I used to be a big fan of Philip Glass. After I discovered in him in the mid-1980s I went out and bought the CDs, including the expensive box-set of Satyagraha. His music was my constant companion but after a while I tired of it. I began to think of it as shallow and clichéd, predictable even. And I wasn’t alone. I remember a wonderful cartoon in Private Eye. It was of a row of bottle banks in the street. There was one labelled clear glass, one for green glass and another, labelled Philip Glass, into which a guy was tipping a box of CDs.
But I’m an open-minded sort of chap so I was quite prepared, keen even, to give him another chance and I have been looking forward to this event for some time.
Commissioned by, and first performed in, Rotterdam in 1980, this presentation represents something of a homecoming for one of Glass’s seminal works. It is described as an opera but that is misleading. It doesn’t have a linear story line, has no named characters and although there are three distinct and different acts, there are no specific scenes or scenery. This was not a fully staged production like the incredible one at the Met in New York in 2008 and, for this production, the emphasis was very much on original dance and movement.
Satyagraha (it means “truth force”) is the idea of non-violent resistance started by Mahatma Gandhi and each act is inspired by a figure who promoted that ideal. Act One takes Leo Tolstoy as its inspiration, Act Two is Rabindranath Tagore, the first non-Western poet to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature and the final act is dedicated to Martin Luther King. The text, from the Bhagavad Gita, is sung in the original Sanskrit.
This slightly variant version was uniquely scored for two string quartets and piano, a choir and six solo singers and the music itself establishes a mood of peace and serenity. The slow, hypnotic repetition by the two cellos induces a sense of well-being but concealed within the velvet glove is an iron fist, as the slow-building, relentless crescendo culminating in the end of Act One demonstrates.
As I said, the emphasis was very much on dance and each act had a different choreographer, some using traditional Indian styles others blending in more modern movement. The costumes, generally, were very low-key and I think much more could have been made of them. The choir and the vocal soloists also had their moves and there was a particularly nice moment at the beginning of Act Two when the cast filled the stage and opened their multi-coloured umbrellas.
The production was directed by Leo Spreksel who is the director of the Festival and overall Satyagraha was visually very pleasing. The fifty-piece choir was arranged on two long rostrums at the back of the stage, either side of the nine musicians and conductor Rick Schoonbeek. The lighting by Peter Lemmens managed to reflect and enhance the mood. The video projections, of clouds for the first act and then more abstract patterns thereafter, were good although the moving bold geometric shapes were a bit overpowering and distracting in Act Two.
But for me it was the music that was the outstanding. The combined choirs of Zangam and Theaterkoor Dario Fo were excellent but it was the soloists who really shone. I love a good tenor and the singing of Boudewijn Ruigrok was absolutely sublime – I could have listened to him all night. Baritone Koos Sekrève also sang beautifully and added weight and authority to the proceedings.
The high-spot of the whole show was, beyond doubt, the last twenty minutes or so with the three male dancers moving beautifully, often to the uplifting voice of Mr Ruigrok and culminating in the appearance of a young girl. Carried at one point on the shoulder of a fine-torsoed dancer (more of an acrobat/gymnast) like the child Christ borne by Saint Christopher, she was eventually left alone, sitting centre stage in a spotlight writing a message in the sand as the final curtain fell.
It was a privilege to be able to see this rarely staged piece and congratulations must go to the eighty-odd members of the company and all those involved in the India Dance Festival.
After a gap of some twenty years I shall be dusting off my Philip Glass CDs, all of which I still have, and listening to them again with fresh ears. Michael Hasted 28th October 2018
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