by Raewyn Whyte
The world premiere of Vou Dance Company’s challenging new work, VU, at Tempo Dance Festival 2016 shows a change in direction from the very dynamic, brightly-lit and often rhythmically-driven Mataqali Drift which they brought to Tempo in 2014. The new work remains true to their mission of bringing Fijian stories, traditions and culture to the world through contemporary dance, but now they are deepening their inquiries into that culture, offering critical reflection rather than a straightforward celebration of received knowledge.
VU focuses on relationships between men and the ancient gods of Fiji’s many islands, the VU, who provide both protection and endangerment to individuals of a particular location. At the same time, it examines the use of kava in traditional village rituals, and questions what it is to be part of a culture in contemporary society.
Choreographed by Vivian Aue in collaboration with the performers, VU is intense, ritualistic, and slow moving. Lit mostly by a single bare pendant lightbulb, or a pair of bulbs which cast deep shadows, the movement is minimal, cyclic, and pared back to essentials, often extreme and physically violent.
Each of three men in turn displays signs of having been overtaken by some all-consuming physical and spiritual malaise involving violent shaking of particular body parts and/or compulsive movement of the hands and legs, sometimes with loud utterances. Each is in turn ministered to by a woman who is responsible for making and distributing kava from a traditional wooden bowl or tanoa. She variously rubs the afflicted body parts with a kava-laden cloth or with her hair dipped in kava, or pours over the afflicted body what seem to be quantities of kava relative to the affliction. One man has several small cups poured over his head; another has the half-full tanoa upended over him and he ends up curled like a turtle under the bowl, lying in a pool of kava. It would seem that kava has some ability to calm the affliction as each man eventually calms and emerges from their afflicted state.
After the men have been restored to some semblance of order, the woman addresses the audience in a Fijian language, seeming apologetic yet angry, but before she has spoken for more than 30 seconds, the men start taking turns in pouring kava from a cup into her mouth as if trying to drown her words, or to silence her by drowning. Despite their accelerating pace and agitation, increasingly more forceful pouring over her face, she continues to speak her truth, and they fall to the floor, repeatedly slipping and falling in the increasing pool of kava.
The performers, Eleni Tabua, Navi Fong, Rusiate Rokilibau, and Tevita Tobeyaweni, are deeply immersed in the rituals they are performing, and there is no doubting their commitment. The performance is disturbing and perturbing to watch, and though some long sections are absorbing, drawing us into stretched-out temporal sequences accompanied only by the gentle swishing of kava in a ceremonial bowl and quiet occasional singing, the spell is broken by the cycles of violence and harsh utterances. Some gestures and interactions are repeated many times, and there is a sense that the work has some deep cultural significance for the performers – a significance which onlookers can only guess at.
The symbolic logic of the work is at times confusing – the men, for example, wear traditional curved tusk neck pieces and seem to be inhabiting some earlier era in which kava as a healing force is known to be efficacious, yet they wear white stretch bicycle shorts which signal contemporary living. At the start of the work, they are slumped in a pile of bodies, as if sleeping, and given the nearby kava bowl, there is the possibility that they have already drunk some and that it has caused their afflictions. There is also a question about the culturally-defined demarcation of sacred spaces in the work, which strongly defines the area around the kava bowl, and the making and distribution of kava as a female domain, yet the men infringe those boundaries in their efforts to stop the woman’s words. As the work ends, I have the feeling that kava as a social force is a double-edged sword, its capacity for healing and protection diminished and its capacity for disturbance and damage increased.