Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Bounty Dance (article written for Norfolk on Line)


Last week Wally interviewed Vaea and Alain from French Polynesia, a charming and elegant couple that came to Norfolk Island for a week’s holiday recently. They had only planned to come here for a week, but after enjoying themselves so much, decided to stay an extra week.

On their arrival, Tihoti and Oihanu went to meet them and a friendship was sealed – Vaea and Alain could hardly believe their eyes when a couple of Tahitians rolled up on their doorstep on this little Pacific island … hardly what they had expected.

And the surprises kept coming, both ways! It turned out that Vaea had had a role in the 1962 version of Mutiny on the Bounty with Marlon Brando. She was given the role of Teraura, Ed Young’s first wife. Vaea was only 16 years old at the time, about the same age as Teraura was when she joined the Bounty. For Vaea and her friends, playing in the movie was an eye-opening experience – she had been raised in a strict Adventist home.

But Vaea’s favourite memory isn’t of movie stars or their antics, but of the shooting of the arrival of Bounty at Matavai Bay as hundreds of cast paddled out in traditional va’a outriggers to greet the especially made vessel. A grand part of the population was employed for making this movie, and gave considerable income to many families during the filming in Tahiti. Later, some of the filming was moved to Hollywood studios where Vaea and several other women travelled to complete the film. Certainly, despite what the film critics might say, the film put Tahiti firmly on the American holiday map.

Later in her carrier she became runner up to Miss Tahiti, and actually represented Tahiti carrying the crown to international events during the year. She later pursued a career as a model working for the top agencies in France.

But before anything else, Vaea is a dancer. She had learned to dance with Madeleine Moua - the woman who resurrected Tahitian dance in 1956 with her group Heiva Tahiti. In times of old, dance depicted many sacred events, but the voyaging Europeans of the 1700s popularised a half-truth of bare-breasted women with little understanding of the dance or its meaning. What was once the rhapsody of Joseph Banks’ journals with his misunderstandings of so many events during his Tahiti days (and which would perhaps lead to the HMS Bounty to being manned by 46 volunteers - something unheard of in the times of conscription), would later become the despair of the first English missionaries who arrived in 1797, only eight years after Bounty’s departure.

By 1819, the missionaries had such a hold over Tahiti that they had outlawed what they described as the ‘lascivious’ dancing. Dancers still performed, but clothed head-to-toe in white garments so as not to ‘offend’ visitors.

Tahiti owes a great deal to the legendary Madeleine Moua who brought back a sense of nobility to the dance reminding us of its sacred and noble beginnings rather than merely an act of seduction – an untruth that goes back to those first contact days with the Europeans.

Vaea remembers with happiness her days of dancing with the legendary ‘Madame Moua’. She vividly remembers her strict teaching style which brought out the best in the girls. Vaea was one of her front-row dancers.

So what is it that makes the love of dance greater than having walked the high fashion catwalks of Paris, or acting alongside the likes of Marlon Brando, Trevor Howard and Tarita Teriipaia? Vaea says that within Ori Tahiti or Tahitian dance, you can lose yourself. Lose your worries and leave everything behind, and that dance is symbolic of liberation, emancipation, of being free.

During her holiday, she spent some time with the young Baunti Beauties who have been working hard on their technique with a view to going to Tahiti in April next year for a 2 week dance intensive with Heipua Lehartel.

On Pitcairn, our foremothers would occasionally dance for sailors of passing ships in the early 1800s, and had a fabulous percussion technique. Over time however, dance was practiced less and less … but revivals would happen in pockets. There were the girls in Sydney who would dance at the Polynesian Club, and then Maeve Hitch and Karlene Christian taught us girls for the Pacific Arts Festival. When I lived in Tahiti, Tihoti and I would line up professional dance teachers to travel to Norfolk Island to teach for the Community Arts Society. So far, Heipua Lehartel, Lovina Lependu, Marietta and Atea Tefaataumarama have travelled from Tahiti and Huahine for stints of dancing. Each teacher has brought with them a different teaching method, each one unique and enriching our understanding of this artform. It was heart-warming see this master of dance, one who had learned with the greatest of all Tahitian dance teachers, giving pointers to our young girls.

We look forward to Vaea and Alain’s return sometime early next year for another round of fun, laughter, and of course, dance!

written by Pauline Reynolds all photos copyright


You may wonder why we called this blog 'Tattoo and Tapa'. Tihoti's passion is design using the ancient symbols used by his tupuna or ancestors. Mine is the same, but applied on a different surface.

The designs used by Tahitians in 'tatau' (tattoo) often crossed over into the designs used in 'ahu (tapa) decoration. Some of the deep symbolism used in tatau today in Tahiti is lost, although Tihoti feels that by using nature as our inspiration we can come to understand these designs again, and from there evolve those designs beyond our misunderstandings. But that understanding has to come from a Polynesian perspective.

I am fascinated by the designs and colours used in the ancient 'ahu - everything was symbolic. Much of this knowledge is forgotten today: but not entirely. For me it has become an exhilarating adventure of rediscovery.