A quartet of formidable artists collaborate on THE DAY at UCLA’s Royce Hall

United StatesUnited States David Lang, THE DAY: Maya Beiser (cello/performance), Wendy Whelan (dancer), Lucinda Childs (choreographer), Center for the Art of Performance, Royce Hall, University of California, Los Angeles, 19.10.2019. (JRo)

Maya Beiser (cellist) and Wendy Whelan (dancer)
(c) Reed Hutchinson and CAP UCLA

Sets – Sara Brown
Sound – Dave Cook
Video – Joshua Higgason
Lighting – Natasha Katz
Costumes – Karen Young
Creative Producer – Maya Beiser

The name Lucinda Childs conjures up poetic visions of dancers moving with silky precision through a Minimalist space. Her dances, like those of many of her contemporaries who were part of New York’s Judson Dance Theater in the early 1960s, were often created in collaboration with the avant-garde visual artists and musicians of the day.

Childs worked most famously with composers Philip Glass and John Adams and visual artists Robert Wilson and Sol Lewitt. Her recent collaboration with David Lang, in a program inspired by music he composed for cellist Maya Beiser, is a combined effort born out of Beiser’s vision of seeing a dancer embody the notes of the cello.

THE DAY consists of two parts, the day and the world to come, which deal with the pangs of memory and loss. Part one, the day, overlays the music with spoken words, sourced by Lang from the Internet – a catalogue of short phrases evoking outstanding moments in individual lives, some painful, some joyful. In the case of the world to come, it is the overwhelming loss of life in the horrific events of September 11th.

At times the performance by Wendy Whelan, a former New York City Ballet star, achieved an incandescent beauty, but much of the time the conception felt weighed down by a literal mindedness unexpected in a piece by Childs. This was particularly true of the first section. In its concert performance, text and music would probably maintain a delicate balance, the music leaving enough air for the words. Transplanted to dance, the words and video projections proved a constant distraction. Where to look? Where to focus? I chose to blot out the words and projections as much as possible in order to engage with the dance and the cello. Purity was sacrificed for message, and the message was at times so literally depicted as to feel like mime.

The stage for the day was handsomely arranged: a small raked platform for the cellist framed in delicate rods of light, and a wide expanse, stage left, in which Whelan performed. The backdrop featured a wall of changing video projections, often showing the interior of an empty loft. At other times, the giant heads of Beiser and Whelan appeared reciting phrases, or images of Whelan’s and Beiser’s abstracted movements exploded over the loft background. I longed for a clean, well-lit space devoid of information with only the props used in the choreography in order to better appreciate the elegance of Whelan’s movement and the spellbinding lyricism of Lang’s music.

Clothed either in toga-like swaths of fabric or a short white tunic, Whelan created geometric forms as her body interacted with string, sticks or an elastic band. The articles defined the space around Whelan and gave a mythic quality to her movement as she posed goddess-like with the items. When she laboriously pulled a pair of long fabric ropes from the wings, she appeared to be Sisyphus struggling to gain a footing. When she held sticks aloft, she was Artemis at the hunt. These were the strongest moments, but when she cradled a white fabric ghost in her arms, and the text announced, ‘I finally became a parent’; or when the line ‘I walked up to the mall’ was recited and Whelan walked across the stage, the piece felt flat.

Trading their white costumes for black, Beiser and Whelan reassembled on the stage for the world to come after an overture of disturbing rumbles and crashes that evoked the catastrophic attack on the World Trade Center. This time the raked platform featured Whelan astride the top, while Beiser sat stage left.

Lang’s music was primal and ethereal all at once, interspersed with Beiser’s own voice – a series of breathy exhalations. The cello, so like the human voice, was in dialogue with Beiser’s vocals. The music, conceived as a prayer, was embodied in Whelan’s expressive arms – the act of sighing seemed to emanate from those fluid limbs. As the score grew more agitated, so too did the choreography, with Whelan’s shuddering movement matching the frantic bowing of the cello.

High-wire artist Philippe Petit had his moment. In tribute, Whelan stepped gingerly across the floor, her body on the verge of tipping over. A column of gauze appeared from on high, screening Whelan, and two symbolic towers of sumptuous fabric appeared behind Beiser (or were they projections? – difficult to tell). In a compelling sequence, Whelan pulled down the gauze, wrapped it around her body and rolled down the platform, winding herself in the gauze. As she lay still in her shroud on the floor, the ghostly towers cascaded to the ground.

Jane Rosenberg