Reflections on an Indonesian Epic
Merce Cunningham Dance Company
Directed by Robert Wilson
Lincoln Center Festival
New York State Theater
New York, NY
July 15-16, 2005
©2005 by George Jackson
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
"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
July 25, 2005
Alan M. Kriegsman
Sali Ann Kriegsman
Alexandra Tomalonis (Editor)
Kathrine Sorley Walker