A Breath Of Fresh Air: Emerging Within Tradition

By Vivian Chu


Tell Aaron Sencil, the artistic director of Tahitian dance company, Hui Tama Nui, that his group is going to be profiled in a dance publication and his response is, “Cool!” He’s enthusiastic and to the point. At 28 years old, Sencil is one of the youngest ra’atira–teacher of Tahitian culture and dance–in the United States and director of a 100+ member company based in Vallejo. His energy and creative drive can be seen partly in the numerous roles he takes on in Hui Tama Nui’s latest production, Rumia, premiering at the 2011 San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival in June. He is credited as the director, co-writer, music arranger, choreographer, and visual and costume designer. Add to this list graphic artist, entrepreneur and world traveler, and it becomes easy to wonder how he finds the time to put together the elaborate productions Hui Tama Nui is known for.

Last year’s production at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, Pepe Hau, garnered Hui Tama Nui two Isadora Duncan Dance Award nominations–one for Outstanding Achievement in Performance by a Company and one for Outstanding Achievement in Visual Design–for which Sencil is understandably proud. But shortly after the 2010 Festival concluded, Sencil was already thinking about his next project.

Rumia, developed in collaboration with the renowned Tahitian dance group Les Grands Ballets de Tahiti promises to be another impressive production. Like other Hui Tama Nui presentations, Rumia exemplifies Ori Rau (contemporary Tahitian dance). It begins as a creation story, in which Ta’aroa, the Tahitian creation figure sits inside an egg, or rumia. The egg encompasses Ta’aroa in darkness, and he seeks to break through the shell. From here, the production progresses in five acts. There are multiple costume changes and transitions, and amazingly, it includes an original score, not to mention over 80 dancers and musicians. Sencil incorporates untraditional elements in the piece: electronic music, neon-colored synthetic fabrics, unusual props, and choreography drawn from other genres–with more traditional Tahitian percussion, costuming materials, and dance movements. The synthesis of these elements in Hui Tama Nui’s audition of Rumia for the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival elicited a standing ovation from the attending audience.

However, not everyone is a fan of Ori Rau, particularly other practitioners of Ori Tahiti, (Tahitian dance), who claim the new genre degrades the traditional form. To this Sencil argues that, “Ori Rau encourages creativity of Tahitian dance fusion. Perhaps part of the beauty of Tahitian dance is that it has accepted innovation and creativity, as opposed to staying frozen in time. This is why defining truly ‘traditional’ Tahitian dance is a challenge to Tahitian dance groups both in and outside of Tahiti.”

There are few Tahitian dance companies practicing Ori Rau with as much prominence as Hui Tama Nui. It was one of the first groups to perform Ori Rau at dance competitions, garnering awards for its entries. “Sound effects, masks and confetti were never seen during a traditional performance. It was very bizarre, too modern, way too showy, not traditional, but the judges loved it. One year, we entered both an Ori Rau performance and a traditional one, just to show that we can do both. We won first place.”

In addition to incorporating contemporary music, dance and costuming, Rumia addresses some very contemporary issues, from religion and economics to sexual orientation. Says Sencil, “We were inspired to explore the many shells and personal struggles that divide us. In the end we hope for acceptance of our individualities.”

This is perhaps what gives Ori Rau its strongest justification. In Ori Rau, the unusual is accepted and innovation is expected. It allows artistic directors, choreographers, musicians and dancers the ability to experiment, to explore and push established boundaries. Sencil elaborates, “The younger generation in Tahiti is slowly losing interest in “traditional” Tahitian dance. They are more interested in technology, fashion, and more modern things. Ori Rau is a way to keep the Tahitian culture alive.”

Sencil, still in his twenties, should know. At 7 years old, Sencil began drumming with his cousins in a percussion group near his childhood home in Vallejo. He remembers being smaller than the drums he was playing. Sencil’s family helped to develop his participation in percussion and dance. “My older sister and Mom were dancing long before I could remember, so the music was always in my head. I had no interest in the dance or anything else. I kind of had to go to practice because the rest of my family was there.”

Afterward, Sencil began studying with Hui Tama Nui, founded by the well-known percussionist, Sam Almira. “He introduced me to real drummers from Tahiti,” says Sencil. “My sisters and a few other girls were the only dancers. I think there were only about 6 or 8 girls max. A few years later, Hui Tama Nui was the house band for many competitions and drumming for other groups.”

In 2000, Sencil received one of the biggest surprises of his youth. “Sam decided to pass the group over to me. I had just turned 16 years old,” Sencil explains. He had had no previous indication of Almira’s plans. “Apparently, my mom knew that I was going to be the director because Sam was telling her about his plans to hand the company over to me. I was in complete surprise, but I had been the one that was designing most of the costumes and had a million ideas. I obviously had a larger vision for the group, but to be in charge? To this day, I don’t know why or what made him believe in me.”

Transitioning into the role of artistic director of Hui Tama Nui posed very real challenges at the time for the young Sencil. “At first, a lot of parents in the group didn’t trust me or doubted me. For a long time, we only mentioned my name on group applications and never showed my face in a picture so people would not think this was a joke. When we first performed in the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival in 2001, all of the artistic directors were to come up, and while the other directors were well over 40, here walked up this teenager in jeans. I got a lot of raised eyebrows.”

But when the young artistic director was introduced to more Tahitian teachers and shows, he could not help but be in awe. He found inspiration in Ori Rau and in the work of other Tahitian cultural groups. “There was one group directed by a duo named Teiki and Lorenzo that truly inspired me. They performed mainly traditional dance, but they incorporated many modern flairs within their performance. They were definitely responsible for the great changes in Tahitian dance in the 1990s. It was like a breath of fresh air, and I realized how far off the California style of dance was.”

Today, Sencil has no trouble embracing his role as artistic director. Sencil’s admiration for Teiki and Lorenzo, currently the directors of Les Grands Ballet de Tahiti, has grown into an artistic collaboration in Rumia. They composed the original songs and lyrics for the production and worked together to create the five-acts of choreography.

Hui Tama Nui (which translates to “the next generation”) is currently hard at work in rehearsals for the aptly themed Rumia and has recently returned from a tour in Mexico City. The once teenage director has certainly emerged from his shell. “It’s been a rough road learning from our past through trial and error,” says Sencil, “but it’s a lot easier now.”

Hui Tama Nui performs May 6 in the San Francisco City Hall Rotunda at noon as part of the free Rotunda Dance Series presented by Dancers’ Group and World Arts West, in partnership with San Francisco Grants for the Arts.

See them perform June 11-12 at Zellerbach Hall as part of the 2011 San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. More info at: sfethnicdancefestival.org

This article appeared in the May 2011 issue of In Dance.

Vivian T. Chu believes in the capabilities of expression in movement and is currently a staff member at World Arts West.