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International: Lemi Ponifasio – ‘Dance shouldn’t be like watching wrestling – it should have opinions’

Apocalypsis at Toronto’s Luminato Festival in 2015, directed by Lemi Ponifasio. Photo: MAU

Lemi Ponifasio has been invited by the International Dance Council to be 2016’s International Dance Day message author. His missive will be broadcast to the world community in celebration of the power and vision of dance in particular – and the performing arts in general.

Despite being compared to the likes of Pina Bausch and Merce Cunningham, Ponifasio doesn’t really see himself as being a representative of the dance world.

Lemi Ponifasio. Photo:  MAU
Lemi Ponifasio. Photo: Mau

“People think what I’m doing is dance so they call me a choreographer, but I don’t really set out to create dance. I never went to dance school and my approach to dance, theatre or any performance is quite different from that of European theatre, where they depict events and characters. What I’m trying to do is to bring the audience into a moment. Somebody else said it was dance, it wasn’t me.”

Born in Samoa, Ponifasio came to school in New Zealand at the age of 15, and has kept Auckland as his base ever since. He was attracted to the arts from a young age and always looked to the cultures and ceremonies of the Maori people in New Zealand and the Pacific peoples for inspiration. “I found them culturally more oriented towards the world around us rather than to people. So that has a big influence on the way I talk on the stage. It’s an orientation rather than something that I actually show you.”

Ponifasio “danced alone” for most of his 20s and only worked within a company setting when he turned 30. As he found his own voice, he also found unexpected motivation in an activist’s words that “only dead fish flow with the current”.

“I liked this so much that I called my show Fish of the Day and everybody hated it. That was the very first performance I made with other people. Because the reaction was so strong, I knew that this was the most important thing I was going to do with my life, and so I started finding old friends from school and young people who know nothing about dance or theatre to work with. And this is where we are today.”

It’s a roadmap that has allowed Ponifasio and his Mau company to constantly blur the divide between high art and the community. In between stints at the usual big-stage suspects – Berlin, Paris, Avignon, Amsterdam, New York plus an unprecedented three years at the Venice Biennale – he is regularly involved with outreach-style projects.

“At the moment the work I’m doing in New Zealand is with communities – with women especially. Since I think that theatre is very much a European idea, I don’t want theatre to be another agent of colonisation. Being from over here is by its nature a rebellion, a political thing, where we don’t have to be Europeans to make theatre but instead look into our own lives to bring our own creativity. And everyone in society should have access to art and be able to create it.

Lemi Ponifasio's I Am at the Avignon festival in 2014. Photo: Christophe Raynaud De Lage
Lemi Ponifasio’s I Am at the Avignon festival in 2014. Photo: Christophe Raynaud De Lage

“Remember that colonisation is not limited to the Pacific where I come from – it’s going on all over the world right now. How do we deal with refugee issues, with children, the environment? As a result, my work is mostly motivated by the people around me – it’s good to try to find answers to the questions they’re asking.”

Although he brought the thoughtfully political Tempest: Without a Body and eco-epic Birds with Skymirrors to the Edinburgh International Festival in 2010 and the First World War-themed 19-hander I Am in 2015, Ponifasio doesn’t make many visits to the UK. As he wrily comments: “It’s a long way to come from New Zealand”.

While he admits that in any case his work is not made for the ‘arts industry’, the greater challenge lies in bringing work to Europe because of the distance. “I don’t have an addiction to touring but I will do it when the occasion comes. I just wish geography was not an issue. If I was in Paris I could easily come to London and perform there, but to do that there’s a lot of cooperation needed by different producers to achieve a few nights of work. In terms of travel and flights, these things are expensive. If I come to London for two nights, it means I have to make sure that people are taken care of for two weeks. But since we also have a lot of things to do at home, I’m not complaining.”

Co-productions with overseas theatres and festivals is one way of guaranteeing that Ponifasio and Mau get out there – and there’s no missing the irony that it is in Europe and America where his non-European approach is in high demand. He is still touring Stones in Their Mouths – it played Amsterdam and Marseilles this year – and Recompose will go to Hannover’s Kunstfestspiele in May, and Hine (Young Woman) premieres in 2017 at Austria’s Festspielhaus St Poelten. Meanwhile, closer to home, in Australia, he is working on Children of Gods with Sydney’s Carriageworks, involving a cast of more than 400 local people.

Last year, he was also invited to Canada to helm the Luminato Festival’s revival of Apocalypsis, a two-part musical theatre epic last staged 35 years ago. His staging of R Murray Schafer’s observation on life, chaos and rebirth became the largest theatrical production in Canadian history with 937 performers and almost 700 crew. Directed and choreographed by Ponifasio, the show ran at the Toronto’s Sony Centre with a cast including Mau, Laurie Anderson and Tony award-winner Brent Carver.

Why did they ask him? “I don’t know, but I can do the big productions. It’s challenging, yet I don’t think too much about it as other directors do. Apocalypsis was powerful because there were choirs and musicians from all kinds of communities. So it was the ultimate community project.”

5 things you need to know about International Dance Day

1. Every April 29, International Dance Day celebrates dance, “to revel in the universality of this art form, to cross all political, cultural and ethnic barriers and bring people together with a common language: dance”.

2. Introduced in 1982 by
the International Dance Committee (known by its French acronym CID and part of Unesco’s International Theatre Institute), the event aims to persuade governments worldwide to provide a place for dance in education. The date commemorates the birthday of Jean-Georges Noverre (1727-1810), the creator of modern ballet.

3. As this year’s International Dance Day message author, Lemi Ponifasio is guest of honour at the CID’s celebration on April 29 at the Grande Halle de la Villette, Paris. Ponifasio will give a lecture, with Mau and Shanghai Theatre Academy performing selections from their repertoires.

4. The message author is a choreographer or dancer selected by CID, which collaborates with World Dance Alliance. Every year the message is circulated throughout the world via ITI and dance centres, which also organise events to raise awareness. Recent message authors include Spain’s
Israel Galvan, France’s Mourad Merzouki and Taiwan’s Hwai-Min Lin.

5. CID is a non-profit umbrella organisation for all forms of dance in the world. It was founded in 1973 and is based at the ITI headquarters in Shanghai. The council advises Unesco and other  organisations on dance issues and is represented in more than 120 countries.

Ponifasio bore the community torch and his own global touch to Chile when he went there in 2013 for the Santiago a Mil festival with Birds with Skymirrors. There he connected with the Mapuche, Chile’s largest indigenous people, and their struggle for recognition of their rights in the country. Under the festival’s aegis, he came back to transform his I Am into I Am Mapuche, while also setting up a new theatre company Mau Mapuche.

That resonance with the Mapuche struggle fits squarely into the artistic worldview that the Maori and the Pacific peoples have already framed for Ponifasio. “Things are just too fast, too hard, too lacking in empathy. People are dealing with exploitation, whether it’s dig up the mountain, take the water and all this kind of stuff. People feel there’s nothing they can do about that and so our job as artists is to say yes we can, it’s the world we created so of course we can change it. That’s why we make art in the first place.”

And there’s no shirking that attitude back home in New Zealand. “We need to reform our own community core arts because the arts industry has created a relationship of supplier and consumer, where the artistic relationship is no longer about mutual productivity between the audience and the artist.

“Our ability to create is measured by the market. Sure if you gave me a million dollars right now, in five minutes I’d be thinking about creating a new performance – but that’s not the point of making a work. So money come, yes great. Money no, well there are other ways. The future of the arts is about us reclaiming creativity away from the market, away from the industry. Governments are very happy if we turn our arts into industries because they don’t have to fund us, and then everything becomes ‘if there is no profit then you are not a good artist’.

“That way we lose our visionaries. If I go and see contemporary dance, I want to see people speaking about the world, expressing strong opinions about the world, not only to make shows that are like watching the World Wrestling Entertainment. For me, the key is working with the community and to connect that work with real life, to affect and change what people are doing. And that’s why here in New Zealand I feel grounded – it’s not good for business, but that’s not the point!”

CV: Lemi Ponifasio

Born: Lano, Samoa, 1964
Studied: Philosophy and politics, University of Auckland
Organisations: Mau (1995), Mau Mapuche (2016)
Landmark productions: The Ancient Mother, Samoa (1995), Paradise, tour of Pacific, then Venice Biennale (2003), Requiem, New Crowned Hope Festival, Vienna (2006), Tempest: Without a Body, Vienna (2007), Southbank Centre (2008) and Venice Biennale (2010), I Am, Edinburgh International Festival (2014), I Am Mapuche, Santiago a Mil International Festival, Chile (2015), Apocalypsis, Toronto (2015)
Awards: Arts Foundation Laureate (2011), Senior Pacific artist at the Creative NZ Arts Pasifika Awards (2012), Artist in residence at the National University of Samoa (2013)

International Dance Day [1] takes place on April 29