Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Heiva i Tahiti

One of my wishes was fulfilled on Friday night when we attended one of the Heiva shows in Papeete. This Polynesian tradition was revived 130 years ago after being banned by King Pomare V under the influence of Christian missionaries in the 19th century.

According to the Tahiti Tourisme brochure, the word Heiva ( hei meaning to assemble and va community places) refers to activities, distractions, pastimes, sports and festivals. Music, dances, songs and games integrated under this notion held a very special place in Polynesian communities. While being distractions, songs and dances were also essential components in religious and political ceremonies of ancient times. Dance was one of the most sophisticated and ritualized arts practiced in groups or individually. Songs kept pace with daily life and accompanied everyday chores as well as religious ceremonies. The festivities were commonly held to mark the changing of seasons or periods such as the fruit harvests.

The annual Heiva competition in Papeete takes place in July and professional groups throughout the Polynesian islands practice for many months on their own turf to win a place amongst the finalists in the capital. There are prizes for the best costumes, dance, singing and music.

On Friday night, there were hundreds of people outside on the boardwalk but the temporarily constructed open air stadium looked half empty when we took our seats. We were surprised when the crowds started arriving after the show had begun. Some people did not appear until the last act!

There were two dance acts separated by three singing presentations. The first song group did not have good microphone coverage and appeared discordant – very unusual as almost every Polynesian seems to sing in perfect harmony whenever we have heard them in the past. There was a formulaic presentation of a capella singing by a mixed choir sitting in a U-shape facing the audience followed by two people singing in turns accompanied by ukelele and guitar. The two singers seemed to be mocking each other with amusing expressive gestures. Apparently the lyrics tell the story of daily life, capture tales of heroism or signify important places. We found the choral chants very repetitive.

The dance groups were a cast of hundreds. Gorgeous costumes made of natural fibres, leaves and flowers covered all the naughty bits on the svelte bodies. The older and larger ladies wore more conservative dresses but were just as energetic in their hip gyrations. The dances were accompanied by an orchestra of about 20 musicians and the sound of drums dominated the stadium. The drummers' hands were a blur as they beat their complex rhythms in a dizzying frenzy. The dancers were graceful and sensual in their perfectly choreographed movements of hips, hands and feet. There is no doubt in my mind why the missionaries thought they were erotic.

There were themes to the dances. The first was about the birth and growth of a chief's son under his father's watchful eye. They used a real almost newborn baby for the birth scene. The principal male dancer had incredible strength. You could see his muscles rippling as he thrust his hips and opened and closed his legs in scissors-like fashion. It's hard to describe in words and probably harder to imitate.

All I can say is “Bollywood take note!”

The pictures below are from the Museum of Tahiti and her Islands - we were not allowed to take pictures at the Heiva performance.

Modern Heiva costume

Male dancing 

Wonderful head dresses are common in many Heiva costumes

What a feeling this 1960's picture conveys!

Coconut fiber and cowrie shell skirt detail

Costume and poster from past Heiva

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