Century Song: One hundred years of history told through the life of a black woman
- Arusa Qureshi
- 12 July 2018
Innovative opera-theatre piece by Neema Bickersteth creates a fresh if unconventional exploration of womanhood and race across 100 years
History has a tendency to erase the contributions and experiences of black women, despite their significant role across movements and milestones. With an emphasis on these untold histories, Century Song uses a multi-dimensional fusion of artforms to interrogate 100 years in North America from the perspective of a black woman.
'As a classical singer, once I got to the point in my career where I felt immersed in the form and no longer a student of it, I began to question the form itself,' creator and soprano Neema Bickersteth explains. 'I love this music, but I began to feel constricted in my expression of it. How do I, as a black person singing white European roles from another era, connect personally to it?'
Created with collaborators Ross Manson (direction) and Kate Alton (choreography), Century Song features Bickersteth in a one-woman performance of classical songs, live improvised instrumental music, dance and projected animations. 'The songs and movement together are the woman's expression,' says Bickersteth. 'She's immersed in projections that are sometimes her surroundings or the set and at other times they are visual art from the given time period: both perhaps represent her state. Two musicians provide the soundtrack that propels her forward. We built all of this together over years, so every piece of the show works in tandem with every other piece.'
Featuring songs by composers ranging from Rachmaninoff and Messiaen to John Cage and Reza Jacobs, Century Song is an unconventional journey through history in which we follow one woman as she experiences the changing realities of each new era. 'For me it is a meditation, a super physical, vocal, expressive meditation,' Bickersteth concludes. 'I hope people can come and let their brains shut off for a bit and experience some history through this focussed but unusual lens.'