There are many juxtapositions in Lemi Ponifasio’s Stones In Her Mouth. The company’s ten performers are all women, interpreting a male director’s vision. The setting is ultra-modern, but much of the content feels firmly rooted in tradition. The women sing songs that seem to be from a folk practice, but their recorded accompaniment is evocative of a futuristic space age soundscape. Imagery is expressed almost entirely in black and white. The deep contrasts are in a constant state of negotiation, searching for harmony and moments of lucidity. The show is often about struggle, but the quality of performance is never in strife. The Mau company is flawless, and the proficiency at which their art is practiced, is staggering.
It is not an exaggeration to say that watching these women in action is awe-inspiring. There is a sense of shamanistic ecstasy to this work. Their voices and physicality are thoroughly honed, to a degree that would be astonishing for any audience. The cohesion and consonance in the ensemble, along with the level of focus they achieve as individuals, play almost like a miracle, unfathomable yet irrefutably real. Their connection with us is a spiritual one, because their language is ritualistic, and their states of trance move us and envelope us so that we too feel a part of the divine.
Stones In Her Mouth is also political. The show begins with the cast in darkness. We hear them but we cannot see them. A bright white light shines instead at us, transfixed in our seats, so that we become the object of fetish, and they in turn dictate the terms at which they are to be viewed. The work makes few explicit statements, but it is impossible to doubt the social significance of gender, ethnicity and colonial imperialism, implicative in each gesture and utterance. Our position as viewer shifts between the arraigned, the aggressor, and ally. The women portray complexity, but they are invariably powerful and dignified.
Ponifasio’s creation is breathtaking and transcendental. His art moves us by virtue of its very presence, and it is in the unique shaping of that presence with his masterful manipulation of time and space, that Ponifasio presents his exceptional artistry.