writers on dancing


Oceanic Reflections on an Indonesian Epic

Merce Cunningham Dance Company
Rose Theater
“I La Galigo"
Directed by Robert Wilson
Lincoln Center Festival
New York State Theater
New York, NY
July 15-16, 2005

by George Jackson
copyright ©2005 by George Jackson

The pages of books and the stages of theaters are very different places. One reads a book at one's own pace. In the theater, one submits to someone else's sense of time—a conductor's, director's or choreographer's. In a book, space can be absent, while some sort of space is always present in the theater (except radio theater) even if it is flat, like in Nijinsky and Bakst's "L'Apres-midi d'un faune", or circular and encompassing like that of John Cage and Merce Cunningham's "Ocean". Having grown up with proscenium stages and their framed, 3D picture worlds, I'm often uncomfortable with unconventional theater space. "Faun", though, (when done well) and the current Lincoln Center Festival production of "Ocean" are to be relished.

"Ocean" I saw the night before "I La Galigo". The way the new Rose Theater had been configured for this work wasn't gimmicky in the least. The dancers performed on a round platform; above them was a blue-lit lid—the ocean's surface, someone called it. The audience sat surrounding the dancers and both were encloaked by the music. Sound seemed to issue from every direction and I wondered where the orchestra was until the end when lights came on in the topmost, circular balcony and one saw the musicians there taking their bows. Their music had filtered down to us from the "surface".

Although the program notes for "Ocean" propose literary precedents—James Joyce and Herman Melville—I was reminded of Richard Wagner and his Bayreuth. Seriously, Cage/Cunningham as Wagnerians? Yes, in the best sense and the bad. "Ocean", like "Tristan", teems with action and music. There's ebb and flow. Cunningham's choreography dissects bodies, kneading and merging them too, stunningly so. (The opening solo for Daniel Squires is reminiscent of Leonide Massine's choreography for Frederic Franklin as the Spirit of Creation in the ballet of Beethoven's "Seventh Symphony".) Leitmotifs function as forces (gravitational and repellant) that keep invention from imploding, then exploding and scattering. There's even a great female role that starts in a pas de deux and grows to summarize the action's tides and eddies like Isolde's Liebestod. "Ocean" is sublime, like Wagner. In addition, there are architectural analogies to Wagner's theater design at Bayreuth.

Wagnerisms that tend to Teutonism or Disney also occur in "Ocean". Rules were strict for audience behavior: no late seating, no readmission if one left the theater during the intermissionless 90 minutes of the performance. The digital timers that let one know exactly when the performance would begin and end were both annoying and helpful. The sea and sealife sounds of David Tudor's electronic score stooped to aural cartooning at times and in such instances remained unabsorbed by Andrew Culver's orchestral music.

Attending "I La Galigo" was a different experience. It was permissive. One could wander in and out during its 3 hour duration. Wilson used the traditional proscenium stage with ropes from above and trapdoors from below to establish the three-layered world of Indonesian legend. Two short runways over the orchestra pit projected the playing area into the audience, but just a little. There were maximum effects achieved with elegantly minimal means. At one point a barrier of golden bars, thin as sun rays, ascended into a cherry red sky. Later, a blue rain of teardrops descended to the ground. The pacing of this piece of lyric theater was slow, comfortingly slow, but the action gathered force and seemed to accelerate as it evolved.

The story of "I La Galigo" is a creation legend that Rhoda Grauer's English text (projected as supertitles) treated with charm. At its core is a sibling pair, not Cain and Abel, but a twin brother and sister who fall in love in their mother's womb. At first, they refuse to be born but when they do emerge, they must abstain due to the incest curse. Wilson and his team (Rahayu Supaggha for music, Adi Ummu Tunru for dance, Johannes Herzog for costuming et al.) give us a smorgasbord of acting, dancing, singing and instrumental styles adapted from the Indonesian cornucopia. It is a potpourri that would make Maurice Bejart blush. Wilson, though, almost let one pick and choose what to watch and what to overlook. Only at key moments did he exert his directorial prerogative and focus our attention. Often, I couldn't take my eyes off the venerable Coppong Daeng Rannue as the rice goddess. Her fan seemed to be of fragile porcelain, so delicately did she make it dance. What Wilson had done consistently as director was exercise his eye for casting. Actors in noble roles that require beauty of form and features were exemplary specimens.

For all its amplitudes—the huge cast, the stage effects, the length of it—"I La Galigo" was not Wagnerian, not overwhelming, but humanistic. One wouldn't have come to know the characters intimately without all the resources. One cared what would happen to these people, to their children and their children's children even after Wilson doused the last lights.

Photos by Stephanie Berger.

Volume 3, No. 28
July 25, 2005

copyright ©2005 George Jackson


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last updated on July 25, 2005