Thai opera crowns Lincoln Center fest
NEW YORK — Maybe I shouldn’t be telling you this, but by the final week of Lincoln Center’s annual festival of international cultural programs, I was no longer on the prowl for a show of great political significance or even cutting-edge technology.
My entirely personal and possibly eccentric quest was to experience one moment of pure theatrical beauty. Nothing akin to the vision that struck down St. Paul on the road to Damascus — just something dazzling enough to knock my socks off.
That moment came at the final performance of “Ramakien: A Rak Opera,” a multimedia piece from Thailand that dropkicked a postmodern theatrical treatment of Thai national epic “The Ramayana” into the middle of a rock concert.
In truth, I was no fit audience for the earsplitting concert that served as a showcase for the various Thai bands and indie-rock artists who wailed their hearts out in the 1,100-seat La Guardia Concert Hall. But my moment came at last, when three dancers took the stage toward the end of the show to enact a chapter from a 2,000-year-old creation myth that, if performed in its entirety, would take several days.
Distilled to its essence, the sequence known as “The Floating Princess” portrays the reunion, engineered by the White Monkey god Hanuman (Manop Meejamrat), between Prince Rama (Vorrabut Tiaprasert) and Princess Sita (Sarawanee Tanatanit), the beloved young wife he had been deceived into thinking was dead.
Despite its brevity, the scene is exquisite, opening with the ethereal appearance of Tanatanit, a company dancer with American Ballet Theater, “floating” across the stage on classical point. Costumed in a simple white leotard and trailing an impossibly long, white flowing train, she is a princess bride to take your breath away.
Catching sight of her, Prince Rama, in full court dress and white mask, makes a slow cross to meet her. When he does, he unmasks, disrobes and, in the stylized hand and body language of traditional Thai stage movement — a haunting effect masterfully sustained here by Tiaprasert — joyfully reclaims her.
Overseeing their reunion is Hanuman, the White Monkey god, a stolid presence in the person of Meejamrat. In movements drawn from the muscular idiom of modern dance, he conveys an earthy animal power that is close to human.
The electrifying union of these three strains of dance movement — classical, traditional and modern — translated into the timeless aesthetic that the creative collective intended for the entire show. But while modern Thai rock proved an incompatible idiom for this vision, singers Palmy, Sek Loso and the mesmerizing Noi Pru found their voices for this singular moment of transcendent beauty.
There were other Zen moments during the festival’s final week; like that stunning dance sequence in “Ramakien,” they tapped into an aesthetic unity by combining different theatrical styles and media disciplines.
Ong Keng Sen, the artistic director of TheaterWorks Singapore, broke through barriers of race, gender and national identity to create two-hander “Geisha,” a collection of stories about women trained from childhood to please men through the traditional arts of Asian culture — which do not always, or even necessarily, involve sexual skills.
The tales themselves, written by Singapore playwright Robin Loon, are the largely conventional memoirs of geishas at various stages of their exotic careers, from anxious young apprentices to a 90-year-old teahouse veteran. But, as narrated by Karen Kandel, a black actress with a luminous stage presence, they became spellbinding — and more strikingly so when illustrated in the classical Japanese tradition by Gojo Masanosuke, a male Kabuki dancer and female impersonator.
Drawn by a score of mixed musical influences to face one another across a vast cultural divide, the slim, animated actress and the graceful, excruciatingly disciplined dancer found a common existential ground and quietly celebrated it.
Oddly enough, language almost became its own barrier in the wondrously literate “Eraritjaritjaka,” which takes its off-putting title from an Aboriginal word conveying “wishing for something lost.” A simpler title like “Longing” would have better conveyed the richness of the multimedia piece conceived, directed and composed by Heiner Goebbels from the writings of Elias Canetti.
Appearing both onstage and in remarkable video projections by Bruno Deville, the extraordinarily expressive actor Andre Wilms delivered (in French) the author’s wry musings (written in German) on being alone in a strange place at an uncertain time. As Wilms pondered aloud about the cul-de-sac lives of people who come and go in big houses with lots of windows, a projection of such a house appeared against the facade of the set — itself the depiction of such a house.
A dizzying concept? Yes, but executed with technical brilliance and no end of wit in this lovely, ruminative piece illustrating the power of the mind to walk through walls.
Sadly, there was not a single transporting moment in “Strawberry Powder and Gunpowder,” a modern dance piece from Israel that reflected in horror on the ground-level realities of war. Although Yasmeen Godder created the piece in 2004 for the Bloody Bench Players, its shocking images of grief, anger and despair had an unavoidable air of immediacy.
But for all the physical contortions of the dancers, the violent images of the piece failed to draw others into the raw emotions of the piece. In the end, it often seems, art can bring us together only through beauty.