EXCLUSIVE WITH COCO TIRAO
During the Heiva 2016 preparations we caught up with Ahutoru Nui group president/choreography and international ‘Ori Tahiti maestro Coco Tira’o as he endeavours to uplift the mana of our beloved dance for people across Tahiti and beyond. Tahiti Dance Online investigates his unique point of view.
Some quick facts:
– Coco grew up in a family of artists and has been involved in cultural events since the age of 4 and at the age of 8 participated in his first HEIVA, he is now 43 years old.
– He was heavily influenced by his adoptive parents Tiapati Avaemai and Danny Teriipaia but also his great aunt, the one and only Madeleine Mou’a. They were able to teach him both the fa’arapu and pa’oti and so he developed in both male and female techniques.
– He started out as a dancer then moved on to become a costume maker, then author and composer and eventually choreographer
– He was chosen to do the solo tane with Tamari’i Pueu in 1989
– At the end of 2001 he was appointed official choreographer for the Arue based group Ahutoru Nui and has been with them since
– Coco has never liked the word ‘Choreographer’ but instead prefers the term ‘Metteur en scene’ which translates to ‘Director’ and in this case ‘Dance Director’
In 1995 Coco first saw Ahutoru Nui perform and since then he has brought the group to local and international renown with his unique style. When asked what inspired him to join the group he responds by saying ‘Ahutoru had something different, a mass force that vibrates with vigour’ and now he is not only choreographer, but President too. At the beginning he hesitated at the offer of joining the group as choreographer because he came from amateur groups such as Tamari’i Puurai, Temarama, Te hui tama no Pape’ete, Tamari’i Nuiha’a, Tamari’i Torea who were not big or known groups. To top it off, Ahutoru Nui came from a win at the Heiva that year so Coco was headed right into the big leagues and most of the professional dancers of the group saw the move as a weary initiative. He added that ‘in the amateur category you are able to make mistakes, people expect that but in the professional category, you need to be perfect’. His first show with them was in December 2001 at the Beachcomber and then moved forward with essentially an entirely new group for the Heiva in 2002. After proving himself and with the support of his band expert Poehei Temaiana Ahutoru Nui would win the Heiva in 2004 with their performance of ‘ Te a’a torotoro’ theme written by Jacky Bryant.
Coco says that his dance style is reflected in his ‘fa’arapu and pa’oti’ which are the two most iconic dance moves where you can feel the virility of men and the technical prowess of women. He also said that the pa’oti is one of the hardest moves above the fa’arapu, and adds that ‘the girls don’t understand how tired the guys get’. He prides himself on creating professional dancers, that’s why he privileges newbies to push them to their dancing potential as he sees his proteges in some of the biggest groups, he feels that the effort was worth it.
Coco’s international career started in 2003 whilst collaborating with U.S based Orange County group ‘Hiti’a o te ra’ led by Tahitian-born Alex Tekurio. His first steps in the U.S were linguistically challenged as he only knew 3 words in english and in that moment regretted not paying attention in english class at school. Coco’s contribution to the group led them to success at the San Jose fete in 2003 and in 2005 they would take top honours in the Heiva i Hawai’i beating established favourites Nonosina which seemed to be unthinkable at the time. They would go back the following year in 2006 for a back to back win. In light of his wins he said that ‘the traditional won, I knew what I was doing, I wanted the dancers to feel the songs, it was essential to transmit the message to the dancers so they can feel it’. When defining the traditional, Coco is adamant that a dancers should be able to understand and practice ‘dance, language and traditional arts and crafts’. This is crucial as ‘if dancers show the sky when we are talking about the sea’ there is work to do’.
In terms of the international ‘Ori Tahiti community Coco has met dancers who feel like they were Tahitian in another life and adds ‘the Polynesian triangle is magnificent, when you see the shows Tahiti, Maori and Hawaii and Samoa comes out on top because the rhythm and the way it’s executed, you want to come and dance, the plus the Tahitian has is the To’ere, people run to watch. Now even in Hawai’ian Halau they have integrated Tahitian dancing to retain their dancers, it makes people revive the flame of their culture’.
When asked about international dancers competing in Tahitian groups he says that ‘i’ts not because we have international dancers that we will win, it has everything to do with how you construct and execute your show, if you don’t win it’s because something didn’t go quite as planned, but you need to stop saying it’s because of international dancers, dance is open to everyone, everyone is allowed to express themselves. There is no frontier for dance, now if they dont accept international people in a group, I dont think like that – I have always been told by my elders that I have a gift and I need to share it, you will always be blessed if you share’. Also, people from Mexico for example save one years worth of salary almost to compete at the Heiva which is a huge commitment, this is passion for dance. Every country is the same except for Japan, there is a certain ‘respect and perfection and the other countries are the same but Japan is ‘wow’ and dancers are experts in technique, they just dont have the original feeling, not sure how they get the feeling, a Tahitian that is not a great dancer dances and they have something, when the Tahitian dances, you’re just ‘wow’ they have a little something. You cannot copy authenticity’.
This years’ Heiva was rocked with a few controversies and notably the one about not accepting dancers who are larger than a size 12 in certain groups. Coco responds by saying ‘its absurd – thats why my theme Vau is important because everyone has a right to express themselves, but in a competition we look for perfection and like to see pretty girls dance, but if you see a pretty girl dance but no presence and someone bigger with presence we need to ask ourselves a few questions, but for me everyone has a place in dance because it’s their culture, we cant kill culture for people, we need to make it live not put barriers and then we are surprised when we see our young generation not wanting to do it. They are more involved in the international dances than our own and its a shame. The first thing we get asked when we travel overseas is ‘where do you come from?’ And when you say ‘Tahiti’, people want to see you dance. If you don’t know anything then you look ridiculous, it makes my heart sob’. In saying that, Coco did ask his girls to make an effort on the weight front as to be able to execute the required routine and adds that ‘loosing weight will not kill you, but I did not ask them to get on a serious diet’.
Do the results count in the end? Coco says that ‘when you enter a competition you want to be on the podium, but then after my goal is to bring the young ones to a professional level, now the jury have their criteria and there is a preference for some and influenced friendships for others but the Heiva will always be the Heiva, whatever happens our heads stay high’. In terms of the evolution of the Heiva, Coco ‘wanted to stop the competition aspect all together and just have a presentation so no stress for the competition with the idea of wanting to beat everyone, at the Heiva if friends dance in different groups then pressure will divide the friendship and I want that to stop, and at the musicians level you dont see that rivalry, they give constructive criticism and compliment each other, no labels on their heads, as for dancers they all have their groups label on their faces, it’s a shame’.
So going back to the results, he added that ‘every year the jury changes, some are traditionalists and modernists and then you have ones that just come once to judge, it’s a shame because the group that wins the Heiva will be copied by everyone the next year, and then the next year it will be different, so one year traditional and one year modern and everyone copies’. He also stated ‘I don’t know where the limit is, the tradition is: I tell a story with one movement, I won’t do 5 movements, simple choreography from right to left in straight lines, no waves, zig zags or diagonals, all the group leaders in Tahiti chose the criteria, we are sprung in our own trap, where will traditional or modern go? Only the jury can decide, if I was in the jury one day, I would follow the criteria and then note on the criteria, in the criteria there are lots of things that don’t mean anything, it’s logical if the show was not great then I will judge accordingly, I couldn’t give 10 to a group, that level of perfection doesn’t exist, unless I see an angel dance on stage, I always give a half a point to the group for the work they did; then from 5 to 8, 9 is rare, I judge in between 5 and 8′.
When it comes to international judging it is very much the same phenomenon as the ‘Jury choses the winners, then the winners became the standard, the standard for the international community is Nonosina, then the groups copy them from A to Z it’s rare that we find groups that have their own ideas. All group leaders get help from people from Tahiti, I translate texts in Tahitian and guide them, explain in detail the text, they follow, they are able to get that across the message and the feeling I want, the moves need to correspond with the words and the theme, just be careful, sometimes they send me texts and then they don’t understand what they mean, then a Tahitian expert intervenes, when they get on stage they are able to show that, joy, sadness, there won’t be more than whats written. This is the difference with a native Tahitian, it comes down to understanding’.
Although Ahutoru Nui did not place at this year’s Heiva Coco’s theme ‘O VAU’ or ‘It’s me’ remains very personal as he describes that it is ‘time for me to say who I am by this show, my theme and my orero (speeches) are my songs, I just divided the theme in 4 parts, each part is valued, I am not a musician, I hear a melody at 2am and that’s why I sleep with my recorder, when it comes I need to write quickly, then I ask someone to translate my vision. ‘O Vau’ represents me, you, him, her you will find yourself in the text, everything you do has to do with where you’re from, we have a culture, land and a mountain, be proud of who you are’. Is his final message.
So what’s in store for next year? Coco is preparing to represent Ahutoru Nui once again at the Heiva 2017 and 2018 as a trilogie performance which is an evolution of his personal vision of dance. Something exciting to look forward to.
He leaves us with this inspiring words: ‘ I encourage everyone to come dance and experience dancing with a Tahitian group’.