The Performance Club


This article was written on 27 Sep 2012, and is filed under Guest Writers.

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Einstein for the First Time


“Bed” from “Einstein on the Beach.” An Opera in Four Acts by
Robert Wilson& Philip Glass
Choreography by Lucinda Childs. Photo: Lucie Jansch.

By Siobhan Burke

The performance begins before it begins when I am on the train. I have 11 minutes but I need at least 16. Or earlier, this morning, when lost in thought, mid-cereal, I go put on my watch because tonight when I am at the show I’ll want to know the time.

Hungry, thirsty, bored, fatigued. Future states, anticipated. Not sure if they’ll happen but how good it feels to wonder. Four hours, plus a little more, is really quite a luxury, an exercise in how to see and finding ways I haven’t found of saying “I don’t know.”

Two more stops is two too many. When I get there, should I run? “Just in time,” the woman at the ticket counter says to me.

What happened in the 70s?

Numbers. Counting. Keeping track. Young Einstein with a box in hand. Is that an actor or a dancer? Does it really matter? No. Jillian, I’m thinking now, would really like this repetition. Now I’m thinking doesn’t really matter how much time goes by: When I see dry ice onstage, I’ll always think of Riverdance.

By chance, here comes a train. A beam of light descends. Variety of instruments, musical and otherwise. Attention to entire body, even muscles of the eyes.

Groupings of trios of notes.

Decisions and how they get made.

Our bodies and what they can do.

(Something about potential.)

Little Einstein throws a paper plane; it coasts from high to low. My consciousness refusing to be streamed, against my hopes for it. Easy not to think too hard once settled in the present.

Scintillating. Boredom not a problem here, the opposite: Feeling like I’d be just fine with staying here, indefinite. Now I’m getting stuck on some unnecessary adverbs, as the voices keep on chattering. It could be all we hear.

Actor/dancer charting a diagonal. Her flourishes increasingly elaborate as chaos mounts in increments. Handkerchief, a train conductor (beard the color of the cloth). Reappearing from the wing like multiple beginnings.

Obsessive: it’s the word we’ve all been looking for. Oh look! A seashell on the floor (the shore, I mean).

A tightly practiced change of scene.

So many people here tonight. Are those bagged lunches in their hands? “Bewigged”—I think I read that word somewhere, the New York Times review? The gliding dance of placing paper bag on floor and sitting down to work and work, and work and work, and work and work and work and work.

This court of common pleas is now in session. (At the time I wasn’t sure, I had to look it up.) Einstein plays the violin, it’s beautiful. The scrawling pens, the index fingers scratching heads. The barking no’s, the sense of total orchestra, the witness stand. The cyclical request that if we see those baggy pants and if we happen to be asked then we should please, it was trees.

A flask descends just like the beam of light before. Variety of orbs and now the orb we’ve all been waiting for. It trundles out on high, eclipsing blank face of the clock and over there, a restless compass needle, disregarding North.

Across the aisle, woman getting comfortable. She’s barefoot as she slips out of her seat to take a breather. I presume.

And off in the distance

(orchestra left?)

a man is blowing his nose.

As members of the human species, all we want is lunch. Unveiling of the coffee cups and slow contented munching. But lunch, too, must end, especially when everybody’s watch declares it’s over. There are matters to attend to. Like sisters rise your flags unfurl and would it get some wind.

So many people getting up now. Unofficial intermission? Here we are in lobby seeking sustenance and taking break and checking passing minutes like an imitation of the stage.

Man in line says doesn’t really think there’s any meaning, as I think, “What do I want to eat?” (It’s part of the experience.)

Great, I missed the dancing, oh how could I miss the dancing, but my seatmate (whom I haven’t met) is underwhelmed, he says that “they’ve been doing this” (as if “this” isn’t totally incredible) for 20 minutes. But, he notes, the floating light was over there and now it’s over here, and while at first the dancers just were crossing back and forth it’s gotten more involved and this is “probably significant,” he says to me. Pause. Amendment:, “You should prob-ly write that down.”

There’s that shell again, and now an interracial couple on the back of train. A pocket watch, a growing crescent moon.

Think I might run out of pages, wouldn’t be the end of world. Lovers’ fingers almost touch (just like Marina retrospective). Was not expecting the gun.

Helga Davis and Gregory Purnhagen in “Night Train” from “Einstein on the Beach.” Photo: Stephanie Berger.

The temperature in here is satisfactory.

(Something drops from balcony.)

Pulsations, orchestrations, and the consummate control of breath. Very roots of syllables, gone before they’ve started. Immersive is the word that comes to mind (I use it all the time). The pace is very quick, so quick I can’t believe, but there it is, it’s happening, no question, as my seatmate rubs his eyes.

One one, two.

Two two, two.

Three three, two.

Four four, two.

Record-keeper tapping air, then brandishing some kind of wrench. Weird how people clap sometimes and not at others, what determines? Stage hands trying hard to be composed. Imagine all the ropes and pulleys that convened tonight—just to pull this off.

Prematurely air-conditioned supermarket, says the woman. Trying to conceive what that could mean and trying hard to hear her oft-repeated story, with the plumes of yellow, red and blue, the Day of Independence and avoidance of the beach.

Kissing, winking, putting on pearls. American, this one has been. Picking up jacket. Glamour girl. Even with her wrists in chains. Rifle cocked. (Patty Hearst.)  Lollipop. Vicious licking. Prison bars appear to sway in keeping with the rhythm.

Thinking for a second I see Einstein with a laptop, then impossible, I think, they didn’t have those at the time. Right around the time that Carol King was feeling (as we’re now reminded) that the sky was tumble-tumbling down.

Transmissions via radio. Another dance (a signal to my seatmate that it’s time to go) begins with lots of turning. And continues in that way, so mathematical. Coordinates. Directional exactitude, kaleidoscopic magic. Yet also very buoyant, as if this is what was meant by fresh and clean (three hours prior in the opening scene).

Dancers Sharon Milanese, Shakirah Stewart, Katherine Helen Fisher and Katie Dorn in “Einstein on the Beach.” Photo: Stephanie Berger.

Part of the experience would be to spend a little time outdoors on steps of opera house, taking in the night. Which I do, before re-entering to saxophones, a jazzy kind of urban panorama where the genius sits aloft.

Now begins what looks to be the glacial tilting of a beam, from lying flat to standing tall—searing white on black. Took a minute, but I see it now: the drifting hand of time, from quarter till, to where the hour ends and starts.

Speaking of the end, it’s drawing near. I have a hunch. Spectacular revealing of the scaffolding and lights (inner workings of the shuttle, even gravity’s suspended), the return of actor/dancer, the jarring diagram about the details of what happens when the atom bomb explodes. Human beings charmed by forces larger than themselves.

Calmer now, and night should be a time to sit at rest our troubled minds and put at ease our ruffled spirits. So we’re told.

At midnight when I’m home, though, I can’t help but reconnect to my technology—

Mr. Bojangles may refer to:

  Bill Robinson, American dancer and actor, also known as “Mr. Bojangles”

  “Mr. Bojangles” (song), a 1968 song by Jerry Jeff Walker

  “Mr. Bojangles” / “I Will Talk and Hollywood Will Listen,” a 2002 Robbie Williams single

  “Mr. Bojangles,” an unnamed suspect in the West Memphis Three murder case

  See also



Siobhan Burke writes for The Brooklyn Rail, The New York Times and Dance Magazine, where she is an associate editor. She saw Einstein on the Beach on Wednesday, September 19.


  1. [...] watching or witnessing for as long as they might wish, to the audience. (We have productions like Einstein on the Beach to thank for bringing this revolutionary idea to the Western theater in the 1970s, though it has [...]

  2. Sugel
    October 9, 2012

    On the CD edition, however, this live-in-‘84 recording is nothing close to complete: rather, it’s a (smartly) edited 77-minute highlight reel from the opera, paired with a DVD of the documentary produced by BAM during the same run (“The Changing Image of Opera”). The first obvious question is: who needs this specific package, exactly, even if it’s clear why Orange Mountain wouldn’t want to compete on price for a three-CD set with two bigger labels?

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