Natano Fa’anana Connecting Culture and Contemporary Circus
Posted by Team APATA | Oct 27, 2022
This month on the APATA Podcast we caught up with APATA community member contemporary circus director, producer and performer Natano Fa’anana.
Natano presented the 2022 APATA Performing Arts Student of the Year Award to Leilani Collins at Bellbird Park State Secondary College in June, (Watch the video) and we are so delighted to share a deep dive into Natano’s journey with you. (Click on the play button below to listen to our chat with Natano Fa’anana.)
“My father’s from Palauli, a village in Savai’i, and my mother is from Fagamalo also from Savai’i. But we were born and raised in Aotearoa, Lower Hutt actually.” The family moved north to the outer suburbs of Auckland before making the move to Ipswich, Queensland in the 1980s.
That’s why it was a bit fortuitous that Natano joined us in Ipswich for Leilani’s presentation as he himself had grown up in the same city, attending Silkstone State Primary School and later Bremer State High.
“We maintained our culture through our ceremonial practices and dances whenever we could. We were really quite lucky to have parents that were excited about a continuation of story and our culture, but also assimilating and working with our newfoundland. Which was really important to acknowledge. I do recall my father, and my mother, always reminding us that we were on other people’s land, and to really be mindful of that.”
The Path to Performing Arts
Sport was where Natano concentrated his energy in high school, though he says that he had teachers who were often tapping him on the shoulder with suggestions that he should consider performance or art. We’re talking about you Mrs. Ryan, Mrs. Bull and Mrs. Kelly!
Though it wouldn’t be until a decade later that Natano would try his first circus class and fall in love with it!
“As I tapped away at that as a hobby, I realised, wow, this could also be a newfound tool of expressing my culture and my people instead of dance, or music, or singing, or how we’re used to seeing our people share our stories.”
“I set out to do that through circus and since that time – always at the forefront of my mind – was representing our culture, our people through whatever medium, whether it was my contemporary dance, or my aerials in the air, or basing and throwing people around. I was representing our people.”
Making New Roads in Performing Arts
“At the time there weren’t any people on stages that looked like us. Not only Pasifika people, but anyone that was brown. And so that created a fire in my belly to work hard and acknowledge that the pathways weren’t designed or built for people like us.”
“At that time there wasn’t really a want for that kind of aesthetic. But we found the right people that we could collaborate with, who were like minded, who said, ‘Let’s explore and celebrate our respective cultures and use it on a platform!’ We would hire out little warehouses in Brisbane just to put up some performances that celebrate to explore the people that we are.”
Out of those underground performances came the highly experimental company Polytoxic, of which Natano was an ensemble member for six years.
“Polytoxic was my first company and it was a beautiful celebration of Australiana and Pasifika and we just explored that collision, you know, we had whip crackers and a ballet dancer, and then we had us, merging Sasa, Samoan dance, with other stuff. ”
“It was very experimental and found its place. It was quite a celebrated movement, but it’s also, one which I’m hugely proud to be part of.”
“This was an underground movement that we put on in a warehouse, in a bookstore, in West End, Brisbane and which was like slapped together with cello tape and hope. And from there it just generated this interest. Everyone was like, ‘Hey, what’s this show with six young men throwing themselves around talking about culture, and masculinity, and doing mad skills in the air and on the ground. And next minute we’re flying around the world. ”
Though he loved the cabaret world Natano says, “I felt this need to pursue other avenues as an artist. I was just hungry to continue sharing our culture.”
He began researching contemporary circus, which isn’t hard when Brisbane is home to CIRCA one of the world’s most amazing contemporary performance companies in the world!
With friends Jesse Scott and Lachlan McAuley, Natano founded Casus Circus, now Casus Creations and in 2012 they made a show called Knee Deep that rocketed their careers.
Exploring the parallels between the strength and fragility of the human body and the humble egg, Knee Deep was made with a shoestring budget, and an excess of passion and drive.
“At the time we were making a show that was just dear to us. And we found quickly that it created these emotional responses. People were hungry for it. From there on we travelled the world with our little show of eggs and our op-shop costumes. I’ve got to mention that Knee Deep was kind of a game changer in many ways, both for myself and the Australian industry. I proudly, and unapologetically, wove my culture into contemporary circus.”
“I put in there a Fa’ataupati which is a Samoan slap dance and wove it into an acrobatic scene, so it was like tumbling, flipping, throwing people around, but also slapping the body in time to the rhythm.”
Facilitating Cultural and Inclusive Stories
Natano has remained true to the path laid by his parents and strives to building connections with the First Peoples of Australia. He directed and co-produced Australia’s first Indigenous circus show, Chasing Smoke, though her prefers to say he was a facilitator of the performers’ stories. “It was challenging, uplifting, traumatic, and inspiring – all of that in one. ” Chasing Smoke was nominated for a Matilda award and won the Green Room Award in 2017 for Best Circus and Physical Theatre.
“Far too often there is barrier after barrier for people like us, especially for First Nations people. And so, I don’t apologise for the fact that I, as an artist, am also a punk. I don’t have a problem kicking down walls, and especially kicking down walls for people more marginalised than myself. It’s worth it! “
Currently Natano is producer at Moogahlin Performing Arts company which solely and specifically produces and supports First Nations work.
“Being an independent artist worked in my favour because as an artist you have to learn how to be your own director, producer, and in many ways your own production manager.”
“With that skill set I’m able to serve the new needs of Moogahlin where I help create touring. So all the shows they’re making now we make together, but I then put them on the road.”
One of Moogahlin’s multiple offerings, The Visitors, will be a part of the Sydney Opera House 50th Anniversary Program in 2023.
“The Visitors is a co-commissioned work between Sydney Theatre Company and Moogahlin. All the creative leads are First Nations, all, or as much of the crew and the cast are First Nations. Costume Designer, Lighting Designer – all of them First Nations. It’s really exciting to see that kind of methodology. I’m a blackfella from another rock, a much smaller rock in Samoa but I’m welcomed into this space to be part of that family of creators. Wesley Enoch, who is Quandamooka – Stradbroke Island, he’s the director of The Visitors which was written by Muruwari woman Jane Harrison, which is just an exciting, pioneering and formidable team. ”
Independently Natano has a string of awards both as a performer and director. Significantly winning two Matilda Awards for We Live Here in the categories for Best Circus and Physical Theatre Show and Best Director, in conjunction with co-director Bridget Boyle. Created by a team of highly skilled young circus performers and based on the stories of parents, siblings, and guests of Hummingbird House, Queensland’s only youth hospice, We Live Here explores themes of resilience, chaos, and the beauty of a moment shared.
Investigating Global Arts Practices
In 2019 Natano was awarded the prestigious Sidney Myer Fellowship acknowledging his contribution to Humanities through the Arts. In 2020 Natano became a recipient for the Churchill Fellowship to further investigate diversification of the theatre industry through cultural protocol and practise.
In 2021 Natano was a Senior Producer at YIRRAMBOI Festival. Occurring biannually YIRRAMBOI is a First Nations lead and focused arts festival based in Melbourne
“Those accolades and awards came at a time when I was at a turning point. I wasn’t excited about how poor I was, how the challenges that we’ve been working on to change hadn’t shifted that much over the last twelve years? But… with those achievements that I have now, Australia, if not the world, is listening to my voice in many ways and I’m able to, not change of my own accord, but I’m at least able to talk to other directors, other like-minded people who are at a certain tier where we can influence change.”
Heading overseas shortly to begin his Churchill Fellowship investigation Natano will be connecting with other First People directors, choreographers and leaders in arts practice around the world exploring how they weave their culture into modern theatre practice.
“There’s a risk where people in certain powers just presume that there is a blanket way of operating as First Peoples. We do have very different practices and cultural protocols and what is acceptable, and not acceptable to bring into modern theatre.”
“I was lucky enough to connect with five individuals that are willing to share some of the cultural practices which they bring into their theatre practice.”
It’s an exciting phase and one that Natano is looking forward to writing about after connecting with; Jack Gray – Atamira Dance, Aotearoa; Margo Kane – Talking Stick Festival, Vancouver Canada; Vicki Dela Amedume – Upswing, UK; Phare Circus, Cambodia; and two directors on the island of Rotuma, off Fiji, whose work is based on traditional origin stories.
Connecting with Community
With years of experience in producing, creative producing, and directing shows Natano believes it is important to share those experiences and take some time to connect with community. Having just returned from delivering workshops in Wilcannia with Fruit Fly Circus member, Wiradjuri man Dylan Singh, and Outback Theatre for Young People‘s Louise Moriarty, Natano reflects on making time to just BE in community.
“Just to sit with mob and go out to places like Wilcannia or Riverina, where I have a connection. We go in there with the premise of teaching circus because that’s the background that I have in terms of artistry. But for me, it’s about using whatever genre or medium, like circus in this context, and using those skills as a means of continuing to tell stories.”
“It’s just cultural courtesy to get to know who the locals are, and just sitting in. It’s a very non-linear, non-European way of obtaining information. “
“What I found myself doing with Dylan Singh, because he is a Wiradjuri man with family connections to Wilcannia, is that we sat mostly with Uncles and Aunties just having yarns to learn what it is that the community wants in terms of artistry. And also, being people of culture. Me; Pasifika, Dylan; Wiradjuri, it’s just cultural courtesy to get to know who the locals are, and just sitting in. It’s a very non-linear, non-European way of obtaining information. But we’re okay with that, because you just listen and feel out what it is the people want, or don’t want in some cases. Everywhere is different. ”
Mentors and Teachers
“Oh, that’s a good one, I actually haven’t been posed with that question before, but I’ll give it a go. Obviously my family, specifically my mother. I feel like she missed her calling as a performer; happily the clown and happily the one who’s really influential in terms of culture and making sure to grab any opportunity to get up to sing about it. ”
“Rudy Mineur is a friend of mine who was part of the circus movement in the 1990s and early 2000s. And he was, in my opinion, one of the most underrated acrobats in the world. I continue to use his ethos, ‘Any information one must share.’ ”
“He was quite an instrumental person when I was a 30-year-old acrobat. Anything he could share with me, he would, and he was also really positive about it. You know, my handstands and climbs as an aerialist he would say – ‘Oh, you did half a climb. How awesome is that? Your handstand was a little bit crooked, and you fell, but, you know what? How good is that as a starting point?’ – It was that positivity that remained with me as an artist. He and his wife Tess Beck were like second family, and continue to be that to this day. ”
“More recently, which is interesting, but Taika Waititi. You know, just seeing another brother who looks like us, doing his thing, sharing his craft. Taika represents that thing that; ‘If he can do it, we can too!’ ”
Words of advice
Be prepared for hard work.
“There are going to be hard knocks, for sure. But you know what? We are good. People of culture, we know how to dust ourselves off, get back up and be okay with that. And the knocks are going to be regular. That’s life. But just stay true to that drive, that passion, that motivation, which for myself, is about our culture, and our people, and our voices and having that in the back of my mind. That’s always worthwhile. ”
Stay true to WHY you are an artist
“If you are out there because you have this gift to share with the world, then be okay with that. If it doesn’t resonate with the masses, with all your friends. So what? That’s awesome. That’s unique. ”
Sharing is key
“I’ve built my career on sharing my knowledge, of which most business models, and other successful artists & business people will say is the worst thing to do. I disagree. I share my knowledge with anyone who is willing to listen, and more importantly, earn it. Information, in my experience, and my opinion, isn’t necessarily needed to be kept to yourself. It’s not conducive to creating a stronger sector, or building your community. “
Lend a hand
“Always know that there’s someone worse off than you. And help them out. Help a brother or sister out if they need it. That’s what I’ve always done. It’s not conducive to a successful business model for the masses. But I can attest to being someone who now lives a life where I feel fulfilled in most ways. ”
“I am fine, my career is solid, my artistry is intact, and all of that was based on – if people needed help, I would help them. And the universe, or whatever you believe in, looks after you. ”
What is your Big Dream Natano?
“My big dream is to be an artistic director of a major event or festival. And I know, even as I say it, it sounds out of character. But there’s something that is appealing because most of my works have been ones that are really quite intimate, small scale and, you know, human. I would like to deliver human connection, but on a massive scale. ”
What do you love about what you do?
“What do I love about it? Oh, there’s multiple things. I’m really blessed to be who I am now. I get to travel the world, experience other cultures and other peoples that many would only dream of. And again, I get to share my culture, and my people with the world as well. ”
See below if you would like to reach out to Natano Fa’anana.