- Gesture to Opera: Yinka Shonibare’s Un ballo in maschera
Consider a sham opera, a faux opera, opera in the hands of a visual artist in the medium of film on the bodies of dancers nevertheless called “actors,” and not a note of music. . . . That is, no opera at all—and yet, opera. Un ballo in maschera is, after all, a title that cannot escape reference to Giuseppe Verdi’s 1859 opera after a libretto by Augustin Eugène Scribe after the subject of the masked ball of King Gustav III of Sweden, where the masked monarch, known for his “enlightened despotism,” was assassinated in 1792. Making a work of performance-based art in 2004 under the title Un ballo in maschera necessarily refers to the opera—or better, perhaps, gestures to the opera. With that gesture, opera, even if the elements we deem essential are missing, cannot be entirely missed. Or can it? What remains of opera when human singing and the sound of instruments are totally and completely absented? When every note is a ghost note, if it is a note at all?
In British-Nigerian visual artist Yinka Shonibare, MBE’s 2004 dance-film production of “Verdi’s opera,” only a set of recognizable corporeal attitudes, formal choreographies, and conventional gestures, postures, and poses of the eighteenth-century European aristocracy are given to appear.1 Not a note of music can be heard. If only gestures, dances, and the most basic physical actions are enunciated (entering, shooting, falling, posing, dancing), can the body as articulant be said to “merely” support, “merely” accompany, or “merely” mime the music, the plot, or the drama? Or, with the “volume up” on the secondary (or arguably tertiary) characteristics of a medium—in this case, bodily gestures, bodily acts, dance, and learned physicalities—do we access and even “hear” something we had otherwise generally undervalued or dismissed, out of habit, perhaps, in the medium itself? For though music is of paramount importance in opera, here the sounds of the dancing bodies are intensely registered—even if they are registered differently from opera’s traditional soundscape. Dance, after all, exists as an underacknowledged aspect of opera’s history. In productions today, for example, dance is often what musicologist Ellen Lockhart described as “zombified”—rendered vestigial (as if already dead but still twitching) in relationship to the far more privileged vocal performances of the [End Page 155] singers.2 Though it was not always so, dance in opera today is considered mere accompaniment when considered at all.
In Shonibare’s Un ballo, by contrast, dance has made a somewhat stunning return. In fact, though his dancers do not move like zombies—and do not signify the bewitched living dead in the conventional filmic arms-outstretched, bloody-mouthed, mid-twentieth-century mode—they have nevertheless completely consumed the musical opera, and, by virtue of patterns of repetition built into the production, they appear to consume it again and again. It is not simply that these opera dancers have refused their internment to the background. They have turned the opera inside out, showing the gestic fabric of its inner linings and foregrounding background in a “consumptive” semiophagy of form.3
In this essay I will describe Shonibare’s Un ballo in maschera and situate it relative to the artist’s prior work. I will then explore Shonibare’s exaggerated emphasis on “corporeal rites” in Un ballo, suggesting that the work performs a twenty-first-century return of the opera, together with the twitching body of its repeatedly assassinated king, from the colonies of the Enlightenment era (where Verdi strangely transposed the assassination). Zombies, of course, may be “merely” a figment of the imagination, but the word has an interesting history that is not completely beside the point. To suggest, as Lockhart has, that dance has a zombified relationship to music in opera might carry more meaning than dance’s half-life in the background.
The word “zombie” bears tracks of the circum-Atlantic flesh trade and the ongoing global capitalist appetite for exploitable labor. A “zombie” (Haitian Creole: zonbi; North Mbundu: nzumbe) is a corpse reanimated by witchcraft, hypnotism, or other means of...