In Maori myth the first human was not a man, but a woman. Women, says Lemi Ponifasio, the artistic director of New Zealand dance group MAU, are known as te whare tangata – the house of humanity – and are venerated for their life-giving properties.
In his latest creation, Stones In Her Mouth, Ponifasio explores womanhood: in particular, the tradition of Maori women as poets and composers. Moteatea, as these songs are called, are invoked to express lamentation, desire, and foreboding. Here ten Maori female performers deliver moteatea they have written themselves.
The result – a mixture of taut dance and hypnotic chanting in the Maori language – is startling, eerily beautiful, and deeply fraught. The women, dressed in long black skirts, their hair tied in buns and their lips painted dark crimson, move with exquisite self-possession, shimmering their hands with fast, butterfly-like movements, or swinging sets of balls tied to strings through the air in unison.
Providing a somber palate to the dance is a dramatic contrast between light and dark: shapes of the women’s towering shadows are projected behind them. At times, they fade into the night, often disappearing altogether. Undercutting this ceremonial chorus are intrusions of modernity. The latter is an aggressive, belligerent force: from the electronic drones beating in the air to a strip of LED light – so blinding that it hurts the eyes – which slices through the bottom of the stage.
MAU, founded by Ponifasio in 1995, takes its name from a Samoan word for vision or revolution. Ponifasio’s past shows have raged against tyranny and inequality. Birds with Skymirrors, for example, dove into climate change and the pollutions of the oceans.
Stones In Her Mouth, likewise, takes up the baton: the program states that the women are communicating their resilience “against the apparatus of power, oppression and even Western-style feminism”. The most mundane of actions – such as the girls ritualistically washing their hair – are imbued with angst. Most memorable is a priestess who appears to conjure up a naked woman from the darkness. Painted on her torso is a crude, blood red cross.
At first the naked woman lies down quietly, as if in sacrifice. Then she gets up and slowly walks towards the back of the stage: pounding music suddenly batters her and she pulsates over and again in a shock of light. Reminiscent of a war-scene, in which a victim is violently machine-gunned, her pain is visceral. Nudity only adds to the horror.
Moments like this can make Stones In Her Mouth difficult to watch. With long stretches of repetition it can also descend into tedium – when the 90-minutes was up, there appeared to be a collective sigh of relief. But this is experimental dance at its most demanding. And forcing the audience to experience discomfort, as well as the fraught place of women in the world, is, perhaps, the point.