Order out of disorder

Staging Sibyl was a bold move by the Barbican: a scant hour of progressive dance, music and animation by the South African artist William Kentridge, presented as a hypnotic and unsettling theatrical collage that appeared here for only three nights before moving on to the Ruhrfestpiele in Germany and then to Berkeley, California.

The Johannesburg-born Kentridge, who began his career in the 1970s as a printmaker and graphic artist and developed his practice during the apartheid years of the 1980s, is unusual in being utterly at home whether he’s working in theater, opera, dance, large civic Museums, or small galleries, although he’s possibly still best known internationally for his linear work, particularly his charcoal drawings and haunting animations (the Royal Academy will be hosting a major retrospective of these, spanning forty years, this autumn).

Sibyl is staged as a double-bill. the first part, The Moment Has Gone, starts us off in familiar territory. It’s one of Kentridge’s signature short films (this one lasts just twenty-two minutes) bringing his layered, ghostly sketches to life. Kentridge appears in the piece as himself, and as his own doppelgänger – reflective, sceptical, self-aware – filmed while making City Deep (2020), an animation inspired by Johannesburg’s mining history. Here are Kentridge’s characteristically smudged images – of the Zama Zama (illegal miners who work the city’s mine dumps) performing their repetitive, deadening labor with pickaxes; of the devastated Highveld landscape; of endurance and want – all merging, as we watch, into pictures hanging in the Johannesburg Art Gallery, which was built during the heyday of gold mining in South Africa.

Kentridge’s unapologetic realism is, however, relentlessly undercut by his process. He films not just the drawings, but every erasure and change. The resulting palimpsest is further overlaid by a draughtsman’s tentatively mapped circles, triangles, lozenges, squares: references to the kinetic mobiles of the American sculptor Alexander Calder, especially as they appear in Calder’s own film Work in Progress (1986). In Kentridge’s hands this geometry – an artistic geometry, promising certainty – remains precariously balanced against the uncertainty of human life. His patiently suffering figures undergo a gradual metamorphosis, as people do in classical myth, becoming rocks, clouds, trees. The sequence is deeply felt, but a wholly new dimension is added by the accompanying score for live piano and male chorus, created in collaboration with two fellow South Africans, the composer Nhlanhla Mahlangu and the pianist Kyle Shepherd. It’s hard to overstate the effect of their plangent, sometimes jarringly guttural accompaniment to the unfolding animation. Both unabashedly melodic and oddly fragmentary, invoking the Zulu style of isicathamiya (a cappella) choral, it leaves you wanting more singing.

And there is more: the next half of the work, Waiting for the Sibyl, is a forty-two-minute chamber opera which was made for the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma and premiered there in 2019, with music by Mahlangu and Shepherd and a libretto by Kentridge compiled from snatches of poetry translated into isiZulu, isiXhosa, Sesotho and Setswana by some fairly obscure writers from places as various as Finland, Africa, Israel, and South America. The Greek myth of the Cumaean sibyl on which the piece is loosely based, on the other hand, is well known. The story, as Kentridge recalls in his program note, “was that you would go and ask her a question”. Would things go well or badly for you? Would your life be long or short? “She would write your fate on an oak leaf and place the leaf at the mouth of her cave, accumulating a pile of oak leaves.” But there was a catch: as soon as the askers tried to read their fate a breeze would rise and blow the leaves about, “so that you never knew if you were getting your fate or someone else’s”.

Themes of fate and mortality, and the unknown cruel thing that may lie around the next corner, are always resonant, perhaps peculiarly so at the moment. The question of how art might meaningfully confront unpredictable, precipitous agony – how to address a world in which, as the libretto puts it, “you will be dreamt by a jackal” – hovers over the evening. At first, as in the earlier piece, Kentridge approaches it obliquely, by focusing on the machinery of artistic production. The entire opera is performed to a jerky choreography reminiscent of Michael Clark’s ballets, backed by flickering projections of type and film: selected animations from the first part of the night (now monstrously enlarged), those Calder-inspired geometries, and pages of text from the libretto itself.

This deconstruction is at times achieved with tremendous playfulness, and even some slapstick physical comedy, perhaps influenced by Kentridge’s time at the Jacques Lecoq theater school, as the cast goes about “performing the meaning’s absence” (you can find the full libretto on Kentridge’s studio website). The nine singers and dancers inhabit a 1950s retro office, with maddeningly noisy typewriters, and a waiting room with infuriating collapsing chairs. They wear disc-shaped, Calderesque hats, cartoon-like distortions of the round caps of officialdom. It’s an avant-garde vision of a mechanized society that has lost its way and now lives by absurdly reductive nostrums. “Resist the third cup of coffee”, we’re warned. “Discard/ all envelopes/ medicine bottles/ last year’s socks.” What about the possibility of love? It’s “a foolish heart that would love”, a “wise heart that would forget”.

At other moments the prophecies (such as they are) are darkly astringent. The part of the Sibyl herself, memorably danced by Teresa Phuti Mojela, twists and shudders on a spotlit platform, casting a vast moving shadow across the words “you will be led away at dawn”, “no place will resist destruction”, “fresh graves are everywhere.” Throughout, the piece is supported and given coherence by that astonishing choral music: plaintive, gorgeous, terrifying – until you really do feel, as the libretto suggests, that “heaven is talking in a foreign tongue”.

In a key interlude called “Rorschach”, giant inky silhouettes are thrown against the curtain and slowly start to turn. It’s a revolution in both senses. A leaf becomes an ampersand, a tree becomes a typewriter, pausing to yield moments of crazy coherence. At last, everything is doubled and transformed and is resolved, just as the Sibyl’s leaves, in Dante’s retelling of the myth, become the pages of the Divine Comedy. That old artistic sleight of hand, the magical summoning of order out of disorder, is curiously satisfying.

“Resist the Greek tragedies”, the libretto cautions. “You will (for 20 minutes) have great happiness./ It is not enough/ (but it is not nothing).” By now, though, we no longer want to resist. Art, like love, may not be enough. But it is not nothing. As the climax arrives, the main male vocalist, Xolisile Bongwana, begins a mesmeric recitative about the inevitability of death, discarding the Sibyl’s pages as he goes. And at the same time the superb leading female vocalist, Zandile Hlatshwayo, flanked by that whirling shadow and the pages of the libretto flashed onto the screen, takes us unhesitatingly into four or five searing minutes of resignation to the chaos and futility of it all, and a sweetness so painful that you hold your breath, hoping it will never end. Who would have thought it? “Something has been postponed” – not uncertainty, exactly, but fear, perhaps – through art, or love, or both. If only you could bottle it, or buy a recording.

Elizabeth Lowry‘s new novel, The Chosenis reviewed in this week’sTLS

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