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Lemi Ponifasio, Birds with Skymirrors, MAU, courtesy the company Lemi Ponifasio, Birds with Skymirrors, MAU, courtesy the company
AT A MAU PERFORMANCE YOU JUST HAVE TO LET YOURSELF BE, OPENING YOURSELF UP TO AN OSMOSIS OF STRANGE SOUNDS AND MOVEMENTS SEEPING INTO YOUR VERY BEING. ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF THE AUCKLAND-BASED COMPANY, SAMOAN LEMI PONIFASIO BELIEVES THAT OUR LIVES ARE DOMINATED BY DOING AND ACTING, BLINDING US TO “THE INVISIBLE DIMENSIONS OF OUR LIVES”—OUR CONNECTION WITH THE EARTH, OUR BEING AT ONE WITH IT.

I spoke with the witty and erudite Ponifasio by phone about his internationally acclaimed Birds with Skymirrors, part of Carriageworks’ 2013 program, first asking him if each of his works is initially triggered by an image. I was thinking of the press releases and interviews that reveal that it was the sight of a frigate bird trailing shining videotape (the skymirror of the title) from its beak that initiated the making of the work. “Well,” he quips, “it wasn’t a Saul of Damascus moment, but it gave me an idea.”

What kind of idea?

Fantastic things. All kinds of terrible things. It was very funny because I thought, at first, what a beautiful sight, and then became quite afraid, because I suddenly felt alone and wondering what was happening. [The birds use the tapes for their nests; but this kind of pollution kills massive numbers of birds and animals across the Pacific. Eds] Then you start to think about everything in life from ancestors to all kinds of civilisations. I was thinking about Botticelli, the Venus picture; I felt this image of innocence had turned into a whore. I thought about the Persian poem, The Conference of the Birds. Your mind wanders everywhere. It was a moment you feel the world is so big—that kind of connection. I’m not trying to tell anybody not to pollute the water. It’s simply about our connection, the genealogy that we share with birds. We are part of the [lives] of birds. That is [the kind of connection] I try to make with my work.

I’ve read that you’re very keen for the audience to enter a contemplative state; you don’t use narrative because you don’t want to impose stories on people.

The theatre has become too human and is about people’s storytelling and people expressing people. I think the theatre is more than that. It’s a cosmological experience. I’m sure the origin of theatre was our feeling this intense bond with existence so that we get up and sing or perform. So the theatre I try to make is about how to return you to or take you to a dimension that is not about human time but more about cosmological time—how to get you away from the phenomenal world, the world of everyday into the noumenal, which is a much bigger world.

In essence, to stop thinking just about oneself? You said in one interview that you thought that Western theatre was simply narcissistic.

No! (LAUGHS). But I do think the theatre is not for mirroring life; it’s to shatter the mirror that we’ve created for ourselves. The mirror of life is really what we construct in our heads. That’s our ego. And I think the invitation of the theatre is an invitation to be. And that’s a really hard thing for the human being, but it’s part of our title as ‘human beings.’

There are practices and concepts in your work that appear to come directly from your own culture. How do these figure in your thinking?

Well, it might sound strange, but I don’t think I come from a culture. I think my arrival on the Earth was on the island of Samoa. I just arrived there and I don’t think so much about culture and cultural identity.

But you certainly draw on it.

It’s what I know.

It’s a part of you?

It’s pure form, but I know it along with knowing what’s happening in New York or Algeria or Iraq. So it’s a consciousness. It’s not something particular to a culture, I don’t think.

So the work is not going to say to an audience, do something about climate change, but I assume it’s part of the work’s ‘subconscious.’ The people who work with you, your community, some of them would come from islands, I suppose, that are in danger of disappearing under the ocean in years to come.

Well, I think there is a bigger thinking, something more than just cleaning up the rubbish or hugging trees or buying organic. I think this is a very childish way of dealing with climate change. We need to think in terms of our relationship with the world. The closer we feel the connection, the more we appreciate that we are just part of the process of nature, we can somehow understand the intense link that we have with nature. For example, a dog is a dog but if you take a dog as your puppy, then you have a strong sense of relationship. I think that is what I’m trying to do—to bring you to the present, to just be present and by being present you can become more strongly aware of this.

Like the notion of ‘just being’ rather than doing and acting?

Well, it’s a consciousness. I could take you to an English garden that’s full of roses and you can look at it and admire it; or I could take you to a Zen garden where there is nothing but stones and a rock. You’re standing there and you feel differently. You attend to your existence—why am I here? So, it’s the power to bring forth an experience of presence and being conscious of one’s being.

Elsewhere you’ve described Birds with Skymirrors as being like “the last dance on Earth,” which sounds very apocalyptic, and ritualistic. A review in New Zealand described your work as “an ancient futuristic ritual.” This idea of ceremony seems to be important to you.

I say to the people I work with, “If this is the last dance or the last song, what are you going to sing about?” Are you going to sing about your iPad or your iPhone? No. We are going to sing about something very important to our lives. So this dimension of one’s life is why I talk about the last dance. I think the audience who come to the performance must not come merrily like they’re going on a dinner date. It’s like a pilgrimage, going to the theatre. There is something that you come to engage with; there’s something that you bring; there’s something that you want to be with.

There’s a difference between ceremony and ritual. I’m not interested in ritual. People always say ‘ritual,’ but a ceremony is when we come to engage, because there is a reason why we gather, an important step in one’s life, whether it’s a funeral or a birth. In ceremony we elevate ourselves into another sort of sense of ourselves. And I think the point of the theatre is to remind the soul of its higher self, a higher space.

My performers are not necessarily trying to express anything. They are there to serve the ceremony, to serve the space. Their bodies are ceremonial bodies—that’s how I prepare them. Of course, they have to do what they need to do well, but their presence, their activation of the space, it’s the whole point of going to the theatre, performing for it.

You don’t talk a lot about dance or art or artists, but I was astonished by the variety of gesture and movement in your work, the sense of a melding of physical movement and dance from across the region.

I work with people who don’t have Western training. They are all from communities. They know the language of ceremony, the movement of ceremony, the presence of ceremony. This is why I like working with them—because of the amazing knowledge you don’t need to teach anybody. You can’t learn that from art school.

In the performance there is tremendous individual sensuality and sinuousness, extreme body states and a great sense of synchronicity, of meticulous movement together. These people must spend a lot of time with you to achieve that sense of unanimity.

It’s a very strange thing to say, but we don’t practice that much. We do other kinds of work. We think it’s much more important than going to the dance.

What other kind of work is that?

Being part of the community. I make them go and do what they do normally. That gives you the sense of a different way of being. I want the dancers to be the stage, not dancing on the stage. It’s a different quality. I think it’s a proposal of the theatre. We need to move away from a theatre that is too much about the human and loses its power because it’s just humans talking to humans, like soap opera, instead of humans talking to the divine.

* * *

After seeing MAU’s The Tempest in the 2010 Sydney Festival I wrote, “Walter Benjamin’s angel of history wanders the stage screaming; a group of monks glide about in fast, small steps and with beautifully complex gesturing; a man very convincingly becomes a dog; a Maori elder addresses us, first revealing his tattoos, later dressed in a suit; and a lone man appears to bend and collapse beneath the weight of the world until a moment of release late in the work. For all its mysteries, Mau is an engrossing work suggestive of post-colonial tensions, environmental exploitation and a Pacific Rim cultural sharing” (RT95, p14). The Tempest was an experience as rewarding as it was demanding, and difficult to put into words—you just had to be there, and just be. As you will, at Birds with Skymirrors.


MAU, Birds with Skymirrors, Carriageworks, Sydney, May 1-4; www.carriageworks.com.au; co-production Théâtre de la Ville (Paris), Theater der Welt 2010 RUHR, spielzeit’europa Berliner Festspiele, Wiener Festwochen, KVS Brussels, Holland Festival, Mercat de les Flors Barcelona, DeSingel Antwerp, New Zealand International Arts Festival

RealTime issue #114 April-May 2013 pg. 39

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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