The New Zealand-based dance theater company MAU make their Taiwan debut tonight with a choreographic meditation on our relationship with nature and our planet, the visually striking Birds with Skymirrors.
The Samoan-born Lemi Ponifasio founded the company in 1995, developing a choreographic style that mixes traditional Pacific Islander and Maori dance and song with contemporary theatrical and dance aesthetics.
Birds premiered in Essen, Germany in 2010 and has been winning rave reviews on the dance festival circuit ever since. Running about 80 minutes, with no intermission, the show is a multi-layered, multi-media production that creates a mystical world of stunning tableaus — thanks to the lighting designs of Helen Todd — and serves as a call for action against the trashing of our planet.
The Taipei Times caught up with Lemi Ponifasio, via e-mail, before his arrival in Taipei this week for the shows, to ask a few questions about the show and his philosophy.
Taipei Times: Where does the term MAU come from?
Lemi Ponifasio: Mau is a Polynesian word meaning — a belief ,a point of view, an opinion, testimony, a declaration. It was also the name of the independent movement in Samoa.
TT: What was the specific inspiration for Birds With Skymirrors?
LP: I wanted to create a work about the lives of the people I am working with and the land [of] most of my dancers, who come from islands that are coping with environmental devastations due to rising sea levels, which mirrors also cultural degradation because of the rapid change of traditional society values into market values. In the theater, I’m not trying to tell you not to poison the river — you already know that — it is simply my own song describing life. The title came to me while observing birds carrying glittering plastics in their beaks for nesting in the island of Tarawa.
TT: The dancers in this piece were drawn from non-dance and non-theater backgrounds. Was there a reason for this?
LP: I myself never went to dance or theater school. I wanted a whole new direction for me and the community around me. I wanted to find my own dance rather than follow the American/European style of theater and dance. So I began to invite and work with people who are not from these backgrounds. There is a different curiosity and an openess towards dance and creation with these people, as they are not tainted with dance and theater education that tells them what dance is and what theater is. The MAU dancers have to relate with their own existence more as a guide to dance. I wanted a community process for dance rather than a studio process.
I also wanted to look at the value of Pacific cultures and how it can support my struggles as a contemporary artist. The way to dance or a dance style brings different processes and world views that can be part of contemporary culture exchanges. Much of what is considered contemporary dance or theater is Western forms anyway, but as you know 90 percent of the world doesn’t dance or make theater like that. I was also looking for a dance orientation that moves away from the studio professional dance making, but more towards a cosmological orientation, or a cosmological awareness. So I began to engage with traditional elders, master fishermen, tattoo, house builders, weavers as the DNA of their work traces back to a mystical bond with the cosmos. A shared genealogy with tree, stone, mountain, sky, fish and river.
TT : Environmental, racial and political themes seem to play a key role in your works. Do you think your affinity for such themes stems from being a Pacific Islander or more directly as a contemporary artist? What do you see as the link between art and activism, especially dance?
LP: I did not set out to be an artist or learn how to make theater. I was merely trying to learn about my life on Earth. My dance is where I am. Art is the story of our lives. Dance must not exist in a vacuum. Dance is politics, religion, sex, tax, recreation, is aspirations, it’s everything, it’s life. It is all forms of activism. It is permanently in the movement from chaos towards order, through beauty. Dance is a question of how shall I live our lives. But I don’t want to lecture you in my stage performances of how to be or how to live your life. It is rather an imperfect attempt to bring you back to a common genealogy with all existence, towards the va, towards the numenon, towards reminding the soul of its higher state. It’s a prayer.