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New Zealand's radical choreographer

March 26, 2011 |  8:00 am

MauLemi Ponifasio became a choreographer by a most unconventional route. Although reared in a traditional Samoan village as a Roman Catholic, he left in his teens to study political science and philosophy at the University of New Zealand. He quickly became fascinated by the radical political thinkers in the school. “They wanted to do something about the way things were,” he says, “not just accept the status quo.”

Most kids at this point might have chosen to enter politics or at least continue in the field. But instead he embarked on several years of learning dance. He went to other parts of Asia and to Europe to study both classical ballet and the contemporary avant-garde. “I was curious as to what was behind the movement in all these styles,” he says. “I found it was usually movement for movement’s sake or simply for how it looked. In my Samoan culture, dance is used to express ideas and feelings, and I didn’t see expressing political views in movement as inconsistent with being an artist.”

As interesting as he found the other styles, he always felt closest to Maori forms of dance theater and joined the Takitimu Kapahaka group from New Zealand. During his time as a member, it toured Indian reservations throughout Canada. “They connected at once with our performances,” he says, “because of that shared inclusion of everything around them.”

But he also saw how the Maori dances resonated with people who were from dissimilar backgrounds. Director Peter Sellars calls his work universal. “With Merce Cunningham and Pina Bausch now gone,” he says, “Lemi is almost alone as one of our greatest artistic visionaries.”

He certainly has a mission. “I can’t imagine movement as separate from your consciousness and your environment,” he says. “When people call my work avant-garde or revolutionary, it’s only because they are unfamiliar with dance and theater from other parts of the world. It is a natural outgrowth of my experience of life and my deepest concerns.”

Ponifasio's company MAU appears via REDCAT at downtown's Million Dollar Theater April 2 and 3; to read the Arts & Books profile, click here.

— Valerie Gladstone

A moment from MAU's "Tempest: Wthout A Body;" Credit: Lemi Ponifasio