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William Kentridge Takes New York

William Kentridge and his South African collaborative team have landed in New York City and New Haven this fall, leaving us with remarkable opportunities to see their work. Performances of Refuse the Hour were a highlight of BAM’s 2015 Next Wave Festival and thrilled audiences at Yale Repertory Theater; Kentridge’s version of Alban Berg’s Lulu runs at the Metropolitan Opera through December 3. Kentridge—a rare combination of theater innovator, director, installation artist, draftsman, animator, and actor/ narrator—is an artist with a range and energy that rivals Picasso’s, and his Harvard Norton Lectures (2012) established him as an educator and philosopher. An exhibition of his drawings for Lulu can be viewed at the Marian Goodman Gallery through December 19

A scene from Berg’s Lulu. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Refuse the Hour is based on Kentridge’s recent installation, The Refusal of Time at the Metropolitan Museum (October – May 2014). Both the installation and the multimedia opera are the result of a collaboration between Kentridge and Peter Galison, a Harvard-based historian of science. Together, they explore post-Albert Einstein concepts of time drawn from modern quantum physics, contrasted against older measuring devices like the metronome. In the opera, an amusing slapstick film projection sequence (based on an actual historical event) shows a group of “terrorists” dynamiting the Greenwich Meridian to stop the new system of internationally standardized time. Those of us who are slaves to the digital clock can sympathize with Dada Masilo as she lights the fuse of the cartoon dynamite sticks and the ensuing bang fills the theater. Masilo, the production’s South African choreographer, also represents those who refuse the colonizers’ standardized concept of time; her lament, “Give us back our sun,” rises above the strife as she tries to reclaim her world’s previous gage of time, by the sun in the mid sky at noon.

It is this movement back and forth between his “stone age technology” and the insanity of modern times that gives Kentridge’s Refuse the Hour its charm. Watching it, I was reminded of Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle (1958), which shows a similar struggle with mechanical efficiency. Working with some inventors / machinists, Kentridge has created an odd variety of sculptures that function as performers onstage. Christoff Wolmarans, Jonas Lundquist, and Louis Olivier have helped the artist build this accumulation of Rube Goldberg devices—megaphones on poles, worn by actors; choreography on a turntable—suggesting an older model of circular time; strange contraptions with bicycle wheels that move on and off stage like odd bit players; and, at the production’s center, is a semaphore, an early signaling device with arms.

The opera’s opening projectionsshow old measuring devices—a metronome and the bellows from a Pianoella, a player piano precursor. Time as breath is a theme that appears in multiple forms—bellows, accordions, wind instruments, and tales of Paris’s pneumatic clock (1880 – 1927) in which a burst of air through a system of tubes beneath the city would synchronize the city’s clocks with one great fart. Breath, as wind, also moves images made of bits of paper that are reconstructed as the film is run backwards. Time breathes in and out, and also moves forwards and backwards in a conceptual sphere of quantum physics, but it is also brought to the viewer through physical acts and images.  Joanna Dudley, who also appears in Lulu, is able to sing Berlioz backwards, often through a giant megaphone—another reversal of time, not to mention quite a feat. Running time backwards also becomes a metaphor for regret, part of the human condition.

The Kentridge of the Norton Lectures returns in Refuse the Hour as narrator, in his trademark white shirt. The artist is onstage during the entirety of the production, as our science teacher, not unlike Mr. Wizzard. He explains the physics of time to us—all moments, including the moment of Christ’s crucifixion still exist in outer space; we may vanish in a black hole; everything we have ever said is retrievable; etc.  Kentridge studied mime and theater in Paris at the L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq, hoping to become an actor, and now this early dream is being realized. The film sequences of Kentride stepping over chairs and in dialogue with his double have their origins in the Norton Lectures. The artist is charming as a performer. I am again reminded of Jacques Tati; Kentridge has a sympathetic manner not unlike Tati’s Monsieur Hulot. The film sequences with Masilo and Kentridge throwing books at each other (which fly back again, through film reversal) and dragging each other across the stage are memorably funny. The observatory scene quotes Georges Méliès’s The Astronomer’s Dream (1898); Melies was a man who also gesticulated to his film double.

William Kentridge, Installation view Drawings for Lulu, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, November 2 – December 19, 2015. Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery. Photo: Cathy Carver.

Shadow projections are used in both Refuse the Hour and The Refusal of Time. In the Norton Lectures, Kentridge defends the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave and describes what they can teach us about enlightenment. Andreas Huyssen, in his book William Kentridge & Nalini Malani, The Shadow Play as Medium of Memory, explores the use of shadow play in the work in depth. Shadows stimulate the viewer’s imagination, and teach us to navigate the blind areas in both our vision and knowledge. In Refuse the Hour, silhouette processions of black workers walk across the stage in projections; their movements are mime-like and mysterious; we have no idea where they are going. They inhabit a shadow realm, yet emerge in the panorama of post-Apartheid South Africa. The shadows form a collective drama, combined with the sounds of the street musicians and a chorus of “What a friend we have in Jesus.”

Yet, a departure occurs in the role of the black Africans in Refuse the Hour. Here we see black Africans as full collaborators, not simply silhouettes. Masilo holds her own as an equal partner to Kentridge on stage, physically encircling him, like a dance partner. Some of her movements have a wonderful “in your face” gesture, and her vitality carries the production. Watching, I am reminded how the emergence of black playwrights like John Kani, Gibson Kente, and Gcina Mhlope have changed the face of South African theater forever. The vocalist Anna Masina is another force in the production, as are Thato Motlhaolwa and Tlale Makhene. The two men open the show with a bang—literally, on a big drum. This onstage partnership with a crew of black musicians, vocalists, and dancers, brings an even greater vitality and dimensionality to his work. It feels like a giant stop forward. We feel the promise of post-apartheid life and the cultural richness that comes with it.

Kentridge’s work is astonishing and complex. And, it works as theater should, on a level that surpasses the capacity of one man alone. The composer Philip Miller and video designer Catherine Meyburgh are frequent collaborators with Kentridge. Miller and Meyburgh both collaborated with Kentridge on Refuse the Hour, and Meyburgh is the Projections Designer on Lulu at the Metropolitan Opera. The first collaboration between Kentridge and Miller was Felix in Exile shown at MoMA, and the pairing ushered in a partnership that was to produce works with a powerful emotional resonance. Miller, a native South African, is able to absorb the sounds of South African street life and combine them with extremely sophisticated modern compositions. Meyburgh is an extraordinarily talented designer able to perform every task of animation, and theater technology; she makes the projections from his drawings, a Herculean task. Sometimes Kentridge and Miller work together for periods, then Miller works independently with Meyburgh, then with Meyburgh working independently with both men and sometimes all working together. The ingenious and aesthetic synergies fuel this work, but it is the conversation between them in their own media that inhabits the stage.

The big event of Kentridge’s visit to New York was the premiere of his production of Lulu at the Metropolitan Opera, with projections by Meyburgh. The 1937 opera, written by Alban Berg, but completed after his death by Friedrich Cerha, is based on two plays by Frank Wedekind: Earth Spirit (1895) and Pandora’s Box (1904). But it is the 1929 film of Pandora’s Box by G.W. Pabst, starring Louise Brooks, that captures Kentridge’s imagination in his drawings of Lulu with her “Brooks bob.” This 1929 image of Lulu is used along with images of the production’s leading lady Marlis Petersen. In the production we see Petersen—when not in a bra and panties—dressed in a shift with a pasted on breast and merkin painted by Kentridge. This is an artist’s production—the first scene takes place in an artist’s studio, which exists throughout the production in altered forms. Petersen’s Lulu is the muse both of the artist who paints her portrait in Act One and of Kentridge himself as he draws upon her—we see his drawn projections of her, and she dons props he’s created expressly for her—like her paper cylinder mask and large paper hands, which recall Dada founder Hugo Ball in his iconic cardboard getup.

William Kentridge, Dada Masilo. Photo: Stephanie Berger.

Kentridge further examines the relationship between the film icon and the stage Lulu by adding to his production two silent characters who function like mimes. A mannequin-like woman played by Joanna Dudley resembles Brooks, the silent film’s Lulu. She perches, then falls in and out of an open piano holding poses that at times seem painful.  Dudley, who is ever-present, mimics the main action in the drama, forming a silent partner for Peterson’s Lulu—exploring the role of the double almost as Kentridge does with himself in Refuse the Hour and the Norton lectures. Dudley’s mime partner, played by Andrea Fabi, is a creepy valet who provides props to characters and moves flats off stage.

Kentridge is a wonderful theater “thief” par excellence. When many contemporary theater designers seem stuck in grim, minimalist, Donald Judd inspired sets with performers in dark business suits, Kentridge revives older theatrical models with a lively update. In Kentridge’s production of The Magic Flute (2005), the forced perspective frames (multiple borders and legs) of the Baroque theater are mechanized. It is as if the levers and gears of Český Krumlov’s theater have been thrown into full tilt with front and rear projections added, and other Baroque theater movable elements replaced with modern mechanized counterparts. In his production of Shostakovich’s The Nose (2010), every stage trick of Meyerhold’s The Magnanimous Cuckold (1922), Popova’s built platforms and costumes, are quoted. To this he folded into his projections every Russian constructivist device from topography to graphics. New Yorkers could see much of this technology at work in the two theater models included in the MoMA (2010) Kentridge retrospective.

Lulu again mines the history of both theater and art history. George Grosz, for a 1928 German performance, The Good Soldier Schweik, used projected drawings to replace built scenery—he felt scenery was too bourgeois. Grosz’s drawings were reproduced on glass plates and were projected onto the set with lantern slides. Kentridge stands out in the world of theater projection, largely because he hand draws so many of his projections with variety, freshness, and genius. Much theater projection today relies on film and photographic images, digitally manipulated. Another “Stone-Age technique” used in his projections include stop frame photography, first used by Lumière in Le Squelette Joyeux (1897). In Lulu, his pen and ink drawings move in sections, flapping on bits of news paper, with sections turned to change poses and expressions.

Most of the projections in Lulu use Kentridge’s drawings done in German Expressionist styles. Like Picasso and Matisse, Kentridge can knock off drawings in a variety of styles with an amazing facility. For the Lulu drawings he has gone period borrowing from the likes of Emil Nolde, Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, Conrad Felixmüller, and others. The woodcuts used, also shown at Marian Goodman, borrow from Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and Max Pechstein. Kentridge has not only cobbled together a wealth of period drawing techniques, they look immediate, never contrived. Lulu uses much slower simpler front projection than his other operas, so we see the drawings on the set’s flats.

The Marian Goodman exhibition features one hundred and two drawings for Lulu, hung unframed gallery style, along with a book published by Arion Press, and four woodcuts included in the book. All of the ink drawings on Oxford Dictionary pages are stunning, equally good, showstoppers. Here the separate pieces of paper are glued together so the movement through stop frame photography from the opera can only be imagined. We see a small, ink-drawn vertical nude drawing, soon to fill the height of the opera stage.  The individual portraits are even better up close—they become like icons in both the gallery and in the theatrical space, as we feel their presence as individuals. So much is going on in the opera it is a rare opportunity to see the works isolated and up close. It is a reminder of the depth and specificity of Kentridge’s work, and of how understanding can come by reflection upon the intimate as well as spectacle. Luckily for us, Kentridge has provided us with both.

Alban Berg’s Lulu, production by William Ketridge, co-direction by Luc De Wit, projection design by Catherine Meyburgh, set design by Sabine Theunissen, costume design by Greta Goiris, lighting design by Urs Schönebaum, runs through December 3 at The Metropolitan Opera.

William Kentridge: Drawings for Luluis on view at Marian Goodman Gallery through December 19, 2015.


Ann McCoy

Ann McCoy is an artist, writer, and Editor at Large for the Brooklyn Rail. She was given a Guggenheim Foundation award in 2019, for painting and sculpture.


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