Carriageworks presents The Australian Premiere of BIRDS WITH SKYMIRRORS, Choreographed by Lemi Ponifasio on his company, Mau, in Bay 17, Carriageworks, Redfern.
MAU is a dance/theatre Company based in Auckland, New Zealand, and led by Samoan, Lemi Ponifasio who presented BIRDS WITH SKYMIRRORS at Carriageworks. This international company were last in Sydney as part of the 2010 Sydney Festival with THE TEMPEST.
Mr Ponifasio does not willingly use the word dance, or, even theatre, to describe his work, he prefers 'karanga", which means "a genealogical prayer, a ceremony,a poetic space." He wishes to activate the space to create a sort of cosmological space to help us realise that we are part of the whole process of earth. I like the idea that we are, while watching his work, a part of a process in time, in participation with the work, not just observers of it, the experience is part of the evolution of the world about us - to help us find in the struggle of the everyday, our perspective and responsibility in the evolving cosmos. That to watch MIRRORS WITH SKYBIRDS is to immerse oneself into a view of our present, presence, in the space and time of our world. To have a veil of things drawn back by the hand of MAU for a second, for us to see the vital secret - and seeing the secret, become part of the secret. At one and the same time, to be watching, and, as the watcher, conscious of the meaning. A lofty ambition.
I felt that Mau did lead me somewhere remarkable. I was led to a place that was thrilling. You know, those times when you are physically shivering and on the brink, or, are, tearful in a kind of ecstatic zone while seated in the theatre? Well, I felt it three or four times during this work. Wonderfully cathartic, and calming. Humbling.
BIRDS WITH SKYMIRRORS began as an idea when Mr Ponifasio was visiting Kiribati, a group of islands, a nation, surviving under the stress of the rising ocean as a probable climate change consequence - six of these artists were from Kiribati, so, a truly personalised, and, thence, powerful expression of their concerns. Mr Ponifasio observed while working on the island of Tarawa:
"birds carrying strips of video tapes in their mouths, dangling like liquid mirrors in the sky. It was both a vision of beauty and the spirit of death. Are they souls of ancestors in final migration? I thought about the end of time. I thought about The Book of Revelations. I thought about the kumulipo. I began to chant to myself like the old mothers of the village. I thought about The Conference of the Birds and the Birth of Venus. I thought about the polluted ocean and poison river that we leave our children. Dying rivers and dying species is our dying humanity. It is our connectedness rotting away. Humanity is human caring."This work is "a life reflection as a member of the human species sharing earth's process with all sentient beings."
The experience of the work is, I assure you, not an overt/didactic one. It is a participation in a 'happening' . Entering the big space of Bay17 at Carriageworks, while one sits and waits for the rest of audience to assemble, you are confronted by a large black curtain. There is a sound rumble (Soundscape with Lake and River - Douglas Liburn)) that quietly permeates the atmosphere, discreetly, but, permanently. The theatre darkens and very, slowly, very, very, patiently the curtains open on to a space that then gradually, patiently, lightens (Helen Todd). It is a black and white spectrum with shades of grey in between, with a large precariously angled black wooden square shaped 'column' piercing the otherwise open space, dividing it dramatically; mirror-like reflectors hang across the back perspective, suspended, once again angularly, with a scrim/curtain separating the large forestage and small aft regions, below those reflectors, that the performers, the enacters of the ceremony, will move in and on. A silver strip glimmers across the stage front edge. Every thing is slow-timed. There is a sense of deliberate invitation to be patient, to still one self, to shift into this world for the happening, to let the world of the outside to be released for you, for you to meditate with them, to journey with them. The projection of your self-understanding onto what is about to happen. It is an individual journey that you are seduced to partake in. However, I must report the ninety minutes in this auditorium was the most intensely focused and silenced one that I have been with for a very long time. I was an individual, but, certainly, perhaps, part of a 'tribal' collective, congregation, as well. One is ushered to anticipate a very organised journey.The company's confidence of the slow, slow pace of all, and the unforced presentation of the physical and vocal, signals, this is not an entertainment, but something else - special. And despite the theatrical 'weirdness' (that is, I am not used to this") of the slow and consistent tempo, one felt entirely safe, secure, in anticipating that something rare was to be had if one surrendered.
A single performer is faintly/feintly seen in the back to one side, gradually revealed, the head shining bald, upper torso naked, the lower covered in a black sulu-like garment - small delicate and minutely detailed flexes of musculature escalate into a frenzy of startling undulations - 'eruptions', finishing with vibrating fingers, like the tips of wings, fascinate, begin to hypnotise one's focus. Another enters, dressed in black monk like attire - shirt and sulu - moving in a curiously shuffling gait, and engages in gesture of the upper torso, with finger wing flexes, too. A naked woman in extremely high heels, advances down one side of the stage and contorts her figure in a slow, still concentrated manner, finally begins a loud noise/chant that is cause for alarm, because of its plaintive impassioned shrieking and exaggerated statement of facial/eye comment. She moves slowly across the stage and up to the back where she lies down, her back flexing and used as a screen for projections, shimmering like a tiny island in the ocean/cosmos. A 'bird flies and hovers in the 'air' on the other side of the stage. All, takes it time. Nothing is rushed. The other members of the company (11 in total), later, appear in astonishing chorus disciplines. Gesture/dance/ singing. A short video clip of a bird weighted down from, prevented flight by, oil sludge on a beach. The graceful, awesome appearance of an exotically tattooed, otherwise near naked man, wearing a long black phallic cover and a green mask of a bird with an incredible white beak. The sprinkling of the entire surface of the stage in a white dusty powder. Effects and images, all adding up to a slow, transcending happening, where I worked, collaboratively, as an active member of this, ceremony.
Mr Ponifasio does not like the word 'ritual' as a description for his work, preferring 'ceremony' instead, but, for me, that is the easiest linguistic reference I can explain this experience with. The experience had the cumulative effect of ritual ceremony. Mesmerising, 'holy'. The physical expressions have a Polynesian impact, but are just as easily imagined to be seen as part of a heritage from the Chinese Opera/Japanese Noh theatre/New Zealand Hakka traditions. It is a physical and verbal language that is distantly familiar to my cultural dips/experiences, but, have morphed, appear, to be unique to this company. A combination and a sublimation of other world movement rituals/expressions, that combine to create MAU's unique expressions of ritual as ceremony. All of this is accompanied with an immersive soundscape made up of white noise, music notes, even a recording of the "one step for mankind"-lunar landing, and, also, composition orchestrations of a very sophisticated kind (Russel Walder, Richard Nunns, Justin Redding,Marc Chesterman, Sam Hamiliton) ending with the ominous tolling of a bell.
BIRDS WITH SKYMIRRORS was an intense, shared time in the theatre. A never to be forgotten one. Pretty powerful both as art and politics. As ceremony and dance/theatre.