Which suggests the quandary at the heart of choreographer Lemi Ponifasio’s work. Can sophisticated political critique be made outside the bounds of narrative? Can a poetic work without directionality enacted in a setting designed to be beyond specific time and place create an environment for redress, for action, for change?
Tempest: Without a Body by Lemi Ponifasio/MAU. Exclusive East Coast premiere at the Moore Theater, Hopkins Center, Dartmouth College, New Hampshire (Closed).
By Debra Cash
Last month, American forces were creating a no-fly zone over Libya and Tami Iti, the influential Maori performance artist and activist, withdrew from the American tour of Samoan director Lemi Ponifasio/MAU’s 2007 Tempest: Without A Body leaving theatre-goers scratching our collective heads. Iti is a provocative, almost yippie-like figure: multiply tried and arrested, he has expressed his anti-colonialist bone fides by shooting the New Zealand flag and selling buckets of dirt.
Text from “Te Mana Motuhake O Tuhoe” the speech he gave before the New Zealand government in 2005, was foundational to the original script of the play: it calls for aboriginal self-sovereignty. You don’t have to be a fan of the colonial project to wonder how, exactly, fielding an international coalition to protect a local population in Benghazi from massacre by its own government aligns the United States with those who would quash the rights of ordinary people, but never mind. The issues illustrated in the hallucinatory fabric of Tempest: Without A Body transcend current headlines. Actually, they try to transcend time altogether.
The Samoan word MAU was the name of a resistance movement against those who colonized New Zealand in the early 20th century. Tempest: Without A Body had only one East Coast stop on its recent tour: the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. The Hop is much to be praised for its risk-taking: Tempest is a hard show to watch. Drawing not on Shakespeare’s play – although there are touches of Prospero and Caliban to be found – this work instead takes its lead from the famous Paul Klee painting “Angelus Novus,” now hanging on the walls of the Israel Museum.
German-Jewish writer Walter Benjamin interpreted Klee’s flattened image as “the angel of history” whose “face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage hurling it before his feet.” Benjamin’s angel, the trope of post-modern theorists everywhere, is made concrete by Ponifasio, who first encountered Benjamin’s writing as an Aukland University philosophy student. In Tempest she is a shuffling, wizened figure, a woman with stubby, inadequate wings who trudges across an apocalyptic space and then, without warning, opens her mouth to scream. The scream is barely human: it sounds like the cry of an eagle.
Everything happens under incredible pressure. A hanging wall that at first looks like a sheet of gray, crumpled elephant skin is suddenly absorbent with running blood as if her body were suddenly human and then draining into the air. The face of Algerian Islamist Ahmed Zaoui – who apparently would have been familiar to New Zealand audiences as a famous asylum-seeker — appears like the head of Hollywood’s Wizard of Oz, as does the calm face of an elderly woman to turns out to be Tame Iti’s grandmother (the video attributed to Simon Riera and Joe Fish). Chorale singing is interrupted by sounds that seem to emerge from an airplane hangar. Charles Koroneho, replacing Iti for the Dartmouth performances, displaying the mixed cultural messages of Maori tattoos and bare feet under a western business suit, gestures with traditional declamations and chants in rapid fire rhythms that recall a country auctioneer. I’ve seen this type of exquisite ensemble semaphore from Pacific Islanders before – especially in the work of Neil Ieremia’s troupe, Black Grace – but here the motion is never ornamental. Instead, it seems to be a strict summoning ceremony.
Finally, when the performers are finally covered in clouds of chalk, we are back in the pan-global symbolic language of apocalypse – and in the all-too real referent of people running down Wall Street covered in the toxic powdered debris of the Twin Towers. It’s all brilliantly –spookily – lit by Helen Todd, with the down-a-well echoing soundscape created by a team that includes Russel Walder and Marc Chesterman working with Ponifasio and his original concept.
Which brings us to the quandary at the heart of Ponifasio’s work. Can sophisticated political critique be made outside the bounds of narrative? Can a poetic work without directionality enacted in a setting designed to be beyond specific time and place create an environment for redress, for action, for change? As history races forward and the angel looks back, Tempest: Without A Body leaves its audience at the mercy of our own helplessness.
Debra Cash c 2011
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