Philip Glass’ symphonic music has grown commonplace on ballet programs, yet more often than not contemporary choreographers will concoct dense, breathless and safe movement phrases to accompany Glass’ launching and looping scores. Maybe you’ll see costumes that express ‘creativity,’ but for the most part the dance feels to be trying to normalize the music, even after all these years. There is a tamped down effect and it’s rarely fun stuff.
That’s why it’s a good idea, any chance you get, to run to any show that pairs Glass and with groundbreaking theater director Robert Wilson. Even just a whiff of Wilson, it turns out, goes a long way. For a recent evening at the Baryshnikov Arts Center entitled “On the Beach,” which ran for three nights (April 5-7), Wilson presented the results of an experimental three-week session at his Watermill Arts Center this spring that brought about a dozen far-flung visual and performing artists to riff on scenes from on the Glass/Wilson avant-opera odyssey “Einstein on the Beach” (1976). Creating teams of designers/directors from his curated pool, Wilson’s only other major input to the show was to deliver lighting notes to the artists and to organize the performers who appeared with Jared Mezzochi’s stunning videos during the transition scenes. Still, Wilson’s unique theatrical sense — high-caliber technical execution with a low-key tone — permeated most of the night. This was indeed fun stuff.
Despite a show title that suggested a possible grimness (Nevil Shute’s hopeless post-apocalyptic novel) or an absence of mind/center (the lopping of “Einstein” to make the new title), “On the Beach” delivered a casually cohesive and oxygenated evening of performance.
Of the five international artistic teams on the bill, three were old hands at working together, and two were brand-new pairs. Seattle’s Degenerate Art Ensemble, run together by director Haruko Nishimura and composer Joshua Kohl, were the physical and psychic centerpiece of the program, with Kohl and a trio of NYC-based string players adding new color to Glass’ score while Nishimura and fellow performers Dohee Lee and Jonas Rädvik built a four-walled imaginary world comprised of motion, sound and stark design that culminated in an easy-going audience sing-a-long. Video artist Egill Saeborjsson and Brazilian director Marcia Moraes, responsible for the buoyant Knee Play interludes, had also worked together in the past, and their playful nonsense-scenes were delivered with great technical and emotional precision. Singers and actors in color-block wool roving wigs interacted with floor-to-ceiling projections (sometimes effervescent bubbles, sometimes pounding crosshatch-weaves), scenes that identified and celebrated those ephemeral energies that separate man from mechanism.
Steven Reker & People Get Ready, featuring Luke Fasano, James Rickman and Jen Goma, closed the show with the airiest scene of all — an interlude featuring a bicycle and thrown microphones that was not unlike watching a gently choreographed break-down of both the evening’s energetic core and the physical set.
The brand-new artistic pairings on the bill spooled out less smoothly, but not without some fascinating glimmers. Argentinian visual artist Santiago Taccetti & Chilean director Manuela Infante, working with Chilean musician Diego Noguera and performers nicoykatiushka (NyK), concocted an episode with a home-built electro-acoustic percussion instrument that looked like a mere cardboard box but was actually programmed to trigger a note from “knee play 2” each time Noguera struck against it. The two performers from NyK, meanwhile, each kept repetitively displacing and retrieving a tablet-sized object from a large home-base sculpture that was not unlike a large-scale tablet itself. (Fair enough….But did it have to swallow them?)
Only the opening group, New York choreographer Jonah Bokaer and Italian visual/performance artist Davide Balliano, delivered a scene with five dancers (CC Chang, James McGinn, Sara Procopio, Davon Rainey, Adam H. Weinert) that despite the leavening agents of gorgeous props (an oversize wheel and ladder) and vocalized text (in Taiwanese and English), just felt sadly ponderous when it should have been mysterious.
All in all, the concert was an appetite-whetting prelude to the international tour of “Einstein on the Beach” that’s underway this year in honor of the work’s 35th anniversary. The dazzling video work in this production by Mezzocchi and Saeborjsson begs the question of whether Wilson will be updating “Einstein” will digital projections (I could see it going either way). We’ll just have to tune in when the tour hits the U.S., where it opens at BAM’s Next Wave Festival on Sept 14-23 and makes it first-ever (!) West Coast debut in Zellerbach Hall at UC Berkeley Oct. 26-28.