What happens when unfamiliar cultural elements are set within an all-too familiar framework? The result can be a kind of cultural slide show where the structure takes over and the content becomes secondary, as with Lemi Ponifasio’s Requiem. The director says Mozart’s same-titled work inspired him, yet it is not part of his theater piece, presented in the Rose Theater by Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival.
This is not the only source of disconnect about Requiem, originally created for the 2006 New Crowned Hope Festival in Vienna. For this work about loss – cultural, environmental, or otherwise – Ponifasio pieced together songs, chants and rituals from his native Samoa, where he is a high chief. The program contained a libretto with the text, but apart from that, there was little onstage to give the audience some sort of grip on the various acts’ meanings. So the martial arts arm gestures, thigh slaps, shuffling gaits, and songs became more decorative and superficial than meaningful.
And yet the structure places it firmly within the anthology of contemporary performance art created recently in either Europe or the US and presented at venues such as Lincoln Center. It frequently evokes Robert Wilson’s style, either by chance or intent – the glacial pace of movement, the supreme importance of the low or silhouetted lighting (by Helen Todd), the use of repetition, the highly formal costumes. Perhaps it helps to be unfamiliar with Wilson’s work, but try that in this day and age.
In any case, there are many powerfully dramatic images, performed by the ensemble MAU. The hypnotic opening scene features a man’s rippling, muscled back, at first appearing abstract, then becoming recognizable and gaining expression as his arms joined the movement. He’s joined by another man with his head thrown back, mouth agape. Several women in flowing whites glide forward and back while one or another sings a haunting line of vocalise.
The costuming mutely draws contrasts and raises some meaningful issues. A man dressed nattily in a grey suit performs an aggressive, repetitive ritual – stepping with knees bent wide, shaking his arcing hand to mirror his intonations, which have the cadence of an auctioneer’s. Seemed like this fellow should’ve been wearing something more akin to what I perceive as indigenous traditional Samoan garb, which appears elsewhere in Requiem: bare chests, sarong-like wraps, and necklaces made of teeth or bone. And not a bespoke suit.
Presumably this touches on the loss of cultural identity – how Anglo/American/European influences, or perhaps simply creeping global capitalism, are usurping distinct native ethnicities, destroying culture and nature.
Whatever subtleties either reached or missed the audience in the first half, some images during the interminable final act were more bold: a blind man tapping his way around the stage, the incessant clang of a hammer on a metal gas cylinder, a fiercely shrieking woman moving through cat-like springing steps, staffs topped with crane heads, blood dripping on a white clad child. Strong if often heavy handed imagery, for sure, but the result remains elusive – intentionally, it seems.
Photograph of Ioane Papalii of MAU by Richard Termine.