By John Rockwell
NEW YORK – The Head and the Load in the cavernous Drill Hall of the Park Avenue Armory counts as the summa of the artist William Kentridge’s work in performance, as well as his recurrent, obsessive themes of his native South Africa (and of sub-Saharan Africa in general) along with the early 20th century in politics and art. It’s a masterpiece, and anyone within shouting distance of New York is urged — exhorted — to see it.
Kentridge’s art and films have always had a theatrical element. In recent years he has turned to the design and direction of operas, most of them from the first half of the last century and all seen, or soon to be seen, in New York. After The Magic Flute came The Nose, Lulu, and Wozzeck (due next season at the Metropolitan Opera). There was a staged version of Winterreise and the video installation The Refusal of Time.
But nothing comes close to The Head and the Load, in which, working not with a dead composer but with his longtime collaborator Philip Miller, Kentridge could create a truly personal artistic statement. After work-in-progress performances this past spring at MassMOCA, it was premiered at the Tate Modern in London in July, went on to the Ruhrtriennale in Germany, opened Dec. 4 at the 67th Street Armory, and goes to the Holland Festival next year. All of which, like the Drill Hall, have the gargantuan spaces required for an epic production like this.
The title is drawn from a Ghanian proverb “the head and the load are the troubles of the neck.” The work is the grandest of spectacles, nearly filling the length of the Drill Hall, with the audience in bleachers on one side and a stage and a giant film screen on the other. There are actors, dancers, choral singers, solo singers, and instrumentalists, all impeccably projected and amplified. It lasts nearly 90 uninterrupted minutes, and one is almost shocked when it’s over.
The subject is the conscription and slaughter of about one million blacks by the warring European colonial powers during World War I. Like Kentridge’s more familiar visual art, it’s a sweeping collage, yet everything coheres into a unified statement. From Kentridge the artist we have his characteristic charcoal and pencil sketches of war machines and birds and clouds and flowers, along with black-and-white photos and films of African faces and marching soldiers. From colorfully costumed (Greta Goiris) narrators and preening generals and downtrodden soldiers, we arrive at the final, unforgettable tableau of one man carrying his dying, then dead comrade.
From Miller, with his co-composer and conductor Thuthuka Sibisi, comes music evoking Western anthems (“God Save the King” stumbling into broken syllables) and popular music, early modernism, and, above all, heartfelt African music. Gregory Maqoma provides soul-stirring, stomping choreography. Urs Schönebaum’s vivid lighting casts giant black shadows onto the rear screen, along with matching silhouettes from Kentridge. There are oversized metallic Dadaist props and headgear. Mark Grey’s sound design is viscerally impactful yet impeccably clear in the reverberant hall.
The instrumentalists were members of the The Knights; Mario Gotoh’s soulful viola and the pealing brass were particularly noteworthy. N’Faly Kouyate (kora) and Tlale Makhene (percussion) led the African contingent, blending seamlessly with the Western instrumentalists. Joanna Dudley, Ann Masina, and Grace Magubane (equally adept at traditional African singing and operatic vocalism) headed the vocal performers. The credits could go on and on, including the four charismatic lead actors and the five dancers. But this is William Kentridge’s show, with his credits for both concept and direction.
The riveting moments are likewise too numerous to mention comprehensively. There were the endless lists of the dead filling screen after huge screen, along with their causes of death, K.A. (killed in action), Typhus, and Mauled by Lion among the most common. Towards the end was more contemporary (though still black-and-white) film footage of crowds hailing recent African dictators. It seems nothing much has changed when it comes to the victimization of the poor.
The Head and the Load is not exactly an opera, despite its wonderful music and song. But it is a Gesamtkunstwerk, worthy of comparison with the great modern near-operatic theatrical experiences like the Wilson-Glass Einstein on the Beach, Peter Brook’s Mahabharata, Ariane Mnouchkine’s Les Atrides, or Christian Marclay’s The Clock. It’s too outsized, too overwhelming to be confined to a DVD. See it live if you possibly can.
The Head and the Load continues through Dec. 15. For information and tickets, go here.
Arts critic John Rockwell worked at The New York Times as classical music critic, reporter, and editor; chief rock critic; European cultural correspondent; editor of the Sunday Arts & Leisure section; arts columnist; and chief dance critic. He also directed the Lincoln Center Festival for its first four years. A prolific freelancer, he has published books on 20th-century American composition in all genres, Frank Sinatra, and Lars von Trier, and edited a compilation of his own journalistic writing as well as a coffee-table book on the 1960s.