Culture & Conversation

The Storm of Progress

“I hate what I’m doing with this show,” says Lemi Ponifasio during the talkback that followed opening night, “because I know what I’m doing to the audience, and also to myself.”

Ponifasio’s Tempest: Without a Body is certainly not easy to watch. It begins with a booming sound that shocks us into a world of destruction and debris, and carries forward, wailing all the while. What we are seeing is a mourning ceremony. What has been lost is unclear, but it is so
deeply felt and the sadness so full, that we know it must be huge and irreparable. The Canadian premiere of Tempest brings to the stage a tenebrous and frightening meditation on the wreckage of history.

Lemi Ponifasio is a Samoan dancer, choreographer and founder of the company MAU, based in Auckland, New Zealand. The acclaimed Tempest was partly inspired by Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus and Walter Benjamin’s writings on the Angel of History from his Ninth Thesis on the Philosophy of History. Benjamin’s angel has his back to the future and is facing the past; he moves forward, but because of a history of decimation and violence, “where we perceive a chain of events, [the angel] sees one catastrophe.”

This is hard to take in, and there is no respite from this bleak place. We see the angel wandering through a space that feels anything but safe. As the angel cries out in horror, we are forced into a sombre world that has been completely shattered. But who, or what, has shattered this world, and for what purpose, we don’t know. Ponifasio doesn’t ask the “why,” but throws us into the aftermath of the “what.”

Tempest is a slow and solemn dirge; it is a lament for the loss of beauty, but not because beauty is the most important thing, but because there is such sorrow in it being lost among ruins. Figures in black robes shuffle across the stage, moving in unison, and are the only indication of order in a world that has been altogether destroyed.

At one point, a monologue in Maori is given without any translation. Even without understanding the words, we can deduce the essence of what is being said. “If I were to summarize or explain, you would just hear something you already know,” Ponifasio says. “Language should not be controlled, and I will not interpret.”

After the show, Ponifasio is asked about his process of creating a performance. “I do not think of it as performing arts,” he says. “This meeting is real and I am just activating the space.”

This meeting certainly is real, and we are subsumed by it, permeated by a feeling of loss and desolation. There is no glimmer of hope in Tempest – we are only shown a world fallen to pieces, and are left to contemplate the meaning of its shards. I have never seen anything like it,
and it doesn’t seem like a stretch to say it was the show to see at this year’s Festival TransAmériques.
Tempest: Without a Body closes tonight, June 11, at the Théâtre Jean-Duceppe. For more information, visit the festival’s website:

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