Somehow I feel like I spent the past three years waiting for the opportunity to see Einstein on the Beach by Robert Wilson and Philip Glass with choreography by Lucinda Childs. That opportunity came the other night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
I say that I have been waiting that long because I was first introduced to Robert Wilson when I started my career working at the Watermill Center, “Bob’s” experimental theater residency program in the Hamptons.
Einstein on the Beach was a huge cultural success when it premiered in 1976 but a commercial disaster, sinking Wilson into debt and essentially running him out of New York. Since then, he has hailed critical success for his avant-garde theater and made his gradual return to New York.
Einstein on the Beach is an enormous undertaking with a large cast, live, layered music, intricate dance numbers, massive mechanical sets, and a 4 hour, 15 minute running time with no intermission. Utilizing repetition, the opera is at once incredibly complex and incredibly simple.
I found myself actively – and exhaustively – looking for changes throughout the four plus hours. What I found was that at a certain moment, one must surrender to the fact that there will be no conflict, climax or resolution. The opera will merely continue at the same tempo, with the same lighting, with the same dialogue, with the same lyrics, with the same movement with only subtle changes.
The lack of change, that persistence of sameness, was absolutely amazing. The talent of the performers had me in awe. They must possess such discipline and hone incredible skills of voice, acting, and movement.
My favorite example of this was in Act II, Scene 1B, “Train” when two performers sang a song of love in the form of counting the beats, “1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3,” which changed rapidly to “1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4” to 5’s to 6’s and then back down without every catching a breath. Incredible.
And the Lucinda Childs choreography where the dancers chassé and leap and chaînés in spirals around each other was dizzying in a good way. How these dancers could keep track of where they were, was one thing. The other thing, was their precision and enduring rhythm even after 20 minutes of nonstop motion. Again, incredible.
Then of course, there were the marvelous tableaus that Wilson created with the outlandish sets, simple costumes, lots of smoke, and focused lighting plus the standard Wilsonian gestures with the hands.
The music by Philip Glass was a classical circular melody that pulsated. Driving the sameness with subtle changes throughout.
All in all, the whole opera was totally bizarre but somehow I found myself relating to it. I was so happy to see such a seminal work, and to see it in New York.