The collaboration between pianist Tomoko Mukaiyama and choreographer Nicole Beutler in the performance 'Shirokuro', seen last week at the Holland Festival, provides a beautiful perspective on two piano sonatas by Galina Ustvolskaya. 'Shirokuro' means black and white in Japanese. Despite strong visuals and impressive co-protagonists on stage, the Russian composer's absolute music is never explained and therefore retains its sheer power.
The 'dance concert' begins with a slow introduction of elements. A dark, unfathomable space opens up. It rustles and resonates there as if in the universe. In the middle of the stage is a huge grand piano, of which only the front can really be seen. It thus looks more like a work table, a somewhat large secretaire or a house altar. Illuminator Jean Kalman also provided the floor with some white neon stripes, which still make the intimate darkness desolate and static.
Mukaiyama comes on like a muppet shaman. Bowed gesticulating or on all fours, she moves slowly past the wing. Her height and bare bark remain hidden behind an immense, black wig. Holding a neon tube, she is briefly a Jedi, although the finely pleated skirt falling from her waist is more reminiscent of a mourning costume. Like a jack-in-the-box, the pianist finally jumps on the piano stool and hits the first keys. Nothing here is reminiscent of the solemnity of a classical concert. Everything refers to an entirely different, much older world, where life and death are linked as a matter of course to unapproachable eternity.
Looking intensely and yet seeing little helps listening. Tomoko Mukaiyama plays the fifth piano sonata almost swinging at times. The grand piano sounds prepared, but it is the length of the strings of the Fazioli, I am told afterwards, and the touch, the manner of playing, that give the whole thing something 'un-pianistic'. Ustvoslkaya's droning tone clusters - their impact draws a vacuum of feeling: thinking perishes, every feeling is consumed, only surrender remains - turn the pianist into a monumental drummer, though there are still a lot of loose notes and rambling phrases in Piano Sonata No 5, which bring back something of a lyrical feeling.
Only after 20 minutes is there so much light on the keys that we can see Mukaiyama's hands at work. The fluorescents go off and I have to turn on Svyatoslav Richter thinking, who also liked to play in the dark. Only then does dancer and opponent Mitchell-lee van Rooij emerge. He too initially remains hidden under his costume. It flutters with him and also gives his tall figure something unhollow. Dancing to the beat and not unlike Oestvolskaya's beat, he too now hammers and haws pieces of time. Everything is in full motion, without the performers coming to the fore as human beings. Their presence is palpable rather than visible. The space of the stage subtly changes tone. Jean Kalman's backlighting plays with sharpness-depth. Sometimes no more than a radiant outline remains of the protagonists, while within the lines of their profile, black nothingness gazes at you and the impenetrability of the music is mirrored in a relentless image.
Urgent, compelling, very occasionally swinging, is the barrenness that thus takes place on stage, especially with the deployment of Sonata No 6. With each new pause the void expands. The two figures on stage, despite their intrense performance, seem orphaned, as they wander around a brutal landscape with no story. And then suddenly there is a little bit of Schumann, in a glorious bath of light and gold and tranquillity. Mitchell-lee van Rooij takes wing. The intense fight is exchanged for a lyrically fading, physical swirl through space.
When the wing is closed and the glow narrows to a single light high at the back of the stage, something from the nineteenth century manifests itself there too. Van Rooij and Mukaiyama on either side of the black monster look like night watchmen in a bourgeois room drenched in mourning. An intense sadness spreads across the stage, reaffirmed by Mukaiyama in her rarefied interpretation of Schumann's Die Lotosblume. The synthetically processed sounds are trashy, becoming sharper and shadier with the moment, truly unbearable. Emptiness, mourning, inexhaustible ineffability, a silent power that can only be borne in solitude; the a-social that makes Oestvoslkaya's music so powerful reverberates in this rugged interpretation by two women, who dare to give shape to the stupidity of intense grief by theatrical means. Bewildered, they leave the audience behind. Very well done.
Documentary 'Scream in the universe' by Joseé Voormans, VPRO, 2005, about Galina Ustvolskaya (1919-2006):