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ASB Polyfest returns for 2022, only this time via livestream. (Image: Archi Banal)
ASB Polyfest returns for 2022, only this time via livestream. (Image: Archi Banal)

SocietyMarch 24, 2022

With ASB Polyfest going online-only, students are cheering on their school from the couch

ASB Polyfest returns for 2022, only this time via livestream. (Image: Archi Banal)
ASB Polyfest returns for 2022, only this time via livestream. (Image: Archi Banal)

Competitors in the world’s largest Polynesian festival competition are this year performing to an empty stadium, reports Sela Jane Hopgood.

Yesterday the upbeat sound of Cook Island drums, synchronised swinging poi and the rhythmic slap dance from Sāmoa returned to Auckland’s Manukau Sports Bowl – but without a live audience nor stallholders making delicious kai and selling traditional handicrafts.

This year ASB Polyfest, the world’s largest Polynesian dance festival, is available to watch via live stream on its website and on Māori Television. As with other major events and competitions this year – including the recent Winter Olympics – nobody but performers, their tutors, venue coordinators, accredited media and judges are allowed on site.

It’s the latest in a series of hurdles for the festival, which celebrates its 47 year anniversary this year. In 2019, ASB Polyfest was cancelled in the wake of the Christchurch terrorist attacks that occurred a few days before it was scheduled to start. In 2020, Covid-19 had just entered the country, which led to the canning of the event for a second time. Third time was a charm, and Polyfest finally took place at nearly full capacity in April 2021.

Preparing for the festival – the biggest event in many participants’ calendars – is grueling. It involves hours of practice before and after school in the summer heat and humidity; this year it included the new pressure of students testing positive and having to isolate at home, resulting in some groups rehearsing on Zoom and practising intense dances and singing while wearing masks. It’s unsurprising then that only 28 schools are participating this time around, in contrast to the more than 100 who would sign up in a normal year. Festival director Seiuli Terri Leo-Mauu says only 60 groups will perform this year across all six stages.

Students from Manurewa High School performing on the diversity stage. (Photo: Sela Jane Hopgood)

Yesterday’s opening day began with performances on the diversity stage, pumping with sounds from across the Pacific, including Fiji, Hawaii, Kiribati and the Philippines. There was even a Chinese lion dance spectacle performed by students from Auckland’s Macleans College.

As a journalist, I was one of the lucky few who were granted access to the performance site at Manukau Sports Bowl. After getting the all-clear to proceed by security staff I showed my vaccine pass to the entrance coordinator and scanned the QR code on my way in. It was an eerie feeling to walk the empty concrete pathways that would normally be ringing with the sound of excited teenagers chatting and laughing. This is a venue where I’m used to seeing parents holding bags filled with handmade costumes for their kids, hearing the cheers and clapping of families in the audience, and smelling the unmistakable scent of chop suey lingering in the crowds as they move from one stage to another.

Manukau Sports Bowl without the crowds that would typically fill the venue during Polyfest week. (Photo: Sela Jane Hopgood)

Backstage, I watched from a distance as a school bus from Kelston Girls High School pulled up to the entrance to drop the performers and tutors off. In a single file, they proceeded through the entry – only the adults were asked to show their vaccine pass as there’s no requirement for students to be vaccinated. The group made their way to the changing area to get into their costumes before being welcomed by the MC on stage to perform. The “live audience” consisted of a handful of judges and the cameraman who was livestreaming the event. At the end of the performance, the MC conducted a brief interview with leader of the group before they headed off to get changed back into their school uniforms.

As they exit the venue teams are handed a Covid-19 kit, which includes a face mask, a small bag of mini cinnamon donuts and a lunch box filled with fruit skewers, muffins and a nut trail mix, neatly packed by volunteers from Avondale College. Leo-Mauu says schools have been advised to not hang around at the venue after their performance due to the current restrictions.

Kelston Girls High School’s Fijian group on the diversity stage. (Photo: Sela Jane Hopgood)

Beyond the lack of a live audience, the most notable change to ASB Polyfest this year is the amount of schools that signed up for the Sāmoan stage. Only three co-ed schools are competing – Māngere College, Manurewa High School and Avondale College – which coincidentally are the schools that took the top three places in the co-ed division last year. 

There was no sign of defending champions Auckland Girls Grammar School and St Peter’s College in the girls and boys-only school competition. Leo-Mauu says the boards of most Auckland schools decided for safety reasons to sit this year’s competition out. Further impacting their decision was the reality of a lot of students testing positive over the past two months, making attendance at rehearsals difficult.

Another interesting change is on the Niuean stage, where only Alfriston College and Manurewa High School are performing as non-competitors. The majority of competitors on that stage this year are giving speeches.

Hawaiian group from Manurewa High School. (Photo: Sela Jane Hopgood)

Another restriction introduced this year is a limit of 60 on the number of performers allowed on stage at one time. “Tonga is our biggest stage with a lot of performers,” says Leo-Mauu. “They have their dancers, and then they bring the village to sing and the brass band to play, so we’ve had to limit that number to comply with the current Covid-19 restrictions, as they can easily exceed 100 people on stage.”

An online system where people can send a support message or make a shout out to a school has been established to replace the applause, the enthusiastic cheers and che-huu’ing that would typically take place during a performance on the day. The messages will pop up during the livestream for each stage, so that performers can feel the support from their families, friends and school communities, which keeps in tone with this year’s festival theme of family/whānau. As Manurewa High School students put it when interviewed about Polyfest on the AM Show this week, the schools participating this year are doing it for all the schools that couldn’t make it on stage.

ASB Polyfest runs until Saturday and can be watched live at

This is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.

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