The Heiva festival launches our journey

The Heiva i Tahiti runs for weeks. It is the largest, splashiest cultural festival in French Polynesia, and people come from all over the archipelagos to attend. It covers sport, handicrafts, and other cultural events, but the big nights are reserved for song and dance. The troupes are huge and they can perform here on one condition: everything they show must be a brand new original.

Each night is a series of world premieres.

I had never seen dance groups of this size, almost 200 people in some cases, all in the open air surrounded by hundreds of fans. The choreography sends dancers flying in all directions. Here, the choreographer cinched her group together to produce a forest of arms and tattooed skin before spreading out again to cover every square inch of the outdoor stage.

The Heiva takes over downtown Pape’ete on performance nights throughout the festival. You can hear the music for blocks.

Performers bring an enormous amount of gear backstage. They will have several costume changes, and many of the outfits are what they call “costumes végétales,” all made from fresh plants and flowers (not vegetables!). Some performers make the costumes themselves or with their families, while others pay professional costume builders. The results are both stunning and ephemeral. All of the flower crowns, head dresses, skirts, and sashes must be made in the day leading up to the performance, otherwise they will wilt. This means many performers have been on an all night flower and leaf weaving mission before hitting the stage.

Some costume elements last a bit longer and can be pre-made or even kept fresh in the freezer, but the end is always a mad dash.

Backstage was the most exciting place for us. Naturally, most media coverage takes place in front of the stage, but I was grateful to have permission to hang around back as beautiful scenes of art and teamwork unfolded around us.

Each dancer is responsible for their own preparation, so the gear they bring in includes all of the costume elements and everything they need for hair and make-up.

Wavy hair was a popular style, so many women quickly pulled out their braids before getting on stage.

Friends and family contribute to the show in many ways. When the moment arrives, everyone is ready.

This night gave us an impression of large scale cultural representation that I think of as forward facing. This is culture as performance, though our back stage time helped us get a little deeper.

As our time went on, and we left the island of Tahiti for the Marquesas archipelago, we would get further and further away from this kind of gathering, but the Heiva was the perfect starting point.

The Heiva festival launches our journey