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  • Pacific Performances: Theatricality and Cross-Cultural Encounter in the South Seas
  • Jane Desmond
Pacific Performances: Theatricality and Cross-Cultural Encounter in the South Seas, by Christopher B Balme. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. ISBN 978-1-4039-8598-9, xiv + 256 pages, figures, illustrations, photographs, notes, bibliography, index. Cloth, US$80.00.

In Pacific Performances: Theatricality and Cross-Cultural Encounter in the South Seas, theater historian and theorist Christopher B Balme offers not just an investigation of theatrical events depicting colonial encounters, but also a wider paradigm of the theatricality of cultural encounters in colonial contexts more broadly. This approach offers a useful intervention in and addition to scholarship in colonial and postcolonial studies, Pacific studies, history, and anthropology.

Arguing that "cross-cultural contacts were theatrical as much as they were economic, sexual or political," Balme says that "much took place, and still does, in modes that we generally subsume under the term 'performance'" (xii). Noting the ways that performances, such as music and dance, have figured centrally in colonial encounters, tourism, and post-colonial movements, he urges us, as scholars, to more actively engage these dimensions of history.

While it is certainly true that more scholarship examining the intersection of theater and colonialism in the Pacific is overdue, Balme's larger contribution lies in his proposal that "theatricality, or the discursive practice of theatricalizing other peoples and places," was a necessary prerequisite for later colonial enterprises. In the Pacific, such an approach is especially useful, he argues, because of "remarkably persistent and recurring patterns of perception and representation" by colonizers of indigenous peoples (xii–xiii). In short, beyond urging more academic attention to the performing arts, he provides a different paradigm for investigating colonial relations, one that recognizes the self-conscious manipulation of representations by both colonizers and colonized in an active contestation over the deployment of meanings.

Starting with an oft-told moment of Dutch navigator Abel Tasman's encounter with indigenous Māori inhabitants in Aotearoa, Balme notes the importance of performative exchanges. In European reports of the voyage, some Mäori responded to the arrival of Tasman's ship in their harbor with "sounds like . . . Trumpets," no doubt blowing on shells (20). Probably misinterpreting this as a welcome, not a warning, Tasman instructed his sailors to mimic the sound, trumpeting back on a horn. By mobilizing a sound-gesture in one cultural system that meant nearly the opposite in the other, Tasman set the stage for a climate of mistrust that ultimately resulted in violence when the Mäori attacked. Balme's example demonstrates the performative nature of such first encounters where both sides, presumably, struggled with the incomprehensibility of the other's sign systems.

While stressing the fundamental theatricality of these encounters (ie, two sets of actors and two sets of spectators), Balme never forgets the deadly histories of decimation and dispossession that ultimately accompanied European expansion into the [End Page 184] Pacific. In proposing the theatricality of colonial encounters, Balme does so not to reduce these relations to mere dramatic incidents, but rather to employ an analysis that illuminates the ways in which the inherent performativity of such encounters was an integral part of colonialism's operations.

Growing up in New Zealand, and spending his academic career in Germany, Balme is sensitive to the issues framing investigations of colonial relations in postcolonial times, including the challenges of archival research in repositories that have historically documented primarily the European point of view through colonial reports and mercantile records, as well as visual representations such as old paintings, lithographs, and photographs that were construed through a lens of European visual tropes and modes of interpretation. He notes, too, the difficulty in relying on historical records purporting to convey Native points of view, as with some missionary texts, given that such recordings are always mediated through European frameworks. To further counter these limitations, his historical research might, however, have tried to include notions of Native responses captured in chants and poetry, especially where more and more of that work is becoming available through collaborations/translations between indigenous experts and archives, such as at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.

Other chapters in the book, arranged roughly...


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