Polyfest returns, safe from Covid-19: ‘Get those kids back on that stage’

By Dominic Godfrey of RNZ.co.nz and is republished with permission

The world’s largest Pacific dance festival got under way in Auckland today after two years of disruptions.

Southern Cross Campus Tongan students huddled under a small gazebo to shelter from the rain, still in high spirits despite the weather.
Southern Cross Campus Tongan students huddled under a small gazebo to shelter from the rain, still in high spirits despite the weather. Photo: RNZ / Mabel Muller

Covid-19 caused the cancellation of Polyfest last year, while 2019’s festival was cut short by the Christchurch terror attacks.

Polyfest is the annual Māori and Pasifika cultural highlight for Auckland secondary schools and it started with a flag raising of Pasifika and Mana Whenua colours before a pōwhiri of welcome to guests and performers.

Polyfest director Seiuli Terri Leo-Mau'u
Polyfest director Seiuli Terri Leo-Mau’u Photo: RNZ / Mabel Muller

Polyfest director Seiuli Terri Leo-Mauu said they were really excited to have the festival under way after last year’s Covid-19 cancellation.

“There’s still a lot of uncertainties and a lot of anxiety out there but at the same time it’s kind of overcome by the resilience of these kids and the resilience of the community that comes around this,” said Seiuli.

“Everyone wants this to happen but we’re wanting to do this safely and, as soon as possible, get those kids back on that stage.”

A deputy principal at Māngere College, Mele Galenu’u Ah Sam is one of Polyfest’s Samoa-stage co-ordinator and said numbers had taken a bit of a hit this year with Covid-19 but there was still much to look forward to.

“The Ministry for Pacific Peoples, who are the sponsor for our Tautalaga, for our speeches, and they have provided us with some challenging topics so it will be interesting to see or hear what the kids have to say, and also performances as usual.”

Polyfest Tonga stage co-ordinator Fane Fusipongi Ketu'u.
Polyfest Tonga stage co-ordinator Fane Fusipongi Ketu’u. Photo: Mabel Muller / RNZ

For her Tonga-stage counterpart, James Cook High School’s Fane Fusipongi Ketu’u, it was exciting but meant more to juggle.

“Today we’re starting with our speech competition and we’re holding that on the Samoan stage because the Cook Islands is using our Tongan stage today and tomorrow,” she said.

“It’s a different feeling altogether after two years but we are hoping for the best and we know that it will be a great day today.”

Meanwhile, a key festival sponsor said this year’s event will help create a new post-covid normal for Pasifika youth.

Auckland University’s Henry Sevesi Fesulua’i said Polyfest is a great way for young people to get involved in their culture and heritage.

For secondary school students competing at Polyfest, said Lemoa the Samoa-stage sponsor, it takes them out of the lockdown mind-set.

“Kids are excited. Some of the Year-13’s are taking on leadership capacity (and) are taking those on pretty green because they didn’t have experience last year or the previous year,” he added.

“But they’re really excelling so I think this is a really good time to enjoy and come out of the normality of Covid-19.”

Minister for Pacific Peoples Aupito William Sio
Minister for Pacific Peoples Aupito William Sio Photo: RNZ / Mabel Muller

Minister for Pacific Peoples Aupito William Sio said it was exciting to be back at Polyfest after a challenging time and sobering period for young Pasifika.

Numbers had approached 100,000 in previous years with 10,000 performers from 60 schools.

Aupito said Polyfest was founded on helping Māori and Pacific cultures survive and thrive.

“Recognising that more than 60 percent of our Pacific population are New Zealand born but they themselves told me in 2018 that despite them being New Zealand born and despite them not being well versed in our languages, that languages and cultures were still important.”

Without them, mused Aupito, ties would be lost to the land, seas and environment, putting Pacific identity at risk.

For festival director Seiuli, carrying over last year’s theme from the cancelled event was important.

“The theme is just so relevant this year, it’s all about healing the body, mind, spirit and soul. We’re still coming out of a Covid climate and it’s just so relevant today.”

Seiuli and festival chair Robert Solomone said they could not have got Polyfest 2021 over the line without the ongoing commitment from sponsors, schools and students.

Polyfest runs until its biggest day on Saturday.

Manurewa High School’s very first Tokelau group to perform at Polyfest.
Manurewa High School’s very first Tokelau group to perform at Polyfest. Photo: RNZ / Mabel Muller

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