Radar Festival LA: <em>Stones in Her Mouth</em>

Radar Festival LA:
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This performance piece by Samoan choreographer Lemi Ponifasio, which had its world premiere at the Radar Festival in Los Angeles this week, is a perplexing work. On the one hand, it has a powerful and truthful core - it was developed by a group of Maori women as a response to the role of women in their own country and around the world. It features mesmerizing songs and chants in the Maori language and touches on rituals that are moving and transcendent.

However, the piece employs design and production techniques that are deeply flawed, and occasionally disastrous, and that transform what is a strong concept and stirring text into a monotonous, tame and flabby production. The chief flaw in the production choices was the decision to shine a bright light directly into the faces of the audience for the entire performance.

While Ponifasio is known for his use of light and darkness, the end result is that the show is virtually unwatchable. (A number of audience members were seen shielding their eyes with their programs or trying to squint through sunglasses to see what was happening onstage). Although there may be some aesthetic reasons for largely blinding the audience to the performance, it ends up being just plain silly and annoying, and adds to the frustration of what is an overlong and plodding piece.

Other elements of the piece are terrific. The voices of the performers and the precision of their movements are excellent. The sound track - a mélange of sound effects and music - is very good, and manages to deflect some of the other poor production choices. The choreography, on the other hand, performed in excruciatingly slow motion, is largely uninspired, even if it were performed at three times the speed. But in super slow-motion, it is simply aggravating.

The problem with Ponifasio's work here is the heavy overlay of misguided production techniques that wreak havoc with a very compelling text and engaging performers. With a little more trust in the text and performers - and judicious cutting of an overlong piece - Ponifasio would have a first-rate and important work.

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