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Kiwi Cabaret Icon Mika
On Drag, Dance
And Urban Maori Culture
Nicola Shepheard - 27/10/01

Consummate Aotearoa-New Zealand performer Mika defies pigeon-holing. But then, a gay Maori cabaret artist was never going to submit to easy labelling. He believes his 2001 New Zealand Queer of the Year title represents an "accumulated honour". But the man behind "the world's first queer haka" has a new kaupapa (focus), which has less to do with his sexuality and more with his urban Maori identity.

Learning of the title was "kind of a shock and surprise ",and the publicity it sparked was "more than expected. It's probably an accumulated honour all my work had some gay recognition involved." TV2 programme Queer Nation conferred the title in July as in its third national gay and lesbian community awards, which were allocated by viewer vote.

Perhaps best known in New Zealand as a drag queen, Timaru born-and-raised Mika continues to entertain. This year he has toured with his shows Tribal Hollywood and Mika Haka, and has just released his third album, also called Mika Haka. He has fashioned drag into a statement of identity, eschewing the usual padding for his distinctive poly-sexual style. " People are ignorant of what drag is - it's an art form. Hip hop is the new drag, Jimi Hendrix wore drag. I think drag is just a sense of how you are."

Today's Maori culture
But the internationally renowned dancer-actor-singer-drag-queen now spends more of his time nurturing young dancers' talents, developing a new Maori dance form and promoting Maori language than shimmying in lame. He runs an educational programme for "exceptional dancers", which offers scholarships. He demands the best from his students. "As a nation our (performing arts) standards are quite low so I work exceptionally hard."

His choreography fuses Maori, Polynesian and European dance traditions into an "urban Maori dance style", meshing New Zealand-style break-dance, kapa haka, pasifika and hip-hop. He is passionate about the validity and need for fresh, diverse Maori art forms. On his website he writes: "I pioneer new directions in art, often controversial and unorthodox, yet always with the confidence that what I create is my vision and Maori from the heart", and speaks of the need to "destroy cliches which pigeon-hole Maori as an historical remnant".

He is equally emphatic about the need to promote Maori language. The new Maori television station must, he says, have a "huge amount of Maori language - otherwise tune into Channel One". To that end, between dance lessons and performances he is filming an episode of a new Maori language series Te Ao Mahana (The Big World), "kind of X-files-style futuristic kitsch retro Maori". He acts alongside Temuera Morrison, Tama Iti, and Peel - how could he not be there, in such company? he asks.

Changing attitudes, identities
Attitudes towards both Maori culture and gayness in New Zealand are changing, he believes. Two or three years ago some New Zealanders responded to the Maori in his performances with "nervous tittling laughter", but this year he "didn't feel that at all".

International audiences have demanded he perform in Te Reo. "When I first left Aotearoa I thought the gay thing would be the door opener, but it's been the Maori thing." Touring in France, he found "singing in Maori was far more acceptable than in English", and the call for Maori music soon spread to other European centres.

Music videos that "invariably" evolve into short films provide another medium for Mika to work out his identity. Here, his approach is "heading more towards Bollywood. What amazes me is the 'fabulosity' of it - the bright colours, the flamboyance."

A guiding theme in all his mahi (work) is the desire to share his talents, foster Maori diversity, and bring joy. He recalls a turning point in 1997, during a successful European tour that saw him featured on the front page of a Scottish national newspaper and performing with Elton John in London. "I thought, 'that's it, I've done it', and I realised whatever I did after that day, what matters is the work you do and the joy you bring to people."

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