23 Nov 2015

NZ fa'afafine hope to challenge norms through dance

From , 6:00 am on 23 November 2015

Behind the makeup, laughter and jokes, a group of fa'afafine/akava'ine/fakaleiti is hoping to empower the next generation and challenge cultural and social norms, by telling their stories, on their terms, on stage.

Dancers perform on stage for 'Le Freak,' by Fine Fatale.

Dancers perform 'Le Freak,' by Fine Fatale Photo: Leilani Momoisea / RNZI

Performing arts company Fine Fatale is made up of dancers, actors and musicians, current students or graduates of the Pacific Institute of Performing Arts.

"It just so happens to be that we are all representing as fa'afafine, akava'ine, takatāpui, fakaleiti - all those words," explains Mario Faumui, the group's creative director.

"That's the term, 'in the manner of a woman'. In the Pacific, it can be considered the third gender of the Pacific. In the Western world, the terminology is trans-gendered."

'Le Freak' by Fine Fatale, with Amanaki Prescott-Faletau in centre.

'Le Freak' by Fine Fatale, with Amanaki Prescott-Faletau in centre. Photo: Leilani Momoisea / RNZI

Dancer and lead choregorapher Amanaki Prescott-Faletau said she connected more to the word 'fakaleiti' than 'transgender.'

"It feels more like home, being labelled by your own people. Or being called a third gender, rather than trans. Trans is kind of what's been placed on me by Western society, whereas 'fakaleiti' has always been around. So the word fakaleiti has been around since I can remember, or since Tonga was alive, I would say."

The group performed their latest show, Le Freak as part of Auckland's Urbanesia Festival. The dance performance examines how the Pacific's third gender is faring in todays cultural climate, and asks how they can move beyond being the 'freaks' of the world.  

Fine Fatale Creative Director, Mario Faumui

Fine Fatale creative director Mario Faumui Photo: Leilani Momoisea / RNZI

Mario Faumui said the show drew inspiration from history and what were called the noble savages of the Pacific, a time in the 19th century when Samoans were taken to Germany and displayed in human zoos.

Amanaki Prescott-Faletau said there had been times in her life when she had felt like she was in a zoo - being stared at and whispered about in public while doing everyday things like going to the supermarket and mall.

Now, she was at a point that if people were going to watch she thought 'Well yeah, watch, and enjoy'.

Amanaki Prescott-Faletau performs in 'Le Freak.'

Amanaki Prescott-Faletau Photo: Leilani Momoisea / RNZI

She said Le Freak played on the idea that fa'afafine and fakaleiti were traditionally called on to entertain - but they were taking back the power.

"So, we've taken what people view as entertainment, we're meant to be funny, we're meant to be hilarious, we're meant to lighten up the room - to telling our own stories, and not just catering to what the audience wants, but catering to what we need to hear, and what we want to say, and what we want to portray."

Mario Faumui says Le Freak was an opportunity to break the stereotype of the booty twerks and duck lip selfies, and expose people to a different side of the Pacific through gender.

Valentino Maliko performs in Fine Fatale's 'Le Freak'.

Valentino Maliko Photo: Leilani Momoisea / RNZI

Musical director and dancer Valentino Maliko said the main thing they wanted was to be role models and vanguards for the next generation of fa'afafine and fakaleiti.

"Not be the stereotype. Not every fafa is always flamboyant, and always out there. There are so many people out there that a lot of people think are straight, that are far from it."

Mario Faumui said another reason the show came together was because they wanted to set a pathway for the younger generation, just as legendary Queens like Phylesha Brown-Acton, Lindah Lepou, Cindy of Samoa, Siaosi Mulipola and Shigeyuki Kihara had done for them.

"The next generation of kids who are coming behind us can be like, wow, they're different, I'm different, my story is worthy of being on stage...We're not playing on this thing, 'Oh, we're different, I'm a victim', kind of thing. It's more like an empowerment, and a celebration of being different. It's not just being fa'afafine. It's anyone who's felt marginalised, or outcast from society."

Tekeepa Aria performs in Fine Fatale's 'Le Freak.'

Tekeepa Aria performs in 'Le Freak.' Photo: Leilani Momoisea / RNZI

For Valentino Maliko, performing allows him to show his real face and how he really feels.

"As a Pacific Islander, it feels like we're walking on eggshells a lot of the time. We don't want to say or do anything disrespectful, to dishonour our families and traditions, and cultures. But to be on the stage, and to have this kind of art to really express what we want to say, it really gives us a chance to step over that line, and just speak."

Dancers perform in Fine Fatale's 'Le Freak'.

Fine Fatale dancers perform in 'Le Freak'. Photo: Leilani Momoisea / RNZI

Amanaki Prescott-Faletau also wants Fine Fatale to act as a safe haven for third genders who want to perform.

"When you sign up to agents, they say, 'It's going to be hard to find you work, there won't be a lot of work.' My agent says that to me. I haven't actually got any work from my agent, and I've had quite a successful year. Just saying."

She laughs and adds, "That's something I'm trying to implement into the girls as well. You don't need them to give you a job. You don't need a job to come to you on a silver platter. Just take it yourself."

Dancers perform in Fine Fatale's 'Le Freak'.

Photo: Leilani Momoisea / RNZI