Salā Lemi Ponifasio isn’t easily defined. He’s never had any formal training in dance or theatre. He doesn’t see himself as a choreographer. He didn’t even set out to be an artist. Yet he’s regarded within the international arts community as a leading light in theatre and dance.
Lemi has won international awards as a choreographer, designer, opera director, and for his theatre and dance works. His work has been presented on the world’s biggest stages. MAU, the company he formed 21 years ago, is New Zealand's most prolific internationally. His standing in the art world is such that he’s been invited to the Venice Biennale an unprecedented three times — for visual arts, dance and theatre. Last year he was the director of choice for the biggest theatrical production in Canadian history, the Luminato Festival's revival of Apocalypsis, a two-part musical epic with more than a thousand performers and crew. And this year, he was chosen by UNESCO to give the annual International Dance Day message in Paris for dancers around the world. (He wrote a karakia for his message.)
Lemi’s work is radical, uncompromising, challenging, and often controversial. (It was Lemi who put Tame Iti on the international stage, in the acclaimed Tempest: Wthout a Body.) As he tells Dale Husband in this interview, he makes art to create change.
Talofa Lemi. Like so many New Zealand Samoans, you were born in Samoa and you spent your early years there. And you were still young when, nearly 40 years ago, you came over to Auckland.
Yes. I was born in Samoa in a village called Lano. There’s 10 of us kids. I spent 10 years of my life with my grandmother in the village. When I was 15, I decided that I wanted to come to New Zealand. So, I sat the government exam to come to New Zealand as a student, and I came here to Aotearoa.
I came by myself. But my older brothers and sisters also went to school here. I came here in 1978 and I stayed with a Catholic priest, Father Neil Darragh, for many years. And that was good. That was in the Catholic Samoan Centre in Grey Lynn.
Did you find it tough time being a young Samoan guy in Aotearoa? We’re talking of the time at the end of the Dawn Raids and when there was a lot of pressure on Pasifika migrants. Perhaps even a standoff between Māori and Pasifika peoples. Did you find yourself caught up in that?
I think I was too young to have those issues affect me. Of course, you are actually in the middle of it, but I just took that as part of growing up. That’s what was around me.
Perhaps it provided some inspiration for your later work?
I think so. You look at the world differently because of what’s around you. And, as an artist, you’re constantly responding to the world that you find yourself in or the world that you wish to change.
Having had the manaaki and tautoko from Catholic priests for some years, maybe you feel indebted to them for their spiritual support during that period of your life, Lemi?
Yes. But it wasn’t so much spiritual. I don’t think I was looking for that. I think it’s more a certain kind of openness. Looking beyond rather than being concerned with yourself. And living in an environment where you’re constantly caring for the people out in the community. And, also, there was the intellectual side of things — a tradition of questioning a lot of things in our lives, whether it’s the environment or social justice.
When we look at the catalogue of your work on stage, we can see that much of it is deliberately challenging — and has current affairs issues woven through it. I wonder where all that was fostered.
As I say, I think we are influenced by everything around us, and our own response to it. I never went to school to learn those things. And I never had formal training in theatre or western dance. I just go there — it takes everything. What I learned is within my body.
But I was brought up by my parents to help people. I think that’s the most important foundation.
Art is about re-imagining the world for yourself. Art is about creating a world because you’re not satisfied with the world as it is. Through the arts, there’s a process where you can recreate life. You can propose how you want your life to be in the next 50 years. So, I look at art in that way.
I don’t see myself as a choreographer. And I don’t have the kind of love of performing as in wanting to get up and dance. But, through the process of creation, I can hope to bring a sense of what is just — and how we can improve the way that we share and see the world.
That’s what art is. It’s not making up shows. Or how to turn that into money. Or how to sell culture. If we’re doing that, then we’re just part of the culture of distraction that’s going on.
I never had an ambition to be an artist. But I want to make a change. I want to ignite a conversation about the world I find myself in with the people around me. So that’s really what I do with my work. Yes, I can create things on stage. But the reason I use the stage is because I want something changed. And so, if there’s no transformation, then it’s not a very good thing we’re doing.
Kia ora, Lemi. Some really interesting kaupapa you raised in that kōrero. So, you don’t see yourself as a dancer or a choreographer — or an artist, even though you’re renowned for those skills. It’s manaakitanga that’s at the core of your mahi. And long may that be the case Lemi Ponifasio. But when were you first exposed to dance and its potential?
I didn’t become a dancer because I was exposed to dance. I met a new culture when I came to New Zealand. I met an education system. I met politics. I met issues that were strange to me. And so that started me thinking: What does it mean to exist? What are my politics? What is my philosophy? What is my knowledge system?
And making art, for me, is not to serve dance or to serve theatre or to serve opera. It’s about giving a life report of the world I find myself in. Or giving my own life report. I want to create a space for everyone to think about what it means to exist — and to think about how we can solve our issues whether it’s tangata whenua claims to land, or Kiribati environmental issues, or immigrants in Berlin. And this way we can be part of shaping how we go forward.
Lemi, these concepts you speak of are visionary. For many, they’re outside the box. Maybe, as an example, could you talk about your first piece — and how these sentiments that were swirling around inside you manifest themselves?
I was in Europe and Japan for many, many years. Then I decided that I’d come back to New Zealand and make a performance. I had prearranged everything, including hiring the dancers. And, on the plane coming in to Auckland, I read an interview with Eva Rickard where she said: “Only dead fish flow with the current.” And I thought: “That’s not me.”
So, when I arrived in Auckland I changed everything. I fired all the dancers and I asked my friends to be in the performance. I called it Fish of the Day. That was a personal thing for me. Finding the courage to do what I think I should make rather than trying to make things in the box of dance or theatre or art.
I just made what I wanted to make. And, of course, there was a terrible response to it. But, at that moment, I thought: Yep. That’s the most important thing that I’m going to do with my life. That’s how I’ll continue. Because that’s my perspective. That’s my opinion. That’s my truth.
And I think by doing that, you can claim some sort of sovereignty of yourself.
You mentioned spending some time in Japan — long enough, perhaps, for some elements of Japanese-tanga to rub off on you. Is that what happened?
No, I don’t think so. A lot of the outside influence is superficial really. I think, in the end, you gravitate towards your DNA. So, whakapapa is important. The spirit and the way I approach my work isn’t like western theatre or Japanese theatre or anybody’s theatre. I take a different approach because of my whakapapa. That’s the most important influence on me.
And then there’s the influence of the kind of people I work with. I don’t search for people who come from western theatre and dance schools. I work mostly with young people: Māori, Pacific Island, immigrants, and indigenous communities around the world. Some have never been to school. And they have influenced the direction of my work. Because of their lives, they shape the way I think about theatre. About the world. About creation. About justice. And I’m glad I did that.
Well, I’m glad, Lemi, that you followed your heart and have been charting your own way rather than following someone else’s lead. It’s brave and not many of us are willing to follow a path like that. So kia ora, kia kaha to you. I note that you’re generally described as a choreographer, designer and opera director. But I get the feeling that you don’t use any of those terms — or certainly not those terms alone. How do you describe what you do?
Well, I don’t talk about that. I don’t talk about the form. I’m talking about the potential of what art can do for the human life. The way I look at things, art is about housing. It’s about education and employment and nutrition and justice. And, through the arts, I can ignite a flame about imagining and give life to our potential.
My luck is I know where I come from. Because that is the foundation, always, of the work. Your DNA is the most important part of what you make. Because you carry with you, the dance of your mother, the thinking of your father, the song of your grandmother, the hope of your village. That is within your body right now. People speak of our ancestors. Well, take a look in the mirror. It’s looking at you. You are the latest version of it.
Beautiful kōrero, Lemi. But have there been any negatives? Like some of your people saying: “Hey, get a real job.”
No. Nobody ever says that. And, well, I never look at what I do as a job. This is my life work. It’s not about getting a job — it’s about getting a life.
Art is about serious community leadership. You are responsible to these young people, the society, and culture. It is not about a chance to perform or act or dance — but a space to speak. Access. Transformation.
In the course of all the time you’ve worked with rangatahi, I imagine you’ve seen some really satisfying growth.
I think it’s been just a matter of being a part of the process of somebody’s life, or of a community’s life. MAU is turning 21 this year and, in that time, there’ve been hundreds of young people — mostly Māori and Pacific — who have worked and travelled with me all over the world. And I see them as the avant garde, the edge, or the dreamers and the visionaries.
And they’re important because we need young people to be dreaming about life. Not just coping with the life that they find themselves in. But dreaming and creating. And answering questions like: “How are we going to live our lives in the next 50 years?” We have to challenge existing frames. You never belong in a box.
Over the 21 years of achievement with MAU, you’ve have reason to be proud of the company. But what has given you most pride?
I’m not sure if I’m proud of anything. I think it’s mostly about the young people I work with. Ninety-nine percent of those I work with don't get recognition or support here for their huge value in their communities as leaders. Internationally they are highly considered for their artistry and exceptional skills. These are kids from Rotorua, Taupo, Taumarunui, Kiribati. When they come, I can see they want something better for themselves. There’s a dream of transforming their lives — that they want to change something.
And so, I’m happy I’ve been able to create something that attracts them. That’s all I want to do with the people I’m working with. It’s to bring a sense of the world to them. And to bring their lives on to the stage. And for two hours, our young people are doing their thing. And the audience is quiet for those two hours. I always like that. I stand in the wings of the stage and watch them. That’s what I enjoy the most.
When you ask somebody to come and create a dance or a theatre piece, you’re asking them to bring the most beautiful thing they can find. So, every time I see them on stage, I know that is what they’re doing. That is their moment of beauty. And in that moment, that’s what life is about. It’s how to become beautiful even for one moment.
About Lemi Ponifasio
Salā Lemi Ponifasio is a Samoan and New Zealand choreographer, dancer, stage director, designer and artist. In 1995, he founded MAU in Auckland, New Zealand, working with communities and artists from all over the world. MAU is a Samoan word that means a declaration to the truth of a matter.
Lemi’s radical stage work defies conventional definitions. He collaborates with people in all walks of life, working in schools, universities, on Pacific islands, in factories, villages, opera houses, castles, galleries, and stadiums. The work has included fully staged operas, theatre, dance, exhibitions, festivals and community forums.
Lemi performs and exhibits his work worldwide, including the Avignon Festival, BAM New York, Ruhrtriennale, Lincoln Center New York, Edinburgh International Festival, Theatre de la Ville Paris, Onassis Cultural Centre Athens, London's Southbank, Holland Festival, Luminato Festival, Vienna Festival, Berliner Festspiele, Santiago a Mil Chile, the Venice Biennale and in the Pacific region.
His most recent works include Lagimoana (2015) for the Venice Biennale 56th Visual Arts Exhibition; Apocalypsis (2015) with music of R. Murray Schafer at the Luminato Festival, Toronto; I AM: Mapuche (2015) and Ceremony of Memories (2016) with MAU Mapuche, the indigenous people of Chile; and I AM (2014) for the 100th Anniversary of WW1, which premiered at the Avignon Festival followed by seasons including the Auckland Arts Festival, the Edinburgh International Festival and the Ruhrtriennale, Germany.
His other creations include The Crimson House (2014) probing the nature of power and a world that sees all and no longer forgets which premiered at the New Zealand Festival; Stones In Her Mouth (2013), a work with Māori women as transmitters of a life force through oratory and ancient chants; the opera Prometheus (2012) by Carl Orff for the Ruhrtriennale; Le Savali: Berlin (2011) confronting the imperial City of Berlin with its own communities of immigrant families in search of belonging and constrained by threat of deportation; Birds With Skymirrors (2010) responding to the disappearing Pacific Islands, homelands to most of his performers and devastated by climate change; and Tempest: Without A Body (2008) concerning power and terror and the unlawful use of state power post 9/11.
Lemi Ponifasio chosen by UNESCO to deliver message for International Dance Day
"Dance should have opinions ... " — the stage.co.uk