An unprecedented artistic experience will be staged at the Teatro dell’Opera of Rome on the occasion of its autumn opening, from 10 to 15 September 2019. Audiences will have the opportunity to witness a dialogue between works by two great creative personalities, the American modern artist Alexander Calder (1898-1976) and the South African contemporary artist William Kentridge (born in Johannesburg in 1955). Created in 1968 for the Teatro dell’Opera of Rome, the only theatrical production imagined entirely by Calder, Work in Progress will be presented for the first time in thirty-six years and only the third time in its history. On the occasion of its revival and in response to Calder, Kentridge will present a new work that grew out of his recent collaboration with the Teatro Costanzi, the staging of Alban Berg’s Lulu in May 2017.
“Expanding the boundaries of musical theatre is one of the challenges that the Teatro dell’Opera of Rome has undertaken. – declared Carlo Fuortes – For this reason we have given one of the greatest contemporary artists, William Kentridge, carte blanche in creating a new work of art to be staged alongside Work in Progress, created for the theatre in 1968 by the great modern artist Alexander Calder.”
Calder, best known for his creation of the mobile, premiered Work in Progress at the Teatro dell’Opera of Rome on 11 March 1968. Commissioned by then-artistic director Massimo Bogianckino and directed by Filippo Crivelli, who returns to direct this performance some fifty years later, it remains unique in the history of the theatre. An artistic experiment drawn from ideas and concepts explored throughout his decades-long career, Work in Progress is a world of Calder’s own design. Fascinated with the idea of making work for a theatrical setting since the early 1930s and having previously collaborated on productions with such luminaries as Martha Graham and Earle Brown, Calder succeeded in applying his own dramaturgical language to delicate and poetic aesthetic ends. His ballet without dancers is full of moments that are simultaneously nuanced and unpredictable, including set pieces that psychedelically visualize the natural world, dynamic arabesques drawn by cyclists on stage, and a glorious finale of mobile structures in motion.
Arriving in Rome for a two-week stay in December 1967, Calder set up shop in a makeshift studio provided by the theatre, where he created ink and gouache paintings and finalized sculptures to be scaled up for the Work in Progress sets. He ultimately chose a mix of audaciously avant-garde electronic music by Niccolò Castiglioni, Aldo Clementi and Bruno Maderna drawn from the LP Elektron 3as the performance’s soundtrack and entrusted his good friend, the art historian Giovanni Carandente, with building a sequence, culminating in a complex symmetry of collaged sounds and images. “The audience was bewildered and hostile, but all the same intrigued,” wrote Carandente of the premiere that March. “The performance itself is difficult to define in theatrical terms: it is not a ‘ballet,’ as Calder often liked to call it, yet it is accompanied by excellent contemporary music; nor is it an opera, essentially because it has no singing or recitative, and the performance is in no way conditioned by the musical score. The painted, three-dimensional stage is neither a backdrop nor simply a place where the action takes place: it is the action, albeit of an abstract kind … Work in Progress is a masterpiece that takes place in the ephemeral atmosphere of the theater.” As for Calder, he told Carandente after the dress rehearsal: “I should have called it ‘My life in nineteen minutes.’”
On the occasion of his stay in Rome to direct the acclaimed composer Alban Berg’s Lulu in May 2017, William Kentridge was commissioned by the Teatro dell’Opera to create a new work. He was given complete artistic freedom for the project, with the sole limitation of using recorded music. This September, Waiting for the Sibyl will premiere in the theatre just over fifty years after Calder’s Work in Progress debuted in 1968. “I thought that paper, the fragments of paper with which I have always expressed myself, were the right elements to start an ideal conversation with Alexander Calder,” says Kentridge. For the great South African artist, these floating wisps of paper immediately evoked images of the Cumaean Sybil, a Roman priestess who wrote her prophecies on oak leaves. Kentridge imagines his fragments similarly, blowing in the wind in such a way that they begin to echo the movements of Calder’s mobile sculptures. The Sibyl from Dante’s Paradise, a book whose pages were filled with all the knowledge and wisdom of the world, will also figure into the performance. “But that book has now fallen apart, there is nothing of it left,” says Kentridge. A large textbook built with collages, projections and paintings will represent it on stage. Nine artists, including dancers and singers, will perform throughout the poetic thirty-five minute work, accompanied by the music of the great South African pianist and composer Kyle Shepherd and the vocal arrangements of Nhlanhla Mahlangu. Divided into eight short scenes interrupted by curtain falls, this work has no words. Rather, its narrative is revealed through sentences, phrases, and puzzles projected on screens and as shadows.