I La Galigo
Melbourne International Arts Festival
19 October 2006
The Arts Centre, State Theatre
Robert Wilson’s I La Galigo was everything I expected it be. It is a gentle, hypnotic and perfectly beautiful work of live art. I am embarrassed for Melbourne’s arts community to see so many empty seats on its opening night at the Melbourne International Arts Festival.
I La Galigo is slightly different from a typical avant-guarde Wilson work. It’s only three hours long to begin with (Wilson on speed) and it is based on a narrative text. But Wilson fans don’t need to worry. There are still many slow crossings of the stage, the movement is precise, the communication visual and you can enjoy it without worrying about the story.
For those who like a narrative journey, this one is based on Sureq Galigo, an ancient epic poem of the Bugis people of South Sulawesi. There are surtitles to guide you, but reading the program before hand is advised. As stories go, this one is has it all - unrequited love, the threat of incest, intervention by the gods, child abandonment, a couple of great cats and a satisfying end.
This is a festival filled with explorations of new art forms and aesthetics, but I was apprehensive about the melding of traditional Indonesian with western avant-guarde. Then I saw the similarities, rather than the obvious differences. Traditional Indonesian dance drama is described as a “display of living drawings…. that are not intended to represent anything so much as to charm the mind”. Story unfolds slowly using strong visual images and almost no drama. This could describe Einstein on the Beach (Wilson’s best known work, seen at MIAF 1992).
The synthesis of the ancient and the (post) modern traditions is fascinating and unique. Wilson keeps the recognizable shapes and movements of Indonesian dance, but removes the individual performers personal and emotional interpretation. Yet the experience of the performance remains emotional and moving.
Colour and light are the passion of I La Galigo. It is difficult to describe the impact of colour in this production, but I now understand exactly what Kristy Edmunds meant when she said it invents colour before your eyes. The understanding of it is intuitive, rather than cognitive. We say we “see red” in anger. Wilson captures this exact red. It’s like a cross between a fire engine and a kiss-me-now red lipstick. His heaven is blue, but it’s unlike any blue I’ve seen. A perfect blue sky, mixed with a grey/purple sunset. It's comforting and inviting, but filled with hidden power and threat. Even his white is more than just white. And don’t get me started on the orange. Emotional impact aside, if you have any interest in light and colour in any artistic form, this is an un-missable production.
Text is almost irrelevant in the communication of I La Galigo, but it is chanted in the Bugis language. Fewer than 100 people speak this language today. This totally visual production is keeping an indigenous language alive. It has to be compared to last week’s Ngapartji Ngapartji , that shared an indigenous Australian language with us by teaching us how to speak it.
People did walk out and not return to I La Galigo. I appreciate that it can be a difficult style of theatre to understand, but the connection will come you just accept it, watch it and let it “speak” in its own way. The three hours is irrelevant. My only time check was two hours in and I was disappointed to realise just how much time had passed. Sure it could be told more quickly, but this an epic tale that deserves our respect and our time.
This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.