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Lemi Ponifasio: “We should listen to accountants…”

With his unorthodox childhood and politicised works, Lemi Ponifasio is not your average dancer. He doesn't have a troupe: he has a "community".

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Born in a micro-village in Samoa but educated in traditional western schools, Lemi Ponifasio is not your average dancer.

With MAU – a community of socially committed, but not necessarily artistically inclined individuals, which he founded 15 years ago and named after the Samoan independence movement – Ponifasio pushes political and artistic boundaries, even by contemporary dance standards. His pieces combine ancestral ceremony and performance culture with contemporary video art; he describes them as an expression of life itself, a space of awakening and transformation.

Ponifasio and MAU company performed Tempest: Without A Body at the 2010 Tanz in August festival on August 28 and 29.

What are Tempest’s main themes?

The piece begins with the idea of this suspension of rights. We have created for ourselves a kind of spectator society where we watch but are not a part of it. So I started to perform it: the consequences of our inaction.

Your work carries a strong political weight. Is that typical for contemporary dance?

I think perhaps the 21st century asked for a different kind of artist. We’re the leaders of the community. Artists are not just a special class of people that have a life away from the world. We need to bring what happens in our life into our work. But I don’t think, “Oh, I’m going to bring down this government.” No, I just make things that interest me.

From 9/11 to your criticism of blood-thirsty capitalism, most of your work deals with political issues…

I don’t know. I just think that that’s where I’m at, what I’m thinking about. They are issues that are closer to me. I live with a diverse group of people: religious people, philosophers. I don’t live in an artists’ community, a dance community. I think at the end of the day, the point of all the arts is to bring about a transformation of the quality our lives, about how we live in the world and how we deal with it.

Your community, MAU, is very important to you. It’s not a dance troupe, nor a political organization. What is it?

MAU pretty much means my point of view. When I was younger, I always thought, “That is my dance, what is my song, what is my story?” The point of art is to express your life. I started working with my friends, and all kinds of different people who are not really associated with dance. And that’s what MAU is. It’s simply a point of view. It’s about the community… and I think our connection to the community is desperately important, because this is where we find ourselves, define ourselves. Renew ourselves. We don’t do that because of some art gallery in New York.

How does dance differ from other types of art?

I just think I’m making art. I don’t really think I’m making dance. I never consider those divisions, because there are much more important things that we never think about that influence us, like my parents, my village, the school I went to… I don’t have a dance. I don’t have a choreographer. I don’t like them. I have a community with the people I live with. What the people bring to me – they shape my creative aesthetic direction. And I think that dancers are no different from farmers and accountants. I chose not to live in a community of artists because those people already have an audience. We should listen to accountants. I bring [the people in my community] to the stage. It’s much more beautiful, I think. It gives off a new fragrance, a new scent.

And what are your main criticisms of the contemporary art world?

The problem is that people are just making things. The creation of a new car is the same as the creation of a new artwork. You can’t just make things that speak for themselves. It must have an anchor or a root in order to make it reclaim some spirit. And we should stop looking at art as a commodity. We are looking at theatre like we’re looking at a new brand of car. Sometimes I think people should not go to the theatre… unless they make the fundamental mental shift that they are going into another dimension.

Tempest is said to have been inspired by 9/11 and by a painting by Paul Klee. How do the two connect?

Yes. The image of Paul Klee’s “Angel of History” is the starting point for this work. Because we are so paralyzed, so frightened that we just watch disasters in our life: we can’t do anything. If you watch 9/11, you just see it on the television screen. You can’t see it, you can’t touch it. There’s nothing you can do about it… The work starts on the helplessness of this angel. He can’t do anything about it. And I think: I don’t want our lives to be defined by the repetition of disasters in our history. You have to do something about it. And we can. And so that is always my sort of sense, that feeling of hope. We have to have this optimism. Otherwise, why get out of bed?

TEMPEST: WITHOUT A BODY | Aug 28-29, 20:00, at Volksbühne.