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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Refuse the Hour—Time, Indulgent Muse

Dada Masilo and William Kentridge. Photo: John Hodges

By Susan Yung

Refuse the Hour, like artist William Kentridge’s production of The Magic Flute (2007 Winter/Spring), can be referred to as opera, but it sits restlessly within one genre. This multilayered performance by Kentridge is a collaboration with composer Philip Miller, choreographer Dada Masilo, video artist Catherine Meyburgh, and dramaturg Peter Galison. Unpacking the layered, engaging work (October 22—25, Harvey Theater)—in which a running monologue by Kentridge alternates with sections of music, song, dance, and film—is a rewarding experience.

A distinctly mechanical feel, edging toward steampunk, suffuses all the elements—from the hand-cranked turntables for the performers, to the optical telegraph (the T-shaped wooden structure invented in the late 18th century to communicate long-distance). The band sits at stage left, while Kentridge—when not performing—observes the flow of action from a podium. Even Meyburgh’s projections, a combination of film and stop-action video drawings and collage, bear the strong imprint of a human hand.

Themes of time and measurement run throughout. It may be via images of metronomes, clocks, gauges, or the tick-tock stop-and-start of Masilo’s dancing, they are omnipresent—in the cranking of the turntable; the advancing of the music with its rhythms elucidated in companion movement; the accretion of a collage, or its dissolution. Even the humans are “breathing clocks,” with each heart beating a unique tempo.

The artists cite the idea of the time zone structure imposed by the British as a means of global colonialism. In an interview in The New York Review of Books, science historian Galison said: “‘Greenwich Mean Time’ rolls off the tongue. It seems natural: of course Greenwich is the center. But the French understood perfectly well, for example, that who controls the zero of longitude, the zero point of time, controls something about the mapping of the world and its symbolic ownership, as well as the practical aspects of using admiralty maps to run the world’s shipping. They wanted it somewhere else, and there were big battles.” These fights were referenced in the films comprising a related Kentridge exhibition, The Refusal of Time, at the Met Museum last year. A handsome companion book was published, which includes sketches, photos, and text.

Dada Masilo. Photo: John Hodges
Kentridge noted in the NYRB interview: “A German scientist, Felix Eberty, had come to understand that the speed of light had a fixed speed and wasn’t instantaneous, and he worked out that everything that had been seen on earth was moving out from earth at the speed of light, so instead of having space as a vacuum, he described it as suffused with images of everything that had happened on earth. You would just have to be at the right distance from earth to be at the right moment to see what had happened in the archive—to see anything that had happened—so if you had to start 2000 light years away, in his terms you could see the crucifixion. If you were 500 light years away, you could see Dürer making his Melancholia print, which is 500 years old now. I was intrigued with the idea of space full of this archive of images that was spreading out.” An ephemeral performance like Refuse the Hour, in a way, unspools many complex and simple ideas over the course of 80 minutes; these concepts can accrue in a sort of mental archive.

Evoking the Dada and Fluxus movements, Kentridge frequently incorporates the printed page in scenography. Newspapers connote day-to-day urgency. Books allude to knowledge and humankind’s analytical potential. Numbers quantify and structure our lives, and symbolize powers of all sorts. Reading itself is a time-based activity, like music and dance. Masilo wears a skirt that appears to be made of a political call-to-action banner. Apart from the hunger for information, printed matter alludes to our propensity to build on what came before—in short, to learn, and pass on that knowledge.

In a late scene in Refuse the Hour, Plato’s cave is referenced in a parade of silhouettes which catalyze a moment of epiphany. But as Galison notes in The Refusal of Time, “mere projections are deceptive, two-dimensional shadows”—theater, in effect.

We can try to parse the theories of quantum mechanics and relativity, but ultimately, we are beholden to physics’ rules, to the passing of time. In the show’s finale, everything collapses into a black hole, a literal compression of matter, space, and time, and we are drawn inexorably along with it.

Refuse the House comes to the BAM Harvey Theater October 22—25.

Susan Yung is Senior Editorial Manager at BAM. 

Reprinted from Sep 2015 BAMbill.

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