By Jennifer Weeks for The Daily Climate

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – The applause was raucous, growing louder and faster as the beat accelerated. 

A dozen dancers, arms stretched, torsos bare, pounded the stage in an increasing frenzy. They turned, swooped, slapped their thighs, swooped and turned again — birds hovering in the air, looking for something below — and shouting, "koburake!” or “rise up!" The audience exploded after each verse, thinking the performance over. 

But the dance started up again, faster still.

The dancers had traveled more than 7,000 miles to perform for the crowd at Harvard University's Sanders Theater. They were singing of  the frigate bird — an agile flier with a seven-foot wingspan that forages across the open ocean, returning to land only to roost or breed.

The performers on stage were part of a troupe of three dozen islanders from Kiribati and two other Pacific atolls, Tokelau and Tuvalu touring the East and West coasts this fall. 

Cloaked within the music was a message: Life on these islands centers on fishing and family ties. But climate change, driven by industrialized activities thousands of miles away, is intruding. Coastlines are eroding and sea level rise is pushing salt water into wells. Families that have lived in the same places for hundreds of years wonder how future generations will subsist.

No polished message

The performers — fishermen, farmers, homemakers and students — tapped their culture and art to tell of their home and plight. The tour's title was also its message: Water is Rising. The goal was to share island culture with Americans and offer a deeply personal plea for action.

"Climate change is a survival issue for these people," said tour organizer Judy Mitoma, director of the University of California, Los Angeles' Center for Intercultural Performance and emeritus professor of dance. Mitoma has curated many cross-cultural performing-arts events in Asia and the Pacific. This project attracted her because it combined scientific and artistic themes, yet relied upon performers unversed in the science or politics of climate change. 

"I didn't want ... a polished message," she said. "The point was that if you live on these islands, you are the spokespersons." 

Kiribati, Tokelau and Tuvalu, with a combined population of about 113,000, have pushed themselves to the forefront of the global climate debate. Two years ago, at the United Nations climate talks in Copenhagen, Tuvalu's delegates brought the proceedings to a halt by arguing the Kyoto Protocol was fundamentally too weak to be used as a basis for negotiations.

Tokelau and Tuvalu both are gripped by drought; saltwater infusion has rendered many wells undrinkable, prompting New Zealand and the United States to airlift water to residents. In September, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon used a visit to Kiribati to spotlight risks climate change poses to island states, saying the nation was at "the front of the frontlines." 

"Some indigenous cultures could literally disappear because of climate change," said Suzanne Benally, executive director of Cultural Survival, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit. "Their lives are very entwined with their ecosystems, and they are feeling direct, immediate consequences." 

Performing is a social bond on  the atolls, where spiritual traditions have been passed down through song and dance for centuries. Water is Rising artists were selected jointly by Mitoma and local officials and cultural leaders.

Pride of place

The final performance in the 40-day, 15-city tour took place in last month here at Harvard, in a majestic red brick building that has hosted eminences from Theodore Roosevelt to Martin Luther King, Jr. Dancers twirled down the aisles, grass skirts swishing and shell headbands rattling as they clapped and sang multi-part harmonies. Each group wrote new songs for the tour that described their connections to island life.

"Our island is very small, but our culture is very strong," said Francis Tebau of Te Waa Mai Kiribati, a troupe founded in 2009 to provide activities for young people on the atoll. "We use dance to praise God. And parents teach their children to dance, so if you see a beautiful dancer, it means their parents loved them and cared for them well. "

Songs were performed a capella, or accompanied with hands beating wooden boxes. Curved sticks on a square metal drum sent dancers spinning and whooping. Songs of lament — "When that time shall come/Where shall we run to?" — phased into songs about pride of place, with warrior dances and chants about fishing and dividing the catch.

Tour sponsors included the National Endowment for the Arts, the New England Foundation for the Arts, several UCLA departments and Air Pacific, Fiji's international airline. "The money fell into place very readily," said Mitoma. "It was quite a coup to get so much support in such a short time for dancers from islands no one had ever been to."

Ticket sales were harder. Water is Rising filled the UCLA's 1,800-seat Royce Hall on its opening night; other shows drew smaller, although still enthusiastic, houses, usually at campus performing arts centers. "I scheduled appearances with whoever would book the show and could pay what I needed to cover costs," said Mitoma. Many of the same venues routinely booked major dance groups like the Bill T. Jones and Merce Cunningham companies, so Mitoma was gratified that producers were willing to schedule largely unknown performers. "I don't know whether they all made their money back, but they were all happy with the show," she said. 

Going home

In Mitoma's view the show achieved another goal: Empowering the dancers. "Tuvalu and Tokelau in particular are very remote places — some of these people had never been in a car before," she said. "I wanted to give them information to think about their world in a more holistic way." 

Tuvalu has a population of 12,000. Tokelau, a colony of New Zealand, counts 1,200 residents. Kiribati has 100,000 citizens spread over 33 islands. 

The atolls face pressing problems — erosion, drought, intensifying tropical storms. The Water is Rising message stayed upbeat, centering on performers' faith and love for their islands. With the tour over, it's unclear what's next or whether the performers even want more time in the spotlight. "These are very quiet people, and it wasn't easy to get them to talk from the stage," Mitoma said.

But the islanders' message came through in their music — especially "Koburake," the dance of the frigate bird. At Sanders Theater, after the music stopped for good and the dancers stood shiny with sweat and breathing hard, the audience gave them a five-minute standing ovation.

In the song, however, the frigate bird never found its home. The island was gone, disappeared beneath the waves.

Jennifer Weeks is a freelance reporter based near Boston.

This story was originally written for the Daily Climate and was republished with permission here.DailyClimate.org, published daily, is a foundation-funded news service that covers climate change.