Word-of-mouth moved fast for Le Moana’s amazing dance-theater piece about the outbreak of Spanish Influenza in Samoa, 1918. The Saturday afternoon show was packed. The troupe from New Zealand performs only two more times at the Fringe: Monday, June 27, at 10:30 p.m., and Tuesday, June 28, at 9:00 p.m.
I don’t like to call a show a “must-see,” because what you must do is your own business. But 1918 is one of the best, most moving shows I’ve seen at all the various Fringe Festivals I’ve attended. It’s a must. Oh — and better get there early. There will be a line.
These days people swear they see signs and portents of the Last Judgment/Apocalypse. But if it were to come, why didn’t it in 1918? The world was at war for the first time. Famine ravaged the planet. And the wrongly named (since it may have originated in China, not Spain) Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918–1919 killed more people than the “Great War” — and even more than the bubonic plague of the 14th Century. Warships spread the virus.
On November 7, 1918, a cargo freighter from New Zealand pulled into Apia harbor on Upolu, second largest of the Samoan islands. The ship had been quarantined in Fiji. But passengers and crewmen came down with the virus onboard and were allowed to embark.
1918 begins earlier. Nine dancers flash back and forth across the stage. They hop and snap — often at 90-degree angles — and slap the floor to cries and shouts and beating drums: joy shimmers through their energy.
It’s daily life. Washing, singing, even a baby is born. Then we hear “God Save the Queen.” A ship’s horn sounds. “Ah, visitors!” you can feel the islanders saying, eager to greet their guests.
Within four weeks after the Talune anchored at Apia harbor, the influenza pandemic wiped out over 7500 Samoans. When it ended in 1919, between 22% and 25% of the Samoan population (an estimated 8500 people) had died. The world knew about the damage by then. Why weren’t the native Samoans informed?
The dancers make an astonishingly sudden, tragic shift from exuberance to puzzlement to recognition. Lives change forever in a heartbeat. What is choking them? What's yanking them down? Then they grieve, as piled corpses create a mound.
The piece doesn’t have a program. And maybe that’s for the best, since an exceptionally precise ensemble does the dances as one — all barefoot.
Tupe Lualua, who wrote and directed, got the idea for the piece from her grandmother, who was four when the pandemic hit the island. Lualua welcomes us in several languages and narrates the story in Samoan. “We speak all your languages,” she says, “but do you speak ours?”
Along with the horror of the pandemic, there’s also a local, onstage tragedy. When death comes, will Andy Faiaoga’s vibrant choreography die as well? It’s a kind of aesthetic loss. We grieve almost as if — when the company sings it — we, too, are poor, wayfaring strangers. Then the dancers, now in blue, spill out from the wings and perform with doubled intensity.