Years ago, I had the opportunity to see Patina Miller in a production of Pippin that brought the circus to Stephen Schwartz’s interpretation of the hero’s journey. I had been a longtime fan of the original production and was disappointed to find that while the circus acts were genuinely impressive, their introduction to the narrative stalled the pacing of the show, asking the audience to take a look at how impressive they could be before returning to the narrative. Director Tilde Björfors’ Satyagraha has achieved what Pippin only dreamed of doing: it seamlessly integrates physical theater into an operatic narrative. There are no superfluous ‘tricks’, but rather every movement works to further the heart of the scene.
Philip Glass first penned Satyagraha in 1980. The opera consists of 7 scenes intended not to tell a narrative-driven history of Gandhi, but instead to present non-chronological scenes of the state of the world during the conflict between South Africa and its Indian population. The first scene portrays a mythical conversation had by Krishna and Prince Arjuna on the eve of a great battle. It is suggested that the prince perhaps is Gandhi. In the subsequent scenes, we follow the Indian population as they form a cooperative community under Gandhi at Tolstoy Farm, struggle against registration legislation, lead protests and get arrested, circulate the Indian Opinion, a newspaper espousing the rhetoric of the movement and acknowledging its faults and finally the Newcastle March of 1913. In 2018, Swedish circus troupe Cirkus Cirkör decided to integrate circus performance to the challenging opera.
Satyagraha proves to be one of the best theatrical pieces I have seen in a long time, with all its parts working incredulously in sync to create the mood and story of Gandhi. The lighting and video work are something to marvel at, the chorus and singers equally able to bring joy and sorrow to the powerful Sanskrit text. The direction of the production must be given ample credit, as a pitfall of this type of fusion work could be the feeling that two shows are happening at once: an insurmountable split between the singers and the acrobats. However, this does not come to pass in Satyagraha. The singers and acrobats work together, unifying the two modes of performance.
Never have I heard a song or act end in such deafening silence as during the brief pause between act one and act two. I remember feeling a strong pull to clap and then an equally strong catch in my throat as a realized I couldn’t, as a haunting silence hung over an entire room. Gasps and exclamations rattled through the audience not simply for daring tricks, but for the moments of emotional resonance in the journey of the two Gandhis. The prop work in this production is outstanding. The first scene opens with a simple balance beam to build the conflict between the Europeans and the Indian population. This balance and tit for tat conflict allows simple movement to entrance and engage. What I found most intriguing throughout this initial fight and the subsequent narrative conflict, is that underneath it all, we clearly see the support and collaboration of the performers. On the seesaw, one performer will clap his hands on the jump before his flip, as is typical in physical theater. It should undermine the battle between the two sides, and yet I could not help but think of this revelation of collaboration as beautiful. The triumph of humanity, both the individual body and collaboratively, is set forth before us in Satyagraha. Modernity and the past, black and white, conflict and peace all find their place on the stage. Satyagraha builds its way through simple introductions, incredulous tricks using the body, the voice, and period-appropriate props, to bring one through a journey of joy, sorrow, fear, and awe. And yet, the final piece of the show was more hypnotic than impressive, endlessly turning and yet ending without notice. Satyagraha ends not with a bang but a quiet, hypnotizing, cyclical hope.
- Book by Philip Glass and Constance DeJong
- Directed by Tilde Björfors
- Libretto by Constance DeJong, adapted from the Bhagavad Gita
- Cast includes: Leif Aruhn-Solén, Lisa Carlioth, Hanna Fritzon, Karolina Blixt, Lars Johansson Brissman, and Johan Schinkler
- Circus Artists: Oscar Karlsson, Magnus Bjøru, Sarah Lett, Aino Ihanainen and Alexander Weibel Weibel
- Choir: Sofia Niklasson, Elin Skorup, Margaretha Westerlind, Tove Nilsson, Michael Axelsson, Carl Walin, Arash Azarbad, and John Kinell
- BAM Harvey Theater, Brooklyn
- Until 4 November 2018