Sep 12, 2023

Review of Ko Au 2022 Festival

From the creators of last year’s Festival gem Ko Au, comes Ko Au: Malosi, a powerful collaborative piece created and directed by Seidah Tuaoi and Joshua Mitikulena, and featuring Pasifika creatives from Aotearoa, Australia and the USA.  Ko Au was reviewed in the 2022 Festival by Rosheen Fitzgerald. 

Culture and identity are slippery beasts. In a globalised society, we rub up against a range of ethnicities on the daily, often only gleaning superficial understanding, our ignorance causing us to fall back on stereotypes. In a colonial nation, cultural and racial purity is a myth – most of us house within our person a melting pot of origin, ethnicity and influence. The question, ‘who am I?’ looms large in the collective consciousness.


International dance collective, Projekt Team, tackle this big issue head on in their ensemble show, Ko Au – I am. Ten thoughtfully choreographed pieces took place in various spaces at Toitoi and the new municipal building, each transformed by what was more installation than set, into a representation of each performer’s culture. Audience travelled from room to room in small groups, immersing themselves in each piece. 


On the balcony overlooking Heretaunga Street, the Makirikiri flowing beneath and represented on the pavement below, we are transported via the magic of nets and ropes to a fishing boat. Tethers and bungees act as dancing partners to the powerful performer who plays with space and weight to create a maritime scene.


Next, a moody room houses three Samoan men accompanied by percussion played on a rolled up mat. Elements of traditional dance are fused with contemporary style that channels strength, kinship and surprisingly delicate grace. Enthusiastic vocalisations and percussive slaps add to the ambience. 


Then, a solo Cook Islands performance uses ukulele, song and an impressive spear, passed hand to hand through the audience to accentuate a touching piece that gives the impression of allowing us to peek through the curtain of an authentic cultural expression.


In a corner of the large vaulted hall a mat is laid out and the performance is already in process. An engaging and heartfelt spoken monologue explores one Samoan man’s family dynamic before transitioning to dance. He peels layers of black street clothes to don a lavalava accompanied by onomatopoeic sounds, coming into renewed understanding with his culture and his father. 


The circle foyer sees a bespeckled Indian boy, cross legged between two traditional statues, dressed in flashy urban style. Summoned by a clap from the curtain behind us, a woman clad in lehenga choli bears a tray on which a pot of kumkum powder is placed. She attempts to apply it to his third eye in an expression of blessing. He resists and a tussle ensues, she, static, he effervescently dynamic, raging against the markings of his culture. When he finally relents, his glasses tossed to the ground, his vision finally clear, an explosive performance ensues with clever use of a red laser pointer that pierces the hearts of every audience member before turning on the dancer himself, coming to rest on his forehead, his act of devotion complete.


Next we have something completely different. We are invited to sit in a sharing circle at what is themed as an AA meeting for people disconnected from their culture, complete with therapy workshop jargon. After round robin introductions – who you are and where you’re from – a Niuean man starts the sharing with a bilingual poem on the topic of straddling cultures as an immigrant. He opens the floor and his Tongan contemporary performs a dance piece, controlled and compelling. In keeping with the theme, we are offered refreshments before we leave, an act of manaakitanga that is one of the many aspects that marks this as not your average show.


Downstairs, the Toitoi stalls’ corridor is transformed with blacklight strips. A glowingly painted performer in eye popping white leans on a mic-less mic stand, a black bandana draped at half mast. The audience flanks the sides and he leads us to the dead end where he treats us to an incendiary feat of style and skill to bombastic waiata. There is so much symbolism packed into this piece. The white face – an exploration of race. The stand with no microphone – indicating voicelessness. The bandana – a nod to gang culture but in black and white, eschewing affiliation, and a symbol which ultimately he chooses to disregard. His manner too is a strange combination of friendly and slightly menacing. This single piece is a beautifully nuanced summation of contemporary Māori culture, what it means to be a Māori man in this time and place.


In the Toitoi entrance hall a Korean soldier stands to attention. His piece begins with an exploration of violence and servitude before softening, brought to his knees with a Korean translation of Pokarekare Ana that morphs into Māori as he turns to face the New Zealand flag, finding resolution in his adopted home.


Set in a prosaic, bottom-of-the-stairs, go-through area, an ominous tarp is laid out in a way that screams murder scene. What we get is far more entertaining – an engaging, interactive performer waxing lyrical in Vietnamese that washes over the audience in a confusing soup, giving us the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land. He dances with passion, dramatic clouds of flour puffing up at his every move, speaking to his experience as a bánh mì baker. From Vietnamese to English he repeats his first oration giving us the sense of what it might be like to acclimatise to language and culture, for that which was once opaque to become clear.


The final piece is a pas-de-deux between two wāhine Māori, simple korowai draped about their shoulders on a bed of autumn leaves. Their graceful balletic exchange set to birdsong is deeply soothing and heart meltingly beautiful, leaving the audience with a sense of deep peace and resolution.


The show begins and ends in the Assembly Ballroom, dressed with a display of cultural artefacts and a series of questions posed on cultural connection which audience members are invited to answer on post-it notes. This is the first and the last way Projekt Team engages its audience, but far from the only. 


The genius of Ko Au is the visceral way it invites the audience to invest in its message. This is not a show you can sit back and observe, rather they draw us in to become part of the show. Audience volunteers activate the pieces, holding ropes and drumsticks, being adorned with taonga, folding and unfolding quilts, placing sei and ‘ulafala and tossing flour on performers. These techniques bring the people in, accentuating the experience by making the audience a part of the show, begging them to invest, to look deeper into their message. 


The style of staging, too, pounds against the walls of theatrical convention, creating a meaningful connection with their audience. Even the sound bleed that occured between performances could be seen not as a bug but a feature – all our cultures ebb and flow over each other in life as in art. Though the choreography is rooted in the traditions of the practitioners who devised them, there’s a vein of contemporary urban dance running throughout that gives the piece cohesion – whakakotahi ararau, unity in its diversity. 


This show is an important piece of work that lifts the curtain on culture, allowing people not just to see it but to feel it. In a country that can feel like a racial tinderbox, Ko Au unfolds cultural understanding with a deeply thought out, unique and utterly original strategy that has the power to touch hearts and change minds. If every person in this country could experience this show then what a better place this world would be.

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