(Originally posted on My Father's Daughter)
When I say Nesian? You say dance. Nesian. Dance. Nesian. Dance.
See what I did there? On a serious note when I say Nesian what is the first thing that comes to mind?
According to the urban dictionary Nesian is a shortened term used to describe the collected race of Pacific Islanders. If you need a refresher course in geography Nesian represents Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia. There are many different island nations in the Pacific. Multiple cultures that are so unique and different, however we share common traits and have similar customs and way of life. Our food. Our languages. Our traditional attire. Our legends and myths, they are intertwined. It’s as though they are the same but so different.
I can sit down with my Nesian brothers and sisters from Samoa or Vanuatu or Niue or Fiji and guarantee we will all have similar stories to tell and we can share these stories over a delicious banquet of taro, raw fish, cooked fish, cooked banana drenched in coconut cream, mumu also known as hangi also known as lovo also known umu. Also known as a big dish of goodness. But this isn't a story about food it is a story about dance.
Dance is an intricate part of Nesian culture. We can be identified by the way we sway our hips or the manner which we tilt our head or hold our poise when dancing. Our dancing is more than entertaining at a live dinner show. Our dancing is more than plastic coconuts covering our breasts with plastic flowers in our hair. The way we dance and why we dance has deeper spiritual meaning.
There are some things in life that can not be expressed with words. Dance can tell a story. Dance can invite you into a secret society. Dance can capture the heart. Dance can be passed down through generations. Our dancing can welcome you. Our dancing can bid you farewell. It is a form of communication. It is timeless. My grandmother and her mother before her danced to the same beat that I dance to when the garamut (hollowed-out log slit drum) is being struck. Dancing can be an act of love an expression that speaks volumes. Dance is sacred.
On my recent trip to Auckland I attended a Nesian Dance Class session at Te Oro in Auckland’s Glen Innes. Nesian Dance classes are currently part of Te Oro’s public programming for the Pacific Dance Artist in Residence taught by the one and only Julia Mage'au Gray.
There are those that teach dance and there are those that take you on a journey and really “teach” dance. Each step has a story. Ms Julia narrates through every beat every movement and describes not only how a move is meant to be but why. I am one of the lucky one’s who have previously worked under Ms Julia’s direction. I have been under her spell and have had the honour and privilege to dance along side her.
This woman is mesmerising.
It's as though she casts a spell on you. Being in her presence and being taught by her is enchanting! Not only did I get to participate and endure an hour and half of an intensive class that uses and combines movements from all over the pacific I also got to have some quality time with this incredible lady for some Q&A.
Q: How did you get here? What is your background tell me about your journey to where you are in life at the moment?
A: Living in Australia for most of my life has meant that I have had to justify my identity to others daily.
My mother is from Mekeo and my father is Australian. I am an artist. My work speaks for me.
I now choose to live in New Zealand.
The arts provides tools that I can use to communicate to others about my passions, thoughts, ideas and beliefs.
My work speaks for me.
Q: Dance is your passion. What is the earliest dancing memory you have? Describe your first cultural dance experience.
A: Dance is the first gift in my life that has encompassed a knowing that you can’t learn if you’ve never given yourself over to moving.
My first memories of dance as a small person are of two distinctly opposite occasions and yet dance and the body were the constant and united my understanding of self.
Watching my Mekeo Bubu’s prepare for Ngeva (Mekeo Dance) in Port Moresby and watching ballet on ABC TV in Melbourne with my Australian Bubu are memories that are stark in contrast but both powerful in their separate languages of expression.
Q: How do you bring culture into your work or into the industry?
A: The work I create reflects who I am and how I think and feel. My belief is that ‘Culture' is the way one chooses to live with the many influences that make up a persons life and so with my work the ‘culture' I live is reflected in the work I produce. The work produced is always in collaboration with others and this reflects the difference between old ‘Nesian' cultures and today’s global culture in that it is the ‘we’ verses the ‘me’ choices.
Today’s world we have the tendency to be self-absorbed and society makes that choice easy for us to make. Our old societies depended on individuals that were strongly connected to each other and this was needed to survive as we depended upon each other for sustainability. That is my opinion and how I see the differences in how we were and how we are.
Q:What goes into the process preparing for intensive engagements like Nesian Dance at Te Oro?
Sunameke Productions is Twenty Years Strong this year and was founded by two sets of sisters Kat and Sam Sonter and Yola Gray and myself. The projects that we have undertaken over the years have always been intense and demanding, physically emotionally and economically. From Busking tours to International Festivals, Dance Theatre Productions, Documentary making and much much more. It has not been easy to create work on little or no money, as we do not receive funding from any government bodies. We have always been self funded and have relied on relationships with community groups and small and corporate businesses.
Our work has always been the focus and I am guilty for driving the Sunameke women to points of exhaustion to deliver work that speaks strong and true. Yet for the most part they stick around and continue to commit to the work for which I am deeply thankful. The work we have created belongs to all of us. For the many different members that come though our Sunameke family over the years, I am extremely thankful to have had their trust and support in my direction of Sunameke.
In preparing for the Nesian Dance Classes has been a relatively smooth process. The classes are part of the Pacific Dance NZ Artist in Residency programme in partnership with Te Oro. The Nesian Dance Class are classes that I myself do everyday. Getting the opportunity to share my passion with other women is EXTREMELY AWESOME!
Q: What is the most rewarding part of being artist in residence teaching Nesian Dance at Te Oro?
A: The most rewarding part of teaching the twenty women (ages ten to fifty years old) at Te Oro is seeing how they grow in confidence and love for themselves. Dance is truly an incredible tool of expression.
Q: Who inspires you?
A: My inspirations are my the little people in our family… Keama and Vasa. Needing to make work to leave ways, examples, and avenues for them to access and explore their culturally diverse identities and feel stronger for it rather than empty and searching.
All the people in my family that have come before me inspire me. All the people that I work with and come into contact with inspire me.
If I was to talk about someone who I idolise and look at as ‘MOST AMAZING’... Bruce Lee
Q: What next for Julia Mageau Gray?
A: Keep working… that’s whats next
Q: You have travelled the world for the love of dance. Which city/country has been the most memorable dance experience and why?
A: The place that I LOVE that has given me much more than I ever expected to learn outside of my own PNG is Tahiti. No words are adequate to describe what my time in Tahiti at the Conservatoire artistique de la Polynésie française gave me and my family.
Q: In your class you encouraged your students to take pride in their bodies and show their bare stomach (I loved this.)
What are your feelings towards women being comfortable in their skin?
A: Our Nesian societies have been taught and made to cover, hide and feel shame about our bodies. I grew up in PNG at a time when being topless was normal and acceptable. Today with the massive changes in our Nesian societies due to colonisation, religion and globalisation we have changed how we dress, how we move and how we feel about ourselves within our own cultural contexts. I am a firm believer that if you don’t like yourself then you truly can’t be happy. Our bodies are a gift and to treat them with disdain is to not honour yourself. So by dancing and showing your puku / opu / stomach is just a small way to begin that process of admiring something about yourself amongst other women. My time in Tahiti taught me this and reminded me of a time long gone with my aunties and Bubu’s comfortable in their own skin.
Q: Finally what is the one life lesson or advice that your father has taught you?
A: My Dad taught me that there are more ways than one. I learnt a lot about my Mekeo culture from the forward thinking of my dad in his choices to record the old men telling their stories and singing pike. That he would immerse himself in my mother’s culture so as to marry her taught me that both cultures within me were just as important as each other. He taught me BALANCE.
Artist in Residence 2017 Julia Mage’au Gray
Supported by PDNZ, Creative NZ, Te Oro Arts Centre, Tamaki Local Board
Watch - Nesian Dance Class