TRAVERSING TIME, IN THE THEATRE

 

When in periods of light, interrupted sleep I saw before me the image of walking round the studio, again and again, William Kentridge, the artist and his companion, the dancer Dada Masilo behind him. You cannot say that the image was imprinted, for they were forever moving, as seen projected on the screen behind them in the theatre in Cape Town City Hall. The performance opened when a conglomerate of instruments was lowered from the ceiling in front of a dark stage. The instruments played a piece of complex rhythms, suspended in the air with no human intervention – a machinery striking a tune to which we are subjected through no will of our own. The artist appeared and read from a speakers’ chair the story of Perseus as it was told to him as a child, how the hero killed the gorgon Medusa, and then unwittingly his father appearing in disguise. Did it have to happen the way it did? Could he not have acted differently, and did his father have to be at that exact spot?

This was followed by the sequence where the artist walked around his studio, dressed in a white shirt, black trousers and a black hat, searching for ideas. First alone, then followed by the dancer in the piece, very small, dark and slender, in a wide, A-line skirt ending just below the knee and a tighter costume on the upper body, with a shaved head. “I am walking round the studio, round and round. In fact another person is walking there with me.” The search for ideas resulted but in the phrase “Truth is beauty. Beauty is truth”, which seemed to banal to be repeated, as it was in the artist’s reading. This sequence, and the singing sequence that followed, seemed to go on for too long, yet the repetitive, rhythmic image of the walking round the studio was what repeated itself to me in the intervals of light sleep interrupted by moving my legs into another impossible position, suspended between time zones.

My interest was sharpened as the artist started speaking of the invention of photography as a way of freezing time, a subject which fascinates me. At first, the people portrayed would have to hold still for minutes in order to be captured; people who walked by would appear in the image as fleeting ghosts, thus the picture would create its own separate timeframe. Then the invention of film as enabling time to go backwards; he would throw the paint and brushes in his studio, and playing the film backwards the brushes would reassemble perfectly, the paint would go back into its box. “Can we do it all over again?” his son would ask, and he would say, yes, but first they would need to clean it all up. This play with time was reminiscent of Dali’s images of suspension of gravity, created by throwing a cat and a stream of water from a bucket and holding a chair so as to make it fly.

Then time as an imperial invention came into focus; we were told of how time became fixed, the globe was divided into a vertical grid of lines, one’s own time abandoned for the sake of synchronisation from above. No longer was time guided by when the sun rose locally, the ‘here’ was sacrificed to the larger, imposed frameworks; ‘mother clocks’ stretching their extended arms out to rule the other clocks. “Give me back the sun” sang Ann Masina, a large black woman whose impressive singing had operatic qualities. The other singer’s Joanna Dudley performance was remarkably different, staccato and producing of sounds beyond speech, at times mechanical, at times resembling animal sounds, speaking backwards, as if being spoken by. Towards the end a long frenetic recitation culminated in the only discernible words; “No, that is not what I meant at all”. 1

This singer was white and thin, with a strict black haircut, with a coat resembling a warehouse uniform. The singers, like the dancer, and the two male black musicians on stage wore variations of skirts imprinted with large letters, in yellow, red and white. The film clips in the background repeated the stark graphic quality, in black and white, reminiscent of surrealist and early expressionist film clips. Hailers evoking appeals and political demonstrations were used throughout. Towards the end the dancer put one on her leg, reminding me of Captain Ahab in his frantic search for the whale. A further addition of two in different sizes, each on one arm, transformed the dancer into a partially mechanical creature, still moving though stiffly, perhaps painfully, invoking Kahlo’s self-portraits as part a living human, part death, part machine. This dancer, with her immense versatility, was the most impressive of all, in a multi-layered performance incorporating song, readings, a band of musicians and surreal film clips involving the same performers. With highly innovative music by Philip Miller, the performance was very evocative, of how time is taken away from us and violently forced upon us, and also of how we may play with it.

Note1. I learnt from reading Alexandra Dodd’s review of the performance that Ann Masina is an opera singer and a member of the Soweto Gospel choir and Joanna Dudley is a sonic glitch artist from the Berlin contemporary modernist music scene.

Refuse the Hour by William Kentridge in collaboration with Philip Miller, Dada Masilo, Catherine Meyburgh, Peter Galison. Cape Town City Hall 26th & 27th of February 2015.

Performers: William Kentridge, Dancer and Choreographer Dada Masilo, Vocalist Ann Masina, Vocalist Joanna Dudley, Actor Thato Motlhaolwa, Musical Conductor, Co-Orchestration, Trumpet and Flugel Horn Adam Howard, Percussion Tlale Makhene, Violin Waldo Alexander, Trombone Dan Selsick, Piano Vincenzo Pasquariello, Tuba Thobeka Thukane. Presented by Design Indaba.