Le Moana – 1918

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24 October, Blyth Performing Arts Centre, HBAF2018
By Nafanua Kersel

Written and directed by Tupe Lualua (Savaia Lefaga, Luatuanu’u, Porirua); Choreographed by Andy Faiaoga (Manono Tai, Luatuanu’u Savaia, Lefaga, Hamilton).

The theatre is dark. The only sound is that of bare feet squeaking across the stage floor towards their mark.  Lights flood in with the music, a pese Samoa tuai (Samoan songs of old), and the six dancers of Le Moana enliven their bodies and their story.  It’s an exuberant and sensorially fulfilling synthesis of traditional siva samoa, fa’ataupati and contemporary dance.  There’s light and shade in their movements as they cut angular shapes, intersped with soft flow. They convey through their dance and the natural sepia of siapo cloth, a time long gone.  They take us back there with them and the audience is enthralled.

This is not however, an expression of fairytale or a work of fiction.  It’s a truth-telling of a story barely told through generations. Through the dance and theater of 1918, Le Moana sound out and move through their expression of the Spanish Influenza pandemic and its ruinous effect on Samoa. It claimed between a quarter to one-third of the nation’s population – 8500 officially recorded deaths, and many more left unrecorded. All in a matter of weeks.

I was born in Samoa (known as Western Samoa then), not far from the port where, 60 years prior, the S.S. Talune had lurched in and knowingly pressed Spanish Influenza into the open palm of our people. When I reflect on my awareness of these events in Samoa, I see that much of what I know is storytelling from my Grandmother and her generation, with gaps filled from my own research over the years. My stories gather in close as I prepare to receive the performance and I realise that tonight is 2 weeks exactly to the 100th anniversary of the docking of the S.S. Talune.

As the dancers move us through a timeline towards the catastrophic, we are made privy to how daily life and work, forms of address and mannerisms change along with the foreign administration. The exquisite precision of choreography, lighting design and music bring such fullness that I am able to lose myself completely to their effect. I am able to focus and see every expressive gaze at changing horizons, every practiced muscle from months of preparation and, most of all, I am able to see before me the stories that I’ve always only heard. It is beautifully heart-wrenching to be so generously gifted this timeline, knowing the devastation that inevitably looms.

Tupe Lualua, artistic director for Le Moana enters at key moments of the performance, with riveting presence and poignant, skilled oratory in gagana Samoa (Samoan language).  I applaud and wholly support this holding fast to fa’asamoa. It attests to our freedom to be who we are, to the concepts that can only be grasped when textured within the mana of our language.  Anything that might be lost in translation is caught, and kept intact. This is a treasure that shines especially bright for those of us who are, and understand Samoan.

For those who aren’t, or don’t understand, there is so much richness in what is said without words, and if you listen deep enough, you’ll feel the meaning.

I am grateful beyond words, in either English or Samoan, to have a sense of what this dark time looked like, how it felt and sounded, how it moved. To flesh out the bones of the stories I’ve been told, and ease the pain that comes with them. Fa’afetai tele lava Le Moana.  Malo le tauivi, malo finau.

Learn more about the Spanish Flu in Samoa here:

https://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/afternoons/audio/2018665029/1918-pacific-influenza-crisis

https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/1918-influenza-pandemic/samoa

https://www.radionz.co.nz/programmes/black-sheep/story/201856326/epidemic-the-story-of-robert-logan

 

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