Easter Island, or Rapanui, is most often associated with ancient stone monuments and the mysteries of Polynesian settlement. In contrast, Dr Dan Bendrups' ethnographic research into Rapanui performance culture is more concerned with answering questions about Rapanui culture in the 21st century, and the strategies employed by islanders to forge and preserve a sense of cultural identity in the face of ever-expanding influences of international tourism and globalised popular culture.

After documenting Rapanui's 2008 Tapati Rapa Nui festival at the start of the year, Bendrups, from Otago's Department of Music, continued his fieldwork with Rapanui musicians and dancers at the 10th quadrennial Festival of Pacific Arts (FPA) in American Samoa in July.

For two weeks, Rapanui performers thrilled audiences in Pago Pago with their unique contemporary music and dance styles, which Bendrups attributes to the cultural influence of a long history of trade and exchange with Chile.

Polynesian dancers"Rapanui represents a unique link between Latin America and the Pacific, and contemporary Rapanui society is, therefore, of as much relevance to our region as the numerous ongoing studies into the island's prehistory."

The FPA is a generative force in contemporary Pacific culture and it has historically been a point of contact for isolated Rapanui islanders and performers from other Pacific Islands nations, including New Zealand. Indeed, as opposite corners of the "Polynesian Triangle", Rapanui and New Zealand provide contrasting points for cultural comparison.

Bendrups' research at the FPA focused on the nature of the Rapanui islanders' public reception on the one hand, and the Rapanui islanders' own experiences of the festival on the other. A dominant theme in this research revolved around the expectations of festival participation: while Rapanui performers attended the FPA expecting to learn from other islanders, they also found themselves to be the focus of other islanders' attempts to engage with littleknown Rapanui culture.

"If Latin America figured in the worldview of ancient Polynesian voyagers, then what possibilities does Latin America offer for contemporary Pacific culture?"

"The resulting engagements served to highlight important questions about contemporary Pacific identity and the conceptual boundaries of the Pacific as a culture area," Bendrups says.

He is particularly interested in the extent to which Latin America figures in the conceptualisation of the contemporary Pacific, and his research in this area is ongoing.

His investigations are inspired by contemporary theories of Polynesian voyaging that point towards evidence of prehistoric Polynesian contact with various cultures along Latin America's Pacific coast. "If Latin America figured in the worldview of ancient Polynesian voyagers, then what possibilities does Latin America offer for contemporary Pacific culture?"

Rapanui represents the most obvious recent point of Latin American and Polynesian exchange, manifested not only in colonial language (Spanish), but also in Rapanui performance dress and in certain dances, such as sau sau which is now emblematic of Rapanui.

Far from being a prehistoric relic, contemporary Rapanui offers unique opportunities for the cultural study of contact, neo-colonisation and postcolonialism in the Pacific region, he says.

Funding