Jane S. Moss, Lincoln Center's vice president of programming, seeks out groundbreaking works for the annual New Visions series. And nothing fits her criteria better than William Kentridge's astonishing version of Monteverdi's opera Il ritorno d'Ulisse ("The Return of Ulysses"), which will have its New York premiere on March 2-6. "We have a commitment to early music and unusual uses of puppetry," Moss says. "His work is distinctive and beautiful‹and it has the added advantage of a political dimension."
Kentridge is renowned in his homeland of South Africa and throughout Europe for his politically charged multimedia theater pieces, drawings, and animated films. In each work, the 48-year-old writer, director, and artist examines the psychology of life in post-apartheid South Africa. He wrote and directed Faustus in Africa, Ubu and the Truth Commission, and Zeno at 4 a.m., the latter a music-theater work in the form of an oratorio for vocalists, string quartet, live actors, shadow puppets, and animated shadow projections, which was presented by New Visions in 2001.
In Il ritorno d'Ulisse, which like Zeno at 4 a.m. had its world premiere at the Kunsten Festival in Brussels, Kentridge again tells a gripping story by combining art forms; his collaborators are the Handspring Puppet Company of Cape Town, a longtime artistic partner, and the Ricercar Consort, a period instrument group from Belgium, directed by Philippe Pierlot.
Kentridge's aim is for audiences to see the links between moments in history that appear to be strikingly different from each other but that are in fact in many ways the same. In Il ritorno, Ulysses lies in a Johannesburg hospital bed reminiscing about his return to Penelope, in an epic dream that brings together classical Greece, Monteverdi's 17th-century Venice, and contemporary South Africa. Fatally subject to fortune, Ulysses is seen in his old age as heroic as well as frail and vulnerable. He and the other four characters are nearly life-size puppets carved from Kentridge's drawings, with affectingly human features. The singers interact with the puppets, whose manipulators are in full view of the audience.
The set resembles a royal court and incorporates a large screen with rear-projected images of Kentridge's filmed charcoal drawings of CAT scans, X-rays, and human organs‹shadow figures and silhouettes that form a narrative of strange and resonant imagery. He employs an eclectic series of sources, including colonial engravings, hospital paraphernalia, botanical drawings, maps, and anatomical dissections. Through the years, he has addressed the same themes in many of his etchings, lithographs, and silk screens.
He uses charcoal, he says, because when it is erased, it leaves traces that mark the passage of time. The process becomes a metaphor for remembering and forgetting; Kentridge attempts to represent the South African landscape as well as South Africa's efforts to erase history or remember it selectively. His black, white, and gray world calls to mind the Expressionists, Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, and Käthe Kollwitz. Like them, he eloquently blends humor, horror, and pathos.
"I love Monteverdi," Kentridge says, speaking on the phone from his home in Johannesburg, where he lives with his wife, Ann Stanwix, a doctor, and their three children. He came to appreciate puppets by staging puppet plays for his children's birthdays, discovering in them unlimited theatrical possibilities. "But I had to find the Monteverdi pieces that would work with film and puppetry. The jerkiness of the recitatives in the motets works perfectly with the jerkiness of the puppets and the animation‹they kind of echo one another. Nineteenth-century opera would be too fluid."
He likes the artificiality of the audience being able to see the puppets' manipulators: "We have to deceive ourselves when we see a stage production but in this case, I ask even more of the audience. All during the performance, their attention is tested‹as is the credibility of the drama, with the singers interacting with the puppets. It should make watching a performance very active."
Many disparate influences formed Kentridge's sensibility. His maternal grandmother immigrated with thousands of other Lithuanian Jews to South Africa in the early 1900s. His father, Sir Sydney Kentridge, an attorney in the anti-apartheid movement, represented Nelson Mandela at his treason trial in 1956 and the family of Steve Biko at the 1977 inquest into the activist's death. His mother, Felicia, a lawyer, established South Africa's first nonprofit Legal Resources Center. But for all their good works, he says, "I think there is not a white person in South Africa who doesn't have something to apologize for. It may not have been an individual desire, but there's no doubt that one kind of life was led at the expense of other people's lives."
In his youth, Kentridge studied politics and African studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and considered a career as an engineer or architect. But his love of drawing led him to the Johannesburg Art Foundation. At the same time, he began working in theater, and traveled to Paris in 1981 to study mime. He says he learned more about the history of art through dramaturgy than in art school. He returned home to work in theater and as an art director in films, all the while, still making drawings. His work was first exhibited in and around Johannesburg in the late 1970s. Beginning with two-dimensional charcoal drawing on paper, he soon included the element of time in his drawings through the medium of film.
Kentridge then incorporated the element of space in his work with the addition of the Handspring Puppet Company. This in turn led him to add audio dynamics, which included doing such works as Georg Buchner's Woyzeck and Mozart's The Magic Flute. While he has moved between film, drawing, and theater throughout his career, his primary activity remains drawing and he sometimes conceives his theater and film work as an expanded form of drawing. His art has been exhibited in the United States at Washington, D.C.'s Hirshhorn Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, and New York's New Museum. He first won international attention in 1997 with a showing of his films at Documenta X, the Kassel Art Festival in Germany, and has since become South Africa's best known artist.
"I have been influenced by so many artists," Kentridge says. "We're all scavengers. Soviet filmmakers and the Dadaists have meant a lot to me, and writers like Italo Svevo. I like the painter Bruce Nauman and I learned tremendously from the French Theatre of Complexity." For all his international experience, however, he still regards himself as a South African artist. "Of course my work is influenced by Europe," he says, "but it is primarily located here. I think you can feel in it how I express the weight and pull of living so far from the rest of the world, in such a small country, with such a terrible history."
Valerie Gladstone is a frequent contributor to Playbill.