Lemi Ponifasio's new dance work I AM is about the greatest human failure: war. He talks to Stephen Jewell
"I don't make lollies!" Lemi Ponifasio is talking about the often-extreme reaction to his latest production, I AM, from which many audience members walked out when it was staged at last year's Edinburgh International Festival.
Intense and uncompromising, the harsh lighting, haunting soundtrack, funereal pace and visceral performances from the 18-strong Mau dance company was too much for some.
However, the Samoan choreographer has little sympathy for anyone who was expecting a comfortable night of light entertainment.
"That's the battle of the theatre, because people come to the theatre to reconfirm things they already know," he says.
"If you go to a Michael Jackson concert and they start to play Rolling Stones' songs, you're going to be very angry because you didn't expect that. That's what happens in the theatre."
With pronouncements like "the theatre has to be the most difficult thing you can do", it would be easy to mistake Ponifasio's indifference to the paying public's opinions as arrogance. But, as he sips a beer in a hotel bar and punctuates his answers with frequent laughter, it becomes apparent he doesn't take himself as seriously as he does his work.
"We're actually talking to intelligent people who are making key decisions about the world that affect all of us," he continues. "It's not about customers for me. It's about community. People are coming to engage and, of course, sometimes you have to surprise them and say, 'Hey, this is not another restaurant'."
Commissioned to mark last year's centenary of the outbreak of World War I, I AM is actually linked only tenuously to the Great War.
"In the beginning, various people were telling me I should do something about World War I because it's what people are going to be talking about. I said, 'Well, I don't like war and making things about disasters'. I thought about what it means for this moment as the war hasn't stopped, so what does it mean to be a human being right now? In a way, it's the same subject of every artwork; there's really no difference. I just bring that consciousness to this point."
With a cast drawn from all around the Pacific, I AM has been interpreted as about the impact the war had upon the region.
"That's how other people have projected on it because I come from the Pacific," says Ponifasio. "Of course, there is that story to tell. But, for me, it's like if you're in a rugby game and two guys are fighting and then a third guy runs in and joins the fight. He's the one who gets sin-binned. So, in a European war, for someone to travel all the way from the other side of the world to join this fight, you have to ask, 'Why'."
Gesturing at the news channel playing on a nearby television, Ponifasio indicates that I AM's subject matter is all around us.
"The greatest human failure is really killing each other. Killing your wife is the same thing as killing a thousand people. The issue is always about 'Have we abused that power?' and 'How far do we have to go to do an inhuman thing?'.
"It's a question of our humanity rather than a subject of war. I steer away from that in the performance. You don't see anything about war but it's in your head. I like to dwell on everything in the poetry rather than making statements. For me, it's about your own sense of existence rather than me telling you how to be; you already know how to do that."
According to Ponifasio, we need to redefine the parameters in which we talk about works such asI AM.
"We're trapped by language and it's like theatre is a language, and so is dance," he says.
"These are cliches, so I say, 'Let's go beyond that'. But I'm not making you pretend; right at that moment you exist. We can't just jump into a fantasy and then walk again into something else. What's happening here is exactly what's happening on the streets, and that makes you focus a bit more."
Ponifasio also believes we should put aside nationalistic allegiances. With Mau having brought Tempest: Without a Body and Birds With Skyscrapers to Edinburgh in previous years, I AM was New Zealand's sole contribution to last year's International Festival.
However, he was keen to distance himself from the numerous other New Zealand shows being staged at the same time in the city as part of the Fringe Festival, despite being included in the Creative New Zealand-sponsored New Zealand at Edinburgh programme.
"We approach theatre so much as an achievement," he says. "It's like we have to conquer something when I hear things like 'The Kiwis are here and we've got five-star reviews.' I say, 'That's a long way to come just to prove that.' That's a stupid thing. We've come here to do our work, to be part of the communication and to help lead the world. And why not?
"If you don't have that conviction, don't come here to sell the show. That's my attitude to the theatre that I make; I'm not an information service."
Having premiered at the Festival d'Avignon in France before journeying to Edinburgh, I AM has since travelled to Germany's Ruhrtriennale and Chile's Santiago a Mil before its staging at Aotea Centre next month.
"It's very hard to perform in New Zealand, so it's really good to be performing in Auckland after about five years," he says.
"I want to perform in New Zealand but there's no support. So we have to leave New Zealand to make this big conversation with the world. It's just a pity because back in New Zealand is where we really want to work."
Auckland Arts Festival
What: I AM
Where and when: Aotea Centre, March 6-7 at 7.30pm