Watching Lemi Panafasio/MAU’s Tempest: Without a Body on Thurs/7 amplified the grave feeling I often possess when I read the newspaper. The sense of deep empathy and sadness in an effort to understand the unsettling and horrific events in the world permeated the experience. Tempest delivered a heavy reminder of the ugly oppression and destruction of which humans are capable. The visceral result of the performance lingered after the curtain descended, as many of my generally chatty acquaintances remained quiet and introspective in the lobby. The post-show vibe highlighted the transformative power of this very big work composed of rich imagistic theater and ritual dance from the Pacific. The company, MAU, employs indigenous artists to perform outside of the original context of their art form, and the form strongly translates in the context of Tempest.
The dark nature of the work was, thankfully, not elicited by shock factor. A spaciousness allowed for images to shift and resonate, from the pure energy of a man acting in resistance with a quivering hand and ejected tongue, to the creaturely walking of another on all fours, with fisted hands and jutting hips. A silvery naked figure, supine and slithering, offered a luminous embodiment of human breath and life, juxtaposed with a dusty, bloody fallen angel with crooked wings and a blood-curling scream. Throughout the evening, a rumbling stasis reinforced the sense of doom. The images of chaos and toil, absent of overt literality, accumulated and stirred.
Excerpt from Tempest: Without a Body:
Despite the bleak environment, the performers embodied resilience during certain scenes. Charles Koroneho, with his expressive tattooed face, delivered in the Maori tongue a powerful passage called “The Establishment of Life Principle.” He was dwarfed by a large projection of a man’s face, thus appearing to stand up to a grand opposing force. During his oration he experienced each word with his entire body, stamping feet and thrusting limps, completely consumed and incensed to emphasize his message. Within the doomed landscape, he revealed a striving and a voice. Later, a handful of robed men also brought forth a thread of hope, as they executed precise gestural movements and shuffled through a cloud of dust singing a harmonic song, which intensely cut through the dark rumbling.
True to the company’s mission, the work emerges as activist art. In blending politics and performance, Tempest calls on us to do better, to reconnect with that which is nourishing, to take better care of ourselves, each other, our world. Even in an adverse environment, Lemi Ponifasio’s performers boldly demonstrate the pursuit and challenge of humanity in the chaos. Tempest is, indeed, completely unsettling, which fuels its potency and power to transform. This moving work of art shakes us around and asks us to consider our action given the uncomfortable and ugly truths of our time.