2 April 2018, Cook Island Community Centre, Flaxmere By Bridie Freeman
On Easter Monday, arriving punctually to join the long line of people outside the Cook Island Community Centre in Flaxmere, there’s excited chatter and a patient shuffling forward (in contrast with the usual Kiwi restlessness at any wait longer than two minutes) as the sun sinks slowly behind a stand of eucalyptus; the colours brilliant, the sky immense.
We lean into anticipation of what waits us through the door. Smells of dinner cooking. Handsome boys in Tongan costume milling by the fence. Ahead of me, a couple of kids are goofing about, cracking jokes. I don’t know it yet but one of them, To’e Liua, not quite 14, is later going to bowl me with the beautiful, deep-rich timbre of her voice when she sings before us all.
It takes perhaps an hour to seat 300+ guests to the luau night hosted by the Hastings-based Polynesian Pearls Performing Arts. We sit, fanning ourselves with our programmes (laminated squares ingeniously mounted on popsicle sticks) as we wait, softening, as far as the hard plastic chairs will allow, into island time.
The Polynesian Pearls are a range of ages, from four years old to older mamas. And this night is really a showcase of their talents and of their teachers who have inspired and guided such richness and dedication to traditional feminine performing arts.
Their repertoire is divided into cultural ‘sectors’ (Māori, Tongan, Cook Island, Samoan), each strikingly, colourfully costumed. From their opening Māori haka for girls, to fire dance, to Samoan siva, the pervading quality of the evening is an exquisite grace and flow of movement, accompanied by exuberant uplifting beats, sonorous harmonies and dynamic choreographed sequences. The Pearls alternate between sets with youth performers from Wesley Methodist Church, St John’s College, Rezpect Dance Academy, and a sister group from Hamilton.
As always, I love the sāsā, and Wesley Methodist Church give a particularly outstanding performance; St John’s a great Tongan stick dance. I am especially taken with the fa’afafine siva towards the end of the night, this is danced with such beauty and poignancy.
The mainly Polynesian audience is characterised by huge, animated enthusiasm: the walls reverberate with joyous “Choo-hoos!” from performers and spectators alike, with spontaneous, popcorn calls of encouragement – “Go, Jay!’, “Love you, Serena” – to gratitude and praise, “malo, malo”. There is all the vitality and palpable excitement of a sports game, paired with the intimacy and pride of local community and whānau supporting their own. My initial demure Palagi reception of the arts, gives way to a looser, more heartfelt engagement with the notion of performance itself.
The cornerstone values of the evening are clearly generosity (both in the giving and receiving of ‘entertainment’), encouragement for all effort, and not taking yourself too seriously. It’s less about polished performance, than about participation and celebration.
This is exemplified in the informal entertaining interludes between acts: a dance-off, a singing competition, a spelling bee… “You’re all winners in my eyes,” the MC assures the selected contestants. The crowd invariably awards those who most graciously sacrifice themselves for the entertainment the biggest applause (and the prize) – the ones they have chortled and laughed over most, the ones who’ve been nonetheless willing to give it a go.
We leave when the dark is biting cold, feeling full and expanded from a night of cultural riches, and grateful in the way it grows both our conception and experience of Hawke’s Bay.
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