Lincoln Center Festival: Visitors from Foreign Parts (and Some Homeboys)
One of the great strengths of this festival has always been its emphasis on the new, and its world view of theater, music and dance. As Lincoln Center continued to evolve into its grand redesign (see previous post), the festival could be found in many venues even, for the first time, on Governor’s Island, but the palette was as ambitious and wide-ranging as ever.
Some of the standouts: A Disappearing Number, from the UK’s always stunning Complicite, was conceived and directed by Simon McBurney. But, like most of Complicite’s works, this multi-media play with music is a communal endeavor, and a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. Inspired by G.H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology, it revisits Hardy’s relationship with the Indian Port Authority clerk Srinivasa Ramanujan–a self-taught mathematical prodigy– who sent a letter over the transom to Hardy in 1913 filled with theorems about prime numbers.
Hardy was so stunned by them that he arranged for Ramanujan to join him at Cambridge for a long-term collaboration, which contemplated infinity and became key to making sense of string theory…..currently being considered as a way to explain the universe. A Disappearing Number is brilliantly written and acted by its cast, and moves back and forth in time hastened along by Indian music and digital images. Do not be deterred if your math is less than stellar: I took high school plane geometry five times before passing it in my last year of college, and I was afraid – very afraid – to see the play. But I was wrong – it wasn’t about math, but about human aspiration and the human heart, and was entirely comprehensible. Somehow, the maths made perfect sense. Seeing it without weeping and being exhilarated (often at the same time) simply wasn’t an option. If it returns, do whatever it takes to claim a seat.
Having loved puppet theater since childhood, I like to think that there’s a new groundswell of support for the genre. And the festival obliged beyond my wildest hopes, by importing The Battle of Stalingrad by the Rezo Gabriadze Theatre of Georgia, whose namesake director (a painter, sculptor and book illustrator), re-created the history of World War Two’s bloodiest battle. Almost two million died in the struggle, which beat back the Nazi assault and turned the tide of the Eastern Front to the Allies’ advantage.
But rather than trying to mirror the epic scale of the conflict, Gabriadze chose to create a series of snapshots with sound and music, featuring much smaller-than-life characters whose lives were changed, or lost, over time: a war-weary horse, a cossack, a rabbi, young lovers, and a mother ant and her child. At the end of the play, when the city lies in ruins, the mother ant mourns her child, and says, “I taught you about sugar…” Possibly one of the most haunting closing lines, ever.
One of the most riotous events, on the other hand, was a double dose of 20th-century music by Edgar Varèse, aptly titled (R)evolution. I saw the second program, starring the New York Philharmonic and Alan Gilbert, and heard the longest, loudest, and most energized ovation in memory, with a packed hall (packed, I should add, by the very young people whom everyone says don’t go to hear classical music). They not only cheered, but stomped and whistled for the notoriously difficult pieces, some dating back to the 20s and 30s, filled with (then-) (R)evolutionary dissonances and odd timbres which still demand attention. Gilbert has the best ideas of how to grow audiences and attract the hard-to-get and underage: Just give them something to chew on – no bells and whistles (unless they’re in the score) to add false excitement, but the real thing – music that challenges as well as consoles. It was one hell of a concert, and gave you hope for the future!
Looking forward to this summer’s Festival: The Royal Shakespeare Company will move in, from July 6 to August 14, with five classics—history, comedies, romances, tragedies—as only the Brits can do them: Julius Caesar, As You Like It, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, and Winter’s Tale. And as a prime wallow for the theater-starved, there will be two marathon weekends with all five plays. At the Park Avenue Armory. To learn more about other goodies (to be announced on March 8): lincoln center festival