The Hura Tapairu ‘Ori Tahiti (Tahitian dance) competition is held at the beginning of December every year; the performances are marked by freedom and creativity. Read on to find out more.
Before filing on stage, about twenty dancers group together in the backstage of the Grand Théâtre of the Maison de la Culture in Papeete. In near darkness, there’s an effervescence that is nearly indescribable. The wardrobe specialists arrive and fix, one last time, the majestic costumes of the dancers. These striking creations are made primarily of natural Polynesian materials ranging from pandanus and coconut palm leaves to tree bark that becomes as soft as fabric under skillful hands.
Busy hands place taupoo, giant headdresses inspired by those of ancient Polynesian chiefs, on the dancer’s heads. Along the hall, balconnet tops, called tāpe’a titi in Tahitian, are being secured as best they can, while other dancers are fastening their pareo (sarongs). Finally, the flowers are worn as leis, crowns or simply tucked artistically into the hair. Tiare tahiti gardenias, hibiscus, ginger flowers and birds of paradise are all part of the costume. The colors of the flowers match the energy of the dance.
Exhilaration and Joy
The dancers faces are tense and concentrated. In a few moments, their expressions will transform to exhilaration and joy inspired by the performance that they’ve spent months and long hours preparing for. The Hura Tapairu is often the first big competition that many of these troupes will enter and receive feedback from. The troupes must consist of 29 artists including 20 dancers, six musicians and three singers. It has takes endless amounts of practice for the groups to reach this point. Today, most performers can’t live from their art but must balance the intense commitment with their family and professional lives. The contest is difficult but not as much as the Singing and Dancing Competitions of the July Heiva I Tahiti where the groups consist of 60 artists! The Hura Tapairu brings together more recently formed troupes who use the contest to launch their name and become known to the greater public.
From every island
Being part of a dance troupe takes so much time, and the community becomes such a large part of their lives, that most dancers become very proud to represent their group. But the troupe is also the flag barer of a neighborhood, town or even an island. Dancers have to be ready for this responsibility, so important in Polynesian society and its developing communities.
One of the special aspects of Hura Tapairu is that troupes come from all over French Polynesia. Those coming from Rurutu in the Austral Islands or even Bora Bora and Huahine in the Society Islands rarely have the chance to perform on Tahiti because of how difficult and costly it can be move around in an oceanic country the size of Europe. But once they are on stage on Tahiti, the audience is invariably seduced by the visiting troupe’s freshness and enthusiasm. They have brought in their hearts a little bit of their fenua (land), along with their legends, and their interpretation of Tahitian dance.
And the whole family shows up
Before the dancers arrive on stage, a speech is made in French and Tahitian about the theme of the show which is usually a myth or legend from the dancer’s region, village or island. The choreography is based on this theme as are the music and the costumes; it’s what glues every piece of the performance together… and the performance is about to begin.
In the theater, the audience impatiently awaits the entree of the stars of the evening. In the mix are curious tourists, dance enthusiasts and of course, numerous family members (fēti’i in Tahitian) en masse. These fetî’i aren’t shy to call out the name of their sister, brother or cousins who dance in the spotlight.
Freedom and creativity
In the middle of the audience, lights and tilted shades mark the jury table. These people include professors or the heads of well-known dance troupes. They evaluate each performance by the precision of the movements, coordination, creativity, costume design and more. Next they look to reward each category of choreography, the ’aparima, ’ōte’a’, Hula, Ori Tahito Tāne and Ori Tahito Vahine. The winners will receive the coveted Hura Tapairu crown. The competition aims to be a place where there is more creative freedom with less binding constraints and rules as there are at the Heiva I Tahiti. Of course the dances must be «traditional,» but they can also be free to move out of the box. This freedom is appreciated both by the artists and the audience. In all, especially in the unique setting of the Maison de la Cuture, the freedom of the dancers and the proximity from which they can be seen, creates a very special show. Here, ‘Ori Tahiti takes on theatrical dimensions.
More and more well-known
All these attributes have made the Hura Tapairu become a much bigger event over the years. At each annual competition over 15 groups participate. Other proof of the growing popularity of the Hura Tapairu is the interest given by ‘Ori Tahiti troupes from the USA and Japan who want to get back to the roots of the dance and see how they compare with Tahitian troupes under the gaze of a famously demanding audience.
But before these moments of international sharing is dancing and singing. Finally the spotlight fills the stage with light. Traditional drums, the tō’ere, tari parau, faatete and the īhara, speed up their rhythms. Emerging from the sidelines the performers suddenly fill the stage with song, color and movement. The show begins in all its hypnotic enchantment. It will not disappoint.
Prizes and genres
At the end of the Hura Tapairu, five prizes are given to the groups with the best performances. Three of these are for the best ’aparima, ’ōte’a’ and hula, which are types of choreography. Two prizes are also given for the best Ori Tahito Tāne and Ori Tahito Vahine, dance styles that came into fashion in the 1930s to 1950s.
In this type of choreography, dancers use precise gestures to illustrate song lyrics and the accompanying music. The ’aparima hīmene is a variant that is sung. The dancers are united by their song, the orchestra and the choir.
This dance includes the ’ōte’a āmui (performed by a mixed group), the ’ōte’a’ tāne (with only men) and the ’ōte’a’ vahine (only women). The performers are in parallel lines. Men move mostly the legs while women move their hips, often at lightning speed.
Of Hawaiian origin, this dance is characterized by slow movements, especially numerous and complex hand gestures. The orchestra and singing accompanies the dancers.
Ori Tahito Tāne and Ori Tahito Vahine
These are solo dances accompanied by the orchestra and are inspired by Tahitian dances of the 1930s to 1950s. The movements are vastly different from those of today. The Ori Tahiti Tāne has one male dancer while the Ori Tahito Vahine is danced by a woman.