JOYCE MCMILLAN on LEMI PONIFASIO for Scotsman Festival Supplement, 9.8.14.
IT’S AN ILL WIND, so they say, that blows no-one any good. Back at the turn of the millennium, when the New Zealand director Peter Jackson was filming his mighty Lord Of The Rings trilogy, the New Zealand government was so convinced that the project marked a turning-point for New Zealand’s film industry that it began to designate huge industrial-estate areas around the country’s major cities as film production facilities.
Today, a dozen years on, the New Zealand film boom has failed to materialise on quite the anticipated scale; but one of the beneficiaries of that chain of events is the great New Zealand performance-maker Lemi Ponifasio, who these days bases himself in a rambling series of warehouse-style buildings on the edge of Auckland, once designated as a film studio. His rehearsal room is a huge, dark hangar of a space, with a floored stage in the centre where performers stretch their bodies and voices between sessions; the office, a few minutes walk away across the vast site, is shabbily comfortable, with plenty of tea, and a battered sofa.
If Ponifasio’s day-to-day working life is intimately linked to the story of modern New Zealand, though, there’s no doubt that he stands at a fiercely sceptical and radical angle to any conventional idea of New Zealand as a prosperous western country in the southern seas. Like many of the leaders of the current generation of New Zealand artists, Lemi Ponifasio comes from a Samoan family, part of the wave of Pacific immigration that arrived in Wellington and Auckland in the 1960’s and 70’s; and for this and other reasons, in every area of experience – from politics to art to the business of giving an interview – he simply rejects the categories and assumptions of conventional western thought, and seeks to make things new. The name of his company, Mau, recalls a Samoan word for the self, or the finding and affirming of one’s own true voice and belief; and in the pursuit of that true voice, rising from the performers with whom he works, Ponifasio simply ignores traditional distinctions between ritual and performance, dance and theatre, professional performance and simple human presence.
“So, this is not really about exploring the war,” he says, when I ask him about his new show I AM, commissioned by the Edinburgh International Festival, the Avignon Festival and the Ruhrtriennale as part of this year’s First World War commemorations. “It’s rather about a key moment when we can decide where we are about to go. There are plenty of people trying to challenge the very thought of war, but it’s about doing that in the right way; and I think transformation comes from the best part of us imaginable, from our creativity.”
The title of I AM is taken from a powerful 1970 art-work by the late New Zealand artist Colin McCahon, a complex confrontation with death and the fear of death, in both images and text; and Ponifasio says he has also been inspired by fierce post-conflict 20th century works like Antonin Artaud’s To Have Done With The Judgment Of God, and Heiner Muller’s Hamletmachine.
“So this is perhaps a scream against the apparatus of power, against the system,” he adds. “There’s something here about the noise that is coming into our ears, the beliefs, the propaganda. Good government is about how we can hear our own voice, and our own heart speaking – and hear our own morality speaking, not God, or the government, or McDonald’s. The moment you hear your own voice, you start to create.
“That’s why wars happen. It’s a failure of democracy, a failure to hear people’s true voices. So I am doing this in order to fulfil the part of the people that is in me. I’m not here to serve “art”. The question is whether you are here to serve the people; and whether we can redesign the way we think.”
When I AM opened in Avignon last month, Ponifasio therefore included among his company a group of local performers drawn from an area of the city with a large immigrant population. “It’s a great moment,” Ponifasio told Agence France Presse, “to see them in the courtyard of the Papal Palace. For the first time, they’re at the negotiating table where their future is being debated. People from immigrant backgrounds have extraordinary imaginations – they come full of hope and ideas; and yet we park them in boxes, in prisons, or outside the walls of the city.”
Ponifasio’s resistance to the idea of professional performance is not universally popular with audiences; the performances of I AM in Avignon experienced their share of walk-outs, as some audience members simply refused to go along with Ponifasio’s idea of theatre as ritual. Ponifasio is clear, though, that this kind of response to his work is inevitable, and does not trouble him.
“I do think of performance as a ceremony,” says Ponifasio, “by which I mean that I want to formalise our relationship with the audience. Often audiences come to the theatre with a certain belief-system, and they want us to reconfirm it for them. But performance is not about that; it’s about being present, and not being in control. That way, you can receive many things from the gods during a ceremony – it releases the divine part of human beings.
“So if you are coming to one of my shows, I want you to hold your body differently afterwards, and to go home with gratefulness, and hug your children. After a performance, we should feel as if we have been through something. I try to create a journey, and some kind of meeting with God. It’s not about representation; I fight the idea of representing the world. I want to arrest the audience, so that they are present
“And in that sense, I don’t care whether people “like” my work or not. I’m not expressing myself in my work. What I’m doing is activating the space – and above all, I want people to feel their existence, to know their own presence in the world.”
I AM at the Edinburgh Playhouse, 16-17 August.