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Pacific Dance: Charlene Tedrow

Pacific Dance
Ura Tabu
Dancer-choreographer Charlene Tedrow talks about the transition from performing for tourists in S


Polynesian dancer-choreographer Charlene Tedrow talks about the transition from performing for tourists in Samoa, to experimenting and exploring deeper ideas around Polynesian stories with her group Ura Tabu in New Zealand.

This interview by Aaron Taouma is the latest in a series of profiles from Pacific Dance New Zealand.

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Charlene Tedrow is a twenty-nine year old Polynesian dancer-choreographer with her own eight-member cultural dance group.

Arriving in Auckland from Samoa as a twenty-one year old, Charlene is a relatively new import to New Zealand but she wasted no time fulfilling her dream of establishing an all female contemporary Polynesian dance company.

After a short stint trying her hand at office work, the pull of the creative arts took her to a performing arts degree at the University of Auckland and the beginnings of her current group, called Ura Tabu.

She describes Ura Tabu as a cultural dance group exploring Pacific contemporary dance based on a Polynesian cultural base. Ura means ‘dance’ in Cook Islands Maori and Tabu refers to the type of topics the group explores – taboo – unmentionable –  ones.

Ura Tabu members are made up of Cook Islanders, Samoans, Maori and even a Palagi, which cover traditional Pan-Pacific styles with a contemporary slant.

She talks about the transition from doing cultural dance for tourists in Samoa and her experience in New Zealand.

“The big difference for me was even though it was cultural stuff in Samoa it was very commercial … trying to please tourists who really have a set idea about what we’re supposed to look like. What I’m moving towards here are theatre-goers and what you’d call a creative arts set.”

The notion of using dance forms and movements from the various Polynesian cultures –predominantly Samoan, the Cook Islands and Hawai’ian – and placing them within a contemporary theatre setting is not new; think ‘Black Grace.’ But Charlene is definitely exploring edges of the ‘box’ we call Polynesian dance. She puts it down to her training at Auckland University.

“It was that degree which definitely pushed me into myself. They really pushed us to get out of the box...and if we did more traditional stuff whether it was ballet or Samoan dance we were marked down. It was more about what was going on in our heads and that’s what I’m in to.”

Performing arts has always been a big thing in Charlene’s life. As with most girls in Samoa she learnt traditional Samoan dance when she was young and she performed in various dance groups. But even in Samoa Charlene was pushing the envelope.

“…even there I wanted to break away from purely traditional dance, like we’d put hula in a Samoan dance, that kind of thing, to try and break away. These were baby steps to moving into contemporary dance, which is where I’m at now.”

Not that Charlene is totally against cultural purists either. She has a balanced view of the contemporised, interpretive dance she is trying to do, versus more conventional forms of Polynesian dance.

“I think it’s just two completely different parallels. Yes you do have the purists and that’s absolutely fine because that’s where I came from, where I was always about preserving the culture. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with experimenting with other things and trying to express yourself…I think you have to keep it quite clear that this is what I’m doing and this is not what I’m doing. It’s all a matter of context.”
Charlene has developed Ura Tabu over the past three years from what may be termed a cultural show group to a group now starting to explore deeper ideas based around Polynesian stories and concepts.

Charlene explains.

“Ura Tabu came from a group, which was really commercially based. We would do shows purely for entertainment, what you usually see in a Polynesian group. But when that group broke up and we formed Ura Tabu we wanted to get more contemporary and interpretive. So, that’s our focus – using old stories, ideas and traditions and seeing where that takes us when we mix things up.”

She was chosen to choreograph a dance piece over a two and a half week period for the ‘Pacific Dance Fono and Choreographic Lab 2010’ giving Charlene an opportunity to explore some of these ideas further.

“With the choreographic lab, what I created there was the same concept we use with Ura Tabu. But having that space allowed me to just go wild with it. It was about a Samoan belief system based on aitu [spirits] and it was something I’ve wanted to explore for a while.”

Charlene points to the importance of having these sorts of opportunities.

“Space, time and money make such a difference. I created so much material in that time. Having those three things is really important. It’s hard doing it without it.”

Although Charlene is determined in her quest to be more experimental in her dance work, Ura Tabu is still a business and Charlene says it’s difficult to keep a creative focus while trying to keep a group together and pay the bills.

“I was just thrown in the deep end with the business side and it’s something I’m trying to get. We don’t have a production team or anything like that. It’s basically just myself with the help of the girls with admin. But we are progressing and that’s a positive, we’re not standing still and that’s the main thing.”

Not standing still is seeing Ura Tabu going offshore.

They’re shortly to go to Hawai’i to do workshops and performances in the upcoming ‘17th Honolulu Festival.’

“… it was great getting this opportunity just when our group was really wanting to do something for inspiration … we want to go, get inspired, refresh our minds then come back. But we’ve had to do it off our own backs and that’s meant having to fundraise, which means we end up doing the commercial gigs we’ve been tying to get away from.”

The group has also been doing garage sales, raffles and other easily organised fundraisers for their trip. But, Charlene is positive about where the group is at.

“We’ve been trying to do easy things, rather than trying to do a big show, which comes with some risks and expense. So, we’ve gone the other way and doing more basic fundraising and that’s working well.”

Charlene says 2011 is really a consolidation year for her and Ura Tabu, where business and admin is the main focus, leaving room for Ura Tabu to be able to create.

“This year is definitely a consolidation year in terms of business and admin. My goal is to try and get money for the group so that next year we’re able to do something international with a dance work.”

Charlene has her head on her shoulders and is making steps in her five-year plan, one in which Ura Tabu will grow and they’re able to take their work out to the world.

Written by

Pacific Dance New Zealand

16 Feb 2011

Interests Pacific Dance New Zealand fosters and encourages the development of the Pacific dance sector of New Zealand. We are involved in running dance workshops, conferences, community and professional events promoting Pacific dance in New Zealand.