City Opera: Intermezzo

White Light Festival: The Manganiyar Seduction

DSC03843The final event of the inaugural White Light Festival, Roysten Abel's The Manganiyar Seduction, finally took place at the Rose Theater last night, after a week's delay caused by the difficulty of procuring visas for the 37 northern Indian musicians, most of whom are Muslim. (No word if they were subjected to full-body screens or friendly pat-downs upon their arrival at JFK.) It was well worth the wait, in more ways than one.

Abel, a theater director, has worked for years in both Europe and his native India, where he founded the Indian Shakespeare Company and has conceived numerous stage works for actors and performers. While on tour with his play Jiyo in 2006, he stumbled upon the ecstatic, trancelike music of the Manganiyars, falling completely under its spell just as the kings and nobles of India have for centuries. 

Abel's signature contribution was his arrangement of the Manganiyars in a grid of red velvet-lined boxes, arranged in stacks of four, nine across. As the performance unfolded over 1 1/2 hours, each of the boxes was gradually lit by bright white lights that illuminated the musicians inside, all of whom wore flowing white garments and brightly-colored turbans. (Abel claims the boxes were inspired both by the traditional women's quarters of Indian palaces and Amsterdam's red light district.) By arranging them this way, Abel fixed order on what would otherwise be a messy arrangement, and encouraged the audience to view the musicians as a single unit, rather than individual performers. 

DSC03847There was little in the program notes to indicate any sort of sequence to the performance, other than it took as its basis the traditional Sufi song "Alfat Un Bin In Bin," about the search for God in everyday life. Yet, for all my unfamiliarity with the language and music, it somehow felt warm and accessible. 

The stars of The Manganiyar Seduction were the singers, who ranged from 20 to 70 and sang with astonishing passion and zeal, gesturing with their hands just like in the Flamenco. At first, they sang solo; later, they sang in groups of three to ten, accompanied by drums, lutes, flutes and other exotic Indian instruments that contributed an infectious, toe-tapping rhythm that was nothing short of hypnotic.

Coordinating all of this incredible, unwieldy music was Daevo Khan, who was less conductor than cheerleader, gesturing to the musicians while dancing barefoot around the stage. Instead of a baton, he used wooden clappers to signal the musicians; at one point, he turned his clappers on us to initiate a call-and-response, which rose in speed and complexity until he left us clear in the dust. 

The performance built to an explosive climax with the lights running up and down the rows of musicians like some Coney Island attraction. After the final drum beat, the crowd leapt to its' feet in appreciation. 

Abel joined the musicians onstage, expressing his appreciation to Jane Moss and others for overcoming the many challenges they faced in order to bring the Manganiyars to New York. "Someone once told me that America is the white-hot center of the universe," he said. "And, it took a White Light Festival to bring us here."

DSC03853That, in nutshell, is the legacy of this entire festival, which by any measure was a tremendous success. Forgetting all the gripes about how White Light was nothing more than a "marketing ploy," the festival leveraged all the considerable resources of Lincoln Center to bring together an extraordinary collection of musicians from over a dozen countries, many of whom had never visited New York before (and may never again.) And, all for one very simple, humble purpose: to allow those of us who live in this go-go town to stop, take a deep breath, listen, and perhaps be moved. Was it worth it? For what it's worth, noone seemed to want to leave last night.

As if to put a final stamp of approval on the whole thing, I was standing near Jane last night at the post-concert reception in Alice Tully when the Magnaniyars - who forgoed the complimentary proescco for bottles of Heineken - spontaneously began to sing, filling the atrium space with their rapturous, transcendent song. The Times' Dan Wakin, who was also there, wrote this morning: "It was a spontaneous moment of music-making and a wonderful, striking contrast with the carefully organized, marketed and publicized world of Lincoln Center." Indeed.

Plans are already underway for next year's White Light Festival, but in the interim, Jane and Lincoln Center have announced yet another new festival, Tully Scope, to take place this spring at Alice Tully. Aside from the eclectic lineup (Tyondai Braxton, Manny Ax, Jordi Savall, etc.) the most awesome thing about this fest is the price: buy one ticket at full price ($45-$75) and all other concerts are $20. And, yes, there will be free prosecco. DSC03858

More pics on Flickr.