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The Pacific tales given a modern dance spin in MĀUI

Sydney Opera House

Direct from Aotearoa and created by Fresh Movement Collective comes MĀUI, a contemporary dance reimagining of Pacific storytelling. The production focuses on tales revolving around the heroic demigod, Māui. It vibrantly explores his many sides, from pulling down the sun to lifting the islands out of the water, and more.

Following a gold medal win at the World Championships, MĀUI creator, Hadleigh Pouesi was at a crossroads on how to continue to grow, push himself, and create more opportunities for young people in dance. The answer was to take hip-hop dance to the theatre.

Thirty young dancers feature in the production, which includes a wide mix of dance styles, from traditional Pacific forms, haka, hip-hop, and capoeira. Alongside dance, music, projected animation, and spoken word are used to immerse you in the stories of Māui .

This is the first time the group has taken the performance outside of Aotearoa. Hadleigh Pouesi says, “I have to pinch myself daily, and I still kind of don’t believe it, that we’re actually coming over to the Sydney Opera House.”

Ahead of the show, we spoke with the Artistic Director of Fresh Movement Collective, Hadleigh Pouesi, about his inspiration, the stories and all things MĀUI:

The show title MĀUI refers to the great culture hero and trickster in Polynesian mythology. His origins vary from culture to culture, but many of his main exploits remain relatively similar. What made you choose to bring the stories of the demigod Māui to the stage?

Hadleigh Pouesi: My wife is an early childhood teacher and she had brought home the books that we used to read growing up here in Aotearoa. And I thought, man, whatever happened to these tales, you know, at a certain time you stop hearing about the myths and the legends. What were the lessons they wanted us to get from this? From there, it spun me into a research period and finding out that Māui isn’t just a Māori character.

But it’s a character that has footprints all throughout Polynesia, Micronesia, Melanesia, and then seeing the similarities and understanding how these stories would have been told and passed from island to island. It really kind of made us just excited to be able to bring the stories that we’ve grown up with and give them a 2024 coat of paint.

And so that’s kind of been the reason why we thought that Māui is something that really resonates with everybody. It’s something that we all grew up with as specific people, but something that a lot of us maybe have forgotten about. 

Can you share some of the myths and legends that are explored in the dance?

The show is split up into chapters and each chapter looks at a different characteristic of Māui, but also a different tale of Māui. So we show the power, the power of Māui through the tale of him pulling the sun down, and so we use Kapa Haka to tell that story. And then we tell the story of how he stole fire from the underworld to give it to Earth and we use that story to speak of his generosity.

We speak of Māui pulling the islands up from the water. We speak of the death of Māui as well, and each of the tails are linked with a characteristic of Māui that is then, spoiler alert I guess, the mirror is shown to the audience and said, hey, that these are the characteristics that us as Pacific people carry as well.

Each chapter sounds so unique, using such blends of different dances. Is there a moment in the performance that stands out for you?

Hadleigh Pouesi: Yeah. We start the show with a Fijian chant. You know, there’s thirty of us on stage and we’re chanting this chant so loud and I can’t hear the person next to me because the audience is screaming [so excited].

We’ve got a band that plays pre-show, kind of encourages the audience to sing along, get up and have a bit of a boogie. And so then when we come in to start the show, we’re starting hot. You know, the audience is ready to go. They’re wrapped up. It’s kind of like you’re going to a State of Origin game. And so to have that feeling and to feel the mana of our people. That’s always a moment in our show that stands out.

Why is it important to introduce or reintroduce these stories to young people?

Hadleigh Pouesi: If we don’t tell these stories we kind of lose a little bit of our DNA, we lose a little bit of our connection. And so for us, we feel that we understand the knowledge and we’ve been given this platform to be able to share with other young people. If we don’t do that, we’re doing our culture a disservice.

We’ve had feedback from teachers, parents and students here in New Zealand that they felt after watching the show that they had the confidence to engage with their culture.

What can we expect as the audience, as you bring these stories to life on stage? 

Hadleigh Pouesi: I use the word extravaganza a lot. Just because we pack the hour with so much stuff, like we’ve got beautiful animation that tells the narrative. We’ve got some musicians that are coming over, some spoken word artists that are coming over… yeah it’s an extravaganza.

I think as Pacific performers, we have a natural flare. We have a natural flavour, a secret ingredient that when you put us under the lights and you press play on the music, something comes to life. We call that mana. We call that ihi. But I can’t really describe it in more words than that.

It’s for our Pacific families over there. It’s a show that you will leave proud of your culture, proud of your people. But if you are not connected to Pacific culture, it’s an entertaining show that will keep you smiling, crying, laughing from beginning to end. 

MĀUI will bring its vibrant energy to the House 29 - 31 August 2024.

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