by Mavis Manus

I AM, the performance piece by Lemi Ponifasio that premiered recently at the Edinburgh International Festival, was created to mark the centenary of WW I. Ponifasio, artistic director of the New Zealand-based company, MAU, had this to say about his latest work:

“In war, no lasting victory has ever been accomplished and the victor and the vanquished are both robbed of their humanity. Art can point us or remind us of our ability to transform triumphantly without violence and pain.”

I AM begins with an ironic rendition of “God Save the Queen,” the tune that British military bands played while young men marched off to war. The production concludes with an image of a naked Christ writhing on the cross; the end result of jingoism is human suffering.

Ponifasio’s theme is dramatized in depth in I AM; extreme physicality, poetic movement, music, chanting, sound and light are all part of the theatrical mix.

Ponifasio works in a deliberate, precise way; his dancers, clad in black, move slowly across the stage, silhouetted against a slanting grey blackdrop. Then a voice barks out guttural commands and, under a hot white light, the civilians become soldiers taking part in a war, a war that explodes all around them with all the force and fury of an atomic attack.

I AM runs for nearly two hours, but the tension never lets up; the drama keeps building, intensifying. Sometimes a solitary figure appears and tries to sing over all the chaos and furor; it is a reflection of the struggle for redemption and deliverance taking place on stage–-man’s quest for peace in a time of strife.

Ponifasio was inspired by a painting by the New Zealand artist Colin McCahon, “Victory Over Death.” The former also drew on texts by Heiner Muller (“Hamlet Machine”) and Antonin Artaud (“To Have Done with the Judgment of God”). Ponifasio also designed and directed I AM, with the expert help of lighting designer Helen Todd.

The collaboration resulted in an evening of unforgettable images and heart-rending emotions.

I AM was a co-production of Festival d’Avignon, Ruhrtiennale, International Festival of the Arts, Edinburgh International Festival and Auckland Arts Festival.