Lemi Ponifasio was on a beach in the remote Pacific island of Tarawa in when he noticed seven frigate birds flying overhead, each with a strip of magnetic videotape in its beak. It was an eerie, beautiful sight and one that spoke volumes about the pollution of our planet.

The image resonated with him as an appropriate title for a work he was looking to create for the performers in his New Zealand-based dance-theatre company MAU, whose low-lying island homes were and are being inundated with floodwaters as a consequence of climate change. Once Ponifasio began choreographing Birds With Skymirrors, however, he was struck by its universal nature. “Radical climate change is not an apocalypse about to happen,” he says. “It is already here.”

Ponifasio, a Samoan high chief, began work on Birds With Skymirrors in 2009 when, ironically, Samoa was hit by a tsunami. Rehearsals were halted while the room they were using became dedicated to emergency relief for those affected by the tsunami.

The production incorporates film, sound (including chants and recordings from the moon landing), an imaginative lighting design and dance. It has been performed from Paris and Berlin to Edinburgh, where The Guardian gave it four stars, describing the performance as “physically extraordinary and imaginatively charged, embracing a global view of the world and our place in it”.

It says a lot about Ponifasio’s practice. An innovative artist and political activist, his works have dealt with anything from unlawful detention post 9/11 (Tempest) to the invasion of Iraq (Paradise).

But Ponifasio is anything but preachy. “I’m not trying to say to anyone how to behave,” he says. “That’s not the role of my theatre.” Instead, he hopes his productions transport audiences into another realm. Not a fantasyland, but a life that’s “more real”.

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The Australian premiere of Birds With Skymirrors plays at Carriageworks May 1–4.