Thursday, August 02, 2012

Dancing, paddling, and poeticising: AFPA hits Auckland

Like many males of my generation, I was turned against dance by my experiences at school discos. After repeatedly tripping on my own shoelaces at the Drury School Form Two Blue Light Fancy Dress Disco - my decision to turn up dressed up as a cricket batsman, and thus wearing pads and carrying a bat, didn't help my coordination - and being shunned by even the kindest girls, I decided that dancing was something akin to undressing in public.

Although I later developed an interest in literature and several related artforms, it never occurred to me to take a new interest in the art of dance. I was able to be wilfully ignorant because of the way that different varieties of art - poetry, music, dance, painting, and so on -  are separated from one another in contemporary Western societies like New Zealand. It is easy, in our society, for a poet or painter or musician to spend a lifetime working away in their field, without so much as peering over the fence at an adjacent field of artistic endeavour. I always assumed that I could write about poetry, novels, and various other types of literature without having to learn the most rudimentary facts about the strange artform known as dance.

When I recently began to learn about Tongan poetry, though, I got a shock. In traditional Tongan culture, poetry is usually fused with song, instrumental music and dance in a single genre known as faiva. Poems are composed to be sung or chanted, and to be accompanied by music and dance. While a modern Western poet tends to worry only about how his or her words will look on the page, his or her Tongan counterpart is expected to be a choreographer and a melodist as well as a wordsmith.
With his or her focus on performance and proficiency in multiple artforms, the punake has some similarities to the ancient Greek poets, who often sang or chanted their lines while a lyre played a tune they had written, or with the Elizabethan Thomas Campion, who coupled his poems with music for the lute.

Futa Helu's posthumous book On Tongan Poetry, which  be launched on Saturday alongside Paul Janman's film Tongan Ark, is necessarily a study of dance and music as well as words. When I was helping Atuanui Press prepare On Tongan Poetry for publication, I kept lifting my eyes from Helu's discussion of this or that poem, and trying to hear the music and visualise the movement that accompanied the words of the piece. I became an enthusiastic viewer of the Youtube channel Janman established to document the work of the 'Atenisi Foundation for Performing Arts.
AFPA was created by Futa Helu, the hero of Tongan Ark, so that students and staff at his 'Atenisi Institute could show off both Tongan culture and Western classical music. Its dancers, singer, musicians, and punake have travelled to Australasia, North America, and Asia, using their performances to raise money for their impoverished Tongan university. An AFPA troupe arrived in Auckland last weekend, and is preparing to perform at the premiere of Tongan Ark.

Yesterday the 'Atenisians dropped by Television New Zealand's studios in central Auckland, and performed on TV One's Good Morning show. Brandishing stylised paddles, seven AFPA members executed a dance known as the me'etu'upaki; in the background a group of supporters sang along and played drums made from hollow logs.

In an essay published in the Nuku'alofa-based literary journal Faikava in the early 1980s, and about to be republished in On Tongan Poetry, Futa Helu argues that the me'etu'upaki, which translates roughly as 'paddle dance', was created by ancient mariners to celebrate their arrival on an island after a long voyage. Helu quotes the lines of poetry often associated with the dance and, after translating these lines into modern Tongan, suggests that they include both a prayer of thanks to the ocean deities Kalulu and Latu and an account of a journey from the northwest Pacific to Niuafo'ou, the spectacular volcano-island in the far north of the Kingdom of Tonga.

Helu, who was a critic of both the moral conservatism of Christian Tonga and the philistinism of Western capitalism, praises the pagan, sensual qualities of the me'etu'upaki:

This [piece] affords us an interesting insight into ancient Oceanic societies - the modern puritanical division between the religious and the secular did not exist for them, and art penetrated every aspect of life...They danced their prayers...

Helu's interpretation of the me'etu'upaki was provocative, because it threatened the group of Tongans who had become, in the twentieth century, the custodians of the dance.

In the first half of the nineteenth century the Ha'apai chief Taufa'ahau waged a holy war to unify Tonga and make it a Christian nation. Taufa'ahau, who eventually succeeded in becoming the first modern king of Tonga, was a fervent Wesleyan who considered much of the traditional song and dance of his country sinful. Many of Taufa'ahau's enemies lived around the ancient Tongan capital of Mu'a (a place known in modern times as Lapaha), where a sacred king known as the Tu'i Tonga had traditionally been honoured by pagan festivals and the raising of stone monuments.

After losing a series of small wars against Taufa'ahau, the pagans of Mu'a reluctantly accepted his authority, and converted to Christianity. But rather than embrace the new king's severe Protestantism, they turned to the Catholic creed which had been brought to Tonga by French missionaries. Where Tonga's Wesleyans abandoned many pre-Christian songs and dances, the Catholics of Mu'a preserved much of their traditional culture.

The me'etu'upaki was a particularly important dance for the people of Mu'a, because in pre-Christian times it had often been performed in the court of the Tu'i Tonga to celebrate events like weddings and harvests. As the Catholics of Lapaha continued to resist assimilation to Tonga's Protestant majority in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the me'etu'upaki became a symbol of their cultural independence. The dance became  esoteric and highly ritualistic, as knowledge of its choreography was restricted to fewer and fewer people and its performers were discouraged from any attempts at improvisation.

Futa Helu had a long and mostly friendly association with Tonga's Catholic minority. The pro-democracy movement he helped to found attracted enthusiastic support from the Catholic church, which felt marginalised by the Wesleyan royal family that had ruled Tonga since the time of Taufa'ahau. When Tonga's pro-democracy forces held an historic conference at 'Atenisi to draft a programme for reform in 1992, many Catholic priests came as delegates.

But Helu was never afraid of controversy, and by arguing that the me'etu'upaki was, in essence, a pagan celebration, he contradicted those inhabitants of Lapaha who considered the dance an emblem of their Catholic identity.

The AFPA performance of the me'etu'upaki reflects Futa Helu's reinterpretation of the dance. The performers step quickly, smack their paddles against their open hands, and chant loudly. The music which accompanies them rises in tempo until it reaches a climax, then stops, then rises to a new climax. The 'Atenisians' me'etu'upaki is supposed to evoke the danger and exhilaration of a long journey across the open ocean in small boats, and the pleasure of finding safe landfall at the end of such a journey.

By contrast, the me'etu'upaki traditionally performed in Mu'a features slower movements and more restrained music and singing. Instead of exuberance, the Mu'an me'tu'upaki communicates a feeling of solemnity.
It is tempting to compare the approach of Futa Helu and AFPA to Tongan cultural tradition with the procedures of some of the great modernist artists of the West. Early last century modernist poets like Ezra Pound revolted against the sentimentality and stuffiness of much of the English-language poetry of their day by discovering and translating the work of ancient Greek, Chinese, and British poets. Pound was excited by the ferocious energy and vivid imagery of Dark Ages Anglo-Saxon poetry, but he hated the way many nineteenth century translators had tried to tone down and prettify this energy and colour.

Pound produced his own translation of 'The Seafarer', a long Anglo-Saxon poem with the same sort of subject matter as the me'etu'upaki. In the same way that the 'Atenisians have broken with Mu'an courtly tradition and given the me'etu'upaki a raw and wild interpretation, Pound ignored Victorian convention and gave 'The Seafarer' rough, heavy rhythms. Both the modernist poet and the 'Atenisian performers have rejected recent cultural tradition by turning to an older and more vital tradition.

[Posted Maps/Scott]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

pound...what a freaky looking guy...

8:56 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tongan Ark is sold out.

11:40 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

12:05 am  
Anonymous aardhus said...

I was confused by this film and by Paul's talk.

"Nature is the limit"


How do you put a pantheistic God that is everything on the cross?

Such a pantheistic God would BE the Cross, the ground it was dug into, the nails, the sword, the blood, and the body.

Wouldn't the pantheistic God that was everything also be everything that was Jewish?

5:26 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When the me'etu'upaki is performed properly it is exuberant, enchanting and hypnotic - not at all staid as this article rather suggests. It depends on how talented the dancers are - there are those from Lapaha who perform it who are mesmerizing to watch. Perhaps Futa never saw then perform it as it happens rarely (I'm thinking of certain persons who everyone from Lapaha would know are the ones to truly perform this dance and give it justice).

10:59 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

The Lapaha dance is reckoned by the people I talked with to be less violent and exuberant than the 'Atenisi version, anon, but this doesn't, of course, mean that it should be considered staid. I suppose the lakalaka is by and large a more languid dance than the me'etu'uapki, but I'm sure no one would call it staid.

I think there's a perception that the me'etu'upaki hasn't evolved during the last hundred years - that it has become an esoteric, strictly ritualistic pieces - and that this perception is the basis for the accusation of sterility. Do you think it's unfair to say the Lapaha me'etu'upaki has not evolved over the past century?

2:32 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Here's a clip I found of a very impressive Lapahan performance of the me'etu'upaki:

Would it be fair to say that the movements of the Lapahan dancers are a lot more synchronised and harmonious than those of AFPA's performers?

The Lapahan performers don't seem to slap their feet with their paddles, which is one of the most dramatic features of the AFPA version of the dance.

2:41 pm  

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