Other People Dancing: Einstein on the Beach

Last night, fellow collective member Claire Westby and I got to see our very own Sarah Hillmon perform in Einstein on the Beach. The opera is four and a half hours for nine scenes, five “knee plays” and has no specific plot. As a concept it can be quite daunting. What are you going to see? If you’ve seen some pictures you know there will be a train, a bunch of circle lights and old school judges; if you haven’t all you can guess is “stuff.” You know there is going to be music and some stuff, and all this stuff is going to add up to nothing in particular in no particular order and this ambling is going to end four and a half hours later. Sounds great, right? Probably not. So why are people still going to something so vague and directionless thirty five years later?

It’s because it makes you feel. Not some sort of emotional feeling like excitement, anger, happiness or dread, but the calm meditative feeling of spending the day relaxing in nature. The choreography is so simple and clear that you aren’t worried about what it means – it’s a diagonal, there is no meaning attached. It doesn’t matter that you’ve seen the dancers walk the same diagonal twenty times already, because that diagonal is ever so slowly changing and interesting enough that you want to watch it. You don’t feel pressured to watch it, you just want to. If your mind wanders, then you won’t be lost when you look at the diagonal again –  it will simply be a little different. In this way the choreography mimics many natural events like the seasons which are gradual, slow, somewhat expected, yet still interesting.

Glass’ music paradoxically suspends time by giving a clear beat. You know when you’re in the park and all your cat-napping, book-reading, tag-playing, and other leisurely activities makes it hard to tell what time it is? The music is like that. In the Spaceship section (I think it was the spaceship section) I noticed how this was accomplished. I’m going to get into a little music theory here and I’m no expert, so take this with a grain of salt: the chorus is singing the counts of the music, a four followed by a six followed by an eight. The one of each group is accented by a bass note in the key of the song, which is called the tonic. A tonic is usually played at the beginning and end of a song and somehow gives the listener the sense of a beginning or end because it is the most resolved note that could possibly be played in it’s key.  I caught on they were singing -234 123456 -2345678, and because the words are not used at the same time the tonic is, you end up feeling more resolve because there is less happening on the bass tonic. It’s a slight difference, but you feel it whether or not you notice it, and if you watch the audience you can see them actually moving with the music. The numeric pattern goes on long enough for your body adjust to feeling something every nine to seven counts and then it changes; 1234 -23456 -2345678, now your body has a different rhythm. You adjust, it changes, you adjust, it changes and this repeats… for a long time. You body falls into and out of rhythms that is has felt before and you end up in in some sort of comfortable stage of constant metered change. It feels quite natural but you’ll find that after a while, you don’t really know how long you’ve been changing or even how many times you changed, just that where you are now is different than where you were before.

I have more to say, but I’m not sure how to say it and this blog post is already too long so I’m going to cut it off here. I hope you, too, got to go to the beach.

words: Russell Stuart Lilie 

choreography: Lucinda Childs

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