Dancing, paddling, and poeticising: AFPA hits Auckland
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.