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Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Tahiti's Heiva Festival

So you think you can dance the otea?

Tahiti's flamboyant Heiva festival helps keep Polynesian traditions alive

 DSC0510You can cut the anticipation with a machete as the spot lights dim under a canopy of southern stars. All eyes are fixed on the stage in the French Polynesian capital of Papeete’s waterfront amphitheater. Tonight’s audience is here to watch dozens of dancers, singers and musicians perform in Heiva Tahiti, a spectacular annual month-long celebration of traditional Polynesian culture.

Backstage, dancer Maire Teihotaata nervously adjusts her elaborate headdress. Her skirt is made of coconut bark and hibiscus flowers, with a wide belt slung low on her tall, lithe frame, and decorated with mother-of-pearl, shells, natural fibers, and colorful seeds. Bathed in intoxicating tropical flower scents with jet-black hair flowing to her waist, this 37-year old government communications specialist could have stepped out of a Gauguin painting.

Suddenly, slit and base drums carved from hollowed out tree trunks begin fiercely pounding sensual rhythms — the vernacular of a timeless language. Floodlights bathe the stage in lavender, orange and emerald hues as Teihotaata and dozens of other athletic young male and female dancers begin gyrating with astonishing speed, their hips blurring as they acrobatically dance in unison to the frenetic beat. This is ‘otea', the ancient Polynesian dance that re-enacts a thousand stories, from ancient inter-island warfare to the flight of a butterfly.

 DSC0552Tonight’s show features the most mesmerizing singing, dancing and drumming that this cluster of island archipelagos the size of Western Europe has to offer. French Polynesia – and especially its crown jewel island of Bora Bora – is best known as a dream honeymoon destination, with sparkling aquamarine atoll waters, black sand beaches and a towering backdrop of emerald mountains. Now, this ancient culture long suppressed by colonial masters is undergoing a revival, highlighted in spectacular events like Heiva (the Tahitian word for festival).

"Heiva is in my blood and not dancing is unimaginable," says Teihotaata. Her performing group, Temaeva, which means ‘welcome’ in Tahitian, has won numerous international competitions since it was formed in 1962. "I've also taught my daughter to dance, sing and play traditional instruments so she won't forget where she came from,” Teihotaata adds.

 DSC0457Maintaining age-old traditions hasn't always been easy here. Ori Tahiti (Tahitian dance) was a central part of Polynesian culture for centuries before European Protestant missionaries arrived. Finding such overtly "erotic" public displays deeply offensive, they managed to convert King Pomare II to Christianity in 1807. He then promptly banned Ori Tahiti. So this ancient art form went underground, along with the knowledge of how to make dance costumes from vegetable fibers, shells and flowers.

The French colonizers occasionally allowed sanitized versions of Tahitian dance to be performed as part of their annual July 14th Bastille Day celebrations. But it wasn't until 1956 that Madeleine Moua, a Papeete high school principal, spearheaded the true revival of Ori Tahiti by forming the dance troupe, Heiva Tahiti. Renewed interest in costume design soon followed and dance eventually resumed its rightful place as a vibrant part of Tahitian culture.

 

 

For performers like Teihotaata, Heiva’s cultural expression is a family affair at heart: “My parents used to meet and dance in Temaeva," she recalls. "Since I was a baby I've been around the costumes and I've always gone to all the shows. It’s my culture and I can't imagine not dancing," she adds.

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Dancing and singing may be Heiva Tahiti’s most glamorous attractions. But there is a lot more to this festival than swaying hips and a cappella choirs. Traditional culture also comes alive on the playing fields and in the harbors of many islands.  Canoe racing is popular, as are traditional competitions such as javelin throwing, and stone lifting, which originated on Rurutu, in the remote Austral Islands. Many communities also host an annual banana-bearers foot race, in which men sprint carrying large bunches of bananas tied to poles.

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A popular arts exhibition called ‘Heiva of the Artisans’ also runs concurrently with the main festival and features the work of artists and artisans from all over French Polynesia’s five archipelagos. Weavers and carvers use traditional materials such as pandanus, pearl shell and coral. Fantastic displays of the legendary Polynesian art of tatau, or tattoo, as it became known among early European sailors, are also on display throughout the festival.

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Judging by the number of intricate tattoos covering the muscular torsos of the male oteo dancers on this night of nights on Papeete’s waterfront, the fine art of tattooing is still doing booming business all over French Polynesia.  As tonight’s performance nears its ecstatic climax, dozens of dancers, their bodies drenched in perspiration, form a human daisy chain. Among them, Teihotaata strikes yet another dramatic pose for the appreciative crowd, the cameras and, most importantly, for the sake of her culture.

“Heiva is the most amazing show you’ll ever see," Teihotaata says as she catches her breath backstage after the show. “Just as you would go to Rio to experience Carnival, you must come to Tahiti to see Heiva. It’s unique, huge, and marvelous. You simply cannot miss it,” she adds.

Visitors to this legendary tropical getaway better known for idyllic over-water bungalows and romantic sunsets than for its vibrant indigenous culture are well advised to take this jubilant otea dancer’s advice and experience Heiva Tahiti, the soul of the South Pacific.

©Mark Sissons

www.marksissons.com

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The annual month-long Heiva Tahiti Festival takes place each July, coinciding with France’s Bastille Day celebrations. Air Tahiti Nui (www.airtahitinui.com) flies non-stop daily from Los Angeles to Papeete, on the island of Tahiti. Air Tahiti (www.airtahiti.com) services the islands of French Polynesia. Both offer flight and lodging packages in hotels and family pensions throughout the country. For more information about Heiva Tahiti and other French Polynesian events and attractions, visit www.tahiti-tourisme.com.

 

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