Whānau hopes to inspire with Māori circus, Te Tangi a te Tūī

Eleven-year-old Te Rongopai Curreen-Tukiwaho has never seen a Māori circus performance before. Now, he gets to perform in one.

Te Tangi a te Tūī is a West Auckland show with a vibrant mixture of te reo Māori and cirque theatre taking place as part of the Auckland Arts Festival.

It’s a warm, humid day, when Stuff sits down with Te Rongopai (Ngāpuhi, Te Arawa, Te Rarawa, Tūhoe, Tūwharetoa) and his whānau who are involved with the show.

Mum Amber Curreen (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi) is co-writer, creative producer and performer; dad Tainui Tukiwaho (Te Arawa, Tūhoe, Tūwharetoa) is director and co-writer; and older brother Paku Fernandez (Ngāti Porou, Kāi Tahu, Te Arawa, Tūhoe, Tūwharetoa) is a performer.

Sitting on a couch in Henderson’s Te Pou Theatre, Curreen says the show is looking at the journey of te reo through her whakapapa.

“We have two different stories that are really quite made-up but are inspired by two tūpuna and what they did,” she says.

“One who took on quite an assimilist approach, and one who, because of the pressures of the things that were around and the need to go to war, the way that he came back, and what that meant for his whānau.

“Its an allegory for the gradual loss of reo... And this next generation that we have, and what choices they’re going to make, whether they’ll follow in the steps of their tūpuna, or whether they’re going to forge their own path.

A cast and crew of 17 will fly to Canada next month to premiere Te Tangi a te Tūī (The Song of the Tūī).

“For me, it comes from an excitement at seeing our rangatahi owning our reo, the new ways that they’re finding their pathways in the reo.”

When asked how important the arts are in showcasing and protecting te ao Māori, Tukiwaho says the question often leads to Māori performers having to justify the arts.

“In terms of accessible art-forms, it’s incredibly important, only because more of our people can access these types of art-forms, whereas film and television is quite elite,” he says.

“Often a question like that brings us into a space where we have to justify the importance of art... I think accessible art-form is important because we don’t always get to shape our narrative in the world.

“Often with mainstream media the narrative about our people is shown through a negative lens, so art that we can access immediately, which is writing, poetry, storytelling, visual art - those sorts of things are ways for our people to take mana back, when it comes to how we want to express ourselves.”

Fernandez says he’s enjoyed the process of creating the show.

“I just enjoy learning all the circus stuff, watching them hang on silks. I enjoy acting with family and people I know because it makes it more fun,” he says.

"Te Tangi a te Tūī," a unique combination of Māori theatre, te reo Māori, and circus performance, will make its global debut at the birthplace of Cirque Du Soleil.

His younger brother Te Rongopai adds: “Seeing all the circus stuff lying around, it’s really cool to see that, as well as all the people rehearsing, and how easy it looks to do it. Then when you try it you can’t do a single flip.”

The rōpu last performed the show in Canada in 2023, which Curreen says was an enriching experience.

“[The show] was amazingly received. We had four houses, lots of standing ovations... It’s not just the quality of the show, but for them, the response we got from indigenous people after the show was huge,” she says.

“After the bows, we open up for any responses from the audience and we got some amazing responses from mana whenua there and from all different people that were living in Vancouver about how significant it was having an indigenous language play.”

Fernandez says he considers the rōpu family.

“They’re like brothers and sisters to me, we were just close together, we’d always hang out talking in the dressing rooms just talking about life, I was comfortable with just being me and doing what I do... It’s a safe space for all of us.”

Te Rongopai is excited to be performing the show in Tāmaki Makaurau, although he’s also nervous to have his kura kaupapa in the audience.

“Mau rākau [in the show] isn’t necessarily how we’ve been taught,” he says, with Fernandez adding: “I’m a bit scared that we might get in trouble from our mau rākau teachers.”

Tukiwaho hopes the show will inspire more people to get involved in Māori circus.

“Being able to offer this experience of te reo Māori and circus is a new experience from our audience in general, I think we’re really lucky to be able to do that.”

Te Tangi a te Tūī runs from March 1-10 at Tāmaki Makaurau’s Te Pou Theatre. Tickets available at