|MAU in Birds With Skymirrors. Photo: Sebastian Bolesch|
Visionary and provocative, fearless, endless, and beautiful: the work of Lemi Ponifasio requires a letting go of expectations, and having patience to inhabit timeless space; clocks have no place here. His creations transcend genres, mastering a palette that mixes dance, theater, and ceremony, and draws from visual art, politics, philosophy, race relations, history, tradition, and myth. His work has been compared to that of Robert Wilson and Pina Bausch—and in strictly formal terms, he would agree.
What distinguishes MAU, Ponifasio’s community of collaborators from his native Samoa, New Zealand, and the south Pacific, is their transformation of the theater into a ritual space of striking urgency. The name MAU, taken from the Samoan independence movement in New Zealand, means “a declaration to the truth of a matter, or revolution, as an effort to transform.”
“I don’t just make theater for those who love it,” Ponifasio explains. “Theater often deals with the human, phenomenal world. I’m not trying to tell a story. I’m not interested with the superficial, but the cosmological. I’m inviting people to take time to stop and commune in that place—to suspend time, and dissolve space. If you can imagine a garden without flowers, this is what you will experience in a performance by MAU,” he adds. “It is like a Zen garden, where you contemplate your own existence. You are the flower, and you are open to find your own truth.”
Time is stretched and snapped in MAU performances. The usual comforts of spectatorship are challenged, with barely perceptible movement, dark lighting, and mysterious imagery, laced with obscure, visceral verses characterized by sharp, manic activities. The effect is intentional: time blurs when people are faced with a lifethreatening crisis. Our perception slows, clarifies. When things return to normal, there is a rush. A similar heightened state of awareness can be experienced in a performance by MAU.
In Birds With Skymirrors, at the Howard Gilman Opera House Nov 19 to 22, Ponifasio approaches the crisis of climate change and ocean pollution. For him, and the people around him, time has already run out. The title of the work comes from seeing frigate birds flying with videotape in their bills that reflected the sun, on the home island of one of his collaborators. But Birds With Skymirrors is not a lecture to the West about environmental responsibility; it is a karanga, a reflection on or genealogical ceremony of humanity’s relationship with the other living things of the Earth. It is a call to contemplate, not a cri de coeur.
A manifest darkness physically penetrates the stage in Birds With Skymirrors, a black monolith slicing diagonally from the ground upward. Ash is ceremonially dusted onto the floor, and then danced on—an invocation, or maybe a reflection on the way in which we are walking in the steps of our ancestors. A bare torso undulates softly, like a gentle wave under a dim light, conveying a primal beauty in one moment, and the haunting image of a de-feathered creature in distress the next. Hands flutter, aping wings. Anthropomorphism is inverted, as humans take on characteristics of flightless birds. Film footage of a pelican trapped in an oil slick takes on deeper, closer meaning, in which we now see our own fragility. A naked man with the green head of a bird appears, a god perhaps, and a hopeful hue in an otherwise colorless world.
A disquieting score of water sounds, chants, NASA recordings, and other noises of nature and progress keep the pace, and hurry it along during sequences that suggest alarm at our obsessive relationship with technology. Dark yet distinctive lighting design by longtime collaborator Helen Todd contributes significantly to establishing the low-range perceptual continuum in space that the dance and choreography make with time.
For Ponifasio, Birds With Skymirrors answers the question, what would the last dance on earth look like? Tragically, in some places, it has already happened.
Brian McCormick leads the After School Critical Response program at Baryshnikov Arts Center.
Reprinted from Oct 2014 BAMbill.