Name of Show Longer Than Other Name
Delicious European-style fare, complementing Linden Estate’s wine
Ko Au: Malosi
St Matthew’s Anglican Church, Hastings
Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival
That we are, as a nation, becoming more faithless is a matter of public record. As of the last census, almost half of us prefer to worship at the informal altar of the All Blacks or the shopping mall. The remaining faithful are disproportionately made up of immigrants – those for whom religion is less of a belief system than a way of life.
The church is one of the three pillars on which Fa’a Samoa is based (the others being social hierarchy – matai – and community – aiga). Christianity was embraced by the island nation in a bloodless coup in the 1830’s, seamlessly integrating into Samoan culture as tins of corned beef, introduced by American soldiers a century later, found its way into their cuisine.
So it is fitting that the latest exploration from Projekt Team’s Seidah Tuaoi and Josh Mitikulena takes us to church. Outside of baptisms, weddings and funerals, it’s doubtful this stiff Anglican building has seen a congregation of this size in a while. Certainly rarely of this ebullience and enthusiasm. We throng outside its doors, a flurry of hugs and expectant chatter, mingling with the crew and cast.
Distinctive in starched church whites – shirts and ie faitaga for the men, puletasi and pulou lotu for the ladies – the cast lead the congregation through the vestibule. The preacher greets each audience member in turn with embraces and handshakes and welcoming words.
Like a punch to the solar plexus, I am forcefully reminded of the methodology of the late and great Puti Lancaster, a veteran of this festival and a master of making people feel. She, too, came kanohi ki te kanohi with her guests at the door, gently meeting each of them in the eye as a way to begin to break down the barriers of understanding.
The cast are already dotted through the pews, amongst us. The participatory element of last year’s Ko Au is in evidence. We, the people, are part of the art.
What follows is a church service of sorts, fusing elements of tradition with unique innovation. There are prayers, part spoken in Samoan, part articulated in pops and locks. There is lāuga – oratory. Various tulāfale range in tone and content from congenial humour to heart holding solemnity, covering everything from the location of the emergency exits to the devastating impact of climate change on a nation whose smaller islands are becoming uninhabitable. There are pese – hymns – carried by the cast with an extended invitation for everyone to sing, the words printed in the missalette we are each given on entry. There is percussive music – the keyboard set to organ mode, at times, augmented by an explosive pātē beat.
And of course there is dance. The fledgling form, popping puletasi, pioneered by Tuaoi, is explored and expanded, taken to new heights. Delicate siva Samoa fuse with elements of hip hop pops and locks, straddling cultures to create something utterly original. Here they succeed in achieving the sweet spot between a healthy respect for what always has been with a wide eyed dreaming of what might be, diversifying to survive.
Not for nothing are two of the hardest hitting solo pieces titled Molimau – testify. Tusi Faitau, an organic pas de deux that juxtaposes a breath-like flow with rigid poses, translates to ‘book’. This is a piece that speaks loudly in the language of dance.
Though dance, or Samoan for that matter, is not the mother tongue of the majority of the audience, Ko Au: Malosi plays with and in that gap of understanding. No two people will have the same experience of this show. Things are happening all around. We go where our attention takes us, just as we bring with us our own culture and upbringing, assumptions and experiences.
The unconventional staging and the way the performers engage erases the concept of fourth wall, embraces the audience in the warm blanket of aiga, assumes inclusion. At the same time the unapologetic and unashamed displays of language, culture, and the relatively opaque medium of interpretive dance, push the audience into a liminal space at the edges of their comfort zone – the area of proximal development in which growth takes place.
The collaborative process of this show’s creation – freshly made in the last week via an intense marae stay – is evident in the way the cast fully embodies their roles, really feels their moves. Such is their authenticity that the audience cannot help but feel with their hearts what they cannot intellectualise with their senses.
The finale sees Tuaoi finally on centre stage, performing faced away from the congregation towards the crucifix at the apse. The music, one of the few recorded pieces of the evening, asserts, in a language we can all understand, ‘I can’t believe you love me with all of my flaws.’ As accompaniment to her expert movements, the words are transmuted into a pure communion with the divine – the real meaning of faith when all the trappings are stripped away. That we are all imperfect, yet all deserving of love, be it from god or man.
She is joined by the entire cast, moving in unison, all one and each unique, affirming their identity in a powerful display. Ko Au. I am. Malosi. Strong.