Glacial is the New Black: Satyagraha and Shen Wei

Stare at image for 2 hours. Intermission. Resume staring.

Somewhere imprinted in my brain is a sacred rule of story: take only as much time as you need to get an idea across. Get in, make your point, get out. Keep things moving and don’t lose your audience. But this week in New York two separate pieces, both non-narrative, reduced me to tears by combining a staggeringly slow pace with one or two immense gestures of inspired stagecraft that hit at just the right moment.

SPOILER ALERT – the unexpected nature of these gestures contributed much to their impact. If you plan on seeing either of the pieces discussed, reading this essay could well rob you of that discovery. Shen Wei often tours the country and you almost certainly have a great opportunity to see Satyagraha on screen in your local movie theater this Wednesday, Dec 7 via the Met’s Live in HD program. Perhaps go see the work and then come back and read this.

The Shen Wei Dance Company performed an evening of works adapted or created  for the mammoth Park Avenue Armory space. While all the pieces were remarkable, the centerpiece of the evening, Folding, originally created in 2000 for Shen Wei’s alma mater, Guangdong Modern Dance Company, achieved a level of beatific splendor that rivals any dance performance I have seen. The piece explores the ideas of buddhism filtered through origami, the act of folding to create more complex shapes. Set to a soundscape of bells, chants, and John Tavener’s otherworldly counterpoint, the alabaster skinned dancers in flowing robes and enlarged craniums evoke a cult of alien acolytes preparing for prayers, searching for a higher calling. But when pairs of dancers begin to cross the stage millimeter by millimeter, maintaining intertwined positions requiring superhuman strength and control, we reach a state of surreal, reverent, tantric sensuality.

The piece is 30 minutes in length, and with each stage crossing taking between 5 and 10 minutes, time ceases to exist. Shockingly, in an inspired coda, the giant painted scrim that served as a backdrop starts to fold up, exposing the vast unlit chasm of the armory behind the dancers. The space is enormous, and a phalanx of red robed dancers inches towards the void, barely lit, barely moving, while a soloist (Shen Wei himself) performs the most expressive, kinetic movements of the piece. The dancers continue on, farther in the distance than we ever imagined. Having the volume of the space change so suddenly after having already established the parameters so hypnotically over the preceding 25 minutes is shockingly beautiful. The universe itself has unfolded and we stare agasp at the sight.

Folding’s thirty minutes are a sprint compared to the four hour marathon of Philip Glass’s monumental Satyagraha. A series of scenes and tableaus depicting significant events in Ghandi’s life, each section features Glass’s brief phrases of harmonic oscillation that repeat with slight variation with each iteration. Repeating the same, or similar material over 10-15 minutes creates a static sort of hypnosis, and each subtle change takes on much greater significance. An abrupt harmonic shift can be shattering. The music and text (in sanskrit, without supertitles) create a backdrop for ENO’s beautiful stagework. Each scene is less a “scene” in any narrative sense, as it is a progression of stage pictures, gestures, and images that illustrates some aspect of each historical event, sometimes rather literally, as in “Protest” when each member of the ensemble throws their ID cards into a cauldron that Ghandi himself sets ablaze, and sometimes more symbolically, as in “Indian Opinion” when the cast members sing while surrounded by different configurations of sheets of newspaper, as if performing from within a giant printing press.

The slow, deliberate arc of each scene is a powerful analog to the tenets of Satyagraha: that unadorned, persistent yet non-aggressive truth will prevail over injustice and tyranny. Frequently over the course of a scene, the voices of the ensemble will pick up the simple melodies initiated by the principals, adding richness and complexity, illustrating the power of the masses. Often the staging would emphasize this metaphor. In the most potent scene of the evening, “The Vow”, Ghandi’s coworker Parsi Rustomji sings over frantically arpeggiating flutes and piccolo, a crowd gathers around the principals to listen. After several minutes of Glass’s repetition, three bars descend from the heights of the rafters. Rustomji removes his coat and hangs it on what is now obviously a coat hanger. In the minutes that follow, both Ghandi and his secretary follow suit. The metaphor seems quite clear. It is time to take off your coats and get to work. The image of the three people singing, their coats hanging next to them in midair is a beautiful stage picture. But the coup de grace comes minutes later, when one hundred coat hooks descend from the rafters, filling the stage. The image is at once so surprising and so inevitable. One by one, the crowded ensemble, men, women, English and Indian, having taken up the principal’s melodies in round, remove their coats and hang them on the hangers. In the final minutes of the scene, the music shifts to reverent humming as the bodiless coats float high into the air, their former inhabitants raising their hands as they swear oaths to themselves and to each other.

This is powerful stuff, made more powerful by the fact that these simple activities are stretched over the course of eleven minutes. Glass has said that this repetition over large periods of time is necessary to achieve the emotional heft he’s aiming for, and I find myself agreeing. In the face of such work, that old maxim of “get in, get out, keep moving” seems to show little confidence in what you’re presenting, as if you need to throw a bunch of stuff out there, hoping something sticks as opposed to allowing your material to breathe, to shine on its own, to develop, to steep in the mind of the listener (or vice versa). The pacing showed by Glass, the ENO, and Shen Wei allows for a depth of experience that seems unachievable by more fleet footed, MTV influenced fare. It requires patience and commitment from a viewer, but rewards those efforts with profound dividends.