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Lemi Ponifasio's Stones an innovative and inspiring creation

Stones In Her Mouth by Lemi Ponifasio
New Zealand Festival
St James Theatre
March 4

The Greek orator Demosthenes trained himself to speak clearly and without stuttering by practicing speeches with stones in his mouth becoming an important figure in the history of democracy. In Maori mythology, two stones brought to earth by Tane representing good and evil were placed in the mouths of pupils giving them mana and the ability to convey moral and ethical concepts.

With Lemi Ponifasio’s new work Stones In Her Mouth, these themes of knowledge, power and communication are expanded in an extraordinarily powerful piece of theatre. Ponifasio notes that the work was originally conceived as a leadership project for young women and that the women challenge the apparatus of power, oppression and even western-style feminism.

The work is presented in six parts which are linked to Maori texts  written by the performers. These take the form of chants, songs, oratory and calls.

While the aim of the work has been to give voice and strength to contemporary women, there is a sense of the performers enacting stories that are both personal and mythical accounts of birth and life – a concept which becomes even meaningful when a child cries in the audiences in the closing moments of the show.

The set is in many shades of black with occasional back projection of flickering light as well as shafts of intense white light that illuminate the audience more than the performers.

This dark stage owes much to the landscape paintings of Ralph Hotere and Colin McCahon as well as the light of Len Lye and Bill Culbert.

In most of the sequences, the dancers are bathed in blackness with subtle light illuminating them as they pass across the stage.

The initial appearance of the women on stage is like the dawning of a new day, their faces dimly lit like the time lapse photography of the phases of the moon. The accompanying soundscape, somewhere between the pinking of medical monitoring machines and the sounds of space station communication morphed into a form of morse code as though transmitting messages.

The women appear to be a combination of angels, mythical creature and Greek caryatids, as though holding up the heavens. This cosmological reference is repeated as the women glide around the stage like planets following defined trajectories.

The various performers carried with them a huge amount of symbolism. One performing in an almost aggressive dance spread paprika like some angry earth mother while another, her naked body marked out with bloody red lines performed a slow motion trajectory across the stage recalling the actions of the performance artist Marina Abramovic with a surreal sense of ritual birth and sacrifice. The climax of this sequence with its blasting music and column of white light references mans encounter with the obelisk in 2001 A Space Odyssey.

Light and music are central to the way in which Ponifasio creates his works and designer Helen Todd along with sound producers Sam Hamilton and Ponifasio achieve a rare blending of sound music to create a total visual and aural environment

In many of the sequences the music and dance are based on traditional forms but they are expanded into the contemporary as well as hinting at the future.

While often using Maori dance and chant, the dances and movements include elements of the Pacific, the Pacific Rim and other indigenous dance forms, giving the dances a universality of expression and symbolism.

Much of the slow deliberate dances were mesmeric in their minimalism while some of the more dramatic dances were emotionally raw and electrifying.

In addition to referencing planetary orbits many of the women’s hand movements, especially those using poi seem to be mimicking the diagrams of atomic structures.

This interrelationship between the real world of women and the structures of power along with references to planetary and atomic movement manages to create a sense of parallel connections between the personal, physical and spiritual worlds.

The one disappointing aspect of the production was that the texts written and performed by the women was not projected as surtitles, which lessened the impact of the performance.

John Daly-Peoples attended the New Zealand Festival thanks to The New Zealand Festival and Quality Hotels

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