Posted on June 26, 2018
One way to distinguish art from entertainment is to ask yourself, Do my imagination and brain respond to this, or only my eyes and ears? If you leave a theatre happy and satisfied, you’ve been well entertained. If you go home with questions in your mind or with various interpretations of the performance competing for your attention, you will have gotten more for your money than colourful diversion.
When recent events on consecutive nights differed so radically, this distinction became unavoidable. First I saw TriOperas at the Peacock Theatre, a three-act reworking of Turandot, Madam Butterfly and Carmen – one opera per act – by Pamela Tan-Nicholson, who wrote, composed and directed the entire elaborate production and also claims the credit for its “original concept design and choreography.” The next night, Akram Khan presented his final solo creation, XENOS, at Sadler’s Wells.
Tan-Nicholson knocked herself out to entertain us, combining three of the best-loved works in the opera repertoire into an extravaganza involving an 19-strong ensemble and a small on-stage band; aerial artists sliding down guy wires from the balcony into the action and performing pas de deux mid-air in harnesses; and sing-along lyrics projected on screens.
She also reduced the three scores to recognisable tunes – “her favourites,” I was told – with her own lyrics attached. As a pole-dancing Carmen slithered briefly through her paces, her double sang, “I am lust, I am sex, I am all you detest” to the famous Habañera. The crowd in Butterfly informed us that in “holiday romances / geishas take their chances,” and one of opera’s most poignant romances boiled down to, “Carmen, please stay.” “Farewell, Jose.”
Portraying warriors in Turandot, tumbling acrobats sliced off heads gleefully and twirled their long pigtails like strippers twirling the tassels on their breasts. Delivering Steven McRae’s choreography, Butterfly’s sister geishas tapped in their wooden geta, and Carmen’s colleagues whipped up the semblance of flamenco by ruffling their skirts.
As Al Jolson declared in the first talking movie, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.” The show also set Carmen’s attempt to elude the police on a row of trampolines, which enlivened the chase considerably. To top that, the matador Escamillo fought and killed a Chinese lion, instead of the customary offstage bull, that introduced martial arts to the spectacle in a wushu lion dance.
Some years ago, the composer Charles Wuorinen protested that, “the current tendency of transmuting art into entertainment will cause serious music to cease to exist.” How will TriOperas affect its viewers’ approach to grand opera? I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Akram Khan leaves no doubt as to his intentions. In XENOS, his eloquent tribute to more than one million Indian soldiers who died on behalf of the UK during World War I, he transformed himself into every fighter in any battle anywhere. He shared the tilted stage with a few musicians, some thick coiled ropes and a carpet of loose dirt; his body fused the shapes of kathak, contemporary dance, and realistic gesture, putting his personal history at the service of the world’s history.
The words expended so often to describe dance fall short of the impact it can make alone. Lights flared, distant bombardment rumbled through the darkness. Khan stood, fell, stood again, matching single drumbeats, peopling the stage with unending ranks of irreplaceable victims. He rolled downhill towards us as if exhausted or maybe wounded or maybe dead. He dug in the dirt, hunting for something lost or hiding something precious. He snapped to attention, following orders, and pulled himself through the mud, hand over hand, commanding himself to push on and, just possibly, survive.
Fernand Léger described the Great War as “four years without colour.” Khan’s solo captured that world as well as the forms and fate of those who endured it.
Pictured: Akram Khan in XENOS. Photograph by JeanLouis Fernandez.