"Einstein on the Beach"
Robert Wilson-Philip Glass, Lucinda Childs
Brooklyn Academy of Music
September 20, 2012
By Martha Sherman
Copyright © 2012 by Martha Sherman
A dream can seem deceptively simple to the dreamer, but wickedly difficult to convey in feel, complexity and depth. So, too, is “Einstein on the Beach” simple to explain in structure and parts, but harder to evoke in its collective magic and enormous scale. This now iconic work, which premiered in 1976, remains a remarkable collaboration, a web of imagery by Robert Wilson and movement by Lucinda Childs, woven with the threads of Philip Glass’s repetitive electronic and orchestral score and its stunning chorus of thrumming voices.
The four and a half hour journey (without intermission) is built around the huge figure of Albert Einstein, but the work is more about the idea of him than the man himself, with the music and choreography evoking a mathematical world that was transformed by the physicist. The figure of Einstein is played by a solo violinist (Antoine Silverman in this performance) recognizable by his iconic shock of white hair. In a spot-lit chair (often left empty,) the violinist’s relentless solo line battles and melds with the chorus and orchestra.
Briefer images of Einstein’s younger selves also make appearances. The first is a boy on a high cantilevered scaffold, who plays with a glowing cube of light and throws paper airplanes on the figures below. Later, a young man in a bright red jacket, stands with his back toward the audience, his fingers dancing in the air with a long piece of chalk as if creating equations on an invisible blackboard. Equally evocative of Einstein, though, are the relentlessly mathematical musical phrases crafted by Glass, and the choral repetitions of “123, 1234, 12345678” that underpin long scenes of movement and story.
Lucinda Childs’ choreography was a match for this score. It, too, echoed with repetitive motion, and complex woven patterns. (In 2007, Glass and Childs performed a set-less, edited version of “Einstein” at Carnegie Hall focusing entirely on the weaving of only the score and the movement.) In two “field” dance scenes, eight dancers, on an empty, brightly lit stage, moved horizontally across the stage in a beautiful and seemingly endless parade, or wove in shifting chevron patterns.
Emblematic of Childs’ work, the choreography never lost its symmetries, as from two to eight dancers shifted in relentless patterns. The dance seemed not to require a breath, much like the choral singers whose quick verbal repetitions seem almost impossible. Although the dancers showed some fatigue, they never broke pattern or missed a beat. Classical movements (pirouettes and arabesques, leaps and pliés) were aligned to the tight patterns of Glass’s music, and each phrase was a partnership. In one scene, as the dancers leapt across the stage, each with a crisply angled knee ahead, and a long diagonal leg behind, they were a herd of deer racing across a field of light.
The opening scene focused on Childs’ original solo, the “Diagonal Dance,” here performed by Caitlin Scranton. As a huge locomotive moved slowly on and off the stage (quite the dream image,) Scranton moved in simple, long diagonals forward and back, in mesmerizing deliberation. Her outstretched arm, with a small pipe elongating her fingers, stretched toward the sky, an image of intellectual yearning and reach. Behind and above her was the boy on the cantilevered platform, in front, the young teacher in the red jacket. As the train’s engine loomed behind her, four dancers entered, their arms and knees moving as if train pistons themselves.
The monumental images of the scenes were metaphors for the monumental reputation and intellect associated with Einstein. Two trial scenes were played in a layered set , first a lab of beakers and instruments, and on top of that a courtroom, with the jury’s double platform for the chorus. Two court stenographers (Sharon Milanese and Shakirah Stewart) sat at geometric desks; their fingers flew on imaginary machines and they stretched their sexy legs as reminders that they wanted some attention all for themselves (as well as a reminder of how different female roles were in the 1970’s.)
Humor was everywhere and funny images peppered the grandest scenes. Everyone at the trial carried brown bag lunches, they shared a communal pleasure in finding their coffee in the bags – we could practically smell it. Surprised characters turned their faces to the audience with wide-mouthed “O’s” of shock. Part of the humor came from Wilson’s repurposing of Asian theater practices, including the exaggerated expressions and Kabuki white make-up of the chorus. Glass’s score offered every emotional experience – from humor and pathos to drama and serenity.
The set changes were also part of the drama, as black silhouetted stage crews (evocative of classical Japanese theater and Bunraku,) were staged and directed to create new layered sets between acts in full, if shadowed, view of the audience. As in long, wending Kabuki theater, there were no intermissions or breaks; the decision to watch or leave was entirely the audience members’; many took no breaks at all.
Mingled with the grand scenes (Train, Trial, and Spaceship,) the imagery and choreography also came in more personal, intimate moments. A single spotlit conch shell evoked the opera’s beach and was periodically held aloft (with childlike delight,) by Hai-Ting Chinn, the soprano whose wordless solo near the work’s end was shattering and delicious. In the entr’actes called the “Knee Dances,” Helga Davis and Kate Moran sat (or lay, or stood) in a small rectangle of light, and spoke soft monotone texts as their fingers danced, or their legs moved like beach swimmers.
In addition to the variations of “1234567s” that underpinned many choruses, odd rhythmic poems were repeated. They were written by Wilson’s childhood friend, Christopher Knowles, who was diagnosed as an autistic child, and whose crisp repetitive phrases anchored the texts. The phrases didn’t need to make sense in order to create a lulling, magnetic rhythm – popular cultural references, like Mr. Bojangles and Carole King lyrics, were comfortable, familiar anchors (“very fresh and clear,”) each soothingly repeated, often with a wide smile from the speaker.
With all its layers and complexity, the simplicity was what was most haunting – simple musical phrases turned powerful through repetition; simple dance phrases made remarkable in their relentlessness; and simple images writ huge through geometry and imaginative juxtaposition. In the final monologue, a bus driver (the sonorous Charles Williams) told an achingly sweet tale of longtime lovers for our simple, bedtime story. He bade the audience good night, sending us back to our own dreams, where – if we’re lucky – we’ll dream of Einstein.
copyright © 2012 by Martha Sherman
Photos by Stephanie Berger
Top: Sharon Milanese, Shakirah Stewart, Katherine Helen Fisher, Katie Dorn in “Einstein on the Beach”
Middle: Antoine Silverman in “Einstein on the Beach”
Bottom: Helga Davis and Kate Moran in “Einstein on the Beach”