Sea Beneath The Skin

Sea Beneath The Skin pictures: Inês Rebelo de Andrade

The Song of the Earth and the Sea

by Jérôme Quiqueret

Summer 1908: reeling from his young daughter’s death, convinced of his own grave illness, and beset by antisemitism, the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler finds himself embroiled in an existential crisis. Seeking solace, he turns to Chinese culture for inspiration. The result is Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), a composition capturing the essence of a joyous world and humanity’s fleeting grasp on happiness.
Spring 2024: the Samoan and New Zealand artist Lemi Ponifasio draws on this seminal work of Western classical music to express a shared reverence for nature, while reflecting on humanity’s future in the face of climate change – a crisis born of our own hubris.

Theatre of Cosmovision

Sea Beneath The Skin brilliantly showcases the choreographer’s vision of theatre rooted in cosmovision, a concept that grounds performance in a territory and a culture – that of the South Pacific islands – using this foundation as a launching pad to explore the wider world. As the third part of the red bridge project, it confronts the dominant Western world culture more directly than previous iterations. Pacific and Western art forms unite – or at least coexist – throughout the performance, unlike Jerusalem and Love to Death, the project’s first two parts, where Western art played either a more subtle role or was cast in a less favourable light.

Lemi Ponifasio views the Philharmonie as a monument to Western culture, «to those who decided how I should be,» as he explained before the concert in a discussion with Matthew Studdert-Kennedy, Head of the Artistic Planning at the Philharmonie. This desire to challenge the established system drove his proposal for Sea Beneath The Skin, building on his 2023 work with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

To break from the conventions and audience expectations of Western theatre, Ponifasio has chosen a setup that upends the familiar. He relegates the orchestra to the background, shrouding the players in shadow behind a semi-opaque mesh curtain. Unlike typical performances of Das Lied von der Erde, the audience’s gaze isn’t drawn to the orchestra members, searching for clues about the quality of the interpretation in their postures and movements. Nor do we focus on the conductor – in this case, British maestro Duncan Ward – admiring his prowess and graceful gestures.

Instead, two white-tinted columns dominate the front of the carefully delineated stage, further obscuring the conductor. These pillars echo the forest of some eight hundred columns that surround and define the Philharmonie. On stage, however, they symbolise the Kauri, one of the piece’s two central metaphorical characters. This native tree of Aotearoa (the Māori name for New Zealand) can grow to fifty metres, with a sixteen-metre girth, and live over two millennia. Tragically, logging has decimated Kauri forests, and a root disease now threatens their survival. The second character is the whale, which, like trees and nature itself, embodies the ancestors of the Samoan people. These marine mammals, too, face existential threats from global warming and increased maritime traffic.

This is not a concert

We are taken on a journey to rediscover Das Lied von der Erde and experience it in a new way, carried on the metaphorical back of a whale. Sea Beneath The Skin transcends the concept of a mere concert; it is a ceremony. Ponifasio prefers to describe his performances as such, drawing from a rich tapestry of dance, theatre, and opera to propose a fresh understanding of art. «I suppose I’m an artist because I’m dissatisfied with what I see,» he confided on the evening of the performance. «My aim isn’t simply to have the audience listen to music or watch dance, but to forge a deeper, more internal connection between the audience and the world.»

The production challenges spectators to move beyond passive observation and become active participants in a shared ritual. It’s a gathering that celebrates our collective stewardship of the Earth, inverting the historical narrative imposed on Samoan culture by missionaries and colonisers.

«The arrival of European culture in the Pacific shifted our worldview. We went from being collaborators with nature to mere observers,» Ponifasio noted. «For us, nature is a partner and home to our ancestors – they are the sea and the whales.» It is this ancestral cosmovision that Ponifasio’s art seeks to revive and share on stages around the world.

In Sea Beneath The Skin, the ceremony is performed by members of the Kiribati Islands theatre group, also seen in Jerusalem in October 2023. They joined Ponifasio’s MAU troupe in 2010, appearing in Birds with Skymirrors, and have since used the stage to represent their community, raising awareness about the dire consequences of climate change for their islands, which face the threat of disappearance within decades.

An Ode to the Slowing of Time

Sea Beneath The Skin opens with a deliberate, slow build-up, setting an unusual tempo. A man and woman, dressed in minimalist attire, perform a reinterpreted version of haka – the traditional Māori ceremonial dance. Ponifasio intentionally leaves their chanted texts untranslated and provides no textual explanation for the next appearance – the most surprising and striking – of four men dressed in black. They move in quick, staccato steps, then shift to a rhythm dictated by body percussion, their hands striking various parts of their bodies. They evoke oracles, attuned to the ebb and flow of natural forces, bending as if caught in wind and waves.

After this intense prologue, the symphonic section introduces American tenor Sean Panikkar and Anglo-Singaporean mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron. They take centre stage and alternate through the six lieder of Das Lied von der Erde. While Gustav Mahler’s masterpiece extols nature’s beauty and the transience of all things, it casts humanity in a complex light, oscillating between wonder and despair at our finite existence in contrast to nature’s eternity.

During the second lied, «Der Einsame im Herbst (The Lonely One in Autumn)», sung by the mezzo-soprano, a young Kiribati performer enters in traditional celebratory attire. Throughout this song and the next, he crosses the stage repeatedly, pouring white powder from a container to form mounds. This act seems to symbolise water flowing through a channel carved by the Kauri’s roots, aiding a whale stranded by drought to return to the sea – a metaphor for nature’s resilience in the face of adversity, which underpins the entire work. Ponifasio deliberately leaves this narrative open to interpretation, offering a direct sensory and spiritual experience rather than an explicit message.

As the sixth and final 27-minute lied unfolds, only the soloist remains visible, with the orchestra a shadowy presence in the background. The Kiribati performers’ presence lingers even in their absence, their earlier actions having transformed the space, challenging the audience’s visual expectations.

In the climactic scene, as the orchestra falls silent without the customary applause, Ponifasio demonstrates his mastery of theatrical tableaux.

The soundscape shifts from overwhelming (often used in his previous works) to subtle, evoking oceanic depth and whale songs. Lighting reveals the performers’ bodies, especially that of the lead – the master of ceremony – as he sheds his ceremonial attire, his «second skin», to lie beside the symbolic Kauri tree. This final, powerful image encapsulates a ceremony bridging opposites and worlds, advocating for the continuity of everything.

Jérôme Quiqueret grew up in France, in the suburbs of Nancy. After completing secondary school with a scientific baccalaureate in 1997, he went on to study history at the University of Nancy, obtaining a master’s degree in 2002. He has lived in Luxembourg since 2013 and works as a journalist, contributing to publications such as Le Quotidien, Le Jeudi, Europaforum, and Tageblatt. His writing mainly covers topics related to society, culture, and the humanities. Additionally, he is the author of literary works with historical themes. His first book, Tout devait disparaître (published in 2022 by Capybarabooks), earned him the Servais Prize in 2023.

Translation: Neel Chrillesen