BWW Reviews: 'Stones in Her Mouth' Is Powerful, Provocative Theater

Stones in Her Mouth is a powerful theatrical experience that examines and explores women's lives. Brought to life by an ensemble of ten Maori women, the production, recently part of Toronto's annual Luminato Festival, has been feted worldwide since its premiere in 2013. As its choreographer Lemi Ponifasio explains, it's part of a larger attempt to create a "cosmological" space within live performance.

The work made its Canadian debut as part of the eighth annual Luminato Festival, a ten-day celebration of international arts and culture. Equal parts dance, theater, cultural history, and performance art, Stones in Her Mouth has collected raves, with the Los Angeles Times calling it a "brilliant, deep work" and the Sydney Morning Herald declaring it "totally absorbing." It is ninety minutes of challenging, sometimes disturbing content inspired by the Maori tradition of women creating chant and poetry, exploring themes of silence, survival, female oppression and independence. Taking its title from the 1992 collection of poetry by Maori poet and playwright Roma Potiki, the work itself was inspired (and created) by the women Ponifasio works with. The Samoan director watched a performer in his Auckland-based company MAU one particular night pre-Stones, and felt inspired.

"I was watching her from side of stage, I thought, 'What happens to this kind of beautiful woman - fragile, spirited, talented - what happens to them? When do they become swallowed into the man's world?' I thought about that a lot," he recalls. "I went up there and I said to her, 'You go find other women, and we'll make this project together.' That's how it started."

As the New York Times has noted, Ponifasio's troupe is "made up of fishermen, weavers, professors, lawyers and architects." He said in 2008 that "(i)n Polynesian culture there is no such thing as a dancer or actor, everybody is expected and is taught to know those things." Thus is there a myriad of real, lived experiences and voices in the piece, all of which shine through in a variety of searing, memorable expressions, both epic and intimate. For Ponifasio, this was a key part of the work's creation. "I said, 'This is what I want to do: I want you to compose songs, compose poetry, say what you want to say to the world right now. It's totally up to you. I'll put it onstage.' And that's exactly how we've done it."

There's another part of Stones in Her Mouth that goes beyond the stage; MAU performers have gone into Maori communities and workshopped the piece with other women, to create what Ponifasio calls "this kind of composition Maori women make. At the end of the project, we're going to publish everything."

This instinct reflects a political consciousness that is perhaps central to MAU's identity. As Antipodean website Concrete Playground notes, the company has "become recognised internationally for their beautiful, unnerving and hypnotic creations grounded in native Pacific cultures and their ancestral, elemental worlds." The name of Ponifasio's company - "Mau" - means testimony or vision, and is a nod to Samoa's non-violent movement toward independence in the early 20th century. That doesn't mean their work has gone unnoticed in the Northern Hemisphere. Ponifasio has staged Requiem, based on Mozart's famous work, at New York's popular Mostly Mozart Festival in 2008; it contained thoughtful themes exploring environmental degradation. He's also directed opera, Carl Orff's Prometheus, at the 2012 edition of Ruhrtriennale, an annual music and arts festival in Germany, and taken his company to a variety of prestigious international venues, including the Edinburgh Festival, London's Southbank Centre, and the Berliner Festspiele. Though he'd never directed an opera before the Sellars commission, Ponifasio says he's open to future opportunities. "It's really no different than the way I approach Stones," he remarks, "it's still about the same process, the attempt to relate with people."

Ponifasio himself feels there's an intimate bond between art and activism. His recent work Birds With Skymirrors examines the issue of climate change throughout Pacific Island cultures, while Tempest: Without A Body explores power dynamics in a post-9/11 world. "The basic impulse to create is because you're not satisfied with what is there," he explains. "Why else would you create? That is a political thing to do. You are introduced to a new vision and a new conversation, so by its nature, all art is political because it's something that's born out of what is not fully known."

Stones in Her Mouth features a stark black-and-white design, including a searingly bright LED light at the front of the stage, one that stays lit for the entire show. There's a good reason for the visual choice. "To tell the truth, I am kind of color blind," Ponifasio confesses, "so that's why I cannot trust colors. As I kept working at the theater, it became familiar, how to use light and dark, so I just work with that."

It's this sense of exploration, of looking into new places and new experiences and new expressions, that finds such beautiful and occasionally painful manifestation in Stones in Her Mouth. Integrating Maori cultural expressions like kapa haka, poi, and the chant-style art of moteatea with the Japanese tradition of butoh, and an array of choreographic and theatrical influences, including (notably) the work of Robert Wilson and Pina Bausch. "I look more at theater not as a space of human beings talking about human beings," Ponifasio states, "it's more of a cosmological space, where one can go past what we call reality and more into time and space, where matter does not really matter. That's the kind of theater I try to make, making the audience very silent... not to excite them like they do in a football game or an opera. I like the person to hold their own body and think about their existence. That's what I really try to do in the theater."

Stones in Her Mouth can be challenging if you don't know the Maori language or culture, though Ponifasio says the only challenges are those viewers themselves bring into any area of art. For all of its cultural specificity, it's a deeply thoughtful work that is equal parts spiritual and political. "The challenge comes when you resist another person's point of view," he says softly, "the challenge comes when you hang on to the image for what is reality to you [...] I like to think that theater is a place where we go and we bring our best: our best concentration, our best open heart. Otherwise it's just another consumer-driven distraction. I don't need to go to the theater to re-confirm things I already know."

Photos: All photography from Stones in Her Mouth courtesy of MAU; photo of Lemi Ponifasio by Christian Westerback.

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From This Author Catherine Kustanczy

Catherine an arts writer specializing in reviews and longform profile features. She has worked in Dublin, London, Toronto, and New York City, in a variety (read more...)