Researching choral dances on coral islands

January 4, 2017

Dr. Hallie Marshall is an Assistant Professor at the UBC Department of Theatre and Film, Wall Scholar 2016-17.

You might wonder why Wall Scholar Dr. Hallie Marshall flew to the Cook Islands to conduct research in the summer of 2016 when her primary area of study is ancient Greek theatre. No, it wasn’t the sandy beaches and sunshine that drew her there, at least not entirely. While it’s quite a departure from fifth century Greece BCE to the South Pacific, there is one similarity: choral dancing. Hallie took in the Cook Islands festival of Te Maeva Nui to consider how we would perceive ancient choruses if we could actually see one performed.

“Something that scholars of antiquity often struggle with is making sense of the chorus because we have no tradition of choral performance, of people energetically singing and dancing, dressed up in costume,” says Hallie. “Seeing the Cook Islands dancers completely changed the way I thought of ancient Greek dancing. The questions I would have asked before I saw the choral dances in the Cook Islands were very much in the tradition of how is the chorus relating to the narrative without any real thought to the visual, physical aspect of it or the sound of it or even the place of it in society.” 

Greek vase

A Greek chorus mediates how an audience understands what the actor is saying in a tragedy or tells an audience how to respond to the characters onstage. Photo of vase: The Basel Dancers. Attic column-krater, unattributed, ca. 480s. Basel, Antikenmuseum BS 415.

“Our only framework for understanding choral dance is in terms of dramatic narrative. But I think for the ancient audience, that was very little of the choral experience,” Hallie says. “For us, the chorus is a peripheral thing and we focus just on what the main characters are doing and saying and how the chorus might relate to that. But for an ancient audience the chorus is the touchstone telling their own story. It’s a profoundly visual and aural experience. They’re dressed up in spectacular costumes, they’re singing and dancing and all of that is absent from our tradition and most scholars just ignore that.”

According to Aristotle, ancient Greek theatre came out of a choral performance tradition called the dithyramb in which large choruses sang songs written specially for the event. At the City Dionysia, the most important Athenian dramatic festival, a day was devoted to the performance of dithyrambs, with each of the ten Athenian tribes entering a chorus of 50 men, and another of 50 boys in competition. Today, choruses of a similar size compete in Te Maeva Nui, a festival celebrating self-governance, where new songs and dances are composed and choreographed every year and the winners sail home with money and prizes.

Witnessing a living performance tradition that shares many features with ancient Greek dithyrambs and other choral performance traditions prompts a very different set of questions that just the ancient texts do. For example, the differences between male and female movement.

“You see in the Cook Islands this incredible difference between the kind of movements that men and women do,” says Hallie. “The women’s dances tend to be more wooing and sexualized while the men’s tend to be more aggressive. One of the things that is emphasized in the women’s dances is the movement of the hips, even in gentler genres like the ute. For certain genres they wear big bustles on their grass skirts that, when you start the hips shaking like a double-time Hawaiian hula dance, you get this incredible emphasis on the movement of the hips which has to do with female physiology and the male gaze. And similarly, the way that the men move has some basis in physiology but also has roots in the traditional warrior culture of the Cook Islands.”

There is a gender difference in how men and women move, particularly in dance. The women’s dances tend to be more wooing and sexualized while the men’s tend to be more aggressive.

“What interests me about the Cook Islands is the fact that they have a living choral tradition,” Hallie explains. “If we look at this living tradition, what are the things that we see or that the people who are participating in it talk about in terms of what they think is important, what the differences in performances are? Some of the things become immensely obvious. It seems almost mundane to say it—except for the fact that scholars haven’t said it because they haven’t thought in those terms—but choral dance differs from region to region.”

Just as there were regional differences in choral dance among the ancient Greeks—Spartans danced differently than Athenians—so too there are regional differences among the Cook Islanders. Performances by Pukapuka, one of the northern islands, are consistent crowd favorites due to their distinctive language and dance style.

“Choral music is very much about reinforcing that sense of community and communal identity on a national level but more so on a local level,” Hallie says.

Manihiki float, Cook Islands.

Manihiki float in the 2015 Te Maeva Nui parade. Te Maeva Nui celebrates the Cook Islands’ Constitution Day when they gained independence from New Zealand in the 1965 and serves to help rebuild cultural traditions which had been suppressed by missionaries and various governments. Photo: Hallie Marshall.

Becoming a member of the Wall Scholar community at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies gave Hallie the time and freedom to travel to conduct her research. Wall Scholars are provided with office space and $20,000 that can be used for a wide range of research-related expenses, including course release and travel.

“What it gives researchers in terms of time and space is remarkable, particularly in a period in which the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grants no longer allow academics to apply for course buyouts,” Hallie says.

Wall Scholar Research Awards provide support for full-time, tenured or tenure-stream UBC faculty members to spend one year in residence at the Institute. Applications close on February 1, 2017.