A te reo Māori circus-theatre show about generational trauma and its impact on youth told through acrobatic storytelling is being staged at Te Pou Theatre, Henderson.

“Te Tangi a Te Tūi is an allegorical kind of play about te reo Māori and about our tūpuna, the choices that they made, the impact of that and how te reo Māori has changed over our generations,” said co-creator Amber Curreen of Te Rēhia Theatre Company (Te Rēhia).

“We liken it to te tangi a te tūī, to the original voice of the tūī that we may never hear again.”

Set in a fantastical ngāhere environment where native birds and patupaiarehe roam alongside Māori, the play is a fusion of Māori storytelling and cirque theatre in a collaboration between Te Rēhia, Te Pou, and circus theatre company, The Dust Palace.

Rachael Dubois, producer at The Dust Palace, said Te Tangi a Te Tūi is a love letter to te reo Māori.

“It’s exploring, not so much the struggles, but the overcoming of the effects of colonisation. That process of do you continue to hold on to the past or do you merge with the dominant culture, or do you find something in between that preserves your culture and holds on to the fundamentals of that?”

The play is performed entirely in te reo Māori in an immersive experience, an environment – the setting of a ngāhere in ancient times – where there is no English.

“We were adamant that te reo Pākehā wouldn’t enter into the theatre, so there were no surtitles or subtitles,” said Tainui Tukiwaho, co-creator and member of Te Rēhia.

“But if [members of the audience] wanted to understand it in English they got a radio played that they got to listen at home, then they come to the show and they would just have to experience te reo Māori however they wanted to experience it.”

Coupled with the physical feats of acrobatic and aerial performances, the show makes for a spectacular and mystical experience.

“It’s a really epic tale, and with the magic that circus brings that lifts it into this really kind of dreamlike space, so it’s a very beautiful experience, and having it in te reo Māori just becomes this really wonderful wash of language and of performance and all the technical elements on top,” said Dubois.

Curreen agrees: “This is a really, imaginative way of doing te reo Māori theatre that brings us up to the heights and shows the creativity of everything that our kaiwhakaari can do.”

Overseas reaction to a show performed in te reo Māori

Te Tangi a Te Tūī has already debuted overseas to positive reviews. Tukiwaho said premiering the play in Canada was a poignant experience.

“We had lots of sell out seasons and lots of people standing up and clapping, but the thing I remember most was instead of bowing we would do mihimihi – ka mihi ana ki ngā tangata whenua, ki mana whenua (we’d acknowledge the indigenous peoples, those that hold authority over the land), and ka whakawāteahia te wāhi – we would make the space available for tangata whenua to return ā-tikanga (as per cultural custom), if they felt.

“And more often than not, tangata whenua would stand up, ka mihi, katahi ka tangi (they would respond then become overwhelmed),” he said.

Canada’s indigenous peoples have suffered greatly from the impact of colonisation. Boarding-style residential schools – among other methods of oppression – had a devastating impact on First Nations, Métis and Inuit. Children were removed from their families and communities, and were forced to adopt European traditions and Christianity, leading to the loss of land, culture and language.

The North American country continues to grapple with reconciliation and recognition of its indigenous peoples.

So there was some mamae there, but mana as well, said Tukiwaho.

“You saw them stand up and speak about the encouragement that they found hearing our native language unapologetically being spoken.”

“We’re quite spoilt it seems,” said Curreen.

“We’re used to being able to put on works i te reo Māori, we’re used to that being able to happen on our mainstream stages because that’s what we do, but over there they often get told that a show can’t happen only in indigenous language because people won’t come.”

A unique production?

When asked if the fusion of Māori theatre and cirque elements makes Te Tangi a Te Tūi unique, Tukiwaho took time to reflect on how far Māori theatre has come.

“If you’d have asked me this question about a year ago? I would’ve told you it was super unique, but we’re in a privileged time at the moment where we have this whakaari, and we have a beautiful whakaari by Tānemahuta Gray and Takirua called Hatupatu that’s on at the moment, in town, and we’re both on at exactly the same time, and I could never tell you a time in history where two te reo Māori shows about kaupapa Māori with circus elements in it, ever.

“So right now I don’t think it is unique – which is great for our people! It’s great for Aotearoa to have an opportunity to see two shows of this magnitude happening at once in Tāmaki,” he said.

Collaboration leads to Aotearoa’s first kaupapa Māori circus school, Te Kura Maninirau

The collaboration between the theatre companies doesn’t end at Te Tangi a Te Tūī. They have also established the country’s first kaupapa Māori circus school.

Te Kura Maninirau is led by The Dust Palace with support from Te Rēhia to make a circus school that is accessible for Māori, said Curreen.

“A lot of tamariki Māori want to come in and do that mahi ā Māui, you know? Do all that play and have that fun and have that experience in a way that feels like an ao Māori space for them to be in.

“So yeah, we’re really keen for that to continue and for that to be something so that eventually we’ll have more whakaari like this, and more Māori circus practitioners who can tell our stories in these extremely vibrant ways.”

Te Tangi a Te Tūī runs until March 10 at Te Pou Theatre in Henderson, Tāmaki Makaurau.


tūpuna – ancestors

te tangi a te tūī – the song of the songbird

ngāhere – forest

patupaiarehe – fairy folk, mythical being of human form with light skin and fair hair

kaiwhakaari – actor(s), thespian

mihimihi – greetings, speeches

tangata whenua – people of the land

ā-tikanga – as per cultural custom

mamae – pain, sore, hurt

mana – prestige, authority, power, status

whakaari – drama, play (theatre), acting

kaupapa Māori – a philosophical doctrine, incorporating the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values of Māori society

mahi ā Māui – acts or works associated with Māui (ancestor known for being clever and a trickster among other things)

ao Māori – Māori world

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