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SLOW CONTEMPLATION REVEALS AN OTHER WORLD

Print Version

New Zealand Festival 2014
The Crimson House
Lemi Ponifasio - director

at St James Theatre, Wellington
From 5 Mar 2014 to 6 Mar 2014
[90 mins]

Reviewed by Sam Trubridge, 7 Mar 2014


Mau Dance and choreographer Lemi Ponifasio are a unique success in New Zealand. Better understood overseas than in their own country, they have presented works in some of the most prestigious venues around the world for work of its kind: Theatre de la Ville Paris, Ruhrtriennale, Lincoln Center New York, Southbank Centre London, The Venice Biennale, Vienna Festival, and Berliner Festspiele. With two world premieres by Mau in this year's New Zealand Festival it is clear that the programming this year is trying to share work by this significant company that cannot be seen in New Zealand any other way.

Productions by Mau can be best described as a fusion of Pacific dance traditions with performance as a visual art, treating the stage as a painterly surface by layering light, movement, texture, image, and oration into the proscenium canvas. Audiences who come expecting narrative, drama, character, and entertainment certainly leavethe auditorium confused, but for those prepared to spend time with the potent, meditative images in The Crimson House will find it to be a powerful work that (like a painting) only reveals itself through slow contemplation and using ‘different eyes' from those we use to watch the television, youtube, or cinema.

Of note is Ponifasio's training in ‘Butoh' dance: a form that emerged from the uncertainty and traumas Japan experienced in its atomic destruction. Dancers move in slow deliberate routines as if time has slowed down, with shocked expressions frozen on their faces. Half ritual, and half performance, it is possible to see this lineage in the forms that haunt Ponifasio's stage. Moreover, his Pacific lineage recalls the impact of the atomic bomb in this other landscape, and more recent environmental problems that continue to cause destruction and diaspora in his own ‘liquid continent'. It is unsurprising then, that parts of Mau's early work have been banned by the French Government in Tahiti.

The Crimson House erupts from the darkness of the St James Theatre stage with a sustained blast of static, and the harsh uncompromising flickering of LED strips. These vertical slices of intense white light lacerate the darkness like bar codes or lightning bolts that have been pulled taught between heaven and earth. The programme comment on this connection between above and below in the Pacific myth of Rangi and Papa, and the explosive nature of this first action on stage speaks of other ‘first actions', creation stories, points of origin, divine energy, and The Big Bang. Forms emerge within this stark canvas of black and white, soft features that push out of the darkness between strobes – the sacred children of Rangi and Papa.

Soon the stage is filled with three figures – clad in black from wrist to ankle in collarless shirts and lavalavas/sulus of Pacific male dress, they drift across the stage on their flickering feet like phytoplankton caught in the light of a microscope. Characteristic of previous works, these figures create a kind of Pacific ballet that is precise and disciplined, with the emphasis less on leg work and more on the hands and arms. As they weave around the space, the dancers' flattened, two dimensional movements recall Egyptian or Polynesian hieroglyphs. The semaphore, as a maritime choreography parallel to Polynesian dance forms, is also recalled in the codified sweeps of the arm and swiveling wrists.

Drawing on various traditions and contemporary styles of performance it is a uniquely Pacific presentation. But it is a haunted Pacific space, where figures emerge from the Stygian darkness like the reliefs carved on meeting house walls. The stunning work of lighting designer Helen Todd paints the stage in layers of darkness and soft light with all the confidence of Ad Reinhardt, Francisco Goya, or our own Ralph Hotere. As Ponifasio's longtime collaborator, Todd's work needs more praise for her defining role in the rendering of Mau Dance Company's recognizable and stunning stage imagery. 

Data projections by Tim Gruchy add to the two-dimensional qualities in the space as well, lighting figures from the front in palls of grey-green light. It is from this murky digital surface that the silhouette of transgender performance artist Nina Arsenault emerges: a tall, willowy figure of exaggerated femininity that sways forward with serpentine grace. Her sinuous arm movements take the earlier semaphores into a world of seduction and sensuality. Meanwhile her face is projected onto the stage behind her - giant, with her hair and fingers winding around her, their projected light rippling over the performers, and over her own figure. She is an unusual addition, so Western in her blonde hair and her figure, bringing into the ‘sacred' space of Lemi's stage ritual all the anxieties of contemporary womanhood – a billowing, ghoulish image that is Beyonce, Gaga and Rihanna, but also a mythical siren or medusa. The black and white world of Todd's lighting reminds us also of the femme fatale, as she drifts in the murk, only just connecting with a male dancer for a emotionless robotic ballroom ‘dip'. 

Ponifasio is a consummate editor, composing these seductive images in such a way that the final meaning always eludes the viewer, but keeps them always in pursuit of it. Yet meaning simmers underneath all these scenes with a turbulence that threatens to break out at any moment. In the programme notes there is a description of ‘the crimson house' as a point of origin decorated with blood, and interests around the role of technology in defining culture and the body. Arsenault's figure seems to stand for a contemporary condition, oscillating between its natural form and a shape determined by technological intervention, between man and woman, and sometimes floating above the stage like a feminine version of Ranginui – the originating air god who embraced his female earthy counterpart Papatuanuku. Arsenault's fingers reach for the space below, yearning to become supine, female and earthbound. All around this the dancers drift in tides of oceanic movement, creating liquid spaces around her. Briefly computer coding and text ripples across the stage, but the on the whole the interests in technology are rather too submerged in the work, and the pace too painstakingly slow to really be anything more than a subtle expression. The programme notes discuss a contemporary reality built by the competing voices of the media, Facebook, intelligence services but there is little sense of this in the insular world on stage.

Having seen two iterations of Mau's Tempest works and Birds With Sky Mirrors in the last NZ Festival, I do begin to wonder if Ponifasio is at risk of repeating himself in works like this: reordering the same ideas, themes, images, and concepts within an ever-narrowing and ‘more-minimal-than-before' repetition of previous works. The Crimson House certainly has a lot in common with these previous works, as if Ponifasio is in the business of providing dark Pacific dance with a European sophistication for the intellectual titillation of sophisticated European audiences. It is no longer brave work, but it is certainly classy, sexy, and achingly contemporary. But despite claims to be ‘more like a ritual than a performance' the work is incredibly dominated by the proscenium arch and all of its traditions. No longer is there the vibrant interaction from the audience which seemed to have characterized earlier works by Mau that make it uniquely Pacific. So where to next for Ponifasio? He could certainly make works like this for the rest of his career, and continue to get praise for it. But to do so seems disingenuous, playing to the rarified highly-fashioned world of performance as a crisp, stark contemporary art that is underneath it all – often rather superficial. The urgency and hunger of earlier Mau work is lacking, and I wonder perhaps if Ponifasio has less to say.

As my mind drifts back to the performance at hand, the horizons on stage have skewed, as if at sea, with figures cut by large fields of light, bisected, truncated, and floating at various heights. Figures move as if underwater by moonlight, Arsenault disappears like a mirage, and appears naked and threefold as a projection on the back wall, like the three Greek ‘Fates' or figures carved on the ‘pou' of a traditional ‘whare runanga' (meeting house). In the final moments we finally get the energy that the show has slowly been waiting for. A dancer rolls vigorously on the floor in front of Arsenault's three images – a tumbling figure rolling in sticky crimson blood that rolls, freezes, and rolls again in an agony that could be birth, death, or the wounded. His body rolls in a rhythm defined by its own lumps and bumps. Like a piece of driftwood in the waves it returns to the same place before it rolls again in another direction. It is a beautiful image to end with, and proof once again that Lemi Ponifasio is possibly New Zealand's most consummate performance maker. The meditative emotional states of his work are transfixing, and I am only left wondering just how audiences can understand this better about his work. I am also keen to see how Ponifasio can re-examine his roots and his audiences here in New Zealand, where the absolute nature of the proscenium arch is not as accepted as it may be by audiences at the venues he has been presenting at recently, and how a new purpose may be found in works of such stunning theatrical presence. 


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