‘The Silent Zone of the World’
INTERVIEW WITH CHOREOGRAPHER LEMI PONIFASIO by Kelly Carmichael
The world may appear to be shrinking as developments in modern technology allow instantaneous messaging, 24-hour media, twitter revolutions, global social movements and advances in communication enable anyone with an internet connection to video-call friends and colleagues across the world. Some contemporary theorists even argue that the impact of changing technology has given geographical space, distance, and the concept of ‘location’ increasingly different meanings, rendering traditional boundaries meaningless and even deterritorialising political and social protest. However, for many artists and performers, geographical distance plays all too real a part in the limitations of their career and development as creative professionals. As an organisation seeking to promote intercultural dialogue, enable high quality practice and build relationships between international artists and cultural producers, Visiting Arts holds an important role in connecting UK organisations and audiences to audacious art practitioners based outside of mainstream art locations. By enabling geographically isolated artists and performers to develop projects with UK cultural organisations or perform at major cultural events, Visiting Arts both fosters international art practice and brings it to a local level.
The South Pacific Polynesian islands and countries of New Zealand and Australia are some of the most geographically isolated in the world. Immense physical distances separate these countries, both within the South Pacific and internationally. It is a region formed by its geographical realities, both environmentally – having isolated and endemic ecosystems – and psychologically in terms of the development of national identity. As anyone who has ever travelled to this part of the world from Europe or North America will confirm, what Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey has termed “the tyranny of distance” still very much marks the region. In 2010 supported by Visiting Arts Samoan choreographer Lemi Ponifasio and his New Zealand based contemporary dance and theatre company Mau performed at the Edinburgh International Festival. Known for his forceful works combining ritual, ceremony, dance and theatre with beautiful stagecraft and epic scale, Ponifasio spoke about his work and the difficulties artists face in trying to develop careers in geographically isolated regions.
What are some of the major obstacles that New Zealand and Pasifika artists face in trying to develop their practice?
There’s a very clear answer to that – we’re not a militarily, economically, politically or resource heavy, powerful region. And our separation, the isolation we experience… in the modern world it doesn’t help. You don’t have a presence. The Pacific region is the silent zone of the world – we don’t have intense political or financial presence, we’re not grabbing headlines for violence or civil war, and we have this unfortunate image that’s been painted.
What’s that unfortunate image of the Pacific?
That we’re the true paradise – that we lie around all day on the beach, naked and make love! All that kind of stuff… When you impose an image on people they start to believe it – they start to believe they’re a true enough paradise thanks to a cheap, empty culture of tourism. But I think the difficulty is not simply the distance, the difficulty is the diffusion of ideas. For example, if I’m in Berlin and say “The world is green’, someone Paris, Vienna or Antwerp hears of you very quickly and says, “No, it’s blue!”. It’s about interconnectivity and this is lacking in the New Zealand/ Pacific region. How do we get our message out? For a Japanese artist you have Japanese cultural centres all over the world, the Germans have the Goethe Institute, there’s the British Council…. We don’t have anything in New Zealand or Samoa or the Pacific. There’s no important cultural ‘ping pong’ diplomacy. We don’t have those things because the countries can’t afford them. For me, if I go to Europe I have to think “I’m going to really give something to those people”. To go to Paris to show your song and dance that’s not enough. There are also great dancers in Paris. ……I think we have to give our life report to the world when we go somewhere as artists. And we have to find the right language to communicate that in our own terms – here in New Zealand everyone grows up trying to be European, the universities form your mind to be European, so there’s a hurdle there. You have to speak another language, be another culture to communicate your existence.
It’s a very typical post-colonial problem, isn’t it? And until very recently if you grew up in post-colonial society and were white you were told to write your ethnicity as ‘European’ on official forms. Then you get to Europe and they tell you you’re not European and that you must get a visa and permit to live and work there….
Yes, these are the unhealthy labels; the struggle to define us is actually a closure. As an artist you are constantly trying to create the process – they want to make closure and we want to make openings. You don’t want the image of the powerful to be the image of the arts, of everybody. It’s the powerful that always want the closure because they want to define the past, the present and the future in their image.
Mau perform internationally and tour extensively for long periods of time, but you speak of not wanting to travel constantly, that there’s so much to be done in New Zealand. Can you expand a little on this?
It’s not so much ‘don’t want to travel’, but I have to think ‘why do I go to Paris and Berlin all the time, why not here’. It’s unbalanced. In six years I’ve performed twice in New Zealand, I’m usually away 6 – 8 months of the year. Why? In New Zealand art is always reduced to some kind of ‘fun’. It’s a very anti-intellectual culture here and that it makes it difficult. But it is not an accident we’re here, we have to take the lead and shape it, we have to decide how we’re going to live life here in the next 50 years. We have to take the leadership and artists should have more imagination than other people. Many, many young creative people look overseas for things they can’t find here, but instead we need to stay and change it. To change the culture here is the work, it’s not the production of art objects, the work is the creating of a transformation in the country. Travelling like that forces you to become conscious of who you are, of your existence – yes I can go to Berlin but I’m never a Berliner, as a Samoan I’m never a New Zealander. You have to accept you’re always going to be familiar and strange at the same time.
What’s the provision for culture in New Zealand as opposed to what you see in Europe and other major art centres?
I always think it is not the amount of riches or the age of the country or the size of the population, it’s the amount of courage and the imagination and the dreams we have as people. This always determines the outcome; this is how the situation can be changed. Change is not an outcome; change is being part of a process. The struggle to create and to relate in this isolated context is perhaps part of the process. That’s just how it is. Regarding greater obstacles in trying to create a sustainable career in the arts in isolated places like NZ, the first thing for me is the artist – I blame the artist first. We’ve become very obedient and follow the system, we’ve become producers for the market instead of Don Quixote idealism. Without idealism, without rebellion, you can’t make new images.
How does your choreography sit within traditional Samoan or Pacific Island dance, if at all?
Once you start to see ‘Pacific’ or see the world in terms of frames or concepts, that’s for the politicians and academics. I live here in the Pacific and I have to report a sense of life here. Dancing is a consciousness; it’s not an activity. The Margaret Mead vision of Samoa for example, we don’t lie around on the beach and dance all day, we don’t do that, in fact it is forbidden to dance, we only dance for a ritual, a ceremony. It’s stupid to dance for nothing! For me, dance is like a hot knife going through the sky. My practice it is a shift from the traditional, as you put it, into the contemporary, into the art realm. My work is about my own point of view, while Samoan or Tongan dance for example is a collective point of view; it takes a more intense negotiation to change. It’s hard to compare, uncomfortable to compare. Because also, for example if I go to Europe and get one of the boys to dance they might say “that’s a bit folkloric”, but actually that’s contemporary, because if you go to Samoa that’s the contemporary people. The haka also is not folkloric, if you hear the word ‘haka’ they’re talking about drugs or gang violence all through the haka, the form is just different. But unfortunately we always see it as traditional. In some ways I feel that when people put terminologies on things they’re trying to distance them from the privileged art world. In terms of cultural dance…. that’s an activity you can learn and be part of but we must also develop our own perspective, ask ‘what is my dance?’ It’s surely not Nijinsky’s dance, it’s got to be mine. My body is my government, its my autonomy, it’s my country. It’s the only thing you have sovereignty over. The rest of life is decided by somebody else.
One of the works you performed at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2010 and also in the USA, ‘Tempest’, references the power of colonisation. How do European, American and New Zealand audiences respond? Do they understand it in the same way?
That work is not about Maori or Samoa or the colonisation of the Pacific, it’s about America. Where are the wars happening? Where are the bombings happening? It’s about contemporary societies, about the world in which we find ourselves, all the way down to New Zealand. A painting and German philosophy were the beginning of this work, Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus and Walter Benjamin’s theory of the ‘angel of history’ and that was the beginning for me. Benjamin’s theorising on history and the state of society… it is no different today. The basic human condition and the relationships we make are what concern us. In the Klee work the angel is turning his back to the future and looking at history, at the past, the angel sees the destruction happening but can’t open his wings to go and save everybody because there is a strong tempest blowing from paradise and carrying this person to the future. Walter Benjamin was talking about progress, out addiction to progress. We begin to define who we are from the repetition of the tragedies our past. You can’t be defined by the past. As a work Tempest is not about one thing to only one group, I’m speaking about and to the whole world, about things like since 911 we’ve become more paralysed than ever because we allow the state to pass so many new laws. It’s about things like visiting America and knowing the US are bombing the Iraqi people to maintain their own standard of living, to maintain their own democracy or order and that’s scary. About knowing that the manner in which they maintain and develop their own democracy is through the bloodshed of other people. It’s about the fears about contemporary society. The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben uses the image of the werewolf, but have you met a werewolf? No! But people are supposed to be afraid of it. So I put Tame Iti on the stage, this so-called terrorist. The creation of this work is not necessarily about colonisation, but this is the easy reading.
As for audience response, I performed Tempest in Berlin last year, probably the best audience we’ve ever had…great talk afterwards and lots of audience participation. They give you the space in these more intellectually oriented countries. And the response to me… sometimes there’s a desire to make me into some kind of shaman, into someone from places unknown, then they’re shocked when I tell them my grandfather is German, my wife is German. For some, they come with pictures in their mind, there is already a frame… they try to sell a difference, and as for me I’m trying to give what makes us common. I go to Paris, to New York or to Berlin to intervene in this madness that says we’re all different. It’s my opportunity to intervene and start to dispel the madness. It’s the truth that culture is a shallow difference that makes us recognise certain things but at the end of the day we’re all the same. It’s the character of culture to be different – the characteristics, the language, the customs etc…
Do you think it’s true that we define ourselves by the differences but relate to each other by the similarities?
You’re asking a very big and very current question in the world right now. Many politicians including Angela Merkel have recently declared multiculturalism dead or a failure in their countries. There’s been an article in the national newspaper here about the same thing. We need to be realistic, I think, about how people meet and relate, try to meet the person and see that person, not the culture, you know? But people use a culture to accumulate resources, accumulate power, so when politicians get up and talk about culture like an idea that is working or not working I feel they’re tired or lazy. They’re not engaging with the authentic human being and that authentic human being is not the colour of the skin or the culture, but they way you relate.
With that in mind, what benefit do you think supporting and encouraging collaborative exchange with other countries and other cultures has?
Our view becomes very big of the world, we start to love the differences of the world and start to think the world is really big rather than just a village. When you have a village mindset it is very unhelpful. Travelling helps you not fear things but appreciate the difference in people. We can’t speak about people from Iraq as simply Muslims, but see that person as a human being, say ‘that’s Mohammed’ or whatever their name is. The point of existence is to evolve… I think art is a motion, a movement from chaos to symmetry or harmony of some kind. You may never arrive, but art has to be this process that is positive, promoting life and the future and hope. I admire refugees, someone who goes from Algeria all the way to Jordan and then to New Zealand. Now, that’s imagination and courage. We have to embrace those people and decide what we see as inspirational. But if you’re someone who absolutely wants to keep your culture, your class [untouched] there’s no way you’re going to engage with those people.
How important is the work Visiting Arts does?
When people relate through the arts they’re relating at the highest aspiration of what it means to be a human being. So it’s a marvellous thing that performers can be supported like this. Don’t do it for politics, do it for the ideal, because we need to hear from everybody. An artist from Morocco has very little audience, we haven’t heard from that person and that person takes up some space in Morocco and that part of the world. Art is a beautiful way of meeting. You feel and hear things that are not said on the television or by the politicians. That’s why art is important because you can’t hide the truth. Whether the artist decides so or not, the work always gives birth to a truth, to a beauty that people share. I think the artists need to be dangerous – to the politicians I mean! For me, to go to Edinburgh it’s important for the people here. The director of the Festival Jonathan Mills came to NZ twice, he had a point of view, he too thought multiculturalism was dead…. After I left Edinburgh I’m sure he doesn’t think the same way. Multiculturalism is like art; it’s just different visions. Edinburgh is a powerful place, it lets you say what you want to say. It’s important that we are in those powerful places because they’re the places that are continually defining who we are.
 Tame Iti is a well-known and controversial Maori rights campaigner.
Images (c) Lemi Ponifasio