I can’t remember the last time I attended a performance to find the admittance process oddly resembling arriving at Ellis Island for the very first time, circa last century. It’s uniquely alarming to find yourself searching for your mother in a momentary and desperate return to childlike helplessness. Throngs of people, from very young to very old, filled the entrance to the Sony Centre, standing pained and with furrowed brows, wondering which line, which door, which turn, up or down, each question another gasp for air as the sensation of drowning in nothing but chaos makes for shallow breathing and sweaty palms.
Once in my seat, and before the lights had dimmed, I saw what looked like straggling theatre-goers searching for their dates beginning to appear in the aisles. Their angst seemed derived of my own experience just minutes before, the only difference being that during lulls in audience chatter they began to speak, loudly and just shy of a yell, orating passionate but incomprehensible stanzas in differing languages. These momentary prophets steadily increased in number until a dozen dotted the expanse of the theatre, villagers shouting like a makeshift Greek chorus across a marketplace full of bystanders who could do little more than stare, furrowed brows intact.
Welcome to the beginning of the end, also known as Apocalypsis, R. Murray Schafer’s two-hour oratorio chronicling the demise of the world and its laboured regenesis. The mood, more than fittingly, isn’t a light one; 1000 singers, musicians, and dancers gather to perform the opening and closing ceremonies of this Olympic-sized pageant of death and rebirth, and you made it into the theatre and to your seat, which was was no small feat. When you sit and look ahead you see nothing but black, the perception of where the stage ends and the building you’re in begins appearing to be deliberately unclear; with the right lighting, it’s a never-ending cavern equipped with makeshift fluorescent bulbs hanging across the width of the proscenium to, one assumes, illuminate the action as if it was underground. The stage is sleek and simple, its entirety only fully visible (through tricks of light as opposed to an absence of it) as the performance comes to a close.
Fast forward two hours later and you would have seen me struggle to pick my jaw up off the floor. For two hours I didn’t hear a single moment of silence; Schafer’s compositional acumen falls somewhere between the feature films A Beautiful Mind and Rain Man, at one point deploying a forty-eight part harmony (though don’t ask me when, for I could have sworn the whole thing was a two-digit part harmony). For two hours I didn’t see colour, just black, white, and flesh tone — dozens of pigments, all of them human — the entire production’s ruthless colour palette boiled down to three exacting shades. And if you haven’t heard of Samoan choreographer Lemi Ponifasio, or his company MAU, you may not be familiar with the obsessive hallmarks that identify this theatre creator’s work. Imagine Japan’s Sankai Juku as directed by avant-garde American theatre artist Robert Wilson; calculated butoh-esque restraint and precision presenting embodiment as a form of vacancy. In Apocalypsis, hundreds of performers draped in black navigate the aisles and the stage through long migratory streams of bodies; they don’t wear an expression, nor do they appear to be walking. Instead, these bodies glide, suspending the characteristics of gravity. The impact is awe-some; the sheer volume is spectacular and the meditated movement of the masses is mesmeric. I got lost in the mechanisms of it all, like catching yourself gazing into a campfire for much longer than you thought.
Before seeing the work, I had my suspicions about the magnitude of its cast, and when I spoke to others about this assignment the collective disbelief always translated into the same question: “How do you get that many people on one stage?” The answer is, you can’t. But what you can do in addition to having throngs of bodies under light so densely gathered that you can’t make out where the end of the building might be, is have them offstage singing cacophonously, and in the audience swarming around you, like a scene right out of the end of the world (or the beginning of my evening while getting into the theatre, whichever you prefer). The take-home is resoundingly clear: when our world reaches its very own game-over, the curtain will fall while we stand among neighbours, or friends, or family, or strangers at a grocery store. It won’t be an insular event; witnesses will abound. And this is what makes the work not so much an oratorio of fiction, but a case study for the magnificent and ominous beauty we might find in the world’s demise — its procession of death — and where along it we might stand.
Carrying the production’s colossal population was the masterful casting and phenomenal performances by its host of soloists, including legendary performance artist Laurie Anderson, transgender and transdisciplinary artist Nina Arsenault, butoh dancer Denise Fujiwara, New Zealand baritone Kawiti Waetford and otherworldly Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq. These powerhouses violently reaffirmed their unique prodigies throughout the work’s 120 intensely sacred minutes, bringing to life (and then death) a futuristic mass, a burial, and a birth in every conceivable manifestation. For an artist like Schafer, it’s clear that his material is the majesty of sound, how we hear it, what we miss, and the densely rich psychic and emotional revelations found throughout it. But for Ponifasio, his clay is the clay of time, which he kneads, and twists, and pulls, masking us throughout the coercive meditation that is this majestic masterpiece.