A woman stands downstage right, a spotlight illuminating her from one side. She starts playing with her voice. No actual words come out but there is beauty and pain, and there are jazz phrases and buzzing lips. The live performance-movement-opera-concert, Century Song ends with this intimate scene, which provides a reflective moment at the end of a great piece.
Century Song is a beautiful piece of work, eight years in the making.
Canadian soprano Neema Bickersteth is our point of focus. She moves around the stage at ZOO Southside with focus and intensity, her body and voice working in harmony to explore the complexity of the act's themes. Century Song arose out of a critical look at her relationship with the classical singing world: "I started to wonder how I, as a black person singing white European roles from another era, connect personally to this art form."
She takes us on a journey through time, a century of Black women's history in Canada, from an early black settler community in 1916 Alberta, through jazz in the 30s, factory work in the 40s, and second wave feminism in the 70s, to the present day. Her wordless song evokes the human sounds of each period, and her body expresses everything else that her mouth cannot.
The music is superb, spanning Rachmaninoff, Messiaen, John Cage, and Georges Aperghis, with additional composition and improvisational themes by Reza Jacobs. The two percussionists, Gregory Oh on piano and Benjamin Grossman on various percussion and digital instruments, complement Bickersteth's performance delightfully. There is a playful intensity to their playing as they lean into the piano to pluck the strings directly, or catch the final note of a sung phrase and repeat it on a loop pedal.
Kate Alton's choreography and Ross Manson's directing are excellent, with a good use of space and clear progression in the narrative from the hard-working settlers to the harried city dwellers. I thought second half of the choreography was stronger than the first, especially the sequence with the orange dress.
The projected visuals were the only element that didn't really work for me. I found the shiny CG and green screen elements detracted from the spectacle instead of immersing me further in it. The projection on the floor and back wall were more effective the simpler they were, whether showing simple images of human faces or cubist masterpieces.
Despite this criticism Century Song is a beautiful piece of work, eight years in the making. It is well worth your time and money, and I'd recommend you do a little research before going in if you're not familiar with the specifics of Black Canadian history.