Performance Review: 'Tempest: Without a Body' at the Million Dollar Theater
A cross-cultural ceremony of suffering, “Tempest: Without a Body” keeps returning to images of a fallen angel helplessly mourning the destruction of the Pacific.
Created by Samoan director and choreographer Lemi Ponifasio for his New Zealand company MAU, the hallucinatory 90-minute production arrived as a REDCAT presentation Saturday at the Million Dollar Theater. This antique downtown movie palace is about the size of the Ahmanson, but has problematic sight lines for a staging with abundant floor action.
The appearances and screams of Frances Chan, as the angel, punctuated the plotless, nonlinear work. At first she stood beneath an enormous hanging panel that resembled textured metal or drywall, and when, later on, she held up a hand dripping with blood, the whole panel became slowly stained in crimson.
Other recurring figures included Ioane Papalii -- his writhing torso isolated by one of the spectacular lighting effects designed by Helen Todd -- and Charles Koroneho, a tattooed ambassador of Maori tradition both in a solo derived from fearsome haka rituals and in a blistering speech remembering how Christians “despoiled the land, raped our women and children and murdered our ancestors.”
Periodically, groups of men in black scurried through dances made from small, rapid gliding steps, quick gestural emphases and clapping, their body-slaps and footwork raising clouds of dust on the darkened stage. This effect reached its zenith when Arikitau Tentau walked slowly forward bearing what looked like an offering but which suddenly shattered into an immense cloud of chalk dust -- added to by other MAU members until the stage and auditorium became blanketed in white.
Accompanied by weighty, often overwhelming sound-textures composed by Ponifasio, Russel Walder and Marc Chesterman, "Tempest: Without a Body" aimed for a fusion of present and past: Koroneho in a business suit, for instance, versus the nearly naked Helmi Prasetyo (Teater Ruang) walking bent over as if representing the stage of evolution before men stood upright.
In its slowed heartbeat, focused intensity, emphasis on primordial darkness and obsession with pain, “Tempest: Without a Body” suggested points of contact with the innovative Indonesian choreographer Sardono W. Kusumo and with the Japanese butoh idiom -- but without butoh's ability to make performance itself into an act of personal redemption and transcendence. As movement theater, it remained locked in its vision, never liberated by it.
What's more, isn't Ponifasio's borrowing of the angel from Paul Klee's painting “Angelus Novus” (acknowledged in the program) at odds with a text insisting on “meta-autonomy,” and declaring that “actions that seek to erode and disconnect us from our traditions are actions that seek to enslave us within the regulatory framework of others”? Does Klee's angel belong to the culture of the Christian oppressors or to all humanity? And where does that leave those Pacific peoples “resolute in maintaining the boundaries of our marae” (a communal or sacred place)?
Besides those performers previously mentioned, MAU included Teataki Tamango, Kelemete Fu'a, Maereke Teteka, Gerard Tatireta and Tebau Utiata.
-- Lewis Segal
Photos: Top, members of Lemi Ponifasion's MAU troupe perform "Tempest: Without a Body." Lower, Ioane Papalii Credit: Ricardo Miranda