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In the old days it was God who looked down on us. Now it's the omnipresent surveillance cameras, our intelligence services and networks such as Google and Facebook. In his latest production The Crimson House, Samoan director Lemi Ponifasio probes the nature of our existence in a panoptic world, in which we are under constant surveillance. Ponifasio connects this modern phenomenon with the mythological idea of divine knowledge. Fusing modern dance with traditional rituals, the performance creates a poetic space which includes the audience in this critical reflection. The singing and the slow and precise movements of the performers combine with the sparse lighting and the alienating music to create a ceremonial, hypnotic experience.
'Ponifasio's visual language is of indescribable beauty: understated, stylised, precise, still, spun out, ritualistic.'de Volkskrant on Birds with Skymirrors
Warning: in this performance stroboscopic light is used frequently.
The director, choreographer, activist and Samoan High Chief Lemi Ponifasio (1964) is visiting the Holland Festival for the third time this June, staging his original production The Crimson House, a critical reflection on the exponential growth of communications technologies in our modern society.
In 1995 Ponifasio founded MAU, a platform for scientists, intellectuals and various artists, including dancers, performers, sculptors, musicians and actors, based in Auckland, New Zealand. All MAU participants come from the islands in the South Pacific. Ponifasio has selected them from various professions and walks of life, ranging from bus drivers to teachers to factory workers. Mau is a Polynesian word meaning 'strong vision', 'witness' and 'revolution, but also 'what is my perspective?' as well as the name of the Samoan movement for independence, which was founded in 1908. Ponifasio's MAU serves as a cultural and creative centre for seminars, workshops, conferences, events and celebrations, in close collaboration with local and international communities.
Ponifasio doesn't class his work as theatre, dance or performance art. These are Western ideas and categories which mean nothing to him. Rather, he refers to his creations as 'karanga', which means a genealogical prayer, a ceremony, a poetic space in which the audience, by virtue of its presence, participates. Through his choreographies Ponifasio tries to create a sort of cosmological space where everyone – performers and the public – can somehow realise that they are part of the whole process of earth.
The Crimson House takes its title from the 'Fale'ula' of Samoa, the original house, decorated with blood, gifted to the human world by the progenitor Tagaloalagi as his seat of government on Earth. From this mythological notion the performance 'reaches out' to our modern times. The Crimson House is inspired by our contemporary connected world, full of Big Brother-like technologies – a concept which was introduced in George Orwell's famous dystopian novel 1984. It refers to a situation in which governments, security agencies, companies as well as private individuals have the possibility to track, trace and check on people without their consent. We are under constant surveillance, on the streets, on the underground, in shopping centres and airports, at work, on the internet and even in our own homes. Ponifasio explores this increase in surveillance by linking it to a supernatural, divine dimension.
A performance with a high level of abstraction, The Crimson House reflects on the idea that divine omniscience (the mythological concept 'mana') has in our modern world become an instrument of control and governmentality. Through his choreography Ponifasio hopes to draw attention to the various transformations the concept of an all-controlling God has undergone through the ages, from the panopticon prisons devised in the 18th century – allowing a single watchman to observe all inmates – via the nightmarish, totalitarian vision of Orwell's 1984 to our 'connected' society of today with its social and other interactive networks such as Google, Twitter and Facebook, and the intelligence agencies who use them to spy on us. Through the ages, the divine omnipresence has become transformed by our own desires. However, The Crimson House is not a commentary on all this, but rather a provocation of human consciousness.
As in his previous performances which featured at the Holland Festival, Paradise (2005) and Birds with Skymirrors (2011), in The Crimson House Ponifasio combines music and modern dance with social and political activism, traditional shamanic rituals and ceremony. The singing and the slow and precise movement of the performers combine with the sparse lighting and the alienating music to create a ceremonial, hypnotic experience. Time seems to be slowed down and the audience is encouraged not only to watch, but also to reflect. The performance will have its European premiere on 28 March 2014 at the Festspielhaus in Austria.
During his studies in politics and philosophy at Auckland University in New Zealand, Lemi Ponifasio (1964, Lano, Samoa) became interested in dance and discovered its political and philosophical power. Having taught himself in theatre, he started working as a dancer in Tokyo and in Europe, collaborating with visual artists, architects, film makers and poets. In 1995 Ponifasio returned to the South Pacific and founded his dance company MAU,a community initiative and platform for critical reflection and creativity, formed by artists, scholars, intellectuals and community leaders. Through MAU, Ponifasio interconnects diverse Oceanic cultures, exploring complex forms of knowledge, such as navigation, architecture, rituals, philosophy and genealogy as a driving force in emphasizing local-orientated arts, thought and narratives that have been silenced or excluded. Without ingratiation to Western aesthetics or South-Paciﬁc clichés, Ponifasio offers a deeply challenging and powerful approach to contemporary theatre.
His radical choreographies have explored issues such as the politics of ethnicity, tradition, mythology, consumer society and the environment, bringing him critical international acclaim and gaining him a reputation as a groundbreaking creator of dance theatre. His work was shown at the prestigious Venice Biennial, the Adelaide Festival, Prague Quadrennial, the 250th Mozart Anniversary of the Vienna Festival, the London International Theatre Festival, the Edinburgh International Festival, at the Theater Der Welt and many other renowned festivals and venues. Ponifasio is a High Chief of the Samoans, holding the honorary family title of Sala, from Leauva’a, his father's village. He featured at the Holland Festival twice before, with Paradise (2005) and Birds with Skymirrors (2011).
- Lemi Ponifasio
- concept, set design, choreography, direction
- light design
- Helen Todd
- MAU company
- New Zealand Festival, Theatre de la Ville Paris, Holland Festival, Les Theatres de la Ville Luxembourg, Festspielhaus St Polten, Melbourne Arts Festival, Onassis Cultural Centre Athens