Lemi Ponifasio’s “Tempest: Without a Body” at Festival Transamériques

Last night I saw the last in my series of shows at Festival Transamériques, in Montreal. Tempest: Without a Body from Lemi Ponifasio and the Auckland-based group Mau continues tonight only, marking the end of an amazing festival.

How does one begin to discuss difficult artwork? It is easy to write off terrible work as “challenging” and vice versa. Tempest: Without a Body is a challenging piece of dance theatre and I think it must be so for the performers as well as the audience. I found it very difficult to watch, but it resonated with me and the concept and images continue to grow and expand in my head.

Almost every article or review I looked at (and, out of curiosity, I looked at several) dwelled on the piece as a meditation on “a post 9/11 world.” While this is indeed used in the press of the performance, I feel it is being misinterpreted or rather appropriated, highlighting 9/11 as the sole theme of the performance. And while post 9/11 power and fear certainly inform the environment of the piece, the content is built on other sources. In the short program interview, Lemi Ponifasio cites Walter Benjamin’s “Angel of History” and Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus as primary influences.

…the tempest from Paradise that has frozen the Angel of History who wanted to save us from destruction. – Interview with Lemi Ponifasio, FTA

Though he abandoned the text, traces of Shakespeare’s The Tempest are still visible in the piece as are themes of Maori rights and Western oppression.

Plunged suddenly into darkness when the lights go down, the audience is hit with a wall of sound. Everyone around me jumped, literally, an inch in their seats. Shaken in this way within the first seconds, it is impossible to ever settle into the performance – an effect that was undoubtedly intentional. The assault of sound continues throughout the piece, rising and falling in waves and subtly changing in quality but almost always present. It is a white noise, a mechanic noise but through it rise strains of song and glimpses of purer tones. On occasion the dancers begin to sing and their voices are very welcome instances humanity against the wall of sound.

Tempest: Without a Body. Photo: Lemi Ponifasio

The Angel of History, seeming also the embodiment of Shakespeare’s Ariel, enters early in the piece. The only female performer in the ensemble of ten, the angel is small and hunched, wings too small to fly. She peers at the audience with eyes so intense that her pain is visible even to the back of the theatre. And then she screams. This screech of anguish made us, the already tender audience, jump again in our seats. And again. And again. Somehow, even though we all knew it was coming, the vocalization of her terror never ceased to shake.

The rhythm of Tempest: Without a Body is intensely slow. The stage is kept very dark, so much so that performers and objects are able to appear and disappear almost magically. I kept missing where and when people and things appeared – they were just suddenly there, as if out of nowhere. An ensemble of robed men flow throughout the entire piece, moving with steps so small, even, and quick that they seem to roll along like machines. Their movements are highly ritualized and repetitive. The angel and the robed men are returning characters. Amidst them appear other beings, some human and concretely real and others more mystical and undefinable. A man (or creature) walking on feet and fists paces around a cell defined by white light – Caliban-like in his looks and movement, treated like an animal by some invisible power. A man shining with silver shakes and writhes on a black table. A man in a full business suit gives an angry speech in Maori.

The images of the piece are striking, violent and cold but beautiful and grand in scale. Because of the stillness, each image was burned into my head. A huge metallic backdrop hangs off-center, casting an oppressive and heavy square shadow. At one point the angel lifts her hand and it is covered with wet blood (I still have no idea how that happened); slowly the backdrop turns red, liquid colour oozing across its surface.

Of the six productions I’ve seen at the FTA in the last two weeks, Tempest: Without a Body was by far the most challenging. But, more than any other piece, the themes and images nestled into my head, demanding to be further processed and thought over. I think that is one of the differences between difficult work and terrible work: terrible work is borne and discarded, difficult work may be demanding but is ultimately rewarding, both emotionally and intellectually.

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