into one of New Zealand’s household names of contemporary choreographers, when he returns from Fiji.
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