Filoi Vaila’au is a Samoan dancer, choreographer and the dance administrator for Pacific Dance New Zealand. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Performing Arts from the University of Auckland and here we find out a little bit more about what makes this enthusiastic and passionate dance exponent tick.
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When did you start dancing?
I started dancing at a young age, around 4 years old, with my parents and family. My mum was my first teacher. When I grew up in Samoa there was always music around the house. It was old lounge music, Samoan classics like the Golden Ali’is or Penina o Tiafau. They always encouraged me and my sister to dance like everyday. We didn’t really have many after school activities so when we were with family they’d play music and we would dance.
How did things change when you came to New Zealand?
I came to New Zealand when I was ten years old in 1997. The change from Samoa was quite amazing but we found some comfort in community here because my parents are both Ministers of the Congregational Church of Samoa and when they set up in Porirua we found there was already a huge Samoan community there.
We always had church activities and my sister and I were involved in everything, from the youth and church choir to Sunday school – so performance was always a part of my routine.
When did you move to Auckland?
I moved to Auckland in 2005 to go to university. It’s always been Samoan dance for me that was my way of connecting with my culture and maintaining my own culture. But I felt I wanted to learn about other cultures through their dance. So, I moved up from Wellington and attended Uni and embarked on my degree in performing arts majoring in Pacific arts. It was hard at first because I was very much in my shell coming from a small town – Porirua.
I was scared. But I joined various groups and slowly learnt about different dances – Polynesian dancing – Tahitian, Cook Islands, Tongan, Hawaiian. It was all so wonderful to take it all in. I wouldn’t say I’m a master in any of those but I have a fair understanding of these cultures through their dancing and it’s really rewarding to be able to understand.
Over the years meeting people, joining different dance groups and really opening myself to Auckland I understand that this is a place that I want to establish myself.
How did you come to join Pacific Dance New Zealand?
[laughs] I was shoulder tapped for the job at Pacific Dance New Zealand after I did a show with the director of the organization Sefa Enari. The show was called Fanua and we performed it for the Tempo Dance Festival in 2009. That’s also where I got nominated for best female dancer. That was a real surprise and a first for me too not only to be nominated but also just to take part in a mainstream dance festival like that and yet we were doing Samoan dance.
When I heard about the job I knew it was going to be a great opportunity for my career. It was a good stepping stone to take up a job with a new organization to take up something that I was passionate about and that I could be part of an organization that developed Pacific dance in New Zealand.
And how did you find the job?
I really enjoy the job. I enjoy meeting new people. I enjoy coordinating and managing projects – and the jobs have grown a lot since when we started. For me it’s a role I feel I’ve grown into but the role itself has also grown. Now, I’m taking a lot more risks and taken on more leadership and responsibility since I started. It’s been really great!!
You also do kids classes as part of your role?
I’d have to say my kids classes are my favourite part of the job. These have grown from a pilot of siva Samoa classes just on Saturday mornings over one term and now we’ve had so many girls come through, it must be in the hundreds now and the classes have grown from just that one class to now accommodating four classes as a regular after school programme. We’ve got other tutors too – in Tahitian, Boys Pacific dancing and drumming and siva afi [fire dance]. But we’ve also had Cook Islands, Niuean and Tongan dance classes too.
With the classes it’s a platform for parents and for the kids to learn about their culture through dance. I feel a sense of reward that I’m contributing to their knowledge of culture. I see that they enjoy learning Samoan siva and they really get into it. I’d say it’s the same with our other classes too.
But you don’t just tutor here, you also do private lessons?
Yes. I offer my services as a siva Samoa tutor and also a siva Samoa dancer; freelance tutor and dancer. I’m also dancing in a pan-Pacific group called Te Ariki Vaine and do choreography for the group. This is where I can explore a little bit more with contemporary Samoan and Polynesian movements in general - ideas and mixing things up a little specifically with female movements.
You’re performing in this year’s Tempo Festival, can you tell us about the background to your piece?
Initially I was approached by Lani Wendt Young to choreograph and dance for her book launch of the Telesa Trilogy in Auckland (2011). This was my first sort of solo choreographic moment whereby I placed choreography on myself as both the choreographer and dancer – apart from traditional and group type dances that I’ve already done. So, it was quite exciting for me to explore - to have this specific event and theme to work towards because I really loved the book as well.
When I read the book specifically this ‘Samoa College cultural night’ scene, I had imagined a song - Moe Te’ite’i by Penina o Tiafau, which I eventually used for this piece – and it worked really well. Also, it reminded me of growing up in Samoa. This band was one of my parent’s favourites and was around the house a lot.
This is the basis for my work in Tempo this year. I’ve entitled the piece Moe Te’ite’i as well but this time it’s a duet.
A duet? Tell us about that?
I was approached by Tempo when talking to the director Celia Walmsley about some of the performances I’ve done. She liked the idea of having a Pacific duet in the upcoming Duets show with Tempo. She asked me if there was such a thing as duet dancing in Samoan siva to which I replied – No! [laughs]
I explained to her that it was more of a group and community thing where they are very much involved in the process of performance. There’s never just two people on stage like you do for dances like salsa or ballroom or those sorts of Westernised partner dancing.
So I though about it and liked the idea of choreographing a duet siva Samoa. I thought it would be a good chance to explore this whole idea of partner dancing, which I don’t think has been done before.
So my idea is a sort of spin off from the solo dance that I already did – inspired by the book Telesa (Trilogy), and looking at the theme of desire and unrequited love. The dance expresses the female’s desire to be with her love but she can only do so in dream. The dance is her dream.
I would like to keep the dynamics of masculine male movements and the gracefulness of female movements separate – although the difficulty will be in combining them, playing on their opposite forces and working in the whole idea of it being a duet. Because at some point they have to be dancing together and that will be the challenge.
My dance partner for this duet is Lima Manu. We have only just met this year and still getting to know each other but he is a lovely siva Samoa dancer and I’m so glad we’re working together on this.
You will also have a music element in the piece?
Yes, the music will be live. There will be a guitarist (Joe Moeono), a singer (Poloma Komiti Iosefa) and a drummer (Pana Meleisea). It’s going to be real fun to have the live accompaniment of the music over the two nights. I’m hoping it will create an ambiance, which will convey the story and add another element to the performance.
How does it feel coming up to the performance?
I’m a little nervous at the idea of this being a duet but I’m also excited about putting it on stage in a huge festival and sharing it with a mainstream dance audience. It’s exciting but however it goes, I just love the process and putting the beauty of Samoan dance out there.
So what about the future? Where do you see yourself in the next few years?
I hope to continue to develop my own practice and share my talents with others especially in teaching, which I really love at the moment. I’m enjoying it at Pacific Dance New Zealand and I find that I’m still learning things all the time and I hope that continues. I’m also keen to continue on with the development of the organization itself, as I’ve been there since near the beginning and really want to see it grow even more.
I do want to find more opportunities where I can bring siva Samoa to the mainstream dance stage as it will be in Tempo, more festivals and more professional shows.
This is also what I hope for the whole Pacific dance scene here also...