Mau spreads its wings at home

Lemi Ponifasio's Birds With Skymirrors uses dance, poetry, ceremony, chant and oratory to reflect on our connection with our environment. Photo / Supplied
Lemi Ponifasio's Birds With Skymirrors uses dance, poetry, ceremony, chant and oratory to reflect on our connection with our environment. Photo / Supplied

Some people think I am God, some people think I am the devil," says choreographer Lemi Ponifasio, whose Birds With Skymirrors will cast his usual controversial spell, this time over Wellington's St James Theatre for two nights of the New Zealand International Arts Festival.

Ponifasio and his dance theatre company Mau - which he prefers to speak of in terms of "community", just as he repels the label of "performance" for his work - are far more feted in Europe than in New Zealand. Mau is a regular highlight of all the great arts festivals, biennales, triennales and "festspieles" of Europe, but it will be his first time at the New Zealand festival.

"Well, well," he says, with the sly, characteristic smile than might mean amusement, cynicism - or pain.

The title Birds With Skymirrors was inspired by the apocalyptic sight of frigate birds flying over the ocean off Tarawa Island, in the Pacific, carrying glittering pieces of black plastic waste in their beaks, the ripped plastic looking like liquid mirrors.

The momentous issue of climate change, and the global discussions and negotiations about the future of the planet, were already on Ponifasio's mind, and a subject he wanted to work with. "The frigate birds provided the symbolic image," he says. "Birds have long been attached to our desire to be free."

The resulting work, a powerful reflection on our connection with our environment, expressed through dance, poetry, ceremony, chant and oratory, premiered in Europe in 2010.

Formerly based at the Corban Estate in West Auckland, where he also regularly held the extraordinary Mau Forums, Ponifasio declares himself a failure in that he no longer has a home in New Zealand, the Pacific heart-spring and source of inspiration for all he does. "I have had to go international to survive," he says.

Ponifasio is back in New Zealand briefly, between extensive European engagements, to find a new base, probably in South Auckland. The constant travelling between New Zealand and Europe is difficult for his immediate family and for his Mau family. And expensive.

"I am working on it, it will come," he says. "The nature of current work in New Zealand has been that of a production line that I don't fit. Europe has a bigger capacity to take on something provocative, something more than just arts and crafts and the entertainment industry."

Born and raised in Samoa until he was 15, he came to New Zealand to complete his formal education, living in a Catholic priory until he was 21. But it is the experience of living in the natural world far more than human-made cultures and religious ideologies that inform Ponifasio's unique voice. It is a voice that reflects the primal drama of the rhythms of the earth, the cycles of light and dark, life and death, rain and sun, the moon, the cosmos and mankind's vulnerability, struggles, rituals, strange ceremonies and surrender within.

"To negotiate this exchange in life, Samoan parents tell their children the most important motto: to teu le va - to tender the space, to reverence the space, to be the space, to beautify the space, to embellish the space," he says. "This is relational space, consciousness, a cosmological relationship with all existence. We call this 'va'."

Mau Forum 2010 took place at Schloss Charlottenberg, a historic palace in Berlin, and illustrates Ponifasio's va in action.

"Not long ago, not far from this place, the people of Berlin exhibited Samoan people, like animals, in their zoo," Ponifasio said on that occasion, "and not long ago, the people of Berlin came all the way down to Samoa and dominated and colonised the Samoan people.

"So it is very important that today we welcome and host the people of Berlin with respect, ceremony, theatre and art and share a meal, to allow for the clearing of space and the harmonising of spirit - so the work can begin."

Ponifasio aims, he says, for "transformation", which is equal parts prayer and political activism.

His work Tempest: Without a Body featured New Zealand's own "face of terror" Tama Iti and terrorist suspect (since exonerated) Ahmed Zaoui.

"I make work for those who love this kind of work," he says, "and for those who don't like it, it is something to talk about. Art is not enough. I don't want to make myself an artist. It has to be the path of love, the path of activism and its origins have to be in the community."

Mau's most recent work, Le Savali: Berlin, prompted French newspaper Le Figaro to propose Lemi Ponifasio as "the new miracle" on the choreographic landscape.

Ponifasio returns to Germany this year to produce his first opera, Carl Orff's Prometheus, for the Ruhr Triennial 2012.

NZ International Arts Festival

What: Birds With Skymirrors

Where and when: St James Theatre, February 29 and March 1

- NZ Herald

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