Behind a scrim bearing two pages inscribed with an unfamiliar script, a group of musicians enter silently and sit down around their instruments. In front of it, at the other end of a vast stage, a brightly lit figure swathed in golden silk sits in front of a manuscript; he chants an invocation to the gods, asking their blessing on the performance and the gathering.
These opening moments of Robert Wilson’s I La Galigo at the Lincoln Center Festival encapsulate the spirit of this encounter between a vanishing Southeast Asian microculture and the leading edge of Western performance. It is a spirit of respect and fond admiration that results in gorgeous spectacle and charming effects; it bears no trace, however, of the exigent strangeness of other epic Wilson works like Einstein on the Beach and the CIVIL warS. Here Wilson tells a marvelous story with grace and beauty, but the meanings of the work are veiled by a reverential attitude toward a fetishized text (especially misplaced in the context of an oral tradition).
The creation myth of the Bugis people of South Sulawesi, Indonesia, Sureq Galigo is the story of divine twins and their struggle against an incestuous desire that imperils the world. It is a tale of longing and loss, of war and exile, of the violation of nature and its veneration (the low-tech rendition and playful choreography of the animal scenes are a refreshing return to pre-Lion King ways ). As adapted by Rhoda Grauer, the epic’s multifarious contents (over 6,000 pages of stories, instructions, prayers, etiquette, and cultural practices) are shaped into an accessible multigenerational saga of the settling of the “Middle World” by humans, with frequent assistance from supernatural visitors (via a delightful deus ex pagoda). Wilson makes memorable the area’s shadow-puppet tradition: The scene in which the unborn twins fall in love and refuse to leave their mother’s womb is enchanting. Items of local dress, especially sarongs and brass bangles, are also put to inspired theatrical use: Long bolts of fabric enfold couples in lovemaking or individuals in retreat from love. The main characters are vividly delineated, none more so than the proud princess Wé Cudaiq (Sri Qadariatin), whose obstinacy is delicious.
With I La Galigo, Wilson returns to the mythopoeic theater of his early career, before his move to Western classics and collaborations with musicians like Tom Waits and Lou Reed. However, the mythology explored here seems to have some intimidating baggage for Wilson, recalling the kinds of critical questions and academic debates—about the politics and ethics of Western artistic “borrowings”—that were unleashed in the 1980s by Peter Brook’s famous work of “intercultural theater” The Mahabharata. As several articles included in the press kit report, Wilson felt he had to “tread carefully” in treating this sacred text from a part of the world that he—a part-time resident of Bali—has a special affinity and affection for. His contribution, he has said, is “only [to] create a frame; they [the 50-plus Indonesian performers and musicians] have to fill it with energy and creativity.”
There is certainly no dearth of energy. The accomplished actors and dancers, clad in exquisite costumes designed by Joachim Herzog, perform with verve and precision on a stage lit in a kaleidoscope of sumptuous colors. The Wilsonian frame, however, is disappointingly restrained, limited to a few stunning sequences and architectonic images. Of the former, the procession that follows the opening chant achieves Wilson’s signature style perfectly, combining movement with form to create a stage image of incomparable mystery and resonance. Against a luminous backdrop of changing colors, men, women, and children move across the stage, their silhouettes strangely extended by the objects they carry, some familiar, some not: Are they weapons? Instruments? Ritual paraphernalia? A similar procession occurs at the end of the play, but now the figures are empty-handed, for the Middle World has been “purged.” The bodies, retaining the elegant postures the objects seem to have required, look bereft beyond words. It is an unforgettable theatrical statement about the role of art and artifacts in the making of our human selves.
I La Galigo‘s use of a variety of indigenous dance forms (rather than one) and its inclusion of an actual priest of the fascinating transvestite Bissu order (Puang Matoa Saidi) sometimes come perilously close to the ethnographic floor shows presented at Bali’s tourist resorts (it even has a cockfight scene). The one element that transcends all intercultural awkwardness is the music, composed and conducted by Rahayu Supanggah, performed partly on specially constructed archaic instruments. The integrity, range, and power of the haunting soundscape reach beyond Wilson’s magnificent spectacle to make us care about the birth pangs and death throes of the Middle World.