I went to The Crimson House last night. I’ve heard a lot about MAU company, the brain-child of choreographer and theatre director Lemi Ponifasio. Friends who are involved in theatre and dance and whose opinions I value really rate him, so I entered the St James with some expectations.

The Crimson House starts with a loud static feedback and some vertical strobe neon lights. I actually leapt in my seat as the house lights didn’t go down so much as out very suddenly and BANG – here’s your show. A great start, couldn’t please me more. The loud static and neon strobing went on for a number of minutes. Maybe slightly uncomfortably long. This set the scene for most of the show (advertised as 90 mins but actually more like 2 hours). The scenes were long, the movements often very slow. Some of them were extremely beautiful and strange – the robotic, monk-like men who moved as if they were on wheels and clapped and slapped out rhythms off their thighs were incredible. The sole female performer – was also incredible to watch. There was a long scene where she is dressed in a black bodysuit, a long blonde wig like something a trannie might wear, wrapped around her – and behind her a large projection of the same woman on film. The woman on film toys with the dancer on stage, and when a male dancer joins her – it’s like we’re being shown an image of how media and culture, religion and society toys with our ideas of sexuality and love. To me this scene, the monks on wheels, and the extraordinary bloody, sticky, violently performed finale did what I look for in dance and theatre – it showed me something about the world I inhabit in a way that I haven’t seen before. Bravo et brava, MAU company.

However, many of the scenes went on for so long and didn’t seem to develop the ideas within them, so I was left feeling that the content was semi-articulated. I don’t think this show is yet a finished piece of art. Half-baked is what I told my partner when I got home, half-baked and yet, there’s something there to work with. I compared this show, even though they have not much in common, to the Robert Lepage spectacular Needles and Opium. I also entered Needles and Opium with expectations, and left feeling pissed off that I’d spent $78 on a seat. The Lepage was a spectacle without a single original idea at its core. It was what I think of as ‘festival fodder’ – something pretty that replays old idea – love is addictive! Drugs are addictive! And here’s some flash lights! The Crimson House had flash lights – kudos to designer Helen Todd here – but it also had content. At times this content was baffling, tedious and just not articulate enough. But it was there and it was there in droves.

My seat was in the circle ($43 plus that ludicrous $5.95 that Ticketek charges to email you a PDF of your ticket which you print out – boy I wish I’d come up with that business model). I’d guess that about a fifth of the audience in the circle left this performance – from about 15 minutes in. At one point the audience was dropping like flies. There was a row of young women along from me who giggled anytime anyone left, and when a nude female was projected on film (haha! live breasts!) I thought they were going to fall off their seats. When the lights went black at the end of the show, there was a stunned silence. Was this the end? What did we, the audience who remain think of this? What the fuck do we do now? And then slowly, we started to clap. It wasn’t effusive, but we applauded the brave and beautiful dancers and the creators. This sort of interaction is what I go to theatre for. I loved the audience uncertainty, I loved the solemn dancers taking their bows to a luke-warm applause. What a hard fucking existence – dance your heart out and get – this? But that’s live theatre, and I love the honesty of the reactions.

I think that this is what Festival is here for – and good on them and Creative NZ for putting money into this latest MAU production. Ponifasio comes with very good international credentials (our best artists need these to ensure ongoing funding, sadly). This show is not finished yet and I hope they get money to keep playing with it. But I’m very pleased I went and saw it. I will go and see the next MAU production because I think this is a company that is taking risks, some may not pay off but some will.

Finally, I want to say something about the sound design. Mostly it was static, clapping, and technical noise. I loved it. There was one tiny bit of string instrument at the last, but at one point I closed my eyes and thought I heard a tiny, far away orchestra, hidden behind the static, white noise. Maybe I was hearing things, maybe I was meant to hear things. I yearned for some music, and when I got a small bit of stringed something (viola? cello?) at the end, I was grateful, but also grateful for the noise around it. Perhaps that is what this show is heading towards – perhaps it’s trying to say something about how we live inside this giant, mysterious machine of a world – none of us know what it really is, we have our myths, we make up our stories, but we’re none the wiser. And fuck dance, let’s art.


Correction: Updated 10 March, I wrongly attributed lighting design to Tim Gruchy, who is the film designer. Helen Todd is the lighting designer for The Crimson House.