A Tempest in the Pacific

A controversial pairing of two Pacific artists comes to the International Festival this year. Jo Caird speaks to Samoan choreographer Lemi Ponifasio and Maori activist Tame Iti – and finds anything but orthodoxy

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Published 12 August 2010

Samoan choreographer Lemi Ponifasio is nervous about how he is portrayed in the press. Past experiences of perceived misrepresentation have led Ponifasio to stipulate that his responses to my questions must appear in full, unedited – which is not how these things are usually done. 

But then, Ponifasio’s reticence is not surprising when you consider the controversy that surrounds his work. His New Zealand-based dance troupe and artistic community, MAU, has always sought to challenge the limitations of contemporary theatre and the work it produces tends to be overtly political and anti-establishment. The same goes for the two works he brings to the International Festival this month – Tempest: Without a Body and Birds with Skymirror.

In 2007, Ponifasio premiered Tempest, the first episode of a Shakespeare-inspired trilogy, whose final part, also titled MAU, comes to the EIF this year. It deals with issues brought to light by the 9/11 attacks, including the rise of "power of the state", the erosion of individual freedoms, and the devastating effects of colonisation on indigenous peoples.

This piece garnered Ponifasio critical acclaim, but it was an incident that occurred four months after the premiere that brought MAU more fully into the media’s gaze: the arrest of two of Ponifasio’s creative associates in anti-terror raids that took place at locations across New Zealand.

Eighteen people were arrested, but the highest-profile of them was none other than the central protagonist of Tempest, the Maori political activist, Tame Iti. A member of the Tuhoe tribe, Iti has been fighting for independence for his people since the birth of the Maori nationalist movement in the 1960s. His traditional tribal full-face tattoo makes him a very recognisable figure and the various stunts he performs in pursuance of his political goals have resulted in a lifetime’s worth of media appearances.  

The collaboration between choreographer and activist came about in the first place because Ponifasio wanted to give Iti a new platform for his activism: “Tame is usually portrayed in New Zealand, especially by the media, as controversial, angry; a dangerous figure with his awesomely tattooed face. So I decided to invite him to say who he is and to say what he wanted to say to the world right now”.

Tempest is an acutely dramatic piece, but its symbols are not easy to read: booming sounds reverberate around a pitch black auditorium; a fallen angel with bloody wings lies crumpled and broken; a troupe of monk-like figures perform tiny steps in the gloom of a darkened stage.

Iti’s role, however, is one of the less abstract aspects of the piece. Bare-chested to display his impressive tattoos, the 58-year-old performs a traditional tribal dance while delivering a powerful, emotionally raw monologue in Maori. 

The theme of what Iti calls his “presentation” is the injustice visited upon indigenous groups by colonisation. The activist emphasises the ritual nature of his performance, underlining the fact that it is not his words per se that transmit his message: “I bring with me on stage not only my language, but my movement, and the way I present that is totally opposed to somebody standing with a mic and saying, ‘blah blah blah.’” 

Ponifasio believes that the events of October 2007 only serve to intensify the significance of Iti’s involvement with the project. “The raids and the arrest of Tame and one of my dancers somehow seemed more unreal than Tempest: Without a Body. I guess you can say he brought the Prospero, the Caliban, the Werewolf, Angel of History, the Homo Sacer and the ugly reality of the post 9/11 world to the work.” Iti, who will face firearms, not terrorism-related charges when his trial is finally heard this time next year, agrees. For him, the experience “validates" the performance.

When Ponifasio first began to think about Tempest, he says, the decision to involve Iti was an obvious one. “It was central to have Tame from the beginning. Tame’s involvement and knowledge of the history of the Maori and Tuhoe struggle in New Zealand was invaluable. He is the living face of that struggle today. He is the living face of colonization, of the dangerous shifting nature of power of the state in our democracies, especially in the post-9/11 world. It has to be him. In him art and life is intrinsically intertwined.”

The notion of blending politics and art is as integral to Iti’s practice as it is to Ponifasio’s. Iti is a performance artist in his own right, well versed in using art as a means of engaging people with his politics. Ponifasio first encountered Iti, in fact, during one of the activist’s performance pieces, and Ponifasio has great admiration for Iti’s approach: “I first met Tame many years ago when he held an exhibition around the theme of the selling of Aotearoa (New Zealand). I remember he was exhibiting and selling buckets of dirt for x amount of dollars. As an artist and activist, he has staged many ingenious ways of bringing attention to the struggle of his people. Of course there is no actor that can be him. He has spent all his life in the theatre of life -- a theatre with purpose. He is no actor. He brings his life. He has something to say.”

Iti, in turn, is glad of the opportunity that the collaboration has given him to take his art and message to a wider audience. He was particularly struck, he says, by Ponifasio’s recognition of the “potential of the indigenous performing artist” to perform outside the traditional context of the art form, an idea that is central to the choreographer’s work.

Elaborating on this point, Ponifasio, himself a high chief of Samoa, explains, “The performers in my company come from within the community context. The dance we learn is part of the cycles of life within the community—birth, farming, fishing, house building, ceremonies such as funerals, rites of passages—towards serving life. Therefore, as part of our upbringing we are taught dancing, oratory and singing as well as conducting ceremonies. The origin of my dance is born from this environment. It is the environment that a MAU dancer must emerge from. They bring the quiver, and a reason to dance; they are not dancers for hire. They may be young people but they are also skilled fishermen, house-builders, farmers. They are master artists, musicians and dancers and full-time human beings.”

It is this human aspect to Ponifasio’s work that is so engaging. While contemporary dance can feel cold and detached, MAU’s performers endow their movements, however tiny and precise, with genuine emotion. Ponifasio himself may be cagey and defensive when discussing what he does, but his work is open, visceral and raw. In answer to a question regarding his decision to use Maori rather than English in Tempest, Ponifasio responded, “I am not a word poet and my theatre doesn’t privilege the language of words. It is about being in another dimension of knowing, not the illusory knowing of a world constructed by words and ideas of your mind.” The best way to avoid misrepresentation then? Don’t speak, just dance.