NZSO, Gorecki and Ponifasio/MAU share singularly successful juxtaposing of utterly disparate creations, of profound common human vulnerabilities

New Zealand Festival of the Arts

“Chosen and Beloved”: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kristjan Järvi with MAU Wahine
Created by Lemi Ponifasio

Performers: MAU Wāhine
In white: Kahumako Rameka and Ria Te Uira Paki
In black: Rosie Te Rauawhea Belvie, Kasina Campbell, Terri Crawford, Rangipo Ihakara-Wallace, Anitopapa Kopua, Taiahotea Paki-Hill

Gorecki: Symphony No 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs), with soprano Racha Tizk

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 21 February, 7:30 pm

It might have been slightly unusual to open a festival with a work (two works?) whose subject was the nature of woman, childbirth, even death, and dealing indirectly with one of the most terrible episodes in history.

However, it drew attention to the way in which this festival has been created and conceived. Substantially put together by three leading figures in the performing arts, ‘Guest Curators’, carefully chosen with attention to racial and cultural balance, and sheer imaginative and creative genius.

This concert was the inspiration of Lemi Ponifasio, ‘director and choreographer’. Though not a name very familiar to music audiences in New Zealand, he’s been involved for many years in performance activities that don’t match ordinary categories at international arts festivals, for example, at festivals at Avignon, Marseille, the Theater Der Welt and the Ruhr Triennale in Germany, at the Venice Biennale, for the opening of the Louvre in Abu Dhabi; in Noumea, and Sydney; and even an appearance at the 2012 festival in Wellington (which I didn’t see).

[You may be interested (I was) in the surprising history of MAU’s activities around the world: I copy an article in an appendix at the end.]

The Maori ‘ceremony’ from MAU Wahine
When the audience was allowed into the auditorium at 7:15 it was greeted at once with the performance, though there were no sounds. The stage itself delivered an immediate message: the entire back wall and choir stalls was shrouded by black curtains and a white sheet covered a four metre, or so, width of the stage extending from side to side in front of the empty orchestra seats. An array of rocks was scattered over it.

A woman in white, with long black hair (Kahumako Rameka), was walking very slowly from side to side, and she began to deliver a long lamenting whaikorero (a Karakia – about protection), about her origins, the different stages of birth and re-birth.

Soon two black-clad women appeared at the foot of aisles on either side of the balcony; they intoned first one then the other, though amplification made it difficult to tell who was singing, especially after five others appeared on the stage – that didn’t matter, but amplification removes that important aspect. However, the voices created a transcendent, ethereal effect that sought to avoid literal or precise understanding.

These were MAU Wahine, Ponifasio’s dance theatre company (‘Mau’ is the Samoan word meaning ‘the declaration of the truth’). For some time it bothered me that I could not understand their words, or at least their drift, but eventually I concluded that the women and a child in the arms was simply a reflection, or an anticipation, of the Gorecki composition, perhaps encompassing the experience of the loss of a child in awful circumstances. Gorecki said that his symphony was an evocation of the ties between mother and child, and I sensed that that might also have been the best way of interpreting the Mau ‘ceremony’ that had preceded it.

These were my own surmises, but I found myself taking it all very seriously, and I decided it would be useful to me as well as others if I could elaborate the meaning of what was happening.

So I contacted the Festival, asking whether members of the company could help my understanding (I could do this, not having a tight dead-line to adhere to). Very helpful information reached me later on Monday. I’m indebted to MAU Wahine for responding to my request.

I continue, with the benefit of their help.

When eventually a second white-clad woman appeared (Ria Te Uira Paki) with a baby in her arms, the message, expressed through their lamentations at the suffering and exploitation of women, chimed with the essential message of Gorecki’s music.

Ria Te Uira Paki delivered “a Pātere (chant), specifically Māreikura, perhaps the embodiment of the female essence. The word Māreikura can be translated or described as in all of its forms. The Pātere recites the genealogical connection to seven pro-dominant female entities within Māoridom and how they imbued their qualities within wāhine Māori. It talks of their journeys and connections being interwoven into our own feminine beings. It is a reminder of the feminine essence of Papatuanuku our terrestrial mother and the unbroken connection of the umbilical cord that  bonds us all the cosmic divine. A power, a strength and the beauty that we all hold and can conjure from within.”

My only uncertain criticism might have been of the length of this creation, with its quite protracted expanses of chant that ninety percent of the audience could not understand, even though its likely significance could be guessed at. Was it so different from the wordless 80 minutes of a Bruckner symphony or an extended liturgical work in Latin whose literal text is not understood in detail? In the end I dismissed this thought as a reasonable criticism.

The Gorecki Symphony
The words ‘Chosen and Beloved’ are taken from the first line of the first poem used in the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.

But first, some of Ponifasio’s words:
“In the ceremony of Chosen and Beloved, we greet and embrace those who have gone before us, and prepare to welcome those who are about to join us. We acknowledge the difficulties of the past, share our sufferings and hopes, and with deep empathy begin to construct together the world we wish for ourselves, and for the new generation.”

Gorecki is recorded as not wanting to write a symphony ‘about war’, dealing with the horrors of war; and so in no way does he display in this work, bitterness or hatred of the perpetrators of the three events that inspire the symphony’s three movements. He wanted his work to be heard as three independent laments, and not really like a symphony at all.

The famous words of the second movement were found on the wall of a Gestapo prison at Zakopane in southern Poland. The words used in the two other movements also had their origin in poems that touched, not on the horrors of war or the Holocaust, but on mothers’ grief for the loss of a son, probably in the Silesian Uprisings in 1919-21, and for the third movement, words from a folk song in which Mary speaks to Jesus dying on the cross.

Reading about the reactions to its original performances in the late 70s and even after the huge success of the famous Dawn Upshaw recording in 1991, the critical nastiness that was uttered comes as a surprise now, when devotion to the sterility of the avant-garde, dissonance, and serialism has largely disappeared. I recall the anger vented on some of the reviews I wrote at that time, unappreciative as I was of the slavishly disagreeable music composition students were expected to write then.

Gorecki himself had rejected the dictates of the avant-garde Inquisition; and it’s almost a surprise to observe how, in many ways there’s been  a return to the idea that music needs to engage audiences.

There’s much to be fascinated and moved by in the work: first, though the orchestra is quite large, with quadruple flutes, clarinets and bassoons, horns and trombones the range of instruments is limited: no oboes or trumpets, no timpani or percussion. Each string section is in two parts and often operate separately. One’s attention is drawn to that at the beginning as the first almost inaudible sound is from the double basses, taking about 15 minutes to move through all the strings and a sequence of keys each in a different mode. That sequence was followed in reverse before the soprano entered.

Racha Rizk is a Syrian with an attractive, ethereal soprano voice, that was beautifully suited to the lamenting quality of Gorecki’s music which in turn reflected the emotions of each of the verses.

She sang in a sort of isolation from the front of the balconies nearest the stage: first on the right, then on the left, and for the third movement, from a high, obscure platform in the middle of the black curtain that covered the entire wall behind the orchestra. That separation of voice from the orchestra meant that the balance between the two varied with each movement and according to ones’ seat in the auditorium. That is no criticism: merely an observation.

What might have been a bother for some was the array of fluorescent tubes suspended above the front and rear of the stage which probably affected the visibility of the stage for those in the centre of the balcony.

I was interested to read about Rizk’s background: Syrian classical music performers do not flood the concert halls and opera houses. The programme note included this (to me) interesting item:

After her exile in France due to the war in Syria, Racha is continuing her concerts in Europe with orchestras including the Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra and ORNINA Orchestra, performing Syrian symphonic compositions in concert halls including the Berliner Konzerthaus, Bremen’s Die Glucke, Berlin Philharmonie and Athens Megaron.

In the hands of Kristjan Järvi the orchestra was electrifying in the extraordinarily restrained and spiritual passages (and there are really no other kinds of music in it). There’s a full hour of music, and it cast a spell over the audience, so that at the end when the entire back wall turned into a vivid cascade, the audience remained subdued.

The audience, uncertain about the end, clapped before the water ceased to flow and the lights came up, breaking off as they sensed that it was emotionally unfinished. So they clapped again when the real ending was signalled and the conductor rested his baton.


Appendix 1

Lemi Ponifasio / ‘MAU Jerusalem Inside Us’

From the programme booklet for the Jerusalem concert on the following evening, which was more complete than the notes for Chosen and Beloved.

Lemi Ponifasio founded MAU in 1995 working with diverse cultures and communities around the world. His collaborators are people from all walks of life, performing in factories, remote villages, opera houses, schools, marae, castles, galleries and stadiums. Mau is the Samoan word meaning the declaration of the truth.

Lemi Ponifasio is acclaimed internationally for his radical work as a choreographer, stage director and designer, and for his collaborations with many communities.

The projects have included fully staged operas, theatre, dance, exhibitions, community forums and festivals in more than 30 countries.

He has presented his creations with MAU in many places including Festival d’Avignon, Lincoln Center New York, BAM New York, Ruhrtriennale, LIFT Festival London, Edinburgh International Festival, Theater der Welt, Festival de Marseille, Theatre de la Ville Paris, Onassis Cultural Centre Athens, Holland Festival, Luminato Festival Toronto, Vienna Festival, Santiago a Mil Chile, the Venice Biennale and in the Pacific region.

His recent works include Love To Death (2020) with MAU Mapuche, Santiago Chile; KANAKA (2019) with Theatre Du Kanaky, New Caledonia; Mausina with MAU Wāhine for 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand (2018) and Standing In Time (2017) with MAU Wāhine; Die Gabe Der Kinder (2017) with children and community of Hamburg; Ceremony of Memories (2016 and 2017) with MAU Mapuche of Chile; Recompose (2016) with MAU Wāhine and Syrian women for Festival Herrenhausen, Hanover; Lagimoana Installation (2015) for the Venice Biennale 56th Visual Arts Exhibition; Apocalypsis, Toronto (2015); I AM: Mapuche, Chile (2015) and I AM for the 100th Anniversary of WW1 (2014), which premiered at Festival d’Avignon.

Other major international performance tours by Lemi Ponifasio and MAU include The Crimson House (2014), Stones In Her Mouth (2013), the opera Prometheus by Carl Orff (2012), Le Savali: Berlin (2011), Birds With Skymirrors (2010), Tempest: Without A Body (2008), Requiem (2006) and Paradise (2005).


Appendix 2

From The New Zealand Herald

From an interview with Lemi Ponifasio before the performance at the New Zealand International Arts Festival in 2012

Birds With Skymirrors …..

“Some people think I am God, some people think I am the devil,” says choreographer Lemi Ponifasio, whose Birds With Skymirrors will cast his usual controversial spell, this time over Wellington’s St James Theatre for two nights of the New Zealand International Arts Festival.

Ponifasio and his dance theatre company Mau – which he prefers to speak of in terms of “community”, just as he repels the label of “performance” for his work – are far more feted in Europe than in New Zealand. Mau is a regular highlight of all the great arts festivals, biennales, triennales and “festspieles” of Europe, but it will be his first time at the New Zealand festival.

“Well, well,” he says, with the sly, characteristic smile than might mean amusement, cynicism – or pain.

The title Birds With Skymirrors was inspired by the apocalyptic sight of frigate birds flying over the ocean off Tarawa Island, in the Pacific, carrying glittering pieces of black plastic waste in their beaks, the ripped plastic looking like liquid mirrors.

The momentous issue of climate change, and the global discussions and negotiations about the future of the planet, were already on Ponifasio’s mind, and a subject he wanted to work with. “The frigate birds provided the symbolic image,” he says. “Birds have long been attached to our desire to be free.”

The resulting work, a powerful reflection on our connection with our environment, expressed through dance, poetry, ceremony, chant and oratory, premiered in Europe in 2010.

Formerly based at the Corban Estate in West Auckland, where he also regularly held the extraordinary Mau Forums, Ponifasio declares himself a failure in that he no longer has a home in New Zealand, the Pacific heart-spring and source of inspiration for all he does. “I have had to go international to survive,” he says.

Ponifasio is back in New Zealand briefly, between extensive European engagements, to find a new base, probably in South Auckland. The constant travelling between New Zealand and Europe is difficult for his immediate family and for his Mau family. And expensive.

“I am working on it, it will come,” he says. “The nature of current work in New Zealand has been that of a production line that I don’t fit. Europe has a bigger capacity to take on something provocative, something more than just arts and crafts and the entertainment industry.”

Born and raised in Samoa until he was 15, he came to New Zealand to complete his formal education, living in a Catholic priory until he was 21. But it is the experience of living in the natural world far more than human-made cultures and religious ideologies that inform Ponifasio’s unique voice. It is a voice that reflects the primal drama of the rhythms of the earth, the cycles of light and dark, life and death, rain and sun, the moon, the cosmos and mankind’s vulnerability, struggles, rituals, strange ceremonies and surrender within.

“To negotiate this exchange in life, Samoan parents tell their children the most important motto: to teu le va – to tender the space, to reverence the space, to be the space, to beautify the space, to embellish the space,” he says. “This is relational space, consciousness, a cosmological relationship with all existence. We call this ‘va’.”

Mau Forum 2010 took place at Schloss Charlottenberg, a historic palace in Berlin, and illustrates Ponifasio’s va in action.

“Not long ago, not far from this place, the people of Berlin exhibited Samoan people, like animals, in their zoo,” Ponifasio said on that occasion, “and not long ago, the people of Berlin came all the way down to Samoa and dominated and colonised the Samoan people.

“So it is very important that today we welcome and host the people of Berlin with respect, ceremony, theatre and art and share a meal, to allow for the clearing of space and the harmonising of spirit – so the work can begin.”

Ponifasio aims, he says, for “transformation”, which is equal parts prayer and political activism.

His work Tempest: Without a Body featured New Zealand’s own “face of terror” Tama Iti and terrorist suspect (since exonerated) Ahmed Zaoui.

“I make work for those who love this kind of work,” he says, “and for those who don’t like it, it is something to talk about. Art is not enough. I don’t want to make myself an artist. It has to be the path of love, the path of activism and its origins have to be in the community.”

Mau’s most recent work, Le Savali: Berlin, prompted French newspaper Le Figaro to propose Lemi Ponifasio as “the new miracle” on the choreographic landscape.

Ponifasio returns to Germany this year to produce his first opera, Carl Orff’s Prometheus, for the Ruhr Triennial 2012.