John Daly-Peoples - NBR
Birds with Skymirrors
Lemi Ponifasio / MAU
St James Theatre
New Zealand International Arts Festival
The darkened stage is dominated by a huge slanting obelisk and there is a dull rumble punctuated by an electronic beep. The black obelisk brings to mind the black obelisk in 2001 A Space Odyssey and the search for the unknown. The first person we encounter on stage is a mixture of the primitive and the automaton who acts out with a signing system part karate style and part deaf communication.
This is the underworld of Lemi Ponifasio’s Birds with Skymirrors one of the great works of New Zealand theatre An eerie captivating space that we are drawn into as though in a dream, where the world is slowed down and we are forced to contemplate and meditate.
Most dances, most theatre describes the events, relationships and emotions of the world we live in. Lemi Ponifasio and MAU seem to describe a mythic place which we only vaguely recognize but empathise with.
The world his dancers inhabit is like the parallel worlds and replicas which the Argentinean writer Borges describes. These are worlds composed of symbols, ritual and tales, the place of memories and dreams, aspirations and delusions. He brings the real world and the underworld into contact, making things meaningful but through a cloud of half recognized truths.
Towards the end of the work one of the actors (although they could better be described as soothsayers or sharman) enters with a bird helmet looking like one of Bill Hammond’s surreal classic New Zealand birds. But he also looks like an Ancient Egyptian carving, something between a depiction of a bird/man and symbol of power, the spirit of the underworld and the natural world. Throughout the performance we also see a bird struggling in the grip of an oil slicked sea, the connections between environmental issues, man and cultural history welded together.
The actors emerge, though the darkness to perform singly or in groups moving slowly, often imperceptively, occasionally racing around the stage or performing ritualistic tasks. Mostly they stand before the audience either chanting or flexing muscles, and limbs, baring bodies bathed in darkness.
But much of the performance is not that overt in its polemic although the karanga or set of poems which the actors chant explore issues around climate change, the environment and our connection with these issues.
It is however not the ideas so much as the way in which movement, light sound are handled which makes the performance captivating and moving.
The soundscape is made of natural sounds, electronic, low hums and beeps as well as mesmerizing musical works with compositions by a number of composers including Douglas Lilburn and Richard Nunns. There is a section using the truncated dialogue from the first moon landing (which mentions seeing the Earth from space) and is contrasted with a dying bird trapped in an oil slick
Then there are the chants which are rooted in Pacific and Maori tradition but have also have overlays of Medieval and contemporary sounds. The traditions of slap dancing are also employed to great effect creating dramatic sounds and taut silences
Light also plays a powerful role with lighting director Helen Todd, illuminating only the bare minimum of the performers and the stage so that the emphasis is on the action even though it is often minimal. In the blackness of the set small movements become moments of magic as when three women twirl their pois, the light making them look like rotating neon works.
Much of the dance is ritualistic with repeated movements, creating mesmeric and hypnotic sequences. At the heart of the dance is a fine balance and order intersecting with disruption, the smallest movement countered by the grand gesture. The dancers astutely keep equilibrium, a metaphor for the nature of environmental stability.
The extraordinary beautiful surreal images and sounds transport the viewer into another dimension where there is simplicity and stillness.