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Falling up

Playboy magazine was where many first encountered the work of Shel Silverstein, a columnist and cartoonist for the publication for 40 years. But the poet, author, illustrator, and singer-songwriter is better known to choreographer Tupua Tigafua as the writer of the children’s book The Giving Tree.

As the audience will see when Tigafua’s troupe of five male dancers perform Shel We? during the Tairawhiti Arts Festival next month the essence of the tale, and other quirky poems and stories by the American writer colours in the work while at the same time pays tribute to his Samoan parents and his family life. Shel We? is made up of five vignettes that are linked by five different characters.

“I came across the book in my early 20s,” says Tigafua.

“My wife is a primary school teacher and she brought the book home. What intrigued me about it was it was a kid’s book with no colour. I liked the compositions.”

In the story a boy and the tree are friends. The boy plays in the tree and eats its apples. As the boy grows up he sells apples to get the money he needs. When he leaves as a young man and later returns, the ageing tree gives him the branches he needs for timber to build a house. When the young man wants to build a boat he takes the tree’s trunk. All that is left when the man comes back is a stump for old men to rest on.

“The story is about two beings. One who gives and one who takes. Silverstein has that message in a lot of his works. My parents have worked their whole lives. Shel We? references The Giving Tree but it is about what they created for me.”

Dream-like“The work involves five men who carry an essence of the stories and poems in them, my upbringing and my perspective on life. They are random, separate characters but they are linked throughout.”

Those familiar with Silverstein’s works will catch visual echoes of the writer’s numerous poems, says reviewer John Smythe.

“Many sequences recur, either precisely the same way or with slight variations: the step-counting man obeying the orders of his shoulder-riding passenger; the questing cluster of men ever-seeking something just beyond their perception; the prancing beasts with green-twigged horns and tails; the man with the photo, looking for someone he’s lost . . . Other sequences stand alone, including fun with torches, Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me Too, the Alphabet Song and the floral-sheet ghosts.”

The essence of this imagery is captured in the dream-like New Zealandness of the publicity picture

“In the photo I’m like Shel. I’m inspired by the garage drink-up. You can talk about serious things but you add something funny.

“The people in the picture are my parents. My mother is holding my youngest son. In the sheets are my oldest daughter, niece and her sister. I’m in front holding the branches. My wife is behind me. We see this imagery on stage.”

New perspectiveAs a 20-year-old Tigafua’s love of dance led to three years with Black Grace. He later joined Pacific dance company Mau which took him to Berlin where a lot of the company’s work was based around the stories of immigrants there. In 2012 he joined The New Zealand Dance Company but by 2016 Tigafua was keen to spread his wings.

“It’s important to tell, or to add to our conversation but not to repeat the same thing or say it louder. From my perspective as New Zealand-born I got to travel a lot so you learn to be more curious about things around you — like the garage drink-up but I’m adding my perspective.”

Shel We? began as a three-minute solo piece Tigafua created while with The New Zealand Dance Company. He developed the work over the next six years.

“After reading The Giving Tree I read Shel’s poetry books. He’s so sweet and funny. Dance is physically demanding but with Shel We? I didn’t want it to be all physical. I wanted it to be more serious and subtle. There’s no massive set design — that’s to do with the inspiration from Shel. The backgrounds in his cartoons are blank. Shel We? is quite minimal in a way but poetic and metaphoric.

“It was inspired by Shel in a way but inspired by my own life too. Shel has encouraged a perspective I had that was tiny but grew.”

Shel We? War Memorial Theatre, Wednesday, October 16, 6.30pm. Post show talk at 8.30pm.

Tupua Tigafua will hold a dance workshop at Dancefit Studios on Palmerston Road on Saturday, October 12 from 10.30am-noon. RSVP to info@tetairawhitiartsfestival.nz

THE GARAGE: Imagery in this picture features in choreographer Tupua Tigafua’s Shel We? a dance work inspired by the quirky works of American poet, author, illustrator, and singer-songwriter Shel Silverstein; Tigafua’s Samoan parents and family life. Picture supplied