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A firm hand on the throttle

When it comes to his career, globe-trotter Robert Wilson is all about movement -- just not on stage.

April 30, 2006|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

New York — HAVE you heard the one about Bob and the grizzly bear?

Some years ago, Robert Wilson, renowned for his visionary theater of stunning slow motion and indelibly memorable light, spent 3 1/2 months in the Glacier Mountains of British Columbia, alone in a cabin in winter when there were only a few hours of light a day. As he recalled earlier this month in a dressing room at the Metropolitan Opera -- where he was rehearsing a revival of his production of Wagner's "Lohengrin" -- one evening while in bed, he heard a noise.

"I took a torch and I shined it on this grizzly bear's face, and he stopped," Wilson said. A lanky Texan who at 64 has filled out -- and become one of the world's most celebrated artists -- he suddenly leaped up and just as suddenly froze, seizing my gaze.

"We looked at each other, and after about 15 minutes my arm started aching. I was pretty tense, and he was pretty tense too. I was just looking at him, and he was just looking at me.

"Half an hour passed, and I really had to breathe, but I kept this light on his face. What do I do? Almost an hour passed, and we're just looking at each other. A little more time passes, and he turned around and walked away.

"Klee said a good actor's like a bear," Wilson declared, breaking the tension with a crafty laugh. "You can always wait them out. An actor can have that power in stillness. Ezra Pound said the fourth dimension is stillness and the power over wild beasts."

Did painter Paul Klee and poet Ezra Pound really say those things? It doesn't matter. One thing I learned on a whirlwind trip trying to catch up with some of Wilson's most ambitious recent work is that stillness and continual movement are not in opposition.

In Paris, I attended three of the four operas in Wilson's production of Wagner's "Ring" cycle, which were staged at the Theatre du Chatelet with minimal sets, a few exquisitely designed props and a mesmerizing backdrop of warm, rich, changing light that took the breath away. Wagner's music was not so much illustrated as pointed out.

In New York, I saw his recent production of "Peer Gynt," which the Brooklyn Academy of Music had imported from Norway. Here the staging was wackier -- to capture the fanciful nature of Ibsen's epic -- the lighting cooler, more Northern. But again, the larger effect was of a meditation on Ibsen's message, which is also Wilson's message: To know yourself, you need to get down to the essentials. For all his contrary motion, for all his seeming contrasting a text with formal, peculiar stylization, Wilson's is a theater of clarity. Nearly impossible-to-achieve clarity.

Seeing so much in six days meant that I saw a lot of it jet-lagged. But that wasn't necessarily a problem. Being disoriented in time and space isn't bad preparation for the Wilsonian stage, an alternative universe all aglow.

After all, rushing, rushing, rushing to create immobility in far-flung places is exactly what Wilson does all the time. The director had dashed to New York after preparing the massive Paris "Ring." In three days, he managed to fit the four-hour "Peer Gynt," with the Norwegian troupe that had done it last year in Oslo and Bergen, onto the BAM stage.

The next morning, Wilson had to change gears for Wagner; the Met production was to open in less than a week. Then, he was off to Los Angeles to prepare "The Black Rider," his 1990 version of Carl Maria von Weber's German Romantic opera "Der Freischutz" -- turned into black cabaret, with music by Tom Waits. It opened at the Ahmanson on Wednesday.

Backstage at the Met, Wilson was tired. He was also frustrated, as usual when he works in opera. Rehearsals are so expensive that nothing can be worked through properly. The "Lohengrin" chorus wasn't in sync with his vision.

"I can't get them to do it," he complained. "This music of Wagner is getting louder and louder and quicker and quicker, and these 130 people should be like a wall moving toward the audience, against the music. Of course, they want to walk on the beat, like a high school marching band.

"I'll never get it with this chorus. They don't have the vocabulary. And I don't have the time. It's not a lack of will. It's just that this is something that has never been considered in our Western training."

Yet he never stops trying. Indeed, the only time Wilson seems to stop is when he walks onto a stage. April has been a typical month, with major Wilson work in three continents and on both coasts of America. In Shanghai, the exhibition of Armani clothes that he created in 2000 for New York's Guggenheim Museum is currently on display.

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