“On the Beach”: A New Generation

On the Beach (Baryshnikov Arts Center, April 5-7) is like a waking dream, replete with hypnotic aural and visual landscapes bound together by elements inspired by Einstein on the Beach, a five-hour opera in four acts. For this production, Robert Wilson selected five teams of emerging artists to re-interpret sections from the seminal work, which originally premiered on July 25, 1976 at the Avignon Festival in France and was performed by the Philip Glass Ensemble and dancer/choreographer Lucinda Childs. Due to limited revivals and performances, few people, including myself, have actually experienced Einstein on the Beach live. This year, the work will be revived by Wilson, Glass, and Childs to embark upon an international tour that comprises nine stops on three continents. BAM will once again be home to the production September 14-23 during the Next Wave Festival, having presented the 1984 and 1992 iterations.

Einstein on the Beach was the first collaboration between Wilson and Glass, and the work breaks all of the rules of conventional opera. Wilson devised the structure and design while Glass composed the music. Non-narrative in form, the work uses a series of powerful recurrent images as its main dramatic device shown in radical juxtaposition with abstract dance sequences created by Lucinda Childs. The opera also includes spoken text by Childs, Christopher Knowles, and Samuel M. Johnson. Instead of a traditional orchestral arrangement, Glass chose to compose the work for the synthesizers, woodwinds and voices of The Philip Glass ensemble.

Although Glass and Childs are very much minimalist artists, Wilson is regarded as a master of the postmodern aesthetics in theater, or a theater of mixed means and images. Einstein… was considered to be a response to the technological revolution, highlighting trends such as mediated communication or not looking at someone while communicating. Such themes are even more relevant today as everyone seems to be plugged in to the almighty computer at every waking moment of the day. Wilson was also interested in expanding our sense of time and Einstein… plays with temporal elements such as making a scene repeat for 20 minutes to make the audience reflect on what is going on.

Further, elements that traditionally do not work well together are presented in tandem, like repetition and association as well as an opera without a story. Wilson has long worked with sounds, gesture, movement, light and time, to produce theatre pieces, which are often epic and concerned with the symbols and poetics of our century. In a similar vein, Einstein on the Beach sets out to re-interpret our preoccupations and ourselves. Wilson’s work is often long, visually simple, and full of contradictions that force the spectator to notice and question.

For On the Beach, Wilson sets out to “celebrate a new generation of artists and their reactions to the opera” by assigning various artists to four scenes and The Knee Plays (short pieces presented between and connecting the four acts of Einstein on the Beach) as the sources of inspiration for these new works. The artists, all of whom have been in residence at Wilson’s Watermill Center performance laboratory, are from around the world and work in a variety of disciplines. They are: Jonah Bokaer (choreographer, dancer, NYC) and Davide Balliano (visual and performance artist, Italy); Degenerate Art Ensemble (performance company, Seattle); Manuela Infante (theater director, Chile) and Santiago Taccetti (visual artist, Argentina); Steven Reker & People Get Ready (choreographer, dancer, and musician, NYC); Egil Saebjornsson (visual artist, Iceland) and Marcia Moraes (theater director, choreographer, and performer, Brazil).

While each group re-contextualizes an already abstract postmodern collection of images and sounds, certain themes and elements are prominent throughout: repetition vs. variation, technology, time, numbers, perception (sound and visual) and fragmented communication. In Metro Repetition, Jonah Bokaer’s dancers maintain their own independent pace, some painfully, yet beautifully slow and others, much faster and precise. Haruko Nishimura and Joshua Kohl’s Letter from the Atomic Shores, layers an ensemble of string players with two butoh-like, expressionist performers who sing enchanting arrhythmic hymns while beating out syncopated percussions on a set prop. Meanwhile, an Einstein-like figure seems to be in a continual search for something out of reach. Egill Seabjornsson and Marcia Moraes connect the disparate scenes into a seamless production with their opera singers who dance, act, speak and interact with projected images such as an animated, talking rock. On the Beach was a welcome distillation of its source material. I personally look forward to experiencing the epic proportions of Einstein on the Beach at BAM in the fall.

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