Fluid Dramaturgy: Moana Nui Spacing as Relational Performative Environment

Dorita Hannah*


As a spatiotemporal method for understanding and shaping performance, dramaturgy could be considered a form of evental spacing, recognising that performance environments themselves are resonant with environmental performativity. However, our globalised worldview still tends to regard time and space as separable and absolute, generally oblivious to spatial dynamics in daily environments, including the theatre itself. Considering Polynesia’s navigational approach to the Pacific Ocean as a “liquid continent,” this article proffers Moana Nui spacing as an emerging dramaturgical methodology—spatiotemporally focussed, ecologically calibrated and specifically oceanic—applied to the conception and realisation of Performance Studies international’s Fluid States project in 2015.

Keywords: spacing, performance design, Tā-Vā theory, scenography, event dramaturgy, decolonising theatre, Pacific thought

FLUID DRAMATURGY: Moana Nui Spacing as Relational Performative Environment

This century’s innovative “theatre” (as dramatic artform) has essentially embraced interdisciplinarity to explore hybrid modalities, leading to a general refusal of “the theatre” (as an architectural built form), which, in turn, confronts dramaturgy’s conventional role of analysing and orchestrating compositional constructions between text, bodies, space and time in live production (Turner and Behrndt 4). Such a challenge was initially enacted by the Twentieth Century’s avant-garde and embraced by sociologists, particularly Erving Goffman who utilised theatre as a metaphor for explaining human behaviour: expanding the dramaturgical stage beyond the well-written play. Leaving its traditional sites of performance over the last two decades, dramaturgy is increasingly applicable to our highly mediated quotidian reality, which structures and sustains a globalised apprehension of the world that inherently serves neoliberal Western-centric capitalism as a direct legacy of European colonisation. However, by critically engaging with the spatiotemporal structures, settings, systems and sociocultural performances of everyday life, a more culturally emplaced dramaturgical approach can help us radically re-think and re-practice how the world itself is built, both actually (through physical constructions and landscapes) and virtually (by way of cultural, mythical and existential conceptions).

Taking up Maaike Bleeker’s claim that “dramaturgy can be performed by others than dramaturgs” —particularly as a means of “thinking through practice” (4)—spacing is here introduced as a form of event dramaturgy for understanding, discussing and enabling environmental performativity within performance environments. It allows me, as a theatre architect and scenographer, to articulate my own critical spatial practice[1] that appraises, challenges and reveals our prescribed conceptions of how environments perform through performance design. Such a practice has involved collaborating on a number of interdisciplinary multi-ethnic events, particularly those operating within a deliberately “international” arena where differing worldviews challenge limitations of received Western-centrism. It has led to a developing articulation of spacing—an act of both designing and experiencing performance environments—as a form of event dramaturgy that recognises a diversity of cultures, continents and cosmologies.

This article therefore focuses on Moana Nui spacing, which underpinned Fluid States: Performances of UnKnowing, a yearlong globally distributed festival of events that I co-curated for Performance Studies international (PSi) in 2015. Widely dispersed across fifteen locations, the overall project was influenced by what Albert Refiti calls “Pacific thought” (267), specifically from the Polynesian triangle within the Pacific Ocean—te Moana-Nui-a-Kiwa (the Great Ocean of Kiwa)—a vast and generally disregarded expanse that tends to be bifurcated on the world map in order to centralise the major geopolitical regions defined through continental land masses. Informed by navigational practices that interconnect landforms, Moana-Nui-a-Kiwa’s fluid relational spacing was further applied to Sea-Change: Performing a Fluid Continent, a three-day event on the island of Rarotonga in the Cook Islands that constituted the Oceanic region’s contribution to this experimental project, which I co-directed with Māori architectural theorist, Amanda Monehu Yates, and local artist, Ani O’Neill.

Focusing on an Oceanic rather than continental model, Fluid States and Sea-Change were designed to destabilise Western-centric approaches to performance discourse in favour of re-centrings through what has long been regarded as peripheral action. While this article frames Moana Nui spacing as an emerging oceanic spatiotemporality influenced by Pacific thought, it’s necessary to first establish spacing itself as performative dramaturgy, which is rhythmic, unfolding and responsive.

Towards a Practice and Theory of Spacing

But one can say that there is no space, there are spaces. Space is not one, but space is plural, a plurality, a heterogeneity, a difference. That would also make us look at spacing differently. We would not be looking for one.

Libeskind 68

Spacing —as a form of event dramaturgy— is an under-utilised term in the performing arts, despite the fact that “space”—a three-dimensional organisation best described by Paul Stock as “the emplacement, distribution and connection of entities, actions and ideas” (1)— is central to how performance environments are professionally formulated, bodily experienced and temporally imagined. 

Challenging any separation between space and time, spacing emphasises spatial action. Engaging with the event as a system of dynamic environmental forces and relationships, it denies any neutrality in the performance setting, which in conventional theatre is the black box stage. Yet, while this pervasive immaterial material we call “space” is consistently referred to in daily life, it is often difficult to define due to the assumption we have a mutual understanding of its designation. Even in the so-called spatial arts—including architectural, environmental, urban, landscape, exhibition, installation and scenographic design—where it is taken as the primary element for creative engagement, any easy or uncontested definition is hard to find.

However, spatial geographers and cultural philosophers—from Henri Lefebvre and Michel Foucault to Doreen Massey and Homi Bhabha—have pointed to its relationship with constructions of power and temporal diversity, thereby challenging its classic perception as a static singularity. In Event-Space I asserted that “whether a suspended pause, a blank area, an empty room, a discursive realm or a limitless cosmos—space performs” (xvi) and that “space precedes action—as action” (xxi). As much a sociocultural construction as a physical one, space is a performative medium, and therefore an inherently active entity, which acts on, and is activated by, occupants who need not be physically present within it. Dimensional space is therefore experienced through the positional and durational action of embodied inhabitation.

While space has always been defined as both temporal action (verb) and physical demarcation (noun), the suffix ‘-ing’ emphasises time as its fourth-dimension, rendering environments performative through “spacing”, which Elin Diamond would call “that risky and dangerous negotiation between a doing… and a thing done” (5). Describing both the act of designing and embodied time-based inhabitation, spacing multiplies and sets into motion that which is conventionally perceived as absolute, abiding and static, thereby challenging the continuous and uniform homogeneity of Newtonian “absolute space” as being at rest “always similar and immovable” (77).

Spacing is here posited as both speculative action and (dis)embodied practice, involving what Bhabha calls “relational specificity” (qtd. in Kwon 166), which considers the particularity of fluctuating relationships between objects, people and the environments they inhabit. This applies to how live performance is developed in direct relation to the locales in which they “take place”. The term “spacing”—emerging from both architectural and dance discourses – is yet to be fulsomely unpacked by either field in order to celebrate its dynamic qualities and performance potential.

In architecture, spacing has conventionally referred to a three-dimensional configuration of material elements, particularly the distance between construction features. Such dimensions were classically defined by the European male body—from ancient Rome’s Vitruvian Man to Le Corbusier’s modernist Modulor—as anthropometric measurement via hands, feet, reaches and strides. Land upon which architecture is sited was demarcated and claimed as property by pacing its surface, rather than understanding the indivisibility of its depths, heights and communal belonging as living ground tended for future generations. Paul Carter refers to this as colonialism’s “cartographic gestalt” (189) in which “the ideal grid of the map is thrown over the earth with such authority” (229) and, even more nonsensically, cast like a rigid net on the Pacific Ocean and divided into territories by Northern Empires. These straight lines defy the boundless sea as an ever-changing fluid medium; contiguous with air, ground and mutually dependant living organisms within, above and below its mutable atomised surface. Carter’s assertion that we need “an alternative way of imagining the place, one not predicated on the imposition of hard-and-fast lines, but alive” (189), challenges the Westernised global understanding of space, defined through instrumental charting primarily affiliated with cartography, property and possession. It reinforces the Western-centric paradigm of environments as isolatable dormant terrain to be claimed for ownership, including the unfathomable ocean that binds territories and disturbs boundaries.

Within dance discourse, spacing engages more overtly with positionality as inseparable from movement: denoting the action of performing bodies in relation to each other and the space they perform in, towards an overall effect apprehended by distanced spectators. In “Spacing Events” my long-term collaborator, choreographer Carol Brown, articulates this action as “marking the pathways of a choreography, recalibrating the scale of movement to different dimensions, or marking out the boundaries of an active zone for performance in relation to stage and audience.” While predicated on a sensitivity towards registering and apprehending fluctuating corelations between dancers and their environment, such spacing tends to take place in a black box stage space that either imposed scenery or denies surroundings in favour of a featureless neutrality that privileges a gravity-defying body over the material site it inhabits. However, Brown is referring to our co-created site-specific “dance-architecture” events, where spacing is a means of “charting choreo-spatial dramaturgies” through “culturally attuned kinaesthetic remapping” (76). She goes on to ask, “what happens when we perform in dialogue with non-western understandings of spatial thought?” (77). This question, applicable to both environmental and embodied practices, can be tested through the more open interdisciplinary field of performance design that operates beyond performance productions to include exhibitions, installations and urban designs as well as the formulation, curation and direction of festivals, symposia and other discursive public events.

As a fellow citizen of Aotearoa / New Zealand, I am also compelled to explore those “cross-mappings [that] occur through collaboration and meetings between European and Pacific ways of knowing, perceiving, and moving….[as well as] the relational dimensions of experience” (Brown 77). This constitutes a necessary recognition and decolonisation of globalised Western-centric spatial thought, especially in relation to navigating space both literally and metaphorically, through Moana Nui spacing as specific to Polynesian culture in the Pacific Ocean in which Te Moana-Nui-a-Kiwa teaches, guides, provides for and connects Polynesian people through Moana—meaning “ocean, sea or an expanse of water” in many Polynesian languages—which is also described by Tēvita O.Ka’ili as “the space between islands” (23). Moana Nui relates specifically to the Polynesian Triangle, an area of twenty-six million square kilometres defined by the three points of Hawai’i, Aotearoa and Rapanui, within which lie thousands of islands initially settled by an identifiable group of voyagers who, generally sharing languages, customs, myths and tools, were once explorers and migrants voyaging vast distances in double-hulled sailing canoes: those who, as the agent of British colonisation Captain James Cook noted, seemed to be from “the same nation” having “spread themselves over all the isles in the Vast Ocean” (Cook qtd. in Finney 8).

The Fluid States project was influenced by this immense and generally disregarded oceanic realm that has radically transformed over the last two hundred and fifty years through colonial encounter, settler culture, militarisation, migrations, global capitalism and climate change.

As a liquid continent, the Pacific region tends to image itself through the ocean, te Moana-
Nui-a-Kiwa: a connective space of currents, vortices, drifts, suspensions, sediments, tides,
foams, and flows that resists fixity, while performing in-flux with human and more-than-
human actors.

Hannah et al. 90

Taking the Pacific Island region as the heart of borderless Oceania, a relational dramaturgy emerges that influenced the conception of Psi’s Fluid States project; leading to the proposition of Moana Nui spacing—relating to both ocean and Oceania—in which we find ourselves, productively, “all at sea.”

At Sea

People think that we are separated by the sea. You could say that’s true, but it’s also false.
People have always used the sea to communicate with each other…The ocean is the link…
The Pacific is our “liquid continent.” We are larger than all the earth’s land masses put

Pihaatae qtd. in Hamlyn 9

While the term “at sea” connotes a state of disorientation through loss of bearings, Sam Trubridge points out that being “within a fluid, unfixed, or liquid condition” involves submission to the sea’s unsolved mysteries, dark secrets and fluctuating possibilities (6).  As one of nature’s most terrifying objects, the ocean tends to sublimity in Western thought—evoking both dread and awe through its unknowability. Yet this boundless, formless entity is more knowable to those Pacific peoples for whom it is, as Margaret Werry describes, “a dominant fact of life: constant threat and sustaining medium, geography, and genealogy” (91). As a web of undulating pathways, the Pacific Ocean has interconnected communities through a long history of ancient migrations and more contemporary diasporas.

Before colonial Europe developed instrumentation to negotiate the sublime sea, Pacific navigators long steered their course via an intimate understanding of the currents, swells, stars, sun, moon, clouds, colourations, wave patterns, and movement of fishing birds. What they cannot see with their eyes they feel with their bodies; lying in the bottom of the canoe in order to sense the macro-vessel on which their micro-vessel journeys. This embodied means of “taking place”—as temporalized space—within an oceanic sublime, relates to what Tongan theorist, ‘Okusitina Māhina, names the “General Tā-Vā Theory of Reality” in which tā (time) and vā (space) are inherently bound to nature for Moana cultures as a spatiotemporal convergence of reality, order and conflict. Tā-Vā—entwining time and space—resonates with Jacques Derrida’s notion of “Spacing[…] the production of a space that no speech could condense or comprehend” (237)..

Aligned to what Derrida calls an “event of spacing” (335)—in which space becomes time and time becomes space—Pacific navigation is dependent on a symbiotic correlation between non-human and human involving a perceptual re-construction of and engagement with the immediate environment as turbulent, unpredictable, and variable “bio-object.” This is a term coined by Tadeusz Kantor for that which produces a “tissue of action of a special kind” (133), imparting agency to the non-human. Navigating the biotic bio-object also recalls that choreographic notion of spacing as a means of registering and apprehending a plethora of changing relationships between bodies in motion and the places they occupy. Human body and more-than-human environment become necessarily enfolded in order for both to survive: a spatiotemporal and improvised negotiation through navigation.

In relation to the previous mention of Tā-Vā as a time-space construction, artists and navigators are bound through the Pan-Pacific spatial notion of vā (or wā)—the space between—as a siteless site of mobility, moving within, across and in opposition. Far from empty and inherently temporal, its interstitiality is one of identity through connectedness. Describing vā as a social rather than territorial concept, Samoan scholar, Sa‘iliemanu Lilomaiava, maintains it resists binary construction, operating “beyond the geographic boundaries of nation-states or the dichotomies of origin/destination, rural/urban, core/ periphery, and local/global” (22-23).

Those “all at sea” need to acknowledge that, within the seeming endlessness of an interconnected hydrosphere—what Trubridge calls “a performing subject in its own right” (1)—lie many isles, indiscernible on the world atlas, that offer safe harbour and new encounters. This is most prevalent in Moana-Nui-a-Kiwa’s immense body of water, dotted with nations made up of islands, reefs and atolls that present relatively stationary nodes (currently threatened) within the oceanic flux and flow of our climatically endangered planet.

Fluid States: Performances of (Un)knowing

You show me continents / I see the islands (Bjork 1:33-34).

It was this liquescent, rather than continental, condition that inspired the overarching 2015 Fluid States project;a yearlong, globally dispersed event conceived as a one-off alternative to PSi’s annual conference, which is invariably hosted by large institutions in well-established global centres. Devised as an alternative to the familiar corporatized conventions that gather five hundred to seven hundred delegates, the 2015 “experiment” proposed smaller gatherings in regions yet to develop or unable to host local Performance Studies communities. As one of the project’s initiating co-curators, I was interested in challenging the continental model, based on the terra firma of a centralised nation state, with a more oceanic paradigm, establishing a buoyant platform for ostensibly marginalised regions as a strategy for de-centring and re-centring on multiple peripheries. This involved rethinking the constructed world map through distributed zones of action linked via a transitional dramaturgy where each autonomous zone constituted an island with a themed program of activities unfolding specific to its own cultural environment. This chain of regional island events was interconnected through the dock as a moment of encounter where the preceding event exchanged experiences by way of a linking vessel—as performance, publication, video, object, installation—conveyed via sea, air, radio waves or visiting bodies.

A spatially and temporally distributed project, Fluid States acknowledged a continuous and encircling World Ocean over the terra firma nature of continents upon which territorial boundary lines can be arbitrarily inscribed and contested. The vast aquatic continuity of this briny body, conversely defined via landfall, is apportioned oceanic zones identified by the Atlantic, Arctic, Indian, Pacific and Southern Oceans as well as the smaller seas: all evading clear distinctions between climatic atmospheres, shifting shorelines, wayfaring currents, and abyssal depths. Utopian in its borderless unity—where, as “no-place”, it is everywhere and nowhere—this interconnected reservoir is also dystopian in its unpredictability and ability to diminish land mass by spectacular and more subtly invasive means, particularly as climate change asserts a fateful presence.

The ocean is also home to seafaring craft, described by Michel Foucault as “the heterotopia par excellence” (356): navigating both the real and the mythological. The canoe, in the case of Pacific space, has been voyaging long before the European ships of discovery to which the philosopher refers. As vaka/va’a/waka/wa’a (in Polynesian languages) the canoe is rendered that “floating part of space” (Foucault 356). Yet, far from Foucault’s “placeless place” (356) of plunder (epitomised by Captain Cook’s barque, the Endeavour), it is mobilised to bridge the multiple territorial nodes within the fluid continent. In many Pacific islands (such as Aotearoa), tribes and their homelands are linked to the canoes that carried them to safe harbour where they settled and in the Cook Islands, which hosted the Pacific Region’s contribution to Fluid States, vaka connotes canoe, tribe and tribal district. The canoe/vaka, as an abiotic bio-object, therefore operates as island, dock, and vessel all in one fragile cultural construction, necessarily bound to the biotic bio-objects of sea and body: navigating the utopic, dystopic and heterotopic through aquatopic spacing: a fluid, yet arrhythmic, spatial negotiation that has been radically altered by climate change.

Sea-Change: Performing a Fluid Continent

Over three days, Rarotonga (the island and community) hosted a series of public events, in which performance acted as a lens through which to “see change” via a public presencing in which the ocean was explored as origin, immersive medium, life-support system and mirror. The event gathered together local and international performers, activists, academics, scientists, public servants and policy-makers, elders, community members, and experts on topics as diverse as coral farming, choreography and celestial navigation, to discuss Oceanic ecologies. An event-in-motion, participants walked, bussed, boated, danced, feasted, swam, performed, presented and talked across the three Vaka (tribal districts of Te Au OTonga, Takitumu and Puiakura) that ring the island.

Hannah et al. 90

Sea-Change: Performing a Fluid Continent invited artists to consider “how Pacific-oriented performance studies and practices can disturb, provoke and extend thought and action in relation to the seascape and its attendant social and biotic communities” (Hannah et al. 90). A hybrid festival structured around a hui/ta’okota’i’anga (ceremonial gathering/summit/meeting), Sea-Change combined academic paper presentations and local panels with a string of performances: all interconnected across time and space; responding to the complexities and unpredictabilities of sites. In her observations of ‘Conference as Confluence,’[2] Una Chaudhuri refers to how the “event dramaturgy” involved “surprising…displacements” as the program moved participants through a range of varied spaces where the schedule was subject to fluctuations of weather, transport, mobility, and attention. The three-day journey was devised with O’Neill who, playing “local event navigator,” was essential to the overall dramaturgy in which spacing—as a tā-vā understanding of the island’s time and space in relation to an inseparability between nature and culture—is enacted for the delegates, local specialists, residents and tourists caught in its ambit.

The fluid dramaturgy of this extended narrative—threading and looping performances, actions and transitions along the event trajectory—was cognisant of unexpected spatiotemporal conditions and deviations rather than operating as an unobstructed flow. Its compositional frame was structured to involve processes of connectivity between material and immaterial elements of performance, the specificities of cultural expression, current socio-political issues and a continual and unpredictable permeation of random quotidian and environmental events.

This involves a multi-dimensional awareness in which a sequence of (blind refereed) performances as well as the movements between them are viscerally experienced and perceptively “read” on manifold levels. The program for each day, spent in one of the three Vaka, was determined by each district’s physical and social characteristics as well as the specific alignment of terrain with performance: the first port of call being Te Au OTonga as a semi-urban environment of “local fluxes and flows,” arrivals and departures; then on to east-facing Takitumu, popular with tourists for “dreaming paradise;” and finally, the grittier territory of Puiakura, where the sun sets, as a place for “divining real ground.” What follows is an abridged description of Sea-Change, which is more fulsomely presented in ‘Fluid States Pasifika: Spacing Events through an Entangled Oceanic Dramaturgy’ (Hannah 2017) and a video sent to the following event in Japan as connecting vessel.

Three -Day Dramaturgy in Three Vaka

The presence of a critical mass of artists and scholars with expertise in the indigenous performance traditions of Oceania made for exceptionally rich conversations about the challenges these traditions face—and the opportunities their forms represent—for a rapidly, and dangerously, changing reality.

Fig. 1. Winds of Strain: Geoff Gilson (Aotearoa/NZ). Video Still: Solomon Mortimer

Bookended by sunset events, Sea-Change began in Avarua—Cook Island’s capital—the night before its ceremonial opening, with a twilight gathering on the harbour front where guests were greeted by a local island dancer swaying deftly to the classic call of Cook Island drumming while a be-suited man emerged from the darkening waters brandishing a can of tuna fish. Commenting on the challenges of Rarotonga’s trade exigencies, Geoff Gilson’s Winds of Strain (Fig. 1) staged the economic pressure experienced within the context of globalisation: a recurring theme in the ensuing days, especially in relation to the devastating effects of purse-seine fishing, currently decimating the fishing grounds for locals. The following dawn, another decimation is made apparent in a Reef Sub Performance [Fig 2] chartered by media artist, Janine Randerson, involving two dancers and a singer moving amidst passengers as they gazed on the skeletal remains of coral reefs and disappearing marine life, while young Rarotongans told stories of radical environmental changes they have experienced within their short lifetimes.

Fig. 2. Reef Sub Performance: Janine Randerson (Aotearoa/NZ) with performers Zahra Killeen-Chance, Geoff Gilson and Olivia Webb. Photos: Solomon Mortimer

Latai Taumoepeau, Tongan Sydney-based Punake (body-centred performance artist), begins the formal proceedings with her Keynote manifesto introducing Stitching (up) the Sea – an ongoing   performance she describes as “a cyclical continuum oftauhi vā, the holistic practice of maintaining space through social relationships, and faivā, the practice of time-and-space through relational obligation in performance” (2015)—which she enacted three days later on Sunset/Betela Beach.

We Latai (reminisce) /
Tau-moe-peau (battle-with-waves) /
Stand for Moana Nui interventions /
Stand for the baptism of the frontline /
Stand for saltwater sovereignty /
Stand for the embodied archive /
Stand for 1 or 2 degrees of difference /
Stand for the monstrous femme body /
Stand inside shifting co-ordinates of the in-between /
Stand for Stitching (up) the Sea.

Taumoepeau 2015
Fig. 3. Island Bride: Te Ao O Tonga (June Baudinet). Photo: Solomon Mortimer
Fig. 3. Island Bride: Takitumu (Brynn Acheson). Photo: Rob Linkhorn

Each day a spectral figure appears to lead participants from one event to another. This is Island Bride (Fig 3) which I devised with Hobart-based eco-artist, Linda Erceg, and three local Rarotongan performers—June Baudinet, Brynn Acheson, and Henry Ah-Foo Taripo (HENZART)—who worked with the white plastic webbing of Erceg’s crocheted biomorphs (their looped structures based on coralline forms) to create a mythic anthropo(s)cenic guide, always just out of reach. As a postcolonial construction Island Bride resembles ghost nets entrapping sea life and trash, which are washed up on pacific island beaches. Responding to each day’s specific terrain with her movements, she drags her tangled plasticated nets, skirt and train across field, beach and cancerous concrete. As Werry writes: “In the Euro-American imaginary, Polynesia is everybody’s bride, a pliant, virgin possession—a fantasy relived daily in the Cooks by the island wedding industry, in which white tourists tint their unions with the primitivist brush” (92).

Fig. 3. Island Bride: Paiaikura (Henzart). Photo: Solomon Mortimer

Te Vara Nui Cultural Village, designed for such weddings and evening Over-Water Night Shows, provides a primary site for panels and performances on the second day. Knocking early at the heavy wooden gates the manu’iri (guests) were ushered into the tropical garden interspersed with huts dedicated to History, Witchdoctors, Carving, Fishing and Costume as well as “a sacred Marae.” Here the (Re)constructing Paradise tour(Fig 4) was hosted by a group of the Pacific Sisters (O’Neill, Raymond, Taripo and Aroha Rawson), dressed in what could be called “indigenous drag” (Chaudhuri), accompanied by a local family of island drummers. Guests were led past the huts where site-specific ethnographic burlesque coalesced with a righteous rage as they encountered garments, hanging from huts and strung across footpaths, printed with the words “No Fish, No Future” (Fig 5). Chaudhuri comments that the Sisters’ “energy and intelligence seemed to index—even, perhaps, awaken—the true spirit of that place, its “genius loci.” 

Fig. 4. Reimagining Paradise: Pacific Sisters (Cook Islands and Aotearoa/NZ). Photo: Rob Linkhorn
Fig. 5. Puna O Te Vai Marau 11th July  2015 1630 (-1000): Local Time with ta’unga Tangianau Tuaputa (Cook Islands). Photo: Solomon Mortimer

Such spirit of place is key to Aotearoa-based collective, Local Time (Danny Butt, Jon Bywater, Alex Monteith and Natalie Robertson) who, each day, collaborate with maintainers of local knowledge (Fig 6) by inviting them to discuss current challenges shaping the development of infrastructure, fishing practices and sovereignty. A lifetime of wisdom and experience flows from their bodies, as the scale of reception shifts between intimate conversation and an epic telling within particular landscapes. Another such leader is Master Navigator Teuatakiri (Tua) Pittman (Fig 7) who, gesturing on the Avana Harbour pier across from where the Cook Island’s double-hulled sailing canoe Vaka Marumaru Atua is berthed, describes aspects of traditional navigation utilized in his expeditions as a Pacific Voyager and emissary against climate change: likening his island of Rarotonga to a vaka in which a community survives under trying conditions.

Fig. 6. (Re)Constructing Paradise: Pacific Sisters (Aotearoa/NZ and Cook Islands). Photo: Rob Linkhorn
Fig 7. Pacific Voyager: Teuatakiri (TUA) Pittman (Cook Islands). Photo: Solomon Mortimer

Over the three days another lone figure walks counter-clockwise around the island, dressed in black tupenu (cloth), ta’ovala (woven wrap) and sandals. Tongan artist, Kalisolaite ‘Uhila, performs Tangai ’one’one (Fig.8) by carrying a ten kg sack of sand that leaks from a hole, leaving a trail behind him. Walking against Greenwich Mean Time, ‘Uhila follows nature’s time: his performance of seemingly futile labour recognises how hard islanders work to survive “in a time of dwindling local resources and environmental challenges.”

Fig 8. Tangai ‘One’ One: Kalisolaite ‘Uhila (Tonga and Aotearoa/NZ). Photo: Natalie Robertson

The final leg of peripatetic journeying concludes with a stroll from the derelict seaside Sheraton, where performances emerged from the ruination of an incomplete Hotel submitting to tropical rewilding, towards Betela Beach renowned for its sunsets. There the final communal meal prepared in an umu (earth oven) awaits, which is served in a dilapidated beach shack recently constructed for a movie filmed on the island. This is where the threads—unfurling through peripheral actions, distant sounds and drifting aromas—coalesce as lone performers, such as ‘Uhila, joined the assembly, which had swelled in numbers, having fluctuated in attendance over three days. While the food was cooking in hot rocks under the sand, chanting from solo singer and artist Olivia Webb drew the gathering to the shore as she intones In Paradisum (Into Paradise) (Fig 9) from a Latin Catholic Requiem Mass, moving into the sea and out of sight under the waves before reappearing and singing her way back to dry land. Reminiscent of the song-filled air on Sundays in the Cook Islands, when the many Christian churches reverberate with hymns, Webb’s action also drew our attention to the threat of rising sea levels as her voice was absorbed by wind and washed away by water. This ecclesiastical chant was eventually interrupted by the noise of breaking glass near a small stream away from the beach where Taumoepeau—dressed in white and seated under an awning—pounds white woven polypropylene sandbags full of discarded glass bottles with an ‘ike (mallet), traditionally used to beat mulberry bark into ceremonial cloth called tapa or ngatu. Waste glass is being transformed back into sand and, as each sack is emptied of its disintegrating contents, the artist places it around her neck, accumulating on her body to form a grotesquely frayed lei/’ei/sisi (garland).  Stitching (up) the Sea (Fig 10) is another iteration of what Taumoepeau calls “a durational performance ritual and meditation, exploring the fragility and vulnerability of people, the physical environment and intangible cultural heritage of the Moana” (2015).

Fig 9. In Paradisum: Olivia Webb (Aotearoa/NZ). Photo: Solomon Mortimer
Fig 10Stitching (Up) The Sea: Latai Taumoepeau (Tonga and Australia). Photo: Solomon Mortimer

The sun has set on Sunset beach as all participants—delegates, locals and visitors—partake in the earth-cooked feast while Daniel Belton’s Good Company Arts present OneOne (Fig 11), an interactive multimedia work that blends electronic composition with the haunting echoes and material energy of ancient river stones—hollowed out over millennia—that resonate mournfully under Belton’s breath. Integrated with live-mix video of digital images projected onto a suspended sail that flaps its own tempo with the evening breeze, the sound is further supplemented by the rhythmic wash of nearby waves, providing a truly intermedial experience for those sharing the feast as they sit in the sand. Reality and illusion eddy around each other in the final commensally shared moments for this Sea-Change community sheltered by a film-set and surrounded by nature’s elements: “This was the still-point of the conference: time dilated, refracted, cut through with other times—geological time, genealogical time, celestial time, the time-out-of-time of absolute attention” (Werry 94).

Fig 11. OneOne: Good Company Arts (Aotearoa/NZ): Daniel Belton with Janessa Dufty, Richard Nunns, Nigel Jenkins, Jac Grenfell and Simon Kaan. Image: Good Company
Moana Nui Dramaturgy

As event navigator, co-dramaturg and metaphorical key to opening the many opportunities on an island foreign to most participants, I held an understanding of the cultural nuances of this place — its tā and vā — safely navigating our vaka of delegates over three days, three Vaka and approximately 27 sites of encounter. It took hours of planning in which I ran the proposed performances through my mind: imagining, walking, timing out the journeys between them all — thinking and feeling — how they would all fit together with amazing flow.


The fluidity of space and time is as corporeal as it is locative. Writing on “The Body as Fluid Dramaturgy,” Stephen di Benedetto reinforces dramaturgy itself as a “constantly fluctuating form” made apparent when bodies, fluids and bodily fluids become the dramatic medium (11). Sea-Change’s ”fluid dramaturgy” drew upon the environment itself as mutable abject body that recalls Julia Kristeva’s mention of “fluid states” as dissolution (16)—where spaces and things are no longer, static, secure, or durable—transforming objects from stable entities to unstable actions through the natural environment’s contaminating presence. A dramaturgy of encounter between humans and non-humans therefore defies predictability and a direct, undeviating line of action which conventional theatre architecture is designed to support.

…it does not matter how maps are redrawn unless they are drawn differently. Unless they incorporate the movement forms that characterize the primary experiences of meeting and parting, they continue to territorialize desire even when they seek to establish common boundaries.

Carter 7

Rather than a static scene to be apprehended from a distance, the island provided performance space as an all-encompassing, immersive and everchanging set of spatial conditions.

The performances, which had limited time for rehearsals and in-depth engagement with the historical, sociocultural and geopolitical stories of place, were more overtly ‘site-responsive’, requiring the performers and a diverse audience (made up of delegates, invited community and passing tourists) to be receptive to the environment and its multiple performances as an ever-fluctuating more-than-human living organism. As Werry states in the abstract of her eyewitness account of the Fluid States gathering on Rarotonga, such responsiveness “requires us to think oceanically: attuned to the relational, networked and fluid realities of our condition, assuming (like a marine navigator) a position of “unknowing”, one not of epistemic mastery over the environment but of vulnerable, urgent attention” (90).


[1] ‘“Critical Spatial Practice” is a term established by UK architectural theorist Jane Rendell as a creative tactic for questioning, querying and queering the hegemonic status quo, affording “a special potential for transforming places into spaces of social critique” (1). The term was further developed by German architects, Markus Miessen and Nikolaus Hirsch, who describe it as an architectural means of “rethinking one’s modes of action and codes of conduct.”  

[2] Professor Una Chaudhuri (New York University) and Dr Margaret Werry (University of Minnesota) joined the Sea-Change event in the Cook islands as Fluid States correspondents. Chaudhuri’s “Conference as Confluence” was published on the FluidStates.org website, which is no longer online, while Werry’s article was published in PRJ.


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*Dorita Hannah operates across the spatial, visual and performing arts. She  is an independent design scholar and practitioner based in Aotearoa New Zealand whose architecture and scenography explore the relationship between theatre as a dramatic art form (action-in-space) and architectural built form (space-in-action). Through practice and publication, she has established and developed the terms Event-Space and Performance Design, theorising spatial performativity as “spacing.”

Copyright © 2023 Dorita Hannah
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