Mau: Lemi Ponifasio responds to Peter Sellars

LEMI PONIFASIO in dialogue-ish with Peter Sellars
4.7.11 YBCA

(excerpts… imperfectly recalled by Keith Hennessy, Lisa Ruth Elliott, Hilary Bryan, Jenny Schaffer, compiled by KH.)


Peter Sellars: Merce & Pina are dead. People ask, Who will replace them? He’s standing right here next to me.

Describing the work of Ponifasio’s company MAU, Sellars says it’s dance-slash-theater-slash-what? The categories fade away; deeply rooted in tradition but also very contemporary. Lemi is a citizen of the world.

Then Sellars asks a really big question about the role of culture in globalization, and much more. Ponifasio does not answer the question and this is only the beginning of a relationship where two colleagues speak about the same project from two very different positions. Ponifasio’s refusal to answer questions, or to directly address Seller’s framing of the issues, becomes a kind of game among colleagues with mutual respect. It’s as if Sellars agrees to ‘play’ the white man so that Ponifasio can speak from a position of difference and resistance. He reminded me of several Native or indigenous teachers I have experienced, who resist the (white, liberal framing of the) interview process almost as a matter of principle.


Lemi Ponifasio: Why am I here? Obviously there are many good dancers in San Francisco. I don’t need to bring my song and dance here. I am here for the dialogue. The work is a place of “meeting.”

To dance, I must have a reason.

Don’t let anyone control your image.

Life is inevitable. Reality is a given.

Progress is the quality of our relationships.

We are not a company on tour. We are a delegation. We want to make a face in the world that prefers us not to have a face. If you don’t show your face in the community, you don’t belong.


Sellars: This work (Tempest: Without a body) is the best piece I’ve seen since 9/11. Can you talk about 9/11 and the clash of civilizations.


Ponifasio: To make art or theater is a way to live intensely.

I spend a lot of time in jails, prisons, courts, immigration. It’s a way to better understand where we live. Also, the people I work with are often caught up in these places.

I want to bring marginalized people to the stage – to show their face – because they belong to the community.


Sellars: Anti-terrorist legislation in New Zealand has been used against Muslims and Maori/indigenous activists.

Sellars tells the tale of an Algerian politician, a refugee in NZ, who was arrested and jailed for 4 years in NZ for no reason. His absence – from the community – became integral to the making of this work (without a body). He was eventually released. Then Tame Iti, a noted Maori activist and performer in the work, was arrested and jailed on similar anti-terrorism charges. Iti was released and was scheduled to perform in San Francisco but decided to boycott the tour to protest the US actions in Libya.

Can you talk about absence and presence in this work and with regards to a Pacific Island cultural context?


Ponifasio: There is no presence. There is no absence. The ancestors are always with us. Intertwined. In performance we weave our genealogy back to source.

Oratory is not speaking. It is creating an opening where you can go… and then speaking something aloud. Orators create culture. They are the best liars. Orators are very good at weaving genealogies – even people who don’t belong together. They stand in the space of history, culture, … they decide on the kind of space. They activate the space, what space we are going to be in. Artists are similar. (He says something more critical about orators also, as tricksters, as if they need to be watched closely because they can manipulate situations to their own ends…)

To be human there must be a bigger cause. To be an activist is to work beyond your self. What is human is the urgency for a better life, this is progress. Progress is not a technological idea, it is a human idea. I search for the ways we activate beauty. Being human is presenting your life, being present.

(Hilary Bryan recalled this section as:

Humans have this urge within us. Dance originates in the community. There is an [we feel an?] urgent need for something -- justice, a better life. Making theater is a way to improve the quality of life. A way to see the world more beautifully. A form of activism. This is their (artists’) expression of hope.)

To dance is to have a second chance. Like making a sculpture from metal found in the trash. It has a new life. It implies hope. To dance is to have new life -- to present life and to be present.


Sellars: Lemi is always challenging tourism, it’s aesthetics and ideology. This piece does not take place in a South Pacific paradise but in the dark, with loud metallic sound.


Ponifasio: My work is black and white because I’m colorblind. No other reason. It's not bleak, not hopeless. I don’t trust color.


Sellars: You heard what he said about artists, orators…


Ponifasio: Black and white is a more refined way to intensify focus in the theater.

I’m trying to fight your thoughts. To fight the images you have in your head. To fight the image of the world you have, to get to your pre-thoughts. Your thoughts are from ego. I’m trying to make you absent from your image of yourself. I want to appear in your pictures, not have you put your pictures on me, not have pictures dictate…

The drama is not onstage or in your head, but in the middle where we meet. Hope.

The second word in that name is the most important -- human being. Only when we are tiny little babies are we really human beings. After that we become human doings.


Sellars: …talks about the dark, about the night, about how indigenous people don’t turn on the light at night because it would prevent spirits from coming, that one must learn to see in the dark because if you turn a light on it means you are afraid of spirits that come in the darkness…

(He tried this morphing question several times):
Can you talk about morphing? What is at stake in how people move? And how they move into mythic space?


Ponifasio: The performers are not there to represent, but to present, themselves. It’s important. The performers are there to activate the space. When we are activating space, we are working with expanding and contracting the feeling.


Sellars: …talks about cast members from an island (Kiribati?) disappearing due to global warming and rising seas. They have no drinking water. Nothing will grow and they no longer have any work. So they wait for monthly food shipments. Otherwise they move to NZ and often work for the same aluminum factory that was formerly based on their home island.


Ponifasio: I’m not here to promote a particular culture. Whenever Kiribati’s dance and sing I think to myself, 'That is the last song they'll ever sing.' This is the reality of how what you do here (in the US) affects the reality over there. So I'm here to intervene in your actions.


Sellars: Can you speak to solitary confinement, Guantanamo, CIA, anti-terrorism…? The new torture leaves no marks on the body. It is designed to prevent the tortured from functioning as human beings in the future. Using sensory deprivation to destabilize the human. It’s the ‘refinement’ of torture.


Ponifasio: Guantanamo (and other post 9/11 actions) are a result of emotional impoverishment. In our society we have no empathy. We don’t know how to relate. So the work is about being human. When we understand how to be human, how to relate, we'll all rise up to the clouds.

Today power is at the expense of someone else’s power. That’s also true about safety, one person’s safety is at the expense of another’s. We lose the protection of reverence.

But our relationships are intertwined together.

The country with the biggest military is the most insecure.

We are not politicians in the theater, but we don't want to be outside of politics.

People sometimes tell me, "oh. Lemi, but your work is so political" [silence -- as if to say. of course. the world is political. all art is political. all being is political. showing up is political.]

[Somewhere in here was Lemi's description of Paul Klee's angel (referenced in the program, and quoted below) and how during the creation process the angel sort of morphed into a shag, a bird, an ugly seabird that wanders without a home. This bird is an important image in one of the cultures his collaborators bring.]

Sellars: Can you talk about the meaning of Mau? And the role of standing up and walking forward in your work?


Ponifasio: Who we are is in front of ourselves, not in the past. You shouldn’t hide behind your tattoos or history of pain and colonization. In the piece the dancers stand up to their full height, and walk forward. From here they present who they are, it is not a performance.

Mau is presence, identity, vision, what does it mean to be who I am? Mau means strong opinion, even revolution. What is my mau to the world? What is it to be Samoan, to show my face? Mau means to present your truth.

(When Ponifasio speaks of indigenous, he says it “in quotations”.)

I am suspicious of people who label themselves as indigenous. Indigenous is often an excuse to be lazy. What does it mean to be what you claim to be? Does it mean you have a special relationship to the land and sea? Or are you just claiming resources?

What does it mean to be Maori? I challenge the people I’m supposed to represent.

The Pacific Islands as a place of firsts: to be hit by "globalization", to experience the devastation of global warming.

MAU is constant looking at things that are forbidden, useless, or meant to be forgotten: language, ceremony, relationship…

Your friend Margaret Meade created this creature that is always making love on the beach. Or dancing. Samoans don’t dance except in ceremony. Or for tourists.




And here’s the Benjamin quote about the angel of progress (also quoted in Angels in America):

"A 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 which keeps piling wreckage 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 in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a 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.