Like the birth of a child, Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach: An Opera in Four Acts, co-written with Philip Glass, featuring choreography by Lucinda Childs and brought to Berkeley at October’s end by Cal Performances, presented a conundrum of experience.
The nearly five-hour opera can drive a person mad, or into ecstasy, or both. The only certainty is that after witnessing it, sight, sound, movement, and especially time, can never be the same.
The 1976 original, hailed by critics as revolutionary and largely credited with establishing Wilson, Glass and Childs as leaders in (respectively) contemporary theater, music and dance, today bears some resemblance to an old home movie made by an eccentric uncle. But, while madness in the hands of a family relative may result in silly entertainment, in the hands of three masters, it makes for brilliant, universe-shifting theater.
Far from a biographical telling of the life of Einstein, the opera is an episodic collage that motors through “Train” and “Trial” to “Spaceship,” a light-blasting atomic meltdown. Interspersed are sections of pure dance and “Knee Plays,” the palette-cleansing transitions Wilson uses to rivet one scene to the next. Four and a half hours after it began, the opera falls gracefully into “Knee Play 5,” a tender love story meant to “ease our ruffled spirits.”
A good deal of the genius in this fourth iteration (Einstein returned in 1984 and 1992, but only to Brooklyn and European venues,) can be attributed to the three creators’ revisions and revitalizations. Instead of hammering their remount with “nails of purity,” they allow the work its relativity.
Where yesterday’s dancers may have shown more individualism — including Childs, who has relinquished her roles to Kate Moran and Caitlin Scranton — the current company of dancers grabs the bullhorns of Childs’ mathematically divine configurations, articulates isolations and never lets them go.
Violinist Jennifer Koh, breaking ground as the first female to play the part of an aging “Einstein as virtuoso musician,” can only be described as the production’s gale force headwind.
The chorus and ensemble — mostly young musicians trained practically from birth to explore contemporary scores — deftly deliver the machine-gun-paced solfège syllables and looping, gossamer arpeggios that characterize Glass’ rhythmic and harmonic playground.
Amazingly — surpassing these gifts of shimmering sound and sensational steps — Wilson’s lighting and set designs are the take-home prize.
Stark, hard-edged squares and shards of light define space; a blood red jacket or man’s beard is harshly alive amid a black-and-white sea; blazing white light reaches painful intensity, then drops into cool, foggy, blue relief; a crescent moon morphs lugubriously into fullness. Even the tiny, foot-long spacecraft, ridiculously making its shaky, low-tech diagonal ascent across the proscenium’s expanse, evokes a flurry of mental associations.
Proving that Wilson’s “rubber band” sense of time liberates the eye and defies expectation, it is suddenly possible to watch an enormous shaft of light tilt at a glacial pace (was it really nine minutes?!) from horizontal to vertical without feeling impatient.
As great as Wilson’s manipulations are — worth the ticket price alone — the work gains essential depth when combined with the choreographic highlights: choppy gestures reminiscent of a madcap, flailing aircraft signaler and the soft, tendril-like table dance performed by Moran and Helga Davis. Layer on Glass’s score and discover a cliché: a thing that is so much more than the sum of its parts.
That is why, despite needing to do calisthenics in the back of the theater and sneaking nibbles of an energy bar to stave off hunger, a gentleman standing nearby in the dark spoke for many, saying, “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I could see this again…tomorrow!”
For all it’s non-narrativeness and length, what’s remarkable about Einstein on the Beach is how exactly it resembles Einstein in the science books. The physics of the piece take his theory, “velocity of light in a vacuum is constant,” and poetically, use it to prove that a seminal work can transcend the ravages of aging and continue to produce emotional highs in defiance of gravity.
Einstein was performed Oct. 26-28 at Zellerbach Hall. Kicking yourself for missing this one? There are rumors of a film being made and one can hope that another 20 years will not have to pass before it docks again in the Bay Area.
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