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DANZ QUARTERLY No 3 April 2006

Te Moana Nui A Kiwa,
Shared Histories, Memories And Cultural Experiences

by Moana Nepia

At the 2004 Pacific Arts Festival in Belau, I met Katarina Teaiwa from the University of Hawaii and Sean Mellon from Te Papa, who were discussing plans to host a conference on Oceanic Dance at Te Papa in Wellington. This was not going to be a conference consisting of academic papers, but one of dialogue, sharing ideas about what our dances meant, how we made dance, for what purpose and how we envisaged futures for ourselves within the range of interactive cultural opportunities available to us.

This was to be a conference where the voices of dance makers from throughout the Pacific - performers, teachers, and choreographers - were to be promoted and considered alongside those of academics. Practical dance and notation workshops and performances were to feature daily alongside video presentations, trips to visit the National Library and an exhibition of dance costume from the Pacific. The many restaurants and dance clubs along Courtenay Place were also on hand to provide more informal settings for sharing ideas over food and testing night-time stamina. These opportunities for informal interaction were to prove just as important as those for more formal presentation and debate.

Underpinning these kaupapa was the aim to reinforce a collective sense of belonging through the Pacific, Te Moana Nui a Kiwa, shared histories, memories and cultural experiences. The model of ocean as ‘separating’ different islands and cultures was dispensed with in favour of the ocean representing commonality, ‘connecting’ patterns, trajectories through time and space, through the body, and through dance.

In her closing address, Katerina Teaiwa showed a video of different groups and individuals from throughout the Pacific performing variations of the same dance, exemplifying the ease and facility with which dance has the potential to travel through time and space, undergoing transformation, yet all the while retaining a distinct integrity that is about connection and shared history. The body as site for cultural representation, preservation and transformation extends the notion of ‘self-expression’ to embrace collective and shared experiences as well as the interests of any one individual. How else could dance be perceived as ‘language’, or come to mean to an audience?

Yet the original meanings of dance may be lost along the journey from one performance to another, especially where the temporal and spatial distance from the original source become distant. Should we be necessarily concerned? Adrienne Kaeppler, Oceanic curator at the Smithsonian Institute, suggested how the involvement and fascination with dance from a spectator’s viewpoint is often one of spectacle, especially where the original meaning is difficult to decipher, and distance from an original cultural source is great. Not only has hula become spectacle, but like other dance forms, it may also become a discourse for globalisation. Juxtaposing examples from classical ballet and the musical Cats, as well as hula, she considered ways in which theatre, technology and media, such as film and television, help generate new perceptions and understandings of dance as an inevitable consequence of the dispersal and expansion of culture.

Such dynamics may rile the cultural purist preoccupied with ideas of cultural preservation, but also open up new possibilities for cultural exploration and expression. Few would expect Minnie Mouse in grass skirt or a bunch of Hollywood blondes performing ‘hula’ to project much of the original meaning or cultural messages behind traditional hula. International audiences, including many native Hawaiians, could take offence, but more likely they accept such performances as spectacle, something different from the original, something designed specifically to entertain. The new spectacle in turn has its own sense of authenticity.

The organisers’ healthy regard for diversity and acceptance of change as an indicator of cultural vitality provided generous opportunities for bringing diverse customary and contemporary viewpoints to the fore. Cross-cultural dialogue was established within discussion groups around themes of  ‘historical perspective’, ‘choreography and movement’, ‘documenting the dance’, ‘context of performance’, ‘music and rhythm’ and ‘dance education’. Artists and choreographers considered a range of creative strategies for investigation of historical material, cultural interaction and the establishment of artistic identities. Lemi Ponifasio suggested artistic or cultural identity was in many ways like an ocean, something inherently unstable and forever changing.

For Stephen Bradshaw, the most challenging aspect of dance is “to embody experience and communicate this in performance”. Such a prescient state of being, one of foresight and intention contrasted dramatically with what Lemi Ponifasio articulated as the dance’s heightened state of awareness, like navigating a break in a reef on the crest of a wave, an absolute commitment to being in the moment, responsive and spontaneous. Speaking to him some time after the conference, Stephen extended this idea to consider how the nature of our dance and choreography, the facility with which we can communicate through dance is determined by our own physical experiences and conditioning as choreographers and the dancers over and above formal technique to include hereditary, environmental and other cultural influences.

Historian Charles Royal spoke of how a deeper understanding of Maori historical contexts, narratives and traditions could provide fruitful opportunities for advancement of contemporary Maori art and dance. Moss Patterson showed video of his choreographic works deriving influence from specific patterning and elements of Maori visual art. Louise Potiki Bryant cited examples where historical archival research and engagement with Maori communities was often integral to the development of her choreographic process.

Jack Gray spoke of how art and dance is “only in our heads until we make it” and how he “did not want to be constrained or pigeon-holed in any way”. Seeking a place and freedom of expression for Maori choreographers within the genre of contemporary theatre dance entails confronting the practicalities of funding, marketing and selling, promoting ideas in order to achieve recognition and support from other people who will help make the work happen. This needn’t compromise any sense of Maori artistic or cultural integrity for the artists or their work. Being open to influences and technologies from other cultural sources will also mean the work may eventually speak to a wider audience who will in turn generate new meanings and questions for Maori to reconsider the nature of contemporary Maori culture itself. For him, an authentic and fruitful artistic practice also means “having the confidence to let go, as well as retaining what is important”.

Terri Crawford spoke about female elements within traditional Maori dance and their capacity to provide models for countering male dominated perspectives within contemporary practice. Such assertions reflect not only a feminist agenda, but a more specific confidence and privilege derived from her own Ngati Porou background where the status of women composers, choreographers and leaders is something not always so readily afforded Maori women from other iwi.

Dolina Wehipeihana from Atamira Dance Collective found the opportunities to participate in practical workshops just as interesting as the discussion forums but thought perhaps the performance programme could have been more integrated with the discussion sessions. The conference was “all too short” for her. She’d done the high energy workshop with Neil Ieremia where sections from Method were taught followed by a section from his later work Surface. She said experiencing the two works as a dancer from the ‘inside’, as opposed to viewing as spectator, enhanced her own appreciation of Neil’s thinking through movement and different choreographic processes, reflecting early influences of Douglas Wright and Michael Parmenter as well as more personal exploration of his own cultural identity.

She had also found the Suga Pop session highly informative, correcting a few popular misconceptions about hip hop culture. Music videos perpetuate a highly commercialised impression of hip hop that is far removed from the specifics of popping, locking, bombing, dj-ing, b-boy and b-girl. His performance, designed to introduce and distinguish some of these elements, had the audience screaming. Discussion about notions of authenticity in relation to hip hop might have been more extended if this presentation had been alongside presentations or performances of local hip hop artists who are evolving their own hybrid variations of this imported music and dance form.

It was disappointing for some of us that kapa haka was not better represented in either discussion panels or the performance programme given the New Zealand context for the conference. The contemporary Maori theatre dance sector by contrast, was well represented. Peter Sharples had been invited to speak, but attended a tangi that day for fellow parliamentarian Rod Donald. His experience of furthering urgent Maori political agendas through education, music and dance would have added valuable depth to the discussion groups and helped contextualise some of the more esoteric and artistic debates within a greater socio-political reality.

The performance programme itself was a huge success and could have been extended with better financial support. And of course the korero could have continued for much longer. On my flight back to Auckland, I sat next to a Tongan mathematician and musician who’d also been to the conference.

We found ourselves sharing ideas about quantum physics and dance (I knew very little about the theory of relativity), ideas about movement and energy, rhythms, patterning and communication, poetry and painting. Lemi Ponifasio suggested how as creative artists we are prophets. I like to think how artists are also magicians, engaging our senses of mystery, wonder and awe. We are not only reflecting the world around us, but reshaping and redefining our own realities through dance as we might do through any number of other creative occupations. The immediate capacity for dance to connect us physically as spectators and performers in this culturally creative process is a powerful act of transformation.

Coinciding future conferences with other performance events and festivals such as Matatini, Polyfest or Pasifika might further broaden the context for debate and discussion about Pacific dance, but somehow, I suspect most of us, given the choice, would far rather watch, if not perform and experience the real thing.


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