New Zealand Festival of the Arts: Behind the creation of Te Ata


New Zealand Festival of the Arts: Behind the creation of Te Ata
Internationally-acclaimed director and choreographer Lemi Ponifasio is one of three supremely talented artists to guest curate the New Zealand Festival of the Arts this year.

As part of Ponifasio’s programme, he has created Te Ata – a festival within the festival that will see artists from Aotearoa and around the world working with cultural and creative groups based in Porirua.

Approximately 40 per cent of Porirua’s population is below the age of 25, making it one of New Zealand’s youngest cities. Te Ata will work to support and empower young New Zealanders who want an active role in the decision-making of the world they live in. “The youth in Porirua are not the decision-makers even though they make up 40 per cent of the city’s population,” says Ponifasio. He believes young people “need to be represented where decisions are being made”, and the easiest way for them to express their views is through “their language” of dance, song and fashion. “I think to find expression or vocabulary in this sometimes overwhelming world is the work of artists,” he says. “And I think it’s important to include these young citizens in the festival and to tell the general public that this is a priority of society.”

Te Ata was born out of meetings with community leaders and youth, giving them a voice in the development of the festival, and asking what they would like to see from it. “My work is mainly working with community so that was the natural way to do Te Ata,” explains Ponifasio. After arranging a dinner with dozens of young people from Porirua aged between 12 and 28, Ponifasio learnt they wanted an opportunity to participate and perform in the arts rather than simply have art performed to them. Additionally, they hoped their world would be reflected in the artworks, and they wanted to see a focus on mental wellbeing.

Grammy Award-winning bass baritone Jonathan Lemalu joins Porirua’s own Virtuoso Strings and the esteemed Sinfonia for Hope Orchestra for ‘O Matou Malaga, Our Voyage’

Te Ata will involve two weeks of creative development, culminating in a week of public performances and events hosted by Porirua City. “There are artists coming there to make the work, but also there are workshops and a lot of exchange between artists and young people and the community,” says Ponifasio. There’s an impressive list of artists involved in Te Ata that includes US social justice dance group FLEXN, Soweto-born composer and protest music producer Neo Muyanga, US Youth Poet Laureate Kara Jackson, and Grammy Award-winning opera singer Jonathan Lemalu, to name a few. Ponifasio explains the process of casting the artists included considering what societal issues they were concerned with. “When you create a work, you see who can fit the role,” he says. “Most of the artists I have a really long relationship with, and they have concerns that are similar to mine.”

Flex pioneer Reggie ‘Regg Roc’ Gray, visionary director Peter Sellars, and 13 FLEXN dancers will engage the Porirua community in collaborations, conversations, performances, a masterclass and student summit.

No doubt, Te Ata will be a unique celebration of Aotearoa’s youth and future. Ponifasio boasts an incredible curriculum vitae, working as a director, choreographer and multidisciplinary artist. His contemporary Pacific theatre and dance performances have been shown at prestigious theatres, galleries and arts festivals all over the world. Ponifasio has strong ideas about what festivals should be and should achieve, particularly as he has witnessed festivals become more about the events themselves and “less about culture”. Having collaborated with people from all walks of life, working with communities is integral to Ponifasio’s work. “An artist that’s coming from wherever they come from just to have a show and then leave – I think that’s a waste of money,” he reveals. “A lot of festivals just buy into high consumerism, and we should not be afraid of seriousness, because what takes place in our community is very, very serious – whether it’s youth suicide, or domestic violence, or mosque shootings – these are things people are dealing with.” Ponifasio explains festivals should help us to find a way to deal with life’s harsh realities. “That’s the main attitude I have for making art and for making festivals – you are really not just making art, you are actually trying to make a cultural movement and change. So you have to consider all layers of the society, not just art.”

  • Te Ata, 22 February – 29 February, 2020.
    Te Ata events will take place at various sites in Porirua.



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