The Lofty Bright Night
A REVIEW OF TRANSFIGURED NIGHT: SALĀ LEMI PONIFASIO, MAU WĀHINE, HAWKE’S BAY ORCHESTRA, KAHURANGI MĀORI DANCE AND THE HUATA WHĀNAU. TOITOI, OCTOBER 12 2020. By Nafanua Kersel
In the hours after the performance of Transfigured Night, I am one of seven women who find each other in the foyers, bathrooms and doorways of Toitoi. We gather in close on red leather and velvet chairs flanking a low table. It’s topped with comfort food, beer, and the detritus of our theatre adornments; earring, feather, hair-tie, handbag. We talk about it all - our lives, our families, our communities, our art. Through this, the conversation inevitably circles back to Transfigured Night. It resonates in us and we animate our thoughts in staccato layers, one over the other. It sounds a bit like this:
“It made complete sense, I saw the story of our atua, our tūpuna, our past and our future”
“It was incongruent, I wanted more flow”
“So much beauty. There was space made for all of it”
“I could have watched that one girl walk in circles all day”
“maybe that’s the point?”
“The first half was too different from the second half”
“It was uncomfortable to feel like the classical music was all that we pākeha had to offer”
“Te ihi, te wehi, te wana, te Māori mana motuhake!”
“The contrast, I felt slighted”
“My senses were so well fed”
“Is that the point?”
“Not polished enough”
“was that the point?”
“Why didn’t we stand to sing, or respond beyond clapping?”
“Why do we all feel so differently about this?”
“Why do we have so many questions?”
“Why, here we are together; asking each other these questions, right?”
“ah, that’s the point”.
In this YouTube-Netflix-TikTok-viral-resharing world, have we grown too accustomed to accessing and processing visual content quickly? Too used to having every message and story unfold neatly and easily before us? Even the most terrible stories and the harshest of realities can be received through the shield of a screen, the escape of a pause icon and the comfort of a chosen environment. Yes, these mediums have a place but, in our “post-lockdown” reality, many of us are aware of how these platforms serve as distraction and instant solace from the questions burning in our minds, and the economics burning through our pockets.
Yet, here we have an experience of theatre performance which raises questions and leaves them with us. As Salā Lemi Ponifasio shared in a recent interview:
"I make something on the stage, something like a wound and I say to you ‘how will you heal that wound?’ You have to do something. That’s the appeal that you make in theatre, that’s the prayer. There is no direct message."
A wound and a questioning, even when symbolic and theatrical, is not always comfortable. But it is beautiful nonetheless. There is no denying all the beauty we witnessed - the black, white and red; blood, stone and steel, the promise of innocence, the wood and string, thrum and pitch, the pūkana and wiri, moteatea and poi. There is also no denying the scope of feeling we experienced - grief, awe, elation, disruption, confusion, despair, hope, connection, unity, love.
At the red leather and velvet chairs, several hours pass before any of us dare to look at the clock. To say that time “stands still” for us on this night is a misnomer. Time speeds forward, turns back, stretches, and contracts (transfigures you might say). It’s a different clock we follow here, a suspended sense of time. That is what ritual and ceremony, theatre and art can create; a liminal space where we commune within yet outside of our usual reality. This is undoubtedly what Transfigured Night gave us. A space to peel back surface musings and let deeper questions rise. Questions which may, or may not, have existed within us before this suspended point in time. Through its ceremony, Transfigured night “per-forms” - in that it strikes a form and offers a sensorial compass for the questions we realised then carried, cried, or cradled out of the theatre with us.
We seven empty our glasses, pick up our mundane items and close our night - agreeing on two things:
The first; an acknowledgement to the Harcourts Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival for supporting the mana and kaupapa of a production where all speaking parts are completely and resplendently in Te Reo Rangatira. As an opening performance/ceremony, this sets a stunning precedent for Arts Festivals here in Te-Matau-a-Maui and beyond.
The second; that through the sharpness of our varied experiences of Transfigured Night, we might return to our daily lives to realise that we, the audience and community, are the connective channels for it all - for all aspects of the ceremony, and for all future potentials that our young people need us to fulfil. So, if there has to be an ultimate point to it all? Well, it’s all there on the first page of the HBAF 2020 programme - in the lyrics of Tūtira mai ngā iwi.