The theatrical wing of this year’s Lincoln Center Festival concluded with brief visits from two unsatisfactory pieces that practically summed up, in their existence, Gertrude Stein’s famous remark that “Everything being the same everything is always different.” Wildly unalike in their approaches, themes, countries of origin, and sources of material, they amounted to much the same unsatisfying thing in performance—and to cap that oddity, one of them was considerably more enjoyable, in its frustrating way, than the other.
The two pieces were the Singaporean director Ong Keng Sen’s Geisha, a meditation on the complex role of this distinctively Japanese mode of female companion and its modern evolution, and the German multimedia artist Heiner Goebbels’s Eraritjaritjaka, a meditation on our modern alienated life as seen in the writings of Elias Canetti. Both pieces used a solo speaker, live music, and supportive visual elements. Both played out in discrete segments, with a vague emotional arc but nothing in the way of a sustained dramatic resolution. Both were good in parts, as the English curate said of the bad egg, but neither made a very gratifying dish. Geisha was better in that some of the parts were good enough to make you wish for a more satisfying whole. At Eraritjaritjaka I spent most of my time wishing I were at home doing something useful.
In earlier times, festivals like Lincoln Center’s existed to display what artists had created in the normal course of business. Theater and dance troupes would come from all over, bringing the same works they played for their audiences at home. Nowadays, festivals are everywhere, a globalized phenomenon like mass marketing, and pieces that have no effective existence in their home countries are manufactured for the sole purpose of migrating from festival to festival. Though neither Geisha nor Eraritjaritjaka was precisely this kind of itinerant artwork, both had the mishmashy, faintly anonymous feel of such things, and both were patchworks of international collaboration of the kind that, in these festival contexts, always seems awkwardly half formed. Produced by a Swiss theater, Eraritjaritjaka featured a French actor (the excellent André Wilms) and a Dutch string quartet; for Geisha, Ong mingled a Singaporean writer (Robin Loon), an American actress (the always superb Karen Kandel), and two Japanese artists, the awesome shamisen player Kineya Katsumatsu and the dancer Gojo Masanosuke. That artists should collaborate internationally when they feel a kinship goes without saying; the challenge is for them to achieve a unity that can make the world, for a moment, feel like one nation. But as with other forms of fusion cuisine, all too often the elements fail to fuse, merely lying there before you, a nondescript scattering of tidbits.
A constant problem with such pieces is the absence of dramatic interest. Postmodernism’s general contempt for narrative mixes with the natural impulse artists have to explore themes or ideas from a new angle, producing works in which, although many things happen, audiences are never given any particular reason to care about what happens or to whom, or why. Ong’s interest lies not so much in geisha as individuals but in the idea of geisha as a social role, inhabited differently by various people in various eras.
His view even extends to popular misconceptions of a geisha’s role. The evening began with the climactic love-suicide scene from one of the 18th-century playwright Chikamatsu’s masterpieces, in which, we were explicitly informed, the heroine is not a geisha, though careless spectators often mistake her for one. From there we moved on to different types of geisha, how geisha are trained, the subordinate professions that attend on geisha, the complexities and nuances of their relations with various types of customers, attempts to update the geisha’s role in the contemporary world, and the dying-out of the whole institution. If presented in a long magazine article or as a lecture with illustrations, it might all have been very interesting intellectually. Kandel performed all of her varied pieces with grace and devotion. Masanosuke’s dances, though they really come from a quite different realm of Japanese cultural tradition, were fascinating, and Katsumatsu’s one extended solo had the dazzle that Westerners might associate with a great stride-piano virtuoso, or with Earl Wild’s performances of Liszt.
But for all the effects Ong marshaled—elaborate color-wash lighting changes by Scott Zielinski; an electronic score by Toru Yamanaka in a running dialectic with Katsumatsu’s onstage playing—the evening still looked like what it was: a parade of bits loosely linked to an overriding theme, more like a living charm bracelet than a theatrical event. It gave off an overall feeling of tentativeness and distance from its subject, as if the theme had been chosen for its marketability rather than because of any deep meaning it held for the artists involved. This was brought into sharp relief when Kandel performed, movingly, a snippet of dialogue, between two geisha with opposite views of their occupation, from Kenji Mizoguchi’s film Sisters of the Gion. That brought back sharp memories of Mizoguchi’s extraordinary kinship with geisha and the depth with which he explores the profession in films like The Life of Oharu: Here was a completely 20th-century artist, using the most modern technological medium available, whose passionate understanding of a centuries- old profession was total and totally personal. In that context, Ong seemed no more than a child toying with some antique object of which the actual use was only vaguely remembered.
Still, Ong’s toying with his subject had more resonance than Goebbels’s toying with—well, it was hard to know what was at the center of his piece, probably one of those vast generalizations about human life that make German culture so embarrassing to civilized people. The disconnection started with his title, an Australian aboriginal word (meaning, we were told, “the desire for something that is lost”) that constituted a classic piece of cultural imperialism, having no effective connection to the audience, the artists, or the substance of the work—merely a trendy bit of anthro-chic. The string quartet played, in snippets, a mix of Shostakovich and Ravel with more nerve-jangling works by contemporary composers like George Crumb and Gavin Bryars, with a scoop of Bach for dessert. In and around the snippets, Wilms spoke further snippets of Canetti’s odd, cranky, disconsolate prose, till he wandered offstage, followed by a guy with a videocam, and engaged in various disconnected activities projected on an upstage backdrop. There was a small model house, whose windows lit up, and the backdrop was cut out in its shape. At some point the windows of the backdrop lit up too, and Wilms was seen inside. But this all added up to exactly nothing. I kept wishing the video nonsense would go away and the quartet would simply play a concert of complete works instead of excerpts—even though, like many string players who specialize in contemporary music, they cultivate a thin, edgy tone, apparently on the principle that more grating equals better. Wilms performed capably; I’ve lost all memory of what Canettian things he said or how he articulated them, but I have no eraritjaritjaka for such matters.