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#HF11 Environmental message in 'Birds with Skymirrors' does not give imagination wings, but literally gets in the way

A dancer with bird's head from ''Birds with Skymirrors''. Photo Sebastian Bolesch.

You can hardly take your eyes off the feet. The dancers make busy, fast steps and yet their bodies seem to glide across the stage. It exudes something of perfection. In 'Birds with Skymirrors', you constantly get the feeling that the bird world has been the model for the movements. Trembling hands are reminiscent of wingtips, vulnerably scanning the skies. Choreographer Lemi Ponifasio feels at one with the earth. The culture of his native island Samoa planted that feeling indelibly in him. No separation between culture and nature. Ponifasio cannot help but incorporate this feeling into his dance. His dance art is in the middle of life. No distinction between art and reality. With his dance, he wants to convey the experience of connection with nature to others. Be careful with it, don't destroy the earth, is his message.

One day, Ponifasio saw birds flying with glistening beaks, like they were carrying mirrors. Beautiful. But when he saw them up close, they turned out to be pieces of video tape, dumped into the sea.

The performance is a dark, elongated ritual. Carefully and intently, men make arm gestures, beautifully rounded, fluid, with sometimes decided head movements. They seem to stir in sea water or air, gentle and compliant. When they lay their heads back, they radiate total surrender to the currents that surround them. The wonderful thing is that these same gestures have something of power and control at the same time, as if the currents around them are also their own movements. Despite the relaxed look of the dancers, there is tight discipline.

The music is simple: long tones of the earth idly undergoing everything that happens on it. However much this dance is rooted in real life, for a Western audience the performance still carries the stylisation of a distant island. Thus, distance remains. The dance is filled with inspiration from nature, but does not drag the audience into it. Despite the terrified screams of the women and their dance with swaying orbs, little tension is built up. You gradually start to long for a dramatic incision, an unexpected twist. It doesn't come and that makes 'Birds with Skymirrors' a bit boring in the long run.

The message is abundantly clear. You see film footage of a pelican desperately trying to rise from oil-contaminated waves. One of the dancers wears a bird's head. This literalness gets in the way of enjoying the dance. Sure, those film images are poignant, but they say little more than, "Look how bad! Don't pollute the sea." What the performance should really do is give wings to your imagination, making you feel for an hour and a half how vulnerable you are. Because vulnerable is nature. And vulnerable is also the polluter who is part of that nature.

Lemi Ponifasio and dance group MAU with 'Birds with Skymirrors'. Seen: 3 June, Stadsschouwburg, Amsterdam. Still to see: 4 and 5 June, 20.00 hours

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Maarten Baanders

Free-lance arts journalist Leidsch Dagblad. Until June 2012 employee Marketing and PR at the LAKtheater in Leiden.View Author posts

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