Einstein on the Beach: Less Eccentricity But Still Transporting

September 25, 2012

Watching Einstein on the Beach prompts big thoughts—about art, theater, numbers, discoveries, religion. These questions only gradually arise, as mostly one is mesmerized by Philip Glass’ meditative, circular music and the sheer imagination of Robert Wilson. You’re in a zone like no other.

First, the question, How was Einstein different, dancewise?. And the answer is: The dancing was more eccentric—and crazed—the first time around. The production that just left BAM and is now on its way to Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall next month, has dance sections that seem a bit sanitized to me.


Sharon Milanese, Shakirah Stewart, Katherine Helen Fisher, and Katie Dorn of Lucinda Childs Dance Company, in the current revival of
Einstein on the Beach. Photo by Stephanie Berger, Courtesy BAM.


In the original 1976 version, Andy de Groat choreographed the two “field dances,” (now called “Dance 1” and “Dance 2”) but Lucinda Childs improvised her own solo on the diagonal in the first “Train” section. I was bowled over by Childs’ diagonal solo, both in an early showing and in the premiere at the Met. Here is what I wrote in the Soho Weekly News back then:

“In an open rehearsal of Einstein on the Beach (March 1976), the 45-minute solo for Childs was a remarkable and moving performance. The dance unfolded gradually, the spare, ritual-like gestures…eventually becoming manic and restless. She skittered and limped and bounced while making complicated darting hand signals….The character changed with the speed of hallucinations intercepting one another. If I blinked, she may have turned from clown to baseball coach, or from didactic professor to drunkard. It was uncanny and it was beautiful.”


Lucinda Childs in the original “Diagonal Dance.” Photo © Philippe Gras 1976, Courtesy Luminato Festival.


Caitlin Scranton, the dancer with the Lucinda Childs Dance Company who performed the “Diagonal Dance” this time, mastered the darting hands and sharp head turns, but she wasn’t channeling the strange characters that passed through Childs’ rendition. (Maybe what I saw as channeling was subliminal.) The scene needs something that grows and changes and shifts intensities. The train is edging on- and off-stage at a glacial pace; the little boy, hoisted on high, patiently handles a small, lit cube; a conch shell lies waiting to be discovered downstage right. All of these nearly static elements need to have the contrast that we got back in 1976 (and the 1984 and 1992 revivals I assume) of Child’s springy, trippy morphing.


Caitlin Scranton center, in the role originated by Lucinda Childs. Photo by Stephanie Berger, Courtesy BAM.


(I think Kate Moran, who replaced Childs in the speaking parts, got at the essence of Childs’ crisp speaking voice—able to lift repeated mundane sentences out of flatness with her surreal expressiveness—better than Scranton got to her essence in the dance.)

Now for the group dances. Childs is a master at building momentum from a narrow palette of movement. Her 10 dancers executed the steps (à la seconde turns, brisk little jumps, lots of chassées) with energy and precision, and some took relish in the quick changes of direction. (Katherine Fisher was terrific, see our “Technique My Way” on her.) They certainly gave the pacing a shot in the arm.

But, as my son commented, there was no individuality. John Rockwell had pointed out, in his article in The New York Times, that the casting has become more professional with each revival. The original dancers in 1976 were a motley crew, a bunch of lovable eccentrics. For instance Frank Conversano brought a certain roly-poly warmth and humor to the proceedings. Also, in the second group dance there were fleeting lifts and whirls with partners that gave a sense of human contact to the Glass music. In the current version, the dancing is speedier and there’s a greater clarity of pattern (possibly to anticipate the patterns in the spectacular grid of the “Spaceship”) but there’s no touching or contact among them. It’s less about community and more about vectors in space.

The final, apocalyptic “Spaceship” scene is fantastic. A huge grid of patterned blinking lights contains cubicles, each with a performer writing furiously and a musician playing an instrument. A horizontal “elevator” and vertical “elevator” glide across the space mid-air, each with a person inside gesturing as though in a dream, while the fanatical vocal energy and manic formula-writing mount. Eventually the two “knee-play” characters emerge from smoky bubbles in the floor as though landing on the moon.


“Spaceship” with, from left on floor, Kate Moran and Helga Davis, Photo © Lucie Jansch, Courtesy Luminato Festival.


A man wearing a bizarre mask gesticulates with a flashlight in each hand. That was Bob Wilson in the original 1976 production. A barely constrained madman, he added a dollop of crazed urgency to the already wild “Spaceship” scene, hinting at the potential danger of Einstein’s discovery—which lead to the atom bomb. (Was this Einstein, frantically trying to warn the U.S. government how dangerous a nuclear build-up would be?). In this production, Ty Boomershine danced that part. He was fine, but he wasn’t quite “demonic” enough, to use the word that Rockwell quoted Wilson as saying.


Robert Wilson in the “Spaceship” scene, Photo © Lynn Kohlman 1984, Courtesy Luminato Festival.


Even though it lacked the appealing eccentricity of the original version, this Einstein still transported the audience to a state of mind where we  noticed amazing small things. For instance, dancer Katie Dorn, as the “woman reading,” shakes her head for about a half hour in two different scenes. No matter what else changes, she is still there, back to us, shaking her head as though she has Parkinson’s. Perhaps she signifies Einstein’s research leading up to his discoveries.

Two other observations: As a general threading concept, connecting the Christopher Knowles autism-tinged text with Einstein’s genius gave plenty of food for thought. And if you sit there and count out the music—11s, 10s, 9s, 8s, 7s, 6s, 5s, 7s again—you are mathematically rewarded.

In his NY Times review Anthony Tommasini called this production “sweetly mystical.” I was happy to see/hear/experience it again. And just like the spirals of Glass’ music, you absorb more each time it comes around.