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Pacific overtures.

For many Pacific peoples, dance still belongs in its original cultural context. To a gathering such as the Seventh Pacific Arts Festival, held September 8 to 20, 1996, many island nations send performers who normally work in a subsistence economy by day. This means that dancing is something they do to refresh or recreate themselves by night - or to celebrate feast days or harvest seasons, to safeguard voyagers or welcome them home, to mark their first hair-cutting, first Holy Communion, menarche, circumcision, or other rites of puberty, to celebrate marriages, to mark births, or to mourn deaths. All this provides a rich repertoire of traditional dances for performing groups to draw on for their festival programs.

Samoa, as the host country, marked all the formal events chiefly with dancing that displayed how central dance is to Samoan cultural expression. At the climax of such occasions, the leading female role is thrust onto a male dancer, with the role reversal reinforcing the importance of the occasion. The opening ceremony saw an astonishing lineup of 2,000 schoolchildren perform a sasa, a dance of great precision and percussive attack.

Aborigines from Australia did their inimitable ancient dances; Tongans performed with customary dignity and skill, showing marked contrast of male strength and female grace; fierce Maori warriors from Aotearoa (as they call New Zealand) gave their haka full gusto. Their women's dance, with a slow and high-swinging single poi (a fiber ball attached to a string), proved, as always, a real crowd pleaser. Hawaii presented impecably prepared programs of traditional hula from their ancient schools. Groups from Tuvalu, Uvea, Niue, and Rapa Nui (Easter Island) represented other parts of Polynesia with vigor and variety.

A huge contingent from Futuna brought its chiefs to Samoa so they could present the takofe, a most sacred traditional dance. Clad from head to foot in superbly patterned tapa (bark cloth), with turbanlike headdresses of the same material, and bearing long poles with tapa streamers attacked, they chanted and song their ancient ode to the gods. A truly memorable performance.

The group from Atafu, Tokelau, introduced itself with a modest (mock) apology: "We are not really a group of cultural experts - just men and women from our island, where everybody does a lot of dancing," then followed with an unbroken hour of joyous fatele (their group action song). The quiet, modest demeanor and slow beginning to each dance swelled to top-volume, top-speed exuberance in each finale, endearing the performers to all by their sheer affirmation of well-being.

Melanesion men from Kanaky (New Caledonia) were covered in capes and skirts of bleached shredded plant fibers, with strong black markings smeared on their faces. They performed the sodi, a forceful fertility dance (once banned by missionaries) from the great cycle of customary yam harvesting. The dance was not edited down to a convenient length for novelty or entertainment's sake but danced at its full length (how big would you want the yams to grow?). Fully serious, these performers continued to the end, ignoring the squeals and yelps of delight from the crowd, many of whom know different ways of expressing sexual imagery and virility in their own dance cultures.

Papua New Guinea sent seven distinct groups to represent its population of four and a half million who among them speak more than 700 of the world's 2,000 languages). Their extraordinary stylization in dress and body ornament makes Melanesia seem like the fancy dress wardrobe of the world. The separate identity of each group is maintained in their dance methods, which range from target practice with whips to bird-mating-ritual imitations, with great masks, kundu drums, whispering flutes, or resounding shell ankle rattles.

Perhaps the most memorable experience for participants, audiences, and dance anthropologists (certainly this one, at any rate) was the group of Tikopians from Makira in the Solomon Islands (an eight-day boat trip from the capital, Honiara). Their dance group leader must remember 276 traditional dances. This was the dancers' first travel outside their country, and yet their performances had all the impact of highly experienced and seasoned professionals who could intuitively sense what we would find most interesting in their presentations.

Their striking full-length costumes of woven pandanus and bright gold overskirts freshly dyed with turmeric gave spicy aroma to the already sweet fragrances of coconut oil on warm dancing bodies. This extra olfactory dimension only added to the pleasure and privilege of seeing what dance from ancient Polynesia might have been like some centuries before missionaries and colonizers arrived. I will never forget the clarity, vigor, and urgency of their performances.

Jennifer Shennan, a doctural candidate in anthropology, tutors at the New Zealand School of Dance and the School of Music at Victoria University.
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Title Annotation:1996 Pacific Arts Festival
Author:Shennan, Jennifer
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Jan 1, 1997
Words:787
Previous Article:Information, please.
Next Article:Terry Orr: master of the art of transition.
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