story by Liza Simon
photos by Tomasz Rossa
Junior Faitau was in Waikiki, performing as a fire-knife dancer, when he heard that Cirque du Soleil wanted him for a show in Vegas. It sounded pretty far-out to the boy from Palolo Valley public housing who had immigrated to the Islands from Samoa, land of the fire-knife dance and cradle of Polynesian civilization. These two things about Samoa always seemed inseparable in Junior’s mind: The requisite bravery for fire-knife dancing lit up his imagination as the essence of his culture. So what was this about some circus in Vegas? "I’m thinking ‘Okay, someone wants me to dance with lions and tigers,’" he remembers. "I’m thinking, ‘What kind of circus is this?!’"
Junior Faitau (above) and
Steven Silulu (below) twirl
the light fantastic in
Cirque du Soleil's O.
Imagine the Olympics running away with the circus. Imagine the Wizard of Oz collaborating with Fellini to perfect every last theatrical impulse, from Italian opera to street mime. Conceived more than two decades ago by a peripatetic troupe of French Canadian street performers, Cirque du Soleil has become a synonym for live artistry so awesome that even a toney New York Times critic bowed before it in verbal defeat, effusing: "Words cannot do it justice!" If you are not among the more than 40 million spectators who have experienced one of Cirque’s twelve extravaganzas, it is hard to imagine so many human miracles unfolding on one stage. Cirque sends in the clowns from Russia, the contortionists from Mongolia, the trapeze artists from France, mixing traditions from all parts of the globe with only the best musicians, dancers and countless wizards of stagecraft—all with a visionary aesthetic "to evoke, to provoke!"
Junior’s mission is a more exacting variant of the show’s. "Now I get to show the world the bravery and faith of my culture," he says, a modest smile spreading across his face as he relaxes an hour before the curtain goes up on what has turned out to be a juicy mango of a showbiz gig: fire- knife dancer in O, the Cirque production-in-residence at Vegas’ posh Bellagio Hotel. It’s a job he shares with Steven Silulu, another Oahu-bred fire-knife dancer.
Junior and Steve blazed the fire-knife trail together to the big time. Steve started fire-knife dancing at the age of two, when he was barely big enough to get his hands around the charred sticks proffered by a cousin. In high school, he met Junior at a Polynesian arts competition and started showing him a few moves in the family garage. In 1997, the two entered what they figured would be the pinnacle of their career, the annual Fire-Knife Dance Championship Competition at the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie. Rumor was making the rounds that some new extravaganza was interested in recruiting fire-knife dancers, and sure enough, a Cirque scout was at the competition—and saw Junior perform.
Not long after, Cirque came looking for Junior, who by then was performing in the Waikiki show. Despite his initial trepidation about lions and tigers, Junior took the job in Vegas—and started looking for ways to bring Steven along. He handed the circus Steve’s name when the need for another fire-knife dancer arose. When the call finally came from a Cirque director, Steve was at his day job, working construction. "I agreed to the contract terms on the phone, thanked my boss for everything and told him I was leaving for Vegas," he recalls with a smile.