Transcript: full interview with Kura Te Ua

Kura Kia ora. My name is Kura Te Ua. Born and raised in Auckland, Tāmaki Makaurau, but I have roots in the far north – a place called Whangape, and also Gisborne, Waihirere and Opotiki.

I’m a tutor, or kaiako, of Māori performing arts and haka theatre, and also the co-artistic director of Hawaiki Tū.

Johnson: It’s the first time that I’ve heard of this term “haka theatre”. Where did it come from? Did you make it up yourself? Can you tell us a little bit more about it?

Kura: Haka theatre was, I guess you could say, born, the term, with a production called Arohanui in 2011, combining elements of kapa haka, Māori dance and theatre. And so – it was born by a few people, I was just the one that picked it up and ran with it.

Johnson: What does it mean? Is it combining two art forms? Or do you take traditional kapa haka and merge it with contemporary – how does it work?

Kura: Ah, yeah, it’s definitely an on-going process, it’s definitely something that we’re always defining. But the main thing is that – all of the work that we create, is revolved around the disciplines to do with haka. So whether that’s tikanga Māori, te reo Māori, our history, our stories. And naturally because we have performers in our company that are trained in dance, from different forms, those are just naturally infused in the work that we create.

And then of course you’ve got the conventions of theatre – lights and sound and props just add to the spectacle. It combines them all naturally, in a natural way, without outdoing one or the other.

Johnson: Can you tell us a little bit more about what Hawaiki Tū does?

Kura: We’re a company of indigenous Māori artists, specialising in haka theatre. So we’re all trained in kapa haka, but we’ve all had training, whether it be in martial arts, or dance – some contemporary, some ballet – and theatre, which is the space we use to create our work. There are about 20 of the performers we’ve been working with over the last couple of years, and they age from 17 to 28.

Oh – actually a little bit older than 28! There’s no real age restriction. And the company’s growing, and the demands are growing every year. Every year.

Johnson: Did you have to go to school to learn all this? Did you do further education to get to that?

Kura: No. I always had a huge passion for kapa haka. And I always stand by that – that kapa haka is the foundation and the base of what I do, what I believe.

So – I was inspired at a very young age by Te Roopu o Whaka Huia which is taken by, born by Ngapo and Pimia Wehi.

The Weki whanau, and so then, surrounded by them as a young child, I aspired to be a kaihaka performer – that’s what there was at the time.

Going through the years of training –  I did some training at the University of Auckland, the dance programme there, and also at Pounaumu Performing Arts, where they encouraged us to step outside of the box, and create something outside of haka, using dance as another vehicle.

So it just eventuated and those influences of haka and dance have kind of – arrived.

Johnson: Going back to the three elements you were talking about, haka, dance and theatre, do you feel like now you’ve found your place of comfort to be able to express yourself?

Kura: Ah, to a certain point. We have a saying in Hawiki Tū that if it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you. So we’re always living by that. If I ever got to a point where I was comfortable, I think I’d be not quite doing my job well enough.

So in terms of genres, I definitely believe that kapa haka is the base and the foundation, of haka theatre, which is a term that we’re going by. And within haka, all the disciplines and all of the models in terms of Te Ao Māori, that you can use to help guide you through any particular world.

Johnson: What are some career highlights for you, over the years?

Kura: One of the biggest things about haka, or kapa haka, is that I have travelled all around the world. And I haven’t paid a cent.

With kapa haka particularly, dance, a few other occasions, some of the highlights – I went to Canada last year to do an indigenous exchange residency. But for me, I always wanted to travel the world and see other cultures and see other things, and this definitely was a vehicle for me.

Johnson: Just going back to you growing up. Were you always this energetic, quite fiery character in terms of dance – were you always a performer?

Kura: No! I was very, very very very, stupidly shy. It was like a taniwha that sat on my shoulder a lot of the time. I was very shy. To this day I thought that haka, or kapa haka, brought that out of me. Totally whipped it out.

If anything, I was a child that loved to play lots of games. Lots of games with all of my cousins, and try to make up little dance routines and stuff, but never really thought that one day I would aspire to be a dancer or try to have what I have now.

Johnson: Is there a moment growing up where you feel like it definitely helped shape and mould you as a person? Or it helped maybe kind of create decisions in your mind, like "Ok I want to be this person"? Made you run for it?

Kura: I was heavily inspired by Te Roopu o Whaka Huia, which was born or run by Ngapo and Pimia Wehi, now the Wehi whanau. They had an amazing venture - overseas performances, performed at top national kapa haka level.

They had a group called Pounaumu Performing Arts. They came and performed at my school one day. Some of them were my aunties and uncles. And I just remember that day thinking, “I want to be like that.”

And so of course I stuck close to them. And my dream was made true when I made the group of Te Waka Huia in, um, 2005 I think it was.

Johnson: Not too long ago!

Kura: No! I’m still young! And never really looked back ever since.

Johnson: What about life growing up as a child? What were those influences around you?

Kura: Growing up as a child was really, really – I look back now and it was the best thing that I could have had. I grew up in a, what they called, they called us "the village kids". We were brought up in a Black Power village in Otahuhu. And basically it was a lot of homes that all our fathers had built and in the community they call us the village kids because we all have Black Power fathers and we all lived in this village that only the Black Power could go in there.

So you can imagine what kind of a life that was. But what it did teach me was that I could either go one way or the other. I could go one extreme – down the same way that I’d seen, the experience that I’d beared witness to – or I could go the opposite way. Myself and my bro, we chose to go the opposite way. Through kapa haka we were able to do that.

Johnson: So Hawiki Tū is your business. Being young and having to run a haka theatre business, what are some of the challenges that you have to face each day?

Kura: I think, because we’re still growing, at the moment we, myself and my partner and our assistance producer Jenny Stevenson, we all take on multiple roles. So I think I might have about five different hats that I wear. So some of the challenges, perhaps – I came into this not knowing anything about how to write funding applications, or how to even present a business plan, or just basic fundamentals of business. But I think that I slowly attracted the right people, and they taught me certain things – I’m still learning.

Johnson: So being a creative, and being someone who works in creative arts in New Zealand - it’s quite tough to do as a full-time job. Do you do this full-time or do you have to do other little jobs on the side to make ends meet?

Kura: Yeah

Johnson: The same goes for musicians in New Zealand.

Kura: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think most people, if they can teach their craft, it’s a means of sort-of living, which is what I do. I teach the Certificate of Māori Performing Arts through Te Wananga o Aotearoa, and that’s the mahi, that’s also the feeder that I use, utilise as an academy for Hawiki Tū, to train people up so that they can have pathways once they’ve finished.

But I think most people, what they do is that they train, and they get to a certain level, where they’re really really lucky for companies to pick them up project after project – those are the lucky ones.

Those that aren’t so – a lot of people work in cafes, they get the casual type of mahi, but for most of the time the feedback is that they wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s either feast or famine, but it’s the sacrifice for doing what they love.

Johnson: For our young people out there who may not fit into a particular box, but are creative like you, what are some tips you can give them to maybe even pursue a dance career?

Kura: From the outset – sometimes our rangatahi don’t know that’s what they are good at 'til someone comes and pulls it out of them. If they know that they like to dance, and attach themselves to programmes like the Certificate in Performing Arts, or dance degrees, so that their eyes can be broadened – or attach themselves to crews or companies that exist, where they can surround themselves, and feed the fire, if they’re really really serous, head to places – in terms of dance anyway – like Unitec School of Dance so that they’re on an even playing field as everybody else, so that there are no reasons for them not to be picked as the top dancer, or the top actor, or the top producer or director. Get educated so that they can get to the same even playing field as everybody else – no excuses.

Johnson: Thank you for those awesome tips.

Looking ahead to the future, what is next for Kura Te Ua?

Kura: Oh, the plan next for Kura – and Hawaiki Tū – is to reach people on a global scale – world-wide scale. To introduce, or to re-introduce Māori performing arts and kapa haka to the world.

Johnson: Put it there man! [They high-five]. We’re going to smash it!

Kura: Yeah! 

Updated 12 Sep 2016