30 September 2006

I La Galigo: The Colour of Heaven

Interview with Rama Soeprapto, Assistant Director of I La Galigo

One of the most anticipated events of the 2006 Melbourne International Arts Festival is the Robert Wilson epic I La Galigo. I have only seen one of Wilson’s works (Einstein On The Beach, MIAF1992). Visceral, mesmerising and visually addictive, it was enough to change my concept of what theatre can be. Last week I spoke with I La Galigo Assistant Director, Rama Soeprapto, about working with Wilson, the international reception of this work and the colour of Heaven.

With a cast of over 50 of Indonesia’s finest performers, I La Galigo was developed through a workshop process in Bali. Uniting theatre, dance, music and poetry, it is inspired by Sureq Galigo, a centuries old epic poem of the Bugis people of South Sulawesi.

Working with a traditional narrative is an unusual course for director Robert Wilson. He has been described by The New York Times as “A towering figure in the world of experimental theatre”. Since the late 1960s his productions in the US and Europe have defined the avant guard, whilst questioning and shaping the look of theatre and opera.

Rama Soeprapto’s respect and admiration for “Bob” is very clear, as is his love for this production. His background is dance, visual arts, film and video, and told me he got the job by convincing Wilson that, “I’m here to learn and I really want work hard”.

His primary role was to translate Wilson’s vision to the artists of the cast. This not only involved translating language, but explaining contrasting, and somewhat contradictory, concepts of theatre and performance.
Sureq Galigo has traditionally been told through dance. Soeprapto explains that the traditional Indonesian way of dance is based on feelings. “Dances use their feelings to perform in the moment”. A performance is flexible, personal and unique.

This is very different from the Wilson tradition, where every nuance of the slightest gesture is an integral part of the performance. This visual language developed through his determination to give context and meaning to artists who are unable to express themselves in a text based world. Having overcome his own childhood learning disability, he started working in hospitals and schools, using theatre games to enable and encourage communication with patients and children unable to communicate. It was here that Wilson discovered the power of the smallest gesture and begun his ongoing investigation into the structure of simple movement.
Soeprapto says, “Bob is very precise…very detailed about how you stand and move.” There is no room for an artist’s changing emotional interpretation in a Wilson work.

Fortunately the melding of western avant guard and the traditional Indonesian has created something stunning. I La Galigo has received critical acclaim in Singapore, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Madrid, Lyon, Ravenna and New York, but it was the reaction of the Jakarta audience that has established this production as truly remarkable.

The Indonesian audience know and love this story. Soeprapto says the Sureq Galigo is something they “know from their ancestors” and “have in their minds”. There was naturally some concern about the Wilson interpretation. Fortunately, the Indonesian audiences were “flabbergasted”, when they saw their story “done in such a good way.”

I La Galigo is one of the many works in the 2006 MIAF program that focus on collaboration among differing art forms and the creation of new aesthetics. Artistic Director, Kristy Edmunds, described I La Galigo as “inventing colour right before our eyes”. Intrigued by her description I asked Soeprapto about colour.

He simply replied that “the genius side of Bob Wilson” is how he brings colour into a performance. He will spend a week perfecting a colour. Inspired by the natural world, he will also make artists go outside and feel the grass. To recreate the colour, the image and the feeling of grass – they have to know what it physically feels like. Finally Soeprapto asked me if I could imagine “what colour blue Heaven looks like”. Wilson knows, and I am very looking forward to seeing the blue, the green and every other colour of I La Galigo.

This interview originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

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