Lemi Ponifasio/MAU, SF

Written by:
John Sullivan
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Tempest: Without a Body

Created by Lemi Ponifasio/MAU
Novellus Theater
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
April 7-9, 2011

“A Paul Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.’

Walter Benjamin,
“Ninth Thesis on the Philosophy of History”

Walter Benjamin’s passage inside the program notes introduces “Tempest: Without A Body,” a dark dream and cataclysmic reality that is about to consume the theater.Even if read in advance, these notes are not enough to prepare for the confrontational spectacle about to take place, including the electronic sound composition (by Russel Walder, Lemi Ponifasio, and Marc Chesterman) that relentlessly assaults the audience even before the curtain slowly rises. It would be impossible to get ready for “Tempest,” quite simply because, as theater audiences, we are seldom in the position of being taken hostage by art. “Tempest: Without A Body” unabashedly demands us to meet it on its own terms.

Such is the visionary work of Lemi Ponifasio, who with “Tempest”—as well as his other works—created the concept, design, choreography, text, and direction, without much intention of trying to win us over.His goal is pure and simple: tell it like it is, using the most compelling and distilled staging and poetically haunting imagery, along with the tribal movement, chanting, and ritual of his Maori people. With this alchemical formula, art will speak for itself. In fact, the name of his company, MAU, is the Samoan word for both “vision” and “revolution,” as well as the name of the early 20th-century Samoan independence movement that resisted colonial rule by Germany and New Zealand.

MAU’s roots and authenticity are in Maori culture and soil,the way that Butoh theater was spawned from thecultural waters of post-World War II Japan. MAU is the dark sister to the Japanese dance/theater company Sankai Juku. They share not only their signature controlled and restrained physical movements, but also the purity and intensity of their imagery and atmospheric staging.

“Tempest: Without A Body” has the visual impact of a Joel-Peter Witkin photograph, sometimes horrifying as it is mesmerizing, and beautiful with a crushing density. What is different between “Tempest” and something by Juku or Witkin is its disinterest in feel-good transcendence—it concludes, instead, with apocalyptic devastation. The piece offers no exit, running 90 minutes without intermission, as it sails through six continuous segments that start and stop like ghosts emerging out of the shadows of a parallel dream.It’s a pity that Ponifasio’s lush poetry describing each of the sections is found only in the program, rather than used as an active part of the performance. The only speaking comes in the form of chanting or ritualized talking in te reo Maori (the indigenous language.) Those continuous acts are:

  1. State of Emergency: “A call to prayer…”
  2. Sacred Man: “I am the child in the mist, I have become werewolf in the shadow, I am tapu, I am human.”
  3. Prayer of The Angel: “Rebirth of the maggot, floating in a sea of blood, rebirth of forgiveness, only if we forgive the unforgivable.”
  4. Te Mana Mothuake O Tuhoe: “When you arrived our beliefs were in insects, the rivers, the birds, the trees… You come and tell us your god is the true belief, and what’s more, you bring your god who is judgmental.”
  5. Transit of Venus: “The angel in laughter, the broken commandments, the empty promises…”
  6. Home: “Slow dancing on the burial grounds, wandering aimlessly in the ruins…”

Even so, the te reo Maori is phenomenally powerful in and of itself, especially when chanted by a tattoo-faced man with chief-like authority and passionate dignity. His sharp, slapping hand gestures against his chest and thighs, showing the whites of his eyes, and poking out his long tongue in the traditional Haka dance style of the Maori requires no translation.

Illuminating these dream and hell-realm images, the reptilian movement and Maoist marching is the stellar lighting design of Helen Todd. At times, it washes down on semi-naked aboriginal man like paint being pored, or like rays of sun illuminating mankind for the first time.Particularly powerful is the lighting of a winged woman while scratching her head until a cloud of gypsum powder begins to rise from her hair, filling the stage like an smoldering fire, or—in the climactic last scene—when a man breaks a wood tablet over his head, releasing the same white clouds. Dogs bark within the sound score as this dust permeates the theater like radiation.

“Tempest: Without A Body” leaves viewers not only coughing, but stunned, saturated with images like visages from a nightmare that return in daylight. It is worth considering its socio-political undercurrent, even if the payoff leaves an uncomfortable heaviness.

The show was presented in the Bay Area thanks to the ferocious vision and commitment of Angela Mattox, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts performing arts curator, who continues to expand our theater experience with cutting-edge performances.

David Moreno

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