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The Otago Early Childhood and Schools Maori and Pacific Island Festival (Polyfest) is preparing for its 25th event. Elena McPhee looks back over the history of the cultural festival.
One of the city’s most colourful cultural festivals is attracting a second generation of young performers who are taking to the stage with pride, as pupils prepare for the event’s 25th birthday. The Otago Early Childhood and Schools Maori and Pacific Island Festival (Polyfest), where high school, primary school, kohanga reo and kindergarten pupils perform, has been running in Dunedin since 1993.
About 160 groups from across Otago will be involved in this year’s event, some with more than 100 pupils, and up to 7000 performers are expected to take to the stage. Due to its popularity, an extra day of performances has been added, and it will run from September 10 to September 14 this year.
Polyfest co-chairwoman Angelina Kiore, involved in Polyfest in Dunedin for 23 years, said the event was a chance to learn about Maori and Polynesian culture, not just for children but also their parents and grandparents and the wider community. There were now "Polyfest babies", as children who performed in the very first Polyfest had families who had also begun to take part in the festival.
Some of the children who first took part were also now teaching students kapa haka, Mrs Kiore said.
"I think it contributes to the sense of identity that the families have. It’s an example of their own cultural identity," she said.
"I’m pleased that the community still has a pride in the festival, over all this time."
There was always a "huge" volunteering effort, and at least 50 volunteers were about to donate their time to Polyfest this year. For about 10 years the event has been held at Dunedin’s Edgar Centre, and it was previously held in the Regent Theatre. In the early years however, it was held at the Dunedin College of Education auditorium.
The event’s other co-chairwoman, Pip Laufiso, estimated there had been about 200 performers in total at the first Polyfest. By last year that number had climbed to 6700 performers on stage, and this year numbers could top 7000. The event was largely funded by the Dunedin City Council and the Otago Community Trust, and organisers had been able to keep the cost to the audience at $2 per person, per session, for the last 10 years, with performers also contributing $2 each. The final day would end with a special combined community concert.
Polyfest trustee Fiona Matapo said she was "very humbled and very proud" to help create a moment where every student who took to the stage felt like they were a star.
"There’s a real sense of pride whenever a group takes the stage and that extends right through to the costume, the dress — the kakahu is what we call it."
St Joseph’s Cathedral School principal Jo Stanley said this year about 50 pupils would be involved from her school — about a third of the roll— and while a large proportion of them were Pasifika or Maori, plenty of other pupils also got involved. The school was sending two groups: a Pasifika group, taught by parents, and a kapa haka group taught by tutors from Manawa Enterprises.
The Pasifika pupil group had done a lot of fundraising over the years, including holding sausage sizzles and selling pinecones, to ensure they had fantastic costumes. The parents’ contribution had been "amazing", Mrs Stanley said.
Manawa Enterprises facilitator Ana Pene — who ran the tutorial company along with her partner, Kopua Waititi — said preparing for Polyfest was always a busy time of year and they were tutoring 16 groups before the festival: 15 were school groups and one was a community group. Last year the tutors were overloaded with work, so this year they had encouraged some of the older teenagers in their community group to help out, Ms Pene said.
One of the best parts of Polyfest was getting to see pupils feel "very chiefly on that stage". It was also good that schools got to watch one another’s performances and learn from each other, she said.
"All the schools have improved a lot."