114th Annual Conference - Pasadena, California
Friday, November 11 - Sunday, November 13, 2016

Te Maeva Nui as a Model for Thinking About the City Dionysia 

Hallie Marshall, The University of British Columbia

This paper seeks to use the annual competitive choral dance of the Cook Island’s Te Maeva Nui festival as a generative model to ask new questions about choral performance at the City or Greater Dionysia festival of fifth-century Athens. It will explore questions of genre, gender, and regional variation.


The Athenian Greater or City Dionysia, held annually in late-April/early May, is known for being the site of performance for the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes in the fifth century BCE. However, the primary performance genre at the Dionysia, and the performance tradition the audience was most familiar with, was choral performance. Not only did all dramatic genres (tragedy, satyr plays, and Old Comedy) at the festival require a chorus, but there were also dithyrambic choral performances requiring a thousand dancers, with each of the ten tribes fielding a chorus of fifty boys, and another of fifty men. The primary expense of the festival was the training and costuming of the choruses. Yet, despite the centrality of choral performance to the Athenian festival, it receives little scholarly discussion in comparison with the volume on scholarship produced on other aspects of ancient Greek drama, and almost no discussion of the practicalities of performance.


This paper will argue that the competitive choral dance performances of the Cook Islands, held as part of the annual Constitution Celebrations, Te Maeva Nui, provide a generative model for thinking about ancient Greek choral performance at the Dionysia. The dances performed as part of Te Maeva Nui provide a model for understanding the potential social, political and cultural functions of competitive choral dance. The four different genres of dance performed (kapa rima, pe’e’, ute, and ‘ura pa’u) are useful in articulating factors that may be at work in the tragic tetralogies staged at the City Dionysia (three tragedies + a satyr play), and how four different choral dances can be used for advantage in a competitive context. The dance traditions of the Cook Islands also illustrate the ways in which choral dance is often gendered in its movement, with the dances performed by women being markedly different than those performed by men, even within a single genre. This raises important questions around the training of Athenian choruses, whose performers at the Dionysia were all male, but whose identity within the choral performance was at times female (for example, the chorus of bacchants in Euripides’ Bacchae). Likewise, the variations between the dance traditions of Oceania, with its regional differences, invites us to consider whether a male Theban chorus, as in Oedipus Rex, would demonstrate regional differences in their dancing from an Argive chorus, as in Agamemnon. Using these examples and others, I will explore the ways in which the modern choral dance traditions of the Cooks Islands can help help meaningfully reframe the questions asked about ancient Greek choral performance.