Physicists look at things, think of a story and do the numbers to see if it works out. Sometimes the numbers come first, and then they find a story to explain to people who don’t understand the numbers.
Albert Einstein looked at a train, or thought of a train he could look at. There was light, and a moving train, and someone looking at it. The way the light and the looking worked out was that things that appear, from here, to happen together, may not seem so from there. That was Einstein’s story, and on Friday a bit of it happened at the Sony Centre, where it was called Einstein on the Beach.
This is a famous piece that has seldom been seen. The people who made it in 1976 called it an opera, but from here in 2012, I saw a pageant, or a ritual with music and dance, or a lot of numbers with stories. No one sang anything but numbers and the names of notes. People who spoke or danced often repeated the same simple things, and the musicians played or sang other simple things over and over, and they kept going like that till everything matched up every way.
The stories were not more important than the numbers. The singers weren’t more important than the dancers. A person who spoke or sang or danced was not more central to the piece than a long rectangular light box that slowly stood itself on end and rose out of view, like the rocket saviour of the world. Even the stagehands looked ceremonious.
There was no beach, except as an item in a story. Twice there was a storybook train, with people looking at it and writing numbers in the air. A striding dancer pointed again and again at the poster-perfect future. Later, a couple stood on the smoking platform like a wedding pair in an old tintype. They spent a whole lunar cycle doing that, in this show where the lighting always looked like weather.
Weather seems a good way to tell the story of this piece. Numbered cycles swirled through the music like a cyclone, different every second but still the same weather. Things happened with high energy or very slowly, or both at once.
Sometimes you wondered: Are we just waiting for the numbers or the pattern to work out? Will they please just work out so we can move on? And then something would rush at you through the music or the dance, without a change of speed in anything. That was exciting, and made up for the parts that were not. Maybe those dull bits had to happen for the exciting things to occur.
Sometimes it seemed very fresh and strange, because it said “opera” on the program and we still expect narrative and characters and arias from that. Other times it felt very 1976. It was cool and knowing in the particular way some things were then. You could come in and see two people sitting like robots in uniform shirts and suspenders, and think of Kraftwerk. Even precision can age, like everything else.
Einstein on the Beach lasted for four-and-a-half hours with no intermission. You could handle this any way you liked, sitting in your seat or standing somewhere, or coming in and out. Many people went out after two hours and didn’t come in again. They missed a lot, but maybe they got it anyway. You didn’t need to see and hear everything, though I and many others did. There was no single thread, just a lot of threads.
Robert Wilson thought up the scenario and the staging, Philip Glass wrote the music and Lucinda Childs made the dances. Their own music and dance companies performed the piece, with the intense focus of those who know it well. No one has ever conducted Einstein on the Beach except Michael Riesman, who did it again on Friday. Jennifer Koh sat in a chair and played the violin with a grey wig on her head: Einstein.
This was a piece made by a New York community of artists who have all done many other things since. Somehow they came together again for a world tour revival, and something was indeed revived. It was worth seeing it happen, from here and there.