Defixiones, Orders from the Dead
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 8, 2005
As part of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council's conference "What Comes After: Cities, Art and Recovery," Diamanda Galás has brought her 1999 performance work Defixiones: Orders From the Dead to New York for a two-night run. Described in Galás's press materials as a mass, Defixiones is an 80-minute tribute to, and meditation on, the multitudes who were killed in the genocides in Asia Minor, Pontos, and Thrace from 1914 to 1923. It's a harrowing, difficult work—sometimes affecting, more often distancing and oblique. I've never experienced anything like it.
Galás is a singer, composer, and pianist of remarkable accomplishment. In particular, her voice is an extraordinary instrument: she makes sounds that feel uncannily inhuman, and when she does she conjures demons of unimaginable awfulness as frequently as she does angels of startling purity. Her range is phenomenal; her control peerless. She is authentically non-pareil, and for that reason alone worth encountering at least once. I don't expect to forget her.
After a prologue during which Galás, offstage, delivers an excerpt from Yannis Ritsos's Repetitions, the program begins with a long series of songs and chants in Greek, Armenian, and perhaps other languages: lamentations alternate with a revenger's fury. Selections follow accompanied on the piano; and then we arrive at the centerpiece of the presentation, in which Galás, as if possessed, spews out fiery words of hatred and injustice like vomit. A multimedia piece, "Orders from the Dead," features the recurring idea "The world is going up in flames," viscerally illustrated with projections of fire and Galás herself (in silhouette) on the ceiling of the auditorium. (The projections are designed by Jeff Morey and Galás, and the impressive lighting is by Elizabeth Gaines.) I felt something approaching catharsis here; the three songs/chants that come next felt unnecessary.
Most of the words are not in English, and I eventually decided that Galás wants audiences to hear the cries of the lost and vanquished Greeks, Armenians, and Anatolians in their own tongues. But I wonder if the sacrifice of clarity doesn't hinder the message: if I hadn't read the program (which provides translations of many of the pieces), I'm not sure that I would have understood specifically which human atrocities Defixiones is railing against.
I was aware, too, of a level of self-indulgence in Defixiones that I sometimes found off-putting. Galás's identity as a singular performance artist necessarily commands our awareness of her as focus of attention, but the slow, silent marches from microphone to piano to microphone, the vocal pyrotechnics, and the constant language barrier suggest an unwillingness to bridge the gap between tour de force and authentic connection and communication. Finally, this is a work as much about Galás as it is about the wasted lives she says she wants to honor. She can afford, I think, to be more generous to their memory.