Stones In Her Mouth by choreographer Lemi Ponifasio is a 90 minute homage to Maori women, language and culture.
Ponifasio, a Samoan man, proffers a space for a group of ten Maori women to present a new kind of feminism; one informed by humility, nobility, grace and courage. Not only does the honour the performers of the New Zealand dance company MAU which has created and performs this work, but he honours the audience by at least seeming to give us an unadulterated representation of Maori culture: where it’s come from, where it’s been and where it’s going.
This is done not in English but in its indigenous tongue. Not for him patronising translations or explanations. The program includes translations, but this is really for further reading after seeing the work, as it can only really make complete sense in that context. He flatters our intelligence, allowing ample room for our own insights and interpretations.
The title of the work references the poetry of Roma Potiki, but it’s substantially Ponifasio’s concept; design; choreography; direction. All are exceptional owing much to visual and musical minimalism. This is a monolithic (in scale) and, ostensibly, monochromatic production which justifies the use of one of Carriageworks’ largest ‘theatres’. Another pivotal contribution is by Helen Todd: the lighting is stark, uncompromising and challenging, inasmuch as overwhelming fluorescence can be alienating, rather than alluring.
Ponifasio has collaborated with Same Hamilton to produce the remarkable soundscape. It pulses with electronic energy, beeping, sometimes with metrical placidity, like the (at once) reassuring and alarming tone of one of those machines that goes ping to be found attached to cardiac patients. It has a bleakness that corresponds with the rigid, linear visual values. The most striking thing about this is the dramatic counterpoint it sets up, given the inherent warmth, vigour and colour of Maori culture. One assumes this is to imbue a kind of timelessness, a sense of the culture as being so ancient as to have emerged at the very dawn of man (and woman), out of the antediluvian darkness.
The entire production is effectively, though perhaps not deliberately, a rigorous test for a predominantly non-Maori audience not versed in the culture. Indeed, Ponifasio has thrown up almost every possible barrier: we need patience, diligence, focus, concentration and imagination. The hidden surprise (not evident until well into the piece) is he and the performers metaphorically take our hands and lift us over the parapet of understanding and appreciation: we emerge enriched, empowered and inspired.
The work opens with hauntingly, almost chillingly, with a low hum of industrial noise while a solitary, square, pixillated light glares out at us like a watchful eye. A long, lateral strip of fluorescence at the front of the ‘stage’ signals the beginning: we hear traditional chanting, or ‘song poetry’, moteatea, before the faces of women emerge from the blackness.
There are moments of fierceness, resignation and despair. At one point a woman divests herself of clothing, her naked form emblazoned with a red cross, as if the Maori woman has been sacrificed. In fact, the symmetry and linearity of stage, lighting and performance echoes the crucifix, perhaps as an allusion to death and rebirth.
The movement Ponifasio has designed also suits this model, arranged, principally, on vertical and horizontal planes. The chants and rants are hypnotic and the precision of the massed ‘choir’ of pois is also arresting and magical. The versatile talent of the women who both move and sing exquisitely, as well as act with profound intensity, is little short of phenomenal. In the end, we’re left with conflicted and confounded, but provoked .The work affirms the place and strength of women in Maori society, politics and culture, but also seems to suggest the struggle to emerge from darkness into light has been, is and will be ongoing.
Stones In Her Mouth demands much from an audience but one’s investment is rewarded: this is an intellectually and emotionally invigorated and invigorating work.