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Lemi Ponifasio/MAU

May 25, 2013

Birds With Skymirrors, Photograph by Kamrouz

Birds With Skymirrors, Photograph by Kamrouz

Birds With Skymirrors

Reviewed May 24, 2013

NAC Theatre, Ottawa

(Repeat performance May 25, 7:30 p.m.)

A fearless Samoan choreographer based in New Zealand, Lemi Ponifasio presents controversial works that speak to significant global issues facing humanity today. Birds With Skymirrors is inspired by Ponifasio’s visit to an atoll in the central Pacific Ocean near the equator, where he witnessed strips of video tape dangling from the mouths of birds “like liquid mirrors in the sky.”

His subsequent work, Birds With Skymirrors, which premiered three years ago in Germany, is Ponifasio’s response to the consequences of climate change on the atolls of the Moana.

It’s a unique piece of theatre, framed by a disturbing soundscape attributable to Russel Walder, Richard Nunns, Justin Redding, Marc Chesterman, Sam Hamilton and Douglas Lilburn. A predominating reverberation, mixed sounds of sonar equipment and radio voices give the sense of being on a large ship. I’m sure at one point I hear the muffled words, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” The accompaniment also includes a brief excerpt from a live recording of Ponifasio’s Requiem, which he presented at the Lincoln Centre in 2008.

A significant thread of the 90-minute presentation is the lighting, designed by Helen Todd. Overall, the stage is dimly lit and Ponifasio’s set design of a large black pillar that looks like a darkened beam of light, and mirrors or reflecting material on the backdrop cast a shadow over the 11 dancers.

The play of light on chiseled bodies – sometimes nearly naked – creates works of art of the performers, the more so as they are often nearly motionless or twisting in agonizingly slow motion through much of the performance, so that line, tone, contrast become the dance.

The strange sounds, creative lighting design and barely discernible movement result in a kind of living work of art.

Men dressed in black from head to toe force the focus on their shuffling heel walks, flapping hands at the end of outstretched arms and bare heads. All is stark and sombre, shot through with a streak of fluorescent lighting and the black angled “beam” just off centre. White noise or the image of a large bird caught in an oil spill projected on the back screens distracts the observer.

When movement does burst forth with precision and loud thigh slapping or screams, a sense of rhythm and connection is created, with a strong feeling of ritual, purpose and meditation. The drama is rife with symbolism, understandable or not, and certainly up for individual interpretation.

Why does a woman stand naked – except for black high heels and panties – screeching unintelligibly? What are the small white globes for? Is it flour or chalk the dancers spend several minutes scattering on the stage floor until black becomes white and then turns into footprint patterns as the dancers move through it? Is there a military theme? Is it about imprisonment? Why do we feel threatened? Anxious? Panicky?

Some audience members leave without further pondering before the work ends. Others fall asleep. Some are riveted and touched by the challenging dark performance.

A hit or a miss – it’s an individual experience.

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From → Contemporary

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