ROBERT LEPAGE: A Bold Québécois Who Blends Art With Technology  

SINCE it opened on New Year's Eve 1919, the Roseland Ballroom has evolved from a
Depression-era dance hall to a big- band mecca to its current incarnation as the host for a range of attractions, from major rock concerts to gay circuit parties and tattoo conventions. This week, this legendary Manhattan dance palace has an opportunity to hurtle into the 21st century with the New York premiere of "Zulu Time," a "techno-cabaret" created by the adventurous Canadian director Robert Lepage and his theater ensemble, Ex Machina, in collaboration with the rock star Peter Gabriel's production company, Real World.  

The show, a two-hour spectacle designed to wed the latest media technology with theatrical narrative, unfolds on a giant scaffold structure in the middle of the auditorium with walkways that move horizontally and vertically. It features, among other things, six robot monsters, upside-down tango dancers, a D.J. spinning discs and a Peruvian contortionist borrowed from Cirque du Soleil. It is the centerpiece of Quebec New York 2001, a two-month festival celebrating Québécois culture, and it will have 11 performances from Friday through Oct. 9.  

After the chart-topping pop diva Celine Dion and the multiple touring road shows of Cirque du Soleil, Mr. Lepage is Quebec's most prominent cultural export. He is best known for the kind of stage epics that international theater festivals love to showcase; one was "The Seven Streams of the River Ota," a multilingual, seven-hour play weaving together the Holocaust, Hiroshima and AIDS, which came to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1996. He also directs operas and plays for other companies around the world, has completed several feature films and creates solo performances for himself. His most recent solo, "The Far Side of the Moon," won rave reviews when it appeared as part of the Henson International Puppet Theater Festival in New York last September.  

This apparently tireless 43-year-old director began dreaming of a techno-cabaret a few years ago. He wanted to create not a finished piece but an open and evolving structure with which any number of artists from different mediums could collaborate.  

"The idea was to work with artists who are interested in squeezing the soul of technology," Mr. Lepage said in a conversation on a sweltering morning this summer. He and Mr. Gabriel had arrived in New York the previous day from London, where Mr. Lepage had just completed a successful run of "The Far Side of the Moon," and both men were having an early lunch at the Henry Hudson Hotel on West 58th Street.  

"We were wondering how to connect poetics and dramaturgical ideas and heartfelt emotions with the new tools we have around," Mr. Lepage continued. "Technology comes in with a new vocabulary, and we're still stuttering, trying to figure out exactly how to use it. We called it a cabaret because we wanted to move out of the theater realm for a moment. I'm still very interested in theater, except that I have the impression that it changes when it bumps into other mediums." He used a French word, hétéroclite, to convey the European concept of cabaret — "that it's not a homogeneous group of people doing the same craft."  

Mr. Lepage and Mr. Gabriel have both concentrated in recent years on working with people from other disciplines, especially scientists. Mr. Gabriel, whose Real World enterprise runs a record label, organizes a world-music festival and initiates multimedia research, has been trying for some time to create an alternative theme park in Europe. "I'm convinced there is really an opportunity for an independent or alternative park experience that's a cross between an art gallery, a science museum and entertainment as we know it, but it hasn't been done yet," Mr. Gabriel said.  

Mr. Lepage, who staged Mr. Gabriel's "Secret World Live" tour in 1993- 94, recalled planning meetings in England: "There would be a knock on the door, and three or four whiz kids from Bristol would come in to demonstrate this new technology something. Then Peter would turn it around on its tail and make something more interesting with it, or ask the kind of questions artists ask. People obsessed with the technical aspect know that the way to push the edge is to brush with the artist who uses technology in a completely different way."  

Their various connections put both artists on the international new media-performance-theater circuit. So when Mr. Lepage first started imagining his "techno-cabaret," he commissioned a half-dozen artists from different disciplines to create something for the show. François Girard, a Montreal-based filmmaker who directed the home video version of "Secret World Live," offered a short film he had made. The team of Louis Philippe Demers and Bill Vorn created six aluminum robots whose movements are controlled by computers and synchronized to a rhythmic soundtrack. Pierrick Sorin, a French video artist, created an installation for the lobby. Granular Synthesis, two Austrian artists who developed software that allows them to play with video the same way musicians play with audio, created three short, intense video clips.  

In a telephone interview, Kurt Hentschläger, of Granular Synthesis, recalled the task that he and his partner, Ulf Langheinrich, were given. "The initial concept, as Robert told it to us, is that you would walk into the space and a cabaret would go on for hours, endlessly," he said. "It would have a series of numbers, a stream of events, but it wouldn't matter when you'd walk in or leave. The concept changed later and became more theatrical again. But I like that way of working. It's very contemporary. Robert's really into appreciating literally the physical impact of technology on the individual. At the same time, the very basic topics remain the same as they are in Shakespeare: love, war, cash."  

A preliminary version of "Zulu Time" was performed at the Theater Spektakel in Zurich and the Festival d'Automne in Paris in 1999. (It is a function of Mr. Lepage's track record that he has only to say, "I have an idea," and financial partners instantly materialize with seed money and festival bookings. "Zulu Time" has a dozen producers that include festivals in Madrid, Montreal, Goteborg, Sweden and Matsumoto, Japan.)  

The pilot version of "Zulu Time" was subtitled "A Cabaret for Airports." Mr. Gabriel said, "We'd love for it to be in an airport, but because there's an air crash in it, it's unlikely to be approved." Still, the ambience of airports remains in the tentative story line, about an airplane journey. (Mr. Lepage roughed out the narrative with his company of actors.) Who travels, how they intersect and what happens to time and identity when you travel are pivotal questions that perculate through the high- tech sound-and-light-show.  

"We're working with the letters of the alphabet, so the show has 26 scenes," Mr. Lepage said. "Each letter refers to the international radio transmission code that aviators use: A for Alpha, B for Bravo, C for Charlie. And, of course, the last one is Z for Zulu. Zulu Time is the military's universal clock. When they bombed Belgrade, bombers leaving from San Diego were synchronized with bombers from Italy, and they were all on Zulu Time. The show reflects this idea, that the notion of time and space has been unified. If you're at the Airport Hilton in Frankfurt or the Airport Hilton at J.F.K., chances are the rooms look identical. And an increasing number of people live in those environments — not just travelers but caterers, flight attendants, every culture, every religion, every opposition brushing up against one another."  

The pilot version of "Zulu Time" was clumsy and incoherent, Mr. Lepage cheerfully admits. Afterward, he took it back to his studio-laboratory in Quebec City, La Caserne Dalhousie, for several extended workshops during which ideas were generated and discussed by the performers, Mr. Gabriel and invited audiences.  

Describing his working process, Mr. Lepage said: "We have these old ideas hanging there unconnected, other ideas are more juicy, five minutes here and there. We invite people to look at what we're doing and try to make sense of what they're seeing. Eventually, the show tells you what it's about."  

Mr. Gabriel said, "One of the things I loved about it is that Robert has a lot of technicians and crafts- people at the center, so an idea could be conceived in the morning and performed that evening." It is helpful, Mr. Lepage said, to have people come on board in the middle of the process: "Working on a scene called `P for Papa,' two actresses immediately go into a psychological relationship with their father. Then Peter comes in and says, `I see "P for Papa" in relation to the origin of man. Who are the forefathers?' Suddenly you shift your perception."  

"Zulu Time" is a natural extension of Mr. Lepage's passion for making worlds collide both in the rehearsal studio and onstage. "The Far Side of the Moon" included original music by Laurie Anderson and puppets — part prop, part metaphor — designed by Pierre Robitaille and Sylvie Courbron. And on his previous visit to New York Mr. Lepage brought "Geometry of Miracles," a play about the relationship between the architect Frank Lloyd Wright and the mystic philosopher G. I. Gurdjieff. Mr. Lepage has a vision of theater as a site for convergence. "I've worked a lot in opera the last couple of years," he said, "and I've learned that opera today is this mundane, corporate event about people who have money and status. The artists who participate are fantastic, talented, amazing, stimulating, but there's something about opera that is perceived the wrong way. Up until the middle of the 20th century, opera was the big multimedia mother art. It was the place where architecture met literature, music, choreography, you name it. It was about having the best of this and the best of that. But over time, it stopped inviting others in.  

"So what is the art of the beginning of the 21st century that is the convergence point of all these disciplines? That's what were trying to do with `Zulu Time,' something where eventually you have interesting artists finding a coherent balance in an elegant way of telling one story." One way that Mr. Gabriel makes sense of the work he and Mr. Lepage are doing with a project like "Zulu Time" is to see it as exemplifying a theory put forth by Brian Eno, the rock musician-producer-philosopher. It was Mr. Eno's notion that the postmodern artist is primarily a curator. Mr. Gabriel referred to a 1995 interview in Wired magazine in which Mr. Eno said: "An artist is now much more seen as a connector of things, a person who scans the enormous field of possible places for artistic attention, and says, `What I am going to do is draw your attention to this sequence of things.' There is no longer such a thing as art history, but there are multiple art stories. Your story might involve foot-binding, Indonesian medicine rituals and late Haydn string quartets, something like that. You have made what seems to you a meaningful pattern in this field of possibilities. To create meanings — or perhaps new readings, which is what curators try to do — is to create."  

As kindred spirits in creating new art stories, Mr. Lepage and Mr. Gabriel share a long and affectionate history. They first met in 1992, when a mutual friend took Mr. Gabriel to see Mr. Lepage performing with his company in "Tectonic Plates" at the National Theater in London. But their connection goes back further than that. Mr. Lepage traces his interest in theater to seeing Mr. Gabriel onstage with his band Genesis on their first North American tour in 1972. "When I was growing up, I wasn't inspired by theater," Mr. Lepage said. "I was inspired by the theatricality of rock groups like Genesis and Jethro Tull, who were telling stories, wearing costumes onstage and inhabiting the realm of mythological creatures and characters. Peter was my hero because he pushed it very far." For adventurous theatergoers who keep track of rock music, a double bill of Robert Lepage and Peter Gabriel sounds mouthwatering. But those expecting anything resembling Mr. Gabriel's hit records and videos may find his artistic presence in "Zulu Time" somewhat out of proportion to his billing. Although he did his share of brainstorming in the Quebec workshops and has contributed some music and a section about bonobo apes, he will be back in England with his partner, Maeve, for the birth of their child when "Zulu Time" is being performed at Roseland.  

The impending arrival did affect the story that emerged from the theatrical collaboration. "It's about a journey of a plane, but it's also about the journey of life and death," Mr. Gabriel said. "That gave another meaning to `Zulu Time': death."  

Where is death in "Zulu Time"?  

"Well, it's at the end," he said with a laugh. "Or the beginning. The universal reference point."    

New York Times, September 16, 2001

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