The Contemporary Pacific 16.1 (2004) 195-198
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Akekeia! Traditional Dance in Kiribati, by Tony and Joan Whincup. Wellington, NZ: Susan Barrie, 2001. ISBN 0-646-41554-9; 168 pages, in English and the Kiribati language; photographs, glossary, list of additional readings. Cloth, NZ$89.95.
"when you are getting ready for the dancing and you have your arms out on the shoulders of two different women and they're tying different things on and somebody's behind you and someone's fixing your hair, it's just building all that excitement and usually I try to kind of close my eyes [End Page 195] and capture it, hold on to it, . . . but it's really intense" (127).
I recently watched a Kiribati group perform in the middle of winter at the Police Academy in Porirua just outside Wellington, New Zealand. It was freezing and there was a noticeable absence of shine on the dancers' bodies. I recalled that coconut oil coagulates in anything less than about twenty-one degrees Celsius. Yet the performers sang and danced enthusiastically, bare armed in the cold, and their costumes—te etete (the headdresses), te kabae (the mens' dancing mats), and te karuru (the arm and chest ornaments)—certainly looked "authentic." There were no substitutes of Christmas tree decorations for woven pandanus flowers or girl's dancing skirts made of VHS videotape. This Micronesian group seemed to be seeking recognition in a land dominated first by bicultural Maori-Pakeha politics and second by a triangle of Maori-Pakeha-Polynesian "PI" (Pacific Islander) discourses. International exposure for their stunning televised millennium performance aside, the small islands of the central Pacific and their inhabitants seem to be absent from regular scholarly or popular attention. But in the absence of popularization, Kiribati dance and musical practices remain powerful.
Akekeia! lovingly reveals the dancing bodies that inhabit some of the thirty-three atolls that make up Kiribati. The book brings together Tony Whincup's powerful photographs, JoanWhincup's interviews, and the couple's research, arranged in a stunning layout by freelance graphic designer Julia Parkinson. The book won the illustrative category at the prestigious Montana book awards in New Zealand in 2002 and is a welcome addition to a still tiny body of work on Kiribati performance.
TonyWhincup is the head of photography at the School of Fine Art at Massey University in New Zealand and Joan Whincup teaches in early childhood education. The authors have a relationship with Kiribati that spans two decades and this collection is the third of their publications on the island group. Te Katake (1981), Kiribati (1981) and Nareau's Nation (1979) were also mainly photographic and focused on traditional chant, the atoll environment, social issues, culture, and history.
Akekeia! is arranged in the panoramic with pages of deep bronze,coal, and white on which images of dancers in color and black-and-white seem to float and shimmer.There areno poses; all bodies are caught in motion and you expect them to dance right off the page. There is also a lot of breathing space—long pauses marked by dark blank pages or white open spaces— as if to allow the reader time for reflection between visual encounters. Between dances are shots of crimson skies at dusk, copra drying in the sun, te mwaneaba (meeting houses), ruani mate (graves), the lagoon at low tide, and rainbows reaching from ocean to sky. An artistic feat, the book powerfully combines text and image, appealing to multiple audiences, including scholars of Oceania, Kiribati, and dance.
While the high cost of the book will limit its reach, one of its central features is bilingual text in English and the Kiribati language. It is clear that the intended audience is I-Kiribati [End Page 196] and the foreword by then President Teburoro Tito indicates a national endorsement of and pride in the project.
The main sections focus on Akekeia!—the vocal signal to prepare the dancers and set the pitch for the accompanying singers in particular Kiribati dance genres; Te Tabo or Place, exploring the atoll environment; Te Katauraoi...