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Review: Sibyl by William Kentridge at the Sydney Opera House

Review by Priscilla Issa


In this captivating work, performed at the Sydney Opera House, “Sibyl” showcases the multidisciplinary talents of William Kentridge, spanning from intricate ink and charcoal drawings to compelling animations, film, dance and opera.


The evening began with “The Moment Has Gone”. This 22-minute film offers a window into Kentridge’s creative world. The narrative takes us through a museum visit, a crumbling world, and a mine. It’s clearly a labor of love.The hours and hours of meticulously crafted hand-drawn figures rendered in pencil, ink and charcoal, serve as an ever-present backdrop throughout the production. The tapestry of vivid visuals includes abstract black ink blots that metamorphose into majestic trees, pirouette through the ether, shifting, angling and arranging until they emerge into discernible silhouettes before vanishing into the nebulous expanse of a hypothetical sky.


A grand piano and quartet of vocalists, donned in pastel boiler suits, provide a stirring auditory companion to the silent film. The libretto was drawn from phrases collected by Kentridge over the years, including excerpts from Hebrew, English and Russian poetry, and translated into diverse African languages, including Zulu, Xhosa, Sesotho, and Ndebele.


The intermission ushers in the chamber opera, “Waiting for the Sibyl”, lasting 42 minutes, where screens display an array of changing images that punctuate the scenes and facilitate swift transitions. Here, audiences delve into a series of captivating vignettes where characters grapple with the enigmatic pronouncements of the Sibyl. At the centre of this opera is the figure of the prophetess, renowned for her abilities to foresee the future. Nestled within a cave, the story goes that seekers would present their inquiries, to which she would inscribe her responses onto oak leaves. Visitors hope to receive revelations about their destinies. Yet, the capricious winds whisk these leaves away, leaving uncertain whether the revelations pertained to the seekers or others. Dancer, Teresa Phuti Mojela, embodies the enigmatic Sibyl. With a fearless abandon, she flails her resplendent bronze garb about, propelling herself into a whirlwind of frenzied, breathless motion to evoke a trance-like possession. Her shadow, projected onto screen plays a dynamic role. While dwarfing the dancer’s movements it mimics, the shadow paradoxically accentuates the very essence of the sibyl’s presence. Mojela’s performance is mesmerizing and a tour de force of emotion and expression, drawing the audience into the heart of the narrative.


The cast, comprising nine singers and dancers, adorned with circular forms around their waists, delivers an exceptional performance. Their voices resonate deep within one’s soul, and their relentless energy and movements trace elegant orbits like spinning tops - their elongated shadows etching poetry upon the stage.


Kentridge extended a hand to two distinguished artists of remarkable prowess: Nhlanhla Mahlangu, an esteemed figure in the realms of choral composition, vocal mastery and choreography, and Kyle Shepherd, a pioneering jazz pianist and composer hailing from the vibrant South African jazz scene. The cornucopia of sound fuses traditional and modern. Shepherd’s improvisations, with riveting and angular piano riffs, provided a contemporary counterpoint that harmonised seamlessly with the culturally rich vocal arrangements crafted by Mahlangu. The fusion transcended the boundaries of mere accompaniment, so common in the opera genre, and underscored the power of music as a universal language that resonates with audiences of varied backgrounds.


But what does this all mean?

This work delves deep into life’s profound inquiries - the dichotomy of chaos and coherence, the perpetual quest and challenge of foreseeing the future, and reflections on those choices that shape human existence. In particular, Kentridge seizes the opportunity to remind us of the imperative to resist the omnipresent realm of big data and algorithms that imperiously dictate our lives, masquerading under the facade of predictability and absolute knowledge, all while casting an illusion of coherence. The performance challenges audiences to ponder the implications of surrendering our agency to the digital behemoth, making the production not just a visual spectacle but also a profound reflection on our contemporary existence, and the potential transformation of human creativity into mechanised routine.


This production deserved the lengthy ovation and rapturous applause. It, no doubt, left a lasting impression that will linger in the minds of its spectators. Bravo!

Image Credit: David Boon

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