Lemi Ponifasio, MAU
Followed by post-show Q & A with the artist.
ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre
Seen: Friday 6th March
“I decided to remove my dead eyes
And embed them deeply in a forgotten skull
So I can watch the ruins of my memory
Tonight we invite the known and and unknown dead
To return to pray on the altar of destruction
We embrace the visible and invisible within our bones, blood and flesh
An the voice inside us revealed in our silence
- I AM programme notes (an extract), Lemi Ponifasio
Lemi Ponifasio is a choreographer, director, designer, artist, visionary, sound designer – and increasingly referred to as a genius. Although founded in the articulate use of recognised theatre traditions, his work is like nothing else. Being an audience member at the Auckland opening night of I AM was a challenge, a reward and an experience.
I AM premiered in France at the Festival d’Avignon, and was followed with seasons at the Edinburgh International Festival, Ruhrtriennale and Santiago a Mil, Chile. This staging of the show features fourteen MAU company performers supported by eight volunteers from the New Zealand Dance community. The programme description (definitely worth a close read before the show starts), mentions the hundredth anniversary of WW1, the twenty million deaths, the diverse communities – European, Canadian, Asian, South American and Pasifika – that were and continue to be affected by that conflict, and the, “Universal language God uses to talk with the dead.” We have have indications of theme, no more than an intimation of what the performance might become. Everything else is up to the audience to interpret, react to and understand.
In Ponifasio’s own words, “We are here to challenge your certainties, not to reconfirm them.”
Ponifasio’s work has been called many things; contemporary dance, performance art, drama, and visual theatre. In the audience, these labels become largely irrelevant. More than anything, I AM is a visual and audio experience. Experience is a popular word, and often liberally applied in connection to a variety of relatively mundane events in our lives. But I think it’s appropriate here. Things happen to you when you are in the audience of Ponifasio’s work. You cannot escape the show. It is stimulating and challenging, and at times threatening and distressing. You are changed while you sit in the audience. Your body is affected. Your mind is actively involved, running a stream-of-consciousness monologue of questions and ideas inside your head. How many artists do this to us today? We are used to a huge amount of sophisticated technological stimulation. In the theatre we want flying witches, pyrotechnics, laser light displays, acrobatic dancers, virtuosic singers belting out popular hits. How often, though, do we really ignore our Twitter, stop thinking about how much the carpark will cost, forget our companion beside us?
Ponifasio, in the programme and in the performance, references Heiner Müller and Antonin Artaud. These twentieth century theatrical giants shared a jarring, monochromatic aesthetic that is evident in the staging of much of Ponifasio’s work. Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty aimed to have the audience experience and undergo the themes of the work presented. Don’t watch actors acting out illness – feel ill yourself. For me, this connection with Artaud was very strong throughout the work.
Ponifasio composed the sound for I AM, blending and blurring bass sounds, helicopters, water, explosions, record crackling, rumbling – much of ambiguous and gradually clarified and revelaled. The quality of sound in the ASB Theatre is excellent, and enables the artists to have a lot of control over exactly how the sound is experienced by the audience. Much of the soundscape was gradually faded up, until it was uncomfortably loud. Because it was bass-centered, the sound wasn’t damaging, but it was certainly uncomfortable. At times, the seats and theatre vibrated with the bass, and you could feel it resonating throughout your body. Disturbingly, this was often accompanied by a build up in suspense and dramatic tension. Ponifasio also used silence, live voice, recorded voice, a multitude of languages, song and body percussion to create mood, surprise and diversity in the performance. By contrast, the loud sounds were sometimes frightening and overwhelming. Some audience members covered their ears. The soundscape itself was a challenging experience. I AM runs for approximately one hour and fifty minutes, with no interval. This length of time enhances the performance greatly, as it allows the audience no break of focus, no option to lighten what’s occuring onstage.
Throughout I AM, the audience struggled to find meaning in the work, to explain the themes, to understand the symbolism of languages, movements, sounds and effects. This was even more evident in the post-show Q & A with Ponifasio. Audience members were anxious to show that they had identified the ‘correct’ themes, the right political response, an accurate interpretation of what the artist had presented. The challenging and brilliant thing about Ponifasio is that all of this is undefined, is open to individual interpretation, is ultimately not his concern or his business to answer. He is not resolving problems, answering questions, presenting themes – “I don’t know why I do it. I have no intention of meaning”. His approach to art is to make the work and stage his vision. I sensed in the audience’s an almost-desperate need to gain his approval.
Time and again, Ponifasio would smile and reply, “Whatever you bring to the theatre is whatever you see in this piece.”
The questions were academic and frequently longer than the answers. More than once, Ponifasio requested the speaker use “normal” language. This reminded me that in the theatre and in contemporary dance, we are well conditioned to search for meaning, for the artists’ message, to solve the riddle before us. Many directors and choreographers work from a very academic, research and meaning-based creative viewpoint.
After the show, I spoke with a friend from the dance community. Our conversation helped me to clarify my reaction to I AM and my advice to future audience members. If we can relax our search for meaning in experiening his work, we may me more inclined to connect with it. If she and I, as dancers, see an abstract painting in an art gallery, we observe it, notice colour, texture, perhaps mood. We don’t try to explain to anyone what the painting is ‘of’ or what it might be about. Partly the pressure is off because it’s outside our genre. But partly it’s off because we accept that abstract visual art can just be. It is itself, without having to been analysed or explained.
As a result of that conversation, I will describe some powerful moments from I AM that have stayed with me.
- Two of Colin McCahon’s iconic paintings, Victory over death 2 and I applied my mind, dominate the stage as projections. The stage is bisected by a giant, gently sloping wall. The space above the wall is also utilised, at one time dominated by a tiny cage suspended high above the stage at the top of the cyclorama. Inside a bald, nude, white-painted woman undulates, her back to the audience. The colour palette is monochromatic, large and architectural.
- In the opening moments, house lights still up, audience still in busy conversation, a man appears atop the wall, framed by a spotlight. Silence falls quickly, a loud crackle startles the audience. An old recording of the New Zealand National Anthem plays uncomfortably loud. The sound is disturbing. The bass rumbles through the seats.
- A line of dancers, dressed in long, black lava lavas and black Chinese-collared shirts respond to shouted commands in foreign languages. Ritualistically, they clap frantically, move slowly forward and backwards; participants in a ritual revealed but not explained.
- A bearded man removes overalls, puts on latex gloves. He begins a fast and frenzied solo that is revisited throughout the show. The sound accompaniment is created by the percussion of the gloves on his bare skin, as he, frantic, slaps his body.
- Long sections of live oratory in Te Reo Maori are juxtaposed with ceremonial performers moving in the shadows in slow motion. A rifle weilded by a woman replaces a taiaha.
- An monolgue from the Ophelia of Hamlet-Machine by Heiner Müller is accompanied by the words from McCahon’s painting appearing gradually all over the stage, as though being written in front of us. They begin at the top of the proscenium arch, and eventually fill the space – cyclorama, sloping wall, stage floor.
- The seated, white painted woman, this time dressed in a floor-length white gown is choked by the bearded man. He places a brilliant red flower between her teeth, and places a rifle in her hands. White roses are thrown at her feet by each performer in turn. Before they place their rose, they spit onto her a mouthful of blood.
- A naked man crosses the stage atop the wall. He walks halfway down the wall, the theatre is silent. As he falls backwards into the wall, the thump of his landing resounds through the space, draing gasps from the audience. He falls like a crucified Jesus, the lighting reveals his nudity.
“My job is to activate a space like a ceremony, so you are thinking, questioning your existence.” If you have the chance to see MAU, go. It might not be entirely comfortable, but it won’t like anything else. I guarantee you won’t forget it.
Imagery by Gate Photography