Love in the Time of Corona

To experience a piece of art in its ideal setting is an occurrence that can warp time and space with an almost offhanded ease; when the wills of directors and performers appear to flow in utter synchronicity with the world around them, the effect can transform even the simplest production into something shattering. Philippe Pelen’s modern dance tribute to Sri Aurobindo, ‘Is This The End?’, created with the Surya Performance Lab, is one such experience.

The story itself is centred around the eponymous poem by Aurobindo, and, like much of Aurobindo’s work, seems to echo steadily down the well of time-honoured archetypal symbolism, an element that is blown up to starkly epic proportion onstage. Ying and yang irrevocably drawn together during a period of immense strife, their burden of memory heavier than ever- the steady, lingering knowledge of absence, of something that ought to be present yet isn’t.

“Is this the end of all that they did or dreamed?”

To find a place in Nature is their mission. Yet, through the clarity of their movements and the shock and horror of their facial expressions, this mission presents itself more as a search for a lost home. The tremendous physicality and the perceived lightness of the bodies combine to paint a motion picture of impotence- an insignificant railing against the Void, flightless birds twittering at the foot of the tree. The opening cacophony of electronic sound and subsequent sound design by Zan David is like something out of Stockhausen, conveying an apocalyptic loneliness, through which the three performers- Thierry Moucazambo, Huong Pham, and Gopal Dalami- wander like goat herders lost in the desert.

Indeed, it might be easiest for some to see shades of the Old Testament in this motion picture of impotence. The explored themes of desolation and exile, death and rebirth, decay and regeneration/metamorphosis, are all closely linked to the first section of the Bible. Yet, after a sudden post-show urge to reread Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’, the pieces fell neatly into place. The archetypes that trickle down through the ages are not by nature unique, rather offering different cultural perspectives on a handful of recurring themes. This universality is what truly encapsulates the spirit of the piece, as a great shadowy riff on the pillars of Sri Aurobindo’s work (and, by extension, that of Bergson and Coomaraswamy). Even now, while writing, scenes from the performance flit by my eyes, burrowing and reshaping themselves to fit timely moulds… A fading roar and clatter of train wheel, a cautious flashlight from stage right… all we did or dreamed… the face of Moucazambo, lit only by a solitary lamp from below, the conical white light and shock of hair accentuating the terror in his eyes as he intones, with all the hopelessness of the Fisher-King-

“Is this the end?
A body rotting under a slab of stone
Or turned to ash in fire,
A mind dissolved, lost its forgotten thoughts,-”

Masks pulled down- a theatre full of rumbling shadows and dark thunder, and the roaming excommunicates under the hot suns; sweat drips from his brow as he carries her limp and tired body away from Sodom, burning-

“Is this the end?
Our little hours that were and are no more,
Our passions once so high
Being mocked by the still earth and calm sunshine,-”

Suffocation- murder from the darker nooks and weaker beams of love- and penitence takes the form of added burdens…

“Fallen is the harp; shattered it lies and mute;
Is the unseen player dead?
Because the tree is felled where the bird sang,
Must the song too hush?”

My first thought on leaving Bharat Nivas, albeit slightly dazed, was some variation on “there was something older than language taking place on that stage”. My second thought was that the first was oversimple and juvenile, too reminiscent of that line from Jurassic Park- “They were here before us, and they’ll be here after we’re gone.”. Yet the more I dissociated from both reactions and reflected on what I’d just seen and heard, the more I felt that my oversimple, juvenile statement was justified. Words alone, left by themselves, have failed every culture on earth when it comes to faithfully capturing and preserving their essences down through the eons. Books and poems become symbols and court cases and historical events, cited to prove one point or its opposite. They require the dramatization of the individual, something that generation after generation can modify cosmetically, if only to better see, and lose, themselves within it. With ‘Is This The End?’, director Philippe Pelen, actors Thierry Moucazambo, Huong Pham, and Gopal Dalami, and the Surya Performance Lab, after a long hard struggle, have achieved this in uncanny fashion- ‘They’ might indeed be here long after we’re gone, just as ‘They’ were before; art such as this illuminates with wonder an idea generally shrouded in fear. This is a triumph, and not a small one.

By Dhani Muniz