Performers from tiny islands in the central Pacific have traveled halfway around the world to State College to share their affection for their vanishing atolls and ways of life. Water is Rising—a unique show featuring one song-and-dance ensemble each from Kiribati, Tokelau and Tuvalu—are on stage at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 8, in Eisenhower Auditorium to share the cultures of coral atolls threatened by rising seas.
Judy Mitoma, a UCLA professor emeritus and expert on Pacific island cultures, organized the tour and is its artistic director. Speaking to Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State staff members Monday, Mitoma said the tour comes down to one central question. "What does it mean to lose a civilization that can never be replicated in another place?"
Tickets are still available for Water is Rising.
The Polynesian and Micronesian residents of the atolls, located where the Equator and the International Dateline meet, have cultures based on oral traditions. They pass on their history and culture through song and dance. But that music and dance, she said, is meant to be shared with one another, not as a performance for an audience.
"I'm not interested in dance that is for the external gaze," Mitoma said. As an ethnographer, she wants to experience dance and music intended for the members of a society. When such music and dance is presented to an audience, it provides a rare glimpse into the lives of people inhabiting a fragile corner of the globe.
Mitoma, who grew up in Los Angeles and earned her degrees from UCLA, first encountered Pacific atoll cultural traditions at a festival in Papua New Guinea in 1980. She said she was immediately fascinated.
Each of the performing groups, which Mitoma selected through auditions, is distinct in style and customs.
One of the three performing groups, Te Waa Mai Kiribati, features 12 young adult residents of the nation Kiribati.
"Never in their history have that many people come from their country to America," she said. In fact, most of the combined 36 performers in the three groups had never been on a jet until they flew to Los Angeles to start the 15-city Water is Rising tour.
Two performers from Tokelau, she noted, were forced to return home due to illness, so 34 music and dance artists are performing at Penn State. The show also includes projected images created from photos taken by Mitoma on the atolls.
The causes of climate change might be debatable, but the results of climate change on the atolls are profound.
"An atoll is so low," she said. In most places the tiny islands rise no more than six to nine feet above sea level.
Think of the atolls as bagels. One side is the ocean, the other a lagoon. In many places, Mitoma pointed out, someone can stand in the middle of an atoll and throw a stone one way into the sea and the other direction into the lagoon.
Throughout human history on the atolls, as much as 1,500 years in some cases, storm surges and typhoons have wiped out homes, but the islanders rebuilt. The new threat from rising sea levels is different.
The ocean water is eroding the land. But an even greater problem is salt water intrusion, in which the plant-killing water percolates up through the coral sand foundation of the atolls.
Land is everything to the coral islanders, Mitoma said. They traditionally do not buy and sell land. It is passed, in trust, from one generation to another.
"They will sing about their love of their land, the love of their country," she said. "They see their world as uncompromising in their life and their love."
Western ways are starting to invade the atoll culture, which creates tension between traditions and the outside world. Money, a concept the islanders did not have, is now influencing their daily lives. Many goods are now imported.
Another import, Christianity, arrived in the 19th century. Most of the atoll residents are deeply Christian, she said, and that faith buffers them from fear that they'll be forced to leave their homelands.
Mitoma said many believe the Bible story about the rainbow being a sign that God will never again send a flood to destroy life is a literal promise that their atolls will be spared from the rising seas.
"The point of the show and the point of the tour," she said, "is that they don't want to leave."