Looking at WNY’s visual art, theater, music, and dance scenes.
Jun 7, 2012
04:00 AMTalk about Arts
Letter from Toronto 1: Einstein on the Breach
(Note: Spree writer Ron Ehmke and photographer Don Kreger are on assignment in Toronto for the next two weeks, covering the Luminato Festival, the North By Northeast Festival, and other events and attractions. This is the first in a series of irregular reports from their travels.)
It’s been 36 years since composer Philip Glass, director Robert Wilson, and choreographer Lucinda Childs first collaborated on the post-modern opera/performance spectacular Einstein on the Beach. In the intervening decades, each has maintained a thriving solo career, but Einstein remains a watershed achievement, both for the artists themselves and for the culture at large. This weekend, you’ve got a rare opportunity to see the work performed in its 4-and-a-half-hour entirety during the Luminato Festival in what is being billed, with partial accuracy, as the North American premiere of the work outside New York City. Tickets are still available, and given the fact that the current revival/restaging took 10 years to get off the ground, you’d be wise to consider hopping in the car and heading across the border immediately.
Hardcore aficionados (at least one coming all the way from Houston, Texas just to see the show) gathered at the Art Gallery of Ontario on June 6 to hear the three principal collaborators discuss their opus with Luminato director Jorn Weisbrodt and field questions from the audience. (Another tie-in event on June 10 looks at “The Science of Einstein on the Beach.”) The tone was casual as Wilson and Glass revisited the formal structure of the piece (Wilson described it as a series of “portraits, still lifes, and landscapes” following the classical formula of themes and variations; Glass noted that every image and motif in the opera bears some connection, however tenuous, to Einstein’s life and work). Amusing, self-deprecating stories abounded; Glass revealed, for instance, that the score’s now-famous incorporation of numbers and solfege syllables came about purely by accident when Wilson walked in on a vocal rehearsal and assumed the singers’ chanted placeholders like “onetwothreefour / onetwothreefour“ and variations on “do re mi” were the actual lyrics, and Glass decided on the spot to make them so. Wilson later recalled running into playwright Arthur Miller in the audience of an early performance; Wilson recognized Miller, but not vice versa, and at one point the author of Death of a Salesman turned to Wilson and asked, “Do you get this? I don’t,” before walking out.
As all three co-creators repeatedly stressed, Einstein isn’t really something to “get,” it’s a vast abstraction to be experienced in space and time. The piece is performed without an intermission and audience members are welcome to enter and exit as they please, although—based on my own experience of the 1984 production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music—it’s an edge-of-your-seat phenomenon that flies by far faster than you might imagine.
Much was made of Einstein being one of a kind, a product of the more experimentation-friendly climate of the 1970s, but I’d argue that its legacy can be found hovering over Buffalo’s currently thriving alternative theater and performance scene, albeit on a much smaller scale, in the works of, among others, Torn Space, Alt. Theatre, and Nimbus Dance, all of which defy genres and create vivid stage pictures which often cannot be summarized in terms that would satisfy the late Mr. Miller. There may be nothing to “get,” but there’s still plenty to take in.