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Something essential in Lemi Ponifasio's Standing in Time at Avignon Festival

media Lemi Ponifasio's Standing in Time at the Avignon Festival July 2017 Christophe Raynaud de Lage

Some people fell asleep after the 10 pm start of the première of New Zealand-Samoan choreographer, dancer and stage director Lemi Ponifasio’s Standing in Time at the Avignon Festival. RFI’s Rosslyn Hyams wasn’t one of them.

Perhaps some were tired from standing for so long outside the St Joseph High School before the show began in Avignon's well-known 30° plus July temperatures. The queues stretched for more than 100 metres when the doors opened and the security checks began. So when the show quietly hummed into action about 30 minutes late, no-one should have been surprised.

Standing in Time is not a wake-up show. Nine simply beautiful women on stage wearing long black dresses, only exposing their hands and above the neck, chant meditative lamentations accapella.

They move very slowly or hardly at all for 90 per cent of the piece, and the language of their rhythmic chants is not translated in surtitles. The attentive audience is allowed to feel the cadence and heart-rending shapes of their songs or the warrior-like anger of two solos.

One by one, with care, they pick up broken pieces of concrete and place them in a line along the middle of the stage from front to back, or when they perform a sort of mesmerizing juggling with a soft ball on a tie, it's enthralling. The ball is called a Poi and is used traditionally by warriors or hunters says Ponifasio, to keep their wrists supple.

Ponifasio’s stage is pretty bare. A la Peter Brook. He leaves the audience to use their own imagination to fill it in between the offerings of the nine women and the vertically mobile sticks of white light. "I want the spectators to take part in the creation. They cannot if they try to understand," he says.

Some images however, are clear to a western spectator. For example, the allegory of justice with eyes bound, holding an object representing scales in her right hand, and smeared with blood.

Lemi Ponifasio’s Standing in Time is like a well-orchestrated ritual lent to the Avignon stage for a performance in public.

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