Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Einstein on The Beach

Arts Centre Melbourne presents Robert Wilson and Philip Glass EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH - An Opera In Four Acts. Choreography by Lucinda Childs, in the Victoria Arts Centre, State Theatre.

Whilst in London last December, I read of a touring production of EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH (originally titled EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH ON WALL STREET - soon cut down- the work is "not political"), that was to play in Amsterdam. I contemplated flying over for it - hardly a half-hour plane flight. I then sensed that this was a major re-mounting of the work and would come to Australia, for sure. Its very expense as a production, to re-mount would, surely, encourage that, I intuited. Got home, Sydney, and soon found it was going on to Melbourne as part of the World Tour, that had begun in January, 2012. So, I eagerly, booked for Melbourne, way back at the start of the year. My interest was manifold, but centred on my ever growing appreciation of the music of Philip Glass - last year, the third of his 'portrait' operas, SATYAGRAHA (1987), this dealing with Gandhi's philosophy of non-violence using related figures Leo Tolstoy, Rabindranath Tagore and Martin Luther King Jnr., broadcast from the New York Metropolitan Opera House, completely knocked me sideways. I know the music of AKHNATEN (1983) as well, while Mr Glass' other work is becoming more and more embedded in our 'culture' psyches, mine, through its increasing usage in contemporary film and dance scores. My admiration of the artistry of Robert Wilson, too, has been growing, particularly as a result of seeing at the Sydney Festival, 2004, his production of THE BLACK RIDER: THE CASTING OF MAGIC BULLETS (1990), written by Tom Waits; too, I LA GALIGO (2004) at the Melbourne Arts Centre in 2006. Two artists of growing importance, if not, now, establishment, in the contemporary zeitgeist of World Art. Their work being astounding in its own presence, their influence radiating, and being so profoundly great on others who have followed. The opportunity to see a production of the 1976 seismic shifter, the 'ledgendary", 'mythical' EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH could not be missed.

EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH is a four and a half hour opera (work) in four acts with no intervals. It is a non-linear impression of the life of Einstein as scientist, humanist and amateur musician. The editor of a new book ROBERT WILSON FROM WITHIN,  Margery Arent Safir (2012) asked Robert Wilson to select a series of images outside of his own productions that hold particular personal significance for him. One of them is a portrait of Einstein standing, looking directly at camera. Mr Wilson has written:
In 1976 I created an opera with Philip Glass called EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH. I began with this photo of Einstein in his study at Princeton. All of the performers were dressed in the same way: baggy grey pants, starched white t-shirts and suspenders. They wore tennis shoes and a wristwatch. I looked at many photos of Einstein. Photos of him when he was two years old, 20 years old, 40, 60, 70 years old. In all standing portraits of him, he held his hand in the same position as in the photo. The little space between his thumb and the next finger is always the same. I started the opera with this gesture. And continued. I thought about this space: Between his two fingers he held his chalk with which he made his calculations. He held the bow for the violin that he loved to play. And he pulled the ropes of the sailboat that was his favourite pastime.
 From this, Mr Wilson's observation of the miniature: the space between Einstein's thumb and finger, and the perception, connection to the world shattering calculations, that came from that spatial relationship, that changed the world, one begins to grasp the world view that creates the painterly, painstaking pictures of Mr Wilson's meticulous control over imagery, in every work of his, and of the soul-mate parallel exploration of Mr Glass' repetitive structures in his music formulations - both deeply connected to extended time performances:
We share an awareness of time, of duration. Bob (Wilson) extending theatre into space and time, and I (Glass) projecting music into space and time ..."  [2]
It's not about big movements, it's about all the little movements that are happening in between those iconic illusions of stasis. They regard themselves as the true children of Marcel Duchamp, the 1930's surrealists and John Cage. Classicists, both?
The classics are ... the avant-garde. The avant-garde is rediscovering the classics, so you're rediscovering what you were born knowing. Socrates said the baby was born knowing everything, and it's the recovery of knowledge that's the learning process ... Man has always been discerning the same mathematics ...  [2]
Robert Wilson and Philip Glass were young artists on the fringe of the burgeoning and ebullient, explosive, contemporary art scene of New York in the 1970's  (amongst much else;  in Visual Art: Rauschenberg, Serra, Warhol, Johns, Marisol (Escobar); in Performance Art: Joan Jonas, Pat Olezsko, Lil Picard, Laurie Anderson; in Theatre: Foreman's Ontological-Hysteric Theatre, Ellen Stewart's La Mama Experimental Theatre Club, Richard Schechner's The Performance Group; Literature: Albee, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Shepard; in Dance: Balanchine, Martha Graham, Merc Cunningham,Twyla Tharp; in Music: Lou Reed, Nico and John Cale, Bowie, Waits, Blondie, Devo, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Steve Reich). Glass and Wilson were friends and they began this project and worked on it for some time. The score was written during the Spring to Fall of 1975. The production history of EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH by Robert Wilson and Philip Glass: Music by Philip Glass, Design/Direction by Robert Wilson. Texts by Christopher Knowles, Samuel M. Johnson, and Lucinda Childs, choreography by Andrew de Groat, lighting by Beverly Emmons, was originally produced by Byrd Hoffman Foundation in 1976 and was premiered at Theatre Municipal (Festival d'Avignon); toured throughout Europe and finally shown at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York City twice. It's reputation had preceded its New York showing and became the stuff of legend- standing room. Subsequent remounts of EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH featuring the choreography of Lucinda Childs and lighting by Beverly Emmons were produced at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1984, as part of the Next Wave Festival and in 1992 by International Production Associates/Top Shows Inc for an International tour that included the State Theatre, Melbourne.

This re-mounted, 2012-14 production was produced by Pomegranate Arts, Inc. Linda Brumbach, Executive Producer. Choreography by Lucinda Childs with Helga Davis, Kate Moran, Antoine Silverman.Spoken text by Christopher Knowles/Samuel M. Johnson/Lucinda Childs with the Lucinda Childs Dance Company. Music performed by The Philip Glass Ensemble, conducted by Michael Riesman. Music/Lyrics by Philip Glass. Direction/Set and Lighting Design by Robert Wilson. Co-Director, Ann-Christin Rommen. Staging Associate Charles Otte. Lighting by Urs Schoenbaum; Sound by Kurt Munkacsi; Hair/Make-up Campbell Young Associates: Luc Verschueren; Costumes by Carlos Soto. I give the whole historic dimension of the production team to underline the shifts in responsibility of this re-mount, in 2012, to observe the evolving , and different, influences on this work's production presentation.

The work of both these men can divide an audience's response, violently. Glass, Wilson are not everyone's cup of tea Their work, individually and collectively has been called boring, repetitive, beautiful but dull, superficial, overly mannered, predictable and cold, unaffecting. And I at different times in my life have thought so, felt so and said so. Why has it taken so long, 20 years, for a revival to be mounted? Joseph V. Melilo from the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) :
 The question is: Why do we do not have EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH in our lives the way that we have the works of Verdi, Puccini (Wagner) et al., in terms of opera composers? Because EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH is a visionary work of two titans of the 20th century, and its a meditation on the historic character Einstein and the implications of his history, his research for all of us as human beings, for our daily lives and our existence, as well as for our global communities. Because it does not have a linear narrative -it's an imagistic work - it's more of a challenge, I think, for opera companies to embrace this innovative, non-conventional, non-traditional form for their audiences. It is a work of a different vision, both musically and theatrically. There's nothing like it. In our society, that is an anomaly, because unless you see it and experience it, you don't know what it is. The Philip Glass score exists on CD, but that is not the theatrical and visual reality of the opera, of being bombarded by these extraordinary visual images and this movement by Lucinda Childs Dance Company ..." [1]
So to appreciate EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH, one must be there at the event. We, through the music and the staging, enter a river of metaphysics that is personal to each of us. The seduction of the 'mathematics' and formalisations of the music and the way one comes to hear it, along with the established dream-like narrative logic through the succession of striking images, original and three-dimensional, which, visually, cumulatively achieve a mesmeric impact, do not necessarily give us a meaning or a story that we can easily describe, but, instead has given us a 'feeling' that, oddly, we know, meant something - something individual, something profound. Philip Glass says:
"The content is not in the work but is culled by the transaction between the work and the audience."
My theatre, is, in some ways, really closer to animal behaviour. When a dog stalks a bird his whole body is listening ... He's not listening with (just) his ears, with his head; it's the whole body. The eyes are listening. – Robert Wilson
It's a state of alertness, attention. We must stalk the sound and images like a dog does the bird. And if one surrenders to what the artists have collaborated to give you in the performance, then a journey can, be. Be, in the becoming. But, if one sits outside the moving 'river' and tries to estimate, search for meaning, restlessly try to make the usual conventional responses to the four hours of the work, a deep frustration, impatience and even, irritation, anger, can manifest.

How did I fare? Stimulated by the music and the visuals of it. Puzzled by the spoken text, but prepared to accept, perhaps, the 'dadaisms" of it - the articulated expression of the world through the special world of Christopher Knowles - a young man with an autistism, and, rather than listen to the words to make sense, attempted to enjoy the sound patterns and language 'building blocks' in an extended realm of durational experiment. Intermittently engaged with the images: lighting and the composition of forms often stark and 'lean' in affect (recalling for myself at times, the landscapes depicted by painter Geoffrey Smart), often ethereally beautiful, but, and here was my aesthetic difficulty, presented in a 'language' of image-effects that often felt dated and quaint. The technology of the 1976 visions somehow freezing my enchantment. I felt that I was watching an installation in a 'museum' experience - a preservation of the original, in tact, from 1976 with love. Philip Glass' music felt alive, contemporary, but on the other hand, the images seemed to belong to, another time, of a less advantaged technical age. My response to the received music and the imagery, these two aspects, crucial elements of the creation of the work, began to stretch my aesthetic response apart, in opposing directions, so that it was, sometimes, a better experience when I closed my eyes and just listened. The rocket ship travelling diagonally across and up the proscenium arch, had all the nostalgia of a child's imagination - delightful, at a certain level of response, but frustratingly slow, so that I had time to indulge in twinges of boredom and a tendency to imagine the contemporary solutions with the, latest technology tools, to create the illusion. The final tableau of Spaceship: the golden lights, the two glass boxes, the 'ridiculous "Dancer with Flashlights" and the 'flying figure' all looking too static, too 'quaint', to help me embrace the effect of a theatrical coup of 1976, in 2013.

On the other hand two of my guests, who are 'young' to the the theatre were in a state of marvel and wonder. Another awash with tears, and all standing on their feet in an ecstatic giving of applause. Just hard hearted, Kevin, the jaded, old theatre-goer not moved and wanting a 'moderinsation' of the tradition. I smiled at the avant-garde preserving a classic in tact, in a kind of sealed-off theatrical vitrine of whimsical memory. I thought I was certainly glad and impressed to see this legendary work, but now, long to see, Mr Wilson let Philip Glass go and let someone else in. Someone from the James Carpenter, AVATAR, team for set and effects; costumes say by Walter Van Beirendonck (at present a great exhibition of his work at RMIT - Dream the World Awake) and perhaps, Gary Stewart from the Australian Dance Theatre (ADT) to create the choreography. Who to Direct ? Hmmm?

This production of EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH is a masterpiece. The discipline and inspiration by conductor Michael Riesman with the Philip Glass Ensemble and the chorus, both sung and spoken text, is outstanding.The Lighting design for this re-mounting by Robert Wilson is poetic in its exactitudes of beauty. The pictures, the imagery startling and clean, fresh, child-crisp in their clarities - the opening tableau vivant, TRAIN, especially. The Choreography by Lucinda Childs Dance Company seamless in its easy beauty and olympian endurances. Special mention to Caitlin Scranton for her work as the Diagonal Dancer in Train; Patrick John O'Neill as Man with Suitcase in Trial; Kate Moran as Witness in Trial/ Prison; Hai-Ting Chinn as the vocalist in BED and all of her other appearances, and Antoine Silverman as Einstein, the solo violinist.

P.S. EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH, now twice presented at the Victorian Art Centre. Sydney, had no theatre in 1992 and I know still does not have one in 2013. Come on Premier O'Farrell convince your mate, James Packer to build a theatre in his hotel/casino for us at Bangaroo. A theatre built from the stage requirements for major works of performing art. Get him to call it the Packer Palace, anything really, so long as he builds it as part of the future investment to the State of NSW and its Sydney Arts Precinct.Is that Parramatta calling "Build it and they will come".


  1. The program notes.
  2. ROBERT WILSON FROM WITHIN, edited by Margery Arent Safir - 2012. The Arts Arena, The American University of Paris. Flammarion.

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