The respect for elders and ancestors, inherent in indigenous civilizations the world over, has been lost in the future-facing cultures of modern times. Taking their name from “descendent” as if to point to the sincere reverence for what came before, Australia’s most celebrated cultural performance group, “Descendance,” is currently on tour in the Hawaiian Islands. The Garden Island Arts Council will sponsor the finale of this tour, with Kaua‘i as their last stop.
The continent of Australia has one of the most ancient populations on Earth and has been inhabited by the Aborigine people for perhaps 65,000 years. In contrast, Polynesians settled the islands of the Pacific Ocean, relatively recently — New Zealand, for example, has barely 1,000 years of human habitation. Comparative ethnography has posited that cultural migration in the Pacific island region began in Australia. Therefore, the cultural history of the Polynesians, the Hawaiians and the Aboriginals are closely linked, and can be considered extended family, sharing many of the same mythological and cosmological perspectives.
Like the indigenous people of the Hawaiian Islands, Aboriginals lived as a sovereign civilization, developing a rich canon of myth and traditions that suffered near extinction as the trading ships of European conquest landed ashore. The perception of a spiritual reality was paramount in the customs and belief systems of both indigenous societies, and the respect and power placed upon ancestral heroes whose actions remain effective among their present day descendants was a central belief. Hawaiians and Aborigines also share the concept of mana — spiritual energy or power that exists in people, places or things that must be respected and revered as a force that can manifest effects in the world.
Under the artistic direction of Jose Calarco, Descendance has been invited to perform for world leaders and in international cities because of its renowned commitment to cultural preservation through the sharing of traditional Aboriginal music and dance.
“Aboriginal Australians have the same problems as Hawaiians, first the land was stolen, the culture and language assimilated into white Australia, and aboriginals still struggle today for freedom and a place in a foreign society. Descendance … helps keep the customs and dance practice alive by making careers in indigenous culture for Aboriginals, and promoting the plight of the people on an international level with performances in the media,” Calarco said.
The 30 performing artists hail from the Cape York Peninsula in Queensland, one of the most culturally rich areas of the country. The company has performed in over 22 countries, at major international festivals, including the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics. The current company is a later development formed from Australia’s first Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Dance troupe established in 1993. This earlier group was begun by Sean Choolburra, whose ethnic background includes several tribes, the great Aboriginal song woman Imelda Willis, and music pioneer and producer Jose Calarco. Willis’ original music and chants were the heart of the troupe’s performance work, and after her passing, has continued to inspire the current artistic and socially conscious leadership of the group under her daughter, Nicole Willis.
“Dance and culture is the language of life, everybody can get it; we are all flesh, blood and spirit in the end made of the same sources,” Calarco said.
The universality of dance and music is another element that can be easily understood by Hawaiian indigenous culture. With dance being a form of communication and storytelling in both cultures, there is great depth to the connection they share. “One dance we perform tells the story of the Sea Eagle and Fish, this tells how Mother Nature takes care of its own in the cycle of life, one consumes the other, but they need each other, the two spirits become one.”
Having performed three previous times in Hawai‘i, this is the most extensive tour yet, visiting five of the islands, and will be the first visit to Kaua‘i. On this tour, Descendance has brought six performers to share the beauty and power of their traditions. “Just come and see and feel, Descendance is the hit of the Honolulu festival every year, a spectacular live show busting with energy and spiritualism, we explain everything in English as we go along,” Calarco said.
Committed to preserving traditional song and dance has not limited the group from choreographing new pieces. Under Calarco’s vision, the group has begun a “new genre of contemporary indigenous performance” — this has never before been done by another Aboriginal performance group. Cross-cultural influences in music and movement from other indigenous civilizations such as Native American, Middle Eastern, Indian, flamenco, Asian and African, have “been invaluable learning experiences for Descendance which has broadened our vision and look on life,” Calarco writes.
When asked what the guiding philosophy behind Descendance is, Calarco quotes the German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, in “Letters on Love,” “Be patient to all that is unsolved in your heart,” the poem continues, “and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. Resolve always to be a beginner.”
It is inspiring that a people which own far longer history than most, and seek to share thousands of years of tradition, and have suffered greatly by the clash of cultures, embrace the idea that they are still beginning, and what is unresolved in the past, can lead to a future.
Share in the tradition of the Aboriginal descendants with ‘Descendance’
Sunday at Kaua‘i Community College
Performing Arts Center, 7 p.m.
General $25, Students/Seniors $20, At the door $35
Tickets available at island outlets, for more
information visit www.gardenislandarts.org