Theater | Dance | Music

"Blood Links"
courtesy of Festival d'Automne / W. Young
Fall Theater Festival
by Molly Grogan

Mixed media & psycho-oratorios

Sydney’s William Yang and Johannesburg’s Handspring Puppet Company lead off the theater program of the 13th Festival d’Automne, which this year samples trends from China to Australia, from Argentina to South Africa... and presents artists taking cues from photojournalism, shadow theater, silk painting and even scuba diving. In the slide monologue “Blood Links,” Yang tracks an increasingly dispersed Chinese diaspora on a personal journey exploring his roots, while in “Zeno at 4 a.m.,” Handspring creates a shadowy, psycho-oratorio with screens and rod puppets, inspired by Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno. Also invited, director Chen Shi-Zheng makes opera of dynastic politics in 10th century China in “Ye Yan”/“La Nuit du banquet,” and Federico Léon, representing Argentina’s theater avant-garde, throws his entire cast into the bath in“Mil quinientos metros sobre el nivel de Jack.”
Sydney’s most famous society photographer, who documented the life of the city’s gay community in the 1970s and the devastating toll AIDS took on it a decade later, William Yang is first and foremost a third generation Chinese-Australian. But he didn’t always think of himself that way. Brought up by his mother to embrace Australian culture (his family name was Young before he changed it back), Yang grew up ignoring the story of his maternal grandfather’s emigration in the late 19th century. The death of his mother prompted him to rethink his cultural heritage, however, and his questions, together with a slide show idea he had been developing at the time, led to the autobiographical monologue “Sadness” (1992) which documents Yang’s first steps toward discovering his lost roots.
Identity and the role of place in its formation are consequently themes that inform Yang’s performances, in which the photographer spins simple tales against a backdrop of images captured during his travels. It’s a search he has continued with “The North” (1996), which finds Yang returning to the landscapes of his childhood to explore the bonds that tie him to Australia, and which he brings to the stage again in “Blood Links” (1999). Created with some 500 images, the show follows Yang as he travels to China to find his family, only to leave again in search of the far-flung Chinese diaspora where his own identity lies.
Asking a different sort of question about self, “Zeno at 4 a.m.” explores the dual personality of Italo Svevo’s alter ego, who is plagued by feelings of superiority and self-loathing in a dynamic learned from his relationship with his father. Conceived by the artist William Kentridge as an oratorio, with original music by Kevin Volans performed by the Duke Quartet, the show uses both puppets devised by Handspring from found objects and actors wearing “body masks” conveying traditional African art to bring to life the phantoms of Zeno’s dream world. Over the last decade, Kentridge and Handspring have emerged as South Africa’s ambassadors of puppet theater thanks to a winning formula in which films of Kentridge’s charcoal drawings set the scene for the action of Handspring’s life-sized carved puppets, in “Woyzeck on the Highveld” (1992), “Faustus in Africa” (1995) and the highly acclaimed “Ubu & the Truth Commission” (1997). While continuing to interpret Western texts in the light of modern South African society, “Zeno” finds the team branching out in new directions, turning to music and shadow theater to explore the recesses of Zeno’s mind while highlighting Kentridge’s films in an opening presentation of the short “Shadow Procession.”
The voyage through world theater and mixed media continues with “La Nuit du banquet,” inspired by a three-meter long painted scroll, “Nuits de fête chez Han Xizai.” Commissioned in the 10th century by the Emperor Li Yu, it recounts the activities of the statesman Han Xizai, who wished to distance himself from the declining Tang dynasty by organizing grandiose parties designed to disgrace him vis-à-vis the Emperor. A modern opera written by the Sichuan composer Guo Wenjing, the show is directed by Chen Shi-Zheng, who also brought the monumental “Pavillon aux pivoines” to Paris in 1999. In addition, 26-year-old Federico Léon, a rising figure in the alternative theater scene of his native Buenos Aires, offers an intimate study of mourning in “Mil quinientos metros sobre el nivel de Jack” (“1,500 meters above Jack”). In a filled bathtub, two families who have lost husbands and fathers to the sea exorcise feelings of fear and bereavement in the comforting yet menacing waters.
“Blood Links,” Oct 8-14, Mon-Sat 8pm, Sun 5pm,“Mil quinientos metros sobre el nivel de Jack” (in Spanish with French subtitles), Oct 11-23, Mon-Sat 7:30pm, Sun 4:30pm, Théâtre de la Cité Internationale, 21 bd Jourdan, 14e, RER B Cité Universitaire, 111,51F/82F, tel: 01 43 13 50 50.
‘Zeno at 4 a.m.,” Oct 24-28, Wed-Sat 8:30pm, Sun 4:30pm, Centre Pompidou, pl Georges Pompidou, 4e, M° Rambuteau/Hôtel de Ville, 120F/90F (tickets on sale at the Center 14 days before), info: 01 44 78 12 33.
“La Nuit du banquet” (in Mandarin with French subtitles), Oct 2-6, Tue-Sat 8:45pm, Les Gémeaux Scène Nationale, 49 av Georges Clemenceau, Sceaux (93), RER B Bourg-la-Reine, 195F/165F, tel: 01 46 61 36 67