Friday, June 13, 2014

Review: (Toronto / Dance) Stones in Her Mouth (Luminato)

by Kallee Lins

There are moments in Stones In Her Mouth when the chants of the performers palpably resonate in your chest.  Deconstructed rhythms of Maori speech score the entire performance. The sound of each song and chant is compelling, hypnotic at times, and deeply affective. 

Visually, the stage has been stripped of all colour. Upstage is a massive screen of subtly flickering black and white projections while along the front of the stage runs fluorescent tube lighting. Helen Todd’s lighting design is immensely innovative in its reliance on the potential of darkness, perhaps more so, than illumination. Lemi Ponifasio’s choreography makes exceptional use of the shadows. The show concludes as the dancers slowly submerge themselves into complete darkness.

Aesthetically, the show is an undeniable success, but to read it only from this perspective would ignore so much of the work’s significance as a piece of community theatre. Ten Maori women performed the piece. They also wrote all of the text. In Maori tradition, there is a practice of songwriting, moteatea, which is primarily practiced by women.  These songs can be used to express anything from songs of longing and desire, to songs of social and political commentary. In the pre-chat, Ponifasio explained that he had asked the women only one question: “What do you want to say to the world?” From there, they composed a huge range of deeply emotive songs, all spoken in the Maori language, that served as the basis for the show. 

Had I not sat in on the pre-chat, I may have had a very different reception of this piece. With their long, black dresses, slicked back hair, and articulate upper body gestures, the performers looked occasionally like they had walked out of Martha Graham’s company.  I couldn’t help but cringe momentarily at the suspicion that these talented women were given a platform to have their voices heard, only to have it neutralized by a slick, Western, contemporary aesthetic. Thankfully, I soon dropped this self-righteous policing of potentially neo-colonial artistic practices in light of Ponifasio’s frank, inspiring discussion of his process.  

The germination point of this particular show occurred as Ponifasi watched one of his performers, Rosie TeRauawhea Belvie, in rehearsal for a previous performance.  He asked himself, “When is the point at which this talented young woman disappears?” When is it that she is forced into the background of a “man’s world?”  Eventually, he asked Rosie to gather a group of her friends to create this piece. 

There remains a distinct tension between the deeply personal context and process of the work, and what appears as a very depersonalized aesthetic presentation.  However, it is precisely this play between the disappearance and reappearance of the women from the shadows, both as individuals and a collective group, which is central to the exploration of Stones In Her Mouth. I did not read the English translations in my program until after the show ended, but the obvious strength and force of anger in the songs never failed to reach out of the stage’s darkness and pull me in regardless of the language barrier.  This was a level of anger that I have never witnessed before. The anger of watching one’s planet being slowly murdered, one’s cultural identity being constantly assailed, and one’s daughters being forsaken in a society that has forgotten their sacredness.

I call out into the night

Where are you my elders?
Chiefs of yesteryear, 
I whisper to the wind
Is this the legacy of the past?
The abuse of women?
No, No, Never!
let your cowardly ways fly away
I will slap your face!
Wake up!
Stop talking rubbish
The power and sacredness of women 
is from Papatuanuku, Earth Mother
and Hinenuitepo
Goddess of the night 
Support your women so that they
may grow with grace
Don’t oppress them, show them
The correct way of healing.
I am torn with grief, that eats at my heart 

- Mere Boynton (in translation from the original Maori)

For Ponifasio, there is no such thing as authentic cultural representation; there is only authentic engagement.  This is the job of performance as he sees it—to ritually bring people together to experience a different way of seeing the world.  In a 'traditional' context, these dancers would be wearing grass skirts and headdresses, making it far too easy for an audience to package them according to their own, preconceived ideas of indigenous Maori dancers and leave their engagement at the level of  'Oh, isn’t that an interesting cultural practice?' By removing the easy cultural signifiers, Ponifasio’s stark aestheticization seems to be asking the audience to meet these women on their own terms and truly listen to them.  

In Maori mythology, the first human was a woman named Hineahuone.  Not only are Maori women deeply respected as the progenitors of humanity, they are also highly regarded as poets and the carriers of moteatea tradition. To engage with Stones In Her Mouth at the level the creators hope for is not only to consider the performers’ experience of the world, and to witness their rage at current systems of oppression. It’s to join them, albeit briefly, in the creation of an alternate world.  Stones In Her Mouth, to the extent that it succeeds in this task, is truly radical theatre. 

June 12 - 14

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