Mysteriously linking past and present: Lemi Ponifasio’s fascinating ‘Birds with skymirrors’

Your cheapest and best alternative to an expensive airplane ticket to New Zealand? Book a seat for Lemi Ponifasio‘s strangely beautiful dance performance Birds with skymirrors. It’s fascinating to see how the choreographer from Samoa comes from a totally different dance tradition and tries to link his world to what contemporary dance audiences are used to see. Tonight at KVS (Brussels), next week at deSingel (Antwerp).

What he teaches his dancers at rehearsals, a woman from the audience wanted to know, during a post performance talk at KVS (Brussels). Tai chi? Ballet? Contemporary dance? Lemi Ponifasio’s answer was quite surprising: nothing. All the movements one sees during Birds with skymirrors are based on what those dancers are taught traditionally: the moves they grow up with on the islands in the South Pacific, because dancing is part of their culture, their heritage. ‘This is not Alain Platel’, Ponifasio joked. ‘I wanted to make MY dance, OUR dance, and give that to you.’

Also good to know: when those dancers are moving their fingers real quick, it doesn’t mean I am a bird, but I am alive. Why I write this? Because you could easily be thinking about birds, as an image of a bird on the island of Tarawa was what Ponifasio built this performance on. Birds were carrying something in their beaks that looked like liquid mirrors: strips of deadly black magnetic tape from a huge floating rubbish dump in the Pacific Ocean. This image became the point of departure for a performance during which Ponifasio wants to talk about our relationship with planet Earth.

But don’t be a afraid. This is not a political performance. As an artist Ponifasio doesn’t want to preach or teach, or make you understand things. No, what you see on stage is all about a shift to another dimension, about the deepening of a certain mystery. Birds with skymirrors is not about human driven ideas. It borders on some sort of rite.

Sounds vague? I know. What you’ll see is a series of very slowly evolving scenes. A black stage, black-clad dancers (naked torsos at times), and a back wall on which the image of a pelican in distress is frequently shown. Most of the moves are just made with arms and hands. The dancers hurriedly move around with little steps, almost like teleguided robots. But don’t be mistaken: this has nothing folkloristic. What takes this performance to this day and age, is a contemporary sense of aesthetics, the highly stylized (sometimes hauntingly beautiful) images, and the sound scape ( just some static, or the noises from a group of protesters). Do notice also how lighting (and an aluminium strip on stage reflecting the light) is used.

Not all the scenes are equally strong or convincing. But others will stay with you. And as I said at the beginning: it is simply fascinating to see how Ponifasio tries to link his ancient tradition to a new one. Personally I thought the huge black ‘needle’ or sunbeam on stage was quite annoying. I felt  the dancers were having to try and avoid it throughout the performance. But once again, Ponifasio has a convincing explanation for this sundial: it’s an element he uses to make space visible. It’s linked to an ancient story of how the gods created the distance between heaven and earth.

Fascinating stuff.

Curious? You’ll find a 9 min You Tube clip here.

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