Shen Wei’s ‘Neither,’ Opera by Morton Feldman, Libretto by Samuel Beckett

Review of Beckett’s Neither, Shen Wei Dance Arts; BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, Brooklyn, New York, 5–8 October 2016; Music by Morton Feldman and libretto by Samuel Beckett

From Journal of Beckett Studies

It was only a matter of time before the short, enigmatic Samuel Beckett text that begins ‘To and fro in shadow from inner to outer shadow’ was turned into pure dance. The 10-line libretto, Neither, written for composer Morton Feldman in 1976, references light, shadows, doors, sound, self and other moving through an ill- defined space. One could say the text dances across the page. Since Feldman’s score – for soprano and orchestra – debuted at the Rome Opera in 1977, its numerous incarnations have featured, for the most part, live performances in a concert hall setting, but for a few wild forays into theatre, such as Romeo Castellucci’s 75-minute extravaganza in Bochum, Germany, which was tricked out with a murder, a gangster, a dead cat and a real locomotive (Swed, 2014). Heretofore, perhaps the closest to dance Neither has come was in director Katie Mitchell’s pairing of the opera with Footfalls in Berlin two years ago, as most certainly the libretto’s ‘going to and fro’ is precisely what is enacted in Footfalls (Wilm, 2016).

Shen Wei Dance Arts in Neither. Courtesy of Shen Wei Dance Arts. Photo by Stephanie Berger.

Last fall’s ravishing production by the Shen Wei Dance Arts at the Brooklyn Academy of Music showed what could be realized in the extension of Beckett’s words and Feldman’s music into full-blown choreography. Wei (b. 1968), a Chinese-born American choreographer and visual artist, is perhaps most widely known for the opening ceremony he designed for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which featured a football-pitch long scroll upon which dancers etched calligraphy in giant swirls with their feet and hands. Wei’s choreography, over the years, has steadily explored the movement of the body in relation to challenging rhythms and musical structures, with works employing the music of Stravinsky (The Rite of Spring) (Kisselgoff, 2002) and American minimalist Steve Reich (Desert Music) (Harrs, 2014). His technique, which he has termed ‘Natural Body Development’, takes a holistic approach to dance, integrating breath-work with proprioception, visual focus, weight, and gravity. His work, influenced by the stylizations of Chinese Opera, also traffics in a modernist visual abstraction tinged with surrealism and Chinese landscape painting. As is evident from his design for Neither, Wei is very familiar with Beckett’s work.

When Feldman (1926–1987), a member of the New York school of experimental composers that included John Cage, Earle Brown and Stefan Wolpe, met Beckett by chance in Berlin in September 1976, it was a very busy time for the 70-year-old Beckett: Footfalls and That Time were in rehearsal at the Schiller-Theater Werkstatt. As related by James Knowlson, Feldman and Beckett shook hands on the stage at the Werkstatt, and the stocky and poor-sighted Feldman stumbled into the wings (Knowlson, 1996, 556–7). At lunch, the irrepressible composer asked Beckett for a text ‘that hovered’, that he might put to music. They quickly discovered a central simpatico – they both disliked opera. Beckett told Feldman there was only one theme in his life and that he would try to write it down. Ten days later, on the back of a postcard, Feldman received the eighty-seven word text of ‘neither’. By then, by his own account, Feldman had already begun composing (Laws, 1998, 58); and by then, Beckett, quite by accident, had heard Feldman’s music, on a BBC broadcast, prompting him to write to his cousin John Beckett that he ‘liked it extremely’ (Beckett, 2016, 437).

Beckett’s text does not really ‘hover’. Antoni Libera accurately states that ‘the central phenomena presented in the text is motion, which declines in time’ (1994). Catherine Laws puts a finer point on it, writing that ‘Feldman’s approach [. . .] was to attempt to render in musical terms the pendular motion of a single insubstantial idea, viewed in varying contexts’ (Laws, 1998, 61). Indeed, the text’s ‘to and fro’, ‘from [. . .] to [. . .] by way of neither’, and ‘back and forth’ is matched by the composition’s shifting among time signatures and bar lengths.

At BAM, the one-hour dance by the 11 dancers in the Shen Wei Dance Arts company was beautiful to look at and inventive in design and costume. The music was provided by the pre-recorded Bayerischer Rundfunk orchestra, conducted by Kwamé Ryan, with the superb Petra Hofmann as soprano.1 The cavernous, high- walled set was spare and gray, with a simple ladder-back chair the only appurtenance, affixed to the wall stage left, upon which a dancer, for a while, sat (recalling the woman ‘rigid in her old spindle-backed chair’ in Ill Seen Ill Said). Each of the three walls had three high-arched doorways that would open slowly and throw a crescent of light across the floor from the intense light beyond the doors, which design was in vivid support of the dramatic lines of Beckett’s libretto, ‘as between two lit refuges whose doors once neared gently close, once turned away from gently part again’. Certainly, the ‘two lit refuges’ were grandly illustrated, even if it had the look of a Spielberg movie (think Close Encounters of the Third Kind) as the light from one entered the light of the other. The costumes suggested elegant, loose-fitting leisure wear in a palette from black to mauve to beige to cream, which, in the dim light, managed to obscure gender, a nice touch not out of line with a good deal of Beckett from The Unnamable onward. Then there was what will be the lasting image of this production, a large, crumpled, clear white plastic bubble, which several dancers donned and moved slowly within as if in a chrysalis, visually suggesting the birth voiced in Beckett’s Breath, perhaps, but also, and more assuredly, the sense of Feldman’s soprano emerging repeatedly out of the silence like a cry. The shiny translucence of the plastic and its crinkled exterior made for some interesting lighting opportunities, well-exploited by lighting designer Jennifer Tipton. In an interesting reference to several Beckett interiors – Endgame, The Lost Ones – a large ladder slowly advanced along the rear wall and then, slowly, a dancer in the embryonic folds of dazzling plastic was hoisted on the back of another dancer and the two ascended, perhaps 30 feet, and arrived terrifyingly upon a platform, where they gave way to the dark. This sense of a resurrection, however, was the most un-Beckettian note of the production, but it made for grand if slightly agonising visual spectacle.

For the most part, the dancing took place in waves and pulses upon the floor, in keeping with Wei’s signature style but also with Feldman’s music, which featured Hoffmann’s narrow range of pitch and the oscillating strings that together conveyed some mysterious but abiding principle of impediment. Yet within these restraints, bravura dance solos by Cynthia Kopp and Zak Ryan Schlegel wrestled forth, as their bodies crawled and sprawled across the floor with silent fluidity, long physical improvisations – or so they seemed – while the other dancers migrated slowly toward the perimeter, and then slowly turned their backs upon the action centre stage, creating a kind of perceptual void. These solos, however, became a little too enamored of their own virtuosity, exuding a primal confidence and physical freedom that might have made Beckett wince. Feldman’s music, too, which explores the spaces between things, words broken down and arrayed against silence, argues against such coherence of energy and form. Still, these moving bodies were riveting to watch, even if the other dancers could not see them. There was, however, another indelible piece of choreography, in which all eleven dancers lined up and moved as one, suffering from the constraints of such grouping while exploiting the opportunities therein. The turning in unison of eleven figures and the precise alignments of forearms parallel to the floor, serving visibly like a barre, was a brilliant bit of choreography.

The ten lines of the Beckett text were video projected in order and at intervals throughout, swimming slowly into legibility like an eye chart high upon the back wall before blurring and fading. Hoffmann, with remarkable control, parsed the text beautifully, syllables floating above silos of silence. The final line, ‘unspeakable home’, was saved for the final curtain, projected upon a huge oil painting by Wei (86” x 196”), a stormy abstraction but for a few recognizable images, a branch and perhaps a rocky coast, that suggested to this viewer the romantic surfaces of Caspar David Friedrich and the tumult of a Joan Mitchell. The sense of this move – and the unfortunate isolation of the Beckett line – lent the evening a kind of sour final note, suggesting a concluding judgement upon what had preceded, a kind of closure that rarely occurs in Beckett, and never in the late work.

Perhaps concluding this performance with an image of his own large painting served as Wei’s signature; after all, he is credited with ‘concept, choreography, set and costume design’. Though the staging, the set design, the dramatic chrysalis of plastic, and the painted curtain were more richly conveyed images than is customary in productions of Beckett, we should consider David Lloyd’s recent argument that ‘the Painted Stage’ in Beckett’s work for stage, film, and television (2016, 1) is its own form of visual art. Wei is certainly entitled to his own, and his vision in this instance managed to serve well the work of Beckett and Feldman, advancing the continuum of possibilities for both.