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"It's a Pacific powwow," said the Guam delegation news camera operator as we arrived at the opening ceremony for the Eighth Pacific Arts Festival, in Noumea, New Caledonia. It was a good metaphor. Behind the Magenta Stadium, waiting to begin, were approximately two thousand performers and helpers making last-minute costume and makeup adjustments. Makeup wasn't quite the appropriate word. It was full-body paint. The artists' costumes virtually exploded with brilliant colors, feathers and reflecting shells.

Despite the opening ceremony difficulties and ongoing logistical problems with housing, food and transport for the attendees, this festival was a success. The opening at Magenta Stadium had been delayed for three days by rain and a local television strike. The ceremony, choreographed by Raymond Blanco, the Australian aboriginal choreographer of the Sydney Olympic Games ceremonies who had already left the preceding day, featured 500 Noumea schoolchildren waving fluorescent pieces of plastic as they danced in formation: It was well received by the families of the schoolchildren who packed the stands. A large bonfire of fireworks, meant to finish the celebration with a bang, fizzled and barely detonated. After that the festival continued at an exciting pace.

Every four years since 1972, artists of the Pacific Islands have met for a ten-day festival for performances of traditional dance and music and displays of traditional arts--including tattooing, weaving and woodcarving. For the year 2000, the city of Noumea was selected as the main festival location. Several other islands and villages in New Caledonia were also performance sites.

Historically, the Polynesians (Maoris, Hawaiians, Tahitians, Easter Islanders, Tongans, Samoans and others) are closely related peoples who began their migrations across the Pacific from Asia approximately two thousand years ago. Most of the year the prevailing winds of the Pacific blow to the west, but for a few months each year they blow easterly, and in those months the ancient Polynesians made eastward voyages of exploration. These great navigators could easily return when the prevailing winds changed, to pass on news of their discoveries. Before their colonization by the Europeans and the U.S. in the 1800s, the Polynesians continued voyaging back and forth across the vast distances of the Pacific. Wherever they traveled, their music and dance accompanied them, but missionaries suppressed these traditions. Another impact of colonization was that the islanders' construction of sailing vessels stopped and their arts of navigation were mostly forgotten. The inter-island voyages were halted, and with them, the artistic exchanges. At the same time, other Pacific Island peoples--Melanesians and Aboriginals--independently developed their own music and dance forms.

In 1956, at a time when colonies all over the globe were struggling for independence, several Pacific Island scholars met in Fiji and hatched the idea of an inter-island festival where different Pacific peoples could meet to display and exchange their arts. The idea took sixteen years to come to fruition. In 1972, the first Pacific Arts Festival was held in Fiji. (Hawaii was not invited to the first festival; its culture was assumed to be already lost.) The festivals have continued every four years, rotating to a different island group each time. Contemporary arts have been added--here there are examples of South Pacific cinema, literature, jewelry and painting--but this is primarily a festival of dance and music, featuring the best dancers and singers from Hawaii to Australia and New Zealand, with every island in between.

For many dancers, attending the festival is the biggest event in their lives. People save for years to attend. Although some delegations were partially subsidized by their governments, most attendees had to pay their own expenses, which averaged $2,000 per person. This is big money in the South Pacific, and a few delegations--notably the Solomon Islands and the Mount Hagen people of New Guinea--had to cancel.

The main performance venue was the Festival Village, on the beach of Anse Vata, a sort of French Waikiki. The Village was an enclosed flat area, the size of a few football fields. A rectangular dance performance area fronted an elevated stage at one end with the audience on the level area. Two other Noumea performance venues were the Tjibaou Cultural Center and the SPC (Secretariat of the Pacific Community) building. The delegations rotated their shows from one venue to the other.

A typical day would start with a show by, for example, Papua New Guinea at 10:30 A.M., continue with a Torres Island group (Australian pop singer Christine Anu is a Torres Islander) and a dance by the Wallis and Futuna Islands, then break for a traditional lunch made by the delegation from Vanuatu. Different delegations performed straight through to 10 P.M. The larger delegations (from New Zealand and Tahiti) were scheduled at night on the weekends when there were more than ten thousand people in attendance. The flat dance space in front of the stage was used to spectacular advantage by the delegations from New Zealand, Tahiti, Wallis and Futuna and Samoa. The audience was only inches from the performers, and to say that the audience got involved in these shows would be wild understatement.

Many dances underlined the fact that the people of the Pacific are warriors: Both men and women wielded spears and clubs. In other dances, men stamped their feet as they displayed closed fists and strikes. The military formation of haka dancers from New Zealand, with its male and female warriors, their eyes popping, their faces marked with terrifying tattoos, their legs throwing up clouds of dust, was especially memorable. The audience was transported to an ancient time, witnessing Maoris preparing for battle.

Several United States delegations were present, two from Hawaii, one from Guam and one from American Samoa. Lise Benoit-Capel of the Tahitian Ministry of Information said that in the future she hoped California would send some delegations, since California is home to thousands of Pacific Islanders and many serious Pacific Island dance performers.

Standouts at this festival were Tahiti's epic performance about the god Maui, featuring the five-strands choreography of Jean-Paul Lande (the five strands representing the five major islands of Tahiti); the outstanding Tagaloa Dance Company from Wallis and Futuna; Rapa Nui's (Easter Island's) spirited delegation; Fijian singer Saimone Vuatalevu and Fiji's Indian kathak dancers; New Zealand's large and very intimidating ensemble of male and female warriors, Te Matrae I Orehu, and New Zealand's smaller martial arts ensemble; and Samoa and American Samoa's drummers and dancers. The host delegation of Kanakis from New Caledonia also featured superb dancers, costumes and musicians. The modern dance ensemble Mau of Lemi Ponifasio, the Samoan choreographer currently living in Auckland, also attracted a lot of attention.

This festival was rich with incongruities: a Maori martial artist, his head shaven, his body tattooed in violent lines of blue, singing a gentle Maori hymn with a pure tenor voice; a fashion show with female models whose strides along the catwalk were counter-pointed by fierce Pacific warriors carrying spears and clubs; a closing march past the beachfront hotels of this resort city by hundreds of dancers in traditional costumes, including several cameramen with painted faces and grass skirts, carrying the latest professional digital video machines.

The 2004 festival will be in Palau; no doubt the dancers are already preparing.
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Article Details
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Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:8NEWC
Date:Mar 1, 2001
Previous Article:TRANSITIONS.

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