Talanoa: Julia Mage’au Gray of Sunameke

Sunameke are a performance group based in Darwin that was formed in 1997 by two sets of Australian based Papua New Guinea sisters: Julia Mage’au Gray and Yolanda Gray&  Katrina Sonter and  Samantha Sonter. Sunameke’s performances are a combination of traditional and contemporary that is distinctively Oceania.

From old to new old, that’s the way we go forward“~ Sunameke

Chauka Calling (2009.) Fiji. Julia Mage’au Gray and Yola Gray

The first time I saw Sunameke perform was Chauka Calling at the opening of Pacific Storms in Brisbane in December of 2009. Which coincidentally they had debuted early that year in my home town Suva (Fiji) at the Miss Pacific Pageant.

Chauka Calling was created to raise awareness of climate change and its effects in Oceania. Chauka was the guardian bird of the village in the legend ‘Leveyam’ and warned the villagers of a threat. That performance blew me away. I remember the grace and strong movements of this performance – perched like frigate birds as they weaved a story to the sound of spoken words and song.

I’m delighted to finally talanoa with Sunameke dancer and choreographer Julia Mage’au Gray.

Tell us a little about yourself – what path has led you to what you are doing now?
My mother is PNG, my father an Aussie.

Me, I am both and wouldn’t want it any other way…best of both worlds totally informs my practice and the creation of my work.

Apparently I have always danced, always sung and movement is truly the way I express myself best and is also what I have relied on to communicate with my multi-lingual family.

I don’t speak PNG languages fluently though I hear them well. When I can’t rely on language to translate for me, I rely on BODY language.

For me Body language never lies and says so much more than words. Combine that with finding my place in two distinctly different countries, I reckon that’s what set me on this path today 🙂

What challenges have you faced, and what advice would you have for aspiring Pacific artists?
Main challenge is learning to deal with ignorance on both sides of the coin. When people don’t understand, they react from a place of fear and the results are not always pleasant.

Advice – If you wake up every morning and the burn to make and create is still with you NEVER give up.

Where do you turn for creative inspiration when beginning a new piece?
My Aunties 🙂 Always my Mekeo heritage. The end result may not look like it or feel like it but all my work comes from my place 🙂

How would you describe Sunameke’s choreography?
Eclectic… Distinctive … from the Pacific

Sunameke started off in 1997 – how has your choreography style changed and developed over the last 14 years?
Hahaha…… so so so long ago it feels… Sunameke is more about performance than purely dance.

So Sunameke started with our singing. It was too cold to take our clothes off in Adelaide and dance with grass skirts. So we chickened out and wore long black coats and sang AT people in the markets, in the malls, at birthday parties, weddings and folk festivals. We sang songs from all over the Pacific 🙂

If you dance with Sunameke you are expected to be able to dance Kairuku, Motu, Manus, Oro, Kiwai, Tolai (and more) styles…. Ori Tahiti, Samoan Siva and Kiribati dance from the rest of Oceania…. then on top of it all you need to be able to do them all at the same time…:) Though most importantly you need to be able to SHARE with other cultures.

Today the work I create is highly collaborative with my dancers that have been members for over 7 years… it is complex, layered and detailed.

Dear Aunty Production (2009). Brown’s Mart Theatre, Darwin. Julia Mage’au Gray and Justine Maxwell

What is the relationship between traditional and contemporary dance and music, for you?
Intrinsic…music is sound – you can’t separate sound from dance.

Traditional and contemporary …. hmmmm I remember the Hawaiian Kumu Hula – Vicky Holt Takamine from the Culture Moves Conference in Wellington 2005 at TE PAPA saying – “Todays contemporary becomes tomorrows Tradition”.

So true, some of Sunamekes old contemporary dances are now being taught to our little Sunameke group – is that passing on tradition?

Our contemporary dances find their base in Pacific dance styles.

We take our traditional movement styles and move them to a space that reflects our origins and our homes away from Home.

The music in our productions could not be in any way described as traditional. There is a definite relationship to our countries of origin but the sound is full and atmospheric and reflects the story we are telling. I am useless at describing it…its something you have to hear and feel. Our music is created by James Manoghig. We have a highly collaborative process when we create our soundscapes 🙂 Our cultural backgrounds play a huge part in the sound… Hapakasi [half-caste], PNG – Australia and Philippines – Dutch.

Little Sunameke with Darwin School Of Ballet, Darwin Festival 2011

Can you give us a little insight into your creative – how do you first approach a new choreography?
Normally its a drive to make…. something that burns and eats at me until I make it (usually a social comment or strong emotion). I get an idea in my head and then that’s all I see eat breathe drink and the thing that happens after you eat and have digested hehehe.

When I am in create mode it is all consuming and horrible for family and friends because that’s all I think about. So I often miss the light hearted banter between people… totally get SUCKED IN and I start looking off into space…hahahahaha

The very first thing I do is write down/draw my images… the scenes that take place in my head. Its all in pictures. Then I formulate how I want those pictures to be see. Then I work out on paper scene by scene in pictures and words (story boarding ).

The flow in the story board has to feel and look right then I enter each scene and fill it in bit by bit… after the scenes I create the transitions which are often more full on then the scenes.

Hhahahaha… I just read all this back hmmmm not sure if it makes sense but its a very mathematical process. Everything is coded numerically or with colour, and dancers get the storyboard before rehearsals. But mind you all of this is done with much haste and ripping and starting again…. LOL

Julia with the Sunameke dancers rehearsing Who Born You ( 2010)

Once we are lucky enough to get in a studio, which is very rare since we often don’t get funded. So more like an empty school room 🙂 I work very fast and give the dancers all the base information about how the show will run/work scene to scene and what their entrance and exits are. Once they have that knowledge then we fill in the scenes and that’s were the collaboration occurs – I don’t want them to dance like me and I need them to source their own culture and experience, its up to them how much they give. My dancers are incredibly adept at working super fast dealing with change (nothing ever stays the same) and still dancing with intention that is real.

hmmm so an example of very fast = 4 hrs to create a 10 minute piece including music costume etc….then performing it to an audience of MANY!!!!

I HATE having to work fast in the studio but we just don’t have the luxury to spend time crafting .. My dancers are mostly mothers of many.

Oooops I think i gave you my whole process rather than the beginning 😦

What do you hope audiences will experience or take away from your performances?
I hope people can relate that they can see that the pacific as a unified front is stronger  that they walk away feeling like they know something personal about us that is in them also.

Julia's Bubu Auki and her Aunty Minia. Oaisaka Village, Papua New Guinea. 1976.

Do other art forms or artists in different disciplines inspire or have influenced you and how?
My Bubu’s – their knowledge and stature – gone now! How I miss the old Mekeo men and women of the past. They were Forward thinkers, and today greed does its best to destroy our rich culture.

Mamie Lousie at the Conservatoire in Papeete, Tahiti – I admire the Tahitians and their ability to take the risk of sharing their Ori Tahiti with outside cultures in an official way. To teach the correct way and to show proof that they do something about cultural misappropriation. I love how they have taken what they know of the old and have made something new to reflect who they are as a people today. Their generosity and humility astounds me.

THE DIVERSE CULTURES OF THE PACIFIC – the old stories, the new ones, the dance, the music, the land, the sea, THE PEOPLE!!!!!

The Internet has seemingly made it more easy for artists, writers and musicians to share their work with the world. Do you think the Internet has created possibilities for Pacific artists?
It has connected us in a way that was not possible before. I have access to Pacific people that I would never have known before the internet. I know whats happening in the region!

And people now know about us 🙂

Tell us about your recent performance Who Born You? and the reception it received.
Who Born You? OUR BEST SHOW EVER!!

This is the write up –

Who Born You? recounts the personal Kokoda Trail adventures of mixed-race Pacific modern women. Women born from Indigenous cultures impacted upon by Christian Missionaries and Western Lifestyle. It is intimate and thought provoking, challenging the stereotypical image of the Pacific Woman with flowers in her hair and a beckoning smile. The modern day Pacific woman is not made from wood or stone nor is she an exotic exhibition. Sunameke questions the depictions of Pacific women as not unlike traditional idols now seen as objects of art in a museum or gallery.

Who Born You ( 2010). Darwin Entertainment Centre, Darwin

We delve into our contemporary space with rhythmic hips, shoe boxes, shared stories and grounded feet. We weave the tracks of the modern day Pacific Woman from her tattooed grandmothers through the treacherous Kokoda Trail straight to Darwin.

Who Born You? came about after a phone call with longtime Sunameke member Julia Quinn. She told me I needed to remount a a piece we had created in 2004 Weaving the Map.
The piece was originally choreographed alongside Julia Quinn and was an interpretation of my own feelings about the impact the Christian Missionaries had on the cultures of the Pacific Islands, and how that impact effected modern Pacific Island culture.

I had just completed a solo contemporary dance work development, incorporating film, photography and creating new music with James Mangohig. I used shoes, shoeboxes and red tape in The Centipede and Her Odd Shoe to trace my first steps in making the tracks from Papua New Guinea to Australia and to the rest of Oceania. The shoes painted the story of my personal KOKODA TRAIL.

So after the phone call I decided to combine both these pieces, The Centipede and Her Odd Shoe and Weaving The Map. Both pieces with their different stories addressed the effects of colonialism and missionaries in the Pacific. I wanted to present the connection between Australia and PNG in our own lives – the effects of missionary and western influence and how all of this connects to how we live in Aussie today as mixed race Australians.

Who Born You ( 2010). Darwin Entertainment Centre, Darwin

It is layered and complex and the BEST we have to offer to date.

We found that it connected to anybody who has any connection to PNG…anyone who has had to learn to live with two very distinctive cultures… anybody from a christian background – its accepts the role of missionaries in PNG and is a positive perspective even in its sadness…those Australians that have traveled the Kokoda trail and are connected to it through lost loved ones during war time…hapakasi [half-caste] that have and have never been exposed to the richness of PNG culture… mothers and daughters…. those that have strong cultural ties with cultures that are not blood connected…those that cant be classified or put into a box 🙂

We would love to present Who Born You? in QLD one day and NZ and Hawai’i and ……… hahahaha

What are you working on at the moment?
Technique, strength…… LOL. Focusing on our island sets at the moment.

Future – trying to get Who Born You? out there 🙂

You have on your website a Dance Genealogy that shows who you’ve worked with over the years. Tell us a little bit about this and how important collaboration is to Sunameke.
Collaboration and sharing culture is everything…. moving to Australia at 9 years of age was a difficult period for me. Didn’t recognise it for what it was until I was much older. CULTURE SHOCK!!

Learning about my cultural arts and those of other Pacific people around me is what kept me centered and grounded. The DANCE GENEALOGY page is to give credit where credit is due.

You cannot know everything. The people that have shared with us over the years are generous and trusting. We take their gifts seriously and give them the respect they deserve.

Collaboration with Sistanative at the Cultural Village Production – Paradise Remixed. Darwin Festival 2008. Sistanative, Yola Gray, Katrina Sonter and Julia Mage’au Gray

If you could collaborate with another artist or creative person, who would you choose?
Sunameke crew collaboration with Leilani Kake, Oshen and/or Tiki Taane 🙂 YES YAH !! hahaha

What are you looking forward to?
Merrepen in September – Sunameke dancing at Daly River and we are travelling down by bus…. going to be a fun loud trip.

Canberra in September – Pasifika Australia with the most amazing Dr Katerina Teaiwa

Napier in November – my partner is doing the Ironmaori (I LOVE NZ)

Tahiti in April – don’t know why…all we do is sweat in a room and end up with seized thighs for the rest of the month…LOL … LOVE IT!!

Continuing creating work with SUNAMEKE crew!!

Vinaka Julia! Can’t wait for Who Born You? to make it’s journey to Brisbane *hint hint 🙂

Interview conducted via email 14-19 August , 2011. Images courtesy of Julia Mage’au Gray.

Sunameke on the kokonut wireless:

Website: http://www.sunameke.com
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/sunameke/82891718284?
YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/user/sunameke
Twitter: http://twitter.com/sunameke
Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/people/sunameke/

Productions:

Who Born You 

Dear Aunty

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