Samoan choreographer blends dance, politics

A man emerges on the shadowy stage, bare-chested and tattooed, as powerful as a force of nature. As light glimmers across his body, he stares into space, the sound of gongs clanging in the distance. Suddenly, he comes alive, eyes widening in fear, and he lunges forward as if ready to go to battle. In one unearthly scene like this after another, Samoan choreographer Lemi Ponifasio transports audiences with “Tempest: Without a Body” to a place outside time where human beings morph into lizards and birds into rocks. Voices speaking in Maori warn of crimes against nature and mankind. Ponifasio calls it “a theatrical meditation on life after 9/11.”

With a stunning combination of ceremony, ritual, dance and theater, the forceful work, which will have its U.S. premiere this week at downtown L.A.'s Million Dollar Theater, evokes a haunting and haunted world. It features characters that include healers, magical creatures, ordinary people and warriors, among them Maori activist Tame Iti, the first performer on stage. Slow and meditative, the work grew out of Oceanic mythology.

“I invite the gods into the theater,” Ponifasio says in a recent phone conversation from his home in Auckland, New Zealand. “I wanted to add another dimension. It’s necessary now; we’re living in dangerous times. I don’t propose solutions, but if we ever stop talking about the terrible things occurring, we are finished. That’s why I get up in the morning and dance. It drives my creativity.”

Not long after the premiere of “Tempest” in New Zealand in 2007, life imitated art. In a series of anti-terrorism raids across the country, Iti and another Ponifasio associate were among 18 people arrested for allegedly plotting against the government (charges were later dropped). A member of the Maori Tuhoe tribe, Iti he has long campaigned nonviolently for Maori sovereignty. Ponifasio describes him as “the living face of colonization.” Explaining Iti’s importance on stage, Ponifasio says, “Iti represents sacred man.”


Mark Murphy, executive director of REDCAT, has wanted to bring Ponifasio’s work to Los Angeles for some time, but this production won’t be in REDCAT’s intimate theater near Walt Disney Concert Hall.

“We thought the historic Million Dollar Theater would be a gorgeous setting for the beautiful stagecraft and epic scale of Lemi’s work,” Murphy says. “And we felt it was important for artists and audiences to see it as grandly presented as it has been in opera houses all over the world.

“He deals with urgent issues in a highly poetic way, going far beyond what you usually encounter in theater or dance and crosses all boundaries.”

Ponifasio has won accolades all over the world for his “Paradise,” “Requiem,” “Bone Flute,” “Birds With Skymirrors” and “Tempest.” Perhaps no one admires him more than director Peter Sellars, who commissioned his “Requiem” for the New Crowned Hope Festival in Vienna in 2006. “I put Lemi in the top tier of artistic visionaries today,” he says. “He’s created an astounding body of work. His aesthetic is shockingly new and very ancient.”

As the starting point for “Tempest,” Ponifasio took Paul Klee’s painting “Angel of History,” which depicts an anguished angel unable to prevent the repetition of past evils. Comparing the angel’s dilemma with our own, Ponifasio says that we are so paralyzed and frightened by the political disasters in the world that we are impotent and simply watch.

“I don’t want our lives to be defined by the repetition of the horrors in our history,” he says. “We have to do something about them. And we can. I did this piece out of my shock at how readily society accepts practices that have been previously considered inhuman and exceptional.”

Besides Klee, he found inspiration in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and its themes of institutional injustice and in the ideas of contemporary Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who warns of unchecked state powers, illegal detention and the erosion of individual freedoms. Fueled by these images and ideas, he began creating the work with his company MAU.

Established in 1995 and named after the Samoan independence movement, MAU resembles a community more than a traditional dance troupe. Its members include scholars, intellectuals, fishermen, house-builders, farmers and musicians as well as dancers, all versed in local arts. The dancers don’t have traditional training but instead rely on what they’ve learned at home and in their villages. Ponifasio explains that everyone in his world dances, that it comes with simply being human. “They are all engaged in life,” he says. “That’s the preparation.”


Helen Todd, his closest collaborator, began designing lighting for him before he founded MAU. In the ensuing years, they have made 20 pieces together. He understood that lighting is a way of manipulating space and time, she says, and respected what she could add to his productions. Preferring old-fashioned lighting methods, she literally walks around backstage, using industrial lamps, which give her much more intimacy with the proceedings. “Lemi’s works bring our whole community together,” she says, “and that continues on stage. We’re not separate from the audience; we are all part of the same congregation.”

From the beginning, Ponifasio has regarded his work as by and for the community, an ideal that grew out of his childhood. One of 10 children, raised in Samoa, he moved to New Zealand at 15 to study political science and philosophy at the University of Auckland. Upon finishing, he spent 12 years training in ballet and contemporary dance, later working with avant-garde artists and filmmakers in eastern and northern Europe and Asia. He returned to New Zealand unwilling to accept the separation of art and politics in his life or work.

Ponifasio expresses great respect for Americans’ strong reactions to today’s political climate, comparing this country’s vitality to the lack of involvement in his country. When Iti was arrested, he says, no one was outraged. “New Zealand is hopelessly unintellectual,” he says. “They didn’t make the connection between my work’s themes and what had just happened here.”

Asked if attitudes like these discourage him, he responds vigorously, “My role as an artist is to cultivate conditions so that beauty and truth can emerge. I create to open people’s eyes.”