Dec 21, 2023

Ko Au: Malosi

The Process of Creation

Seidah Tuaoi and Josh Mitikulena with Projekt Team. 

Ko Au: Malosi, directed and choreographed by internationally acclaimed creatives Seidah Tuaoi and Joshua Mitikulena made an indelible debut at this year’s Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival. This is not the first time Tuaoi and Mitikulena have brought their unique style of fusion and creativity to the Hawkes Bay Arts Festival. Ko Au: Malosi builds on from the innovative spirit of Ko Au, shown in 2022. Ko Au was an interactive, ensemble installation piece fusing Pasifika and hip hop street dance with the personal stories of the dancers.

Where Ko Au explored the ‘I am’ stories of ten dancers with individual spaces for each, Ko Au: Malosi evolves to an ensemble of twenty-five performers, staged within the shared expanse of St Matthew’s Anglican Church, Hastings. Ko Au: Malosi extends on the ‘I am’ to explore it within the congregated ‘we are’, inclusive of the audience—“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” (Rosheen Fitzgerald, Ko Au: Malosi review).

People, place, process

Both Tuaoi and Mitikulena insist that “people come first, then dance”, and they bring people with them, attracting performers of multiple disciplines and genres with their vision and collaborative processes. The Ko Au: Malosi cast is threefold, made up of performers from Tuaoi and Mitikulena’s street dance collective Projekt Team, Hawke’s Bay local performers and international guests Jr Boogaloo (Beijing) and Gabi Quinsacara (Sydney).

Tuaoi, who has made a home in Hastings after taking a position as a dance teacher at Karamu High School in 2021, says that “when you create somewhere, you create a sense of belonging there”. It is this sense of place that runs intangibly but wholeheartedly through the evolution of the Ko Au works. Calling upon her growing community in Te Matau-a-Māui was an important step towards fulfilling Tuaoi’s vision for Ko Au: Malosi because “place matters”.

Nāku te rourou, nāu te rourou ka ora ai te iwi

Both directors and the cast spent a week in wānanga at Kohupātiki marae in Clive. For Tuaoi, the powhiri process and noho marae were crucial in “acknowledging mana whenua, and the people who’s land we create on” as well as to foster a sense of place and belonging within the cast—belonging to the process, to the group, within HBAF, and within the work itself. From this sense of belonging, Tuaoi’s long-held vision to create from the structures she grew up within—church, culture and performance—is given breath, movement, language, strength.

Malosi is the Samoan word for ‘strong’ and speaks to the strengths-based, collaborative principles of Tuaoi and Mitikulena’s creative process. This style of collaborative, creative exploration could fall within the methodology of devised theatre or ensemble. However, it is also a reflection of what is standard practice for Māori and Pasifika groups and spaces. Tuaoi speaks of growing up within a Pasifika church and family, where excellence in music, dance, acting and performance was the norm. The cross-pollination of forms and language, the wānanga space, the Māori and Pasifika cast, stories, themes, priorities and ways of being, make this a uniquely Pacific creation. The youngest of the cast members, 13 year-old Tawa Kersel reflects, “it felt just like one of our big family things, like a family reunion, except we’re all focussed on making a show”.

 Kin, Community, Culture and Church 

There is a familial sense, an empathy in the blending forms of Ko Au: Malosi. The hip hop subculture ‘popping’ blends with traditional siva Sāmoa, prayer blends with poetry and hymns with laughter. The genius, is that under the direction of Tuaoi and Mitikulena, the blending of these forms of expression does not mean homogeneity, or anything static. It’s innovative and traditional, ancient and strides ahead. Each form and performance has breathing space, each has an identity that is enhanced by the other forms—again, the ‘I am’ within the ‘we are’.

Through the openness of the wānanga process, Tuaoi’s vision to give her memories a physical form, brought forth themes of biblical, environmental and cultural importance such as:

Chantelle Huch as the choreographer/conductor of a ‘choir’ of dancers (Maia Bassett, Mele Tapueluelu and Sanita Betham). Their pese/song is ‘Lo Ta Nu’u’, sung by the cast and audience. ‘Lo Ta Nu’u’, famously in the running to become the Sāmoan national anthem during independence, is known by generations of Sāmoan families and often sung to solidify connection during family or community occasions. The song calls on Sāmoans to hold fast to their inheritance and duty and express love for our beautiful, god-given homeland. The elegant strength Chantelle and her choir express through both softness and sharp-cut shapes, defines the dignity of this song and upholds its cultural value.

Similarly, John ‘Happyfeet’ Vaifale’s moving traditional siva samoa whereby he leads the cast down the aisle singing ‘Fa’afetai I Le Atua’ connects with the incorporation and deep regard christianity holds in Sāmoan culture and society.

In Aloali’i Tapu and Sheldon Rua’s stunning duet ‘Kaino ma Apelu’, the pair begin with wide wave movements, still seated in rear pews before moving together down the aisle, melding, mirroring, breathing in synch. A confident change in pace, foreshadowed by the sound of the cast practicing ‘milimili’ (rubbing hands together) brings us to a heart stopping, discordant finale. This is a bible reading, from Kenese 4, Kaino ma Apelu or Genesis 4, Cain and Abel.

Gabi Quinsacara’s solo piece ‘Molimau’ (testimony) is accompanied by the sound of a lone, live pāte drum beat. In the rising tempo and timbre of the ancient wooden instrument, one can tangibly feel the haptics of Quinsacara’s precise pops and hand detail. Through them we might bear witness to the life cycles of any oceanic elemental force, or indeed any tama’ita’i Sāmoa, past, present and future.

Tensions are lifted throughout with perfect comedic timing by Villa Junior Lemalu’s characterisation of the church pastor. He’s a pastiche of clergy any Pasifika person would recognise, and endearing to all audience members with his broken English and playful stereotype.

Nafanua Kersel’s bilingual Sāmoan/English poetry series ‘Galu Lolo’ is based on the aftermath of the devastating 2009 Tsunami in Sāmoa. The poetry is interrupted, yet supported by a staggered in-pew group dance and punctuated with an emotive and masterful solo by Jr Boogaloo, done to a soundtrack of storm and ocean sounds.

Tuaoi and Mitikulena’s direction of Kersel’s ‘Galu Lolo’ in particular followed an instinct Tuaoi felt to acknowledge the aftermath space that Te Matau-a-Māui currently exists in, post cyclone Gabrielle. It was important to her that this was done in a non-traumatic, parallel way. If Tuaoi resided and taught children anywhere else but Hawke’s Bay this year, she might not have had that instinct and if she did, it may not have come with the same nuanced understanding of how to respect the collective grief of our community, post-disaster.

“I wish this experience on everyone”

Visually stunning and layered with cultural codes of language and movement, Mitikulena asserts that his ambition was for “each audience member to have a completely different experience”. Ko Au: Malosi drew a diverse Hawke’s Bay audience and some of the largest Pasifika audiences we’ve seen at HBAF. A full house on both nights, having St Matthew’s as a venue and the cast working as hosts, audience and performers fostered a sense of inclusivity and shared experience for a truly unique moment in the arts landscape of Hawke’s Bay. Rosheen Fitzgerald, reviewer says:

“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.” 

One audience member asserted, “I have no words, just tears and hope and laughter. I don’t need to put words to it, it’s actually a relief to do without them”. Another, who attended both nights stated that “even when I didn’t understand the language, I understood everything else  in the moment. I could feel the meaning, that’s how much heart there was in it”. Perhaps the strongest testimony was from audience members who were left with a sense of generosity, “It was healing and comforting. I wish this experience on everyone”.

Ko Au: Malosi ends with Tuaoi’s own solo piece showcasing her signature ‘popping puletasi’ dance style. It is vulnerable and real, defined and flowing. The audience is brought into her life journey, connecting to the structures, human and divine, within Tuaoi’s upbringing and memory that have culminated in her creative brilliance and this exceptional extension of it. Through pops, tuts and waves, fused with gagau and se’e, Tuaoi tells the audience “Ko Au”. Joined first by Jnr Boogaloo and Gabi Quinsacara, then by the entire cast for a joyful full-cast finale, she declares “Malosi”. 

When asked ‘what’s next?’ Tuaoi says that it’s still unfolding, and that ‘everything has its season’. She is clear on one thing though—that Ko Au: Malosi held a special and specific ahua/energy which could not be the same at any other time or place. Seidah Tuaoi is an exemplary talent and we can be proud that our local region has added its unique gleam to her body of work and the creative legacy known as Ko Au.

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