Te Tangi a te Tūī – Theatre and cirque combine to re-create a forgotten birdsong

Te Tangi a te Tūī (The Song of the Tūī) offers a unique live performance that blends Māori culture with the artistry of cirque theatre, all conveyed in te reo Māori, the Māori language. Presented by The Cultch and Urban Ink, it will run from Oct. 19 to 29 at the York Theatre.

“I heard a story as a teenager that no one alive or to live will know: the original song of the Tūī bird here in New Zealand,” says Tainui Tukiwaho, lead director, creator, and performer in Te Tangi a te Tūī. “This story has actually sat with me for over 20 years now.”

“That idea moved me when I was 17 and has sat with me since then,” says Tukiwaho.

Sounds of the Bird

Te Tangi a te Tūī takes its audience on a journey into the heart of Aotearoa, the ancestral land of the Māori people. The show spins a fantastical allegorical tale that explores the loss of te reo Māori and its reclamation through the captivating medium of cirque theatre. The multigenerational narrative is carried along with dance and high-flying acrobatics, allowing the audience to connect, or reconnect, with the ngāhere, the sacred forest of Aotearoa.

Tukiwaho and the other lead creators of the show were captivated by the concept of the “original song” of the Tūī, a songbird indigenous to Aotearoa. As a mimic bird, the Tūī’s call has evolved over time, shaped by the ever-changing world around it.

Tukiwaho says that a key feature of performance itself is, in a way, bringing the Tūī to life through music.

“We are enjoying playing with indigenous instruments in the show because they are designed to mimic the very world that this show is hoping to bring to the stage in Vancouver,” says Tukiwaho.

Through sound, acrobatics, and dance, the creative team has crafted a performance that aims to serve as a powerful narrative piece, using theatre and circus artistry to accentuate the central theme of transformation and adaptation.

Once, the Tūī would absorb the world’s soundscape and respond in kind. But today its tune has faded into a faint echo. While the bird itself is not under threat, climate change, biodiversity loss, and the enduring effects of colonization are all represented through the fading call of the Tūī.

Amidst these challenges, hope prevails. The performance is a story of reclamation, drawing from the writer’s own whānau heritage passed down through generations.

Whānau: a connection of family

Te Tangi a te Tūī amplifies the voice of an Aotearoa songbird through cirque and theatre. | Photo by Ben Sarten

Tukiwaho is well acquainted with Whānau, a Maori concept deeply rooted in familial and communal bonds. He has a history of connecting and incorporating whānau as a theme in his storytelling.

In early 2023, Tukiwaho directed Hemo is Home, a play that was inspired by his blended whānau, including his five children, and notably starred his 10-year-old son, Te Rongopai Curreen Tukiwaho.

Tukiwaho says he’s excited about Te Tangi a te Tūī since now he’ll be touring with his two sons with whom he can share this enriching moment of cultural growth.

But, whānau also goes beyond blood relations. Tukiwaho emphasises that his partnership with The Dust Palace, a renowned New Zealand-based circus and theatre company, is a privilege built on a longstanding friendship and connection.

“The oldest friendship I have in this world is with Eve Gordan, the artistic director of The Dust Palace. It is natural and exciting for us to partner on this show and explore our expertise as artists to create this exciting and novel performance” says Tukiwaho.

Together, they have encapsulated the poignant narrative of love and loss between Māori, Patupairehe (fairy folk), and the natural world in the face of colonial impact. For Tukiwaho, it’s the ties that are often formed through shared experiences and deep connections that can transcend blood ties.

“That’s when life gets exciting,” says Tukiwaho.

For more information about Te Tangi a te Tūī, visit www.thecultch.com