“Just for you to hear our voices…This is our only hope.”
In Pacific island cultures, dance can be a form of prayer — which may be why three dozen people from the disappearing coral atolls of Tuvalu, Kiribati and Tokelau are on a fourteen-city US tour with what they see as their futures at stake.
The message: that what we in the United States do here, affects them there. It’s a performance and educational campaign called “Water Is Rising.”
Instead of looking at bar graphs, we heard the beat of sticks on large biscuit tins. No Power Point here, just artfully synchronized hands and hips, fingers and bare feet.
Along with a boaki, a large wooden drum box, they brought one united plea: “Brothers and sisters in the United States, we are losing our land. We can work together to make us free from climate change.”
The kick-off to their tour started in the Southland with “Science and Art in a Climate of Change: a Dialogue of Nations,” a performance and conversation sponsored by UCLA’s Center for Intercultural Performance, the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and the Department of World Arts and Culture.
They had traveled forty hours by boat to Samoa, then boarded a plane for a two-hour flight to Fiji, and then a ten-hour flight to Los Angeles. They came dressed in sarongs and t-shirts and cotton dresses, and adorned with pandanus skirts and head wreathes. They brought their dances and their songs to a UCLA stage.
The dancers sang in familiar three-part harmony while the scientists, students and the rest of us listened in the darkened theater. Mikaele Maiava from Tokelau told us they are losing one to two meters of land a year along their shores. Andrew Semele from Tuvalu says the tuna they rely on for export are getting scarce because the waters are now too warm. Frances Tebau from Kiribati says their well water is getting too salty to drink. “This is our only hope,” Tebau says. “Go for renewable energy. If you could reduce your greenhouse gases… We don’t want to lose our land. We will lose everything.”
“Just for you to hear our voices, my brothers and sisters,” says Andrew Semele. “Just for you to know we suffer. We are here to kindly ask, to look for a shoulder to lean on.”
They’ll be taking their stories to Riverside, California, this week, then on to Arizona, and then east for performances dates in New England, Maryland and a District of Columbia performance at the Kennedy Center.
In between the dances and songs, the head of California’s Air Resources Board, Mary Nichols (still a part-time professor at UCLA) took the stage along with UCLA’s climate scientists to moderate the conversation. Alex Hall, director of UCLA’s Center for Climate Change Solutions, was struck by how irrelevant science can seem in light of the dancing. “This is so eloquent… so interconnected. I don’t think people are really listening to the scientists so I really applaud this effort today.”
Funding for tour has come from UCLA, various foundations, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Inspiration and vision came from Judy Mitoma, a former dancer who now heads UCLA’s intercultural Performance Center.