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April 8, 2011

Theatre director Peter Sellars was in town last night with the Samoan choreographer Lemi Ponifasio to introduce a two-night run of Ponifasio's Tempest: Without A Body at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

In a pre-performance talk, Sellars called Ponifasio's Tempest "the one great piece I've seen about 9/11."

I dearly wish that I could agree, as this clearly seems to be the sort of Important Political Work that it's not polite to dislike.

The production, which involves a cast of Pacific Islanders, is a deeply dark meditation on the theme of human rights created in response to the escalation of state powers and unlawful detention in the post 9/11- world. The piece has been widely acclaimed around the globe since premiering in Vienna in June 2007. It has been performed at such places as the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre London 2008, Theatre de la Ville Paris 2010 and Volksbühne Berlin 2010.

I can see how it's interesting for a group of artists from a part of the world that most people think of as a sun-drenched tourist's paradise to create a work as dark and oppressive as this. There are some incredible, fast-action choreographic sequences in which a group of male dancers perform ritualized steps with fast footwork and sharp, frenetic hand gestures. The seamlessness of their movements makes them look both graceful and eerily machine-like.

But beyond this, I didn't really get much out of Tempest except a terrible headache.

The relentless, 90-minute performance takes place on a pitch black stage punctured with shafts of eerie white light. Between this and the oscillating, industrial-strength white noise that serves as the production's sonic accompaniment, you feel you're being tossed around the inside of a washing machine. Every now and again, various figures emerge from the shadows, and skulk back. A bent-over angel figure in a ragged dress belts out blood-curdling screams and holds up a blood red hand. A Maori chief dressed in a suit with no shoes on makes an ardent speech in his native tongue.

The experience is completely unsettling and the meaning, beyond a depiction of the resolute bleakness of imprisonment underscored by vague references to Shakespeare, Walter Benjamin, Paul Klee and Maori activism, remains largely intractable.

Ponifasio obviously wants the production to stir up visceral, unsettled feelings. But is the dramatic sense of relief that I experienced as soon as I exited the theatre really the sort of end-goal that an artist should aim for? With Tempest, there's very little chance that Ponifasio will leave 'em coming back for more.


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