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Dancing into the darkness

For Lemi Ponifasio, dance is not what happens in a studio.

“Moving people around in a closed room … only talking about the steps, or movement concepts, but never talking about the reason we all danced in the first place, never talking about the nature of life, or community …”

There’s a pause that carries a hint of laughter. “You know, it’s beautiful if you dedicate your life to learning to pirouette so many times – but for me, dance is more than that. It has to be more than that. I don’t feel I’m here to serve dance: rather that dance is more like a vehicle for me to do what I want to do.”

What Ponifasio wants to do is awaken our senses so we take honest account of what humankind is doing to itself and to the natural world. Born in Samoa – he moved to New Zealand when he was 15 – Ponifasio grew up in a culture attuned to ceremonies and rituals that drew communities together, with music and dance an integral part of proceedings.

“There was never any thought that you should remove dance from life completely, make it some kind of clever art object or a museum piece.” He sounds amused, but the seriousness of his intentions became apparent when he formed Mau in 1995.

Mau – the name is derived from the Samoan independence movement and can mean “my point of view”, “vision” and “revolution” – is a community of artists, scholars and intellectuals who share concerns about human beings’ relationship with the environment. These concerns are very much to the fore in the two works Ponifasio and Mau are bringing to the Edinburgh International Festival.

Tempest: Without a Body came about in the wake of 9/11. “I think the piece is directly addressing the state of paralysis we have, especially since 9/11, where we feel we cannot change our direction in any way,” says Ponifasio. “We have become an obedient society, an obedient democracy, a spectator democracy, where we are just watching and watching.

“While we are passive, our lives become defined by this ongoing repetition of disasters. And I don’t want that. So I made a dance. A dance that says, ‘This is what I’m seeing, this is what I’m recording – and I don’t want it to be this way.’ Because I feel there must be something we can do.”

The intensity of his conviction is apparent right from the opening moments. The house lights go out and through the ensuing dense blackness surges an uncompromisingly abrasive soundscore. If this is in any way Prospero’s storm, it is a maelstrom of havoc and terrors that can – it seems – only abate and resolve if individuals stand together in accord, drawing on the rituals and values that have sustained communities in the past.

More than once in our conversation, Ponifasio refers to the theatre as a sacred space, a gathering point for the ceremonies that will bind us together in a community of understanding and purpose. “Ceremonies connect to the origins of dance, music, theatre, the arts,” he says. “A ceremony is done with a little bit of mystery, with an acknowledgement that we don’t know everything in the world.

“This is why I construct my work in this way, and why the performers I work with are not people trained in ballet schools or drama colleges. They are trained in real life, not in how to point their feet. They are serving in ceremonies, a part of that community, which for me means they are master-artists.

“Theirs is a dance of life, not a dance of the studio. They don’t treat their bodies just like a machine to serve movement. They listen to the body, to the spirit – and they ask: ‘How do I live with this body and in a relationship with the Earth?’ That is where the dance comes from.”

That relationship, and our attitude to Earth’s eco-systems and resources, resonates through Birds With Skymirrors, the second full-length work being performed at the Playhouse. Some years back, Ponifasio’s eye was caught by birds flying overhead with what looked like liquid mirrors spilling from their bills. One dropped what it was carrying – which turned out to be a strand of black plastic tape from a VHS cassette. “I was uncertain if this was a comic moment,” he recalls.

There were no comic moments, however, when a huge tsunami hit Samoa soon after he had started the work. He stopped rehearsals, and subsequently went on tour with Tempest. “When I went back to New Zealand to start rehearsing again, we had this vast oil spill. It was as if this work was coming directly to me.”

Ponifasio thinks humankind too often views Earth in an exploitative way – one where everything is there for our use or abuse. “We think more about the management of Earth’s resources than the management of human behaviour,” he says.

His work has been compared to that of Pina Bausch and Alain Platel, and in terms of visual impact and sociopolitical undercurrents you can see why. But western benchmarks don’t take account of Ponifasio’s heritage and culture. He tells me about the cultural obligations he bears to his family, his village and his country, and the sense of duty he carries.

With that in mind, perhaps the works Mau will perform in Edinburgh can open our eyes to the Samoan culture that informs his radical choreographies – as well as helping us see our planet in a different light.

Tempest: Without a Body is at the Playhouse on Saturday and Sunday, 8pm. Birds with Skymirrors is on Tuesday and Wednesday at 2.30pm. Supported by Visiting Arts.

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