Lemi Ponifasio/MAU Company
New Zealand Festival
Opera House | March 4-6
I heard an interview on the radio with this man, starting halfway through. Who was he? He sounded amazingly sympathetic, and I felt such resonances with my own way of thinking, my own experiences. I learnt that he was Lemi Ponifasio and that two of his works were going to be put on at the New Zealand Festival. So I became interested in his work and went to the first, Stones in Her Mouth, wondering what it would be like. The little Opera House, after the great opera houses overseas, seemed like a fairytale theatre.
The stage was black with a horizontal beam of white fluorescent light at the bottom. This, and the electronic music, seemed quite harsh and I was beginning to think that maybe I shouldn’t trust interviews just because the person seems sympathetic. The chants in Maori were quite beautiful, but I felt a little at a loss with no narrative idea of what was going on. However, the dancers compelled my attention, or at least my suspension, of judgment. Their movements were beautiful in their simplicity and the way they came out of the darkness and returned to the darkness.
The middle section contrasted this calmness and simplicity of movement with gestures of violence and drama. A naked woman appeared with a red cross painted on her body, deeply expressive. Another woman chanted angrily and threw ochre-coloured sand out in front of her in striking gestures.
After this there was a return to the images and music of the opening. This time the fluorescent light and electronic music didn’t disturb me at all. I was moved by the sense of return, the sense of relief after a cathartic outburst. I realised that after all I had been right to trust this artist from his interview and that the work had artistically vindicated itself.
It was only afterwards that I had a chance to read the meaning of the words that had been sung, and knowing their meanings I was doubly moved. The words speaking of existence, nature, the cosmos (first section), anger, destruction, grief (second section), return, the womb, and acceptance (last section) had been wonderfully mirrored by the staging of dance, light, and music. The all-female cast of dancers had composed these texts themselves. They were all heart-felt cries.
I find that in becoming acquainted with the work of a new artist, if I am fascinated by this work, if I am seduced by this work, if I fall in love with this work, I also fall in love with the language, become fascinated and seduced by the language. This happened recently when watching films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder for the first time: I had long loved the sung German word from Bach, Mozart, Schubert, and Wagner, but watching these films I fell in love with the spoken German he used, with Fassbinder’s German. As a New Zealander I, of course, have had long contact with the Maori language, but I think it is with this work of Lemi Ponifasio, that I can for the first time fall in love with this language. That is one of the special privileges of an artist: he can make the audience aware of new layers in language, in images, in ideas, in movement.
In The Crimson House I already had an access to Ponifasio’s language, so I was more ready to accept the new work (it was the World Premiere) right from the beginning. The beginning indeed was mesmerising, the swift interplay of light beams and music grabbed one by the throat as it were, and left one shaken after its ending, as sudden as it began. In retrospect this shattering storm of light feels to me like the birth pains of creation. The beginning of time. (In the programme there is mention of Rangi and Papa.)
This new work was very different from Stones in Her Mouth, but complimented it. Here there were no chants. Instead there were large tryptical images, filling the background, of two women: the first playing with her hair very sensuously, the second a naked woman, this time in complete contrast with no hair, her nakedness not sensuous but simply beautiful.
Aesthetically The Crimson House was very refined. I felt a Japanese influence in the gestures of the naked woman, very mannered, the arm and hand forming a stiff plane, the jerky movements could also be interpreted as akin to digitalisation, the repetitive jerks of electronic music.
This work had even less narrative element than Stones in Her Mouth did. Apparently many people walked out part way through. I thought that for a substantial number of people to walk out during the premiere of a work of modern dance, theatre, or music was a wonderful thing. I hadn’t witnessed such a thing before, but only heard of the legendary debacles that accompanied the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, as well as many masterpieces before that. That someone could provoke such a reaction now was impressive. That Ponifasio has total conviction is evident, not only from his words, but from the quality he gets from his wonderful dancers and the sense of harmonious oneness from the Mau company as a whole.
After the piece had finished I felt drained. I felt no wish to applause. I just wanted to sit there in silence, as after a moving religious service, as after a Mass by Bach. When the audience stopped clapping, then my inner applause began, and I would have gone on clapping for a long time.
Hearing Ponifasio speak, he explained that one of the aims of his work was to create a place that has the feeling of being inside your mother’s womb. In The Crimson House I felt this womb-like feeling. Nothing was explicit, direct, articulate. All was mysterious, multiple, inner. I did not seek to understand, I just let the work pass through me, a vessel to receive all that it offered to give me.
re-entering mother’s womb
cradled by her amniotic sac
flesh of the universe
in light and silence
i sleep once again
in the house without foundation
(From text accompanying The Crimson House)