Samoan New Zealander Lemi Ponifasio and his company MAU have just returned to Montreal to perform at Festival Transamerique. The piece, Birds with Skymirrors, appeared in Santiago, Sydney and Ottawa before coming here. Lauded by the international press as “extraordinary” (The Guardian) and “surreal” (The National Business Review), the company is known for beautiful and disquieting work. An ex-pat New Zealander myself, I asked Ponifasio a few questions about politics, the environment, exoticism and the South Pacific.
How are you? Where are you? You just returned from Sydney, yes?
Rebecca, I am very well, thank you. I’m now in Montreal and yes we have just returned from a performing season in Sydney.
You have a lot of Maori and Samoan movement motifs in your work. Is it interesting to perform to audiences with no specific knowledge of that tradition? Do you mind being tres exotique?
I create my work through what I know and discover. The intention of my work is not about serving dance or the theatre or a language of movement or to show ones cultural difference but to guide the audience towards a place that is silent and untouched. Exotique? Well the world of my performances can also be rather strange to Maori and Samoan people. But if you can imagine Maori or Samoan motif in the work then well those cultures were also trying to access the same dimension that I’m trying to get to in the theatre; the cosmological dimension.
You work primarily with dancers who aren’t necessarily trained in classical dance, but who come to performance through other conduits. Do you feel there’s less pretense that way? What do you look for in a dancer?
I look for performers who come to serve the space. The dancer is a body prepared to be gifted as an offering, a ceremonial body. The dancer is a body prepared to be sacrificed in order for us to access the divine. The performer therefore is someone who is there a vessel rather than expressing dance or something. The performer is there to activate the space.
You know the oil spill off Mt Maunganui NZ made the papers here in Quebec? It’s pretty much the only mention I’ve ever seen in North American press about the environmental issues of the South Pacific. Your piece, Birds With Skymirrors, really speaks to that situation. Is the work a call to action or a ceremonial lament?
I started to create Birds With Skymirrors because I was trying to imagine what will happen to the homelands and the people I work with. Most of the cast of Birds With Skymirrors come from low lying islands of the Pacific Ocean. The people of these islands are already dealing with the everyday realities of climate change. In the next 20 years some of these islands may disappear completely. What will be their last dances? What will be the final prayer? Birds With Skymirrors is not a lecture on pollution or climate change but rather a quiet ceremony, an invitation for you to contemplate your own existence.
The last piece that Montreal audiences saw, Tempest, could also be construed as political – touching on America’s post-911 policies and denouncing a loss of personal liberty. Tell me about why you chose dance as your mouthpiece.
My primary concern in creation is not about making political statements but to bring forth a poetic space for you to contemplate your own existence. Perhaps to seek one’s truth of existence is a political act. I don’t consciously try to express anything in the theatre. Expression is the beginning of a lie.
Birds with Skymirrors opens tonight, 8 pm, 29 May as part of Festival TransAmerique.
You can also meet the artists after the performance on May 30.