Lyne Pringle - Theatreview
Birds with Sky Mirrors is lament, dreamscape, threnody, requiem, moonscape, a conference of birds, a ceremony of circumstance, the last dance on earth, the final gasp, a challenge, a karanga, an ancient futuristic ritual, a plea for humanity. It is slow butohesque deliberate and transporting; epic in scale, scope and ambition. Measured, meticulous, provocative, and powerful, Lemi Ponifasio takes between his teeth the dilemma of climate change and shakes it with dignified strength; lion like.
In the beginning, rumble, noise, electronica, blackness, gloom, a slanting monolith is revealed and three Perspex screens. Eyes strain to find images before the light cascades and caresses flesh in a love letter from light genius Helen Todd. The sight is tantalised. A headless writhing priest transforms into a floating seaweed human falling backwards towards destiny, while the light traces his traditional tattoos. Dripping electronic sound including Douglas Lilburn's Soundscape with Lake and River, it mixes with taonga puoro played by Richard Nunns to accompany the dancer as he becomes almost Balinese with beautiful articulate hand gestures.
A woman begins, audacious, almost naked in high heels with cold stare and belts out a raucous, breasts erect, karanga; irreverent, sexualised, surprising, confusing. Shattering kaupapa, this work creates its own genre and melds the cultures of the Pacific into a primordial ocean of its liking; one that suits the purposes of the choreographer first and foremost.
Mysterious male figures return again and again to map and glide the space and conjure forth invocations. They arrive against screens full of big bang static, performing precise arm patterns whilst their feet move quickly underneath in tiny heel led steps.
Punctuations with the hands and flickering fingers are magnified by head movements reminiscent of the traditional dances of Kiribati: flock, convocation, concordance, in assured mesmeric choreographic patterns. A projected pelican flaps caught in leaked oil. A relentless soundtrack builds to a cacophony of desperate voices before morphing into the soundscape of man's first venture to the moon. The watcher is compelled by sound, image, light and the physicality of the performers.
The powerful set evokes Hotere and Cuthbert; darkness duets with strips of fluorescent light.
Layer after layer is placed and peeled, choreographic poems advance from the murk at the back of the stage then recede; the stage space is breathing, the theatre becomes the ribs of a pulsating agitating body. Beautiful use of foreground and background as bodies are transfigured and made strange.
The women in the piece are startled; caught in an extended pukana, rising, falling and gliding under incredible lighting. 3 Graces in elegant black dresses, floating in a nightmare, casting spells with their furious pois: genuinely frightening, truly weird and disquieting – we squirm almost palpably pushed away from the stage. This is the heart of the work.
A massive change of dynamic jolts us back to a surging male chorus caught in distress. Heads thrashing rolled back in uncertainty as the pelican flaps closer to final breath, there is a sense of chaos and a lack of order out of which a bird figure Hammondesque moves across the back of the space.
We return again and again to repeated movement patterns by a chorus of stunning male dancers, meticulous in their unison. In a line at the front of the stage they perform a seated prayer dance with exquisite gestures and pauses. The piece could end here but it goes on. This pace and repetition is not to everyone's taste as the audience becomes restless in the last 15 minutes.
A section with large pois sprinkling the stage with powder, the Dust of the Ancestors, takes a very long time until we are left with the male chorus singing in gorgeous harmony then suddenly disappearing.
The performers in Mau Company are magnificent, utterly focussed, committed, almost bionic humans, gliding through a last ditch shamanic effort to alert the watcher to the message as a the pelican still tries desperately to escape and survive. It dies.
Where is the challenge in this work directed? What does the choreographer recommend we do? Where is the new narrative that will carry us out of this ‘hopeless' situation?
The programme notes for the last scene offer ascendance and a small glimmer of hope in the words of a final prayer.
This immaculate, sophisticated dance/theatre/ritual has been honed in the concert halls of Europe, to then alight in Aotearoa brought on the wings of a bird fuelled by fossil fuels. Taking civic responsibility, did Mau offset their travel with carbon credits?