Stones In Her Mouth’s Lemi Ponifasio calls himself a communicator, not a choreographer.
STONES IN HER MOUTH choreography by Lemi Ponifasio. Presented by MAU and Luminato at the MacMillan Theatre (80 Queen’s Park). Opens Thursday (June 12) and runs to Saturday (June 14), 8 pm. $45-$125. 416-368-4849, luminatofestival.com.
When the 10 fierce Maori women in Stones In Her Mouth take to the stage to sing, chant and dance, there won't be any surtitles to help out English-speaking audiences. Even the man who created the piece, Lemi Ponifasio, doesn't know what they're saying.
"Language is a very poor form of communication," explains the Samoan choreographer, on the phone from Auckland, on the eve of his troupe, MAU's, first appearance in Toronto, part of Luminato.
"The sounds the performers make are more important to me. This is why we create works for the stage: so we can arrive at a new dimension of knowing something."
Ponifasio, one of New Zealand's leading choreographers, was inspired to create the piece by watching one of his company's artists, a woman who regularly practises the traditional art form known as moteatea - which consists of oratory, songs and chants.
"I asked her to find others - and she found the cream of crop. I thought it'd be a wonderful way for these women to say what they want to say right now. And to go to other communities and carry out workshops, to help assist in recovering the language. It's turned into this leadership project."
On the surface it seems like Ponifasio is helping to preserve culture and share it with the world. Another piece, Birds With Skymirrors, deals with climate change. Is he interested in social and political issues?
"My work is about the people around me," he says. "Stones comes from one of my performers. With Birds, most of my company are from islands that are sinking, and I wondered, ‘What's going to happen to these people when there is no more land? What will be the last songs and the last dance they give?'
"It sounds political," he continues. "But I'm discussing the reality I live with. I don't sit down and think about the hottest issues. I create out of what's happened to me."
Ponifasio's movement in Stones In Her Mouth (the title comes from a book of poems by his friend Roma Potiki) is simple and clear, he says.
"I focus more on the space rather than the person onstage," he says. "The main action of the performer is to indicate the tension in space. I want audiences to contemplate their own existence rather than have the people onstage tell them what to think. That's also why I don't translate. It's too easy."
Ponifasio has an international reputation; Le Figaro says his work can "stand among the greatest." Ironically, his company hasn't performed in New Zealand in the last decade.
"I can count on one hand how many times I've performed here," he says.
When I ask if it's hard to maintain one's cultural identity next to the much bigger Australia, he laughs.
"I don't think artists have anything to do with culture," he says. "I go to Paris, Vienna, Toronto - anywhere there's a chance for a conversation."
He doesn't even like calling himself a choreographer.
"My work communicates," he says. "I don't have much in common with other choreographers. I have different interests and aspirations. I'm not here to serve dance or theatre.
"What I do enables me to have conversations with people and touch them, even those who disagree with me.
"If people find a way to talk to me because of a performance, that's good."