Selected by Robert Wilson and supported by The Watermill Center, five emerging young artists were charged with creating new work inspired by Einstein on the Beach just as the production made its world tour in 2012–13. Their efforts resulted in On the Beach (OTB), a presentation of five original works from a diverse collection of artists and collectives: Jonah Bokaer (choreographer, dancer, NYC) and Davide Balliano (visual and performance artist, Italy); Degenerate Art Ensemble (performance company, Seattle); Manuela Infante (director, Chile) and Santiago Taccetti (visual artist, Argentina); Steven Reker and People Get Ready (choreographer, dancer, musician, NYC); and Egil Saebjornsson (visual artist, Iceland) and Marcia Moraes (director, choreographer, performer, Brazil). Each of the artists was given a scene, or “knee play,” from Einstein on the Beach (EOTB) to serve as source material for the project. Most of the groups further collaborated with visual artists, including architects, set designers, sculptors, video artists, and animators.
This curated performance clearly explored the influence of Glass and Wilson’s work on the next generation, even as the program encouraged artists to “explore new ideas.” The resulting production was a bit of a conundrum, then, as it questioned whether new work based on an iconic predecessor can stand on its own.
OTB replicated the order of the original scenes, with each of the four acts interspersed with a knee play that served as an interlude for set changes. While the content itself (text, music, dance/staging) was different from EOTB, anyone with knowledge of the source material could locate the associated or inspired scenes. Considering the use of music/sound and staging and the effects of these on the audience, it seemed that the OTB performances represented more of a homage to the previous work rather than offering a breakthrough in a new performance style.
In 1976, EOTB launched Wilson and Glass onto the world stage with their original approach to opera performance. Their signature style brought together Glass’s use of minimalist music and Wilson’s nonlinear approach to text and emphasis on imagery and formalist stage direction. The audience was encouraged to leave and take breaks during the five-hour, no-intermissions production. Glass’s repetitive minimalist style of composition created a particular effect on the audience—an effect that has been described as inducing a meditative or trance-like state. The structure of the opera reflected Wilson’s concept that the story’s interpretation comes from each audience member’s individual experience, connotations, and associations. Wilson and Glass drew upon the iconicity of Einstein as a king of contemporary myth that would allow the audience to bring their own ideas and knowledge of Einstein to the theatre with them. This interpretative aspect, or “bring your own connotation,” was also a component of OTB, except that here the myth in question was not Einstein, but Wilson and Glass’s influential production.
While music and/or sound featured prominently in almost all of the OTB works, it lacked the centrality found in EOTB, and nowhere did it induce those visceral responses often noted by viewers in response to the original 1976 production and its revivals. The influence of Glass’s minimalist style and use of repetition was most prominent in “IT” and “Metro Repetition,” both of which emphasized the power of repetition. “IT,” by Taccetti/Infante, used repetition of sound in the form of a cardboard box that was played on as if it were a piano, and then more percussively like a drum. For several minutes an actor thumped the cardboard box while other actors were clapping or finger-snapping. The physical stamina needed to perform the repetitive rhythm became a central feature of the work as the audience watched the performer struggle to keep up the tempo of the repetition, which resulted in an intense emotional expression from the cardboard-box player himself. But the repetition and sound effect from the box did not reach the transformative effect of...