Polynesian performances : local adaptations of a « cultural-tourism formula » in New Zealand and Tonga

Aurélie Condevaux

One of anthropology’s most enduring contributions to our understanding of globalization has been to demonstrate that it is caracterized by a paradox : globalization can be defined as an extension of the signs and objects of modernity. However, in most places, these signs are appropriated – « indigenized » – through the logics of local social dynamics. In other words, globalization generates as much cultural homogenization as differentiation. Tourism, one of the many faces of globalization, does not escape this paradox. Tourism makes people aware of the necessity of preserving their culture if they are to have something to show visitors; it thus leads to the « reconstitution of indigenous cultures and traditional attractions » (Dahles and van Meijl, 2000 : 57). But, at the same time, these cultural elements are represented through standardized performances, that A. Bunten (2008) called « cultural-tourism formulas ».


One of the thesis’ main objectives was to understand how people – dancers and managers of cultural centres, as well as tourists – cope with these tensions. The research was based on the study of « tourist performances » in New Zealand and Tonga, two archipelagoes of what has been called « Polynesia » since the European navigators’ arrival. Despite major differences – social and political as well as historical – between these two countries, the same performance structure is used in the demonstration of local culture, both that of the Tongans and of the New Zealand Maori. These attractions are based on music and dance shows, often accompanied by a dinner cooked in the traditional earth oven and with a commentary by a « master of ceremonies » or a « narrator ». In addition, dance styles circulate from one archipelago to another : visitors can enjoy watching a Maori haka in Tongatapu (Tonga’s main island) or a Tahitian hip-shaking ‘ote‘a in Wellington (New Zealand). Even the same jokes are repeated, word for word, despite the geographical distance between these places (Tonga being located more than 2000 kilometres north-east of New Zealand). However, the actors and dancers of these performances do not feel they give a stereotype portrait of their culture.

These observations give rise to three main questions : how can local actors and dancers manage to demonstrate the distinctive features of their culture – as they wish to do – by using a sandardized « formula »? How can tourists, whose expectations may vary from one destination to another, be satisfied by attending similar performances? These two questions together raise another problem : how can tourists’ representations and motivations on the one hand, and those of the dancers’, on the other – the two being somewhat different – be satisfied by the same performance?

The ethnographic data used to answer these questions was collected during two main fieldwork sessions in 2008 and 2009 (13 months) on Tongatapu (Tonga’s main island) and in Wellington and Rotorua (on New Zealand’s North Island). The methods used included participant observation, in-depth interviews, questionnaires and film recording. The analysis shows that tourism cannot simply be considered as a culturally uniformizing process. This is particularly demonstrated by the study of dances : although dances are transformed to fit the tourist context, changes are made according to local esthetic criteria. The staging process generates innovations and new creations that afterwards spread to other performance contexts, such as festivals and competitions.

Moreover, tourist performances are adapted and appropriated by local dancers and actors for use in the definition of their identities. A comparison of the different places of performance was essential to understand this process. Although the « formula » used is the same, the meaning people attribute to the performance varies from on place to another : two performances closely resembling each other and using similar dance styles, do not have the same meaning for the people who give them. What tourist performances express all depends on the particular social contexts in which they are produced and on the political agendas at stake. The use of specific objects and settings, verbal communication and symbols all help to convey a specific and unique message.

However, this distinctive message, encoded by the people giving the performance, is not necessarily understood by visitors. The meaning grasped by the latter is not so much the one encoded in speeches as that delivered through performance and actions. Tourist performances are characterized by the fact that they call upon a wide spectrum of senses and resort to numerous communicative media, such as oral speech, body gesture and the use of symbols and objects, through which many messages are delivered to various audiences.
One of the things that motivates tourists to participate in tourist attractions is the quest for « otherness ». Otherness is not so much manifested in speeches as experienced and exhibited in dances, setting, costumes, and objects. In fact, otherness is not only shown through dances and body movements different from one’s own but also felt through the attempts – of tourists – to imitate these dances on stage. The whole body is mobilized during the experience, for both tourists and dancers.

However, the exhibition of otherness is endangered by forms of resistance to cultural stereotypes : in speeches, particularly humorous ones, masters of ceremonies assert that they belong to the same world as their visitors, although other elements of the show (setting, costumes, dances, songs, etc.) tend to say the opposite. Tourist performances are thus polysemic and ambivalent : the can say one thing (there is an immeasurable distance between « you » and « us ») and its opposite at the same time (we live in the same world as you do, we eat at fast food restaurants like you do, etc.). In the contradictory messages conveyed by the speeches, actions and objects used, eveybody can find the meaning they are looking for. Some tourists are satisfied to see and experience cultural « otherness » while dancers and actors try to give shape and meaning to the dynamics they experience in their everyday life. This malleability of « tourist performances » may be one of the reasons for their world wide success.


Abélès, Marc, 2006, « Préface », dans A. Appadurai, 2005, Après le colonialisme : les conséquences culturelles de la mondialisation, Paris : Payot, pp.7-23.

Desmond, Jane, 1999, Staging Tourism : Bodies on Display from Hawaiki to Sea World, London et Chicago : University of Chicago Press.

Müller, Bernard, 2006, La tradition mise en jeu. Une anthropologie du théâtre Yoruba, La Courneuve : Aux Lieux d’être.


Electronic reference :
Aurélie Condevaux, Polynesian performances : local adaptations of a « cultural-tourism formula » in New Zealand and Tonga, Via@, PhD abstracts, posted on March 16th, 2012.


Aurélie Condevaux
PhD directed dy Paul van der Grijp


Aurélie Condevaux