SIBYL (US Premiere)

William Kentridge

Written by:
David E. Moreno
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“You will be dreamt by a jackal.”

            Years ago, when I first encountered the passionate black and white, mural-sized charcoal renderings of William Kentridge–depicting slavery, lynchings, and the black struggle for freedom and justice—I assumed the South African artist was black and that he was a young political activist, probably in his 30s. Kentridge was already in his late 50s when I discovered that the internationally praised “great artist of our time” was as white as the negative space in his drawings and looked more like one of our founding fathers than a black revolutionist from South Africa.  

            At 68, he has just completed an ambitious, season-long, campus-wide residency at the University of California, Berkeley that, in addition to classroom discussions, included his performance of Kurt Schwitter’s Dadaist sound poem Ursunate (1932), a staging of “A Guided Tour of the Exhibition: For Soprano and Handbag” which he co-created with Joanna Dudley; a visual lecture of his film, To What End and a retrospective of his films at nearby Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) and at the Townsend Center for the Humanities. All these offerings were presented with the same enthusiasm, vibrancy, and passion of that non-existent 30-year-old that I thought I had encountered years ago. But the pinnacle of this residency was SIBYL, the US premiere of Kentridge’s chamber opera and multidisciplinary production–the stellar programming by Cal Performances (kudos to Executive and Artistic Director, Jeremy Geffen.) 

“You will live longer than a horse. 

But not as long as a crow.”

            SIBYL comes in two acts. Part one, The Moment Has Gone, is a 22-minute-long film with live performance, accompanied by acclaimed South African composer/pianist Kyle Shepherd and a male chorus of four that includes associate director and choral composer, the gifted Nhlanhla Mahlangu. When vocalists saunter on stage, they do so casually, jiving with each other as if walking through their village or hood before taking their places–as Shepherd engages the keys of a Steinway concert piano that is part of the staging. Shepherd’s humble playing style is on par with the inspired and intuitive technique of American composer/pianist Keith Jarrett, as he plays from a score in his head, heart, and hands–not on paper. When the first vocalist wades into Shepard’s score, the tone and resonance of his first note are immediately transportive, a full story of sound that instantly brings a soulfulness to the film’s unfolding frenetic quick frames. In his voice–as is valid with the others who sometimes use a style of throat singing or make sounds with their lips or trembling vocals during solos–is a quality of singing that is as old as it is fresh, a great sorrow laced with exquisite beauty.

“Your days will become years.”

            To this river of sound–that is tied to a land, a nation, a people, that is carried on the wind but comes from the bones of a culture—Kentridge’s signature etchings, draftsmanship, and creative process fill the screen, pulling focus, adding subtle humor, inquiry, and mystery. Through the construction and deconstruction of his charcoal drawings–with him in the frame, sometimes two of him at the same time–a vague story unfolds, a myth that has within it the seeds of everything to come in part two, Waiting for the SIBYL—including a constant alchemical layering of images, projections over live performance, sounds and words that gather like leaves into a mound beneath a decaying tree; a gathering of humanity; the tree of life.   

            The text–the disjointed libretto–comes in the form of riddles, pieces of poems robbed from various sources, first presented in the film and continuing in part two, either spoken through a megaphone or appearing in graphics and drawings. They are nonsensical quips, full of meaning, and often with an existentialist edge. “There will be no epiphany,” which is both a relief and a disappointment, giving a glimpse of what is and isn’t to come, both in life and in Waiting for the SIBYL; a sensibility of –we’re all going to die anyway—which Kentridge offers as the motivation that has driven humans to seek out oracles since the beginning of civilization—to track down— SIBYL, the oracle from Greek mythology. “Death grows its tree inside you.” We want to know, even though we don’t want to know, because what we know or at least sense, is–our inevitable demise.

            In Waiting for the SIBYL– SIBYL is danced by Teresa Phuti Mojela. A full-bodied barefoot Earth Mother who pounds out her prophecies in a frenzy of movement, smothered by the voluptuous full skirt that wraps her as a shawl, drapes from her long hair like a veil or momentarily hides her like a hijab. To her kinetic movement, pages of books rain from overhead, or Kentridge’s stop-frame-projections shoot through her, creating a larger-than-life shadow-self behind her. But SIBYL, Kentridge painstakingly reveals, is also an algorithm… something that doesn’t tangibly exist and seems otherworldly yet has taken over our world, our psyches, beliefs, and attention…predicting our future, health, and shopping sprees. She/it/they, –are the new gods… “The old gods have retired,” flashes across the set before another, “Starve the algorithm.”

            Waiting for the SIBYL is a series of short vignettes, each revealed with the rising of a scrim-like curtain, tattooed with pages of Italian ledgers printed on it (perhaps to reiterate that the only certainty we are afforded is death and taxes.) And even the curtain is projected on, silhouetted sculptural shapes, Calder-like mobiles turn slowly across it before revealing the colorful stylized set design of Sabine Theunissen, which quickly create a sense of joy and playfulness even as performers, both male and female in this section, wonder how they will be remembered or are told they should “Resist the third martini.” Greta Goiris’ costumes, also colorfully minimal and overly stylized, provide large shapes–a circular-disc-hat or lampshade-like skirt–for video projections to dance. 

            “You will never see the city.” Indeed, we may not, but at this moment, at the end of this performance, we stand united in our humanity, as glorious and as fragile as it is. And herein lies the possibility why SIBYL is so monumentally captivating, why it sinks into us so instantaneously–the combination of light-heartedness, stunning visuals, and understated optimism–that resist being optimistic–in the face of our inner hourglass with its sands running out too quickly and the toll that this knowledge takes on us, even when much of our living is made burdensome with loss and injustice.

“Wait again for better Gods.”

            “Music in Africa is always made in collaboration, is always part of a communal experience,” says Kyle Shepard and elaborated on by Nhlanhla Mahlangu in the Q & A following the performance. It’s something shared, not done in isolation. And here is what makes William Kentridge a genuinely great artist– besides his multiple talents and skills and his longstanding commitment to using his art to speak for equality and justice–is the capacity to truly collaborate, to promote the artistry of others, and to work with them as equals in humility. 

David e. Moreno

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