“I remember the day…”
On the surface, “THE DAY” is a multilayered performance with iconoclastic cellist Maya Beiser and retired ballerina turned dance experimentalist, Wendy Whelan. This collaborative project, done in two parts, is the inspiration of Beiser, whose riveting, jaw-dropping cello playing is truly masterful and would have been plenty on its own. In addition to fervently striking her cello, she also recorded the spoken word while performing live multitrack cello with prerecorded loops. Part 1: “The Day” (2016) and Part 2: “World to Come” (2003) were both composed for her by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, David Lang. He also wrote the heady and meditative text that starts Part 1 that is smartly, alphabetically arranged. Lang refers to this text as fragments of memory, the last thing we remember. The text appears as projected words, as voiceover and at times as ghostly talking-heads projections of Beiser and Whelan stoically speaking the text that comes in every six seconds as part of the composition. The projections fill the scrim behind Beiser who sits in at the top of a small ramp.
Whelan sits downstage on a swivel stool in a leg lunge, slowly turning on the stool in an angular fashion, cool and detached. Her movement is the choreography of minimalist Lucinda Childs, and her white multifunction full-length tunic—at times, more like a fitted sheet—is the creation of Karen Young. Whelan stiffly promenades around the stage, acquiring a ghost-like prop from off stage. The prop is awkward as she confidently tries to convince us of its meaning and importance—the way a ballerina looks beyond the length of her arm as if there is a there-there that she longs to find… Is it a baby ghost, a spirit, a comet, a bad idea? What do we make of it? This globe, covered with the same white material that drapes her, is used in various ways; as a pregnant belly, a hunch back, backpack, a halo. At times she rolls it into her dress, seeming to make it disappear. Whelan’s movements and interactions with props are almost comical, like the Emperor’s new clothes, with all the drama and passion coming from Beiser who is moving more than her bow, her full body is an expression of her passionate playing. Whelan is a legendary dancer and Childs a seminal choreographer, yet any dancer could be dancing this performance and any choreographer could be staging it, whereas no one could replace Beiser, not only for her equal talent and beauty but for her commanding full-stage-presence. Clearly the choreography is intended to contrast the ardor of the score, the ferocious cello playing, and hypnotic text, but it is ill-matched, fluctuating between abstract and literal. Even with Child’s signature repetitive lunges with arm extensions recurring in different directions and references to Martha Graham’s dance “Lamentation” in Youngs costuming, they do little to truly hold their own in this super-talented collaboration. Sara Brown’s eloquent and sophisticated scenic design, Joshua Higgason’s haunting grey-washed, apparition-like projections, and Natasha Katz muted steel-grey lighting all smartly say more with less.
Part 2: “World to Come” begins on a darkened stage as a thunderous overbearing sound fills the space as if the sounds of an explosion have been slowed and amplified, preparing the way for an even more dramatic second part. Beiser, who moved downstage, switching places with Whelan now upstage, adds breathy vocals to more fervent playing as a less encumbered Whelan moves in a simpler body-fitting outfit. Towards the end when a white tower of fabric descends from the rafters, Whelan begins moving with it. When she eventually tugs on the fabric, it sinks to the earth like the sky is falling. Simultaneously, two images of the same tower-like fabric are being projected on the upstage scrim. One at a time, they fall exquisitely collapsing into themselves in very slow motion. This is a breathtaking ephemeral moment that ends this richly dark-in-tone performance.
Beiser and Lang started working on “THE DAY” when 9/11 happened, working just blocks away from ground zero… “World to Come” is based on the soul’s journey from life and death to an afterlife. The full stage projection, seen in Part 1, of a heavenly looking transit hub with blurred images of people moving through it, was, in fact, the Oculus at the World Trade Center—an icon that isn’t as embedded in our Californian psyche as it is for New Yorkers. Knowing this is the Oculus—a building itself that has gone through the same stages as the soul’s journey– appears as a bardo, a transitory place for the migration of souls. And the heavenly image of the collapsing fabric is the indeed representation of the Twin Towers artistically transformed from tragedy into the ephemeral. Inexplicably, for all the many layers to this performance, three numbers remained missing from the program notes and publicity on “The DAY”–9/11. With a brief mention of the inspiration and calamity that informed this work, everything comes into sharper focus. Even Whelan’s ghost-like prop makes more sense with the soul entering and leaving the body, or the ropes she pulled across the stage in Part 1 (also images of ropes upstage) the tug of war with letting go of one life for another.
David E Moreno