Neema Bickersteth is angelically human in Century Song

Neema Bickersteth is a paralyzingly powerful presence with an earth-shatteringly dynamic voice. She represents everything the history of women in Canada, as a chronicle of the ages, built from art.

With music by Gregory Oh and Debashis Sinha, Volcano performance company have created one of the most compelling arts works of our time. Century Song is a multimedia performance hybrid being performed at PuSh Festival, showcasing the impeccable vocal talents of soprano Neema Bickersteth, a UBC opera alumna. Inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, Bickersteth seamlessly merges song, movement and visual effects to inhabit a century of women whose identities are contained within her own.

Sixty minutes of wordless music — Bickersteth’s voice accompanied only by piano, percussion and computer-generated sounds ­— the performance was the story of someone and everyone. 

Bickersteth was ethereal, angelic almost in her presence. Her movements were sometimes awkward, but always purposeful. Although seemingly spontaneous, the entire performance was meticulously choreographed by Kate Alton. When Bickersteth blinks, the music blinks. When she smiles, the audience smiles. She is one with the music — whether a mournful Rachmaninoff piece or a specially commissioned work for Century Song, Bickersteth was transformed, transforming the audience as she sang.

The absence of words, dialogue and lyrics left much of the story — if the chronicle can be called a story — to the imagination. The progression of the history showed Bickersteth trying to break free from the purgation of historical slavery. As she danced, it was as though she was washing the history off her skin as she pulled off her traditional “slave attire” — one of at least 10 costume changes in the performance. 

Breaking free from the history, but also finding her culture again, Bickersteth’s vocalizations of 20th century male classical composers from Rachmaninoff to John Cage was an allegorical re-rooting of culture.

Although the performance was created to demonstrate 100 years of black female experience in Canada, the music did not necessarily speak to that particular experience, according to Bickersteth, who has studied classical singing since the age of eight.

Dance however, the other crucial part of the performance, is an area in which she has no formal training. Bickersteth pulls it off. She is — like her character — a woman who can do it all.

Century Song is a beautiful, transformative piece of performance art. The projection design, by Fett Film was immersive but not distracting, as technology on stage can so often become. There was, at some points, a slight discomfort of seeing something almost, but not quite, real — but this simply adds to the entire show’s twitchiness and collision between worlds.

There really aren’t enough words to describe Century Song. It’s so utterly different from anything performed vocally before and each part of the performance alone, from the music to the costumes to the projections, should all be enough to encourages audiences to flock to the Cultch in droves.