‘Einstein on the Beach’
Music and lyrics by Philip Glass
Direction, set and light design by Robert Wilson
Choreography by Lucinda Childs
Cal Performances, Berkeley (world tour)
Oct. 26-28, 2012
To attempt to describe “Einstein on the Beach,” the groundbreaking 1976 stage work by composer Philip Glass, designer-director Robert Wilson and choreographer Lucinda Childs, is like trying to catch sand sifting through a sieve. You’ll get some grains, of course, but inevitably, many more will slip through your fingers.
It is an “opera,” only in the definitive meaning of that word, meaning “work” (same root as “opus”). Combining dance, orchestral music, violin and saxophone solos, duets and choral vocal passages, spoken word and multi-media stage pictures and lasting some four and a half hours (without intermission — audience members are encouraged to come and go as they please), it is more in the line of an experience. And what an experience it is.
If it is “about” anything, it’s about time. Time past, time future, time wasted, time served and, of course, this being loosely about the work of Albert Einstein, it’s all relative. If you try too hard to make sense of it your brain might crack open. If you let it wash over you, impressions coming and going much like the audience members meandering up the aisles for a bathroom or coffee break, you just might have one of the most rewarding aesthetic experiences of your life.
This wasn’t initially the case. It is reported that, following the first brief and unsuccessful run of “Einstein” in New York, Glass had to go back to driving a cab. But, ultimately, this is the work that made the reputations of its three creators, setting the bar high for what would be composed, choreographed and staged by others in years to come. Wilson, Glass and Childs were on hand to take their bows and participate in symposia during the Berkeley run, are in their 70s now, although time being relative, they don’t really look it.
This is the kind of show in which the shadows made by a dancer (Ty Boomershine) on a screen are more compelling than the dancer himself — and appropriately so. This is a world of shadows and mystery, the various vignettes showing life as it is, was meant to be, was never intended to be. Two lovers sing rapturously under a full moon from the caboose of a train. And then she pulls a gun on him. A woman (Lindsay Kesselman) sits in a window, working a calculator as the world passes by on the street below and a fantastic jazz saxophone solo (Andrew Sterman) wails away. Einstein himself is played by the concert violinist Jennifer Koh in a white fright wig and with amazing virtuosity.
A train comes and goes — and comes and goes again. A bus driver (Charles Williams) tells a love story from the wheel of his vehicle. There is a plethora of vehicles, even a skateboard, culminating in the final scene of a spaceship ascending as a battalion of men work at a wall of lights. A very funny judge (Williams again) makes grotesque faces from the bench while two jaded court stenographers file their nails. A woman juror (Kesselman) tells the same banal story over and over, her voice varying in intonation with each repetition. And under it all is the music, repetitive, driving, but never boring and, just as you start to think a repeated pattern is going to make you crazy, changing. Childs’ choreography for the first extended dance interlude is angular; for the second, more in the mode of a Balanchine ballet, with twirling dancers criss-crossing the stage. It is, however, all her own and a joy to watch.
The reviewer wants to go out into the lobby and eat the apple she has brought from home, get a drink of water and stretch her legs but she’s afraid to miss anything. She finally sneaks away during one of the four “knee plays,” in which Helga Davis and Kate Moran sit in adjacent chairs, wearing Einstein’s trademark white shirts, baggy pants and suspenders, their fingers working imaginary calculators and their voices chanting numbers and fragments of sentences. She scurries back in ten minutes. Time is relative, right?
A few things — references to the Beatles, a snatch of a Carole King song — might date this work, if it wasn’t so timeless, so fascinating to watch and listen to. But don’t ask me what it is about. It’s as understandable as E=mc².