Speaking with Ingrid Tranum Velásquez and Pelenise Alofa (of the Island nation of Kiribati) about their performance and plight of a sinking nation

Published: August 25, 2017Words: Ingrid Tranum Velásquez, Pelenise Alofa & J.Scott StrattonPhotographs: Per Morten Arahamsen

Normally, I try to avoid taking a very heavy stance on political matters, but personally, I don’t believe that climate change at its core is a political matter. It’s simply an inevitable truth. Engaging in discourse on our effect on the world’s environment is tantamount to engaging in discourse on whether gravity is real or not, or whether the earth is round — it’s simply ridiculous, and surprising that it takes up so much real estate in the political discourse of the world’s stage. The world is warming. The seas are rising. We did it. End of debate.

Yet, I think the reason that climate change is such a heavily argued topic (beyond a capitalist agenda), is that in most of the places in the western world, the devastating effects of rising temperatures and sea levels are not felt by the average person. The threat is present, but not imminent.

But what if the land that you stand on, where you have your home, your life, and your livelihood, was potentially going to be gone in your lifetime? Sunk into the ocean, with no hope of retrieving it. And what happens when the refugees fleeing this sinking land, literally have no land to go back to?

As devastating as the crisis in Syria is, there is still soil there from which to rebuild once the crisis has been defused.

This is not the case for the small island nations like Kiribati, Tuvalu, Tokelau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and others. The potential threat of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing from lands that no longer exists was a heavy topic of discussion by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) during the Paris agreements.

It’s a topic that needs more daily recognition in the western world, more discourse, more awareness, and more general empathy for the people that are affected. It’s this drive to bring more awareness and contextualization of the problem that shaped the concept and the framework behind Ingrid Tranum Velásquez’s new performance “Tekeraoi Am Mananga”.

If you are unfamiliar with Ingrid’s work, as a choreographer, performer, dramaturge, and general “woman of many hats”, she is known for her use of non-professional bodies within her work. She often employs locals, or everyday people that are relevant to the concept, and combines them with professional dancers.

This is what she has done with “Tekeraoi Am Mananga”, by enlisting the collaborative help of Kiribati native, and global spokeswoman for global climate change reform, Pelenise Alofa.

I got a chance to exchange some questions with the both them, as I want to learn more–both about the performance and the larger issue regarding the threat of rising sea waters and mass cultural relocation.

My first question is for Pelenise. Can you tell me a little bit about what is happening in your nation of Kiribati, to give some background behind the premise of this work?

Pelenise: Our coming to Denmark is about working on solutions. The solution is within all of us. We can choose to ignore Kiribati or take action to save Kiribati. We are doing lots of things in our communities to build resilient people. We plant mangroves, build sea-walls, provide rainwater tanks, food security, water, sanitation and hygiene, climate change awareness, climate change assessments, work with media and journalists on advocacy locally and internationally and much more. We build partnerships with many international NGOs and institutions to help us share our stories. This Next Door Project is a good example.

The present government is supporting adaptation and tries to bring lots of development at the community level to all islands in Kiribati. One of the big actions that our government has done was to give up part of our oceans, almost a million square km, in the Phoenix Islands as a marine protected area. This is the fishing area that brought lots of income to our economy. To declare it closed for fishing was a sacrifice. The day the Phoenix MPA was closed…more than 400 fishing boats were forced to leave this fishing area. This is the Kiribati gift to the whole world….the protection of this ocean would help the world to conserve carbon and also provide fish as food for the world. Even though we look at this action as a sacrifice and a loss to Kiribati, we have found that it was not a loss, it has brought more income to Kiribati because there was an increase and growth in the fish stock. All developed countries need to sacrifice some activities or way of life and to step out of their comfort zone to save Kiribati and in by doing this…you are actually saving yourself and the world.

And as a Kiribati song goes “Koburake ngkoe ae tungan te Aonnaba”…rise up, spring up, Kiribati, you the tunga (sunga) or water stopper or blocker) of the world. This song is more than forty years old, even before the climate change problems came. The song calls for Kiribati to rise up/spring up out of the water for the world to see because without Kiribati, the tunga, the world will sink. So our action to save Kiribati is really about saving ourselves.

With the imminence of rising sea-waters threatening the future of many islands and coastal nations all around the world, so what brought your focus to Pelenise’s tiny nation of Kiribati in far reaches of the south pacific?

Ingrid: According to the prognosis, Kiribati could be the first country to disappear as an entire nation! This makes the country a matter of international attention. And takes the questions of climate change into a yet another level. Whole countries are threatened to disappear from the world map. This is a new situation for the humanity. How do we as global citizens deal with it?

Therefore Kiribati was for me a place of urgent attention and whose story needed to be told and shared. A story that we as global citizens are all part of.

Tekeraoi am Mananga! Good luck on your journey. Photo by Per Morten Arahamsen

You mentioned to me in an earlier meeting, that you like to craft your choreography around “professional” bodies and non-professional bodies. Can you tell me about this?

Ingrid: In general, that is often part of my choreographic practice, for example in ‘Happy End and Vi ses, Rafiq-e-man!’. This time though, I am not working with nonprofessionals in the choreography, but with a dancer and a musician from a completely different dance and music culture than mine. This meeting between cultures is very exciting. What happens to the movement language when we join forces?

Your subject matter often relies on the wisdom of these inexperienced bodies to ensure authenticity to piece? Does this often leave you in a position of playing both choreographer and dramaturge?

Ingrid: In this piece, I am not working with inexperienced bodies, but artists from another cultural tradition. However, the notion of authenticity is of the same importance and value to me.

When documentary meets the artistic interpretation, I believe a space is created where we are more open to experiencing the world from new perspectives. To for a moment look at the world from a reality different than ours.

Tell me about the decision to make this piece site-specific?

I want the audience to physically engage in the piece. To add their movement, exhaustion, steps to the work. I think when you have to understand issues that are very difficult to comprehend or cope with, movement can bring you closer to the matter. Therefore, I wanted to create a frame where the audience could make their movement part of the piece instead of sitting still and watch and try to embrace it all intellectually.

How will you use the locations to create a sense of immediacy for a Danish audience?

Ingrid: We researched a lot trying to find out which areas in the cities we perform will be flooded the first. Naturally, the harbor turned out to be a threatened area in all the cities. That is why we start by the harbor. However, it is quite complicated to determine– for example, exactly which place in the city will be first to go? There are so many factors involved in that calculation. But it was important for us within the areas we found, to pass through places where there live people. And we choose the route from this. It’s important that it is taking place in habited areas. Because what we need to understand is that this is about people. That even though climate change may not be of urgent concern in our every day lives here, it is right now somewhere else (and it will also come here…it is our own children and grandchildren that will have to deal with this…it is not that far away either). So make the audience sense the human stories in this matter.

Tekeraoi am Mananga! Good luck on your journey. Photo by Per Morten Arahamsen

For example, we flooded an apartment, which the audience will pass by and look into. 
So the choice of making it site-specific is to move the audience closer to the reality of this. If we flooded a room in a theatre it would not have the same impact as it does walking past it in the street.

Also, I have been very interested in the bigger cities as a setting–being that big capitalistic oriented/structured cities play a key role in the story of climate change. The contrasts and comments that are created constantly when moving through the city with this story.

So Pelenise, as an outspoken advocate for the plight of your nation, how has it been working in a new form of communication around this subject, such as this artistic practice that Ingrid has created?

Pelenise: This is definitely a new form of communication and my first time to participate in it. My team is learning this new way of communication. Of course, we came from Kiribati with our own language, songs, and dances to share with the people of Denmark in this new way of communication. I found that this is a better way of sharing our stories so people here could understand especially as they could not understand our dances and songs. Integrating our skills together with Ingrid and her team is very powerful and our team could also take back to Kiribati this new form of communication to use when we do our awareness programs.

The other most important thing I’ve learned through this integration of art and skills between the two countries is that we are working together to look for solutions to the climate change problem. This is the only way we can solve the climate change problem, when people from the developed countries, developing and least developed countries could always work together, then and only then, could we sit and talk sense about climate change.

What thoughts or information would you like people to take away from this performance?

Pelenise: The performances in our songs and dances in Denmark tells you that Kiribati and the whole Pacific are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. People living in many island countries are already suffering from extreme weather events. For Kiribati, we have flooding, king tides, inundation of our lands and the contamination of our well-waters and coastal land erosion.

Climate Change is a human rights issue…it takes away our right to self-determination, life, integrity, security, identity, lands and resources and undermines our economic and social development.

But what I would like everyone/audience to go away with is the Kiribati Emblem/Motto: Te Mauri, Te Raoi and Te Tabomoa. (Health (protection), Peace and Prosperity). These three words are never changed in their context and position. As I-Kiribati we carry Mauri with us everywhere. We greet people saying Mauri. Our life and our attitude is to begin at “Te Mauri”, which is our protection. These are our values, knowledge, and skills that we learn from our parents (home) and is most important. When we have Mauri with us, we bring Te Raoi–”peace to our community”. And when there is peace in the community, there is prosperity / Tabomoa to our country.

Further, prosperity is not measured by material things or money but happiness and good health of the people and the way we care for each other. By understanding Te Mauri, Te Raoi and Te Tabomoa then we would be able to make changes in the way we look and act in our world.

Ingrid: The work is a sort of choreographed audio walk. I want people to be really immersed in the images and story of the journey they are on. I believe this format enables them to. I want them to, through this immersive experience, to feel connected to the stories they meet. To erase the distance we in everyday life create towards the awareness of climate change because it feels too big—too overwhelming to think about. This distance keeps us from acting, and action is needed if we as humanity is going to write the end of this story. I want to people to walk away with awareness and a realization that this is real. And an urge to actively take part in how the story continues from here.

For people that won’t be able to attend this performance, but are still interested in the story of your nation and what they can do to help, what would you say to them about what they can do on a personal level?

Pelenise: At the personal level: first of all, you must remember that you have a right…this is your civic right that no one can take this away from you. And because you have a right, this goes with responsibility and duty as a global citizen. Here in Denmark, there are so many things that you could do on a personal level.

You could reduce the use of energy or lobby your government to use a new form of energy that does not pollute the atmosphere: e.g. Windpower, Wavepower and turning off lights that are not needed.

Continue to use bicycles instead of cars…it is so good to see people in Denmark using bicycles.

Creating a network by sharing to 10 people and persuading those ten people to share the same message with other 10 people and onwards.

Take action and be interested in political issues. Use your network to have your own leader that would support climate change or Green issues.

Take the time to browse the internet to look for Kiribati, read more about our vulnerability and get in touch with KiriCAN (Kiribati Climate Action Network) so we can work together to save Kiribati.