Music: Sergei Rachmaninoff, Oliver Messiaen, John Cage, Georges Aperghis, Reza Jacobs, Debashis Sinha, Gregory Oh and Benjamin Grossman
Director: Ross Manson
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
Nothing in the publicity for Century Song prepares you for what you’re about to see. “A thrilling music and multimedia journey through one hundred years of black women’s history” doesn’t come close. “An adventurous live performance hybrid”, “a wordless chronicle of the age”. No, still getting nowhere near. The truth is, this is a truly experiential work of art, and one that somewhat defies description. This is every reviewer’s nightmare. So trying to explain Century Song is quite the opposite experience of sitting in the theatre, completely transfixed by its visceral beauty.
Canadian company Volcano Theatre have created Century Song as a vehicle for the extraordinary talents of Neema Bickersteth, soprano and dancer who, with musicians Gregory Oh and Ben Grossman creates an hour of wonderfully absorbing and unexpectedly affecting performance. Through a series of wordless songs and slick costume changes, against a backdrop of projected images, Bickersteth maps a century of black history seen through the eyes of women. Decade by decade, we see the plight of the rural poor, the oppressed, the rise of black pop music, the sexual revolution, the eighties working girl. A thread runs through the tightly choreographed dance, pulling together these seemingly disparate women, with Bickersteth herself emerging as the embodiment of all of them, with all their struggles, achievements and emotions bound up in her own identity.
The imagery is a mixture of familiar modern art and new work created by fettFilm (Torge Møller and Momme Hinrichs) including a film starring multiple versions of Bickersteth, transformed into three decades of women. The complexity of the projections is balanced by the simplicity of the set design (Camellia Coo), the huge screen dominating the back of the stage with the musicians to the side, leaving the space left clear for Bickersteth. But it’s the music here that makes everything else, as fantastic as it is, merely a backdrop. Bickersteth’s vocal range, from classical opera to a range of (sometimes inhuman) sounds, references everything from the high-pitched tongue trills of Africa and Asia to the Futurist theatre. She has an incredible ability to dance and deliver classical opera at the same time, to fill the room with ear-splitting sound. With pianist Gregory Oh and Percussionist Ben Grossman, she creates a collage of sound – from the angelic to the absurd – that all seems to come from the very depths of her soul. In her final song (Vocalise for Neema by Reza Jacobs), simply delivered at the very front of the stage, wearing a simple black dress with a vintage microphone, she produces something truly magical.
It’s rare to feel that you could stay in your seat and watch a complete repeat performance of anything. Century Song doesn’t just leave you wanting more, it leaves you bereft that this glorious hour is over.
Runs until 8 May 2016