Matani Kainuku, President of the Heiva i Tahiti Committee 2016
© Photo by MKB Visual
With only days away from the opening of the 135th HEIVA I TAHITI 2016 we catch up with committee president Matani Kainuku as he weighs in on the latest cultural debates and reveals the inner workings of the judging system. A Tahiti Dance Online exclusive.
Tradition vs. Modern
We open up our discussion by touching on the reoccurring ‘traditional vs. modern’ dispute and ask Matani to give his thoughts on the topic. In his own words he describes tradition as something that ‘our ancestors left us’ and encourages people to ‘express the ideas of our ancestors’ through your own unique ‘style’ interpretation of ‘Ori Tahiti. He also pointed out that choreographers are ‘not worried about modern or traditional’ performances, but more about ‘how to express the theme’ and so individual stylistic choices must be respected. By perfecting ‘the link between the theme, the style, the music and the costumes’, groups increase their chances of clenching the title. In sum, the Heiva is all about expressing your time, your history and your story through the art of Ori Tahiti.
How the judging works
Every year a newly appointed judging panel is made up of leading cultural experts in traditional dance, chants, drumming and oratory. There are four different categories and 9 judges overall: 4 for the dancing section, 3 for chanting, 1 for drumming and 1 for oratory/theme writing. Their respective category judges attribute marks for their section, but the whole panel have voting rights in every category. For example, there are 4 judges in the dancing section which means 4 votes total, the other sections have 1 vote each which gives the dancing section a total of 7 votes overall. Each judge has a marking sheet that is filled out during live performances and immediately passed on to a bailiff who tallies the results once the festival is over.
The dancing section has 4 criteria that are divided as follows: Dancing – execution, synchronisation and theme appropriate moves, Music – Quality of execution, melody and theme appropriate lyrics, Presentation and Costumes- Creativity, execution and theme appropriate styling and the Theme – Quality and depth of the message. Each section has a rating from 1 to 10 that is then added up to give you your final score.
Weeks before the Heiva the judging panel meets in order to streamline marking criteria. For example, terms like ‘harmony of expression’ are debated until everyone agrees on one single interpretation. Then a meeting is scheduled with each group leader giving them the opportunity to present their chosen theme followed by a performance of their entire Heiva show. This is seen as an occasion for competing groups to receive advice from the judging panel, although Matani was quick to point out that the judges ‘are not there to change the show’, but to give constructive criticism.
One intriguing aspect of the marking process is that the panel are able to alter the final results as they see fit. Basically, days before the winners are announced they review and assess whether the outcome reflects who they think should win. Often, during this time the results are modified after a consensus is made or if there are conflicting views, judges are asked to anonymously vote again only to find out the results just before they are announced to the general public. In essence, the marking sheets ultimately become redundant and the panels’ opinion is law.
The size 42 controversy
Earlier this year local news outlets broke out with a story about leading Heiva groups establishing entry criteria based on physical appearance and excluding dancers that are larger than a size 42 (size 12 US). More reports revealed that this trend went as far as dancers eating only one apple before practice or taking diet pills to stay thin. Matani responded by saying that ‘culture is for everybody and every size’ and that such criteria have a very ‘negative impact on our culture’ because a significant part of the population ‘don’t feel accepted by the others and therefore get denied access to their language and heritage, legends and concepts’ and strongly advised that ‘we encourage everybody to live their culture’. However, this new trend and its alienating effect could have significant socio-cultural consequences for years to come as the Heiva represents an important incentive to live and embrace ancestral traditions in modern times.
In Matani’s opinion, this phenomenon came about through the use of ‘Ori Tahiti for economic purposes as groups strive to export an idyllic image of Tahiti and her islands during international exchanges and tourism promotion events. In the end, he said that ‘the goal of each group belongs to them’ and if they believe that ‘a good image of Tahiti is to be skinny and nice looking, it’s their choice but it doesn’t mean that they can win the Heiva competition’. In some cases, groups aim to create a certain image with minimum consideration for fundamental cultural concerns. He ended by saying that ’20 years ago people were dancing better because they were not so focused on artificial things but on the culture, the expression of the idea but now, people focus on appearance but they must have depth, we need to see depth’.
Foreigners at the Heiva?
Over the last decade there has been a significant increase of ‘Ori Tahiti enthusiasts in the US, Japan, South America and Europe which subsequently prompted the Heiva committee to include international dancers at the Heiva. After years of debate among ‘Ori Tahiti groups a decision was reached and a quota set for 10 foreign dancers per group. Matani sees this as a step in the right direction but urges the international community to come to Tahiti to learn about our history, culture and language, as ‘you can’t drive ‘Ori Tahiti on the freeway if you have no language’ and emphasizes the capital role the Tahitian language plays in traditional dance. Basically, anyone can learn technique but ‘the technique does not explain the culture so the people need the culture and inside the culture is the history, because if you don’t know which period you are dancing it’s difficult’ and you won’t appreciate or understand ‘the different concepts’ so ‘how can you express ‘Ori Tahiti without the culture? As the ‘Ori Tahiti infrastructure solidifies, be sure that there will be more opportunities for the international community to gain access to an authentic apprenticeship.
Where to next for the Heiva?
The Heiva i Tahiti is the oldest established traditional cultural festival in the world founded in 1881 and is a dynamic and ever evolving cultural platform where people can come together to celebrate the beauty of Tahitian culture. In Matanis’ mind ‘Ori Tahiti is to live experiences’ and the Heiva creates a unique place where cultural expression is put to the forefront. This is not without challenges as he indicated that in order to truly express and understand Ori Tahiti one must know the language, but ‘more and more people don’t understand Tahitian language so the real danger is not the dancing but losing the language’, and so the Heiva must be the ‘place of expression of the language’ and that it is ‘everybody’s responsibility’ to maintain. Therefore a significant effort will be concentrated around the perpetuation of the Tahitian language during the Heiva.
Other interesting additions may include a rule change that obliges dance groups to include traditional chanting in their program as to encourage the population to more appreciate the art of chanting. Matani is also working on creating a Heiva database that can serve as an encyclopaedia where people can download videos, costume making styles, written themes, drumming and chanting from every Heiva year. By adhering to the digital age, this database can be a stepping-stone for cultural memory that will be accessible to everybody.
After 135 years in business the Heiva is not showing any signs of slowing down and is set to show a record number of participants this year. Like many former colonies, Tahiti is at a time in their history where they must make decisions about cultural retention in a globalized world. Recent trends are only a reminder of how indigenous cultures can be subjected to international image trends that can alter the perception of what culture really is. Many leading cultural experts say that language is the key to survival and luckily for Tahitians the language is still prevalent, however, more effort needs to be put into transmitting the value of language to younger generations.
Tahiti has opened up its waters to the world and many foreigners have chosen to embrace the art of ‘Ori Tahiti as their own. There have been many debates in Tahiti on this particular topic and as this art form spreads worldwide it is imperative for enthusiasts to learn things the right way and that is to come to Tahiti to plunge into the womb of the earth.
As we prepare for the HEIVA 2016 we take pride in the fact that ‘Ori Tahiti still exists and that we are able to pay homage to our ancestors. A beautiful evolving platform of expression that is unique to the world.