Jahra Wasasala will be performing twice in the upcoming Tempo Dance Festival (04 – 16 October). Presenting her own work in a line-up of contemporary pacific artists - SIVA Niu Sila and dancing in a contemporary showcase Taumata: Four New Works.
A mix of dance and spoken word, her intense work protests against inequality, racism, sexism and explores indigenous experiences in the face of colonialism. Needless to say, Jahra (AKA Rager for poetry) has gained a distinct following in Auckland for both theatrical dance work and poetry slamming.
We fired some questions Jahra's way...
Who were your early dance influences?
My early dance influences were of course the royalty themselves: Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson. But especially Janet. She was specifically a major influence for me, especially in terms of being a woman of colour who was aggressively and unapologetically expressing herself creatively on a public platform. At that point of my young life, to see myself represented in someone as complex and powerful as her was a revolutionary thing. It challenged and annihilated what my perceived limitations were, and it pushed me from that point on wards to always express myself in a magnified and intensified way.
When did you become interested in Spoken Word Poetry?
I became interested in Spoken Word or in Performance Poetry half-way during my tertiary training as a contemporary dance. Without acknowledging it, I had always written poetry, but I had never thought it would be considered poetry. But at that point in my training, I was experiencing my voice or political/social opinions being erased from the dance studio. It is very normal for dancers to be conditioned into thinking their voice doesn’t matter in some environments, and that the only thing worthwhile about us is our physical ability and how much we can bend and break for someone else, which of course is a lie. I was always a feisty, aggressive and hyper-emotional young woman, so during that time in training I was feeling muted. One of my good friends introduced me to a poet called Staceyann Chin and her poem ‘Crossfire’. As soon as I witnessed this poem, I recognised the language instantly, and I wrote my first slam-structured poem that night. I found a creative genre that supported my political and socially-driven voice, and that allowed me at that time to just say some shit. And I’ve never looked back. Now my poetry has drastically changed, and it is always viscerally incorporated with my dance work, like my solo work ‘bloo/d/runk’ in Siva Niu Sila.
How did you become involved with Black Grace’s Urban Youth Movement?
I became involved with Black Grace’s Urban Youth Movement when I was 17 years old and in high school. I wasn’t really interested in contemporary dance at that point, I was a hip hop dancer. But my school dance teacher knew this was something I needed to be involved with, so she pushed me to audition for it. I got in, and that’s where my love of contemporary dance initially started – I converted overnight, haha. In saying that, Black Grace’s UYM taught me a lot of amazing lessons, but it also introduced me to a lot of problematic and destructive behaviour in the NZ and wider contemporary dance culture. So in a strange way, it was a perfect beginning: in terms of gaining a realistic understanding of parts of the industry, as well as preparing me with an intense tenacious quality which is essential in this field of work.
You represented New Zealand at the Festival of Pacific Arts in Guam. How was the performance received over there?
This is an answer that I could expand on for hours, haha. But in brief, the 12th Festival of the Pacific Arts held in Guahan was the most powerful and problematic experience I have had so far in my creative journey. It was a game-changer for me. Performing a solo work was something that I was not prepared for, as my collaborator (Grace Taylor, Poet) who I was supposed to be presenting a duet-physical theatre work with had to pull out last minute due to family circumstances. Being placed in the position of presenting a solo last minute on an international platform has really redefined what my creative practice is. It was sharpened my fangs and helped me shed any anxious fresh-graduate layers I had left over. I was a transformative experience to perform on that platform in front of my brothers and sisters of the Moana/the Pacific, and I felt like it was a healing hand on the past cultural internal conflict I had lived with growing up. I found a profound affirmation that I had been longing for, and I proved to myself that I have everything I need to do this work. I was wonderfully supported by my family in Fiji’s VOU Dance Company on stage as well, which felt like a homecoming. I was received in all my complexity, and it ended up being a joyous thing. I was incredibly proud to represent both Aotearoa and Fiji while at this festival, and I am forever grateful for the opportunity.
Siva Niu Sila is going to be performed at the upcoming Tempo Dance Festival. Where did the idea forSiva Niu Sila originate?
‘Siva Niu Sila’ is the name of the showcase I am under, but my solo work is called ‘bloo/d/runk’ The influence for the creation of this work has always been a life influence for me, which is the glorification and destruction of the brown/black woman’s body. The world as a woman’s body. The global epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women, especially in First Nations peoples in Canada. The idea of a singular male god and how He consumed our allegiance to the divine feminine. The way women are fought through, never fought for. The way women’s bodies are the holiest of civil wars, and how we are always celebrated in pieces, never as a whole person. It is a solo that seeks to magnify and intensity the woman-of-colour’s experience on this earth/as this earth, in real time.
You will also be part of Taumata: Four New Works during the festival. What can you tell us about the works?
In Taumata: Four New Works I will be in the dance work ‘Sisters of the Black Crow’ alongside the amazing dancers and artists Rose Philpott and Grace Woollett, from the critically-acclaimed choreographer Sarah Foster-Sproull. For me, this work is a truly powerful and special experience. It draws on the magnificence that comes from the complexity of womanhood, and the intense relationships women share with each other. It looks at darkness as an expression of light, not as the absence of it. It infuses a lot of ritualistic imagery and mythology surrounding women, and it seeks to lift the veil on an otherwise exclusive language we share as women. It is beautiful. It is devastating. It is necessary. And it is constantly transforming. Sarah Foster-Sproull is a supremely brilliant mind and woman who’s creative expression is essential for the elevation of the arts community here and abroad. And in NZ we don’t support our female makers enough, so get familiar if you already aren’t!
What do you find the most challenging aspect of your performances?
The most challenging aspect of my performances is the moment after performing. It is the moment when you are coming down from such a heightened and sacred experience, when you are left with yourself and you start to question your contribution and your value as a voice and artist. It’s when I start to feel like my offer hasn’t really changed anything or brought attention to the issues I am concerned with. It is when I feel like I have failed the choreographer. It is all to do with the dip performers feels after performing, and it is in those darker moments that the insecurities and self-doubt creep in. I find other things about performing challenging, of course. But if I am to be honest, it is that moment that has always challenged me the most.
Following the Tempo Dance Festival, what other projects have you got in the pipeline?
Oh god! I always have many projects manifesting at once, and most of the time I can’t keep up with myself, haha. But post Tempo there are a few hectically awesome things I am working on, like developing the physical theatre work ‘godd-less’ with Grace Taylor, performing in the full-length dance work ‘Orchids’ by Sarah Foster-Sproull, continuing to develop ‘bloo/d/runk’ and take it to other platforms globally, and personally just continuing to grow and shift as an emerging artist and continuing to give back to my community, teaching open dance classes and always empowering young women. And always practicing gratitude. I’m always doing mad shit out of nowhere though, so keep an eye on me. Haha!
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