If you haven’t yet googled Salā Lemi Ponifasio and MAU Wāhine in your preparation and building excitement for the opening of the Harcourt’s Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival, I encourage you to do so. There you will find many entries, in several languages, using descriptors such as: arts curator, director, theatre artist, performance artist, visual artist, Samoan matai, leading force, visionary and luminary.
It will become clear to you that there is no definitive title that quite encapsulates Ponifasio’s process or his resultant works. Perhaps you might let this fact grow into wonder, and feel yourself leaning in. This, I am certain is a far-reaching and cumulative effect of his art - a sense of innate wonder and a draw towards that which is undefined, but still created. In his own words, Ponifasio states that “something magic happens in the theatre or in performance. When I say magic I’m talking about something I cannot explain. You feel something, sense something…and five senses are not enough. All the senses are in place, and so you create.”
True to this multidimensional aspect of Ponifasio’s work, the combination of Transfigured Night, composed by Arnold Schönberg in 1899, MAU Wāhine, Kahurangi Māori Dance Company and Wiremu Te Tau Huata’s waiata Tūtira Mai Ngā Iwi may seem curious. When asked about this, Ponifasio explains that when seeing these participating groups and works as disparate, a reduction is created and connection suspended because “They are not different, it’s about finding the connection…we don’t want disconnection, especially now”.
In this light, acknowledgement through collaboration with Kahungunu-based artists and performers is an imperative part of the performance “With everybody who is participating, the question is always this, go [and] find the most beautiful thing you can find in your life and bring it to the people”.
Bringing our community together, therefore, is fundamental, “The objective is to bring people together…to make a reason, find a way”. So, what can we expect once we are brought together? Not song and dance, but a performance, a ceremony of connection and truth because, according to Ponifasio; “I am not here to mask the reality of life, I want to make life much clearer and much closer”. He asks us to prepare by coming with a “certain concentration, a certain commitment” an “open heart, and your best self”. To attend “quietly and beautifully and enjoy the community, the sense of your part in being with everybody”.
Indeed, Transfigured Night will bring our community a special space and time to focus on the practice of connection - its feeling and potential. This space, led by the performance and held by our community, is a ceremony. Yes, an opening ceremony for our beloved HBAF, but also a ceremony carefully crafted with our own tāonga. A ceremony through which we can create a sense of determination for how we connect and create a future for ourselves through the arts. Considering what 2020 has been for us all - and considering the development of HBAF as a creative touchstone for our community - The timing feels divine.
“Because beauty is always the way to address the culture of hurt, the culture of loneliness, the culture of violence. You have to make beauty. As the world falls apart, that is the most important thing” - Salā Lemi Ponifasio