William Kentridge's SIBYL at Cal Performances
March 19, 2023
* Notes *
William Kentridge's SIBYL (scene from Part 2 pictured, photograph by Stella Olivier) had a US premiere at Cal Performances this weekend. The music composed by performer Nhlanhla Mahlangu and pianist Kyle Shephard was nothing short of mesmerizing.
The presentation started with a short 22-minute film by Kentridge entitled The Moment Has Gone with a male chorus (four singers) lead by Mahlangu and Shephard playing the piano. The work showcases charcoal drawings of Kentridge's alter ego Soho Eckstein and has many images of an art museum and of a mining area. A meditation on time, everything eventually collapses and dissolves, the artworks in the museum, various items made from what came from the mines such as a metal coffee pot, and even the museum itself. The chorus sang syllables that were certainly not English or Afrikaans, but I was not sure if these were words in Zulu or another Southern Bantu language, as my skills beyond Indo-European or Sino-Tibetan languages are sadly lacking. There were sections that were entirely clicks, and there were some beautiful and startling harmonies along with the percussiveness of the aforementioned consonants.
The second part of the performance was the chamber opera Waiting for the Sibyl, which premiered at Teatro dell'Opera di Roma in 2019. Again, the music pulled everything together, Shephard played piano and nine other performers either sang or danced or both in the case of Mahlangu and Xolisile Bongwana. The six scenes reveal the story of the Cumaean Sibyl, who I remeber best from Ovid's Metamorphoses and T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, but also shows up in Virgil's Aeneid where she writes her prophecies on oak leaves and in Raphael's fresco in Santa Maria della Pace.
The action never stops, the music continues throughout the scene changes as the front curtain drops and projections continue. The work with shadows, whether made by the bodies of the dancers, by props, or by the videos, are all artful. Sometimes the shadows seemed to take on a solid quality and be three-dimensional.
It was unclear if the vocalizations were in Zulu or were based on the sounds of that language, and there were no translations, but there were plenty of English words written on leaves of books. There was much leaf imagery, books and trees. The some of the sayings were more serious than whimsical. "But no place will resist destruction," "Tie every guilt to your ankle," and "I no longer believe what I once believed" all were dark, though "Resist the third cup of coffee/ the third martini" and the like definitely garnered laughs. The vibrancy of this work that deals with mortality and futility is both very jarring and beautiful.
* Tattling *
There was not much electronic noise, perhaps it was drowned out by the performance, but it was really nice to be able to focus in on this music. There was some light talking, which I totally did not understand as the performance clock in just over an hour total plus the 20-minute intermission, and there was always so much going on whether it was visual or aural.