Let’s begin by way of a detour. Surely Robert Wilson would approve.
Much of art speaks to the human desire for stories, for narrative. Although today’s opera houses and symphonies seem equally pressed to survive, opera keeps its edge with stories and visuals that can be marketed much more readily than, say, something as abstract as a Symphony No. 7.
In a book that we’re happy to still see in print (in the dwindling floorspace that bookstores still give to actual books), John Berger, before going into an interesting Marxist interpretation of Western art, urges his readers to do something to art they may not be accustomed to: look. Try not to interpret art through your own stories or prejudices, just look at it. What you’ll find may not be expressible in words, but it will give you everything you need to know.
A figure from Frans Hals’ Regents of the Old Men’s Almshouse. Hals was capable of depicting finely-wrought Dutch lace and lifelike hands, but instead used his “rough style” to give his subjects movement-like qualities and – I think – a life beyond the painting, a sort of immortality. Berger discusses how 19th century scholars pointed to this painting as an example of Hals’ declining abilities at the end of his life, or how he was wreaking revenge on the regents by intentionally painting poorly. The regents had donated a winter’s supply of peat to keep Hals from freezing to death. He wasn’t wreaking revenge, but returning the favor, preserving their lives as well. That’s in the painting if the viewer does not impose an interpretation on it but just looks.
With its patient pace and instinctive yet otherworldly choreography, the epic collaboration between Philip Glass, Robert Wilson, and Lucinda Childs commands that we look. The theater entrance to Einstein on the Beach should be marked with the imperative: Abandon all Narrative, All Ye Who Enter. The paradox is that the less one searches for meaning in the work, the more meaningful it is.
Popular images of Einstein are a touchstone for the work. Performers are in dowdy pants and suspenders. Einstein (the man) loved trains and played violin in an amateur quartet, so we have some train scenes and Jennifer Koh dolled up in costume and a white-haired wig. The judges in the courtroom scenes are surrounded by science-like tools, and Einstein’s terrifying discoveries are embodied by an apocalyptic dancer moving furiously before a cosmic spaceship filled with busy musicians and flying actors.
Why do we have courtroom scenes? Or an endless mantra about a prematurely air-conditioned supermarket? Or a glacial courtship scene on the back of a train that ends with a drawn gun? Well, why not. Some viewers won’t last 10 minutes. Others will be entranced.
Those searching for story will find it in movement, even when that movement is largely comprised of Wilson’s characteristic stillness. In the courtroom scenes, the jury files in like church choristers, a bailiff leads a witness to the stand, where both remain motionless for the scene. An Indian (of course there’s an Indian in the court) stands and turns imperceptibly, though my eye later landed on one quick flip of her hand, the kind of tiny, detailed choreography that keeps your eye moving across the stage. I noticed that nearly everyone in the cast had dark hair, fitting in with the black, white and grey design. The exceptions were one juror with a blonde wig, and the poor soul on stage left, giving herself brain damage by frantically shaking her head in front of a book.
The tone of the music and scenes alternate between an energized, meditational quality and busy ecstasy. The opening ensemble scene, where the train makes its first appearance, is as layered in movement and stage elements as the music is in its birdlike vocal lines and merry-go-round accompaniment. Here is a pirate video from a Toronto performance, where at least you can see the start of the simple “diagonal dance” (performed entrancingly by Caitlin Scranton) and hear how the music evolves.
Einstein in Toronto (Sorry for the ads.)
Or how about one of the last scenes, entitled simply “Bed,” (a large bed also dominates the courtroom scenes) in which a dark stage is dominated by a low horizontal beam of light, a shape that has made its way through other scenes as well. We wait for someone to make an entrance, then begin to realize that the bed is slowly levitating, raising itself to vertical. It becomes an enforced group meditation, captivating and simple.
What we’re left with instead of narrative is spectacle and virtuosity in other ways. The music is beautiful and exciting enough to stand on its own, and how the chorus memorized endless streams of syllables and numbers is astounding. Here’s an excerpt from the opening scene, with strings of spoken numbers and prose by the autistic poet Christopher Knowles serving as pitched percussion over the singing, which acclimates the listener to the timeless, storyless encounter they’re about to have.
To me, the music showcases Philip Glass at his best: more layered, nuanced, and varied than much of his later, more popular works. For example….
Though it may be a balm to angst-ridden teenagers the world over.
Einstein ends with a story. After so much non-narrative, bizarre poetry, abstraction, and ineffable meaning, the story comes as a benediction, validating all of our human instincts and yearnings. “We have need of a soothing story to banish the disturbing thoughts of the day,” a man in bus tells us (we haven’t quite abandoned abstraction). And he describes the most trite scene known to man, of a couple declaring their love for each other, ending when the man presses “his lips warmly to hers in fervent osculation.” That is, a kiss. Even soothing stories have some mystery here.
Einstein remains a period piece, complete with historically-informed costumes, choreography, technical innovations, and popular references appropriate to the late 70s and early 80s. It also hearkens back to a time when a cab driver could self-produce a massive production at the Met, and an avant-garde artist could found an experimental dance school in his apartment and revolutionize theatre. Where is the next collaboration of this kind going to come from? Can anyone still afford to be these kinds of artists?