The annual Lincoln Center Festival customarily strives to bring to New York some of the world’s most up-to-the-minute theater and musical performances, but the past was a palpable presence at this year’s edition. It opened July 8 with a production of “La Bayadere” from the Kirov Ballet that sought to re-create the Marius Petipa staging from 1900. The following night, the New National Theater of Tokyo presented its new version of the 1976 Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman musical “Pacific Overtures,” which focuses on the opening of the Japanese empire to the West in 1853. And among the most unusual entries was the centuries-old Iranian theatrical form Ta’ziyeh, described as the “only form of indigenous music drama in the Islamic world,” fusing music, drama and minor spectacle (horses, camels!) to celebrate an epochal event in Islamic history.
For Gotham theatergoers with more conservative tastes, the highlight of the festival was unquestionably “Pacific Overtures,” directed with a brash, appealing accessibility and a cheeky sense of humor by Amon Miyamoto. When the original production, directed by Harold Prince and brilliantly designed by Boris Aronson, opened on Broadway, some critics questioned the idea of American artists attempting to tell the story from a Japanese point of view. A quarter-century later the Japanese have reclaimed the show for themselves, proving perhaps as nothing else could the enduring validity of Sondheim and Weidman’s achievement and the universal truths in their perspective on the material.
Unlike Prince and Aronson, Miyamoto did not aim for visual splendor. His production was marked by a distinct simplicity; Miyamoto said he looked to the Noh theater rather than Kabuki for his template. The templelike wooden set by Rumi Matsui used a series of plain sliding screens and panels to reveal or obscure characters and deftly moved the focus from the personal stories of the central characters to the political pageant that surrounds them. Even Miyamoto’s more inventive pieces of business relied more on imagination and a flash or two of fancy lighting than expensive stagecraft.
The most striking moment in the production, aptly enough, came when the big, bad boats from America arrive on the shores of 1853 Japan. As a comical parade of alien creatures descended upon the stage along a ramp that stretched far into the auditorium, their progress was paralleled overhead by a massive American flag diving downward with the speed of a cruise missile. The effect was bold, simple, striking — evoking the stunning impact the arrival of the ships must have had on the hidebound Japanese.
Above all, Miyamoto’s staging illustrated that Broadway has colonized at least one imagination abroad. The director’s approach to the material was essentially derived from standard Broadway modes. (Perhaps for Miyamoto the flavor of traditional Broadway musicals is as exotic as Kabuki was to Prince, and just as appealing.) The acting was ingratiating, often boldly and broadly comic; the actors gleefully took certain elements of Sondheim and Weidman’s material to the point of caricature and beyond. No American company, I suspect, would deliver “Welcome to Kanagawa,” in which a madam instructs her employees on ways to accommodate the new boys in town, with such fierce camping. Likewise, the frightened natives’ flight from the invaders unfolded like a Three Stooges episode. Rino Masaki’s choreography drew more on standard Western musical theater stylings than anything more sophisticated — or indigenous to Japan.
Indeed only the percussion-heavy orchestrations seemed to put the emphasis on the Asian influences in the score. It was a bit disappointing at times to read Sondheim’s lyrics rather than hear them (the show was performed in Japanese, with supertitles projected above the stage). But the separation, as it were, of the words from the music allowed the ear to hear the restrained beauties in the score in a new light.
The three cycles of the three Ta’ziyeh plays constituted the other major theatrical entry in the festival, even if they were likely to appeal primarily to students of international theater rather than casual — or even not so casual — theatergoers. In a year when the pernicious uses of the Islamic religious tradition have been so violently demonstrated, it was salutary and heartening to be made aware of the more positive aspects of a culture’s reverence for its religious history. It is religious belief, clearly, that has kept the Ta’ziyeh a viable cultural art form despite its fairly primitive aspects.
There are hundreds of different plays in the Ta’ziyeh form; director Mohammad Ghaffari chose three for the festival, and then had to make a last-minute substitution for one when several of the actors were denied visas. The theatrical vocabulary is primal and powerful enough, in its way, to transcend the need for moment-to-moment translation (those who didn’t understand Persian were supplied only with a scene-by-scene synopsis of the plays). The heroes wear white or green, and they sing. The villains wear red and communicate only in speech.
The first play performed at the festival told the story of the conversion of Hor (Alaeaddin Ghassemi) to the cause of the Imam Husain — the latter, a grandson of the prophet Mohammed, is the central figure in all the Ta’ziyeh. Scenery is nonexistent; the actors use a few props — chairs, swords and, of course, the horses and camels — to indicate the progress of the story. The music is provided by a brass-and-percussion band that sits off to the side of the playing area; music does not accompany the singing but rather gives dramatic punctuation to the scenes between it. It must be admitted that the blaring fanfares began to grate on Western ears used to more varied and subtle theatrical music.
The conflicts between the representatives of the wicked Caliph Yazid and Hor and his allies were also on the blunt side; unable to take in the beauty of the rhymed verse, Western viewers could be forgiven for finding the proceedings somewhat lacking in dramatic propulsion, despite all the horseback-riding. In any case, the plays are experienced by Muslims in Iran as religious rituals more than as dramatic diversions; the emotional engagement that auds in Iran bring to the material clearly helps override the simplicities of dramatic construction. (Even at Lincoln Center, where the plays were performed in a tent in Damrosch Park, a few Westernized Iranians could be seen joining in with the actors rhythmically beating their breasts when Hor’s remorseful change of heart took place.)
The theatrical viability of a centuries-old art form also was put to the test at the Metropolitan Opera House, where the Kirov’s brand-new, century-old “La Bayadere” was the first-night attraction and the much-ballyhooed centerpiece of the company’s two-week stand. It was also the one dud among the company’s four offerings. (Also on view were a breathtaking “Swan Lake,” in which the company’s corps performed with a precision and collective grace that carried an emotional force; a festive, exuberantly danced “Don Quixote” initially led by the daredevil energy of Diana Vishneva; and the first Gotham performances of the Kirov’s acclaimed staging of Balanchine’s “Jewels.”)
The Kirov won plaudits for a similar resurrection of the original production of Petipa’s “The Sleeping Beauty,” seen in New York in 1999. But while that production had its decided longueurs — at four hours, how could it not? — it was choreographically far richer than “Bayadere,” which seemed to bewilder a large portion of the opening-night audience. (“Are we at the ballet?” hissed a disgruntled viewer midway through act two. “They’re just running around onstage!”)
“Bayadere” also came in at nearly four hours, and its heavy emphasis on mime in the early acts proved a dramatic liability from which it never quite recovered. Minkus is not Tchaikovsky, to begin with, and despite the notably fine acting of Elvira Tarasova (she was Gamzatti, the rival of bayadere Nikiya for the love of the he
ro Solor), the dramatic argument of the ballet is too simplistic to retain its fascination for audiences no longer accustomed to appreciating the subtleties of the mimetic art.
In the end, doing away with much of the choreography interpolated over the course of a century did no favors for the ballet. Missing, for example, was the “Golden Idol” variation, always a crowdpleasing morsel. When the now variationless Golden Idol was paraded across the stage on a litter during a processional, one could only wonder where he was headed: to a more exciting ballet, perhaps?