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by Philippa Wehle
"Zulu Time," by Robert Lepage
Production: Robert Lepage, Ex Machina, Quebec City, and Peter Gabriel,
Real World Productions Ltd
Usine C, Montreal, Canada
A presentation of Montreal's International Jazz Festival.
Reviewed by Philippa Wehle July 2, 2002
Unfortunately New Yorkers missed seeing "Zulu Time," Robert Lepage's fascinating and discomforting techno-cabaret last September. Scheduled to be the centerpiece presentation of Quebec New York 2001, a celebration of Quebecois arts, culture, business and technology, "Zulu Time" was of course cancelled along with most other Quebecois events when September 11th changed our lives forever. Thanks to Montreal's recent International Jazz Festival, however, Montrealers had the good fortune to see the latest version of "Zulu Time" which played to sold out houses for three weeks from June 19 to July 7, at the Usine C.
Lepage, one of Canada's most innovative and exciting theater directors, began working on "Zulu Time" in 1998 at the Caserne Dalhousie, in Quebec City, his studio-laboratorywhere artists meet with scientists, technologists, researchers and engineers, to explore innovative ways to collaborate and create new forms. Within this framework, Lepage came up with the idea of a techno-cabaret which would bring different disciplines together, an ambitious project indeed. ""Zulu Time" is a strange experiment," Lepage told me in an interview. "We're trying to use theatricality as a meeting point for different disciplines, like opera was in the 19th century when architects, literary people, theater people, choreographers and musicians would meet together and work to create a new
work. It is a Renaissance project, a chance to explore the unexplored."
Accordingly, Lepage chose to work with a diverse and versatile group of acrobats and singers, video artists, musicians, performers, and even a contortionist, who he felt would be more open to trying out new things and more vulnerable to exploring a new vocabulary than more conventional actors.
Thus, Jinny Jessica Jacinto, a well known contortionist who has performed with the Cirque du Soleil, brought her extraordinary command of every muscle in her body to the show. Austrian video artists Kurt Hentschalager and Ulf Langheinrich, known as _Granular Synthesis_, created video clips of recombined granulated images for the piece and Peter Gabriel came on board not only with his music but also as an artistic consultant and co-producer, offering his insight into gender and behavior issues gleaned from his work with the bonobo apes in Atlanta, Georgia. In all, ten performers, multiple composers, numerous musicians, consultants and set and sound designers, worked together with Lepage to create this remarkable "fantasia in an airport."
The result is an intriguing hybrid that is difficult to define. Is it a cyber rock opera? a techno-cabaret? or a multi-media spectacle? Clearly it communicates its message through music [both amplified electronic music and soft ballads], images, choreography and swift changes of colored lighting. There is little in the way of spoken text other than the familiar airport announcements of arrivals and departures, barely audible safety instructions given by a stewardess on a plane, phone messages left on a woman's answering machine. What narrative there is concerns air travel and airports and the anonymous people who intersect, cross paths briefly, but seldom connect.
For Lepage, an experienced global traveler himself, airport culture means a world where hotel rooms, duty free shops, bars, restaurants, and the like are so standardized that the stewardesses, pilots and passengers who inhabit these spaces could be in any airport or any hotel room around the world at any time. In his words: "Airports are neutral, in-between places where time and space seem to be unified, universal, undifferentiated. "
With "Zulu Time,", Lepage draws our attention to the loneliness and desperation inherent in this world of travel through a succession of tableaux based on the universally accepted international aviation code known as Zulu Time or Greenwich Mean Time. Consisting of twenty-six words beginning with the twenty-six letters of our alphabet: A for Alpha, B for Bravo, C for Charlie, and so on and ending with Z for Zulu, Zulu time is the perfect metaphor for Lepage's view of our contemporary world, "a world," as he says "of universal codes, universal time, and universal words."
In "Zulu Time", this cold, impersonal world of international travel is gradually revealed to us on a massive 40 foot high metallic set with a 99 foot long horizontal playing area linking two tall towers on either end. The set looks like a giant scaffold, bathed in ultraviolet light, with catwalks that rise and lower from the top of the frame, like elevators. Audiences are seated on either side of the set, facing each other. Periodically, a giant screen appears on which a number of images will be projected. This could be the set of a rock concert. The young, enthusiastic audience seems ready and eager to groove to the latest electronic music.
Instead, Lepage and his many talented collaborators initiate them into he mysterious universe of the fantasies and fears of international air travelers. Even before the show begins, a rather ominous soundscape of clicking noises and hisses accompanied by light changes from yellow to violet and back seems to prepare us for something forbidding. Still the familiar words of the song that opens the show, "Time after Time, I tell myself that I'm so happy to be loving you," lull us for a moment into thinking that old-fashioned romance is in the air.
Passengers, stewardesses, pilots walk across the catwalks, carrying their bags. Caught up in getting somewhere, they pass each other without so much as a glance. As the song swells to its finale, they begin to run to catch their flights. We have just experienced two scenes entitled ALPHA and BRAVO.
CHARLIE introduces us to the MC of a German cabaret, telling off- color jokes in German to an audience of two women seated far across the stage from him. Do they understand him? Do they find him funny? They clap but is it just out of politeness? The screen opens up above them, revealing an image that appears to be two parts of a face which come together and separate with such speed that one can't be sure if it is a face or not. Accompanied by loud thumping noises and strobe lighting, this video clip from _Granular Synthesis_, seems a fitting commentary on the fragmented personalities we encounter throughout the show.
DELTA opens on the interior of a plane with its six rows of seats, several of them empty. All seems normal. The Stewardess goes through the aisle with her cart of drinks. Suddenly a passenger gets up and makes sexual overtures to her. She pays no attention. Another makes love to her from behind. Again she is oblivious. The lights come on and we hear: "Welcome to New York. Please remain seated. " Unheeding these instructions, the passengers all get up and leave, a rather abrupt and comical ending to this scene in which we've just witnessed passengers acting out their sexual fantasies. As Lepage says : "Our greatest sexual fantasies - making love to the stewardess or to a stranger - are played out in airports and on planes. Air travel is the great metaphor for sex and death, Eros and Thanatos."
Fear of dying in a plane crash is of course the great contemporary horror for all of us. In KILO, Lepage effectively taps into this fear. He slowly sets up the scene. A Western woman puts on a burka in order to hide the cocaine she is carrying; a man from the East takes off his turban and puts on a pilot's uniform. They come into the passenger section of a plane. The man in uniform carries a suitcase; he sets it down, opens it and the next thing we know a bomb has exploded and we see bodies slowly floating up to the catwalk from where they dangle helplessly. Lepage achieves this illusion by having the performers climb slowly up the scaffold and hang down from it with the help of straps. It is a chilling moment in the show.
Later, in QUEBEC, we are now underwater. Scuba divers float along the catwalk to the sounds of whales singing their mournful song. With their flashlights guiding them, they search for the black box at the bottom of the sea, presumably from the crash in KILO or from some other terrible airplane disaster.
In contrast to these slow-motion, eery numbers, TANGO offers us the daring-do of a circus performance. As a small orchestra - accordion and violin-provides the accompaniment, two couples execute an amazing feat. They tango, upside down, on the bottom side of one of the catwalks. It is mesmerizing. Much like with the acrobats in a circus, we hold our breaths, sure they will fall any minute. Instead they continue, unaware, it seems, of the danger below. They are in sync; the music carries them along. Then, suddenly, abruptly, the spell is broken. One of them, a jealous lover, turns and shoots the other.
UNIFORM takes place in a hotel room where a lonely woman has phone sex. She lies on the bed and listens to the twelve messages she has received from her ad in the personals. The messages are real messages Lepage and his team have collected from around the world and they are inspiring. Each caller promises to play his assigned role to the hilt, a man in a uniform who will take her to unknown sexual heights. She listens and becomes aroused. Suddenly, a figure falls from the ceiling and brings her to orgasm to the accompaniment of sirens going off and strobe lighting. This happens each time she hears a new message. The repetition of this action, the figure bouncing up and down on a bungy cord, make us laugh, of course, but is it the awkward laugh of recognition or the embarrassed laugh of witnessing the private fantasies of another person?
Matching this scene from a male perspective is ROMEO, another fantasia in a hotel room. Here, the contortionist, Jinny Jessica Jacinto, in black bra and lace panties, becomes the man's unattainable object of his desire. All he can do is lie on his bed watching her perform incredible gymnastic feats on the back of a chair. Voyeurs all, we are as enthralled as he is with the contorted postures this master performer is able to accomplish.
Not all of the numbers are about imaginary loveless encounters in antiseptic hotel rooms or on planes. There is humor as well as pathos. In GOLF, for example, a golfer complete with golf cart and clubs, gets ready to tee off. He is hopelessly distracted by the annoying buzzing of airplanes overhead and the sounds of traffic on a nearby highway. No matter how hard he tries to concentrate, he cannot begin his game. Suddenly a little man pops up from below the stage and offers him a contract. No doubt this is the devil tempting him. He'll get rid of the noise if the golfer sells him his soul. The golfer signs; the devil disappears below and all is silent.
One of the most poignant moments in_ Zulu Time_ concerns the bonobo
apes. In a film clip, a female ape plays a very sad song on a keyboard,
exploring each note with one finger at a time, her child at her breast.
Whereas she seems to approach music with a true understanding of what
she is creating, the male is not interested in playing at all. If
anything, he briefly bangs out a kind of rhythm with his knuckles.
Equally moving is the scene entitled JULIET, in which two women sit at one cafe table and two men at another. While one of the men goes over to talk to the women, the man left alone pours sugar onto the table and draws an uncannily sad face in the sugar which we see, much enlarged, projected on the screen above the tables. This haunting image draws our attention away from the convivial encounter at one table and underscores, once more, the loneliness and yearning underneath these desperate attempts to connect with others.
Finally, in the section called ZULU, a number of the performers come together on the stage. Flight attendants, pilots, passengers, night club singers, hotel guests, dance in unison to the pounding beat of a female DJ spinning records and the tribal rhythms of drummers and violinists. Theirs is an international, multi-cultural line dance. Converging and then breaking apart, they dance furiously as if their lives depended on it. Strobe lighting helps create the illusion that each time they come together, they are torn away from each other. Thus, Lepage leaves us with yet one last indelible image of frenetic, futile attempts to connect.
"Zulu Time" has known a number of incarnations. It premiered in Zurich in 1999, moved on to Paris and then, in 2000, to Quebec's Carrefour International Festival and finally to Montreal where I saw it on July 2. As always with Lepage, there are changes, additions and edits to his work each time a piece is reproduced. At Carrefour, for example, the section called OSCAR featured four gigantic robots battling each other to the death. In the Montreal version, OSCAR is reduced to a monkey and a desperate
female singer in strapless red evening gown belting out "My heart belongs to Daddy."
Whatever becomes of "Zulu Time" in the future, and I hope it will have a long life, Lepage has definitely succeeded in creating something unique and surreal. He and his collaborators have pushed the boundaries of theater. Like the circus, like the Olympics, like theater when it is as exciting as Lepage makes it, "Zulu Time" goes beyond the ordinary, the expected; it takes risks. Its message - that modern communications and technologies, instead of bringing us together, have created an increasingly cold, dispassionate world - may be grim indeed. Still, each time we watch those performers hang precariously from the scaffolding, dance the tango upside down or climb confidently up and down the scaffolding and risk their lives to entertain us, it is clear that Zulu Time is also a celebration, "a celebration," in Lepage's words, "of man's will to surpass himself and touch the sublime, if only for a moment. " [Wehle]
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