"Monsters of Grace"

Philip Glass and Robert Wilson attempted to explore the intersection of the performing arts and digital culture. But a funny thing happened on the way to the theater.

Published July 21, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

"Monsters of Grace," the latest collaboration between minimalist composer Philip Glass and theater/opera director Robert Wilson, was hotly anticipated by performance artists and computer geeks alike well before its world premiere at New York's Brooklyn Academy of Music last December. Back in 1976, the avant-garde giants changed the face of 20th century musical theater with "Einstein on the Beach," a landmark five-hour work with no intermission, no plot, no narrative and sung text that consisted only of numbers and solfhge syllables. Nearly 25 years later, "Monsters" seemed destined to break ground with the use of digital technology in the performing arts -- one of the last bastions of anti-digital Luddites.

Touted as a "digital opera in three dimensions," "Monsters," which toured the country through April and had a final showing last weekend at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, was a 73-minute-long work in 13 scenes, featuring poems by 13th century mystic Rumi set to music. As the Philip Glass Ensemble performed the score live with singers, the audience -- wearing special polarized lenses -- viewed large screen 70 mm 3-D computer-animated images created from Wilson sketches by a digital-effects company.

"I realized that we had a unique hybrid here," producer Jed Wheeler told Salon Arts & Entertainment, "where the special effects world embraces the high art world and vice versa."

"The idea that a world-renowned duo like Glass and Wilson came to us to realize a new project using our technology was very exciting," agreed Jeff Kleiser, co-founder of the Kleiser-Walczak Construction Company, which was responsible for the work's animation. "It's been a very positive influence on the attitudes of people here in the company."

But not, it appears, on everyone else.

"I hated that!" admitted the usually reticent Robert Wilson, when discussing "Monsters of Grace" in a recent New York Times interview. "It was one of the most embarrassing things in my life." So much for vice-versa.

Perhaps the biggest problem facing artists who choose to employ new technologies in their work is that they usually require a second party familiar with that technology to help realize the artist's vision. If both parties are not in complete agreement, the result can be disastrous. In the case of "Monsters of Grace," digital technology wasn't even part of Glass and Wilson's original plan -- it was introduced by their producer in an effort to solve some of the work's technical problems. Instead it created a host of aesthetic issues that compromised Wilson's vision and, ultimately, the integrity of the piece.

When Wheeler, who produced the 1984 and 1992 revivals of "Einstein" at BAM, first approached Glass and Wilson about a new project, the idea was for something tourable, that "would bring the confluence of the Wilson and Glass sensibilities to people."

Exploring the relationship between objects, light and sound in a theater, the two eventually returned to Wheeler with a complete show. "It was about 90 minutes long, with 13 scenes," Wheeler recalled. "And it was glorious to look at -- except that it couldn't be done." Among the images on Wilson's storyboards were a giant foot landing in the desert, a helicopter hovering over the Great Wall of China and a hand coming out of nowhere and pulling a 35-foot-sword out of the ocean. It certainly wasn't tourable.

In an effort to offset the astronomical costs of staging Wilson's fantastical images, Wheeler started asking people about computer programs through which he could have all of the elements designed and the entire production timed out before it ever got into a theater. Someone suggested that Wheeler visit the Kleiser-Walzcak Construction Company, which created digital effects for movies such as "Stargate" and "Judge Dredd."

"We showed Jed some of the work we'd been doing in stereoscopic computer animation," said Kleiser. "We started thinking about it as a way of executing certain difficult effects on stage, and then my partner Diana said, 'Why don't we just do the whole thing in computer animation?'"

It seemed as if Kleiser-Walczak had found the perfect solution to the problem of turning Wilson's dreamlike imagery into reality. "We were able to create a mountainscape for him," said Wheeler. "And in that mountainscape we were able to put the Great Wall of China and a pagoda that looks like the leaning tower of Pisa and then all of that is fractured into little pieces of mica." And instead of having to teach actors how to execute the glacially slow movement for which Wilson is famous -- featured in everything from his Pulitzer Prize-nominated "the CIVIL warS" to his recent staging of Wagner's "Lohengrin" at the Metropolitan Opera -- Kleiser-Walczak offered him "synthespians," synthetic people that he could manipulate at will. "It dawned on me," said Wheeler, "that technology had caught up with Bob Wilson."

But in many ways, it hadn't. Creating visuals for "Monsters of Grace" was extremely time consuming, requiring a year of almost nonstop work by a crew of 20 to complete the final 73 minutes of footage. Wilson, who often makes changes at the very last minute, was suddenly working in a medium where even the smallest revisions would require days -- if not weeks -- of backtracking. The director found his hands tied.

"When Bob turned the work over to Kleiser-Walczak, he really couldn't put his hands into the piece anymore -- and that was a shock for everybody," Glass admitted to me in early March. "We didn't realize that we were losing control, in the sense that another process began which we did not have access to."

Kleiser said they did all they could to keep Wilson involved in the decision-making process, but it soon became apparent that he'd grown frustrated, and began to distance himself from the project. "It was clear we weren't going to have Bob to say 'Yes, that's good,' or, 'No, that's no good,'" he explained. "So we took a lot of the responsibility for designing the later scenes ourselves -- based on Bob's designs, of course. That's when Diana and I became directors of the project, and we just told Bob that everything was going to be fine."

Even while the show was on tour, Wilson couldn't hide his disappointment with the first piece he'd conceived without directing. "Usually I'm the kind of parent who stayed very close to the child even when it grew up," he told the Times when "Monsters" premiered. "This is like being a dog with a litter of puppies that went away six weeks later. This one left me early. Here I was working with people who didn't know my work, in a medium I didn't know."

Sadly, it shows. While there were moments when Glass' minimalist music -- more exotic and lyrical than in previous projects -- and Wilson's slow-moving imagery combined to create an almost transcendental dreamscape, the vast majority of scenes felt cold and devoid of resonance. When, for example, the giant foot landed in the middle of the animated desert the effect was more Monty Python than meditation.

That's not to suggest, however, that the scenes couldn't have succeeded on stage, since the images employed by Wilson were originally chosen with theater in mind. What makes Wilson an interesting director is that he overturns conventions and plays with one's expectations of what normally occurs in the theater, manipulating actors and objects to create scenes and situations that a viewer wouldn't expect to encounter on the stage. A giant sleeping polar bear and a Sikorsky-size helicopter hovering over the Great Wall are certainly unusual items to see in a theater. But special effects in movies like "Jurassic Park" and "The Phantom Menace" have made digital images almost rote. To assume that carefully imagined stagecraft can be transferred to a computer-animated film and elicit the same visceral response is, frankly, demeaning to both artist and audience. It's like trying to play golf with a soccer ball.

"Monsters of Grace" was an interesting experiment, a bold artistic exploration of the new digital frontier. But until artists have a better understanding of technology and its capabilities -- and limitations -- and until there's a more genuine dialogue between practitioners of the fine arts and the doyens of digital media, the future's still a long way off.

By Stacey Kors

Stacey Kors is a freelance classical music writer in San Francisco.

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